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My White Space

January 22, 2012

Let’s talk about white space.

I look out my window on this January morning and see a whole lot of it, but the idea is to get some on my page. It’s something I only learned about recently, from my critiques, and from some light research on the internet. Then, as I often do, I turned to what is still my favorite writing reference, Stephen King’s ‘On Writing.’

Mr. King writes:

…Grab a novel…Open the book in the middle and look at any two pages. Observe the pattern—the lines of type, the margins, and most particularly the blocks of white space where the paragraphs begin or leave off.

You can tell without even reading if the book you’ve chosen is apt to be easy or hard, right? Easy books contain lots of short paragraphs—including dialogue paragraphs which may be only a word or two long—and lots of white space. They’re as airy as Dairy Queen ice cream cones. Hard books, ones full of ideas, narrative, or description, have a stouter look. A packed look. Paragraphs are almost as important for how they look as for what they say; they are maps of intent.

I learn by doing, as a kinesthetic learner, and took this concept for a ride in my morning words. The main character of Tempest’s Serenade is always up for a chat and here’s what we talked about:

Nick shuffles in. His hands are in his pockets, and he has a smirk on his face. He looks proud of me.

“You did it!” he says. “Great job, finally getting a chapter out there. Told you they would like my story.”

“But what about all the little nits? The cheesy parts? The long sentences?”

“You’re doing fine with that.” He pulls his hands out of his pockets and waves them as if dispersing fog from the air. “You got some things wrong. All beginning writers do that. The important thing, like Ivan says–“

“Wait, you know Ivan?”

“‘Course I know Ivan. I know everyone you know. I’m kinda stuck inside your head.”

“Oh, yeah, I forgot about that.” I grin. It makes me happy to know that I’ve made Nick so real that sometimes even I forget that he exists only inside my head.

“Ivan says,” Nick continues, “That it is important for you to get work out there. And now that you’ve gotten such a good response, you might even be able to put Chapter Two out in a few months.”

“Is that the chapter where you get into the car with Stuart even though he’s drunk?”

“No, not yet. In Chapter Two we flash back to when I was a kid.”

“Ah, yes,” I say and survey the white space I am creating with all of this dialogue. “But we need to talk about that part with Stuart and the driving.”

“Can I sit down?” he asks and looks around my cluttered office. Another load of ironing has been deposited upon my bed. 

“Go ahead,” I invite him. “Sit on my blouses. It’s not like you’ll wrinkle them any worse.”

He heaves himself upon the bed, but not even the cat notices. Then he folds his hands across his stomach and gives me a smoldering stare. I take a moment to admire it.

He starts. “You always knew that I would never let Stuart drive drunk, so why did you think that was going to work?”

“I tried to get Jack involved.”

“How deus ex machina of you.”

“Smart ass.”

“Look, white space.”

I admire the clean-looking page, then get back to business. ” But tell me, how did it really happen?”

“I told you,” he reminds me. “Courtney took the car. So she could get home before the rain got any worse.”

“It was raining?”

“Just starting to, you know how the water condenses on stuff before it really even starts raining? Something about the water on your skin. It was hell to light my cigarettes that day. You forgot about that part.”

“’Cuz I hate it when you smoke.”

He lifts his arms behind his neck and props his head up. Staring at the ceiling.

“So, you were on your own then?” I ask. ” You were hoping Stu didn’t get so drunk that he couldn’t get you home?”

Nick nods. He doesn’t seem to be paying attention and I don’t know if seven hundred and fifty words will be enough to get this out of him.

“I thought I could convince him,” he says. “If he would just give a shit for once, and take it easy. I told him not to.”

“Like he ever listens to you.”

“That was the night I decided to move on.”

“You did?”

“After the agent turned us down because Stuart was so useless.”

“Oh, that’s right, I forgot about that.”

“Bad writer.”

“I am not!”

I turn away and fill in the next few lines of dialogue, taking pride in the huge field of white space I am leaving in my wake.

“So you should probably include that part in the first scene. It might even make the challenge you were looking for in the story blurb. Honestly, writer, I don’t know how you made it all the way through this novel.”

He is not serious though. He knows how much I care about this, and that I will be back to fix all my mistakes.

“But if Stuart pisses you off, then why are you in his car?”

“Maybe he pretended he wasn’t drunk.”

“What–like fooled you? I doubt it.”

“I’m thinking. Don’t rush me. It will come to me. Maybe today while you’re staring out the window thinking about the story.”

“Oh, shut up. I want to write this, why don’t you just help me?”

“That’s not my job, writer. You have to ask the right questions before I can help you. But right now I’m not sure what you want to know.”

So, it looks like I’ll probably have to continue this interrogation. For now, I’m off to clear some white space off my driveway.

(Image courtesy of Mike Thorn @ stock.xchng)
  1. February 11, 2012 9:32 am

    Oh, this was a great post! Lessons from our characters…I love it!

    • February 11, 2012 1:20 pm

      I’m glad you liked it!
      Sometimes my characters are so much smarter than I am. 😉

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