Stuck in Neutral

by | August 13, 2022 | General | 1 comment

I developed my initial interest in creative writing when I was in high school. 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 guide, and I still 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 “OK, genius–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, including blogs and editing gigs, I put away the one that’s giving me trouble and move onto something else. After a cooling off period, I go back to the first one and move forward. This technique has served me well through nearly 30 books.

I’ve heard different solutions from others on the subject of the dreaded writer’s block, and some of them have worked for me. Here are a few “dos” and “don’ts” I culled from workshops and discussions.

Try to discover the cause of your blockage.
Is it your plot or your inner critic, that little voice inside your head that constantly yells “You’ll never finish this book because you’re a failure!”? If it’s the latter, ignore it and keep plugging away. If it’s the former, take time to review and evaluate your plot up to that point. Identify what isn’t working and make needed corrections. It could be something simple, like the story started going in a direction you didn’t envision. My advice? Go back to the beginning (or at least a few chapters), read what leads up to the blockage, and see if you gain any insight.

Recharge your creative battery.
Take a walk in the park to bask in nature’s beauty while breathing deeply, visit an art museum, go binge shopping, or spend time talking with family or friends. Do something other than writing. I have a pool table in my basement, and I love to play. One of my recharging tactics is to forget the book, shoot a few games, and concentrate on making my technique better for the next pool challenge at my favorite watering hole. I usually return to the book refreshed and focused. My game nights have improved, too!

Look at the scene that has you blocked.
Would a change in POV make it flow better? Would a rewrite help? Is the scene in question even necessary to the story? Caveat: I’ve taken this approach and quite often, the answer doesn’t hit me until a day or two later, when I’ve had uninterrupted time to really think about it. Don’t make yourself crazy.

Put the book away and focus on doing something physical.
Physical activity, especially tasks that you can perform with your brain on autopilot, are an excellent way to work through writer’s block. Exercise, taking a walk, or working in the yard are effective activities.

Call up a writer friend and talk through the problem.
I can say from personal experience that this works. Authors tend to get too close to their work-in-progress, and treat it like a favorite child. Your critique partner may be able to see the solution to your problem when you can’t. I’ve even e-mailed passages so they could fully understand the problem. A word of advice: Be willing to return the favor when asked, and offer to do so as a way of saying “Thank you.”

One thing I try not to do when this happens is pick up one of the books from my reading table, especially if it’s in the same genre 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, 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 what would happen next. 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 had remained sober during the project, but 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, the results are usually incomprehensible and inflammatory. I think I still owe a couple of apologies for something I posted on a chat board last New Year’s Eve.

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 Comment

  1. Lisabet Sarai

    Hi, Tim,

    I’ve used almost all of your suggestions (except I don’t play pool!) These days I’m swimming laps for exercise, and I’ve found that can be a great place to work out the issues in a story.

    I’ve also received some excellent help from fellow writers. Chris Garcia, who used to be around ERWA a lot, was a favorite go-to person for me. He had tremendous insight. I remember probably the worst dry spell I had, in the middle of my scifi erotic romance The H-Gene. I’d become paralyzed by the notion that my post-apocalyptic world wasn’t sufficiently original or creative. He and I spent many emails teasing apart the elements of my world to discover what did and did not work. I’ll always be grateful.

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