I’m not an orderly storyteller. Stories come out of my subconscious in episodes and scenes. I usually start with a flash, a place or outrageous image and I have to find out what it means, how it works. My first few attempts at a scene are usually diversions, brainless heartless or gutless substitutes the conscious mind substitutes for the original vision . It usually takes a bunch of writing to get past that, to find my way back to some approximation of that sweet first flash.
But it’s only after months of wrestling with a story as a whole – I generally don’t get to the end until I’ve flogged the beginning and middle to death – that I start picking up the larger, deeper, wider meaning underneath.
Usually, I’ll be twenty or thirty pages from the end of a draft and I’ll write something (again, I try to let the words hit the page before I’ve thought them through) that just explodes in my head. And then I have to do another draft just to weave that theme throughout the story, to make sure it’s everywhere without hitting anyone over the head.
Seeing the theme in your story is like switching from a close-up of a face to an overhead shot of a neighborhood: everything suddenly appears in a much wider context. And if I’ve done it right, all kinds of details that I thought I put in on a whim turn out to have a distinct purpose. The whole story resonates on a deeper level.
This is another reason you can’t write too quickly. Early drafts of a story inevitably focus on plot and character mechanics. I once laughed at a post by F. Paul Wilson, who detailed the stages he went through writing what he considered his plot-driven stories; they were entirely the same as the stages of what I consider my character-driven ones. But theme doesn’t emerge until you’ve been working long enough for the whole story to simmer under the surface for a while.
So, as I’ve said before, if you’re writing six books a year, you’re not doing your readers or your characters any favors.