Thursday, 8 September 2016

Writing in the MTV Era

Getting past the gatekeepers means fulfilling their expectations in certain critical ways, and a symptom of modernity is shortness of attention span. This can easily (conveniently?) be attributed to the 24/7 availability of canned entertainment, music and movies on demand and, especially the former, in bite-sized (byte-size?) chunks. Nothing very long, everything sparkling, all-singing, all-dancing, and changing to something else (but strictly inside the formula) every few minutes.
This can be bad news for the writer, when the public would, by and large, rather watch than read anyway. How many writers have received feedback along the lines of “overplays its material,” “could be shorter,” “drags a bit,” “needs to learn conciseness” or “could do with a good edit?” These are all subjective impressions which boil down to it bored the reader. If it bores the first-reader it is likely to bore the subscribers – at least that’s the theory. It may very well be that first-readers read far more than anyone else and are thus acutely susceptible to the malady, when subscribers may be less so. The fact remains, writers must please first-readers, and therein lies the challenge.

What about proper development? If one is writing within the prescribed length limits of a marketplace, is the marketplace not bound to view a piece on its own merits? If 10, 000 words is available, is it reasonable for first-readers to expect the same pace as from a 2000-worder? Surely the space allows elbowroom for scene setting, character development and backstory in addition to plot? Subjectivity is very much in focus here, as is the current patience of the reader. If one’s story comes up for consideration at the end of a long and difficult day and the reader has just enough patience left for a foot-to-the-floor, tightly-plotted short with conciseness taken to the point of verbal transparency, one’s lush narrative of languid exotica will be binned by the second page because it bored the reader.

This is the luck of the draw, of course, and who knows how often one’s brainchild is turfed back for this very reason? If you will excuse the British Comedy vulgarity, in the last few months I have tried to “write like a hooker’s skirt – short, tight and commercial.” Telling stories in a very small space is one way to avoid boring the reader, but is still no guarantee; focussing on plot to the exception of all else makes for pace but a spartan narrative with difficult-to-relate-to characters; writing first-person personalises the narrative automatically and skips the clumsy space-waster of describing your protagonist, but some markets have started to tire of first person (and present tense) narratives, as if this formulaic trick is wearing thin. I can entirely appreciate that, but if we are not allowed to trick around the demands, we must be allowed to write “properly” – and we need some industry definition of what that means, something likely impossible because this is, after all, a subjective game.

True, much of the popular fiction marketplace came into being as a response to commuters who need reading matter to occupy them on that bus or train journey to and from work, day after day, and the length of material for this large market is ideally suited to what can be read in an hour. That said, there are no few markets which will consider longer pieces, and ideally their readers’ guidelines should be designed around the nature of the longer piece. The fact remains, however, the majority of markets are quoting a sweet spot of 4000 or 5000 words, whether for the constraints of journey time or the active attention span of readers today.

I can’t help blaming MTV. When raised on three-minute song-bytes and thirty-second news features, who wants to read stories which unfold at the pace of (normal? Dated? Old?) human information processing? It’s sad, in a way, as so much is lost when there is no time to smell the roses – the ones only the writer can conceive of, and would like to tell the reader about. The experience of becoming lost in a literary work is in danger of really becoming lost in the impatience of the audience.

At least, that’s my subjective impression!

Cheers, Mike Adamson

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