Even the most accurate and interesting details, however, will be undermined if your prose itself lacks credibility. "Credibility" in this context is not easy to define. It's related to trust: Credible prose convinces the reader that the writer can handle the English language. He can be trusted. That sense of trust helps the reader suspend disbelief and enter into the world of the story. If this guy can write prose this smooth, goes the articulated-or-not reasoning, it's worth seeingwhether he can also tell a good story, or raise interesting questions, or make me think and feel something beyond my usual experiences. I'll read on.
Credible prose is not, by itself, enough to make a story succeed; every editor sees plenty of manuscripts that are written smoothly but are dull, or confusing, or cliched, or implausible. The lack of credible prose, however, can be fatal. I know of one young novelist whose manuscript was initially rejected by an editor who told him that the story was exciting and the characters appealing, but the prose was so clumsy that the frustrated editor had scrawled "NO!" across entire paragraphs. (The author eventually rewrote it.)
"But," I hear you say, "if credible prose is so important, why do I see so many books—some of them best-sellers—with what I consider truly dreadful writing?" Good question. The answer is that those books sold on something other than the merits of their prose: a strong story, or the author's reputation, or characters that appeal to the readers of a well-defined genre. But whatever else those books have or don't have, credible prose can't hurt yours, especially if you're a beginning writer competing with established pros for an editor's attention. Writing well may not, alas, always be necessary, but it's always an asset. And the place to establish that you can write well is in your opening, while the editor is still giving you a chance.
What constitutes credible prose? It's more than just making sure subjects agree with verbs and modifiers don't dangle, although such concerns are a part of it. The essence of credibility is control. Credible prose reveals that you are in control of your words, sentences and paragraphs. Specifically, you can control:
Words are not misused. The credible author knows the difference between "unaffected" and "uneffected," between "illusion"
and "allusion," and doesn't substitute one for the other. (One student irrevocably destroyed the serious tension of his war story by writing, "The commander had a firm but genital hold on his men.") Credible diction also avoids clichés. No one in a credible opening is fresh as a daisy, hungry as a bear, or quiet as a mouse—unless, of course, you are writing in first person and your character would use such clichés. Even then, make sure we can tell this is the character's voice, not the author's.
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