On Writing

Sleep On Your Manuscript

photo of a writer asleep on a typewriter
Writer at work. (Found in the wilds of the Internet.)

No, don’t tuck your laptop under your pillow. Or print out your novel and sprinkle the pages between the sheets. And certainly don’t sleep on a typewriter, like the young woman at right. (Ouch, my neck hurts just looking at that.)

But if you’re a writer short on time for writing, and especially if you’re participating in National Novel Writing Month, putting your subconscious to work while you sleep can be the key to making progress on your novel (or memoir, short story, or whatever).

It’s no secret that the subconscious is where a lot of creative work gets done. It’s the source of those “Aha!” moments, the creative breakthroughs that come seemingly out of nowhere. The cliché of the writer keeping a notepad and pen on the night table exists for this reason: it works. Sci Fi writer William Gibson takes a power nap in the middle of his writing day, and says it’s the key to keeping his work flowing.

But wait, you say, your subconscious is busy with other stuff: obsessing about work, rehashing a mean thing a friend said, or replaying scenes from the latest mega action thriller. If you dream, those are the things you dream about, and when you wake up at three a.m., that’s what’s going through your head.

The trick is to make your Work in Progress (WIP) the main thing your brain obsesses over. Here are some tips to put your subconscious to work for you:

  • Read your WIP right before shutting off the light. It doesn’t matter what stage you’re at in your novel, whether it’s an outline, character sketches, or the first few chapters. If you read your notes or most recent scenes right before going to sleep, chances are your mind will continue working on them overnight. If you wake up at three a.m., you’ll be thinking about how to get your heroine out of that tight spot (or, if you’re really lucky, she’ll present the solution to you).
  • Be that clichéd writer who keeps a notepad by the bed. Or tablet, smart phone, whatever, just as long as you can capture whatever burst of inspiration you have in the middle of the night or as you wake up. (But don’t stress if you fall back asleep before getting it down. I find that the good ideas stick, so I’ve never developed this habit. As with anything in writing, YMMV.)
  • Carry your manuscript with you. Remember the potato baby or sack-of-sugar baby the sex ed teacher made you carry around? Be like that with your manuscript, whether you print out a few pages, or view it on your tablet or smart phone. You don’t even need to add to it, but just review it on your coffee break, train commute, or whatever scraps of time you have. You may not be able to increase your word count much in ten or fifteen minutes, but you can keep your novel at the forefront of your mind.
  • Clear the decks. Avoid other media that tend to occupy a lot of imaginative space. A gripping novel. A spine-tingling movie. Or, if you’re like me, that really involving video game. Whatever it is, if you find you’re dreaming about it or waking up in the middle of the night thinking about it, then you should avoid it like last month’s leftovers in the back of the fridge.
  • Read for inspiration. It’s often said that writers should spend half their writing time reading. But when you’re cranking out a manuscript, whatever reading you do should keep your head in the world of your novel, not distract you from it. Nonfictional background material is great. Maybe books on police procedure if you’re writing a crime novel. History, if you’re working on a historical. If you have to read fiction, try novels you’ve already read and find inspiring. Since you already know the plot, you can focus on techniques without getting too involved.

If you practice these tips every day, soon your co-workers will wonder about that faraway gaze you wear during meetings. And if it really works, you’ll feel like you can’t wait to sit down to write, rather than staring at a blank screen when you finally have the time.

Oh, and if you still want to put that laptop under your pillow, go right ahead.

What tricks do you use to keep your brain focused on your manuscript? Share them in the comments below!