These past few weeks I have waded through an excess of rejections for my short fiction. It has taken me until this latest slew of no’s to realize why I haven’t been clawing past the form rejections to reach the holy grail of acceptance( or at lease a personal ‘no thanks’): they do not hold the reader’s attention. Now, I’m not saying my ideas are unoriginal or my prose is shoddy, that my characters are one-dimensional or my dialog sucks, it’s that I write as though I have time. Time to build and elucidate – to hash out the details – when in fact all the time I am allotted is however long it takes my reader –Reader X – to finish the first line.
Personally, because of this, I am of the opinion that short stories are much more challenging to a writer than the run of the mill novel or novelette – writer’s block aside. With longer work, you already have Reader X. Reader X – most likely – paid to read what you’ve written and has a duty to themselves (and their wallet) to at least attempt to enjoy it. All you need to do is deliver. Your first page – first chapter even – mustn’t have them ripping out the pages in a whirlwind of suspense, it only must keep Reader X interested enough to continue – to get to the juicy bits they read about on the back cover. Short stories, which are usually free-to-read, are quite the opposite. Reader X has absolutely no obligation to you or themselves to endeavor to read your words. Unless you trap Reader X with your first line and keep them salivating until the last, they are going to stop reading, shrug, and click over to something that will better hold their concentration.
Reader X isn’t an asshole, he/she is – of course – only human, and humans have the attention span representative of a species that cannot abide by a load time greater than two seconds, videos greater than one minute, and stories that cannot latch onto our imaginations at the first sentence.
The internet, though magnificent and transformative, has whittled away at our ability to wait and, moreover, our ability to enjoy that wait in expectation of what’s to come. Novels, movies, songs, occupations, relationships…we are devoted to instant gratification, reflected in every aspect of our culture. We live in a world of constant contact and unending stimulation, our minds oscillating between a jumble of news and memes, TV and music. To have someone – Reader X – break out of this self-prescribed onslaught to actively power down and absorb the words you brought into existence, is an honor. Hell, it’s a miracle! That is Reader X’s gift to you, and your return must be enough parts flash, pop, whistle and substance to make their precious time worthwhile; to grab that measly attention span and stretch it over the entirety of your plot, from start to finish.
Of course, Reader X is the ideal, you’re more likely to pander to Readers Y or Z who read through the slush pile of wherever you’re submitting, and they not only have a short attention span- due to massive amounts of work – they also know the field and will be much harsher on your ideas, plot devices, and characters than Reader X. However, if you please Readers Y or Z, and finally the all-hallowed Reader Alpha, you will most likely grab and hold onto Reader X.
I look through all of my pieces that have received the stamp of ‘close, but no cigar’ or the worse, ‘not what we’re looking for’ and breath a heaving sigh of relief, as I hope you will as well. The characters aren’t bad and neither are the ideas, but the timing and the pacing, the grab, is what’s missing.
When you write, you’re carving out a piece of yourself onto the page, it’s personal, which makes it harder to see the fault lines, the slow bits and the drawn-out descriptions. You should always write for yourself, but if you want anyone to read it, you should edit with Reader X in mind.
Good luck and keep writing!