Notes from An Alien

~ Explorations In Reading, Writing & Publishing ~

Tag Archives: Attention span

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 :-)

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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?

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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
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