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 and the 30,000-word test

Each novel I write seems to follow a pattern at the beginning up to the point where I decide I’ll definitely write it. If it doesn’t pass this stage, then it doesn’t happen. First of all, I have an initial idea and, for the idea to take shape, it has to grab my interest really strongly. I write a brief synopsis, leaving the idea fairly loose, and let it sit for a while: I’ll be writing something else at the same time, editing something else and have another idea in the planning.

Then the time will come round to turn the idea into a new novel. So I make a start, not rushing it, having planned the beginning and the ending, and I’ll start to create my character. But at 10,000, 20,000 and 30,000 words in, I expect to be well-hooked into characters and action and plot and I’ll stop and check: if I’m not completely engrossed, my reader certainly won’t be and I’ll rethink the whole thing.

So, at the moment, I’m writing a novel for 2021 in which a character and a companion leave one place to stay in another. They have a few adventures there, then the protagonist takes off again, this time to somewhere completely different. I’ve allowed 20,000 words to embed the first section before the journey, 20,000 more in order to explore the second place and then the character can have 50,000 words in the final glorious location.

Once I’ve written the beginning, created the protagonist(s), given them something they need to find by the end of the novel – which might be an opportunity to develop or change, ior it may be something personal, something they don’t know that they want yet – I know I’m off and running. At that point, I can get down to detailed planning of the rest of the novel and organise the highs and lows, more fun parts and the episodes of conflict and development.

So, currently I’m 35,000 words into a new novel and I’m quite happy. I have my main character fairly well developed; she has flaws, energy and a great deal of positive points and she’s already shown her true colours. But the journey she’s on, which is not just physical but also self-discovery, has to be considered in detail if she is to be the person I want her to become, to have the experiences I want her to have and to become happier with life. There are people she’ll need to meet, some of them barely sketched in my head yet. So, at this point in the novel, I always stop and ask myself a big question:

Now I’m a third of the way through, do I love this novel enough to want to write it all?

Because if I don’t feel a real attachment and real commitment at this stage, it won’t work and I’ll drop it like a stone.

Loving a novel enough to write it goes a long way beyond commitment and stickability; there will be characters I’ll need to live alongside for months, take them into my life and to help them to grow. Obsession may be too strong a word, but I have to want them to move in with me and talk to me incessantly for a long time if I’m going to write them. They will wake me up in the early hours, fill my head during social occasions and frequently interrupt conversations.

So once I’ve written the opening chapters,  I read the first 30,000 words back out loud to myself to check it is effective and coherent and then I read it to other people I can trust and persuade to listen, and  monitor their reaction. I want them to be entertained, engaged, immersed, to like the character, to laugh, to be captivated, to care about what happens in the rest of the story. It’s one of the many points in the writing stage where I have to be tough. If the story-so-far doesn’t have the impact I want it to have, I’ll shelve it and keep some of the ideas for another novel.

As it turns out, the feedback on this one is positive; I’m very happy and I’m going to keep writing. I have to know I’ll enjoy writing it; that the journey will fascinate me and, despite careful planning, new ideas will jump in as I progress that are usually better than the ones I’ve already written down, which are more likely to surprise my readers.

So the current book, which is scheduled for 2021, is underway and I have two more new novel ideas that excite me waiting in the wings: one is likely to be a hoot, allowing me to push boundaries and create fun situations and characters, and the other will be a learning journey for me, based on the subject matter I need to research. But it’s all exciting.

I recently read an article by a writer saying how difficult the job was – that our lives are always full – we’re always writing a new novel, editing the last one, publicising the previousone, planning the next one and reading for inspiration and research all at the same time! But what a lovely position to be in. All writers strive for exactly this: it’s a great life. I couldn’t be happier.

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