Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Sleep - tidbits for characters and writers

I don't think I know a single writer who doesn't struggle with sleep. Maybe it's because we so rarely can support ourselves sufficiently to "give up the day job." There always has to be a way to squeeze writing in alongside everything else, and sleep suffers. On the other hand, American society generally seems to be out of touch with the need for sleep - why else would coffee shops be cropping up in so many places?

So I thought I'd share some tidbits on sleep that I've picked up from my own experience. You can apply these to writing your characters' experience... and you may recognize them from your own.
  • Different people need different amounts of sleep. Some are fine on five hours; others have to catch up if they get only eight. Children typically need more than adults. Newborn babies spend most of their time sleeping, even if they don't sleep at the hours when we'd like them to.
  • It's easier to stay awake when your body would rather sleep than to sleep when your body wants to stay awake. This is something useful to remember when dealing with time changes like jet lag.
  • If you feel anxiety about sleep, that only makes it harder to sleep (sigh). This affects lots of people with insomnia and anxiety. Sometimes if you assume you won't be able to sleep, then you feel better when you get some, whereas if you hope that you can sleep, you feel really disappointed and depressed when you can't. My husband used to criticize my "negative thinking," but especially when my children were infants it was the only way I could get through the night without hating life.
  • If you are relatively rested, then you can push through a wave of sleepiness and get a second wind.
  • If you are somewhat sleep deprived, you can develop the ability to nap almost any time - if anxiety or stimulants don't interfere.
  • If you are sufficiently sleep deprived, you can enter a state in which you become incredibly clumsy. This is when walls leap out of nowhere to intercept you and you bang yourself on every available object.
  • If you are extremely sleep deprived and running on hysterical or anxious energy, you may not be able to sleep when you lie down to rest - but this doesn't mean you shouldn't. Just lying still for an hour, though it seems like a waste, can get you closer to a point where your body will actually accept rest and let you sleep.
  • If you are pregnant (I realize this typically applies to females, but guys, keep this in mind for pregnant characters!) then you may feel an intense, irresistible urge to sleep. When I was pregnant with my first child, I used to call this the "ten seconds to lie down" phenomenon. When I was pregnant with my second child, my first child used to take advantage of these intervals to do things like teach himself how to use the CD player.
  • If you have been sleep deprived for a long time (and stimulant use may be involved in this), you tend to go into a very very low gear that keeps you functioning somehow but has very little resilience. Once you've reached this place, having a good night's sleep will make you feel worse before it makes you feel better. I tend to think about it as the sleep bank collecting interest. Your body will seize its opportunity and demand more. It took me months to get over the unpredictable sleep schedule I had when my kids were tiny - and now a sleepless night or two will hit me harder than it used to when it was doing it all the time. At the same time, a good night's sleep will restore me instead of making me feel more desperate for sleep.
I think any of these things could be useful for writing characters realistically. Keep in mind as you write how long it's been since your character last got some rest. It's easy to get caught up in the action and forget that they'd be basically dead on their feet at a certain point.

Watch out, too, for any time when you end a scene or chapter with someone falling asleep. Unless you work hard to build in tension, like them being in danger because of their lack of wakefulness, or them being in danger of having bizarre prophetic dreams, then readers are likely to take this as an opportunity to put the story down.

If you're working with aliens, sleep is one of the things you can play around with. I haven't often seen characters who have highly variable sleep patterns, but I always find them enjoyable when I do. Hibernating creatures, or nocturnal creatures, could add both interest and twists to a story.

And now, on the reality front...

I'm a big advocate of sleep, for writers in particular. I don't use coffee or tea to keep me awake, or to wake me up - which makes me pretty unusual. I try not to blame myself when I'm too tired to work during my "work times" and sleep instead - taking it as a sign that I really needed the sleep. It's hard. But I notice a huge difference in my mental and physical resources depending on the amount of sleep I've had. I like to exercise to keep myself in shape, but it's basically impossible to keep the exercise up if I'm exhausted. At the same time, lack of sleep makes me lethargic and also makes me overeat trying to keep up my energy. Sleep for me is the foundation on which my other general body-health activities rests. And being rested also helps me to avoid mental exhaustion, one of my major sources of writer's block. So on a personal note, I encourage everyone to think through the balance of sleep and other activities in their lives. Small adjustments could make a big difference.

It's something worth thinking about.


  1. IRL, I have a terrible time getting to sleep. Sometimes it takes me two hours. That's not so good when I have 8:30 classes every day. I've completely stopped drinking soda (I never drank coffee or tea), and I try to cut myself off at about 11 no matter what I'm doing. I don't need a lot of sleep in the short term. I used to be able to go without for a day or two and no ill effects, but now if I'm an hour short I feel awful.

    IFS, I never thought much about sleep for my characters before. I just sort of put them to bed and woke them up, and I never really needed to decide how much sleep they were getting. Something to keep in mind in the future. Great post.

  2. Phew, your last paragraph really resonates with me. I'm the same way, which makes me feel guilty when I hear about all the writers who sleep 4 hrs a night during their first draft (or whatever the example may be). I mean, I push myself, just in different ways. And I make sacrifices, just not my sleep (usually). Because without sleep, I cannot function nearly as well. In fact, for me personally, I would say sleep matters more than most anything, including food and water.

  3. This is a great topic, Juliette, and alongside eating and bodily functions, one of the three things most often forgotten, it seems. It's a good reminder too, as I'm working with a very exhausted scene right now and intend to push the characters close to that brink, but also can't forget what they're physically capable of doing.

    Your advice on sleep for writers is also really helpful. I try to nap when I need it, but get those lethargic times as well when more sleep just begets more sleep and I probably need blood movement instead.

    Definitely something to think about. I've thought now and then about trying a sleep diary to see how much it really affects my mood and energy. Now might be a good time.

  4. Thanks, Atsiko. I'm pretty sensitive to sleep loss too - I couldn't believe what I put up with when my kids were tiny. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Kristan, thanks so much for your comment. I'm glad the post resonated with you.

    Hayley, great to see you comment. I think a sleep diary is a really good idea - it's sometimes hard to keep track of how much we actually sleep. You're right to point out that being groggy after a lot of sleep isn't the same thing as having too little sleep and needing more (though they can be confused for one another).

  6. Great post! I need to keep better track of my own sleep. I often leave my characters short on sleep - I need to go back and double-check their reactions.

  7. Thanks for coming by and giving us your link, Deborah. I'll go check it out.

  8. For those who are coming to visit here, Deborah has some really interesting points to add to the discussion on sleep, so I encourage you to check out her livejournal.

    Deborah, thanks for the info and the link back! I wish you good sleep...

  9. Juliette, you are so right. Sleepy and creative are mutually exclusive.
    (I do get some interesting story ideas from dreams.)

    Many years ago, when I was doing some intense volunteer work, I got by on 4 hours of sleep. Never before or since have I fallen fast asleep while getting worked on by a dentist.

    These days, I try for 7 - 8 hours. As a truck driver, falling asleep on the job is like failure and NASA -- not an option.
    I know all the quiet spots within 70 miles, where I can pull over. Even 15 minutes of napping is wonderful.

  10. Paul, thanks for the comment. Amazing stories... you're lucky you're a good napper, given what you do. Thanks for keeping the roads safe! I hope others can follow your example.