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 18, 2012

Worth Noting: Daisy’s War by Shayne Parkinson

I, my wife, and most people who have read the Promises to Keep quartet of ebooks are big fans of indie author Shayne Parkinson. For those of you unfamiliar with the quartet, I reviewed the books 2 years ago in On Books: The Promises to Keep Quartet and again in On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept, and have been waiting for the next book in the series to arrive. My wife and I are still recommending these books to anyone who asks for an excellent read.

In the past week or so, we were wondering if Shayne Parkinson had finally released the next volume in the series. We hadn’t heard anything and it hadn’t crossed my mind to check Smashwords, when, ‘lo and behold, I received an e-mail from Shayne advising me that Daisy’s War, the latest book in the series has been published and is now available at Smashwords.

I immediately went to Smashwords and downloaded the fifth book in the series. I began reading it within hours. I expected Daisy’s War to be of the same exceedingly high quality as the first four books in the series (all 5 or 5+ stars) and am not disappointed. I couldn’t put the book down and so finished it within a couple of days.

Daisy’s War picks up where the series left off, the early decades of the 20th century. Here is the description from Smashwords:

In 1914, Daisy lives in the quiet New Zealand valley where her family has farmed for generations. Her world seems a warm and safe one. But the Great War is casting its long shadow over New Zealand. Daisy watches in growing fear as more and more of the men leave to fight in Europe, and the War strikes ever closer to the heart of her family.

The brief description doesn’t do justice to the book. The book is a reflection on World War I and its impact on New Zealand, a far-flung outpost of the British Empire, as seen through the eyes of a child who almost understands the whats and whys of war but can’t quite grasp them. Daisy’s dreams take a back seat to the impact of World War I on her extended family and how the need for soldiers ultimately leads to conscription, beginning with single young men but rapidly moving to include married men with children, including Daisy’s father.

The story seems incomplete. We tangentially are given glimpses into the war’s effect on the adults. Because of how the prior books were written, I think Daisy’s War should have run with both major and minor story lines, the major being the tale we are given and the minor a more in-depth look at the effect on the adults. For example, Daisy’s Uncle Alf returns from the battlefields a changed man. We are briefly given a glimpse into why and we know that the children want to avoid him, but we are not given more insight into the change in family dynamics. Perhaps this broader look at intra- and interfamily dynamics is a tale that will be picked up in the next book.

Regardless, this is the outstanding book that I had been waiting for. The only thing missing from the book is an explanation of the character relationships at the beginning, before the Prologue, that a reader can either review to refresh one’s memory or ignore. It has been 2 years since I last read this series and at first it was difficult to figure out who the characters are and their relationships to each other. The first book in the series begins with Amy’s story and the child she had out of wedlock that she had to give up for adoption. In Daisy’s War, we read, for example, of “Aunt Sarah” and “Granny,” and it took me some time to recall that these are the out-of-wedlock daughter and Amy, respectively. Other relationships also took some time but did come back. For example, who was Grandma (as opposed to Granny)?

This is a gripe I have with many authors who write continuing series. It is not so bad when in every book in a series the characters remain the same, just the circumstances change. But in a series like this where there is a constant generational change and an expansion of the families and a long time between books, it should not be assumed that readers will remember what happened in a book that was released more than 2 years ago or recall who married whom and begat whom who themselves went on to marry and beget. In that interim, I have read thousands of manuscript pages for work and hundreds of books for pleasure; some refreshing is necessary.

In this case, the lack of the information poses another problem: The book doesn’t work well as a standalone book. You need to have read the previous books in the series to understand the importance of what is happening. Although that is good from a series sense, it is bad from the reader sense. A reader who picks up this book first, not having read the previous entries in the series, will not walk away singing the high praises the books deserve. Instead, they will be disappointed because much of the impact of book relies on knowing the relationships.

Regardless, as with the first four books in the series, Daisy’s War is exceptionally well-written. If you have read and enjoyed the first books in the series, then this is a must read for you. The book is reasonably priced at $2.99 and is clearly a 5-star read.

If you haven’t read Shayne Parkinson’s books, begin with Sentence of Marriage, the first in the series, which is free at Smashwords. If you  like historical fiction and/or family sagas, you are likely to find this a captivating series.

September 19, 2011

On Books: David Crookes — More Down Under

As I have mentioned innumerable times, I usually read indie ebooks that I am able to obtain for free. I find it difficult to consider spending money (or more than a nominal sum) on an author with whom I have no familiarity.

In the “olden” days, I never thought twice about buying a book from an unknown author. The reasons why are that I found the book either by seeing it in a local bookstore or through a trusted book review, and because publishers really took their gatekeeper responsibilities to heart — I didn’t have to take a shot in the dark, so to speak. The Internet has brought about all sorts of changes. Now I’m simply overwhelmed by the sheer volume of books available and I lack the patience to read a sample online.

The result of the failure of the gatekeeper system and the rise of the indie author is that I am disinclined to spend money on an unknown author. Consequently, most of the books in my to-be-read pile are freebies.

A couple of weeks ago, I opened a freebie I had downloaded a while ago, Blackbird, by David Crookes. This is historical fiction based on a true story out of Australia’s history. Blackbird was my introduction to David Crookes.

In the beginning, Australia relied on slavery. Slavers would roam the islands around Australia and capture blacks to work as slaves. The process was called “blackbirding,” thus the title of the book. Blackbird is the story of one slave and her relationship with Ben Luk, a half-breed of Chinese and white mixture.

After reading Blackbird, which I found to be outstanding, I found another ebook in my TBR pile by Crookes titled Redcoat. It is the story of a British soldier who causes a superior officer to become a paraplegic and the officer’s subsequent hunt for the soldier for revenge. Once again, I was reading a book that I couldn’t put down.

The result of reading these two ebooks was that I wanted to read more of Crookes’ work, so I purchased the other available titles: Borderline; Children of the Sun; Someday Soon; The Light Horseman’s Daughter; and Great Spirit Valley. Of these, I have read The Light Horseman’s Daughter, which occurs during the Depression and is the story of a woman’s efforts to save both herself and her family, and Someday Soon, which takes place during World War II and focuses on people thrown together as a result of Japanese bombing of Darwin, Australia.

(I’ve taken a temporary hiatus from Crookes’ books because the new David Weber book, How Firm a Foundation (Safehold Series #5), which I have long been waiting for, was released. After I finish it, I will return to Crookes’ books.)

After finishing Blackbird, I suggested to my wife that she read the book, thinking she would like it, just as we both liked Shayne Parkinson’s historical novels (see On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept and the articles cited in it). Yesterday, my wife complained that Blackbird kept her reading until 2 a.m. because she can’t put the book down.

So that’s all the good news about Crookes’ ebooks. The bad news is that his books are in need of a proofreader and/or a copyeditor. It becomes tiresome, for example, to read “your” when the author means “you are” or “you’re.” The errors in the books are relatively minor and what is meant is easily grasped, but they are annoying just the same and shouldn’t exist in books for which the author is charging $3.99.

Even with these tiresome errors, I find Crookes’ books very difficult to put aside. He is a natural storyteller; even my wife has remarked on that. His writing is definitely 5 star and worth the price. Crookes can join that pantheon of great indie Down Under writers (with Down Under being inclusive of both Australia and New Zealand), which for this blog includes Shayne Parkinson, Vicki Tyley (see On Books: Murder Down Under), and now David Crookes.

As of this writing, Redcoat is available free from Smashwords. Give it a try. Although I think it is a 5-star book, it isn’t quite as good as Blackbird, but it will give you a good introduction to David Crookes.

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