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  • jrblackburnsmith

The Hardest Writing Ever

People often ask me how I come up with the ideas for books. I always tell them the same thing: I start with an image in my head, often not even complete enough to be called a full scene or episode. Writing is then a process of getting the reader to that scene and past it. The scene is rarely the place the book begins, and never where it ends, and I've never started a book by writing out that image or scene, it just lives in my head.

That image has never made it into a book, at least not in its original form. The scene is a catalyst, bringing together elements that I will weave throughout the book, but it is also changed by the writing that happens. Technically, that is what happens, but it doesn't do justice to my process of finding a book.

The hardest writing I ever do is in the beginning days (weeks/months/years) of a new project. I start the process of starting a new book not with one image in my head, but with several, each connected to a different project. Currently, I have three projects in development: three images or scenes, three characters that intrigue me, three very different settings --different place, different eras, even different worlds-- and a chapter or two for each of them. I also have questions about each project. I fret over the early writing (I cannot edit myself while I write a first draft or I'll never get past page one) never feeling sure the concept works, the characters possess enough life in them to thrive, or that anyone will be interested enough to want to read the book.

I'll constantly compare the new projects to what came before them. Am I just writing the same story again? Does this project feel less meaningful that the last? That can be an especially difficult question to answer. At the time I'm beginning a new project, I'll have spent anywhere from two to three years to more than ten on the previous book, so much time that the story oozes from my pores. Nothing new seems worthy compared to the investment of time and thought that preceded it.

I'm looking for a spark in the new writing, a deepening of the ideas that underwrite the initial image, something that gets its hooks in my brain and does not let go. It's a good sign if I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about the new project, and a bad sign if I cannot get up at 4 in the morning to write. The challenge is knowing how far to write to finally experience that spark. I don't outline books early in the process; my first draft is the outline, from which I write the book by rewriting the draft again and again until everything is as it needs to be. This can leave me not knowing what happens next, sometimes for weeks or months at a time, so the next project gets attention. And then the next, and the next.

Some beginnings sit for years. In fact, that's where I am today. Three stories, each in my head for several years as I worked on other books. Each story has a strong enough place in my imagination that it begs for attention, and then shyly turns away, unwilling to expose its deepest secrets to me. And the words on the page have not yet been crafted into anything but meandering thoughts that don't yet make a cohesive story.

As I struggle with one project, another flirts with me from the corners of my mind, promising everything. In truth, I'm seeking a meditative state, where each day's work is a submersing of consciousness into a new world, one as rich and unimaginable as this world in which we live. I'm looking for the magic of returning to that world every day, immersing myself in its light and smells and special glories. It really is a spiritual experience --a lessening of ego, a quieting of the Me-- to enter these new planes of existence. I've said before that my characters are living beings and that is not hyperbole.

So this is the hardest writing. I'm searching for a new world to welcome me, so that someday it can welcome all of you. It's hard, but I cannot stop.

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