DeLillo works in two sessions at a typewriter, decreasingly keeps the evidence of the work (in the form of typed drafts), and focuses, atomically on sentence and paragraph construction:
Writing is a concentrated form of thinking. I don't know what I think about certain subjects, even today, until I sit down and try to write about them.
I work in the morning at a manual typewriter. I do about four hours and then go running. This helps me shake off one world and enter another. Trees, birds, drizzle--it's a nice kind of interlude. Then I work again, later afternoon, for two or three hours.
Q: Do your typed drafts just pile up and sit around?
That's right. I want those pages nearby because there's always a chance I'll have to refer to something that's scrawled at the bottom of a sheet of paper somewhere. Discarded pages mark the physical dimensions of a writer's labor--you know, how many shots it took to get a certain paragraph right. Or the awesome accumulation, the gross tonnage, of first draft pages. The first draft of Libra sits in ten manuscript boxes. I like knowing it's in the house. I feel connected to it. It's the complete book, the full experience containable on paper. I find I'm more ready to discard pages than I used to be. I used to look for things to keep. I used to find ways to save a paragraph of sentence, maybe by relocating it. Now I look for ways to discard things. If I discard a sentence I like, it's almost as satisfying as keeping a sentence I like. I don't think I've become ruthless or perverse--just a bit more willing to believe that nature will restore itself. The instinct to discard is finally a kind of faith. It tells me there's a better way to do this page even though the evidence is not accessible at the present time.
Q: How do you begin? What are the raw materials of a story?
I think the scene comes first, an idea of a character in a place. It's visual, it's Technicolor--something I see in a vague way. Then sentence by sentence into the breach. No outlines--maybe a short list of items, chronological, that may represent the next twenty pages. But the basic work is built around the sentence. This is what I mean when I call myself a writer. I construct sentences. There's a rhythm I hear that drives me through a sentence. And the words typed on the white page have a sculptural quality. They form odd correspondences. They match up not just through meaning but through sound and look. The rhythm of a sentence will accommodate a certain number of syllables. One syllable too many, I look for another word. There's always another word that means nearly the same thing, and if it doesn't then I'll consider altering the meaning of a sentence to keep the rhythm, the syllable beat. I'm completely willing to let language press meaning upon me. Watching the way in which words match up, keeping the balance in a sentence--these are sensuous pleasures. I might want very and only in the same sentence, spaced in a particular way, exactly so far apart. I might want rapture matched with danger--I like to match word endings. I type rather than write longhand because I like the way words and letters look when they come off the hammers onto the page--finished, printed, beautifully formed.
Q: Do you care about paragraphs?
When I was working on The Names I devised a new method--new to me, anyway. When I finished a paragraph, even a three-line paragraph, I automatically went to a fresh page to start the new paragraph. No crowded pages. This enabled me to see a given set of sentences more clearly. It made rewriting easier and more effective. The white space on the page helped me concentrate more deeply on what I'd written.
This one-paragraph-per-page method is why he had only five sheets left of copy paper from an old advertising job when he contributed one to Jonathan Safran Foer's collection of blank paper. He wrote:
A hundred years ago I used yellow paper every day in my job writing advertising copy, and when I quit the job to become a grown-up first and then a writer, I took (I guess) a fairly large quantity of this copy paper with me. The first draft of my first novel was typed on this paper, and through the years I have used it again, sparingly and then more sparingly, and now there are only five sheets left.
Back in those days I was the Kid, and the friends I made on the job are either older than I am or dead (two days ago I wrote and delivered a eulogy for one of them) and so this yellow paper carries a certain weight of friendship and memory. That's why I thought I'd entrust a sheet to your collection.