Long on Words, Short on Attention
by Our Guest on June 25th, 2009

Jessa, Sharon and Annette have all very eloquently explained the challenges of writing short. It’s not a skill I’ve ever been able to develop. I’m not even fond of jotting messages inside greeting cards. I know, that’s pretty neurotic…or is the word pathetic, especially since I’m supposed to be a writer? But give me 90 or 100,000 words to play with and I will certainly tell you my thoughts. All of them. Maybe too many, which is why I often struggle to streamline my prose and why my editor makes sure she has a sharpened pencil whenever she sits down with one of my manuscripts.

I blame it on my reading habits earlier in life. Oh, those 19th century English novels with their endless sentences and characters and oh-so-detailed descriptions. And have I ever mentioned that semester in college I spent reading a mere four books? They were War and Peace, Don Quixote, Ulyses and Moby Dick. No brevity there. None. We are talking an outpouring of words that went on and on. And on….. Kind of a spewing, really, albeit well-crafted, poetic and timeless.

Or maybe not. How many young people these days are racing to the bookstore to snatch up that sort of verbosity? Sadly, not very many. Of course the Harry Potter and Twilight series come to mind, but those are really the exceptions. The number one reason cited is attention span, as in people nowadays having extremely short ones. In our fast-paced world, things are generally supposed to happen instantly. Instant communication, instant entertainment, instant gratification. No one wants to hang around long enough for the gradual unfolding of emotions, relationships and story conflict. It’s “Tell me now or forget it.” Not a comforting notion for a novelist.

And yet… My daughter enjoys playing those video games like Mario and Zelda, where the character goes on these epic quests that last…well, they seem to go on forever. From what I’ve observed, there is absolutely nothing instantly gratifying about those games. They’re complex, repetitive and often teeth-gnashingly frustrating. Now that I think of it, they’re a little like a Dickens novel, or Tolstoy, with stories within stories and layers and layers of meaning and theme — like navigating through a garden maze gone wild. You’ve got to be focused and employ the patience of a saint to make through one of those puppies.


Is it because the games are visual that makes the difference? Or that the player in effect becomes the main character and is in control of all the major actions and decisions? If so, that would suggest, not the eroding of the modern attention span but rather an emerging need to be absorbed into the action rather than remain a passive viewer. Maybe the wave of the future won’t be shorter books — or no books — but interactive ones, undoubtedly read on an electronic device like a Kindle, where at each major plot point the reader is able to choose from several options which the direction the story will go. And then BINGO! The silver lining for us writers will be the salvaging of all those scenes we end up cutting because we deemed them unnecessary to the plot. Woo hoo!

Hmm. I really strayed off the main point here. Sorry, I’ve got an alarmingly short attention span. What were we talking about? Ah yes. Question: Given today’s schedules and stresses, are you content with traditional, full length novels or does the idea of shorter, snappier and maybe even high tech stories intrigue you?

7 comments to “Long on Words, Short on Attention”

  1. 1

    Hmm, that’s a good one. I like short stories, because in anthologies I usually find new authors to enjoy. I prefer novels, especially series, because I know that I will be reading more about the characters in future books, and the longer the series, the better. I also like short stories because they give me an opportunity to hear the author’s voice. It helps me decide whether I will buy more from that author or not. But to me, short stories just whet (wet?) the appetite. Short stories are often not as satisfying as you don’t really get to know the characters very well. But, shorts that are written about characters in on-going series are more satisfying, because you already know and love/hate them. In the end, though, I prefer a traditional-length novel–more filling, more taste!

  2. 2

    I confess, I find whopping big books intimidating. I’ve wanted to read Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth for ages, but I keep hefting that 900+ page sucker in my hand and then putting it back on the shelf. I’m just not sure I have the time and energy to invest in something that long.

    Mostly I buy 300-400 page novels. I can read a book that length in one sitting (okay, yes, an all-day sitting) and get my HEA fix. Shorter than that, unless it’s a category book, and I feel ripped off.

  3. 3

    Doesn’t matter what length the story is as long as it’s well written with a great plot. (Yours are the best, Allison.) Lately, I’ve been writing more shorter fiction than longer, not sure why but that’s the way the stories are coming to me.

    As for the games your daughter plays, my sons love the Final Fantasy ones. They too are layered upon layered. Have to admit, I’ve become addicted to them myself. The stories are so were plotted out with twists every which way. I love stories like that. I really don’t like it when I read a book and I know who the culprit is or what’s going to happen about half way through. It’s one of the reasons I loved your Dark books. I never figured out the mystery in them until you revealed it to the reader. To me, that’s a sure sign of genius! :smile:

  4. 4

    Zita, the main time I tend to reach for anthologies is during the holidays, when I know I’ll be so busy I probably won’t have time to read more than a few pages a day. Then it’s fun to be able to get in a quick story in a short time. Otherwise, it’s full length for me.

    Annette, it’s funny but Pillars of the Earth has also been sitting on my shelves for years. I’m not sure why. I love the Middle Ages, enjoy Ken Follett and I don’t usually shy away from long books. Maybe its the combination of length and subject matter, the building of a cathedral, that makes it a little intimidating. Maybe I’ll go get that book and read it!

    Judith, my daughter is also into Final Fantasy. In fact she’s at a friend’s house playing it as we speak. As for your comments about my writing - you’re a sweetheart, and I’m going to forward them all to my editor because she really deserves most of the credit!

  5. 5

    I seem to go on and off short fiction. I’ll read a bunch, then I won’t touch it for months. I like novels. As far as something technological goes - I dunno. I work on the computer from breakfast to bedtime. I really don’t want more screen time. Besides, if my cat jumps up on the bed (where I tend to read) and sits on a book, I’m not worried about a mashed screen or a fried kitty.

  6. 6

    Ha, interesting point that today’s video games are every bit as “complex, repetitive and often teeth-gnashingly frustrating” as those AP English tomes.

    Halo = Red Badge of Courage
    WoW = War & Peace
    Guitar Hero = ?

  7. 7

    I prefer full-length novels. I like spending more time with characters. Also, I read too fast for short stories to be very satisfying.

Leave a Comment

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>