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Making Fiction Feel Real

by Caroline Hiley, editor

In fiction, story trumps all—which explains why so many weakly written novels get published and even win awards.

This creates a dilemma for editors. Who needs us if readers don’t demand excellence in writing? If story is all that truly matters, why should authors bother paying us professional wages, or hiring us at all?

Because even great stories need to be coherent and plausible. While some readers will ignore typos and clunky prose if their attention is riveted on plot, characters, and message, for many readers a single technical blooper can disrupt the suspension of disbelief they need to embrace a fictional world.

Once an author has blundered, readers may not regain their trust in the author’s competence. Some readers will sigh or swear and toss a book over their shoulder. Others will go further, entertaining their friends with the honkers they come across—creating the kind of word-of-mouth promotion authors and publishers fear. Trolls help it along by ridiculing books and authors in public reviews. Few if any editors can resist sharing howlers with their colleagues. No author wants this sort of reaction to their work!

Ditto for editors, who might get blamed for letting a blooper get through. Therefore, it serves everyone’s interests (except the trolls’) to be alert for verisimilitude issues while editing a novel. According to Merriam-Webster, verisimilitude means “the quality of seeming real”; the keyword being “seeming.” What may seem fine to me might scream at another reader. How’s an editor to know what they don’t know, to prevent an otherwise well-written and well-vetted book from going out the door containing bloopers?

It may not be possible. Nobody can know everything. Perhaps if twenty subject-matter experts and editors worked over every novel to catch every possible credibility blip, one might come out perfect. But it’s a rare book these days that gets such scrutiny, and few indie authors can afford what that scrutiny would cost. So authors and editors alike must be satisfied with what we can reasonably expect to catch, and to forgive an occasional escapee.

In my work channel, bloopers tend to cluster in certain subjects. I repeatedly see laugh-out-loud impossibilities involving vehicles, aircraft, firearms, horses, nature, and cigarettes. They usually occur in dramatic scenes inspired by an author’s exposure to media rather than direct experience. Writers who are experienced in these realms tend to get the details right.

A lot of historical fiction authors get their facts straight, too, because of their keen interest in their subject (compared to writers who use a historical era like a painted backdrop on a stage). Historical fiction authors might also think they remember everything they’ve researched and not double check. Likewise, young authors of contemporary fiction sometimes forget that computers and smartphones have not always existed. Science fiction and fantasy authors may think they can escape verisimilitude problems by inventing a parallel world or setting a story on another planet, or in another time.

But  Magic has rules, just as science does, and other worlds have environments and cultures with their own conditions. Any character or event that doesn’t work within those strictures will set bells a-ringing and flags a-waving the same way an anomaly does on Earth.

It helps to be widely read in the genre one is writing or editing. Then again, no one knows who will read a book, despite authors’ and publishers’ best efforts to get it to the desired audience. So any editor is qualified to tackle any fictional subject as long as they understand the basics of storytelling and plausibility.

Having specialized knowledge does incline one toward spotting subtle irregularities. For example, I spent years involved in autosports so am prone to finding car bloopers. I know that in racing, to be allowed on a course at even the most casual event, drivers are either encouraged or required to wear natural fibers instead of synthetic ones because of flammability. (Beyond a certain point, specialized garments and gear are mandatory.) I never expected to encounter this fact in any book that wasn’t about racing.

But a related blooper showed up in an urban mystery. During a hand-to-hand fight between a good guy and bad guy, the baddie pulled a cigarette lighter from his pocket (while still grappling—tricky enough), flicked it once, and set the hero’s coat on fire. Full flare-up in seconds that ended the fight and let the bad guy escape.

Trouble was, the author had previously established that the hero’s jacket was pure wool. Yes, wool will ignite, but it would not turn the guy wearing it into an instant candle. Assuming the fiber caught at all during the circumstances, it would have first smoldered and stunk, giving the hero plenty of time to react in ways more believable than what was presented.

This scene was accepted by at least one content editor at a major publishing house. Since it was easy to fix, I queried the detail and moved on. The book was otherwise technically flawless as far as I could tell. But I always wonder what I don’t see that other people will notice, simply because I don’t know everything.

Today, thanks to the Internet, there’s no excuse for not fact-checking something that catches one’s attention. Nine times out of ten, the author will have it right. That tenth time, however, might be the one that sinks a book. “When in doubt, check” is always the right plan.

Sharp-eyed readers of this article will note that I’ve used absolute terms like no one and nobody. I felt them safe because I couldn’t think of likely exceptions. But absolutes can signal a blooper coming. During the zeal of creativity, authors commonly draw from their own frame of reference and will assume that others share it. An editor’s job is to challenge this where appropriate, because of the above: No one knows who will read a book. The audience might include one or more exceptions who will snort and roll their eyes and walk away. What author or editor wants to risk that?

Sometimes it works in reverse. In one of my own novels, I researched fastidiously yet got caught out on numerous points by beta readers. I dutifully revised except where they declared, “Nobody would do that!” and “That would never happen!”

Oh yeah? The scenes in question were ones I had personally lived through and fictionalized for the story. In fact, the experiences had been so profound I was inspired to write a book around them!

The true problem was I had failed to convey them realistically enough for readers to buy in. The lesson here is that a seeming impossibility or absurdity may not be one, and scenarios that either strike an editor as wrong or include absolute language justify a query explaining why the detail feels off, and suggesting ways to clarify. What appears to be a blooper may only be unclear writing.

There’s probably no way to quantify the effects of technical bloopers on a novel’s fate in the marketplace. Still, part of an editor’s job is to prevent author embarrassment and reader frustration. A novel’s purpose is to share the author’s vision with others in a meaningful way, be it for enlightenment or entertainment. Championing verisimilitude helps that happen, and editors help make a story seem real and true—and worth the investment readers make to be transported.

This article is drawn from the essay “Verisimilitude,” which appeared on An American Editor.

Caroline’s focus in all editing is consistency, accuracy, and clarity, so that authors can successfully connect with their readers.

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