The message used to be, keep it simple. Now perhaps we should rephrase that to, keep it short.
Global best-seller Patricia Cornwell reckons it is increasingly hard for a novelist to keep their readers engaged and interested. Attention spans have shrunk. Which is why she has reduced the number of pages in each chapter to ten. It used to be twenty.
As she told interviewer Sarah Rainey of London’s Daily Telegraph: “The books are still as long, just presented in shorter increments like scenes in a movie, so you have an obvious little stopping point.”
Which seems to make sense in a world where the 140-character Tweet seems to be the limit for today’s flitterers and flutterers. Anything lengthier and they feel as if they are struggling through War and Peace.
Ranked second to JK Rowling in world sales for female writers, Cornwell has just released Flesh and Blood, the latest in her yearly stream of crime novels featuring medical examiner Dr Kay Scarpetta.
And here again she is facing the problems of a fast-changing world; when Scarpetta first appeared in Postmortem in 1990 it broke new ground with its detailed forensic background. In the years since, we have been assailed by such TV shows as CSI, Silent Witness, Waking the Dead, Bones and numerous lesser (but often gorier) tales that come in hour-long segments without entailing the need to concentrate on words on a page.
It’s tough competition.
But there is far more to a Cornwell novel than grisly goings-on in the morgue. As with so many crime writers she sees the genre as a means of looking at a much wider world.
“The crime is just the party to get people to show up,” she says. “Scarpetta gets stuck in the same traffic jams as we do, she suffers the same modern stresses and she has to deal with social media in a recognisably contemporary setting.”
Which presumably means keeping it short and simple before you lose the attention of those you are speaking to. Shorter chapters are all the go – especially for those of us who like a book at bedtime.