My favourite Rita Rudnor joke goes something like this: ‘Last year, my husband and I bought a house with a real fire. We could not get it to light. A week later, our neighbours’ house burnt down. We went next door and said, ‘How did you do that?’
Sometimes you just stand in the presence of those who can do things better. Recently, for example, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make writing immersive: that ability to draw the reader in so deeply they fully enter the world of the novel.
I was prompted by a section of the editorial report I received on my second novel. It said: ‘Part of the problem I think is the somewhat fragmented and episodic feel to the narrative. Paragraphs are rarely longer than two or three sentences and cumulatively this gives a feeling of brevity, of things being somewhere between the words or off the page and it is difficult as a reader to get down and deep into the narrative.’
Thing is, I do like to strip a paragraph down: get to the essential and move on. There is something of my history in comedy here – set-up/punch and all that. But clearly, in this case, it’s becoming a barrier.
When I think of in-depth, immersive writing, I think of description. This is from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.
Eating my second dish of what had, upon first glance, appeared to be a black lump of flowerpot mud but was actually some delicious mess of ginger and figs, with whipped cream and tiny, bitter slivers of orange peel on top.
Or going back further, to Tale of Two Cities:
It (the fog) was dense enough to shut out everything from the light of the coach-lamps but these its own workings, and few yards of road; the reek of the labouring horses steamed into it, as if they had made it.
In both cases, I’m there. But immersion is sometimes achieved with very little description. The Jeeves and Wooster books are almost totally dialogue, but from such distinct characters that you are drawn into their world. Roddy Doyle is the same. This is from a recent exchange he wrote in response to the Pope’s comments on hitting children.
– See the Pope says it’s alrigh’ to slap your kids.
– -Now he fuckin’ tells us.
– As long as it’s not on the face.
– So anyway, I emailed the Vatican
– Did yeh?
– Again – Yeah. I said I had two questions. A. Is it okay to slap your grandkids?
– Good one. And what’s B?
– Is it alrigh’ to slap the Pope?
Again, I’m there.
So, in the first case, it is achieved by deep description; in the second, by sparky dialogue written from distinct character. I could just as easily picked examples of gripping plots or recognisable situations. But, like Rita Rudnor and her husband, I’m not sure I have any idea how this is achieved. Just that when I read it, it feels like being there. I even have moments of being able to achieve it myself. Beyond that, I am the owner of an unlit fire, staring at a blazing house.