Thu 11

Fiction For Short Attention Oh Look At That Laughing Dog

Writing Tower of BooksSince I got a iPhone, my bedside table has turned into a tower of books. It was always pretty bad. But now it’s worse. Look at that. It’s a fire hazard. One day I’ll toss a cigarette in there and it’ll be a conflagration. Not that I smoke. That’s the only thing saving my life.

The problem is when I go to bed, instead of picking up a book, I think, “I’ll just check Reddit.” Or Twitter. Or the news. Or Facebook. Or my email. Not or. And. I check all those things. I have 65 apps. I just counted. Halfway, I thought, “I wonder if there’s an app for counting your apps.” I was tempted to take 20 minutes and hunt one down, so I wouldn’t have to waste ten seconds the next time I need this information. You see what’s going on here. It’s a sickness.

It’s got me thinking I should do more short attention span fiction. Maybe another serial, like Machine Man. Firstly, because that was fun as hell, in a terrifying kind of way. Secondly, because I’m rewriting it as a novel, and it’s pretty great. I already have the story. Now I get to play around in all the spaces I skipped over because the serial had to go go go. It’s a good system.

But thirdly because maybe no-one has the time to sit down with entire novels any more. Or rather, maybe there is a class of people, to which I belong, that is becoming addicted to bite-sized information delivered by scattershot. I hope there’s a class. I hope it’s not just me.

Not that it has to be one or the other. I’m not saying that once you sign up to Facebook, you abandon Margaret Atwood. Although I have done exactly that. The Year of the Flood is just sitting there. What I mean is that the novel seems to be getting more competition. The novel is very strong, of course; there is no replacing the novel. But the competition is pretty great. The internet is everything in bite-sized pieces. It’s candy-flavored stream of consciousness of whatever you want.

And increasingly the same device will access both. I’m having trouble getting to novels just because an iPhone is in the same vicinity. What happens when my books are actually on my phone? Or in my iPad? When I’m one swipe away from the web, will I still be able to completely sink into a novel? Plenty of times I’ve slogged my way through a book that wasn’t really holding my attention just because it was there, in my hands. I don’t think I’d do that on an iPad. I think I’d tap that bastard into oblivion and answer an email.

So I am interested in fiction that works with the internet, rather than fights it. Something that doesn’t sit there, 400 pages heavy, asking for a seven-hour commitment before I start. That’s the kind of fiction I’d like to read right now. Something that sneaks under my guard and pries me away from memes and status updates. I would like to find that.


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Machine Man subscriber Stygian Emperor (#2947)

Location: the Stygian Empire
Quote: "Flesh is a design flaw."
Posted: 3667 days ago

Syrup held my attention for two nearly days straight, but you've probably read that one already.

I read Warhammer novels all the time (especially ones by Dan Abnett), they'd be good if you're into intense action and high fantasy/sci-fi, but they might be too long for this situation.

World War Z can be read in little snippets, since it's told like a collection of stories from different survivors in the aftermath of the Zombie apocalypse, but you'd better read the Zombie Survival Guide first.

Daniel H. Wilson's book "How To Survive a Robot Uprising" is a humorous but thoughtful reference book on doing just that.

Maybe one of those will be up your alley.

Nial Wheate (#1578)

Location: Glasgow, Scotland
Posted: 3667 days ago

Its called a short story Max. Speak to a guy called Jeffrey Archer, he can give you some tips! LOL

Jenifer (#1868)

Location: Suwon, South Korea
Quote: ""I'll try everything once. If I like it, I'll try it again.""
Posted: 3667 days ago

Try turning your phone (this is scary but try it anyway) OFF.

I do it when I read. I turn off my laptop and my phone and leave them in the other room, then I go lay in bed with a book.

It's kind of like being in a sensory deprivation tank, but you get used to it.

Trust me, you won't miss anything important.

Machine Man subscriber Alan W (#1427)

Location: Spokane, Washington
Quote: "Corgis are like potato chips"
Posted: 3667 days ago

Rendezvous with Rama is a great read, but I would prefer you do another Machine Man type delivery, I would prepay, hell, I would buy a lifetime subscription to Max if it were available (and, of course, prolific).

Also, have you tried Google Buzz?


Machine Man subscriber Barbara (#3854)

Location: Canberra
Quote: "All models are wrong. Some models are useful."
Posted: 3667 days ago

You're not alone. I read this on my iPhone while my Kindle reverted to it's screensaver on my lap and 157 unread books sat neglected on the bookcase behind me.

Greg Karber (#1568)

Posted: 3667 days ago

You should write a novel on Twitter. If you think I'm joking, consider the publicity.

Lepidecko (#3428)

Quote: "why don't girls ever put the seat back up??"
Posted: 3667 days ago

This is probably why I love 'No Hope for Gomez!' so much. It's written exactly that way; little bite sized bits which are, every single one of them, really fun. One reviewer actually called it 'snack food for the brain' :)
Maybe you can do a novel like that? It's something you'd probably be really good at.

mybluemake (#1990)

Location: Houston, TX
Quote: "I'd rather be oversexed or Kurt Vonnegut."
Posted: 3667 days ago

I'd like to see a piece of long fiction that was planned and executed to be read in very short intervals. There was a series of collections of very short fiction back in the 1980s. A friend called it fiction to eliminate your bowels to. Sure, there are many writers that write concise chapter books with clear transitions, but fewer and fewer once you leave Encyclopedia Brown age. Instead of crapper readers, glamorize it as a novel you can read in those gaps of otherwise useless time on public transport, as meetings noisily assemble, or between bouts of mad love making?

Perrorist (#3640)

Location: Central Coast, NSW
Quote: "No flow, no go."
Posted: 3667 days ago

Ditch the iPhone, Max. A good novel deserves to be embraced by all the senses.

towr (#1914)

Location: Netherlands
Posted: 3667 days ago

As far as fiction that works with the internet is concerned, there are tons and tons of webcomics.

And you could probably do something interesting with twitter, such as having the characters in your story tell it from their pov via twitter. (And readers would get a different view of the story depending on who they follow.)
Not that I actually twitter myself. Or use facebook. Or have an iphone.

Hallie (#2348)

Location: Reading, UK
Quote: "Dancing is the vertical expression of horizontal action"
Posted: 3667 days ago

My suggestion would be

Absolutely fantastic. I've read Pride and Prejudice and The Odyssey in teeny tiny bite sized pieces through my email.

Ben (#4734)

Posted: 3667 days ago

Go to Settings -> General -> About and you'll see how many apps you have.

I just finished White Tiger. I really enjoyed it.

Machine Man subscriber Marleen (#2741)

Location: Berlin, Germany
Quote: "I want more expensive shoes in one place than I've ever seen in my whole life."
Posted: 3667 days ago

You're not the only one, Max. I used to read on the train to work and home, every day. Erhm... before I had the iPhone.

Machine Man subscriber Jan Van Eemeren (#286)

Location: Belgium
Quote: "nonsense upon stilts"
Posted: 3667 days ago

Start reading 'the player of games' (and the rest of Banks' SF. 'Excession' was my favourite). 'Culture' tech will make iCrap look like a dull, medieval toolbox. Not that i would know as iDon't :)

Hans Miniar (#2600)

Location: Iceland
Quote: "~your love is made of happy, and sometimes exhasperation~"
Posted: 3667 days ago

There are some authors who write a page or a chapter at a time via blogs or Deviant Art.
In fact, Deviant Art is overloaded with short stories of varying quality (I should know, I end up closing the tabs a dozen times a day... I really should have chosen to follow better authors on there, but I don't have the heart to tell them that their work was better when I was sick and delirious and decided to hit the +watch button).

Might be worth checking out.

(and I don't just say that to plug my own Deviant Art account! Not at all!)

Gwen (#4624)

Posted: 3667 days ago

I see that the previous comment refers to a site on which people do just what you desire: writing and posting stories in bite-sized chuncks. Actually; that has been going on for quite a while, even before the Internet :). Fanfiction for example, existed via mailinglists (the paper, not the digital kind) decades before the Internet came in common use. So it's out there, just waiting for you to discover it.
Serious downside: it is way more difficult to make a shift between good fiction and bad fiction on the Net than in the store... Have fun!

Machine Man subscriber Paula (#3196)

Location: Sydney
Quote: "(insert something witty, eventually...)"
Posted: 3667 days ago

John Grisham? I mean really Max.

Machine Man subscriber Electrichead (#3898)

Location: Toronto
Posted: 3667 days ago

There's only one thing that can pry me away from my addiction to gadgets/email/apps/RSS/etc: reading a book about technology that is vastly superior to what we have today. You know what I'm talking about: sci-fi

I mean you read about communications that span light-years and butler-type AI that you can command with your mind and you kind of forget about the tech we take for granted today. Since I work in a field where I can create things that could make a change in technology with an idea (as do you :) I find it a great escape and don't mind being away from my email and RSS for the hours that it demands.

About the short attention span type (continuing) fiction, I don't think that you can find it. There are short stories and things like that, but I haven't really seen an ongoing novel written for the Net. The closest I've come to seeing something like that was actually with your own Machine Man. The only other thing would be XKCD, and that's not even a work of fiction.

Machine Man subscriber Alex (#237)

Location: London, England
Quote: "We're today's scrambled creatures, locked in tomorrow's double feature (Bowie)"
Posted: 3667 days ago

Hehe, how much time did you spend re-arranging that pile of books in the picture so that it was both an interesting collection of books and ascetically pleasant?

Machine Man subscriber Bob (#4095)

Location: Kansas
Quote: "Freeze!!! This is the Government!!"
Posted: 3667 days ago

Nice write up Max... yeah I do wish you'd do another serial too... now that Machine Man is gone, I sometimes think back to that time in my life when I had Machine Man to read nearly every day - that's a sweet memory.

I have an iPhone too --- I know what you mean it becomes a central figure in your life... having the internet in your pocket is very powerful - and distracting.

jas (#4698)

Posted: 3667 days ago

I'd recommend Cory Doctorow (assuming you haven't already read everything by him). Even his novels are broken into easily digested chunks and all his narratives are so full of technology, innovation, remixing, and interconnectedness that while reading them I tend to feel like I'm still online.

Andrew Riley (#1970)

Location: Parker, Colorado, USA
Quote: "Predictions are difficult, especially about the future."
Posted: 3667 days ago

The only thing that has saved me is that I can actually read books on my iPhone. It felt odd at first, but now I've come to appreciate the value of always having a book or 50 in my pocket. And I can read at night without having a light on, which my wife appreciates.

Machine Man subscriber coolpillows (#3749)

Location: new york general sort of vicinity
Quote: ""It's not working" -- Joseph Clark"
Posted: 3667 days ago

First of all, I try not to dwell on these things as more 'signs of the apocalypse' 'downfall of our civilization.' People still read. People still buy books. People also read stuff on computers and handhelds and phones. The argument I use to support the fact that the novel won't die is sort of the same phenomenon that kills the fantasy of the paperless office.

When computers first came into the office, they said (whoever the hell "they" are) "the office will go paperless." My ass. The print industry has changed a lot since the web, but brochures are still printed by the billions. People still want to have something in their hands that resembles paper, to carry, to flip through. Maybe in 100s of years it won't matter. But it's sticking around. Same thing with books. It's just a different experience.

So reading on a Kindle or an iPhone or Blackberry is still reading, but it IS a different medium. You can read a book, but you're more likely to read shorter material. Makes sense that material should be developed for the device. I'm interested to see what people will do with the iPad b/c it will have full color and multi-touch. That can change a book reading experience immensely. May not make it shorter, but more physically engaging.

As for short attention spans, that's another thing. As I write this, with 9 tabs on my browser running and 8 applications running in the background, I'm as bad as anyone. I could write more about why I think our attention span is shorter, but I've already taken too much time (and screen space). And besides, I'm supposed to be doing something else. Nothing in my schedule says, "spend 20 minutes responding to Max Barry's blog." But...I...wait...ahhh...back to work.

Brian (#3947)

Location: Ohio, USA
Posted: 3667 days ago

Don't listen to these maniacs telling you to get rid of your iPhone; your precious, wonderful, marvel of technology that is the envy of all small household appliances and attention-mongering spouses . . .

Oh, sorry. I had a point before I was lusting over the iPhone. I like the serial idea. And, I like the short story idea. My only suggestion is not to sacrifice your novels as a result (though, as you mention, these may all evolve into the final product of a novel). Maybe the average human's attention span demands quick and short bursts of entertainment to keep them hooked.

For instance, I for one - hey, look, there really is a laughing dog.

Machine Man subscriber Adam Willard (#4231)

Location: Madagascar
Quote: "What unseen pen etched eternal things in the hearts of humankind... but never let them in our minds?"
Posted: 3667 days ago

Interesting post! I think I understand what you mean, but I still have quite a bit of time to read, especially lately. But I don't have a kid, I don't use twitter, and I don't have an iPhone... mostly just Facebook and e-mail for me, so maybe that's why I still have the time.

Anyway, another novel like Machine Man would be great! And still, you haven't told us (that I've noticed): are those of us who subscribed to the serial version of Machine Man going to get some kind of discount on the print form? I hope so! I really want to read the full-length / fleshed-out one but I'm pretty broke!

Oh, and right now I'm reading "Rendezvous with Rama", which I noticed is in your stack. I think it's pretty decent so far, certainly better than 2001: A Space Oddysey. Also, I read Heinlein's "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" about a year ago. It's a great book! It'll be worth it for you to put down the iPhone and read it and it'll engage you pretty quickly! One of the main characters even has different sets of arms that he can switch out for different jobs... like the guy in Machine Man.

Machine Man subscriber Russell (#3897)

Location: USA
Quote: "O Lord, Protect us from those to whom you speak directly"
Posted: 3666 days ago

Machine Man App: Delivering books one page at a time, once a day, for as long as the book lasts.

Theres the solution. its not about reading, or attention span. its about availability, its about size.

And this idea has made me realize that i THINK you may have just revolutionized the entire industry with machine man. What if there was an app or kindle thing that pages be delivered to you one page at a time, once a day, for a really long time? sure, you could skip ahead. sure, it might take three years to finish a really long book. but people might be more likely to read Atlas Shrugged if they only got one page at a time, than if someone put that massive book in front of them. Size can affect how people perceive a book. eliminate that, and you have a book industry teeming with new possibilities.

Forgive the rambling nature of this comment, but the potential is amazing, and i would not be disappointed in the least if you only ever wrote serials like this for the rest of your career.

Machine Man subscriber Russell (#3897)

Location: USA
Quote: "O Lord, Protect us from those to whom you speak directly"
Posted: 3666 days ago


I dont know if you've ever read "I, Robot" by Isaac asimov, but its essentially a series of short stories that, taken as a whole, give you the evolution of robots essentially from beginning to a far fetched extrapolation in the future. I highly recommend it ('specially if you like Arthur C. Clarke.) i saw some commentary about short story collections and i thought of this book, and i think it might be a concept worth pondering.

ryandake (#2199)

Location: scenic monterey, ca
Quote: ""The rest is not our business.""
Posted: 3666 days ago

hi max,

want to have your cake and eat it too?

the cell phone novel:


Casey (#3542)

Location: Albuquerque, NM
Quote: ""Life is a game. So fight for survival and see if you're worth it." ~Battle Royal"
Posted: 3666 days ago

I don't know if you've ever looked into a fellow by the name of Cory Doctorow, but I thought maybe you'd be interested. He's very much like you (as far as I've been able to tell) and integrates the web into a majority of what he writes.

Just thought that might help!

Trevor (#2843)

Posted: 3666 days ago

Screw the audience, write what you want to write; write what you think is the best you can write.

With your talent Max, a certain group of people will read anything you write.

Don't worry about how many people will read your writing, worry about what they think about what they're reading.

Kellogz (#4735)

Location: North Carolina
Quote: "I'd rather have a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy"
Posted: 3666 days ago

Skip all that mess and start in on "Rendezvous With Rama," then mosey over to "I Am Ledend."

Machine Man subscriber Hyper (#4612)

Location: Texas, USA
Quote: ""A person who won't read has no advantage over one who can't read. " --Mark Twain"
Posted: 3666 days ago

I don't think I would like getting normal books one page at a time. The reason Machine Man was different (and so great; Really Max, we need another) was because it was specifically made within and for the one page a day audience. We had our mini-cliff-hangers, we had the times when the comments themselves helped flesh out the book. Nowhere else does that occur. Now, a chapter a day for things such as Atlas Shrugged I may be able to get into, but I like the idea of a book that can keep me hooked for a page a day, without me forgetting what is going on.

Felix Murley-Anderson (#4454)

Location: The Federated States of Melburnia
Quote: "Who do I have to kill to get published around here? "
Posted: 3666 days ago

I had this crazy idea myself about writing a novel entirely using an iPhone word processing app, and releasing it in chunks as an RSS or e-book thingy. It was great, while it lasted: it let me do some writing to and from work on the train without lugging my latop around, and I got an idea of how it would look when someone actually read it on the screen, so it pretty much forced me to break the scenes at a comfortable level. But then sense (and my wife) got the better of me, and I thought I may as well have another crack at getting published in the traditional medium first. Who knows, I might pick it up again later on...

On a completely unrelated note, did you know that if you leave off the 'y' in your website address, you get the home page of an antique furniture restorer in Stroud, Gloucestershire? Weird, huh?

Machine Man subscriber Randy (#2374)

Location: Ravena, NY
Quote: "I could write a book about being lazy. I just don't feel like it."
Posted: 3666 days ago

And I thought my bedside table was bad. Finally was able to clear 'Under the Dome' from my tower o' books.

Machine Man subscriber Kellska (#4057)

Location: looks like my living room
Posted: 3665 days ago

The book I'm currently struggling not to neglect is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. The overall artifact has some heft to it, but it is broken up into small enough chunks that I manage to nibble away at it despite other temptations.

I'm in the middle of writing an online serial, partially inspired by your Machine Man experiment (except of course that no one knows who I am so hardly anyone's reading it). It won't draw your attention away from status updates, though, because it's posted on Twitter (in reverse chronological order, so that it's easier to catch up with the Story So Far, or maybe that should be From Here On Out). If I could add spoiler bars to the URL, or make the font really tiny, so as to mitigate the awkwardness of self-promotion, I would (please feel free to mentally apply either or both to the following):

Josh Bahr (#3129)

Location: Fishers, IN, USA
Quote: ""Yea, i said it...""
Posted: 3665 days ago

The next serial you write you should number the pager 1-15 or so.... this will give the illusion that its a readable story that one could get through in one sitting but as you go up in pages the number of pages goes up as well. this way when you are on page 30 of 45 you don't realize you have spent as much time as you have in front of your computer... also it has a way of messing with the reader and that is always fun. :)

Diana (#3505)

Location: North Carolina, USA
Quote: "Why get high when there are other ways to achieve a smug sense of superiority? Sarcasm, my anti-drug."
Posted: 3665 days ago

Ugh, I know the feeling Max, I don't have an iPhone but I've become addedted to facebook, lame I know, lol. Before I got on there I would read at least 400pages a day because I love to read so much, but now I'm lucky if I even pick up a book once a week. I still haven't got myself to lower down my time on the net so I doubt it will get better anytime soon.

Jennifer (#3398)

Location: North Carolina USA
Posted: 3664 days ago

here are my two cents for good, fun reads-

Haroun and the sea of stories -Salman Rushdie

Lamb - Christopher Moore

Benjamin Solah (#4398)

Location: Melbourne
Posted: 3664 days ago

Great post. I have really been thinking about this for a while and the more and more other people speak about it, the more I'm convinced the time is ripe for the revival of the short story, flash fiction and perhaps serialized novels.

Machine Man subscriber Arsenic (#4487)

Location: MEL-bn, uh-STRAYL-yuh
Posted: 3664 days ago

I just read Anna Karenina, so I'm thinking we might be in a different class... I'm not so big on trawling through blog sites and twittering and so on. I mean, I use the internet, but to be honest, I haven't read Machine Man because I have been waiting until I could print it out and read it all in one go, rather than having installments on an LCD screen. So, while you're right to think about new media for your work, remember those of us who only have useful apps on our iPhones and who like to read books in book form. Don't leave us behind, Max! We need you!

Michael Ricksand (#2212)

Location: Terra
Quote: "You do not have a right to be stupid."
Posted: 3663 days ago

My first thought upon seeing that photo was "Wow! I've read three of those! Max Barry and I read the same books!" (The books are I Am Legend; The Moon is etc.; and A Moveable Feast.)
I recommend The Complete Short Stories by Ernest Hemingway.

Sara Allred (#4423)

Location: Paris, Texas
Quote: ""the only difference between a mad man and me is I am not mad" "
Posted: 3663 days ago

I have a FB problem also, it is not just you. I'll be okay as long as you keep making me laugh, Max! Oh! And look at that duck!!

Herman (#1993)

Location: Netherlands, Groningen
Quote: "The spaceships where hanging in the air much like bricks do not."
Posted: 3660 days ago

The way for me to stop fiddling with iPhone apps when I want to sleep is... An iPhone app.

Stanza is a fullscreen e-book reader. Really comfy and free when combined with project gutenberg books. Sherlock holmes books are relatively byte size and entertaining enough to keep my attentian at the moment. Tom Sawyer and Around the world in 80 days did that in the last months.

Jeff O (#3059)

Location: Madison, WI USA
Posted: 3657 days ago

So what in-progress book is on the top of the stack in the photo? Is it the user's manual for the iPhone?

I don't have an iPhone, therefor I am almost finished with The Year of the Flood. I love Margaret Atwood.

Machine Man subscriber Adam (#24)

Location: Morristown, Indiana
Quote: "Why do I blog? Simple, because Max Barry blogs."
Posted: 3654 days ago

I've decided to write a serial Haiku one syllable a day ...for your own reading pleasure.

Today's syllable



Machine Man subscriber Adam (#24)

Location: Morristown, Indiana
Quote: "Why do I blog? Simple, because Max Barry blogs."
Posted: 3653 days ago

Today's syllable



"Cat Plays"

Chris (#4759)

Location: caloundra QLD
Posted: 3652 days ago

"Yeah, so, I figured I'd just build this app called 'Satire' that taps into that author and one-time book-reader, Maxxx Barry. Attached it as a back-door trojan on a 'Count My Apps' download. That sucker is synapsing away in his head right now.

Wait 'til he realises I can force the traitorous bastard to mimic the same actions he used to satirise. I'll teach that prick to question his novel pursuits."

BTW, you're right, no one has time for full-length novels ... unless they're good. Then we make time.

You wrote some of the novels I made time for. Can you stop dicking about and go write some more, please?

Cue Max's wife: "See, Max, I told you so."

Machine Man subscriber Adam (#24)

Location: Morristown, Indiana
Quote: "Why do I blog? Simple, because Max Barry blogs."
Posted: 3649 days ago

By they way, I don't post syllables on weekends...

Next syllable in the serial Haiku is....

....drum roll please...




Total Haiku thus far is this:
"Cat Plays With"


Machine Man subscriber Adam (#24)

Location: Morristown, Indiana
Quote: "Why do I blog? Simple, because Max Barry blogs."
Posted: 3648 days ago

Today's syllable


Total Haiku:

"Cat Plays WIth Dead..."


Machine Man subscriber Adam (#24)

Location: Morristown, Indiana
Quote: "Why do I blog? Simple, because Max Barry blogs."
Posted: 3646 days ago

To complete the first like of my serial haiku: "Rat"

"Cat Plays With Dead Rat"

You may be asking yourself, "Where is he going with this?" The answer is "I don't know!" Sometimes I write a couple of syllables in one day, but I typically revise them by the time they are posted. What your reading is happening as I write it. So much suspense!


blab (#1632)

Location: The Sandwich Isles
Quote: "Adventure is just poor planning"
Posted: 3592 days ago

If you prefer cruising the net to reading you've got the wrong books in your stack. Fond as I am of the net I like books (good ones) more. I recently discovered Kim Stanley Robinson who writes incredibly dense, detailed and long sci-fi novels; and while I was reading them I didn't even think of checking my emails. *grin*

Instead of Parentonomics I suggest, "Freakonomics."

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