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!)


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.