Friday Fictioneers – Running on Joy


Sands sift slowly. Already, the city is half buried, and, one day, all hint of these creatures ‘existence will vanish. We can only guess at the purpose of some of their devices, but our find is clear—this a vehicle garage.  

Perhaps it was a museum of transport because the power sources belong to different technological eras. The black one ran on carbon and seems the most primitive, while the grey one is electrical and must date later. The green device is mysterious and we don’t know how it was powered.

I believe it may have run on joy.


Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

175. Do readers still crave long books?

Novels used to be long, really long. Samuel Richardson’s 1748 Clarissa weighs in at 467,870 words (for comparison, standard advice to authors today is that a novel should be between 70,000 and 110,000 words).  Then between the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, literature went on a diet. John Buchan’s 1915 Thirty Nine Steps is 29,725 words. Everything changed again in the second half of the twentieth century, with word-count ballooning. You can see my analysis of these trends in this blog post.

In that post I attributed the changes to:

  • The growth of a mass market for books in the nineteenth century resulting in a working class appetite for shorter books than those which had been enjoyed previously by the leisured classes.
  • The advent of cheap air travel and long haul holidays in the second half of the twentieth century leading to the parallel creation of the “airport blockbuster”.

The trend for larger books continued into the present century, A study found that average book length increased by over 25% (or 80 pages) between 1999 and 2014: from 320 to 400 pages.

The modern obesity of literature appears paradoxical, given the standard claim that readers’ attention spans are diminishing (thought the evidence for this is dubious). You might expect book lengths to decrease again, and people in the industry keep claiming that this is happening, but I haven’t seen convincing evidence. In my 2018 blog post I decided this was an urban myth, though there was clear evidence of such a trend for non-fiction.  But five years on, I decided to take another look at fiction.

Yes, novels are getting shorter

I looked at the New York Times fiction #1 bestseller lists between 2010 and 2022. And finally, there is evidence that novels are getting shorter. The point at which the change happened seems to be  around 2015.

Average page length has dropped 53.2 pages (or about 11%)  comparing the 2010-2014 years with 2015-2022. This change has a probability of 0.0095 of occurring by chance (unpaired t-test)  and is, thus, highly significant statistically. For one of the list’s most prolific authors, James Patterson, the drop in novel size is even more pronounced. His novels shrank by almost 80 pages from an average size of 455 pages in the first period to 376 in the second.

A similar study by Wordsrated looked at the top three positions in the New York Times bestseller list between 2011 and 2021 and found a similar trend. However, this analysis pooled fiction and non-fiction titles.

Why are novels getting shorter again?

Precisely why this change has happened is unclear. Perhaps it is the fabled shrinking attention span kicking in, though I have never been very convinced that this is even a thing. My own favourite hypothesis is that it’s due to the growing market for e-readers and e-books during the second decade of this century. The graph below shows the sales of e-books in the US. From a slow start, they begin to take off from around 2010, making a change mid-decade quite a plausible consequence.

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Why might the rise of e-books begin to erode novel size? For the simple reason that the weight of an 80,000 word book in your e-reader is exactly the same as that of a book twice that length. The reader is no longer so able to readily do a cost-per-page comparison between two possible purchases. This allows publishers to more readily accept works for e-publishing that violate the standard length guidelines.

Persuasive though I find this argument, there is no evidence for it. And I should point out that the rise of e-books was advanced as a possible reason for exactly the opposite phenomenon: the increase in book lengths in the first decade of this century. The argument was that, by virtue of not being able to weigh the length, fat books were not intimidating.

Friday Fictioneers – Ethan


“Ethan, Ethan,” the girl beside me screams, her arms outstretched to the distant stage.

Elsewhere in the crowd, fans cry out for their favourites, but those nearby catch the call. “Ethan, Ethan.”

Call and refrain: a bubble rising from the deep, a colour washing through the palette. Green, let’s name our colour green. Our green spreads and ripples through the roiling host. Now it’s half the stadium, pulsing and merging with the wash of yellow from the other wall.

I belong. It’s us—we are the living thing, we are the spectacle and the glory. Here we manufacture gods.


Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

174. How can you tell what criticism to listen to?

The skin of a writer is an extraordinary thing: hard enough to stand up to criticism, but soft enough to let good advice through.

But how do you know the advice is good? There is a difference between good advice and what we want to hear. And there is a balance to be struck between listening and ignoring.

Tip: Get yourself in the right mindset

It can be difficult, even wounding to hear criticism of our darlings. If you are wounded, it pays to take some time to let emotions settle before you assess the advice. Remember, all criticism is opinion. Your critic may be right, but they may also be wrong.  OK, now you’re settled, loins girded. I’ll share with you the process I go through

Step 1: Listen to yourself

Even if  I don’t like a criticism, there is sometimes a small nagging feeling of recognition. Even though it may be a monumental pain, to which I’m instinctively resistant, to restructure the first third of the work, is there an inner voice whispering that this may be a good idea? If there is no such voice, the criticism could still be valid: I may just be in denial.

Step 2: Is this actionable?

Not all criticism is useful. For example, “I didn’t like this” is completely useless: there’s no change I’m being recommended to make. Whereas, “If you prefigured her fear of the dark, this scene would have much more impact” is useful: it’s actionable. I may still decide I don’t want to take the recommended action, but that’s a different matter.

Step 3: How many?

How many critics have made the same comment? If one critic dislikes something you’ve written, that can be readily dismissed as opinion. If several people have the same criticism they are more likely to be onto something.

Step 4: Who are they?

Does the criticism come from someone whose opinion I respect and trust? Does the criticism come from people who read or write in the genre I’m writing? The response of romance readers to a thriller may be less relevant than that of thriller readers. There’s little point in telling a fantasy writer that dragons don’t exist and their inclusion spoiled the story for you.

Step 5: Does it fit?

Individuals are, well, individual. Some people will comment on the lack of, for example, olfactory description, others will comment on an overabundance. Advice to improve the pace by adding conflict scenes may not help a work whose aim is reflective. The question for me is “does this advice fit with and enhance my intention?” To take a concrete example, a critic recently pointed out in a chapter the lack of interaction between the protagonist and many other people. For this critic, it made the character less three-dimensional. But my character is deeply introverted and, in my view, it’s the lack of interaction that makes him three-dimensional.  

Step 6: Whose voice?

Ideally, a critic is examining how well I’m achieving my intent. But this is not always the case. Often, criticism is of the “if I was writing this” type. It’s almost always best to ignore this advice, however seductive. You can only ever write in your own voice.

Step 7: Sequence

If a critic says (especially if several say) they didn’t follow something, I pay close attention. I’m the author so I know exactly what’s going on. But I may well have omitted to write a step in the sequence, or to signal a change of place or time.

Friday Fictioneers – Indecision

PHOTO PROMPT © Amanda Forestwood

What if the edge of the world is at the top? What if there’s a sheer drop?

I step onto the first moss-covered step, and the trees seem to bend in a little closer to spy. An elegant fern unbends and caresses my face, depositing dew on my cheek. The moist air carries scent of earth and stone and decay and growth. Surely, there’s magic in this place, this stairway leading to a revelation.

A peewit calls “Don’t do it, don’t do it”, and I am unable to place my next step. Is it better to remain unknowing but safe?


Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Blood orange and red onion


I am afraid. Not of poison—the salad, drizzled in olive oil, is delicious. But I am terrified of what the dish means. The message could not be more obvious: blood orange and red onion salad. This is a screaming scarlet warning.

“Run” this meal is saying,” and never look back.”

I had thought Jan my dear friend, but what I see on the plate tells me otherwise. Waiting for dessert would be foolish.


Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Memories of memories

PHOTO PROMPT © Jennifer Pendergast

I do not remember you. Yes, I can bring an image to mind, your hair a crazy tangle in the wind, and lips sensuously curled in a smile. I remember that likeness, but I don’t remember you. There are memories of remembering you. Is it possible, I wonder, to track back from that and excavate the original? When people say “she was wonderful”, I can recall telling the story of how we first met, but the freshness of the event has vanished in the recitation. All but one picture which survives—your bottom in tight denim. .

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Mimesis

PHOTO PROMPT © Dale Rogerson

It took years of furtive genetic experimentation. At last, she was ready to plant out the thicket.

For a decade more, she watched it rise behind the construction palisade, until it achieved height and density and bloom. The interlaced branches and the canopy perfectly replicated the appearance of a four-storey tenement block, albeit a garishly painted one. Buds opened in the shape of windows and barked boughs simulated brickwork.

On the east side of the city, she hid her forest in plain sight and set off into its heart to find her woodsman’s cottage.


Couldn’t resist a second bite. Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Who knew?

PHOTO PROMPT © Dale Rogerson

It seemed like such a good idea at the time. Fire one million tonnes of moon dust at the Earth to block some sunlight and cool the planet until we learn how to remove the carbon and solve global warming. Simple. Who knew it would break up weather patterns, flooding Europe and destroying the Indian monsoon? Millions died. Who knew the dust would destroy satellites in Earth orbit, taking out the Internet and GPS services?

I hunker down in my cabin, an involuntary survivalist, assault rifle ready to protect my fields. The dust will clear, they say, in five years.


Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

173. Appeal to intellect or emotion?

Durncilla Drysdale

Do stories have to appeal to either the intellect or the emotions? Can they do both? Can they do neither and still work as stories?

I am instinctively suspicious of setting up a duality of intellect and emotion. What we know shapes what we feel and what we feel shapes what we know, Consider this passage from Night by Elie Wiesel:

“But we had reached a station. Those who were next to the windows told us its name:


No one had ever heard that name.”

This is a gut-punch. But only if you know what Auschwitz was Without that knowledge, the lines are bland.

All good stories have to appeal to our emotions, I think. That is to say, they have to engage us, make us care and want to read on. The most fundamental story technique for doing that is to make us empathise with the characters. But empathy is not the only technique or the only emotion stories deploy. 

Consider the well-known “hook”. This usually comes right at the beginning of the story: the device that makes us sit up and take the bait. The normal emotion here is intrigue, or curiosity. For example, this opening to Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle:

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”

Who can resist reading on to discover why she is in the sink?

Curiosity is an emotion with a heavy dose of intellect. It is the emotion that drives scientific enquiry.  Even in empathetic reading, there is a strong dose of curiosity. The reader asks themselves “If I were in this situation, how would I react?”, because reading fiction is, among other things, a rehearsal for social life. We may enter story worlds to engage with situations we have never experienced (at least not in quite the same form) and to learn how we might behave and how we might exercise greater courage or to discover a more authentic way of being ourselves.

I would argue that stories that deploy emotion without intellect are almost always composed of “easy” emotional ploys: tropes we instantly recognise without occasioning any need for examination or self-examination. The king is good, the stepmother is bad, the innocent princess is imperilled. Such stories are almost always sentimental, giving us a simple and affirming “hit” of emotion without troubling us in any way. The emotions have bulk, but they fail to nourish us, Similarly, stories can appeal to intellect without engaging emotion: they deploy puzzles where we are interested in discovering the solution, even if the characters are flat. Detective fiction often falls into this category.

Finally, can a story appeal neither to emotion nor to intellect?  I would argue not, but I stand open to persuasion.