On Pulling an All Nighter (and how it saved my novel and my life!)

We freelance writers have it hard. It’s true, we do get to go to work in our jammies. We do get to take breaks whenever we want, even go back to bed if we feel like it! And we do get to bring our moody poodle to work with us every day. Still, we have it hard.

See, I write because it is my passion. It’s what I love. But when you work at home, life can easily take over your productive hours. I’m not talking about the whole gotta watch “Divorce Court” on TV, or gotta yak on the phone with my friends for hours, because that is not me. (Well, I DO waste way too much time playing Spider Solitaire, but let’s not go there right now…) 

What I’m talking about is real life. Like a family member needs minor surgery, so guess who takes them to the doctor’s office, the hospital, and nurses them back to health. That’s right, the person with the stay at home job and endless flexibility. And when my parents come into town because they are in the process of moving into my area, guess who spends an entire week with them driving them to appointments with electricians, and helping them find furniture and appliances. Yup. That’s me.  And when a niece comes in from India that I haven’t seen in years, and spends the week, it’s miss flexible freelancer who takes her to see the sites and shop, etc.

And I’m not complaining about any of that. It was all valid and important stuff to do, and I’m happy to help. BUT that represented an entire MONTH that I did not get to work on my newest novel. A month!!!! Who else but a work-at-home person could do such a thing? Sure, it represents flexibility, but it also represents lost productivity and lost potential earnings. If I were an office worker, I’d pass on much of that time spent. I’d have to. But how do you tell people, sorry, I can’t help you, I have to sit over here in this other room for a while instead. (And it doesn’t help that my office is also the guest bedroom!)

So I’ve got this novel half written, and I’m feeling really frustrated at this point. That’s when I decided to declare I was pulling an all-nighter. Yes! That was the answer. Come what may, I was going to lock myself in my studio, and everyone else would have to manage without me for 24 hours. Ha!

I picked a Saturday, and warned my husband and kids to plan around me. The first glitch was that my husband had a class he had signed up for that morning, which meant that I had to ferry my daughter to voice and piano lessons. Then get her lunch. But that’s okay. That just meant my stint would start at 1:30 p.m. Fine. Before I descended into my cave, my husband pointed out that I didn’t really need to work all night. I could just go to sleep at a normal time. I explained that I couldn’t. In my mind I had a deadline, and my novel was due to my imaginary college professor at exactly 1:30 pm tomorrow. My husband asked me what was for dinner. I gave him a blank stare and closed the door to my cave.

Yes! I’d made it. The funny thing about writing a book is that it is so open-ended. How long will it take? No one knows. What will you write? Anything! But as soon as I began my all-nighter, I started thinking in finite terms. I had a deadline, dammit!  I spent the first forty minutes clearing my office space of all distractions like bills, and pending college stuff for my daughter, and unanswered correspondence, until my desk was clear of everything but my manuscript, notes, and some writing supplies. Wow, was that energizing. It was like saying: This is what matters most to me.

Next I made a list of the tasks I needed to accomplish on my book. Just putting down these items helped me to focus and plan. I hadn’t done this before because, hey, I’d had all the time in the world!  I began going down my list of tasks. I incorporated edits from comments at my last writer’s group meeting. I reviewed scores of notes I’d jotted on historical elements in my novel, and thoughts about character, structure, etc., culling this pile and organizing it into logical groupings, and finally filing this info. This all took nearly two hours.

I got coffee and a snack, and brought them back to my studio.

Then I faced my biggest task: structure. I have a time-travel story thread in my book, with visits to the past altering the present, and lies in the past which are revealed and altered. Without a sound structure, I knew I was floundering with plot. So I grabbed huge pieces of construction paper and colorful markers, and made out sheets I labeled THE WAY IT WAS KNOWN, THE WAY IT REALLY WAS, THE WAY IT CHANGES, and THE CHANGES IN THE PRESENT ALONG THE WAY. I taped these all over my walls, along with a sheet for each character that displayed their main motivations, their secrets, and their motto.

By now it was 11 p.m., and I’d worked nearly 10 hours on my novel, not adding a single page. But all of this had to be done first.  I crossed out these items on my list. They were done, and I was energized. I could so go all night long like this. I could go days!  The house had become quiet. Downstairs, lights were off, my family was snoozing. I got more food and brought it up to my room again. And began, finally, to write. The ideas flowed, and my book grew. I’d started this night with around 150 manuscript pages. Could I possibly finish with my goal of 300 completed pages by tomorrow afternoon? I had to. If I didn’t, wouldn’t my imaginary professor give me an imaginary failing grade? Unthinkable.

Things whirred along until around 2:30 a.m. when everything went dark and then bright again. For a moment I thought I was blacking out from exhaustion, even though I wasn’t that sleepy yet. Then it happened again, and there was a weird noise downstairs. Huh.

I opened my door, and listened. Nothing. Still, I thought I’d better explore. Plus, I had a ton of dirty dishes on my desk that needed shifting to the sink in the kitchen. So I went down, and turned on another light. There was that noise again, along with the flicker. It sounded like a buzzer from an old-fashioned doorbell, and it was muted. Very weird. I went into the family room, and heard it again, and the air smelled acrid. Like burnt rubber.

My eyes grew wide as I realized what might be happening. I’m no expert, but I know the beginnings of an electrical fire. So I raced upstairs and woke my husband, and we spent the next half hour trying to find the source, and feeling the walls for heat, and finally identifying and shutting off the offending circuit. He went to bed, but I spent the next few hours alert, near the source of the smell with my cell, a lantern and my shoes at the ready for a possible emergency evacuation. I wrote on my lap top, checking every few minutes or so to make sure the air continued to clear and the threat was under control.

So did I finish my novel and make the grade? Well, after a few more hours of writing, I kept nodding off with my finger on the spacebar, adding many many useless pages of nothing, until I finally packed it in around 5 a.m. and conked out completely. I’d completed an additional 50 pages of writing, so, yeah, I failed in the eyes of my imaginary professor, but in my own mind the result was an A plus. See, I’d catapulted my book past boundaries that had ground me to a halt, and the structural work saved my novel.

That next day we had an electrician in. He cut open the ceiling where we’d heard the noise, and found the burnt and damaged wire, repairing the problem. If I hadn’t been awake, we might have all slept through this until the fire really took hold, and then…

So one all nighter. One saved novel. Four saved lives (five counting my moody poodle). Now that’s time well spent.

 

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