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I write short stories, a lot of short-shorts. I would say the longest thing I've actually finished writing is "Lord of Snakes", which was about 19 pages typed. (And not even very good.) So I've always wanted to be able to write something...at least 60,000 words. And maybe it is because I feel like I can't be a true writer without writing a novel. And maybe that's wrong, but I'm...extremely frustrated by my inability to write something of length.

I'm not entirely sure why. When I write shorts I DO plan, and construct and such...but in many ways the characters and plot seem to write themselves freely, using me only as a medium. And that's what WORKS. When I try to write something long I end up getting terrible writer's block and can't write for days or more--because if I do write then I all but mess up the story. And because I'm not writing on it I sort of lose interest and when I come back to it I just get confused. It's like I can't handle anything complicated. I try mapping out the story and characters like people suggest, but that seems to just...mess with my mind and make it worse.

So sometimes I start over. Like with "Annabel's Demon"--I've tried three different times to write it, and each time end up at a standstill. I tried writing in third, then first, then third again. Tweaked the story and characters. Completely started over. And found myself failing to write anything decent. I get lost. I stop and try to go back. I leave it for a while and write something else. Once, when I was a preteen, I managed to write a good 80 pages of a story, but never finished. And now when I go back to it I realise it just needs rewritten and...it isn't a good enough story for that much work.

Please help. Help me at least understand what I'm doing wrong. I so badly want to write something of length. I feel bad for all the decent story ideas I've abandoned because they...stopped dead.

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Not an answer, but... a little bit yes an answer. lifeasahuman.com/files/2011/08/Picture-5.png –  Standback Jun 20 '13 at 21:02
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Tell me, do longer stories "come to you" as freely as short ones do? Or are you trying to force them? –  Tannalein Jun 20 '13 at 21:45
    
Have you tried plotting with the Snowflake method? Forces you to do all the hard work upfront but makes it pretty easy to do. Once you have the skeleton of the plot, you don't have roadblocks to writing it. advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 21 '13 at 0:10
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9 Answers 9

The short version: To write at length turn off your inner editor.

The long version:

Why the problem writing long form?

Writing at length is a completely different kettle of fish from writing shorts. I am absolutely hopeless in short form. However to become adept at either type of writing takes commitment and effort. I always had the point of view that a long form piece would allow me to mask weak bits with a large tapestry of generally okay bits and few superb bits.

Actually, to write in long form you have to cut out all the poor and mediocre bits and aim to have as much of it be "good day" writing as it possibly can be. What this tells us is that you are smarter than I am because you didn't have to write about nine novels to get to the point where you realised that some of this stuff just wasn't cutting it.

Regarding Plans

You say you plan everything, and this is great news. One thing I have learned is to plan everything. I learned this from the smoking wreckage of a number of novels varying in length between 30k - 80k where I planned nothing. Writing a story is like drawing a circle freehand. Small scale some imprecision can creep in but it's fairly easy to correct and, with some practice, can be minimised. Then you move to freehanding a slightly larger circle and so on and so forth.

The only problem is that, human anatomy being what it is, the freehand circle can only be what it is to a certain scale without assistance. Try to repeat the process for the largest feasible freehand circle that your hand is capable of drawing for something ten times bigger and you'll end up with a broken looped spiral. Panic sets in as you realise the impossibility of the task in the old way.

Now the circle analogy breaks down. With some carefully prepared guides a single path may be described freehand to an adequate quality. This would be equivalent to making a plan and then sticking to it. In the world of maths that's fine, but in reality things are not so convenient. This is where the second important lesson must be learned:

Plan everything on paper that's easily burned.

No matter what your plan will change as you write. When you plan your characters will perform plot actions without complaint, the logic of their actions - broadly - will seem unassailable. However, when trying to flesh out event A you will necessarily corrupt a character's motivation to do the thing described in event C. These little niggles of logic, plot holes, will come back to haunt you, present you with the daunting prospect that you may never finish this work because every step forward increases the length of the journey by another ten steps, seemingly ad infinitum.

In the first instance this is good news.

Editing

Write, rewrite, wrestle with the problems, sew up the plot holes, explore the tangents, think about the character arcs, produce 120k of turgid, meandering, rubbish.

After this, get the scissors out.

The novelist starts like an artist with a blank canvas but, after the first draft has left a hideous mess of randomness in a heap all over their consciousness begins a shift into a mode more like a sculptor or explorer. The text can be combed over, the worst examples of logic defying weirdness ripped out, re-written, re-shaped to fit into the shape that the completed work should be.

Draft one is indulgent gluttony, draft two is spartan dietary discipline, fat must be trimmed.

Some Practical Advice

Perhaps the easiest way to turn off the inner editor is to take a story that is very broad, like a folk-tale or a fairy story, and try to write it with actual characters who do what they do in the story for some inner human reason.

It's no less problematic to think of an empathetically sound motivation for Cinderella's wicked stepmother be mean to Cinderella because Cinderella is a much cherished part of the cultural idiom instead of something you made up yesterday. After all every person is the hero of their own story so how can the Wicked Stepmother sleep at night with her stepdaughter sleeping in rags on a mat before the hearth? Also, why does Cinderella's father allow this treatment of his daughter? What is that all about?

It doesn't take too long thinking about simple stories in this manner before you find yourself re-writing popular stories as 80k books because you suddenly realise that the standard version tells you the stepmother was wicked but does not explain why, or what that implied when set against the other events in the story.

Once you understand that other people's stories are no more coherent than your own appear to you perhaps you might be inclined to give yourself a break in the act of creating stuff in the first place. Also you must understand that after that first act of creation you are nowhere near finished, so don't sit back and heave a sigh of relief, the hard work only starts once you have all the material gathered together in the first place.

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Awesome. Only thing I'll add is: Expect to suck in the beginning, but finish everything all the same. Finish means, good enough to send to a publisher. You can't learn unless you go through these beginner pains –  Shantnu Tiwari Jun 28 '13 at 7:43
    
Finishing is good. However, science recently told us that it is perfect practice that makes perfect. So the key to both getting better, going through it and finishing is to make sure you know your limits. Pain will make gain as long as you're not perpetuating bad habits and bad practice. –  One Monkey Jun 28 '13 at 11:50
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Having written several novels myself, and having helped others, I indeed know your frustrations! While I don't have definate answers (as each person has different ideas and feelings) I can give you suggestions that might work for you or might at least help you out.

BTW, you're not alone.

1) Serials - If you're having problems with longetivity, try writing a series of shorts that are linked with one another, like the old 10 minute shorts they did back in the 50's. This could work well to making a longer novel, and help break the intimidation factor.

2) Be Like Star Trek - Perhaps your limiting yourself; you said you've got it planned, but perhaps that's what is holding you back. Start making stuff up. Seriously. Wing it for a while and see what you get.

3) Plug Away - Devote a certain length of time each day (or some other reasonable quota) to writing. Perhaps the breaks are you problem. I can pick up where I left off after extended breaks (in fact, I work on several stories at a time), but not everyone can.

4) Zen Is Boring, Boredom Is Zen - I don't know if you have a writing spot, but I do; the back seat of my car. No distractions, full focus. Perhaps you need a different writing spot?

These are what I use. There are others, but try experimenting, and keep working on it. Please don't get discouraged. And good luck!

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What's “longetivity” ? Also, “definate” is incorrect spelling of “definite” –  jwpat7 Jun 20 '13 at 21:07
    
+1 for 1) suggestion :) –  Tannalein Jun 20 '13 at 21:48
    
Can you explain what you mean by "Be Like Star Trek" in this context? I'm a Trekkie; I'm always interested in learning how other people interpret the show. –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 20 '13 at 22:01
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I used to have this problem. Here are some tips that helped me in no particular order:

1. Expect your first draft to be broken and be okay with that.

I would get somewhere around chapter 6, think: "oh, I should have had this other thing happen in chapter 3". I would then go back and rewrite chapter 3 and think: "oh, but I need this in chapter 2 for this to make sense." and the cycle would continue.

Now I just make a note somewhere and keep writing the story as if I had made the changes. It was hard to get my brain to agree to this, but once I did it helped a lot.

2. Figure out the end and work backwards.

I used to come up with a fun idea and just start writing, wandering all over the place without a clear sense of direction. Now I come up with the ending first and work in both directions.

3. Add more try-fail cycles.

Some of my early stories had a problem, the characters would solve the problem and I'd think: "ok, now what?" Now I take the first solution to the problem that comes to my mind, have them try that and let it fail for some reason. Then they get more information and try again, and fail again. (Mary Robinette Kowal calls this the "Yes, but/No, and" method).

If none of these work for you, you might just be a short fiction writer. Rather than curse yourself for that, use it as a strength. Consider writing a series of short stories that all take place in the same world, or try writing several points of view about some event, with each point of view being its own little story within a story.

Hope these things help.

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Aim for an ambitious plan, something that simply won't fit in several pages.

Methods to get there?

  • Multiple conflicts. Your protagonist faces simultaneously at least three different foes, who choose to stay in the shadows and act completely independently and for different reasons. Add a slice-of-life style struggle, a non-trivial romantic thread, and at least two red herrings (subplots that appear important only to be revealed to be trivial at the end). I guarantee something like this will be fairly long.

  • Try a nesting exercise story. Nesting is when a character inside the story tells another story. And then characters of that story in turn tell their stories. Try to get at least 3-4 nesting levels deep with at least 2 sub-stories on each nesting level. Read "Tale of the three storytelling machines of King Genius" from The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem for an example of that.

  • A road story. Someone travels from one end of the country to another and things happen along the way; they leave impact and influence later events but generally the road is at least a month long and not a single day goes without some trouble. Example: Damnation Alley.

  • A diary style story. A year out of life of X, each day detailed. See "The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾" for an example of that.

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I'm dealing with the same problem. Short stories would write themselves like you said. But anymore ambitious dies at around page 11. I tried planning, but that seems to dry up the creative juices even quicker leading to a bunch of notes I'm not able to manage or a scene by scene outline I don't have any motivation to expand.

I think I found a solution to this: you need to keep up the momentum of writing a short story, but paint with broader strokes. Start by taking notes (bullet points or whole sentences). Write anything down that comes to mind about your story idea. Things that could happen. Characters. Places. It hasn't to be perfect. Don't do any detailed description, dialogs other wordy stuff. If things aren't clear in your mind write down the question that's bothering you. The story will flow naturally from your idea. You will have a couple of pages with a rough, but complete sketch of your story. It isn't final or set in stone.

Then take the notes and bring in your planning method of choice. Chop the sentences up into scenes. Start detailing characters. Write a clean outline. Refer back to the notes when you get stuck.

You basically wanna expand on this rough sketch turning it into a whole book.

Keep in mind that your outline will (need to) change, while you do the actual writing. Run with it.

On writers block: Writers block seems to happen when something is wrong with your story. Take a step back and try to figure out the issues with your story and how to fix them. Try to write notes to identify and fix the issues.

I've taken these two ideas (notes and dealing with writers block) from Richard Laymons A Writers Tale. It isn't the best book about writing, but I tried the notes taking he mentions and ended up with a complete outline in a couple of hours. Writing with a outline is a breeze. Well until I hit road (writers) block ;-)

Hope that helps. Good luck!

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+1 for "Writers block seems to happen when something is wrong with your story." In my example, it was that my story felt fake to me. Another small advice to avoid writer's block: if you know the next scene you're going to write, leave some of it for tomorrow. It will make it easier for you to start writing the next day, you won't have to stare at it and wonder what to write. By the time you write the leftovers from yesterday, odds are you'll figure out the next scene. –  Tannalein Jun 24 '13 at 22:23
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There are two different reasons why people become writers. Some people become writers because they like the idea of being a writer. They like to play with words, they love the language. These writers usually write beautiful, poetic prose, but the story is usually not their strong point (I'm generalizing here, don't bite my head off). To them, the words are more important than the story. Other people become writers because they have something to say. They probably didn't consciously want to become writers, but they had so many stories inside their heads that the only way to quiet them was to write them down. These writers usually don't have a flowery writing style, but probably a more simple and straightforward one, depending on how much they care to work on it, but their stories are inspired. They don't open a word processor and go "ok, I want to write something, what should I write about", the story is already there in their heads, just waiting to be written. The point of all this is, do you have a novel length story to tell, or do you just want to write something, anything?

Have you heard of National Novel Writing Month? It's an event that happens in November where people from all over the world attempt to write a novel of at least 50000 words in 30 days. You might want to give it a try next November (or even next month, they're having a NaNoWriMo Camp). The point of it is not to produce a good novel, but to produce a first draft. The point is to prove to yourself that it can be done, and also to teach you a way of writing where you kill your inner editor and just write, because you simply don't have the time to edit, or even to think too much about it, you just write. When you start, you already know it's not going to be good, not at that first draft anyway. It might actually turn out to be total crap, it doesn't even matter. You might think what's the point then, but it actually takes the edge off. It lowers your expectations and you end up writing just for the hell of it. Plus it's fun hanging out with other "WriMoers" on the official forum and other places while you write, and if you get stuck, there's always someone to help you out. And then if you make it, if you write those 50000 words in a month, and you find that they have potential, then the real work starts. There's a saying that great books aren't written, they're rewritten, and it's true. You need to edit a novel three, four, even ten times to make it good enough for general consumption. There are quite a few best-sellers that were written during NaNoWriMo, like Water for Elephants and The Night Circus.

But to return to the first point of this post. I've done NaNoWriMo for the past four years. First two times I've used a story that came from a dream, that was with me for several years already but I've never bothered writing it before then. NaNoWriMo was a perfect excuse to write it, and it was hard, the story was only vaguely fleshed out in my head before I started writing it and I had to come up with a lot of it on the fly, but I did it. Next year I wrote the sequel, also without much preparations. Third year, though, I wanted to try something else. I came up with a really fun story, I invented awesome characters with character backgrounds and everything, I outlined in details almost half the novel before NaNoWriMo started, but when I started writing, it fell apart half way. Not because it was bad, it was maybe even better than the previous story, but it felt fake, phony. It wasn't a story that came to me, it wasn't inspired, it was something I tried to make up, to force. I suspect you have the same problem. Ideas for short stories come to you, they're inspired, they write them selves freely, as you said. But from your question, I have a feeling you're trying to force longer stories, and subconsciously you just don't see a point of telling such a story, that's why you get writer's block. You can plan it and plot it all you want, but if the story doesn't feel true to you, there's no motivation, no desire to write it, characters don't feel real... I'm not saying you can't write a good "made up" story (yeah, I know, all stores are basically made up, but some are more made up than others, if you know what I mean ;) ). The first type of writers, the ones that write for the sake of writing and not because they have something to say, they're usually good in "making up" stories. But with some stores, when you read them, you can just feel they were inspired, that writer was compelled to write them. They have that something special you can't quite explain.

So, if I'm right and this is the source of your problem, you need to let the story come to you, and not try to force it out. Maybe you could, like jersey suggested, make a collection of short stories with a same theme, or same characters, or same setting. Maybe you could take one of your short stories, something with characters you find really interesting, and try to build on it, to expand it. Some short stories just scream to be allowed to grow. But don't try to write it until the idea grabs you completely. Give it a month, half a year, whatever, to mature inside your head. If after that time you not only still want to write it, but it has also fleshed out in your mind, that's the story you can write, that's the story that will write itself.

Or maybe, in the end, you're just not made for longer stories. Just yesterday another writer complained to me that she can't write short stories because all her ideas for short stories have a tendency of growing into giant monster ideas. We're not all made for everything. Some of us are better at short format, some of us at long. You're no less of a writer for writing short stories. Some of the world's best writers wrote their best stuff in short story format.

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A few tidbits upon which to feast, and I hope they help:

First! Many of the greatest novels ever written were some of the shortest. For inspiration and encouragement, read these: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck, The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain, and a lesser known but brilliant short novel by a departed friend of mine, Brian Moore, Catholics. It's worth tracking down.

Second! The amazing, unique, and mind-blowing writer who has won more writing awards than any other writer in history has written hundreds of short stories, and many, many other works, and very few novels. If you haven't heard of him, you sure as heck should have! His name is Harlan Ellison. You could look it up!

Third! The absolute easiest path to writing a novel is... (drum roll, please)... get a collaborator! If you can find someone who wants to write with you, BINGO! You write for a while, and when you don't know what to write, you hand it over to your collaborator. When he or she gets stuck, you get the manuscript back, and you take over for a while. These days, you can do it online. It's easy. The next thing you know, a whole novel is staring you in the face. Wowser.

Fourth! What many successful writers do (really) is sit in front of the writing thing (used to be pen and paper, then a typewriter, now a computer, someday something else, right?). That's it. They sit there. Every day. Doesn't matter if they have anything to write. They force themselves to sit there. It's the law. Sit. Write something. Nonsense. Doodles. Words? Not a bad idea. Make something happen on the page. Keep at it. If something good comes out, hey, that's gravy. Keep going. Every day. Same time, same station.

See you on the bestseller list.

Oh, and by the way. Here's the hidden message. For every million people who are trying to get published, the one who does succeed has a secret weapon, and it's (shhhh, don't tell) not talent, charm, good looks, or a friend in a publishing house. It's PERSEVERANCE. All the way from sitting in front of the computer every day to rewriting a million times to sending your manuscript to every possible place it can be sold in the universe and never ever giving up. Now go out there and be a star!

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I noticed a pattern in your writing. It seems like you start off with lots of enthusiasm but your enthusiasm dies out after you write a sufficient amount of pages. This could be that when you are writing you are not being creative but actually taking a mechanical approach.

I self-published 3 books so far and each of them were at least 30 pages in length. They were not fiction but business/self-improvement advice but the same principals still apply while writing anything.

The initial draft you make don't worry too much, don't think about perfect, don't worry about making any changes to the formatting (bold, bullets, italics, etc...), just write! Let your right brain take full control and go as outrageous as the story can be.

After you have written sufficient amount (say 60 pages) whether in one sitting or more, then go back and start using your left brain to scrutinize your stories, characters and their relationships.

First get into the habit of writing enough without any interruption from your left brain and then worry about the technical aspects of the story or the document.

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I used to suffer from the same disease. This is how I dealt with it:

I started looking at each character as a "short story." This is truth for any novel; every character produces a subplot which is somehow connected with the main one.

I accepted that a novel can never be perfect. As the saying goes: "You write a novel when you don't know what you want to say or how you want to say it." So look at your novels as little lab experiments instead of something that has to be perfect.

If none of this works for you, you can try this:

Write a novel that consist on many intertwined short stories. David Mitchell does this beautifully on his magnus opus Cloud Atlas.

Write two or three parallel stories. Haruki Murakami does this pretty well in his novel 1Q84. The two protagonists alternate in each chapter (a third one is added in the middle).

Hope this helps. Good luck.

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