Breaking the 140-character barrier is going to take a kind of stamina I have never tried to muster

With Twitter, Facebook and other blogging platforms, every written word and published item is increasingly rushed. That’s why I have decided that it will be an interesting experiment to try to slow down and write something that has length and, hopefully, longevity.

AS a modern journalist, I have been trained to have a short attention span. Twitter has taken that to a whole new level. It’s a self-styled “micro-blogging” platform and lets you share the interesting things going on around you in 140 characters in an instant.

But I have been thinking seriously about trying to write something more substantial than a tweet or a few paragraphs of a blog.

I have no interest in trying to produce a prize-winning novel, but I do want to see if I can get away from the short items that I have written over the past few years, and start something with a bit more depth. I want to see if it changes the way I write.

One of the things that has inspired me is reading about the great American novelist Kurt Vonnegut (pictured).

Interestingly, the following list that I have copied from his Wikipedia entry is probably just as useful for journalists as it is for novelists. (Substituting “characters” for real people, and omitting the “Sadist” bit, obviously. I’m not advocating the inventing of news stories in the style of Scott Templeton from the Wire).

In his book Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, Kurt Vonnegut listed eight rules for writing a short story:

1.Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2.Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3.Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4.Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

5.Start as close to the end as possible.

6.Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7.Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8.Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.


Since reading that piece, I went to a talk hosted by the Swansea branch of the Historical Association called Authenticity in Historical Fiction which featured authors Bernard Knight and Susanna Gregory, who are known for their medieval-era crime fiction.

It was interesting to hear how seriously they take authenticity in their writing. Susanna Gregory, for instance, relayed a story about how she wanted one of her characters to run the length of a specific London street. Instead of estimating how long that might take, she went to London and actually ran down the street herself to get the timing just right.

In a busy newsroom, it would be unheard of for a journalist to suggest doing something like that to check the veracity of someone’s claim. It is the curse of the daily deadline, I suppose.

Both authors were clearly very strict with themselves when it came to getting the facts straight. They also talked about making sure not to refer to moonlight if the date didn’t correspond with a fuller moon, or indeed talking about a lot of sunshine if that particular year was known to be rainier than usual.

Another common theme from the talk was the idea that no matter how authentic the themes and events, the language – and the morality – had to be updated. Readers wouldn’t be able to understand medieval “English”, or tolerate, for example, the medieval person’s Christian fundamentalism or their attitudes towards women and other cultures.

I know very little of the medieval period, so I would be easily persuaded by an author who simply invented things from that time. However, there are quite a few people – academics and enthusiastic amateurs – who are obsessed with the period and will be annoyed if something is totally inaccurate.

I was a bit disappointed that the authors didn’t focus on the writing process in the presentation, but I understand that this talk was geared towards the historical association and had more to do with the research the writers do for each novel. However, it became obvious from one of Susanna Gregory’s comments that novel-writing itself is not a walk in the park. She said it’s not unusual for her to spend 16 hours a day at her desk.

I too have spent 16 hours at a desk trying to write. But during those 16 hours, I probably wasted about four of them going through emails, a further two chasing up “statements” from public relation specialists, and spent at least 30 minutes fretting about NIBs (news in brief). I would also have probably had a quick trip to court to catch a sentencing, and then got back to my desk to finish writing up the three or four stories.

As a dedicated micro-blogger, and as a child of the digital age (more or less), I have yet to see if I have the stamina to concentrate on one story for 16 hours.


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