I was worried when my latest novel declared itself done at just under 65,000 words. But not surprised.
The apprehension was warranted. My first foray into historical fiction had produced a finished manuscript that was not only far shorter than any of my series of medical mysteries, but the word length of my new novel, I, Claudia A Novel of the Ancient World , contrasted starkly with the 100,000 to 120,000, expected word count of the average historical fiction novel.
The absence of surprise emanated from the need for what I can only term, “delicacy” while writing this book…of the imperative to take great care and not weigh it down.
The word “delicacy” is not a word that comes to mind when considering the qualities that one needs to write well. Indeed, it is a term that is dystonic to self discipline, persistence and the other characteristics of good, even great writers.
Delicacy connotes airiness, gossameriness, fragility; the adjectives describe a confection…a piece of exquisite pastry. But it is the only word that fits this sense I knew to be crucial in writing a new story of Pontius Pilate, a man many people and institutions believe they know and his wife Claudia Procula, the woman no one knows.
All writers know the process of conceiving and then writing a new novel well. More accurately, perhaps we should say the phases of putting a new book together feel like well traveled routes.
- The initial burst of excitement when the ideas begin to embrace, excite and provoke… that irresistible combination of exhilaration and terror of the new creation.
- The immersion in the details of the esoteric subject matter that is wholly alien to our own experience. Natural curiosity provides plenty of fuel to keep us studying what others have said.
- But then comes the time to stop reading what others have written. And to give license to these new places, cultures, and persons that are slowly taking shape in our imagination. Let them shrug off their cloaks and free themselves.
- Who is he? Or she?
- How did she get to this place?
- And the terror takes over.
Although the words may differ along along with the sequence, these steps of putting together a work of fiction that others will find sufficiently interesting enough to invest time and money reading are more or less universal. Certainly, for each of my earlier novels, this has been true.
Once I reached the point of knowing who my characters were not, (the time we know to stop reading what others said about them,) this sense of delicacy began to show up. Almost a voice cautioning, “Be careful here.” “Not too much…” And then when the story declared itself done at far too few words, I did battle with myself for a couple of days. Until I accepted and trusted the counsel of that inner voice we all come to know.
By now, you may be thinking something along the lines of this: “Good writers know that only a minuscule percent of the information learned during research will end up in the finished book…” Or this: “Long and complicated discourses about places or people tangential to the story is a red flag of the amateur author.”
And you would be correct. In fact, if you will forgive an aside on that point, my editor’s comments about a passage in the then unpublished manuscript, Malthus Revisited, explaining why agouti mice are used in bench science still makes me laugh. My laborious explanation of the agouti gene distinguishing the mouse evoked something like, “I have read this section three times, very carefully. It is obtuse, unnecessary and boring… cut this whole section.” She was right, of course. Our final compromise was close to a full page down to three sentences. And the book is far better for it and other cuts of details fascinating only to me.
But delicacy is not merely brevity. Or even clarity, because there are sections in I, Claudia that are ambiguous, intentionally so. About three-quarters of the way through the story, I was able to put my feelings into words in an article on my website. One I called, “Revisiting the Three Rules for Writing A Novel.”
The “rules” I referred to referred to Somerset Maugham’s wonderful quip: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”