The shortening secret: why my kids won’t read novels

My mother held that the secret to a good pie was in the shortening. She would be happy to learn the same principle might be applied to fiction.

Better with butter? No! Only hydrogenated vegetable shortening will do.

I’ll admit it: I’m a long-form gal.

There’s nothing I love better than curling up in bed on a Friday evening and losing myself in a novel. Delicious characters, intriguing action, and hundreds of pages stretching before me. Even better, I love waking up Saturday morning with nowhere to go and nothing to do but jump back into my book where I left off the night before.

There’s nothing my teenage son loves better than curling up in bed on a Friday evening with his iPod and reading the latest AMA (“ask me anything”) on Reddit.

Now, we could all sit around boo-hooing about the short little attention spans of today’s youth. That’s what previous generations do; I’m sure my parents lamented the fact that my generation was not taught Latin.

Or we could all embrace something completely different: fiction that fits on your smart phone screen. That’s exactly what Peg Pursell, guest speaker at last weekend’s California Writer’s Club meeting, urged the room of (mostly older generation) writers to do.

She came to talk about flash fiction.

Of course, I’d heard of flash fiction—also called short-short fiction, sudden fiction, microfiction, micro-story, postcard fiction—but I had dismissed it without due consideration. It mostly appeared online; it couldn’t be serious literature.

Thanks to Ms. Pursell, not only have I had an attitude adjustment about very short fiction, I’m downright excited about it. Here’s why:

English: Black Bear mother and cubs in den,, h...
Black Bear mother and cubs in den, hibernating–with my novel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1) My novel, since I got feedback on the first draft, has been, shall we say, hibernating. (That’s a story for another blog post.) But like an injured runner, I felt I would crawl out of my skin if I didn’t do something. So I wrote a short story. And I was reminded of the great satisfaction that can arise from writing a first draft in a week, spending two weeks editing it, and having it be close to done.

One great thing about flash fiction is that you can finish writing it.

2) I love writing poetry because its limited length forces absolute efficiency. Writing rhymed or formed poetry (sonnets, sestinas, villanelles) forces further efficiency. Very short fiction does the same thing. In fact, Ms. Pursell encouraged writers of flash fiction to challenge themselves with word count limitations, or even with form limitations such as writing a 200-word story using only one-syllable words.

Prose is more accessible to many readers than poetry. Flash fiction offers authors the same challenge inherent in writing poetry, minus the lack of audience.

3) I can apply the principles of flash fiction to my novel. Perhaps this has been obvious to the rest of the world, but it seemed like a revelation to me: Instead of the horrific challenge of editing 200 pages of my novel, I can edit one page. Then the next. And the next.

Given all this, I’ve decided to attempt some flash fiction. Maybe if I write a story that fits on an iPod screen, people born after 1990 might actually read it.

If any other long-formers want to join me, here are a few sites to get you started.

What’s your form? Long? Short? Micro? Have you experimented lately? I’d love to know.

11 thoughts on “The shortening secret: why my kids won’t read novels

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  1. I love writing novels. But I’ve done poetry, short stories and flash fiction too. I think it’s fun to try different mediums of expression. Flash fiction and short stories taught me to write tighter in my novels. 😉


  2. I’m with you in liking a good long read – having more to look forward to. If those characters are worth anything at all, they’re worth investing time in – that’s what I say. I see your other point, though, too, about the exercise.I did a flash fiction once. It still took me six months, because I needed to move away from it for a while and let it percolate in my subconscious. Still, it was a fun exercise and I did learn from it.


    1. I’m chuckling over your description of taking six months on a piece of flash fiction. But it points out the fact that in our rush to produce, we could overlook one of the most valuable creative tools: time. I hope I don’t fall victim to that as I embark on shorter pieces.


  3. To me, the briefer the form, the tighter and more impactful it must be. A good short story needs to deliver an intense burst of whatever it offers the reader (which is probably why we like them). A novel allows the writer to stretch out; there’s so much more space to develop plot and character. It doesn’t have to be as tightly controlled as a shorter story, but requires greater commitment from the reader.

    I think haiku’s 5, 7, 5 form might have been the original flash fic – figuring out how to say something powerful with so few words.

    Makes me think of Hemingway’s 6 word: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” It’s so condensed. It leads the reader think of all that is NOT said.

    Ultimately the story must determine the length necessary to tell it. Not all stories lend themselves to short forms, and not all stories have enough meat on them to warrant a novel. They all have their place though.


    1. I think the “more space” afforded by a novel can be wonderful… and can be its downfall. I often find it difficult to strike that balance between spare, efficient writing and a rich, expansive voice.

      Yes to haiku! We think Twitter is so cutting-edge with its short-form requirement, but haiku came long, long ago.

      “Ultimately the story must determine the length necessary to tell it. Not all stories lend themselves to short forms, and not all stories have enough meat on them to warrant a novel. They all have their place though.” Well said.


  4. I’m really not into writing flash fiction, mostly because when I do get a chance to sit down and write, I want to work on my novel (which has not been happening at all lately–sigh…) I did write a short story just to have something I could write without any outline or structure. I finished it quickly, but now it needs a desperate rewrite, and suddenly I’ve lost interest.

    As always, Audrey, interesting and creative blog post.


    1. The “novel not happening” was exactly why I turned to something short. Sorry you lost interest in yours, but on the other hand, isn’t it nice to lose interest in something you have only worked on for a short time, rather than something that consumed months or years?


      1. Absolutely. I still like my short story and would like to polish it someday, but I’m more anxious to get back to my novel. But as you know, the marketing beast can consume one’s time…


  5. Go for it, Aud! I am going to be reading a short story–actually short personal narrative–at the Made in the Berkshires Festival on Columbus Day weekend, and I realize it’s the first time I’ve read my “creative” writing in public for many years. Looking forward to it! Feels like about time–

    And PS, my boys won’t read novels either, unless they’re assigned for school. We just seem to be turning into a visual, oral culture again–movies are where it’s at. Those are stories too, but not the same as a nice long book….

    And PPS, when was the last time you were able to lie in bed on a Sat morning and read! What a wonderful luxury THAT was!



    1. I wish I could be there to hear you read!

      Yes, we are becoming more oral (or is that “aural”?) and visual—and that’s not necessarily bad, just different.

      As for the lazy Saturdays, every now and then I get an hour or so in bed. Certainly not the whole morning!


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