In the Still of the Night …

illegible writing in a notebook

It’s 3 a.m. and I’m awake.

I realise that I’ve been awake for a long time, running a dialogue in my head. It goes something like this:

“You might as well get up …”

“Nah … it’s warm and cosy under the duvet.”

“But you’re awake, thinking about your plot/characters/structure … You might as well get up and write it down.”

Tugging duvet tighter. “But it’ll be cold downstairs. And won’t it be weird, getting up to write at this unholy hour?”

“Err … no! This is exactly when you should be writing; when the ideas are coming. And you know how you always say you’ll remember it all in the morning but never do—”

“But I will remember this time.”

“You won’t.”

“Will.”

“Won’t!”

“Will!”

WON’T!

Sound familiar?

It’s not that I never sleep, but I’ve come to the conclusion that writing and sleeping are fundamentally incompatible. The thing about writing is that it fires up the synapses, gets the brain cogs turning, and once that engine’s running, it’s very difficult—I’d go so far as to say it’s impossible—to switch it off again. Yes, you can dampen things down for a while with worthy distractions like a great movie or any kind of cake, but the minute you switch off the light and snuggle down, that engine starts to rattle and hum. And I’m not even talking about eureka moments, the nocturnal epiphanies and ingenious plot twists that no writer minds being woken up for. It can be the darnedest little details that prod you awake, nag you until you find yourself having that familiar, merry-go-round conversation with yourself.

Sensible writers keep a notebook and pen on the bedside table. I’ve tried that because I’m all for sensible solutions, but deciphering my handwriting is tricky at the best of times so trying to make sense of my nocturnal scribblings come breakfast time is generally a fruitless exercise … I mean, do the words “chin breaking, fave, mns blloomnsinds” make any sense to you? You can see my problem!

At three a.m. this morning, I might have been scribbling this note to myself: “You’ve got her leaving from the wrong place you idiot!! She wasn’t living in the flat then; she was staying with her Mum and Dad!”

Needless to say, I didn’t reach for my notebook and pen. For once I gave in to my know-it-all alter ego. I got up, put on my dressing gown and creaked down the stairs. In the kitchen I filled a tall glass with warm water and a squeeze of lemon then tiptoed into my office and fired up my computer. I added an edit note to my manuscript, and then bizarrely, I had the notion to write a blog post about sleep and writing because I’m up anyway, and it’s kind of peaceful in the still of the night.

Writing or Drowning?

I have spent the last six weeks completing the first draft of my second romance novel for Mills and Boon. I had a tight deadline which I was determined to keep, so I had to write even when I didn’t feel like it; even when writing felt like drowning.

Prior to this experience, I would have said that I’m a writer who likes to be immersed in a single project. Now I’m not so sure. The problem with working on one thing exclusively – and to a deadline – is that if things are not progressing well or fast enough, your heart rate climbs, your palms get sweaty. You panic.

When I spoke to a writer friend about how I was feeling, she advised me to keep working on other projects alongside the romance. Even an hour a day working on something else would be refreshing, she said, and would make me feel like I was making progress in other areas.

Initially I was sceptical, not because it didn’t make sense―it did. It was just that the thought of peeling myself off a project with a pressing deadline in order to spend time on a speculative novel filled me with anxiety. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a try.

I picked up my “big” work-in-progress, read a little of the manuscript and suddenly had some ideas about how to flesh out one of my secondary characters. I made some notes, and in turn, those notes suggested a couple of other ideas. After an hour, I had material which I know is going to help me take that project forward.

When I went back to the romance story, I felt calmer. I wrote 1500 words in an afternoon!

A few days later I remembered something I had read a few years ago―Jess Walter talking about his novel, Beautiful Ruins.

He said that Beautiful Ruins had been “written and rewritten and rewritten over parts of fifteen years; it was something of a puzzle to put together.” He went on: “I write until I’m stuck, then I move on to something else, and when I go back to it, I start at the very beginning to make it feel like a smooth, seamless surface.”[1]

It’s clear that Walter was not writing Beautiful Ruins to a deadline, but the methodology mirrors what my friend had suggested. We all write until we’re stuck, but it’s what you do when you’re stuck that matters. You might go for a coffee, or a run and find that it’s enough to get you past your sticking point, but there is another option— work on something else.

As I make my journey as a writer, I am learning that there is no correct way to write. Even if you think you know what works for you, there’s value in trying a different approach. Going forward, I intend to devote some time each day to working on side projects, projects which might otherwise fall by the wayside. “Working” may simply amount to thinking about my characters or ironing out a wrinkle in the plot. Who knows? Perhaps I will find that allowing my thoughts to run freely between two or even three projects at the same time is a more natural way for me to work.



[1] Interview with Weston Cutter. (Kenyon Review, July 2012)