Friday, September 13, 2013

Entry # 175 - "Does It Look Like Fiction?"

So - What Does Fiction Look Like?
Atlantic Crossing 1 - Fall 2012 - Jan Bowman

A writer friend told me that Gordon Lish was "an evil man" who got 15, 000 manuscripts to read every year and his initial reaction was to hold the manuscript at arms length to see if it "looked like fiction" and then he'd look at the white space to see if it really "looked like fiction" - and then - he would read the first sentence.  If any part of this process annoyed him in any way, he tossed it in the trash.
Atlantic Crossing 2 - Fall 2012 - Jan Bowman

Okay. That's cold, but it's a reality.  So if you're a writer revising your manuscript for one last time before sending it out next week, what can you do - without even reading it - to make sure it "looks like fiction?" 

Renni Browne & Dave King's craft book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to edit yourself into Print, has a useful section in Chapter 9 - "Breaking Up Is Easy To Do" that addresses the importance of  'white space page impressions' when readers pick up a book and decide whether or not to read it.    And they describe an opening section in Alice in Wonderland, when "Alice glances at a book her sister is reading, notices it has no illustrations or dialogue, and thinks, 'And what is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?'  [And] ... If you've ever leafed through a book in a bookstore and noticed page after page of long dense paragraphs, you probably know how Alice felt."

Long, unbroken chunks of text tend to turn off fiction readers. Browne & King provide a checklist. They suggest that writers hoping to improve the white space ratio in their manuscript, flip through it and evaluate the 'eye effect' upon readers.

So what should writers do when they see too little white space and long dense paragraphs?  Revise with an eye toward showing and scene building, as well as creating relevant dialogue exchanges that build connections and create tensions.  If paragraphs run for a half page or a page or more, then perhaps too much telling and explaining is occurring, or maybe one character is talking excessively.

If scenes drag on too long, try paragraphing a little more often. Cut or compress to extract the essential action.   Try to avoid characters 'making little speeches' to each other. 

And what if you find many short scenes that have no long paragraphs and consist of a lot of clipped back-and-forth dialogue? Ask yourself,  how is that working for you in the text? Too much back-and-forth in short dialogue set into scenes can be equally boring or confusing, especially if you're telling and showing readers information they already know. 

Remember you're after a balance on the page and in the scenes, dialogue, and actions that occur.  How the page looks is important.
Atlantic Crossing 3 - Fall 2012 - Jan Bowman

What does fiction look like? Perhaps no one can really provide a specific generic response for this question.
But this I requires a lot of revision.  
"I do a lot of revising. Certain chapters six or seven times. Occasionally you hit it right the first time, but more often, you don't."     ----John Dos Passos
Montevideo, Uruguay - Fall 2012 - Jim Wilson

About Jan Bowman                   (JANET)

Jan Bowman’s fiction has appeared in numerous publications including, Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, The Broadkill Review, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes and others. Glimmer Train named a recent story as Honorable Mention in the November 2012 Short Story Awards for New Writers. Winner of the 2011 Roanoke Review Fiction Award, her stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, Best American Short Stories, a Pen/O’Henry award and a recent story was a finalist in the 2013 Phoebe Fiction Contest; another was a 2012 finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories while shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction publications in Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers.   Learn more at or

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