The immersion technique – it’s one way to write your next novel…

I have a friend who claims to have completely cured her arthritis by swimming in the sea, whatever the weather. Her pains completely disappeared, and she swore that it was because she immersed herself regularly in freezing water. I recently saw British athlete Mo Farah and Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo do something similar on TV, sitting in a bath of ice so that they could recover quickly and remain toned and fit. I have read that ice baths bring so much benefit to fitness: apparently, regular immersion in ice eases sore and aching muscles, helps the central nervous system, limits the body’s inflammatory response.

I have to confess, I like the heat more than cold: saunas, sunshine, jacuzzi baths, hot water bottles. I prefer to immerse myself in warmth, although I’m sure there are no benefits, other than that lovely feeling of sumptuous luxury and pampering, the sense of indulging in something that makes me feel good.

Like a relaxing hot stones massage, a glass of wine or two, the company and conversation of beloved friends and family stretching into the early hours of the morning, immersing oneself in something to the exclusion of everything else is really therapeutic and brings benefits, both to physical or mental health and wellbeing.

So, what if it is the same in writing? I know so many writers who claim they can’t get started on a new novel, or they can’t continue once started: they run out of impetus and enthusiasm, or they run out of time.

Then again, I know so many writers who don’t: an idea grabs them and they run with it and keep going and going. So begins the writer’s immersion technique.

I am one of those people who begins a project and, if it grabs me, I can immerse myself in it. I don’t mean doing labours of necessity like domestic chores, gardening or hoovering, things I have to do but they are, honestly, only done because if I don’t do them, we’ll starve or the house will collapse. I mean, when something really grabs the interest, it’s hard to put it down. When I write a novel, the computer is like a magnet and I can’t pull myself away. I have to immerse myself in the characters and their escapades until I’ve finished, then I go back and edit over and over.

But my last two novels have been, even more, about complete and utter immersion. I wrote one in six weeks not long ago: the three characters just wouldn’t leave me alone. It was the first time I’d worked for seven days a week, ten hours a day, since I was teaching theatre and that was complete immersion too. It was exhausting, writing non-stop, I’ll admit – 100,000 words in six weeks, or forty-two days. But the novel really grabbed me and I missed meals and TV and a social life to write it. No, it was worse that that: people would speak to me and I wouldn’t reply – I didn’t hear, I was so involved in what I was doing, nothing external had a chance. The characters woke me up in the night to debate their next move; writing their antics on the page came out faster than my fingers could type and I just couldn’t walk away from it all. My shoulders were knotted, my eyes blurred, but I had to keep going. And now it’s finished, I’m pleased with it: readers can decide for themselves if they like it when it comes out in winter.  As yet I only have a working title… three very different women, a staycation or two…

Then there’s the ghost novel I am writing, which involves lots of research. Immersion again – more missed meals, more unresponsive conversation, more typing and reading and rubbing of sore eyes from dawn to midnight. Immersion is such good fun and, like a good book, it’s unputdownable, although it’s also antisocial, and the level of absorption can’t really go on indefinitely or there would be consequences to things like marriage and friendships and cats being fed.

But, like Mo and Ronaldo’s ice-filled bath, it’s very refreshing and a wonderfully intense way to work, a therapy that has the benefits of a whole rush of ideas and enthusiasm, and leaves one feeling like a happy kid at the centre of their own birthday party.

Being involved in a project to the exclusion of everything else is great fun; it brings results in terms of output and productivity. I have a book that I’m pleased with, two, in fact, so I can give myself permission to take a breather now. Like a sprint, it is fast and full-on, then afterwards time is needed to recuperate and become fresh again, ready for the next full pelt.

But immersion can only be a temporary and sporadic thing. Writing can be a selfish occupation: I’ve even been at social events where my head has been plotting the next move when it should have been fully attentive to other people. And selfishness isn’t good, nor is obsessive devotion to just one thing. I’m all for immersive writing – it works for me and as a writer, you have to do just that, gauge what works for you and follow your own path. We shouldn’t seek to be the same as each other or influence others to tread the same road just because it works well for us. But now it’s time to let go, walk away, to do something else for a week or two, chill out a bit and get a life.

Because, as we all know, the benefit of time away, relaxation and mental stillness will bring in new ideas, new plots, new characters.

Then I can start all over again…

What I’m writing at the moment…

I know I’m blogging here about the novels I’m currently working on, but let’s not start with what I’m writing just yet – I’ll get on to that in a moment – let’s just set the scene first. I’m lucky to be way ahead on all writing schedules and outside right now, the weather is gorgeous; it’s just vest and shorts all day, and I’ve lost my pink crocks somewhere so I have no shoes… what else can I do but laze around in the sun with the cats? Colin, Monty and Murphy, by the way, are rolling in the dust like three unhappy slugs – it’s too warm for black cats.

Plus, I’ve been reading a lot: novels by Louise Doughty, Matt Haig, Sarah Winman, Ali Smith, Owen Mullen, Shari Low. I have a must-read pile as tall as I am, (… not very tall but it’s still a huge pile of books,) and basking in the sunshine with a book is my idea of heaven, or at least one idea of heaven – there are so many more…

Plus, the Euros (UEFA European Championships) are on TV and the radio in the afternoons and evenings, and it’s a big temptation to watch or listen to the football commentary. I read almost all of The Midnight Library while listening to the Scotland v Czech Republic game and willing the Scots would score. I have no drop of Scottish blood in me, but after so many years of their absence from world championships, I really wanted to see the Tartan Army get a goal.

So, here I am, lazing around in tattered grey shorts and a vest that proclaims me the best bass player in the world – (I can play the bass to Thin Lizzie’s Dancing in the Moonlight on a good day, but I’m way down the pecking order when it comes to skill, and I don’t practise nearly enough, mainly because I’m too busy writing…) – and I’m doing well in terms of deadlines. The edits have been done for Lil’s Bus Trip, which is out in August. That’s the story of 82-year-old Lil and her daughter Cassie, two feisty women who go on a bus trip to Northern Europe with a bus load of interesting characters and, while they are enjoying the journey and getting up to mischief, they find out a bit more about themselves and what they want from life.

I’ve written the next novel, which hasn’t a title yet but I wrote it in a can’t-keep-away-from-the-laptop fit of passion and I’m very happy with the story of three women who emerge from lockdown with the intention of celebrating their freedom. More of that one soon, except that it’s out later this year, and I’m so excited about it. I’ve also written the next novel after that, but I’ll keep that for another blog as it’s not out until 2022.

Then, here’s the big one from me, I’ve just finished a novel in another genre. 109,000 words of something the wonderful Boldwood Books have encouraged me to write, something that I hope will appeal to readers who enjoy two timelines and a shiver or two down the spine. I have thoroughly enjoyed, relished and adored the opportunity to write this new novel, which will be under a different name (one similar to my grandma’s,) and I’m currently editing it like mad. I can’t say just how thrilled I am to be able to write this type of book and I do hope everyone will love it. Updates coming soon.

Summer brings distractions, and that’s why I write for so many hours in the winter. When the sun is shining and the road is open, and I can go walking or take the van or find a beach, it’s a temptation to be outdoors, especially since many new ideas come to me when I’m in calm and beautiful surroundings.

Also, I’ve had both vaccines now, with interesting side effects. The first one made me giggle non-stop at any opportunity for two days, just like being drunk but without the hangover. The second made me fall asleep all the time – I was truly shattered for half a week. But now, I’m back, full of energy, changing up what I eat so that there’s more protein and more colour in every meal, less alcohol (really!!) and I’m ready to enjoy the summer.

Last weekend, when I was out walking in the local woods with Murphy, one of my cats, a new idea came to me involving something local, that I’ll keep under wraps for the time being – I’ll let it ferment for a few weeks, let the characters form, and then I’ll sit down when the weather isn’t so hot and the football isn’t on, and I’ll write and write and write.

Of course, by then we may have live music and live theatre – there will be so many distractions.

 But there’s nothing as distracting as a new idea and the mad desire to write it all down….

On the Road Again.

This week the sunshine came at last and promised to stay for a while: I spent the weekend sorting out the van, with the hope of getting back on the road soon. My year usually starts in early spring but there have been a few universal problems with getting out and about for a few months…

There was a lot to be done, too: there were masses of dead flies like spilled raisins all over the floor, lodged in every crevasse; the fridge was empty, holding a sour smell and a few splodges of something unappetizing, green mould blotching the yellowing white plastic interior. I washed all the stale bedlinen, fixed the drooping blinds and dusty curtains. The winter rain had seeped through the corner of the over-cab bed, leaving a green smudge that stank of old potatoes against the ceiling. Windows and doors were flung wide to encourage fresh air to fill spaces: everywhere was hoovered, including dusty rugs, crumpled cushions and seats, even the tiny shower cubicle.

Long-lost things were discovered again: books, a bottle of rosé wine, Marmite, knickers, a sock. My note pad and pen that I use to scribble down any bright ideas that might come my way while I’m travelling were stuffed in the cupboard alongside several tins of beans and a bag of rice: all needs must be catered for when I’m away, and that includes food and food for thought – which reminds me, I’ve bought a DAB radio and the next job will be to install it.

I have various trips lined up, many already planned to research locations for a new book. There will be a trip to Cornwall, one to South Wales, another to North Yorkshire. I want to go to Scotland again. I have clear ideas about what will happen in each place, and I know the characters that will be involved. All I need to do now is to stand on a beach somewhere and let all the thoughts come together, like a stirred pot.

June 21st is a landmark day. I’ll have had both vaccinations, so I could travel anywhere in England as long as I’m sensible. My first trip will be to get up at ridiculous o’clock and drive to somewhere that I can climb up a hill and watch the sun rise. Solstice is a time I usually make a big wish and this year I’ll go in the van, because I can. Then it has to be breakfast on a beach somewhere or, who knows, maybe even in a café. A year ago, who’d have imagined what a massive treat that would be – I haven’t had breakfast ‘out’ in more months than I can count on both hands.

The absence of travel has prompted me to think how important it is to make the most of each precious moment. Time is too busy to stand still. There are places to see, people to meet, fun to be had, memories to make. I won’t go abroad this year, although I’d love to. But there are so many beautiful places to visit in this country, some I’ve never been to, and other places where there are dear friends I haven’t seen in far too long. I’m even thinking of paying a visit to the small place where I was born and smile at how much or how little has changed – I haven’t been back for too long. Wherever I go, I will take happiness and laughter with me – that’s my only rule.

If it’s sunny, I’ll celebrate and if it rains then I’ll dance in puddles. The joy of it is all…