An American Editor

June 1, 2015

Thinking Fiction: Verisimilitude


by Carolyn Haley

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 good stories need to come across coherently and plausibly. While many readers will ignore typos and clunky prose if their attention is riveted on plot, characters, and message, 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 will sigh or swear and toss a book over their shoulder. Others will go further, entertaining their friends with the errors 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 author mistakes with their colleagues. Surely no author wants this sort of reaction to his 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’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., 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. So we must be satisfied with what we can reasonably expect to catch, and 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 get the details right.

A lot of historical fiction authors get their facts straight, too, because of their keen interest in their subject (as compared to writers who use a historical era like a painted backdrop on a stage). They might also think they remember everything they’ve researched and not double check. Likewise, young authors 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 all stories must be credible unto themselves. A fictional world’s magic has its own rules, just as science does on our planet, and other universes have environments and cultures with unique conditions. Any character or event that doesn’t work within those strictures will trigger skepticism the same way an anomaly does on Earth.

It helps to be widely read in the genre one is editing. However, category-specific expertise is not required, because no one knows who will read a book. Despite authors’ and publishers’ best efforts to get a novel to their desired audience, someone — or many someones — outside that group will likely read it. The best editorial qualification, therefore, is an understanding of storytelling technique, along with a broad enough education to sense irregularities.

Having specialized knowledge does incline one toward spotting subtle errors, though. For example, I spent years involved in club-level autosports. So I happen to know that to be allowed on a race course at even the most casual event, drivers are either encouraged or required to wear natural instead of synthetic fibers 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 cop and a bad guy, the baddie pulled a cigarette lighter from his pocket (while still grappling — tricky enough), flicked it once, and set the cop’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 cop’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 cop 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 better.

Today, thanks to the Internet, there’s no excuse for not fact-checking something that catches one’s attention. Nine times out of ten (except in the sloppiest manuscripts), 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 essay will note that I’ve used absolute terms like no one and nobody. I felt them safe because I couldn’t think of obvious 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. Editors need to think like those exceptions in order to spot potential or actual bloopers that might bump readers out of a story.

Sometimes it works in reverse. In one of my own novels, I researched carefully yet got caught out on numerous points by beta readers. I dutifully revised except where they stated, “Nobody would do that!” and “That would never happen!” Perhaps not in their experience, but here the author could support an exception. I had personally lived through the scenes in question and fictionalized them 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 the scenes realistically enough for readers to buy in. The lesson here for editors is that an impossibility or absurdity may not be one, and scenarios that either strike you as wrong or include absolute language justify a query explaining why the detail feels off, and perhaps 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, editors can gain value in authors’ and readers’ eyes by removing embarrassment and frustration from the equation. A novel’s purpose is to share someone’s vision with others in a meaningful way, be it for enlightenment or entertainment. Championing verisimilitude helps that happen, and editors are well placed to help make a story seem real and true — and worth the dollars that readers shell out to be transported.

Carolyn Haley lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.


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