Somewhere Between Realistic and Noteworthy


I edit many books throughout a given month. Some are from established publishers, and some are manuscripts from author hopefuls. Some are rather enjoyable and I can foresee the author making a good career out of writing. And others? Not so much.

What’s the difference between the good and the bad?

What separates the talent from the terrible?

One word: Limitations.

Both in fiction and nonfiction I find people trying to break the boundaries of their genres or subject matter.

When you’re writing fiction, you’ve absolutely got to know your plot and your story.

Nothing irritates me more as an editor when I read pages and pages of material that has nothing whatsoever to do with the story. No one wants to read a page an a half of two people talking about dinner plans. Just skip that and get the couple to dinner already.

When writing, you can safely skip any ordinary event that happens in real life. Your readers will get that your characters have to go potty a couple times a day; you don’t need to remind us.

Some writers, it seems, just want to up their word-count.

One of the greatest movies ever made is only 81 minutes long. No one would want a single frame added to it, because it’s perfect just the way it is. (Can you guess what movie I’m talking about?)

If the writer isn’t breaking the limits of mundane and plot-driven scenes, then their breaking the limits of natural order. 

Here’s an example.

Ever heard of the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind?

It’s okay if you haven’t. To really appreciate this story, you must know that I am a Nazi when it comes to finishing books. If I start a book, no matter how terrible it is, no matter how long, or how dull, I absolutely must finish it even if we were on the brink of the apocalypse.

I actually suffered through all of Swiss Family Robinson – that’s how dedicated I am.

So back to the Sword of Truth books. These are fantasy books that are over a thousand pages. I read the first one, and enjoyed it enough to pick up the second one.

But the rules of nature and reality were being broken left and right. I’m not talking reality was compromised because no one can find a secret world in a wardrobe, or it’s impossible to fly, or other worlds don’t exist. Those kinds of rules are okay to break because there really could be a secret world in your closet, and with the right amount of pixie dust and happy thoughts, you really can fly (can anyone point me to a happy thought, please? Just kidding, honey).

But when the main character is being tortured beyond endurance for over 400 pages and he’s still able to sword fight just because the author says so, it really makes it difficult to suspend disbelief.

So, in this thousand-plus page book, this book-completing Nazi closed it, and set it down for good – at page 989! I couldn’t take any more of it. I couldn’t read one more sentence about how Richard screamed at the top of his lungs in pain when in reality, he should have been dead by page 472.

I read it many years ago, and from what I can remember, there was nothing magical or fantastical that was keeping him alive, except maybe his love for the heroine (the girl, not the drug… or maybe he was on heroin…).

At any rate, embrace the laws of nature and use them to propel suspense in your stories. Don’t allow your characters to live just because you want them to. If someone gets decapitated by a semi, start writing that character’s obituary.

Know your genre and stick with it.

Know the story and stick with it.

Know what’s real and not real, then start breaking the rules. But please, keep it realistic, no matter how fantastical it is, but not so realistic that I feel like I’m reading a minute-by-minute account about my own mundane non-eventful Monday.

Does that make sense?

Need an editor? Hire me.

About Andrew Toy
Writer when I'm not being a husband or dad. So mostly just a husband and dad.

39 Responses to Somewhere Between Realistic and Noteworthy

  1. bwcarey says:

    great humour, the less we understand the more educated we become, amen

  2. hemmingplay says:

    Good article, good advice. To the academic murderers of clear communication I think you have to add business writing. Most of it is Orwellian, when it’s not just unintelligible. From Wikipedia:

    At the end of the day[1]
    Break through the clutter[2]
    Bring to the table[3]
    Calibrate Expectations
    Clear goal[4]
    Disruptive innovation[5]
    Exit strategy[7]
    Functional training
    Face time[7]
    Generation X[1]
    Grow[10] – as in “grow the business”.
    Holistic Approach
    Impact[10] – instead of effect as a noun
    Leverage[2] – used as verb to mean magnify, multiply, augment, or increase.
    Moving forward[11]
    On the runway[1]
    Organic growth[2]
    Outside the box[1][10]
    Paradigm shift[2][13]
    Push the envelope
    Reach out[14][15] – as in “reach out to him for support”.
    Sea change (transformation)[2]
    Survival strategy[1]

  3. farrahdomid says:

    This is so perfect. I think you’re absolutely right because as a writer, I sometimes add too much simply because I want readers to totally understand what I’m thinking or what’s happening in the story. I’ve written stories that totally embarrassed me because they were so awful. I really enjoyed this post 🙂

  4. farrahdomid says:

    Also, if I may ask, what did you major in in college? I’d also like to be an editor, amongst many other things, to keep a roof over my head. I’m majoring in journalism and often wonder if I’m in the right direction.

  5. As a fellow editor, I agree with your assessment. Sometimes, authors get carried away with their dialogue with nary a description for pages. It becomes a play rather than a novel. I tell my writers: “Show, don’t tell” when the narration drones on with no action. Editing gives me a lot of pleasure.

  6. alibey says:

    thx for the follow… even though I just post whatever comes to mind, and rarely stick to 1 genre of writing, unless that be sarcastic! 😉 cheers.

  7. I love this advice. Especially the part about skipping common day stuff that isn’t relevant to the story. I read a book that described deboning a chicken in detail for four pages.

    Not important, not relevant.. just some stuff they added in for no real reason. I had to stop reading.

  8. BTW07 says:

    Awesome post! 🙂 I can’t speak for writing fiction, but I think limitations can be made with writing non-fiction too. When I wrote academic papers, mostly about film, length was often critical since we had to lay out our arguments, cite and quote sources, refer to history, etc. Sometimes, it was easier for me to write long papers, especially when it was a topic I liked discussing and analyzing. At the same time, I also struggled with my own limits. Should I explain the whole plot to make my point clear? Should I discuss an entire scene in detail so my argument is persuasive? Most of the time, the more I elaborated, the better. Yet, one of the things I’m learning now is how to find limits within this type of writing, especially when it comes to blogging.

    As to the movie that runs 81 minutes, are you referring to “Run Lola Run?” Amazing film!

  9. Michelle Mueller says:

    Great post! Redundant details are the easiest way to lose my interest in a story. Sometimes I think authors plug this information in just to show they know the information. It’s something that I try to look for when editing my own work. Unlike you, I will quit reading a book halfway through if it’s causing me any sort of mental pain. I’ve avoided reading Terry Goodkind’s work for similar reasons. Glad to know my unwillingness to read his novels is not unfounded.

    • Me, too! I thought I was crazy or alone because people still seem to read his books. He’s a good author, to be sure, and even a good story teller. He just needs work on the details.

  10. LUGS says:

    thank you for the advice. i too tend to ‘beat around the bush’ when narrating my story, i end up deleting paragraphs and still end up getting to my point 🙂

  11. Benmo says:

    I, too, am a book nazi, but also a movie nazi. I MUST finish the story. If it’s bad, I don’t want to ever read it or see it again. I must know the ending. Your reference to the 81-minute movie is driving me nuts. It’s not THE PRINCESS BRIDE… that movie was at least 90 miinutes. Which movie????

  12. Geraint Isitt says:

    Great advice. Thanks for sharing. My latest project is a supernatural horror but I’m taking every precaution to have enough reality in it to make events believable. One character might be able to do certain things, but the school teacher won’t be able to do them.
    I would have guessed the Princess Bride as well as that is one of my all time favourite movies but that came out in 1987. Hmmm, 1995, huh. The Usual Suspects???? Genius film. Great acting from a great cast. And perfectly cast as well.

  13. Lehua says:

    Toy Story.

    And when I’m ready, I just might take you up on that last statement. 🙂

  14. The Dreamer says:

    Hello! Thanks for following my Blog “For Us Dreamers”. I really appreciate your support!

  15. I hear you about that series! I also try my darnedest to finish books and series but I gave up on that one after book 3. I read a lot of romance and fantasy and I hate it when people break the rules of their OWN world building. Great article:)

  16. happilycurious says:

    Reblogged this on Happily Curious.

  17. marcher88 says:

    Thank you for visiting and following my blog! I look forward to reading more of yours 🙂

  18. lly1205 says:

    I read the first book of Sword of Truth and stopped there – I agree wholeheartedly! Can I open a can of worms and ask what you think of Game of Thrones?

    And thanks for visiting my blog!


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