Sparked by Words

 

The contemporary reader has a short attention span and we writers need to respect that. We need to write toward their preferences because they’re the folks who buy our books. How to shorten chapters, reduce paragraphs, decrease word count, and still write a book with intriguing premise, significant character development, and exciting plot remains a challenge. It’s a desirable goal achieved by being attentive to what you need to keep and what you can toss into the maw of the paper shredder.

We all know the basics – excise the wussy words – nice, that, very, tiny, big, thing, just – vacuous words freeloading on your manuscript. Loosen the formal voice only spoken by professors: I would have liked to inquire of you if I might be permitted to invite you for a repast tomorrow evening at the exceptional restaurant on Snob Hill Avenue. Crap, no one talks like that. Just let dude take dudette to dinner.

Slice and dice repeated words: They walked to the store, then they walked back to the apartment where they walked down the hall and walked into their unit. All that walking around, but nothing of any import happening in the story. Delete the entire sentence. Maybe start the story over.

One of my problems is running every idea straight into the ground by twisting and turning it to see every visible facet. If I can find one way to express an idea, relate an action, divulge a motivation, (see what I mean?) I can probably find another six, so why not put all of them into my story? Well, I can give you six reasons right there. If one solid sentence will do, one is likely enough. Move on, tell the story already.

My most favorite first sentence is from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. The first time I read it I was eight, too young to understand the book. But I loved the first sentence so much that I memorized it: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…It goes on for another ninety-six wondrously evocative and poetic words, well worth the effort to memorize. It’s always presented intact, one paragraph in one sentence that establishes the spirit of lives lived as polar opposites in London and Paris in the moment before the French Revolution.

One hundred twenty words is long for a sentence, whether first, last, or somewhere between. It’s not recommended as most writers can’t convey such mastery, and most of us would end up with a tangled run on sentence of no merit. Imagine then my surprise when I spotted the sentence in a newer edition of the book, and found the iconic opener divided not only into four sentences but also four paragraphs. Blasphemous cutting and pasting of an author long dead and unable to advocate for his literary propriety. I can hear Dickens sob.

(Of course we all know that Dickens made little attempt at brevity as he was paid by the word for his serialized stories that first appeared in a local newspaper. But that’s another story altogether.)

But something clever had been done in the travesty: an editor,  knowing of course that the work is in public domain and thus not liable for lawsuit, realized that breaking the long first sentence into four more easily accessible ones might attract the attention of readers who struggle with reading. Yet those readers might find themselves devouring Dickens’ book with less struggle in the reading trenches.

The lesson? Try it for your own stories, as I have. I’m not Dickens, neither are you. Drop the pretext of portraying a great author and figure out how to get your story across without bashing your readers’ noggins. Maybe chopping a really long sentence or paragraph into appetizer-sized tidbits will make your work more appealing. The concept may still endure in the shorter takes. It might garner more readers. As my wise mama would say, “It can’t hurt.”

Today’s readers are a quirky bunch of disloyal patrons. Out of college, most don’t ever read a novel again – the disappointing numbers are out there in the Internet. I’m not shooting arrows at them because I realize we’ve all got lots to do, some of them better than trudging through fifty ways to say, “I’m leaving you, love, got better offers down the road.”

We can wail and bemoan the footloose audience or accept that so few people count reading a book a delightful personal favorite habit to occupy free time, and instead find a way to attract a potential reader by making it easy on her eyes and brain. Yeah, we can all do that, and most of the time it will improve our stories at the same time. You know the metaphor, “kill two birds with one stone.” Gather rocks.

Think of the lady at the airport, waiting to catch her plane. Two hours in the airport lounge, max, then another two or five on the plane, catching up on business and emails, with maybe a half hour to devote to reading a book. How can we writers best gather our ideas and present them for that half hour attention span? Sometimes all it takes is kicking out the useless words, tightening those remaining, then breaking the whole shebang into short reading bites. Suitable for reading between perusing emails and gobbling the free pretzel lunch. Try it – it can’t hurt.

 

Riding a Flying Carpet, 1880 painting by Viktor Vasnetsov

 

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Comments on: "Make it Short, I Got a Plane to Catch" (38)

  1. I write don’t write fiction, but I do write sparingly. I advocate plain English.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love that painting! Always dreamed of having a flying carpet after reading about them in Arabian Nights as a kid. 😊
    And I get what you mean about having to accommodate to reader’s habits as a writer. Nevertheless I’m still a bit shocked to hear about that first sentence in Dicken’s Tale being chopped into little bits. 😉 But that’s probably just me being a romantic fool with a huge love for books and endless respect for their writers. But your mother was right – it can’t hurt, and if it does bring more readers to get acquainted with the classics I’m all for it!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think there’s plenty of room for all the different ways writers express themselves. Yes, it may be true that many people have short attention spans but then why write anything longer than a blog post?

    I guess the reason I haven’t connected with that many books written in the last thirty years is because of their brevity. I can’t think of a single book that has fed my soul’s desire for deep and long stories with tons of character development. Maybe that’s why I mostly enjoy classic literature — and history books because there the object is to give details to the many people who still appreciate them.

    Maybe the vast majority of readers are distracted but with a world this big even those writers who enjoy more in-depth exploration can find an audience. If the object is a popular bestseller then maybe short is best, but I think there’s a danger in trying to please vast audiences at the expense of what your soul tells you to write.

    So I say if a person writes shorter works and is satisfied doing that then that’s great, but I equally believe in longer works and know there’s an audience for that too. I learned in high school that sometimes giving people what they want to gain popularity can be an empty goal.

    (does it surprise you that this is my take, Shari? I doubt it. LOL)

    A very thoughtful post — I really enjoy thinking about these things with you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m giggling a bit, Adrienne. If you knew how I write the books that emerge from my soul, you might wonder what ever got into me to write this post.

      I’m not into formulaic books, reading or writing, and they’re the ones I think are most guilty of minimal thought provoking content. The first adult book I wrote came in at about 135,000 words, well over the suggested word length for the genre or first time writers. And that was after removing about 100 pages (yes, 100!) when I saw they didn’t contribute to the story or character development in any significant way. The third book, which is the one I’m trying to get traditionally published (none of my stories are published yet) stands at 85,000 words, pushing the borders of acceptable length for a first time author as far as agents and editors are concerned. Or at least, what the industry tells us.

      Most of the books I read are quite long though two of the most affecting novels I’ve read recently were brief. Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, and Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl. The classics are extraordinary (my college focus) for all kinds of great storytelling craft, but I think you’re missing out by ignoring contemporary books. No, I’m not at all surprised about your position, and yes there are always readers for long stories.

      My point really was to cut out the chaff – and there is way too much of that in way too many books. Any current writer would do well to look carefully at every word, sentence, paragraph, and cut the repetition and distractable nonsense – me included.

      Yep, always fun to chat with you. I imagine our in-person conversations would keep us up for months.

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      • I had to cut 600 pages from my first book just to keep it under 600 pages–yes I wrote 1200 pages. LOL. But a lot of it was back story that I really enjoyed writing even if it didn’t see the light of day. 🙂

        Anyway, I know your right about cutting out the junk we all throw in 😉

        And I’m sure you’re also right that I’m missing a lot of good writing out there–but life is so short! I really do hope there are books in the afterlife. I read a theologian who said he believes we bring the best ourselves and our work to the next life. That would be great.

        Yeah, we’d have long sleepovers like two preteen friends.

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      • Sleepover – as long as I can have the lamb of my choice – that would be so much fun!

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      • Haha! Yes — any lamb you like.

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  4. I’ve bemoaned the fact that many Kindle books are barely over 200 pages. I used to refuse to buy them. Now, that’s where they often are so oh well. Good post, Shari.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Says the woman who eats two or three books for breakfast! I think there’s a place for great length and a place for brevity – look at poetry, often very short on words but huge in impact. It does bear remembering how most people read today, catching a few pages between here and there. I like to read for long periods of time – just wish I could get in the amount of books you read in the same length of time!

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  5. Jenna Barwin said:

    Words of writing wisdom, Sharon! And while it may feel like blasphemy, the idea of editing some of those over-wordy English lit books has a certain appeal to this reader.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jenna, I keep reminding you of your editorial excellence.

      Of course, there are abridged versions of many great works, often aimed at younger readers. And we should remember – those overly long sentences were how folks used to talk, and write letters. Nowadays, it’s tweets, slogans, and bumper stickers. I’m somewhere in the middle in preference, and I do like a well told story, no matter the length. Get me hooked and you’ve not only got me for the book in hand, but for the next on the writer’s list. And I do have fun noting the typos in almost every book, though I tend to blame careless publishers.

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  6. Thank you Sharon for a very interesting post, opening a debate as to the valour of literature at the length that authour might like.
    I do believe there are still many people reading, I watch it on travels and there is a fair split between those who do work on e.g. Lap tops and those who read books.
    If there weren’t any we might as well stop writing. 😊 .

    As to a fuller answer I totally agree with Adrienne.

    So you writers, go on and write as we readers are hungry. 📚.

    Miriam

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, Miriam, I do love your final sentence – thank you for encouraging us, the impassioned wordsmiths. I write for hungry readers, not so much for length of story but for genre and characters. I’ve said that I savor words – just not the excessive flimsy ones.

      And we recently got the results for the The Great American Read, produced by PBS and hosted by Meredith Vieira. As of August, over 2,000,000 votes had been cast, but I can’t find numbers on how many readers participated. I was heartened to learn not only that so many people love to read as a major part of their lives, but that they come from all walks of life, all ages, all economic demographics.

      So, yes, I am a writer.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Too much distraction in the world for a good book or article to grab the next generations, but I do keep hoping they will see the value in reading one day.

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    • I agree with you, Audrey. Too many distractions for the sole purpose of entertaining. Reading is a an occupation to broaden one’s knowledge, introduce to other cultures, unravel the mysterious, enlighten the soul, and explain history. Parents and teachers are the first cultivators of the next generation of readers. No matter the occasion when my sons were young, and now with our grands, if there is a reason to give a gift, a book is always presented. (Along with Legos and puzzles.) We read to all of them, and when they were older, we talked with them about what they’d read. Keep hoping, Audrey, and promote books to your kids and your students.

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  8. I have just the opposite problem–well, usually anyway. I’m too concise, thinking a three-word sentence is enough to explain.

    Liked by 1 person

    • But, Glynis, maybe three words are perfect – think how poetry, usually brief, describes so much. It’s a matter of context. Still, I hear you. I think the trick is to try to imagine your reader – does she understand what you’re trying to convey? Does it touch her in some way?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Truth is I’m not sure if I’m getting through to the reader whoever s/he may be. I’m a basket case when it comes to poetry unless it’s free verse.

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      • I understand your ambivalence about where you stand while engaged in the process of writing – you don’t have readers yet, so how can you know what they grasp of your story? But I encourage you just to write at this stage. It comes together as you continue to put words on the page. You may find that your growing understanding of the characters you create will force you to go back to earlier chapters and adjust portions of your story to reflect what the protagonist “Lassie” struggles to digest. Like you, I try to make each section perfect before I move on the the next, but I’ve learned that such perfectionism is a lost cause when writing a book. After you’ve written the final words, you have to go back to page one and make many editorial adjustments, not to mention a million corrections.

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  9. I found that the greats write more simply than I thought at first glance. It’s not easy to write clean…

    Liked by 1 person

  10. There’s books for all occasions … and I’m with you on brevity and conciseness in writing for those ‘escapist’ reads at the airport … I devour books whilst travelling. Other times, longer, thoughtful and challenging books are still called for -I hope! It is distressing how fewer people are reading once out of school/college and fingers crossed they return to books at some later state.

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    • I belong to a book review group; I bet you do too. All of us are voracious readers. But I have several close friends who never read a book and have none in their homes. I do take shorter or more easy reading books when I travel because the unnatural interruptions make it hard to focus, but most of the short books are also gems.

      I think the key is introducing kids to books when they are infants, and making reading with them a daily activity. For those who don’t read to their children – sad situation.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Fortunately, my students read for themselves. Not all of them, but a good number choose to read and have their preferred genres. They even read 900-page novels like _The Count of Monte Cristo_, and they’re not all English majors. BUT–over my many years–I’ve seen a marked decline in deep and long reading, generally. I agree…the key is making reading a part of their every day lives, from infancy on…

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  12. […] via Make it Short, I Got a Plane to Catch — Sharon Bonin-Pratt’s Ink Flare […]

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  13. Life has unfortunately in this instance changed for the worst. Our attention span is smaller. I see it in my nephews who know so much more than I do and yet their ability to focus on one thing is so much less. I notice it in myself as well not because I can’t focus for that length of time but because I don’t have the time to focus for that long. Novellas are apparently are becoming the thing to write and to write one well does show up a good wordsmith as everything from character development to plot line has to be just as good as in a novel. I guess that is why I like flash fiction – it gives me practice writing short. You can’t afford any word that doesn’t pull its own weight.

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    • One of my daughters-in-law is a teacher. She’s noted that kids today are very difficult to teach as they have such a limited attention span, are impatient about other kid’s rights to be heard, dislike sharing, and demand to be entertained. Parents support their kids with all kinds of requests for special circumstances, making teachers subject to constant hassles over silly issues.

      You write very short stories very well, Irene, so you’ll probably be able to easily adapt your skills to novella length. The qualities you mention are true for any length of story, but a novella does require a simpler plot construction. Not ever story lends itself to brevity, and modern readers have so many diversions available. Many don’t read books at all.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree – sometimes short doesn’t allow you the words to express the entire story. I received my copy of my book today and I’m surprised that my lengthy manuscript fitted into under 200 pages so it is a memoirella. It is sad that some don’t read books. They miss out on travelling to so many different worlds.

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      • A story demands words to tell, but most of us, me included, drop in so many unnecessary words and phrases. We are redundant, we over explain, we attach adjectives like strings of candy, and we write filters that bog down the tale we want to write. Which is why we ALL need editors – a capable person whom we pay to spot the chaff.

        We can only write for people already dedicated to reading – those who don’t read don’t even acknowledge our existence or our books. But we need to make our words tell our stories in the most effective and precise way. That’s where the art and mastery of story telling comes in – as you know.

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