6 tricks for writing when you don’t feel like it

In a perfect  world, all writers would always get exactly enough sleep.  In the morning, we’d drift down to a nutritious, leisurely breakfast prepared by someone else, then amble into our beautiful study to write with joy and abandon on the current project(s). 

In a perfect world, no writer would be awakened three times in the night by a child or a cat, never have an extra glass of wine or a fight with our mothers.  We would not worry about getting money into the right account for bills or fuss about a furnace that needs replacing.  Our children and spouses and relatives would all respect our work time as Utterly Sacred and—if this was a really perfect world—we’d never do any dishes, publishers would always pay on time, and — 

Yeah, my world isn’t perfect either.   I love my job, but right this moment, I’d rather not be writing.  I slept funny and there’s a catch in the middle of my back that’s bugging me. I’ve been working hard for a fairly long stretch, and there are naps and hikes with my name on them that I probably won’t get to take.  I have a small headache. The weather has been eternally rainy.  In a word, I’m grumpy.  I’d like to crawl into my cave and watch movies for about six weeks.  

But I’m a commercial fiction writer, and work is always better than no work. Always.  Even if I didn’t do the blog that I am slated to do, there are other projects that need addressing, and if I ever want to take a month off again to travel, I’ve got to work.

So how to get it done?  How do you work when you really don’t feel like it, when you are tired or grumpy or slightly under the weather?  It’s easy to say, “Sit down and write,” but it’s not psychologically satisfying. There’s no map to it, no plan.

I have to trick myself into work, and I bet some of you do, too. Over the years, I’ve developed a mostly reliable set of mental tricks and tools that really do help on days like this. Maybe some of them will work for you.  (And if you have a trick, share your ideas with the rest of us in the comments! Please!)      

This is my toolbox for days I’d rather get a root canal than do my work.

#1 Show up.

All that means is that you don’t let yourself off the hook.  If it’s a work day, you work, and since you have to work even if you don’t want to, it might be most helpful to actually get it done early.  If you don’t get it done early, set a deadline for yourself.  Pencil it in at a particular time.
I was preoccupied this morning with another task, and someone is coming to look at a landscaping chore in the early afternoon, so I slated the work time for the blog in the late morning.   

#2  Reward yourself and keep the rewards coming. 

It’s not always easy to produce on demand, so I constantly try to make it easier on myself.  I buy good coffee to drink while I’m working.  I have a great chair.  Because I worked earlier, then walked the dogs, I gave myself the breathing space of checking email and playing around on the Internet before I turned back to writing the blog.  In a way, I used the procrastination time to think about what I might write about if I could summon interest in anything.   I read some things on the Internet, but nothing kindled a Big Idea. So I asked Twitterers and Facebook friends if they had any requests for a writing blog.  And a bunch of people responded with great ideas (all of which are now tidily stashed away in my “If I get stuck about ideas again” blog file), and there was one that resonated pretty strongly: what do you do when you don’t want to write and you have to do it anyway?   

One thing I’ve learned writing columns over the years, is that a writer can usually come up with 500-1000 words on just about anything.  Settling on a subject is the hard part.  So, I was relieved to have a suggestion that worked.  I stuck it in the back of my mind to brew and then: 

#3 Pretend it’s a day job and other people will see you.  Shower, shave or do your hair, put on presentable clothes.

One thing influencing my grouchy mood was the state of my crazy hair this morning. Does that sound shallow? Maybe it is, but I have a lot of hair it and it was kinky and kooky and irritating. I took a shower and washed my hair and blew it dry and put on make-up and presentable clothes. If I’m working well, I often leave my yoga pants on all day and only remember to brush my hair when I hear the garage door opening in the evening.  If I’m having trouble getting myself on task, making myself presentable, looking like a person who has important things to do, can help get me into a disciplined state of mind.   

#4 Change your scene

A change of location can be enormously helpful.   It feels different to work somewhere besides my office;  I feel less alone, less pathetic and idea-less when I’m in public.  I can use a laptop or a notebook—often if I’m very, very pathetic, a notebook is a good trick to get myself moving.   

Be careful, however.  If the Internet is tempting and you must work on a laptop, go somewhere that it will be stupidly expensive, or there is no connection at all.  I was planning to go to the coffeeshop, but it was too busy and I was hungry anyway, so I chose to come to Panera bread for the free wireless (you see I was still procrastinating in this little rebellion).  Since I’m still dieting off the RWA conference, I was only allowed to have a salad, and Panera has very nice ones, along with good coffee.   It’s lunchtime, so the place is packed, but I also know that there is only 30 minutes of wifi available, so I can’t screw up too much.  

(You see how the rewards keep coming? A new location.  A nice salad for lunch.  Another little stretch of play on the Internet.  Oh, and the little netbook itself, which was a previous reward for finishing my last book and the revisions on time. ) 

#5  Set a timer and start writing. 

A good period of timed writing is about 20 minutes.  I learned this trick from the Natalie Goldberg school of free writing, and it works very well for me, and it tends to work for anyone who might be stuck for any number of  judgmental reasons. You’re judging your work too hard. Someone else has judged you and wounded your spirit. You’ve been badly rejected. Whatever.  Judgment interferes with the free flow of words, so to get by it, you have to go back to mad writing.  

20 minutes of fast writing with no judgment from you, just words piling up.  It doesn’t have to be good writing. It just has to be on topic.  If I’m going to write about how to write when you don’t feel like it, I start there.  If I’m stuck in a novel, I will choose the scene that is causing me trouble, shift viewpoint or setting and spend 20 minutes on that.  I might write 20 minutes of autobiography or skip ahead to a scene I know about later in a book.   

Whatever. You have to start writing somewhere.  It doesn’t have to be the best spot, just any spot.  See if it works.  You can always throw it out.  

Reward yourself again.  (I used to smoke, and smoking is great for this reward period. Unfortunately, it stinks and will eventually kill you, so I switched to other things.  A little walk upstairs, or outside to look at the flowers.  Take a picture.  Pour a fresh coffee)  

#6 Evaluate.  Repeat.  Reward.  

At the end of the timed writing, ask yourself: how did the topic work?  Is it resonating for you? Depending on your energy levels and task load, can you keep going for a few more segments?  Twenty minutes is really easy, especially if you use the carrots (karats?) of pleasure along the way.        

If it isn’t working, start fresh with something else and try again.  Remember not to freak out, just write.  One sentence and then another.  Don’t judge.  Keep rewarding yourself.

My reward for writing, then polishing, this blog was that I am now allowed to get online and play around with the logistics of planning a trip to India. What would it take? Where would I like to go? How much does something like that cost?  You might choose to read a new book or listen to music or buy an ice cream cone.   Whatever you think will work. 

What are your tricks? What are some good rewards you can think of?

(And now I’m finished and will go have a nap then play with itineraries. Cheers!)

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About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.

Comments

  1. says

    Barbara, I have no special tricks, but you can be sure I’m going to make more frequent use of the ones you’ve listed. Thanks for the reminder. Now it’s time to get off the Internet and start writing!

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  2. lafreya says

    Thank you for this, now I know I have to do it even if I not feeling the magic of the muse.

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  3. says

    #3 and #4 usually help me too! And the 20 min thing. Because once you push through to 20 min, the next 40 just come naturally. ;)

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  4. says

    #4 Change your scene

    This is my #1. If my lower back gets weary from my chair, or I’m sick of staring at the same scenery out my window, I get up and break out the laptop. It’s not 100%, but it’ll usually get me out of my funk.

    Great post, Barbara!

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  5. says

    While I procrastinate reading your blog, it gives me a warm fuzzy feeling knowing that most writers struggle with motivation. Sometimes it gets lonely in the shed.

    I have a little shed in the backyard with electricity, a little AC unit and a desk. It helps me to have a dedicated space – it feels official. If I’m there, I know I am there to write.

    Facing the inner critic is a little tougher, but I usually resort to telling myself that what I’m currently working on is just a first draft so it’s most important to get the ideas down and let the revision process smooth out the bumps and fill in the gaps.

    Thanks for the post!

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  6. Rachael says

    Awesome post! I’ve been having a lot of trouble getting myself motivated lately. Usually when I don’t have any motivation I simply don’t write.

    I even tried rewarding myself by watching an episode of my favorite TV show for each page that I wrote, but that backfired when I stopped writing altogether and just went to watching TV.

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  7. says

    It sounds like a lot of us are languishing. It’s summer and the kids are around and it would be nice to be on holiday or we’ve just returned. Maybe?

    Jonathan, the shed sounds like a great answer.

    Rachael: laughing. That’s what happens to me with certain rewards,too, which is why I gave up candy altogether.

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  8. ArkansasCyndi says

    What works for me…

    Change of scenery.

    Timed writing sprints with online friends.

    Your other suggestions were great! right now, dying to avoid writing by taking a nap!

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  9. Arlene says

    I look at a chore or a task that I hate doing (washing windows/scrubbing bathtub/etc) and voila, suddenly I’m in a much better mood to write. Anything is better than washing windows and writing becomes my procrastination.

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  10. says

    An excellent list, if I get stuck again, I’ll be sure to come back and try out some of the ones I don’t usually do. A change of scenery and rewards are really good for me, even if it’s just moving around the house. If I get stuck, I figure that spot has gone ‘stale’ so I go elsewhere until it recharges…. it’s like crop rotation, I just realized!

    My other help is mixing up how I write. Sometimes I get locked into editing and being over critical because I can change anything on a word processor, so I’ll switch to pen and paper where I’m only thinking about the word I just wrote and the word coming next. Other times I feel like everything has to be perfect before it goes on that pristine white paper, so I’ll go back to the laptop, gaze off at anything but the screen, and just hammer out words until the rhythm kicks in. Thank god I have accurate typing, or I’d never know what I wrote!

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  11. says

    Hi, Barbara, interesting topic and timely post for me. When I have problems with a scene I try switching the POV; if that doesn’t work I try throwing out words. Five words that have nothing to do with each other, and I try to create a world around these random five words. This is a fun exercise because as someone who creates, I usually come up with an unusual story, one I can build upon. It reaffirms that the muse isn’t dead, just stagnant, and it’s up to me to keep going. Thanks for the reminder! There’s not very many perfect worlds out there; we have to create them.

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  12. says

    These are great suggestions, thank you!

    I recently blogged about motivation. I feel like I’ve been in edit mode forever, so I broke down my rewards: edit one chapter and I can check email, edit three and I can play my turn in online Scrabble or read a gossip blog. I’ve learned which games to avoid until I’m actually done, though, or I’ll never go back to my wip.

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  13. Joel says

    Great Post! Tip #2 is especially helpful. I try picking up a book, either fresh or well read over, and read a small section or a chapter. Just make sure you’re still sitting at your desk and not in bed!

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  14. says

    Interesting that I found this post as I was procrastinating by surfing through my RSS feeds!

    I heard one time that imagination is stronger than willpower. I took that idea to my writing and it usually helps to keep me motivated. The basic idea is that it’s much more powerful to imagine the desired outcome of writing than to barrel through bull-headed.

    Are you writing to eventually quit your day job? To see your name on the cover? To hold that first ARC in your hands? Imagine your personal end-goal, and that should help remind you of what you have to do and why you do it.

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  15. says

    What a great post, Barbara! With a toddler in the house, I’m often not terribly in control of just when I get writing time and just kind of have to roll with unpredictable interruptions. Getting my concentration and focus back can definitely be hard, so my own trick for writing when I’d rather do anything else and the internet is singing it’s siren song is to have a very strict daily word count goal. Until I reach that goal of words written for the day, every free moment I have goes to writing. Period. Then once I reach the goal, my reward is that I get to use my (brief periods) of free time for something relaxing/fun.

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  16. says

    Excellent advice, as always. I had a 500-word Twitter challenge with some writing friends the other day, and I thought that was effective as well!

    Thanks for a great post, Barbara.

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  17. says

    Anna, when I had toddlers, I found that having “sound track” for the book was a big help. Any mother who gets work done deserves a round of applause.

    Good insight, Nathanael! Imagination is the most powerful tool we have.

    Melanie–I am not allowed to play FreeCell. It just knocks me off track. Really is important to know what’s an okay reward and what is going to derail you.

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  18. says

    Oh, and this: I think I can fly to India for about 3-1/2 weeks, including Ganges, Dehli, camel rides in the desert, a village or two, tigers, and a train ride (required, i think) for less than $4000. Definitely doable. Definitely a great reward.

    Just saying. Rewards are fun. One of the things we give ourselves as writers is a life that might be a bit different, right?

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  19. says

    I agree with Barbara, if I have music going on in the background it helps. I get too distracted by cars going by or the people upstairs if it’s too quiet when I’m trying to write. I also find that going for a walk, cleaning something I don’t want to clean, or sitting and doing nothing for 20 minutes will help motivate me to write when I’m feeling unmotivated. Finally telling someone what I’m going to do (either through Twitter or Facebook) helps, because then I feel accountable for my work.

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  20. says

    What a great and timely blog. Thanks, Barbara. I’ve been procrastinating a lot lately. I blame the dreaded day job, household necessities, and interruptions, but the problem is ME. I have used the change of scene a lot. I enjoy taking my laptop to the back deck to write. I don’t have wireless, so I am not tempted to surf or check emails. I like the 20 minute followed by reward. Think I’ll give it a whirl.

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  21. says

    Great post – my first time here. I wrote full time for several years (I have published four novels in the UK and my fifth is about to be submitted) having written my first two and half novels while working full-time as an attorney. I found the best way of maximizing efficiency was to mirror my old work habits. I treated it just like any other job. I had a studio a short walk away from the house (this was in London – I live in Missouri now) and would leave at the same time each day, etc. We had a new baby at the time and the old cliche about the baby carriage in the hallway is true!

    Now I am working again as a lawyer, and I completed my new book by getting up at 5 a.m. every morning to write for two hours before the children wake up. (This is the only time I know I will have to myself on a regular basis, and I need routine more than anything.) Sometimes I just sit staring dully at the screen; sometimes I type like a madman. But there’s no question that rule #1 is the most important – if you don’t show up, nothing’s going to get written.

    I may be wrong about this, but I think it was G. K. Chesterton who, when asked when inspiration strikes, replied, “At 9.30 every morning.”

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  22. says

    Wonderful blog since this is something I struggle with. The closer to deadline I get the more I find myself occupied with everything else but the writing. I have found setting the timer very helpful during these periods of procrastination and utter terror that I will not make my deadline. It’s like I’m giving myself permission to get up after a certain time has passed without guilt. This has eased the pressure on me and I find I am more productive because I see an end to staring at the computer screen in frustration if something is not flowing. It’s strange how the mind unlocks itself if you can just give the fear release.

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  23. says

    I tell myself I have to write 100 words, that’s it. It’s a single, double-spaced page of 8-1/2 x 11 paper, that’s all. Nothing major. Once I’m done I’m done.

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  24. says

    Love the suggestions. A few other things that have helped me:

    1. Set a word count deadline and promise my kids a monetary reward if I don’t produce.

    2. Blog. Surprisingly this has reinvigorated my muse. It’s my place to play with words again – and to get feedback on them. Since the time between beginning a novel and perhaps getting it published can be years, the shots in the arm can be enormously helpful.

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  25. Jose Varkey says

    Great advise, especially to confused newbies like me.
    Wish you all success in your writing career.
    Jose Varkey

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  26. April Harrison says

    Absolute value in this advice – thanks!
    I’m working on a historical novel and doing some struggling rightnow, which makes it so easy to find distraction. Sometimes its fun, sometimes its such hard work!
    One thing that really works for me is to make notes on my next scenes, including characters, setting of the scene, dialogue notes and how this scene is moving things forward – right before I go to bed.
    It helps because when I wake up my plan for writing is done and it I’m set to go. More help, I think, is that by going to sleep right after with all of that freshly in my mind, I wake up often with insights, dialogue, actions that hadn’t occured to me in waking hours!

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