Stuck in Neutral

by | August 13, 2020 | General | 2 comments

I took my initial interest in creative writing in high school. This was in the ‘70s and the English department didn’t have a formal textbook for the course, because it was being offered for the first time. We had to buy a paperback from the bookstore to use as a course guide. I still vividly remember the opening words.

“Does the blank page hold terror for you?”

To this day, sometimes the answer is a resounding “Hell yes!”
I suppose like everyone else I’ve had my share of stumbling blocks when it comes to writing. It usually follows a pattern. I get so far into a story, then come to a spot where I stare at the screen and think “What happens next?” I developed a routine to handle these situations. Since I typically have more than one project in the works at any one time, I put away the one that’s giving me trouble and move onto one of the others. After a couple of weeks, I go back to the first one and move forward. This technique has served me well through 20-plus books.

At present, I have four manuscripts that are in progress. One of them is my dream project that I started working on 10 years ago. The rough draft is finished, but it needs a lot of editing and rewrites. I think what’s holding me back is that I originally wrote it when I was doing print books exclusively, and I wasn’t fully into digital media. The problem? It’s the “War and Peace” of romantic spy thrillers, about 90,000 words at last count.

Have you checked the word count on a typical e-book lately? Something this size would sell in excess of fifteen bucks, and would be released in three volumes. Someday I’ll get around to finishing it.

I’ve heard different solutions from other writers on the subject of the dreaded blockage, and some of them have worked for me. One thing I try not to do when this happens is read one of the books on my reading table, especially if it’s the same genre that I’m currently writing. I have a fear that I may read something good, and it will accidentally wind up in my book. I also tend to put my leisure reading on hold when I’m actively developing a story for the same reason.

On the subject of getting stuck, I have an anecdote about a favorite author, Raymond Chandler, who popularized the pulp fiction style of writing in the 1940s. Chandler battled alcoholism his entire adult life until one day he decided to quit, cold turkey. He had just landed an assignment to write an original movie script for Hollywood, which would become the film noir classic “The Blue Dahlia” with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Chandler jumped into the project, cranking out page after page in his trademark hard-boiled style, with snappy dialogue, shady characters, and unexpected plot twists. The producers were ecstatic, and knew it would be a hit.

Then one day, the unthinkable happened. Chandler sat down at the typewriter, and…nothing. He was stuck on where to go next with the story. Even re-reading his previous output didn’t help him get back on track. This went on for a few days, until it hit him. He stopped drinking at the start of the project and had stayed sober. He realized that he actually wrote better when he was buzzed. He began the next day with a tumbler of scotch, which he sipped throughout the day, replenishing it as needed. Problem solved. He got his groove back, and finished the script. Of course, he still had a drinking problem, but at least he cured his writer’s block.

As a footnote, that approach doesn’t work for me. When I try writing, texting, or e-mailing after I’ve had a few drinks, the results are not only incomprehensible, they’re usually inflammatory and insulting.

I think I still owe a couple of apologies for something I posted on a chat board during my last bender.

A different approach was taken by Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. Each summer, Fleming took a month’s holiday from his job as a newspaper writer in London and stayed at a friend’s home in Kingston, Jamaica. He kept a strict routine, arising early each day to compose his newest 007 adventure. He wrote one chapter a day, non-stop, not bothering to review what he had written. He finished his work in time for cocktail hour, then repeated the ritual the following day. Upon his return to London, he gave the manuscript to his book editor, and didn’t look at it again until he received the galleys. This unorthodox method apparently worked, considering the number of best sellers he accumulated.

How do you get around the problem when you’re stuck in neutral?

Tim Smith

Tim Smith is an award-winning bestselling author. His books range from romantic mystery/thriller to contemporary erotic romance. He is also a freelance photographer. When he isn't pursuing those two careers he can often be found in The Florida Keys, indulging his passion for parasailing between research and seeking out the perfect Pina Colada.


  1. Lisabet Sarai

    Hi, Tim,

    For me, getting stuck in the middle of a story is usually a sign that I’ve strayed off course. Probably I’ve pushed my characters in a direction they really didn’t want to go.

    I tend to go swim laps. That gives me a great opportunity to really think in depth about where my book is and where it wants to go.

    About your 90,000 project – is there any way you can split it into three books. You’ll make a lot more money that way. Then you can bundle the three into a “boxed set” and get another publication out of it.

  2. larry archer

    That’s good advice from Lisabet. I took her suggestion to split up my House Party novel into now 3 books at this point.

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