An American Editor

June 1, 2015

Thinking Fiction: Verisimilitude

 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 dcma@vermontel.com 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.

May 12, 2010

Judging Quality in the Internet Age

As a reader of An American Editor, you know that one of my concerns is what will happen if no one is willing to pay for news (see Is Rupert Right? Newspapers & the Paywall). Compounding my anxiety over this issue is a recent The Economist article, The Rise of Content Farms: Emperors and Beggars, which notes that “[n]ewspaper articles are expensive to produce but usually cost nothing to read online and do not command high advertising rates, since there is almost unlimited inventory.” The article goes on to discuss content farms like Demand Media and Associated Content, which use software to figure out what Internet users are interested in and how much advertising revenue a particular topic can support.

These content providers then send the results to freelance writers who are paid as little as $5 to write an article, which then is published on various websites, including that of USA Today. As The Economist notes, “[t]he problem with content farms is that they swamp the Internet with mediocre material. To earn a decent living, freelancers have to work at a breakneck pace, which has an obvious impact on quality.” One supporter of content farming is Ben Elowitz, CEO of Wetpaint.

In his article at paidContent.org, “Traditional Ways Of Judging ‘Quality’ In Published Content Are Now Useless”, Elowitz identifies 4 criteria of “old media” quality — credential (i.e., reputation of the media), correctness (i.e., fact verification), objectivity (i.e., not pushing a particular agenda), and craftsmanship (i.e., in-depth reporting) — and then relates how they are irrelevant in the Internet Age because:

The audience doesn’t care where the content comes from as long as it meets their needs. Decisions of what content is trustworthy are made by referral endorsements from our friends and colleagues on the social networks, and by the algorithms of search that help weigh authority vs. relevance. In the abundant world of content, consumers know to apply their own sniff tests — and with myriad sources, they develop their own loyalties and reputations. The brand’s stamp isn’t the point anymore — the consumer’s nose is.

He has it right that the audience doesn’t care about the source of the content so long as the content meets the audience’s need, but that is nothing to boast about. That the audience determines whether something is trustworthy is not something to praise but something to worry about, and to worry about greatly.

Essentially, content farmers and supporters leave the question of truth/fact to each reader — either the reader believes or the reader doesn’t. If a favored website repeatedly writes that the Earth is flat and 10 million people visit that website and agree, then, according to Elowitz’s standard, it must be true or that website wouldn’t have 10 million visitors. The reasoning isn’t sound — either the Earth is flat or it is round, regardless of what 10 million persons believe. Fact by definition is not belief, it is actual being or what we used to call truth.

There is a lot of distance between ease of access, which the Internet provides, and truth/fact, which neither the Internet nor mass belief can provide. This is and has been my problem with the current view of some in the Internet Age that news sources that want to go behind paywalls can be ignored because information is so readily available free. There is rarely a discussion of the credibility of the free information or how high factual standards will be maintained in the age of free.

How many Photoshopped images have you seen; if a photograph is so easily faked, why should we assume that a news story isn’t also faked? How many times have you read a press release from a repressive government that complaints of police brutality are untrue, that no one is starving in Darfur, that the Iranian elections weren’t rigged, that North Korea is paradise on Earth? And have we so quickly forgotten the few instances when “old media” found reporters faking news and the outrage it caused because of the “old media’s” credibility? Have we forgotten how quickly sound bites that were factually false (e.g., “death panels”) became believed by millions because of the viral reporting of the “new media”?

Elowitz goes on to say:

Without a staff of old-school journalists, Gawker has managed to rack up over 10 million visitors a month who come because the rumors and snark meet their definition of quality — without any of the institutional qualities of old media.

The flaw is the equating of numbers of readers with quality. The rumor that Ben Elowitz is a robot may make interesting reading but doesn’t equate with quality (or necessarily reality), and because a million people read that rumor doesn’t make the source trustworthy, the rumor true, or do away with the need for “old media” quality.

Somewhere, somehow, we all need a fact baseline against which to judge the quality of website — and government — pronouncements. In past generations, that fact baseline was provided by “old media”; in the Internet Age, if the content farmers are correct, there is no provider of that baseline — there are simply websites that agree with me and websites that disagree with me, no matter how far-fetched or absurd my beliefs are.

Elowitz and the content farmers tackle the problem from the economic perspective — “old media” qualities are bad because they are unprofitable, and therefore irrelevant, in the Internet Age. But that skirts the fundamental question of whether the only thing that matters in any decision-making process is profitability. It also ignores how businesses that are profitable make their daily business decisions; don’t they rely on truths rather than mass opinion? Additionally, if it is OK for the masses to be self-delusional, can we expect anything different from those who govern us?

We went to war in Iraq because “old media” qualities were ignored and the “new media” relevancy prevailed (remember the rumors of weapons of mass destruction?). Instead of applying the “old media” qualities of objectivity and correctness and being sure that the source of the rumor met “old media” credential standards, the “new media” qualities were used. How many more Iraqs must we suffer before we recognize that “old media” standards should be applied to the “new media” as well?

“Old media” standards aren’t irrelevant in the “new media”; rather, they are expensive and difficult to implement and thus the “new media” prefers to take the easy way out. The “new media” also tends to be more concerned with dollars than with accuracy or truth, and happily sacrifices accuracy and truth on the altar of greed — not caring about the subsequent consequences.

The danger of content farmers and of their supporters, like Elowitz, is that they believe there is wisdom in sheer numbers and that everything boils down to a popularity contest. Such thinking and believing doesn’t bode well for the future of civilization. With such reasoning, it won’t be long before we truly do revert back to the standards of the Dark Ages. In this regard, Rupert Murdoch is right and the Elowitzes of the world are wrong.

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: