The Persuasion Project: Chapters 7 and 8

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CE Brock illustration from mollands.net.

Welcome back to my live read of Persuasion. We’ve hit Chapter 7, and things are about to get kicked into high gear. How do we know? Look at this opening sentence!

A very few days more, and Captain Wentworth was known to be at Kellynch, and Mr Musgrove had called on him, and come back warm in his praise, and he was engaged with the Crofts to dine at Uppercross, by the end of another week.

Sigh!

Of course, their first meeting cannot smoothly come to pass, because what fun would that be? Anne is about to meet him at her sister’s in-laws’ until her oldest nephew is brought back to the house injured. Then the next night, everyone is going to dine at Uppercross with Captain Wentworth, Anne, naturally, being left behind to tend the recovering child. After all, why should Mary stay with her own child? As she says to Anne: “You, who have not a mother’s feelings, are a great deal the properest person.” Truly Mary is the worst, and cracks me up. But far more importantly—will Anne and Captain Wentworth ever meet?!

Well, yes, they will, the next morning when Captain Wentworth comes to shoot with Anne’s brother-in-law, Charles. What’s great about this is how brief and simple, and seemingly unexceptional the meeting is. It’s really only something Austen could pull off.

In two minutes after Charles’s preparation, the others appeared; they were in the drawing-room. Her eye half met Captain Wentworth’s, a bow, a curtsey passed; she heard his voice; he talked to Mary, said all that was right, said something to the Miss Musgroves, enough to mark an easy footing; the room seemed full, full of persons and voices, but a few minutes ended it. Charles shewed himself at the window, all was ready, their visitor had bowed and was gone.

And that’s all. We’ve waited six and a half chapters, and that is their reunion. Anne, unsurprisingly, is a bit flustered the rest of the morning, but there were no grand exchanges, no one fainted, it was all simply done and described in a beautifully understated manner. Frankly, this is another of those moments I adore in Austen. She doesn’t focus on the drama of the meeting, but Anne’s reaction to it, because it’s her internal life we actually care about.

The chapter then comes to an end with the narrator switching to Captain Wentworth’s thoughts on marriage. He is ready to marry any nice lady he meets, with the exception of Anne Elliot. He, in fact, does have a few criteria, all of which he has designed in reaction against Anne. But this cannot be the end of their story, can it?

Of course not.

Chapter 8 begins with the information that Anne and Captain Wentworth were constantly in the same circle after this time. And that is followed by many charming anecdotes about how everyone would ask him questions about the navy, which I find lovely, but I’m a dork for all things British navy in this era. The chapter, which covers a typical evening of supper and conversation, ends with dancing, Anne stationed at the piano, Captain Wentworth clearly unimpressed when he is told she never dances anymore. When he is later cold to her, she deems it by far the hardest moment of their reacquaintance.

And that’s those two chapters. Next up is arguably one of my favorite moments in all of literature. I think that should get me back to this reread in short order.

~S

Teasing the Inevitable

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Gosh, I hope it works out for these two crazy kids.

Tonight is the Oscars.  S and I are going to an Oscar party, though that’s mainly just for the fun of going to a party.  As far as the nominees are concerned, as my dad always likes to say, you can’t begin to plumb the depths of my indifference.  I was just looking at the official site, and in pretty much every category, it’s just movie after movie that I’ve never seen.  We got A Man Called Ove from the library.  And we watched about the first half-hour or so of Captain Fantastic.  And I saw Zootopia on Netflix.  But other than that, I’ve seen nothing.

The truth is that S and I spend a lot more time reading and watching TV anymore than we do watching movies.  Especially movies in the theater.  It’s been a very long time since we’ve gone out for a movie, in fact.  But that’s okay, because there’s so much good TV and so many good books.

Speaking of which, we just got the DVDs of Victoria with Jenna Coleman from the library, and we stayed up a bit later than we should have last night watching the first five episodes.  That took us from Victoria’s accession to her marriage to Albert.  It’s very good, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we finish it today.

At the same time, we’re reading Ethan Frome for S’s classic lit book club.  I’ve read it before, years ago, but S hasn’t.  Thanks to a technical glitch in the Google Books version that she’s been reading, she ended up accidentally skipping the introduction.  (For those of you who have read the book, that’s the frame story, where the narrator meets Ethan Frome and ends up having to stay at his house in a snowstorm.)  So we dug out her tablet and I read it to her while she drove.  And of course it changes the story quite a bit when you start out knowing, even from Ethan’s first appearance in the book, that something awful is going to happen to him.  The question becomes, “How did this happen?”

That’s the same issue faced with historical fiction, like Victoria.  No one with even the slightest knowledge of history has any doubt how things are going to work out between Victoria and Albert.  The facts are well known, and there’s not really any way to create suspense there.

The trick, in both cases, seems to be a focus on the characters.  Both Edith Wharton and the writers of Victoria seem to be concentrating not on trying to create false suspense where suspense is impossible, but rather giving us marvelous and telling little bits of character development.  In other words, rather than focusing on the outcome (What will happen to Ethan Frome?  Who will Victoria marry?), we focus on the internal qualities of the characters—the flaws and strengths that will lead them to this outcome that we already know.

Here, for example, is the third paragraph of the main narrative of Ethan Frome:

The night was perfectly still, and the air so dry and pure that it gave little sensation of cold. The effect produced on Frome was rather of a complete absence of atmosphere, as though nothing less tenuous than ether intervened between the white earth under his feet and the metallic dome overhead. “It’s like being in an exhausted receiver,” he thought. Four or five years earlier he had taken a year’s course at a technological college at Worcester, and dabbled in the laboratory with a friendly professor of physics; and the images supplied by that experience still cropped up, at unexpected moments, through the totally different associations of thought in which he had since been living. His father’s death, and the misfortunes following it, had put a premature end to Ethan’s studies; but though they had not gone far enough to be of much practical use they had fed his fancy and made him aware of huge cloudy meanings behind the daily face of things.

Even before we know why this much younger, healthier Ethan has walked into Starkfield, we know something vitally important about him—he’s a frustrated scholar unhappy with his lot in life.  Similarly, there’s a fantastic scene in episode 5 of Victoria, where Albert’s libertine older brother, Ernest, takes him to a brothel to “educate” him before his marriage.  Albert goes off with one of the prostitutes, but rather than sleep with her, he just talks to her and takes notes on what he should do on his wedding night.  It really explains a lot about the character, and about the kind of relationship we (as viewers who know our history) know we’ll be seeing later on between the queen and her beloved prince consort.

As a writer, I suppose the lesson here is to remember that “how” and “why” are sometimes more important than “what” happened.  If you create interest in your characters, you can make the reader want to keep reading, even when there’s no suspense as to how things are going to end up.

J

The Persuasion Project: Chapter 6

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CE Brock illustration from mollands.net

 

It’s Persuasion Live Read time again! Chapter 6 opens with a nice bit of character building for Anne, but without a ton of plot happening during her stay with her sister, Mary Musgrove, at Uppercross Coattage. And even though things pick up a bit later on, I think I’m just going to pull some quotes that struck me. It’s as “live” as I can make my read. (Crazy thought—Read aloud with asides. Post audio.) Anyhow, here’s my favorite example of what Austen is doing in this chapter with Anne.

She played a great deal better than either of the Miss Musgroves, but having no voice, no knowledge of the harp, and no fond parents, to sit by and fancy themselves delighted, her performance was little thought of, only out of civility, or to refresh the others, as she was well aware. She knew that when she played she was giving pleasure only to herself; but this was no new sensation.

Just in case you were questioning whether or not Anne Eliot is a better person than you. Truly, she is always willing to be underappreciated, put everyone’s complaints and desires above her own. Is there any heroine who is so content to be unassuming without also coming across as spineless and unsympathetic? (I’m looking at you, Fanny Price. I’m looking at you.)

But then in the second half of the chapter, the Crofts arrive to take up residence at Kellynch. I immediately love Mrs. Croft when she comes to visit Anne and Mary at Uppercross Cottage.

Her manners were open, easy, and decided, like one who had no distrust of herself, and no doubts of what to do; without any approach to coarseness, however, or any want of good humour.

She’s entirely my kind of woman, and frankly, after all of the shallow, fake, and conniving people in Anne’s life, exactly the friend our heroine deserves. However, Mrs. Croft then nearly gives Anne a heart attack.

“It was you, and not your sister, I find, that my brother had the pleasure of being acquainted with, when he was in this country.”

Anne hoped she had outlived the age of blushing; but the age of emotion she certainly had not.

“Perhaps you may not have heard that he is married?” added Mrs Croft.

Of course, this turns out to be Captain Wentworth’s brother who used to live in their neighborhood, and the man the Captain was visiting when he and Anne fell in love. It could be a cheap ploy, but it works, and my heart is in my mouth along with Anne’s.

Another thing I love about Austen especially in this novel—her practical, honest narrative voice. Here’s how she describes the loss of the youngest of the Musgrove sons, Richard.

The real circumstances of this pathetic piece of family history were, that the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year; that he had been sent to sea because he was stupid and unmanageable on shore; that he had been very little cared for at any time by his family, though quite as much as he deserved; seldom heard of, and scarcely at all regretted, when the intelligence of his death abroad had worked its way to Uppercross, two years before.

So blunt and honest in a way you don’t expect the well-mannered to be, and no one (seemingly) has better manners than Jane Austen. J and I were just discussing why Pride and Prejudice has received far and away the best adaptation (the BBC mini), and he proposed it’s because Austen’s narrative voice is so significant to the enjoyment of her novels, and that the narrative voice in P&P is so close to Elizabeth Bennet’s voice you can have her believably deliver the famous opening line about a man of large fortune and other tidbits from the narration. It feels so natural and the best of Austen remains. What more can you want? The narrative voice of Persuasion is so wonderfully blunt and subtle all at once, without the restrictions Anne feels since she is such a decent, unassuming woman. (Crazy idea—work out this theory some more and write about it in detail.)

And that’s all for now, but I’m so excited because Captain Wentworth is coming!!!!!

~S

 

The Long Count

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1,243, count them, 1,243 pages!  Mwahaha!

It’s Sunday again, and we almost forgot to blog. S has been working on a rather important project for work that we won’t discuss here. I’ve been working a little on some reference works for the Myrciaverse. Also, we made a pot roast for supper, and it was delicious.

Over the weekend we finished The Count of Monte Cristo for S’s book club. It’s the second time I’ve read it, and it’s easy to forget just how incredibly long it is. How long is it? Well, it’s so long that the book club is doing War and Peace this summer, and thanks to The Count of Monte Cristo, War and Peace will only be the second-longest book we’re reading this year. That’s how long it is. S may post her thoughts on it sometime, but here’s my super-quick review.

It’s very good, and if you’ve got a few months free, I would highly recommend it. However, we had a few issues with it. For one thing, Dumas really drags the story out. There are long books that feel shorter than they are, like War and Peace. And for the most part, The Count of Monte Cristo is one of those. It reads pretty quickly. But there are times, like the chapters where Luigi Vampa, the Roman bandit, is introduced, that take up far, far more space than they really need to.

Then there are problems with the story itself. The count’s relationship with Haydée, his Greek slave girl, seems awfully forced. The count ends up with her because reasons, basically. One gets the sense that Dumas planned it that way, and forgot to show their relationship developing believably over the course of the story. As I remarked to S right after we reached the end, Haydée is the Ginny Weasley of the book.

As for the count himself, the fact that he decides that revenge is bad at the end comes out of pretty much nowhere. And the way he treats Maximilien Morrel at the end—refusing to come right out and say that Maximilien’s sweetheart, Valentine de Villefort, is still alive—is just cruel. When Maximilien and Valentine are reunited, they both act absurdly grateful to the count, when any normal person in their place would smack the guy in the face.

But even so, it was a good book. Good enough to read twice, in fact.

J

The Persuasion Project: Chapters 4 and 5

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CE Brock illustration from mollands.net.

The Persuasion Live Read finally continues! When last we saw Anne and her family in Chapter 3, the Elliots were retrenching, letting their home to people connected to the mysterious Captain Wentworth from Anne’s past. What could possibly happen next?! Well, let us read.

Chapter 4
He was, at that time, a remarkably fine young man, with a great deal of intelligence, spirit, and brilliancy; and Anne an extremely pretty girl, with gentleness, modesty, taste, and feeling. Half the sum of attraction, on either side, might have been enough, for he had nothing to do, and she had hardly anybody to love; but the encounter of such lavish recommendations could not fail. They were gradually acquainted, and when acquainted, rapidly and deeply in love. It would be difficult to say which had seen highest perfection in the other, or which had been the happiest: she, in receiving his declarations and proposals, or he in having them accepted.

How lovely is that? Granted, the reader is immediately inclined to swoon over these two given how our sympathetic heroine feels about him, but Austen in just a few sentences wonderfully describes the blossoming of true love. Bless her. This, of course, makes it even more painful as the reader learns how Lady Russell, not entirely in the wrong, convinced Anne to break her engagement to the unpromising Captain Wentworth.

But we soon learn that Captain Wentworth was actually as promising as he claimed he would be—rising in rank in the navy and making his fortune. Anne, I think showing a wonderful maturity and realism, doesn’t blame Lady Russell or herself for acting as she did when she broke her engagement to him, and yet, she would not advise a young woman in the same position to act in the same manner. It’s a fantastic, Austen-y realization, followed by that equally lovely self-delusion Austen excels at, as Anne thinks she will be able to meet Captain Wentworth’s sister and brother-in-law when they take the house with no awkwardness. Poor girl.

Chapter 5
So, Admiral Cross (that is Captain Wentworth’s brother-in-law) comes to terms with Sir Walter to move into Kellynch Hall. Sir Walter, Elizabeth, and Anne are all to move to Bath within the month, but Anne’s other sister, Mary, is ill and wants Anne to stay with her and her family just a few miles from Kellynch Hall. I think this exchange sums up how Anne is truly the only decent member of the family:

“I cannot possibly do without Anne,” was Mary’s reasoning; and Elizabeth’s reply was, “Then I am sure Anne had better stay, for nobody will want her in Bath.”

So, Sir Walter, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s companion, Mrs. Clay, depart. Anne stays with Lady Russell for a time before venturing to Uppercross Cottage to stay with Mary, one of Austen’s great “invalids.” In addition to Mary, the reader is introduced to her in-laws, the Musgroves, the table being set incrementally for the story about to unfold in earnest.

Hopefully I’ll be more regular in my live read, especially when I finish up The Count of Monte Cristo. In the meantime, think of Rupert Penry Jones.

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Original from PBS.

~S

 

Line. By. Line.

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Alexandre Dumas, owner of the biggest yacht in France?

For about a month now, J and I have been making our way slowly through The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas for my book club. In general, the prose is excellent and occasionally quite funny, and the characters are compelling, and I think it’s fair to say we’re both enjoying it more than not. And yet, we’re 684 pages into this 1620 page novel and fully understanding for the first time why readers might be tempted to read an abridged version of a book.

For instance, there is a section where the titular Count meets some young men in Rome who become very important to the story. There’s some colorful and exciting incidents in this section, which also serves as a bit of travelogue, but we both felt exhausted every time we reached the end of a chapter in this section. It could easily have been cut in half. But, hey, Dumas was paid by the line, and clearly when he wrote this section he had a boat payment to make.

It’s actually rather annoying. I don’t dislike any particular part of the novel, because the writing is excellent and it is exceptionally readable, but I can’t help feeling as though I would like it more without the bloat. (Example. “But let me tell you in detail about this thing the reader just finished reading!”) Perhaps an abridgment is in order, because I now have under a month to get through 1,000 more pages.

So, that’s why I need to keep this short. So much reading, so little time. But we didn’t want anyone to think we’d forgotten about the blog over the holidays. We should be back to regular posting now, and for the sake of my reading sanity, I hope to return to the Persuasion live read soon. I need something a bit more concise in my life at the moment.

~S

The Persuasion Project: Chapters 2 and 3

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CE Brock illustration for Persuasion from mollands.net.

Today is a big day for us. This afternoon we will be meeting up with our local NaNoWriMo group to have the first planning session of the year, discussing write-ins and other events for the month of November. It will be great to see everyone again, although, now that I think of it, this past year we had more participation in the two Camp NaNo sessions than we often do, so it hasn’t necessarily been a year since we’ve seen most of these lovely folks.

J is busy outlining and planning for November, and so am I, but I have to say it’s going slower than I would like. This year I’m tackling historical fiction for the first time, and the research may be the death of me. Last night I lost about an hour looking for the answer to a question that I eventually realized wasn’t even important. And I have a strong suspicion it won’t be the last time that happens. At any rate, it’s really made me appreciate the writers of historical fiction, and that’s something.

But before we head off to meet our friends, I wanted to take a quick look at two more chapters of Persuasion. In Chapter 2 it is decided with Lady Russell’s help that the Elliot family must “retrench,” a fancy term for becoming responsible grownups when it comes to money. In Chapter 3 it looks like they have a plan—move to Bath, which is cheaper, while letting their home, Kellynch Hall, most likely to a naval officer. We leave the chapter with a fair assurance Admiral Croft will soon be living in Kellynch, and that through his wife, he has some sort of powerful connection to Anne. (Oh what could it be?!)

Here are the quick jottings I made while reading.

Chapter 2
Lady Russell is Emma Woodhouse 20 years later, if not for the chastening experience of meddling with Harriet Smith and the guiding hand of Mr. Knightley. Such a well-meaning snob.

I feel for Anne, and I like her very much, but does she not know her father and sister? Of course they would never agree to complete austerity measures as their retrenchment plan. And they would definitely never stay in their neighborhood in a smaller house. It’s only Chapter 2 and even I know that about Sir Walter and Elizabeth. So, what does this say about Anne? What does it say about Austen as a storyteller?

Lady Russell likes Bath and the idea of the Elliot family moving there. (Which happens to be in direct opposition to Anne’s wishes.) This is surely our first sign that while we were initially disposed to Lady Russell, she is not without fault. Perhaps this is the point of making Anne a little clueless about what her father and sister are willing to do. This way we are not offended when Lady Russell disregards Anne’s wishes on moving to Bath, since we know Anne has been wrong before about the retrenchment.

Chapter 3
Sir Walter’s vanity is hilarious. He doesn’t want to let his house to a sailor because he will have a tan? It’s this sort of thinking that got you into this mess in the first place.

Why does Anne know the naval lists? Who’s who and where they are stationed? Hmm.

“You mean Mr. Wentworth, I suppose?” said Anne. meep

This chapter has been a nice, subtle build in the mystery of who is Anne Elliot. Especially the way the chapter is left, Anne agitated: “A few months more, and he, perhaps, may be walking here.” Who is he? What does he mean to her? (Of course, having read the novel before, I know it’s Captain Wentworth, love of her life. Sigh!)

~S

The Persuasion Project

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Original title page of Persuasion, published posthumously along with Northanger Abbey.

Happy bloggiversary to us! Well, actually, our two year anniversary is this coming Thursday, but we figure it’s best to celebrate now. Rather than do a recap of the past year as we did for our first bloggiversary, we’re using the occasion to launch a new series—a live reread of Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

So, why Persuasion? It not my favorite Jane Austen (that would be Emma) or J’s favorite (that would be Pride and Prejudice), but Persuasion has been on my mind a lot lately as it seems to keep popping up on my social media. Also, it’s a brilliant novel, which receives less love that the two mentioned above, and that’s just not right. Although, I have often found that the people who love this book, really love it.

Now, the idea of this live reread is that one of us will read a chapter (or two? we’ll see) of Persuasion and blog our reaction in as real time as it’s possible to do while reading. Or we’ll do all of our thoughts at the end of a chapter. Whatever strikes as us interesting at the moment. We’ll try not to neglect this reread and post a little something at least once a month, but we don’t want to neglect other topics, especially with NaNoWriMo just around the corner.

And here goes nothing. My thoughts on Chapter 1 of Persuasion.

 
Chapter 1

Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed.

Not what usually comes to mind when thinking about the first sentence of a Jane Austen novel. It doesn’t have the sly humor of Pride and Prejudice or tell us something apt and amusing about our heroine, a la Emma and Northanger Abbey. No, it’s setting up the family at the center of the story, much like Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park, Austen’s two least novels. Yet, it’s the right opening for this book. The tone of Persuasion is more subtle and somber than Austen’s others, and as much as the reader grows to adore Anne Elliot, opening with someone so modest and unassuming would feel exactly wrong.

For several paragraphs, Austen continues on with Sir Walter, and every word makes the reader like him less. It’s a bold way to open a book.

Following the introduction of Sir Walter, we hear about his deceased wife and her best friend, Lady Russell. Then Austen mentions Sir Walter’s oldest, and favorite daughter, Elizabeth, as well as the youngest daughter, Mary. Only then does the reader finally meet Anne. But why should we have met her sooner? “[S]he was only Anne.” If you haven’t read the novel before or know anything about it, you might not even realize this is the introduction to the novel’s heroine.

That is until the next paragraph. Austen makes the reader think highly of the dead mother, so that as soon as her best friend sees a likeness to the deceased in Anne, the reader knows this will be a character we care about. And yet, all we get here is this single paragraph, before Austen sets off on Elizabeth and the Mr. Elliot who shall inherit, since Sir Walter has no son.

The chapter ends with a discussion of the Elliot family’s financial problems, and the reader still learns no more about Anne. But why should we worry about her? She “had been a very pretty girl, but her bloom had vanished early; and as even in its height, her father had found little to admire in her, (so totally different were her delicate features and mild dark eyes from his own), there could be nothing in them, now that she was faded and thin, to excite his esteem.” Actually, how much more does this tell us about Sir Walter than Anne? Come to think of it, given how vain and unlikable he is, do we even believe him? Perhaps Anne has her own sort of loveliness. Whatever the answer, it’s a fascinating way to begin a novel, not even allowing the reader to be certain of what few “facts” we know about the heroine.

~S

The CW of the 19th Century

 

Pearl Maiden Sculpture

Our hero, Marcus, admires the the Pearl-Maiden’s bust.

Um…let me rephrase that….

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.

J

Literary Fireworks

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Happy July 4th a day early, everyone! And to our Canadian friends, Happy Canada Day two days late! Camp NaNo has started up again (there are sessions in both April and July), and if you haven’t signed up and started your writing project, you should go do that right now! It’s good fun, and it’s a good way to keep yourself from getting lazy in the summer. I mean, come on—it’s hot outside. You know you were just going to stay inside in the air conditioning anyway. You might as well write a novel while you’re there.

Thinking of writing and Independence Day (the actual holiday, not the movie), we decided to come up with a list of our top ten favorite and most influential American literary works. These are the novels, nonfiction, short stories, and plays that we read over and over, and use as points of reference in our own discussions of how to write well.

Here they are, alphabetical by author, because it would just be cruel to expect us to rank them:

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Edward Albee
Snap went the dragons! We quote this one all the time. It’s probably one of the most enjoyably quotable plays ever written. It’s our reference point for snappy, well-timed dialog. Also, believe it or not, watching the movie version of this on VHS was our first date.

“Sonny’s Blues” James Baldwin
“For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.” Baldwin’s masterful short story of jazz, addiction, loss, and family hasn’t lost a beat of its meaning. Even while feeling of its era, it has a timeless quality to strive for.

The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald
Poor Gatsby. His name has become a sort of shorthand for a certain kind of striving character who doesn’t realize that he’ll never quite fit in and who, invariably, has to die by the end. Stringer Bell from The Wire, for example, or a certain character from our Quartet who is far more morally admirable, but ultimately just as doomed.

A Farewell to Arms Ernest Hemingway
Love and war have rarely felt so real and visceral. Hemingway’s sparse prose isn’t up everyone’s alley (heck, it isn’t always up ours), but this novel couldn’t be written any other way. Propulsive and emotional, this novel is great for studying pace and structure.

A Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
As we’ve mentioned before, George R. R. Martin is an absolute master of POV. Even if you think a character is irredeemable, once you see the world from his perspective, you understand and sympathize with him.

Long Day’s Journey into Night Eugene O’Neill
Gun to head, if asked to name American’s greatest writer, I (S) would answer Eugene O’Neill. No family is a bigger, more compelling mess than the Tyrones, and while each character is amazing on their own, there are endless lessons to be learned in how people who know each other too well interact. On top of it all, every line sings. “Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people.”

The Name of the Wind Patrick Rothfuss
Prose as beautiful as any literary novel and worldbuilding to stand with the absolute best in fantasy, the tale of Kvothe, in the frame story and the past, is a masterful mix of mystery, humor, and just damned good storytelling. Watching Rothfuss layer the present, history, and myth is precisely the sort of thing we strive for in our most epic books. Is it Day 3 yet?

The Killer Angels Michael Shaara
Reading this is how we learned how to write battle scenes, basically. Also, it’s an excellent lesson in how to create sympathy for characters on both sides of the conflict, and how to create tension and drama even when the reader knows darn well how it’s all going to end.

The Guns of August Barbara Tuchman
Again, as with The Killer Angels, the outcome is never in doubt. But it’s a fascinating, page-turning read about how that outcome came to be. We drew a lot from this book about the start of World War I when we were writing the start of the war in the first book of the Quartet.

House of Mirth Edith Wharton
Is Lily Bart the female precursor to the likes of Jay Gatsby and Clyde Griffiths? We think she is. An American Anna Karenina, her fate seems so depressingly certain from the beginning, yet it’s a challenge to maintain a dry eye at the end. A challenge we happily lose. It’s the sort of focused character study I (S) am trying to tackle right now in my first modern, non-fantasy novel.

Honorable Mentions
In Cold Blood Truman Capote
As readable as any novel, Capote’s nonfiction gem is a lesson in understanding human beings. Or at least trying to.

Death Comes for the Archbishop Willa Cather
Such a simple tale of a man literally with a mission, the writing is just gorgeous. It’s also a brilliant example of great archetypal storytelling, which I (S) would love to try some day.

An American Tragedy Theodore Dreiser
To be blunt, if it weren’t for how the story gets really bogged down late at the trial, this one might have merited more than just an honorable mention. Even with that pacing issue, Clyde Griffiths’s attempts to find a better life, to get a little bit of the American Dream, is a heartbreaking character study about how striving can go terribly wrong.

Billy Budd Herman Melville
When I (J) was in law school, I took a seminar on “Theories of Justice” where we read this book. It’s a fascinating study in character and motivation. Like The Guns of August on a much smaller scale, it shows people being driven toward a tragic end that virtually no one actually wanted. That sort of tragic inevitability is something we’ve tried to show in a number of our books, particularly the third book of the Quartet.

Gone with the Wind Margaret Mitchell
We’ve been rereading this one recently for S’s book club, so it’s been on our minds a lot. It’s hugely problematic for a variety of reasons, but it’s great for showing how to keep a romance going on the page when the couple are apart for most of the book. And it’s a masterclass in how to make a heroine sympathetic, even when she’s often not especially likable.

J and S