How short fiction could rescue modern readers

'Reckon they could publish 'A Song of Ice and Fire' as flash fiction?' Image: Pixabay

‘Reckon they could publish ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ as flash fiction?’
Image: Pixabay

How long can you read in one sitting? How long can you write?

I remember learning years ago (whilst studying German at floristry college – no, I’m not sure why either) that the human brain is only capable of concentrating for twenty minutes at a spell.

Now, when they say this, I’m pretty sure this twenty minutes does not include checking your phone for messages, your inbox for emails or You Tube for whatever limber limbed dance craze / semi naked pop songstress / cat swinging from a basketball hoop is trending at the moment.

No, this means solid, no looking at the time, no thinking of when the next cup-of-tea-and-chocolate-digestive-reward-is-due concentration.

Think you can do it?

I can when the WiFi’s off, however, as I’m writing this, I’ve just checked the WordPress message bell, found that little orange circle that means someone out there loves me and just had to answer, disturbing my writerly flow. Where was I?

Oh, yeah – attention spans.

I learnt this tasty nugget of brain based info over twenty years ago and suspect it’s now out of date. You see, I wouldn’t mind betting the developed – and increasingly, the underdeveloped – world’s reliance on electrical devices is changing the structure of the human mind.

Think of it. How many times have you been at dinner, met a friend for lunch, sat at the table with family over a lovingly prepared pot roast when someone looks at their phone? Once a week, twice – every day? Is spending time with the people we love so tedious? Clearly, yes.

And our need for distraction doesn’t stop with family mealtimes.

Despite the ban here in the UK, I’m sure we’ve all seen drivers using their mobile phones at the wheel – recently a woman was caught on camera drinking a cup of tea and watching Master Chef * on her ipad as she was driving along a busy A road in Essex. Clearly negotiating intersections, cars, roundabouts, and other potential hazards was not enough for her gadfly mind – she had to add the drama of juggling a cup of scalding liquid whilst being shouted at by Greg Wallace, making her drive to work like doing a Food Science class whilst attempting to complete Total Wipeout.

What – you may ask, and if you didn’t why the hell not? – does this mean for the future of reading and writing? Does the fact that we can’t focus on anything for more than five seconds mean the end of long form fiction? Well, the success of doorstop sized books such as The Game of Thrones series would suggest there are still people prepared to stick with a story for the long haul. But what of the rest of us?

May I suggest a solution? Short stories.

There’s something to suit every goldfish brained bibliophile – from flash fiction as short as fifty words, to longer short stories and serials. Literary fiction, horror, ghosts stories, steam punk … If you want to read it, you’ll find it out there.

I think even the Essex lady with the ipad could manage to read a bit of flash fiction before the Master Chef winner’s big reveal – if she’s not crashed already.


If you like your short lit online, may I recommend the following?

Cease, Cows: FictionwriterwithablogMaking it WriteOnly 100 Words: Pint Size Fiction: The Drabble: Waltbox


And shameless plug time. There’s a great anthology out every year by Irish based Fish Publishing, funnily enough called the Fish Anthology. It contains short fiction, flash fiction, poetry and memoirs, all intelligently and beautifully written and 2015’s includes a wonderful piece of flash fiction by my All Write Then pal, Jackie Burgoyne. Oh, and I really should mention All Write Then’s anthology of poetry and short fiction, Still Me published in aid of The Alzheimer’s Society.

Plug over.

* Even funnier than the real thing.

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39 thoughts on “How short fiction could rescue modern readers

    1. Thanks Michelle. I totally agree with you. Much as I love reading short fiction and writing it has helped develop my own voice, there’s nothing like reading a great novel. It’s that level of engagement you just can’t get with the short form. Recently I’ve lived in the 18th C Marshalsea debtors prison (The Devil in the Marshalsea), prohibition era New Orleans (The Axeman’s Jazz) and am just embarking on a trip to a distopian future where much of the population has been wiped out by a virus (Station Eleven). You can’t become immersed in a world in short or flash fiction – you only get pretty glimpses. 🙂

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    1. Total pleasure – you know I always follow you – you always make me think 🙂 Good bloggers and writers all – I’ve come across so many talented people since I started blogging, it’s scary 🙂

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      1. So have i you’re one of them. For some reason I always end up reading it (and others) when I’m too tired to come up with an intelligent comment – like Ima now, it being just after 5 am.

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      2. Is that staying up from the night before, or are you just a really early riser? I’m incapable of speaking at that time of day, let alone commenting intelligently. Whatever time I’m up, I need at least one cup of tea before I can hold a conversation 🙂

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      3. I AM NOT AN EARLY RISER! I’d like to be, but it would mean me having to get up before I had gone to bed. I try to make myself go before 2 am, but it rarely happens. I get involved with things, or just simply lose track of the time. I often think it’s lunchtime and check the clock to find it’s 7pm.
        I think I’m probably turning into my mum. She got rid of her bed a few months before she died, because she had no use for it. She used to fall asleep in a chair whenever she was tired, and she became quite nocturnal. When she died of a heart-attack my brother found her sitting back in her chair with a half-smile on her face. She had fallen asleep and not re-awoken.

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      4. Sorry to hear about your mum – but a lovely way to go, in a way. I hope you’re not planning to get rid of your own bed just yet 🙂 I think my Dad rarely slept in bed towards the end – much more comfortable in his big chair. 🙂

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      5. My mum was well into her 80’s when she died, and I was 50, but it was a bad time for me, putting all of the horrible things in my past into perspective. I would have gone through everything again just to have her back. It was ten years ago and I’m over it. Life is strange. You’d think that, as it’s so inevitable and natural, we’d be better equipped for the death of our parents. Dad and I had an odd relationship – he was an odd man, but I took his death pretty badly, too.
        How was it for you when your dad died?

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      6. It is odd, isn’t it? Maybe people were more philosophical about it years back when they dealt with it more regularly and had to lay out bodies etc. And they were more fatalistic, believing in God and all. Most of us don’t have that now.
        My Dad and I weren’t close – we didn’t see each other for 16 years at one point. He became a dad too young (18) had a temper. Not an easy man to be around. By the time he’d grown out of some of that, the damage was done. It was still a shock, though, being in the hospital, seeing him die.
        My father in law died last year, though and that broke all our hearts. Pops was a lovely man and a great Dad and Grandad. I don’t think my husband will ever get over losing him

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      7. I expect he’ll come to terms with it. There will be trials and triumphs, and he’ll wish his dad was their to support or to share the glory, but eventually his absence will seem normal. My mum had been dead for over 3 years when Obama became president of the US. As soon as I heard the news I picked up my mobile and dialled her number, without even thinking that if she’d been alive I would have had it in my SIM. She’d have been thrilled – although she would subsequently have been disappointed – and I wanted to hear her reaction to the news. The moment of realisation could have devastated me, but after the shock of remembering she was dead I felt happy that for those few seconds I had felt her presence, and felt she was still alive.
        Things like that happen occasionally, but it becomes bearable, and then normal, and then you smile when you think of the person.
        But it is terrible to lose someone you love. I hope your husband comes to terms with it soon.

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      8. Thanks, Jane. What a lovely thing to read – lovely sentiments and so touching that you still feel her there after all these years. Yes, there’s a gaping hole where his Dad was, but as you say, good memories will return too. It’s a slow process, though and not a thing that any of us can rush – though we might like to 🙂

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  1. This is interesting. I read in 45-60 minute sessions (just had one earlier), so that 20 minute thing is irrelevant. I turn off my TV and don’t check my phone while I’m reading. Not necessarily because I’m worried about not being able to concentrate, but because I time my reading and there’s no point in doing that if I’m not actually spending that time reading. But I don’t know if other readers (who maybe aren’t as interested in reading) would care if it’s short fiction or not. Hmm.

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    1. Good points all, Jonh. I think the idea is that human can only concentrate solely on one thing for 20 minutes – after that you might look away, think of something else for a few seconds, then return to what you were doing. I’m interested to know – is there a reason you time your reading? Is it because you have to fight it into a schedule?

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      1. Perhaps. I time it so I know how much time I’m spending reading. Which is how I know I spent around 11 days reading in 2012. I’m not ultra busy, I read whenever I want to.

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      2. 44 is impressive – I don’t suppose I read more than 20 – ever. Though I’ve never counted. I’d read more if people didn’t keep lending us Game of Thrones box sets 🙂

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      3. Oh, I haven’t read them. They’re just too big! I think you have to be a huge fantasy fan to commit to staying in Westeros that long. 🙂

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  2. Good point, I have to admit when I look at my reader, it is the shorter blog posts I tend read. But, I also love to read books, the longer the better. It is the computer screen that makes me want to read short pieces. Perhaps it is the computer that is the problem? And, thanks for my plug too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The plug’s a total pleasure – well deserved. I’m with you – I tend to read flash stories online, maybe it is the experience of reading from the screen that puts us off. I do read longer pieces, but not often and it has to be on a subject that catches my attention. I try to keep my own posts short for the same reason – I assume no one wants to stick around as I waffle on for a couple of thousand words!
      Nothing like a novel to draw you into a world, though. It’s the thing I find most frustrating about flash/ short fiction – no sooner have we been introduced to the characters than we’re off again

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  3. Thank you for linking to my story :).

    I love flash fiction (obviously), but if I had to chose between either reading flash fiction or novels for the rest of my life, I’d go for novels. I think the majority of readers would do the same – there has to be a reason why there’s no money in writing flash…

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    1. I know, it’s sort of odd, isn’t it? Because there must be thousands and thousands of people who read flash on the net every day – but no one wants to pay for it. Ungrateful bunch. I do love to read short stories – I admire the craft in it, creating an impression in so few words. But there’s nothing like submerging in the world of a novel. They have the time to take you places, show you people – something flash can’t really do.
      And how could I leave you out of my links? I’ve probably read more of your short stories than anyone else’s on the planet 🙂 Still loving DCI Malone, by the way 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, part of the problem must be that there’s more flash fiction available online than anyone could ever read – so why pay for it? I’ve also heard it said that flash is only read by writers, but I don’t know if that’s true… But yes, if I want to go somewhere else for a while, I pick up a novel.

        I cannot like this comment enough, btw 🙂

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      2. That’s an intriguing thought – that only writers read flash. I wonder if it’s true. And yes, I suppose you’re right, the ubiquity of flash has devalued it. It’s a great training ground for us all, though – paring those stories down and down and down til you find the nub of it. A great skill to have

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    1. Hi, John. Well, the market out there is huge – plenty of content to choose from. One of my first ‘sales’ was to the Everyday Fiction website which posts a piece of flash fiction each day, the idea being that subscribers will have something to read during their lunch break. Such a great idea.
      Problem for us aspiring writers, of course is that much of the content is free, with no payment for the author. All great practice, though.

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      1. Very best of luck. My experience of that particular site was very positive- the editor I worked with was very encouraging and helpful, making suggestions but not being forceful about them. I highly recommend giving them a go. They offer you a nominal payment which you can choose to defer so the money can go to help run the site. I haven’t submitted to them for a year or more, but they were great
        http://www.everydayfiction.com/submit-story/

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      2. Thank you for the tip! I’ll be sure to check it out. Do you think writing a short fiction is a good way to space out some time between the rough draft of a novel and the first edit / rewrite?

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      3. Oh, definitely. When I started my novel I hadn’t written since my teens. Starting with a novel – crazy! So I wrote the first draft, realised I was rubbish, switched to short stories, took a writing course, got to know lots of other writers in the same position and then went back to the novel and with guidance from a literary consultant … totally rewrote it 🙂 Not a path I’d recommend, but it certainly gave me a good gap between rewrites 🙂

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