As I’ve noted before, I am not a slow and steady author. My life would probably be a bit simpler if I were. I see Facebook updates from writers who apply derriere to chair each and every morning before they have to go to their day jobs and tap out a few hundred to a thousand words. I admire that kind of sane, sensible work ethic.
But I do not often write at a civilized pace. I’ll compose very little for most of a week – generally I’ll be mulling scenes over in my head or revising what I’ve already put down on paper – and then I’ll write thousands of words over the course of a couple of days.
For instance, I wrote 7600 words of my novel Switchblade Goddess over the course of one 24-hour period.
No, those words were not the line “All work and no play makes Lucy a dull girl” typed over and over again. They were not addled ravings that promptly got scrapped when the No-Doz wore off (I don’t take that stuff anyway; see below). According to my first readers, the scenes were solid, and haven’t required much more revision than anything else I wrote.
If you’ve been writing for publication for a while, you’ve likely learned whether you’re a tortoise or a hare. It’s a little like knowing whether you write best by plotting out your stories ahead of time, or if you produce your best work if you follow the story where it leads you. (I’m a plotter; other binge writers may tend to write by the seat of their pants.)
However, you may still be trying to figure out what work style suits you best. Marathon writing sessions are often exhilarating and give me a great sense of accomplishment when they go well … but my first couple of binges left me exhausted and useless for the next couple of days. I’d pulled all-nighters in college and figured this would be much the same thing, right? I didn’t account for the fact that a 19-year-old body is a whole lot more able to cope with sleep deprivation, immobility, and repetitive stress than a 38-year-old body. I’ve improved my tactics since those first times, and I can generally get more words and still manage to function at my day job once I’ve had a decent bit of sleep.
So, without further ado, here is my advice for preparing for and completing a big writing binge.
Prepare Your Schedule
Pick out the one or two days you intend to be binge writing, and clear your calendar. No, seriously. Clear it. You are not going to the store. You are not going to the movies. You are not washing the dishes. You will be writing, or resting, and that’s it. If you have family obligations, enlist your spouse and children to your cause. If you don’t treat this as a serious thing, they won’t, either.
The day after a binge will be a little iffy. If you have a day job, try to arrange things so that you won’t have to do anything that requires much concentration or other brain power. If you’re a doctor, this won’t be a good day to schedule your patients for brain surgery.
Prepare Your Mind and Body
If you haven’t written a single word for a month, it’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to magically produce thousands of words once you finally sit down at your computer – you’ve let your writing muscles go cold. If you’re trying to “save” yourself for the big day, at least do one free writing exercise for 15 minutes every day before you start.
Eat right, and get decent sleep the couple of days before your marathon; if you’re not well rested before you start, your 24 hours in front of the computer may end up with a lot of staring dumbly at a blank screen. And that sucks.
Prime your imagination. In the days before the binge, try to do some things to get your creative juice flowing. Go see a dazzling movie or a live show, or visit a museum you’ve wanted to try but haven’t found the time to visit. Go out with friends whose company you find energizing. The important thing is to get yourself into a headspace where you’re excited about the time you’ll have for writing, and your story is percolating nicely in your head and ready to go.
Choose Your Beverage
As with a “real” marathon, keeping yourself properly hydrated will keep your brain working at its best.
But when people start talking about writing in the same breath as beverages, most folks inevitably start thinking about booze or coffee. Alcoholic beverages are probably not going to be helpful in this situation; the Hash House Harriers aside, you wouldn’t try to run 25 miles with a gin and tonic in your hand, would you?
Caffeine can be your friend … but it can also quickly become your enemy if you misuse it. I recommend against using caffeine pills like the aforementioned No-Doz, and I’m vehemently against stronger stimulant drugs. The risks to your health just aren’t worth it. People have died from overdosing on caffeine pills and energy drinks; admittedly most of these folks engaged in absolutely boneheaded consumption, but you can screw yourself up accidentally.
Back in college when I wasn’t used to the stuff, I became intoxicated after consuming two cups of coffee and two Sudafeds (I was trying to get rid of a bad sinus headache). It was one of the most horrible things I’ve been through: racing heartbeat, raving panic, confusion, alarmingly massive gastrointestinal upset. If I had been attempting to write, all I could have written would have been something like “HELP I AM DYEI8NG HleP!!!” I didn’t get to the vomiting blood stage, but that was a small mercy considering I was pretty sure my heart was going to explode straight out of my chest like an alien larva. And I was a wreck afterward. Utterly wrecked.
So. Know your limits before you start, and try not to be actively addicted to the stuff. If you’ve been in the habit of pounding down a pot of coffee every day, more probably won’t be that much of a help to you. Once you develop a dependency on caffeine, you stop drinking coffee (or tea etc.) to get a boost and start drinking it just to keep yourself from feeling crummy and foggy.
But if you’ve been abstaining from coffee – yet aren’t a total lightweight like I was at 18 – a pot can keep you going nicely. So can a jug of iced tea. As can energy drinks; I know several writers who swear by Monster. But once again I feel compelled to stress that you’ve got to go easy with those.
The beauty of energy drinks is that they’re actually more useful to us writers than they are to the athletes they’re marketed to. Medical studies have shown that the combination of sugar, caffeine and B vitamins can improve concentration and memory — both of which are very good things when you’re trying to write. The ugliness of energy drinks is that you often don’t know exactly how much caffeine you’re consuming in each drink, and it’s very easy to consume too much. Furthermore, these drinks are often loaded with sugar. And while an initial sugar rush can boost productivity, the inevitable sugar crash won’t. Staving off the crash by sucking down more syrupy drinks is bad for your teeth and pretty much your whole body.
You can absolutely do a marathon writing session without a single milligram of caffeine, but you’ll need to rely on other tactics (below) to maintain your focus and alertness.
If you want to avoid caffeinated and sugary drinks entirely, my recommendation is peppermint-flavored unsweetened water and/or peppermint herbal teas. Alternately, plain cold water and sugar-free peppermints can work, too.
Snacks are Your Friends
Once I start writing, I find that regular breaks in which I consume high-protein snacks work much better than stopping less frequently for bigger meals. Part of it is that a big meal inevitably makes me feel sleepy. But the other reason to snack is that smaller, more frequent meals keep your blood sugar steadier. High-protein snacks – and these can be vegetarian or vegan – provide better slow-burning fuel for your brain than foods loaded with carbs and sugar.
Exercise Breaks are Crucial
You won’t be able to write, write, write non-stop for 24 or even 6 hours. You’ll need to take regular breaks to recharge and get your blood flowing. For me, this means getting up every two or three hours to get a snack and some exercise. If you are experiencing any soreness in your hands, make sure to regularly do some stretches to prevent carpal tunnel problems.
You’ll also want to do some exercises, partly to wake yourself up, but also to prevent back and leg problems that may arise from sitting in a chair too long. Take a brisk walk around the block, or do some jumping jacks, or some yoga, or try ergonomics stretches.
Don’t Be Afraid To Nap
During my most recent 36-hour writing marathon, I actually spent about 6 of them asleep. What works for me – and it might not for you – is taking a nap when I start feeling seriously tired and lose focus. I usually take a nap about 12 hours after my last full night of sleep, and then another nap every 5 or 6 hours after that. The important thing is to not let myself sleep more than 90 minutes at a time, or it will be too hard to wake myself up. And it’s important that I get at least 8 hours of sleep after my marathon is over.
Everyone has different needs when it comes to sleep; ignore the clock and listen to your body. A nap can do a lot more to alleviate fatigue than a second can of Red Bull, and it’s a whole lot better for your body.
What To Do If You Get Stuck
It’s 3am, and the words have stopped flowing. What now? Take a break to eat and exercise. If the break doesn’t work, try a short free-writing exercise in which you focus on writing words – any words at all – for fifteen minutes. If that doesn’t help, take a nap. And if the nap doesn’t help, try going over what you’ve already written and spend some time revising.
And if all that still doesn’t help — you can always try again next weekend. Go get some real sleep. But after that, set your clock an hour earlier each day and see if slow and steady might win your writing races instead.