Tuesday, March 22, 2011

TTYU Retro: 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.

I'll add here that my original post had a lot of really great comments, so if you're interested to see them, look here.


  1. On the character front and the things that you can do with sleep, I'd point out that Nancy Kress chose this subject for one of the most amazing novella's I've ever read: "Beggars in Spain" was about a group of children who had evolved to require no sleep--and the impact the ability to be awake 24 hours a day had on them and society.

    On the personal side, the only time I start to stress about sleep is when I recognize that the amount of sleep I'll get on a given night is dwindling. ("Oh man, I have to be up in 4 hours!") I hate that.

  2. Cool, Jamie! Thanks for telling me about the story; I'll have to go look for it. I hope you don't have to say that to yourself very often! Thanks for the comment.

  3. "Newborn babies spend most of their time sleeping...

    Which reminds me of the time when my daughter was born. That first week, she slept constantly; it seemed like the only time she was awake was when she wanted a bottle of milk. I thought at that time, "Hey, this parenthood thing is pretty easy." :) Of course the second week of her life came, when she started to stay awake longer, and everything changed. ;)

  4. I second the tip about Beggars in Spain. A wonderful example of sociological science fiction.

    As to sleep, yes, this resonates, especially the nap anywhere. I once took a 30 minute nap standing up in Penn Station in NYC. I kid you not. Well, I had my guitar to help balance, but...

    Another thing for writers that I've observed with sleep deprivation is the loss of what I call midnight inspiration. Most writers can tell of wonderful ideas that came to them clearly in the first hour or two of sleep, forcing them to get up and write the darn things. When I was sleep deprived though, all that went away.

  5. JDsg, children are certainly an adventure! Thanks for your comment.

    Margaret, thanks for sharing your story and for seconding the recommendation. How interesting, the change you describe in sleep-inspiration...

  6. In larping, we refer to people in the state of being moderately sleep deprived as the "unslept." Those in advanced stages of deprivation, such as those who've had six hours or less during event weekends are the "greater unslept." When I was in college, I could stay awake longer and bounce back quicker. I can't do that so well anymore. Maybe one short night here and there, but not two or more back to back.

  7. And that's six hours or less in the whole weekend, not per night. Been there, done that.