Today is Labor Day, and S and I are celebrating labor in the traditional way: by doing as little as possible. Actually, that’s not true. S is doing laundry, and I did some dishes. And who knows? If the weather isn’t too hot, we might go outside and move some more rocks for our landscaping project.
But we aren’t at work, and that means we have time to write. S is nearing the end of Fiat Justitia, the third Oleg novel, and I’m working on some revisions. There’s a wizard character who appears in five books that I’ve written so far, and I’m checking to make sure that she’s written consistently. I want her to seem as if she’s the same person, but has changed in believable ways over the years.
In other news, I’ve started listening to audiobooks from Librivox. It’s just something to do while I’m exercising. All the recordings are done by volunteers, so it would be mean spirited to critique the quality of the reading. As long as I can follow what’s going on, I suppose the reading is good enough.
The first one I listened to was Pearl-Maiden: A Tale of the Fall of Jerusalem, by H. Rider Haggard. (The title of this post notwithstanding, Haggard actually published it in 1903.) This was a book I didn’t even know existed until I saw it in the Librivox catalog. I’ve read Haggard’s most famous works, King Solomon’s Mines and She, of course, and I liked them, so I decided to give it a try.
It was pretty good, but of course as an amateur author, I naturally have to see if I can learn something from it that I can apply to my own writing. And the main thing I noticed as I was reading (or rather, listening) was just how fast the plot moves.
Let me give you an example. And it should go without saying that there are spoilers here (insofar as anyone can spoil a book that’s 113 years old). Bear with me here.
Our hero, Marcus the Roman, is imprisoned because he foiled the scheme of Prince Domitian, the evil second son of Emperor Vespasian, to buy the Christian girl Miriam (our heroine, and the “Pearl-Maiden” of the title) as a slave. Marcus and Miriam are in love, but she can’t marry him because he’s a pagan. Miriam, bought by Marcus and freed, is living among the Christians of Rome and earning her keep by making clay lamps. (She’s an exceptionally talented sculptor.) While she’s there, her childhood friend Caleb (the antagonist) discovers her whereabouts by accident, when he recognizes a scene from their childhood adventures depicted on one of her lamps, and convinces a guileless shop worker to tell him where the maker of the lamp lives.
Caleb confronts Miriam and threatens to reveal her location to Domitian if she doesn’t agree to marry him. Miriam refuses, and she’s so good and decent that Caleb becomes ashamed of himself. He has a change of heart and swears he will help and protect her, even if he can’t ever marry her. Miriam, realizing that she’s not safe in Rome anymore, escapes and sails off for the east with the help of Cyril, the Bishop of Rome.
Meanwhile, Marcus gets a second trial, this time with Prince Titus, the good elder son of Vespasian, and his former commander in the army, as his judge. Titus realizes that Domitian is a jerk, and can see that Marcus was falsely accused, but for political reasons, he can’t just overrule his younger brother publicly. So he commutes Marcus’s sentence to three years’ banishment, instead of death.
(Again, bear with me here. I promise there’s a point at the end of this.)
News comes back that the ship Miriam was sailing in has sunk, and everyone on it is dead. Marcus, who is still in prison, waiting to leave Rome, learns of this and wants to kill himself. But Cyril, the Bishop of Rome, talks him out of committing suicide and discusses heaven with him. Marcus decides to become a Christian and is baptized.
Caleb forms a plan, with the help of Domitian’s chamberlain, to waylay Marcus and kill him. But at the last moment, Caleb, remembering that he had promised to help Miriam, has a change of heart, and dresses up like Marcus so the assassins kill him, instead. Marcus and Bishop Cyril find Caleb’s body, and Cyril tells Marcus he should pity Caleb, instead of hating him.
Marcus and Cyril sail for the east, and they arrive in the harbor at Alexandria, Egypt, just in time to hear people singing hymns on a nearby ship. They go over to join the church service, and who should be leading the choir but Miriam. It turns out that reports of her death were greatly exaggerated, and her ship didn’t sink, after all. Marcus tells Miriam he’s a Christian now, and they get married immediately.
Okay, did you get all that? Good.
Here’s the thing—that’s not the plot of the whole novel. That’s just what happens in the last two chapters. And the 27 chapters before that are just the same. The story burns through plot at an absolutely furious pace. In S’s words, H. Rider Haggard is “the CW of the 19th century,” referring to the way in which shows on the CW network, like Vampire Diaries and The 100 race breathlessly from plot point to plot point.
I certainly wouldn’t suggest that all stories move along at that kind of pace, and S and I have found recently that we appreciate shows, like AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, or SyFy’s The Expanse, that take their time. But it’s important, as authors, to remember that readers want things to happen. Haggard could easily have made five or six or ten chapters out of the events I’ve mentioned above. Marcus’s contemplation of suicide could have been its own chapter. His conversion could have taken up another chapter. Caleb’s confrontation with Miriam could have had a chapter to itself, too. And if I’d been writing that story, I almost certainly would have given an entire chapter to Caleb deciding to sacrifice himself for his hated rival, Marcus. That’s a big moment for the character, and I wouldn’t want to rush it.
But as a reader (or rather, listener), I have to say I didn’t really miss all that contemplation, internal monologue, and navel-gazing. I rather appreciated that the story got to the point and kept going. And that’s something to keep in mind as I write my own novels.