I don’t know what all the cool kids were doing as teenagers in the noughties but I was pretty much just hanging out on fanfiction.net. For those of you who had friends and went outdoors as adolescents, fanfiction is what it sounds like: stories written by fans, based on characters and settings from their favourite books, movies and so on. Fanfiction is often posted one “chapter” at a time and therefore written quite episodically. I put “chapter” in quotes because the most popular stories tended not to have the kind of chapters you’d recognise from books. Through trial and error I found that around 1500-2000 words was the optimum chapter length to get people to come back for the next one and, more importantly, to leave complimentary comments – the sweet, sweet nectar that my teenage soul fed upon. And each of those 1500-2000 word chapters had to contain an interesting plot development and a reason to come back next time.
Writing that down, it sounds exhausting. Not a lot of novels change the scene every 2000 words – novelists tend to linger dreamily over things like scene-setting and appropriate pacing. But it was actually a lot of fun. Whenever I felt like writing, I would re-read my last chapter, pick up where I left off, write until I got bored (luckily, usually around the right word count) and then post it.
As a reader, too, I loved having stories broken down into those bitesized chunks. Absurdly short chapters were irritating to keep clicking through but unusually long ones quickly exceeded my attention span. Curiously, if I liked the look of a story that was already finished, I would happily sit and read the whole thing in one go, but I still couldn’t concentrate on a chapter that was too long.
I’m telling you all this because an author on a forum I frequent – the excellent Daniel R Marvello – recently posted a link to an article by in the Guardian: Ebooks are changing the way we read, and the way novelists write. Very short summary: ebooks have caused people to read less attentively and therefore to write more simply. I would throw fanfiction and other forms of online writing (blog posts, Buzzfeed) into that mix too.
Actually, fanfiction has influenced the world of publishing pretty directly. Fifty Shades of Grey started life as a Twilight fanfic and hasn’t changed much. Anna Todd’s One Direction fanfiction After has attracted high-profile book and movie deals. There are other examples but these are possibly the biggest.
I don’t know if there really has been a quantifiable change in writing styles. I’m not sure how you’d go about proving it, although I dimly recall an activity we did with newspapers at school that involved counting words per sentence and showed that The Sun had a reading age of seven (although rather more topless women than a seven-year-old is likely to be interested in). But if it is true, I’m okay with it.
As a reader, I’m inattentive. I like to have the scene set for me but I skip big, dense paragraphs of description. I like creative use of language and expanding my vocabulary but I don’t want to be stumbling over the sesquipedalian (!) every few sentences. “Good” writing is important to me, but I don’t think good has to mean “fancy”. I have a degree in Literature and now I don’t want reading to feel like hard work anymore. And that feeling is magnified when I read an ebook. I can lose a whole day curled up with a paperback, enjoying the lulls in a story as much as the climaxes, but my expectations of anything I read on a screen are the same as they always were of fanfiction: grab my attention, and keep grabbing it, because otherwise it will wander off.
As a writer, I generally live by the Elmore Leonard quote “I leave out the parts that people skip”. If you were to compare the current draft of Faustina to one of my fanfiction stories, I’d like to think that you’d find it a bit less choppy and more richly (if briefly) described, but still pretty skimmable. One of my many, many worries about this novel is that it won’t be “booky” enough – I learned to write by writing fanfiction and I feel like that has influenced my writing. But, if this is really the way the tide is turning, perhaps that’s a good thing.
In terms of the bigger picture, I imagine that serious literary types are wringing their hands over the death of writing as an art. Indeed, the Guardian article links to one (note: that article is well over 3000 words long and hell yes I skimmed it). I’m not going to try and tackle that on an intellectual level, because I’m writing this at 1AM and I don’t really want to, but what I will say is that writing is evolving all the time. We don’t write like Chaucer any more, or Shakespeare, or Dickens. They were of their time, as everyone is. They’re still perfectly readable today (Chaucer might be a bad example) but they’re best understood in context. Today’s context is connectedness and distractions and shareable content and I don’t see what’s wrong with that influencing the way we write. More importantly, one of the great things about the indie marketplace is that you can write whatever and however you want and people can decide whether or not to read it. As long as there are writers and readers who favour denser, more literary writing, it won’t go anywhere. And if that style of writing ever does fade away, that’s okay too. It’ll be in good company.