Notes from An Alien

~ Explorations In Reading, Writing & Publishing ~

In An Attention Deficit World, What Kind of Novel Do You Write?

Not all authors are bloggers. Many of them need to find bloggers they can work with.

I met Dale Cozort through Blog Tour and you get to read his Guest Post!  Also, be sure to leave Dale some feedback or a question in the Comments :-)


In competing with other media, authors and publishers have to decide if they’re going to go with the flow or cut against it. The competition for audience attention pushes all media in certain directions. As an author or publisher, do you go along with the trends or do you fight them?

First, what are the trends? Novels and print media in general used to have a clear field as far as entertainment went. Pre-television, where else could audiences go for entertainment? Radio dramas to a certain extent, music, which is not incompatible with reading, and movies which were a special treat, not something people indulged in every day. That was about it.

The competition gradually ramped up. Even in the “three channels and the president is on all of them” era, television competed with print for readers. That competition got stronger with the advent of cable, then digital cable and time-shifting and pre-recorded media. There is now almost never a time when you can’t find something watchable on TV. If you don’t like the current selection, check out On-Demand , or the programs saved on your DVR. Add to that the many other potential uses for reader eyeballs: increasingly immersive multiplayer video games like World of Warcraft, and of course the Internet. It’s actually surprising that the book industry hasn’t shrunk more than it has.

As the competition ramped up, so did the speed at which media of all kinds presented their stories. In an era where there are hundreds or thousands of competitors for reader attention, for reader eyeballs, slowing down to tell a more subtle story is often the cue for large parts of your audience to tune out and find a more exciting use of their eyeballs. Rapid-fire explosions and cleavage flashes increasingly win out over intelligent story lines. As audiences absorb more of that type of story-telling, attention spans shrink and it becomes more difficult for readers to tolerate slower-paced story-telling even if they want to.

Books are speeding up too, and it’s arguable that they have to if they’re going to compete. In a world of short attention spans, how can you avoid writing for short attention spans? In a world where you might have ten seconds to capture a reader’s attention it’s difficult not to start out with an unsubtle bang and keep the explosions coming. The way the publishing industry filters material makes it even more difficult to be subtle, especially if you don’t have a big name to draw attention to yourself. The filtering mechanisms basically say you have at most thirty seconds to interest an agent or a publisher or a slushpile reader in your story. That leads to a glut of ‘high concept’ stories–stories that can be explained in a sentence or less: “Edgar Allen Poe, zombie killer”, or “Mark Twain on the Rivers of Venus.” (I made both of those up on the fly, by the way. I hope they aren’t in use, though the second one actually sounds like it has potential in an over-the-top sort of way)

Should authors and publishers embrace the short attention span audience or play against it? If you go for the short attention span, how can you add depth and subtlety to your writing? Do authors or publisher have to win an audience by going through a period of writing/publishing stories that are all about easily marketable concepts and superficial stories that are all about flash and lots of things happening every page? Is there a niche for stories that deliberately go against the fast and superficial trend, that deliberately try to stand out from the crowd as slow and subtle? Fast isn’t always good. “He’s fast in bed” isn’t a compliment. “The story was fast and superficial” isn’t really a compliment either. “The high-concept line was the only good part of the story” isn’t a compliment at all but it is, unfortunately, too often the reader experience these days.

I don’t know the answer to those questions, to the issue of fast versus subtle. I do know that my own forays into writing have gone directly after the short attention span audience, but with a twist. For example, my science fiction novel Exchange moves fast, almost “Indiana Jones”-type fast. At the same time, I tried to add depth in such a way that you can read the novel at multiple levels, so that characters gradually get more solid as the story goes on, so that moral dilemmas pile up and I address important questions about the relationship between individuals and society, hopefully without sermonizing and without making the novel impossible to read without understanding those parts of it.

How well did that work? Based on the feedback so far I got the “it moves fast” part. I’m not sure how many people got or cared about the more subtle elements. Is that okay? If the reader came away satisfied, I guess it is.

So how do you cope with a short-attention span audience? Is it a given that you have to work with that audience? Is it something you can play with to differentiate yourself from the “high-concept”, lots of explosions, and cleavage-shots crowd?


Dale Cozort is a computer teacher, nature lover, and an avid amateur historian.  He has worked as a computer person for the Illinois Bureau of the Budget and DeKalb Genetics and as an underwriter for MetLife.

Dale loves science fiction and mysteries.  He lives with his wife, a teenage daughter, three cats and a couple of thousand books in a house built in 1864.  For many years his home, located in a university town sixty miles from Chicago, was also a foster home for stray or abandoned Samoyeds and Siberian Huskies.

Dale recently wrote Exchange, an alternate history novel where our risk-averse society suddenly has a frontier again, as a series of “Exchanges” temporarily swap town-sized pieces of our world with an alternate reality empty of humans, a wild, dangerous place people can go to start a new life if they’re brave or crazy enough.

With little warning, computer guru Sharon Mack finds herself in a land where sabertooths, giant bears and even more dangerous creatures still roam, fighting giant predators, escaped convicts, and a mysterious cult to rescue her kidnapped daughter before the Exchange ends, trapping them forever.

Get Dale’s Book At:
StairWay Press
And, At Amazon:
Trade Paperback or Kindle
Our Comment Link Is At The Top of The Post :-)
For Private Comments, Email: amzolt {at} gmail {dot} com

24 responses to “In An Attention Deficit World, What Kind of Novel Do You Write?

  1. chazdesimone January 6, 2012 at 7:41 pm

    Interesting topic, as I design logos and book covers, which are akin to writing fast copy: the logo and the book cover both must capture attention in a split second, and hold it while one reads the tagline or subtitle (and hopefully glances through the brochure or flips through the pages of the book).

    I also do a little advertising copywriting which is normally the fastest read type around. However, several years ago there was a company called 4day Tire Stores which had full-page ads of solid text in several columns across the entire page. The copy was so interesting and compelling and humorous that I read every ad–even looked forward to them. And became a loyal customer.

    So I think the long read will always be popular, if it’s very well written. I like short stories as breaks during the day, but there’s nothing like a long novel that takes days to read and by the time you’re finished you’re homesick for the characters you’ve come to know.

    As a book designer, I’d like to compliment Dale R. Cozort’s cover for exChange. It’s superbly designed and intriguing. I would purchase the book on the cover design alone.


  2. Catana January 6, 2012 at 8:57 pm

    The way to cope with a short-attention span audience is to stop acting and thinking as if it’s the only audience in existence. This post is just like a recent comment by someone who insisted that unless you’re writing for “the market” you might just as well not be writing. Readers aren’t a monolithic mass, as much as some publishers seem to believe. There are multiple audiences, including those that enjoy long books, books that require your attention, and heaven forfend, even books that are written for people educated enough to enjoy a reading challenge. I think it’s about time the “My god, the sky is falling and we’re all going to be killed if we don’t shape up.” attitude got put to bed. It’s getting really, really old, and boring as hell.


    • Dale Cozort January 6, 2012 at 11:38 pm

      Hi Catana: I think we’re saying essentially the same thing in different ways. I personally like books with subtle, challenging plots. I like reading books and watching TV shows that take a while to establish character and setting. I think there are still quite a few other people out there like me. My impression is that our numbers are shrinking and aging, as kids coming up into the market are rarely exposed to anything that requires much thought, but there is a market out there that can support quite a few writers. The problem isn’t so much the existence of people who want to read non-attention-deficit books but the ability of the publishing industry to find and market those books and of the ability of readers who like that kind of books to pick them out of the deluge.


      • Catana January 7, 2012 at 12:34 am

        I’d agree that the market for longer, more thoughtful books is declining. Literacy in general is declining, so that’s to be expected. But it would be a mistake to depend on the publishing industry in any way, shape or form. I’m not one of those people trying to set up an us/them, indie/trad dichotomy, but the industry is tied to the bottom line. That pretty much leaves out anything that isn’t highly marketable. For niche writers, and anyone who wants to write “old-fashioned” novels, indie is really the only way to go.


  3. Ken Coffman January 6, 2012 at 10:32 pm

    I’ve been steering toward shorter books simply because my reading time is so limited. The thing is, I love a long, pithy book, but not length for its own sake. Let’s have no filler. I find myself screaming “Get to the point, dammit!”. Oh well. I do think the writer should have some respect for the reader’s time.


    • Dale Cozort January 7, 2012 at 2:33 am

      Hi Ken. You’re right that an author shouldn’t waste a reader’s time, but they should be able to play with the tempo so the story isn’t always slamming from one bit of action to the next. A film version of that would be Rear Window. How much of a modern audience could you grab and hold with something that started off so slowly, with so much of the mundane to it? In an uncrowded market and coming from someone with a reputation for giving you a payoff for your patience, it works. For somebody unknown in today’s market, I think something like that would struggle.


  4. Barbara Blackcinder January 7, 2012 at 1:59 am

    Very interesting article. Makes me wonder if there are many readers that are also in the ‘cleavage’ category since it is not as visual as movies and television. I’m sure there are, but do some of them look to books as an alternative to the quick-flicky?
    Also, as Catana mentions, I don’t believe that people are a ‘monolithic mass’ either, and don’t always want to read the same sort or length of book every time they pick one up.


    • Dale Cozort January 7, 2012 at 2:56 am

      HI Barbara. It is possible to write books that are as mindless as cleavage and explosions in the movies and on TV. You may be right that a lot of the people who continue to read on a regular basis tend to be less interested than average in that sort of thing.

      Probably by definition people who currently read a lot have a longer than normal attention span, but even there I think they’re shorter on average than reader attention spans were forty or fifty years ago. A few months ago I read a collection of pulp fiction stories from the 20s and 30s. This was the popular literature of the day, low-brow stuff. As I read those stories I was amazed at how literate the stories were, how complex the plots and how rich the vocabulary was. I understand that being in that collection meant that these were among the best of their kind. At the same time, in order to appreciate those stories the audience had to be very different from the audience publishers and agents want us to write for today.

      Part of the issue here is whether short story and novel writers can reclaim part of the potential market that doesn’t read much anymore. One of the industry veterans at a conference I was at a few years ago claimed that the US book market was roughly ten percent of the size it would be if the US bought books at the rate people in most of the European countries do. I can’t vouch for his figures, but I do think there are a lot of potential readers who are never discovering how much reading fiction can add to their lives.


  5. ~Sia McKye~ January 7, 2012 at 5:53 am

    Dale, you offer some intriguing thoughts and questions. I certainly don’t have the answers either. While I read my share of fast paced books (and it depends upon my mood), I appreciate subtlety and layers. To me, the difference is like eating junk food (which I like in small doses) and a well cooked meal.

    I’m a very eclectic reader. There are time I want a mindless romance with good story but light and other times I want a deeper, more layered type of story. I love a good thriller/adventure, too. Ditto with Sci-fi. There are times I want to read a light space jockey sort of story and other times I want an Asimov, Heinlein, or Norton type. Substance.

    I think there has to be a compromise and yes, it does depends upon the demographics of the market you’re writing for. I’m not going to write a crappy two dimensional story just so I can have a book published. I tend to write the kind of books I enjoy reading. Frankly, some genres don’t lend themselves to slam, kapow, and countless explosions with a high body count (not to mention multiple sex partners). Some need more subtlety to develop the story. I hate that rushed feeling.

    I think you did a marvelous job with Exchange. There are lots of layers. You have romance, danger, battles, and lots of suspense. It also makes you think. It’s a satisfying read.



  6. cmmarcum January 7, 2012 at 3:37 pm

    “Know thy audience.” For instance, a short story on the internet is 150 to 1000 words. Go beyond 1000 words and no one will read it. A magazine will hold the writer to a strict word count. On the other hand, a short story in a book can be multiple pages. In this case anything too short would be a disappointment to the reader.

    When we tweet, FB or blog we should be flirting, fishing, advertising, and competing for potential readers. Sometimes we have no further to look than a careful analyzing of what ‘WE’ look for as readers. For instance, if I’m on the Net and I know a blogger that I follow has a habit of writing long, wistful, un-educational posts, I might not read their blog until I have the time to spend on it. If a lot is going on in my life, I might never get around to reading it. See what I’m saying? IMHO.


  7. Kat Sheridan January 8, 2012 at 12:04 am

    Let me start with “I loved Exchange”. I liked the layers and the social questions. OK,. so I have a long attention span and I want deep books. I loved your example of the old pulp fiction. Writers like John D MacDonald (Travis McGee) or Raymond Chandler had lots of “kapow” but the vocabulary was rich (like eating cheesecake as opposed to a small vanilla ice cream cone). There were pauses for introspection and observation. Today I read Kate Morton and Susanna Kearsley for that kind of thing. There’s a literary quality to the work, and I think that’s the difference. In genre fiction, publishers seem to want non-stop action (the oft repeated demand of “start the story with the character in situ in some event”). I want stories that ground me in a place/time, so I can understand a character’s world.

    Like Sia, I’m not going to write-to-the-market. I write what I love; I write what I want to read. And I don’t watch a lot of television.


  8. Dale Cozort January 8, 2012 at 4:02 am

    Hi Sia, CmMarcum, Kat. Kat and Sia, I’m glad you enjoyed Exchange.

    Kat, I envy the writers of the thirties and forties in some ways. On average they were writing for a more literate, more patient audience. They also had a clearer field to write in. A lot of perfectly good ideas have been done to death over the last fifty or sixty years. If you read The Maltese Falcon now some parts of it feel trite, not because they were unoriginal when it was written but because so many elements of it have been imitated by so many writers since then.

    Sia: You make a couple of good points. A lot of readers like to read at different levels depending on their mood, and yes, ultimately if you aren’t writing something you enjoy, what’s the point? Most of us could make far more money doing something other than writing, so at some level it is a labor of love.


  9. Pat Bertram January 12, 2012 at 6:14 am

    I think the answer for authors who want to write something more than the literary equivalent of a fast food meal is to write a layered story — a fast, easy-to-read outer story that people can read in bits and pieces or devour at a sitting and enjoy it. Basically, this story is about the things that happen. Then there is a middle story with a bit more depth — this is the story of the characters, how they interact, what their relationships are and how those relationships change them. Finally, there’s the inner story, the story of ideas — the soul of the story that some people will get, others won’t even notice. Ideally, everyone will like the book because everyone will read the story they want to read.


    • Catana January 12, 2012 at 5:14 pm

      Not every story is about “things that happen.” Or the things that happen aren’t the central theme. I can’t even imagine how I would write a story that is a fast, easy read at any level. I intend my writing to be far more than the equivalent of a fast food meal, but what you’re suggesting is still an attempt to cater to readers who want the fast food. You also seem to be suggesting that’s what writers *should* do if they want to be read. Should writers really try to please everybody? Or is that going to falsify what you want to accomplish in your writing?


      • Alexander M Zoltai January 12, 2012 at 5:54 pm


        I hope Dale jumps in here with a response but your comment has caused a bit of synchronicity in my life.

        As I paused to consider the post I’m now writing, I chanced to see your comment

        That post, which will soon go live, just happens to attempt answers to a few of your questions :-)

        That post will be called, What Readers Want vs What Writers Write.


        • Catana January 12, 2012 at 5:57 pm

          Looking forward to it.


          • Dale Cozort January 12, 2012 at 9:42 pm

            Hi Pat, and hi again Catana. I think we sort of said this earlier, but there isn’t just one market and there isn’t just one way to approach the market. I have somewhat the same approach Pat does because I’m writing for science fiction or mystery audiences. The way I write wouldn’t work well at all for literary fiction I suspect.

            It will be interesting seeing how the market develops. One of the factors I was trying to get across with my initial post is that book publishers and marketeers don’t just passively respond to demand from readers. They filter what gets to readers in ways that are partly dictated by the needs of publishers and marketeers. Why do you need a high concept line and a story with a hook in the first paragraph? Partly because readers have on average a shorter attention span than they used to, but also partly because easy to grasp concepts and fast starts fit the needs of publishers/agents, etc. who are trying to filter through way too many manuscripts in way too short a time.

            As more people bypass those filters by self-publishing, what kinds of books will succeed that were being filtered out? What niches are traditional publishers leaving unfilled? Will successful small press or self-published books be the ones that use the same high-concept, start with a bang formula that traditional publishers use, or will they be the ones that try something different?


  10. lynnbiederstadt January 13, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    I find that I write in a happy convergence of circumstances: Since I write in rhythms and sounds of words as well as their meaning, I find that this is a perfect way to speak to shortened attention spans. The mind chews the word-food in the bites in which they’re presented. If I have made any adjustment, it is in shortening my paragraphs–which also suits me because, like punctuation, the arrangement of the words on the page helps bring the reader into my intention. Thanks for this interesting post. And thanks, Alexander, for creating the space in which it happens. xo


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