Thursday, May 6, 2010

Sleep Writing - Part 1

I love attending writing conferences. I particularly love listening to writers share their techniques for maximizing their writing time. Much of this has to do with sleep. As Snoopy, the world-famous author, often said, "Sleep is life" and we writers often sleep when we could be writing. In fact, speakers frequently advise attendees to get up early and write while their family sleeps. That's probably terrific advice, if you're conscious in the early morning hours.

At 5 AM I'm incoherent. I'm doing amazingly well if I can find the keys to pick out: "I am a writer. I am writing now." But progress on a book at that hour? Forget it. I used to write after my husband went to sleep, since I'm more conscious at night and better able to wake my characters up at late hours. While working on my latest book, however, I've been waking up around 7:30 or 8 (or 8:30 or...), lying in bed and thinking about the book, and getting immediately to work on it without any distractions (do not pass the kitchen, do not eat breakfast, do not watch the morning news).

This is more in keeping with another suggestion conference speakers like to make: "Keep a notepad by your bed. Inspiration can strike while you're sleeping." When I'm deeply in the world of a book, I always try to think about it just as I'm falling asleep. And I'll often wake up with terrific ideas that came to my subconscious while my conscious brain was sleeping.

I rely on this technique when I'm working through a problem with a book. When I was writing Ghost Soldier, I realized I'd done such a good job in the first part of the book of making Alexander frightened of a Civil War ghost and determined not to help him, that I had no idea how Alexander would end up making friends with the ghost so they could work together in the remainder of the book. So I slept on it.

I woke up with the melody of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" running through my head.

I already knew that Alexander spent his evenings sitting on the back porch playing his alto recorder to annoy his father. I realized he was going to start playing "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" one evening, deliberately playing it angrily, to hurt the ghost because he never got to march home to his family. But as Alexander plays it, he hears an eerie, reedy harmony weaving itself around his mellow recorder melody. When he looks around, he sees that the ghost has joined him, playing his own ghostly harmonica. It's a song the ghost knew well because it was popular when he was alive, and it doesn't hurt him at all. Instead, his harmony calms Alexander. Somehow it's hard to be angry at someone after you've made music together. The song opens Alexander up to listen to the ghost, befriend him and agree to help him.

Where did the idea come from? Somewhere in my subconscious as I slept. And sometimes the subconscious can be even more generous in your sleep - but I'll cover that in Part 2.


  1. It's important to know your own rythms. I work best in the morning and crash in the afternoon. This is handy for when my backbrain has sorted things out while I was asleep - I'm fresh and so are the solutions.

    One bad thing: if I don't write enough, my brain refuses to shut off. I'll be too tired to write coherently and unable to sleep. Pressure builds up in my brain and if I don't keep it bled off regularly it creates malfunctions. My brain isn't so much working at the story as endlessly picking at it.

  2. I know what you mean about your brain refusing to shut off! You know you're not coherent but the brain keeps spinning...

    The interesting thing about rhythms is that they evolve. I believed I was locked into a rhythm of night writing, but this last book demanded attention first thing in the morning, and then again late in the afternoons. I guess that proves I'm alive and changing as I grow, like all living things.