Cardigan Welsh Corgi wearing glasses and looking at laptop ps 10

Adorable Corgi © pvl0707 | Deposit Photos

This post is inspired by a comment by Peggy on The Fallacy of the Best Seller. She wrote about a best selling author she’d read for years. The author had been pretty good, but now seemed to be phoning it in.

So, is the overall quality of fiction better or declining?

Thanks to social media, it is in decline. It might even get worse.

I’ve been reading a rather horrifying book called Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention–and How to Think Deeply Again. The author navigates through the complex issue of what social media and smartphones are doing to our ability to focus.

While there are some things we can do, a lot of the recommendations (i.e., turn off your notifications, ditch your phone) are blaming the victim. Social media companies find ways to manipulate us and pull us in. According to Becca Syme, little things like making a decision to scroll to the next page cause decision fatigue.

And it’s tough because we get bombarded with it everywhere. I have notifications turned off on my work Outlook, but the program makes sure I know I have unopened emails by displaying the number of them. Can’t turn that off. Teams flashes at me incessantly when I have a message, encouraging me to drop what I’m doing to see what the message is.

This is destroying our ability to focus.

Focus for writers is important across two fronts.

The first is reading.

We get ideas from reading, though you may not always know exactly where they come from. You might read something in a non-fiction book a year ago, or even ten years ago, and your brain puts together a new idea after reading a novel.

Yet, as I check out the business books at work, it seems like there’s a feeling of desperation in the books on how to be creative and come up with ideas.

As writers, we also learn how to write by reading. We absorb story—and even non-fiction can be a story, though it depends on the book. While you can learn some techniques by reading craft books, these are also at a basic level. More advanced skills are primarily learned from studying writers who do those skills well.

But with focus being consumed by our technology, books aren’t holding people’s attention. At a big university, the professor discovered the students barely had the focus for a short book.

You can also see this in business books published by major houses. Common complaints from reviewers are that the books feel like blog posts—at premium prices! I reviewed one of these, given a hardback copy. The publisher had to adjust the book formatting with more spacing between lines, along with an executive summary up front in each chapter and another summary at the end of the chapter.

There’s also a big industry of writers summarizing business books.  Some are 40 pages, while others are as little as 8 pages. They’re made to be skimmed. Like a blog post online.

Non-fiction writers are having trouble pulling on enough knowledge to create content for their books. That goes back to the lack of focus.

The second issue with focus is interruptions.

Writers report jumping online, hitting Twitter or Facebook or whatever for “a few minutes” and then three hours later they surface, having never done the writing.

People make it about discipline. That “blame the victim” mentality. Sure you can turn off some of the technology, or do as Dean Wesley Smith recommends: have a writing dedicated computer.

But it’s a bandage fix at best because the technology wants you engaged with them.  I came back to my computer after Windows, Adobe, and Firefox did an update. Firefox decided I needed an icon installed on my taskbar. I removed it, as I’ve done every time I have an update from them.  Adobe decided I needed an icon on my desktop and added it with their update. I removed it, as I’ve also done before.

And Windows? I noticed there was a tiny panda in my taskbar as part of the search field (it was International Panda Day. Today was some kind of environmental one). If I click in the search box, a window pops up to tell me about pandas and provide links for me to investigate. That change caused me to turn off this feature entirely. (Note the order the instructions are presented. This setting came turned on, but turning it off is not the first option.)

My desktop (the icon next to Word at the bottom is Atticus, my writing program. The icon is a Boston Terrier). I had to remove the search bar because the icon changed daily, and I could see it while I was writing. Intentionally distracting.

Exactly how do you write a novel beyond a sentence at a time when technology wants you to visit it?

What’s the panda you’re turning off?

Panda © kennytong | Deposit Photos