When I tell people that I am writing a novel with four young kids at home, the first thing people ask is where I find the time. And while that can be a challenge, I don’t find it the biggest barrier to my writing.
The biggest barrier I find is the sleep deprivation.
It makes sense. When you are sleep deprived your brain works at a slower pace. Your memory is impaired. So when it is time to come up with a creative solution to a plot hole, or find the perfect metaphor, you come up short.
And even as I write this, with only five hours granted to me by a sick infant, every word that isn’t four letters long takes an extra few seconds to recall.
And yet, despite sleeping through the night 4 times in the last three years, I have finished the first draft of a novel, and written over 100,000 words on several more.
How you ask? How do you keep writing and growing as a writer when your mind is a sieve? Well, here are a few tricks I have developed as I have continued to write through the fog.
There are things that come easily for me in writing and things that don’t. I find dialogue and action flow even when I am tired. But description, and showing emotions through actions do not. I also find my vocabulary is reduced when I am over-tired, as it takes a great deal of time to come up with the perfect word.
So rather than wasting precious hours racking my sub-par brain, I use place-setters. I put a note to myself to add things in later.
In my early years of writing, my place-settings was fjfjfjf. If I didn’t know what to write at a point, and I wanted to come back to it later, I would just tap my index fingers on the keyboard: fjfjfjf. That way during edits, it was easy to see where I got stuck.
Overtime my place-setters have become more specific. There is a rthym to a scene; a pacing and structure that is engrained in me from the thousand odd books I have read. On a day of exhaustion, even though I don’t always have the energy to write out a whole scene, I usually have a sense of what belongs where.
So as I write, I leave notes to Future-Belinda about what needs to be added to the scene. I write them in capital letters, and come back to them later. Some might be general like ‘ACTION’ or ‘MORE DESCRIPTION’. It might be my own critiques of what I already know needs to change like ‘SHOW DON’T TELL’ or ‘NEEDS MORE FEELS’. Or it might be more specific like ‘GOOD PLACE FOR A METAPHOR/SIMILIE’ or ‘THINK MORE ABOUT HOW HE IS FEELING HERE’
I don’t write like this every day. Some days I will write a full scene, with very few place-setters. Some days all I will do is go through a scene and replace the place-setters with better words. But it is a great way to keep plugging away at the story when I don’t have the mind space to write pretty.
It is probably a good tip, regardless of sleep levels, for writers to make notes as they think of things. I often recall Roald Dahl’s story about writing “ELEVATOR” in the mud on his car when he first came up with the idea for ‘Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator’. But this is even more the case when you are sleep deprived.
I have a great memory for my stories, and back in the days of eight-hours sleep, I wouldn’t always take notes on the go, because most of the time I could recall my ideas when I was finally back at my computer. No longer! It is hard enough to remember what I am doing the next day, much less intricate details of plot. I sometimes even find myself searching for a scene in my manuscript, only to discover I haven’t written it yet.
So keep notes. Your weary-brain will thank you.
It is the classic advice that almost every writer will give you when you ask the question: ‘What is the most important thing you can do to improve your writing?’ Read. But when life gets busy I can forget the importance of this, as I find it hard to justify reading when there is so much writing to do.
But my writing is so much better when it is feed from a steady diet of wonderful books. Reading isn’t an optional extra for writers. It is a key aspect of the process.
And reading is so much easier than writing when you are sleep-deprived! So take advantage of that. If you have had a rough night, then turn away from your computer/notebook and pick up a book. Your manuscript will be better for it.
OR DON’T WRITE
This might seem an odd point in a post about writing through sleep deprivation. But I think it needs to be said.
My observation of myself and my writing friends is there is often a huge sense of urgency to writing. It takes a great deal of time to write a novel. And so many of us look back on our early years of dreaming of writing a novel and yet not taking the steps to do it and think ‘what a waste’
And so, at times like this, when kids are little or work is overwhelming or other commitments get in the way, we are determined to press through regardless.
But sometimes you have to be kind to yourself.
If you are too tired to write, that is okay too.
Or it might mean what you write needs to change. I have always found writing to be a cathartic experience; writing is how I think, process and make sense of this world. But in the haze of sleeplessness, adding in the pressure of deadlines or negative critiques or writers-despair isn’t a great for your mental health. Much better to take a break from the most challenging parts and to write in a journal, blog about fun things, or even work on a new story just for the fun of it.
It may be that this is not the right time to write your novel. And that is okay.
So, those are my tips for writing through sleep-deprivation. Yes it has its challenges. But it can be done.