Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Stuck in neutral

By Tim Smith
I took my initial interest in creative writing in high school. This was in the early ‘70s and the English department didn’t have a formal text book for the course (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 very 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. Then after a couple of weeks, I go back to the first one and move forward. This has served me well through nearly 20 novels and countless shorts.

At present, I have four manuscripts that are unfinished. One of them is my dream project, and I started working on it 8 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 still doing print books exclusively, before I was fully into digital media. The problem? It’s the “War and Peace” of romantic spy thrillers, probably 90,000 words at last count.  

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

On the subject of getting stuck, I have a favorite anecdote about a favorite author, Raymond Chandler, who popularized the pulp fiction style of writing. 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 script for Hollywood, which would become the film noir classic “The Blue Dahlia” with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Chandler jumped into the writing, cranking out page after page in his trademark hard-boiled style. The producers were ecstatic, knowing they’d have a hit on their hands.

Then one day, the unthinkable happened. Chandler sat down at the typewriter, and…nothing. He was stuck. Even reading his previous output didn’t help him get back on track. This went on for a few days, driving him crazy. Then it hit him. He had 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. Of course, he still had a drinking problem, but at least he had cured his writer’s block.

As a footnote, that approach doesn’t work for me. When I try writing (or texting or e-mailing) after I’ve had a couple of 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.      


  1. The internet was supposed to bring us closer together. Instead, it's made many use screen time as a way to avoid face time with people. And when you're typing, you say things you'd never say to someone's matter how many drinks you'd had!

  2. I like the way you use productive procrastination to go to a project that works for you when you’re stuck on a different one. That’s often the only way I’m able to get anything done. When I try to finish something or else, it often just leads to a complete block.

  3. The anecdote about Raymond Chandler is hilarious, Tim! I vaguely remember reading something similar about Ernest Hemingway, or maybe Hemingway never even tried to write while sober. (He was a journalist, and they used to be notorious for drinking.) It wouldn’t work for me. It does sound as if you’ve been very productive, though. Re the 90,000 word novel, though, you could possibly rework it into a trilogy. And print books still exist!

  4. Tim, some people still buy print. In fact, I recently read that there has been a resurgence in print sales as well as indie book stores. That was the best news I'd come across in a while.

    I've had the experience you describe, but rather than not knowing what happens next, it's usually due to a crisis of confidence. All of a sudden I start to think that everything I've written so far is crap. It's hard to get past that, but I've learned that you have to ignore those negative voices, just like I ignore catcalls on the street.


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