Ambit Creative

Adele Annesi

Adele Annesi is an award-winning editor and writer for global Web content and print publications. She worked as a development editor for Scholastic Publishing, and is a fiction and nonfiction book editor, specializing in nonfiction and memoir. As a press correspondent and columnist, Adele writes for newspapers, magazines, blogs and literary journals. Her stories have appeared in The Circle, The Fairfield Review, Hotmetalpress, Miranda Literary Magazine,,The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Trillium, the Italian-American literary journal Pyramid and an anthology for Fairfield University. She won Poetic Voices of America's editor's choice award, and presents the editing and writing workshops for libraries and other venues. She is a nominated member of Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in America and Who's Who in American Women. She's also working on a new novel. Visit her website at: Adele Annesi, Facebook, LinkedIn, Redroom, Twitter, and Word For Words.

Is This for Real? A Study in Verisimilitude

Sometimes you wonder whether a novel or short story is fiction or whether it really happened. That’s success—when you don’t see the brush strokes, just the portrait, scene, or landscape. This end result often happens through verisimilitude.

Verisimilitude means “like the truth.” The adjective is verisimilis and means “having the appearance of truth,” or “probable.” In art or literature it means “depicting realism.” All of these concepts are important to consider in creating stories that feel real, regardless of genre.

What reignited my interest in verisimilitude as a writer’s/editor’s tool of the trade was hearing the “The Mappist” by essayist, author, and short-story writer Barry Lopez on the radio program Selected Shorts. The story seemed so real that I thought Shorts had detoured from its usual fiction fare to offer an essay. Here’s why the story seemed real, and how you can edit your work toward that goal.

In “The Mappist,” the main character is a mapmaker. Lopez has worked as a landscape photographer and has traveled extensively in remote areas so he knows his subject matter. He’s also an essayist. But it would be easy for someone with this much knowledge to overwrite, including too much detail or the wrong kind. It would have been just as easy to have written a sterile piece that sounds like a documentary, and not an interesting one. Lopez does none of this.

Instead, the mappist sounds like that brilliant, reclusive eccentric who lives on the outskirts of your town, or any town. One reason he seems familiar is that he’s quirky, as all of us are, but with the right quirks. As a mapmaker, he’s in a conventional field, yet this mapmaker is an unconventional guy with an unexpected personal history. The juxtaposition of an atypical character against a traditional trade creates the kind of contrast you’d see in a Rembrandt, where light and darkness become more vivid and differentiated because they’re side-by-side.

Another reason “The Mappist” seemed “true” is its supporting detail—the supporting cast of characters, from the interested devotee who visits the mappist to other details. One tidbit that got my attention was the mention of a book called The City of Geraniums. That detail—the existence of the book and its description—were so well-placed and well-rendered that I did an Internet search for the title. I never found it. It may be out there somewhere, but the point is that Lopez created such a realistic scene, in setting and dialogue, because he knew which details to include and how much.

Knowing what to include and how deep to go are both key, especially in stories like this, where the appearance of truth is used to present certain philosophical points for readers to consider. In this case, “The Mappist” was one of two pieces Selected Shorts chose on the concept of mapping and seeking. The effect was successful, and one blog post noted, as I did, the “mysterious significance” of the details.

But how do you know which details to include in your writing and how extensively to depict them? The short answer: Include only what advances the plot and illumines the characters, especially the protagonist, preferably in a way that does both at once, especially for short pieces. Two editing principles help achieve this—eliminate all unnecessary words, and revise what remains to render the scene with precision.

These principles go back to what we called the six Rs of editing—research, revise, read, rewrite, reconstruct, and reread. If you lack the experience to match the depth your story needs, begin with research, noting the best resources. If you frontload your story with lots of detail, you’ll need to revise to cut anything that bogs it down. Then read what you’ve written, and rewrite anything that’s vague. Consider reconstructing your story to better advance the plot. Then put the story or section aside for at least a week before going back to reread it.

Repeat these steps as needed, in the order that works best for you. They’ll help you practice what John Gardner calls the “lifeblood of fiction.”

As a takeaway, verisimilitude is fiction’s lifeblood because readers want relationship—to a story, a place, a person. They seek connection, whether to something they recognize or something that attracts them because it’s strange. Even if yours is a world of your creation, readers want something that feels real, seems true, or is probable. They want this because to let you in and trust you, the writer, they need a reason to invest time and emotional energy intaking a journey you’ve created with traveling companions you’ve provided.

Editing Tip: Select a scene you’re working on and consider how to revise it so that it better advances the plot and illumines the characters at the same time. Rewrite the section accordingly, and see whether you’ve achieved the goal.

For questions or information, visit me on Red Room, Twitter or Word for Words, or at my Web site, Adele Annesi.