Knowing What You Think

Today I am pleased to introduce guest blogger Linda Francis Lee. Linda, a native Texan now calling New York City home, is the author of nineteen books including the bestselling The Devil in the Junior League and The Ex-Debutante. Her new novel, Emily and Einstein will be released by St. Martin’s Press in March 2011. Joan Didion is quoted as saying, "I don't know what I think until I write it down."  I instantly understood the quote. Writing, to me, is my way to make sense of a world that sometimes makes no sense at all. And when I write, I actually "see" the story unfolding like a movie playing in my head. My job is to find the words to express what I see fast enough not to lose the image . . . which means that I spend a lot of time staring, seeing something that no one else is seeing. When I'm in the middle of a book, there are days when the words flow and I can hardly write fast enough to keep pace with what's going on in my head. Other days the blank pages stare at me and words don't come. But worse than that are the days when my mind is blank, there are no images to find words for.

The good news/bad news for me is that my very first fiction writing professor began the course by saying that professional writers write, whether they feel like it or not. Professional writers, he said, aren't dependent on some elusive muse. They put in the work, they apply the back of their pants to the seat of the chair. Over the years I remind myself of that every time words escape me. Twenty books later, that advice has served me well.

But that doesn't make writing easy. One of the techniques that I have put in place that helps me deal with days when the words don't flow is to have a quota. I have to get X number of pages written every day. If it takes me a few hours to do it, I'm done for the day. But if I struggle, and the hours tick by, I still have to sit there until it's done. They don't have to be good pages, just pages. For me this works because I love editing pages, working with sentences. I hate a blank page. And having a quota gives me pages. For me, it's easier to massage something that's there than fill something that's blank. On top of this, I find that once I get going it gets easier and easier. The characters become clearer. The story threads start weaving themselves. There are fewer days when writing is a struggle.

In talking to other writers, I find that many feel the same way. One day it's a joy to be a writer, the next it's as painful as pulling teeth. But there is something that is always the same, whether you are someone who has self-imposed page count quotas or someone who can't move beyond a page or even a paragraph until it's perfect – and that is the rush you feel when you get to the end of a manuscript, or to the end of a chapter, or for me even the end of a quota. Somehow when the words come the world feels right, everything makes sense . . . and as Joan Didion says, I know what I think.

For more about Linda, find her at: @lindafrancislee