Yesterday, I came up with a list of writing exercises for myself, but there's one that I could have included and didn't: Write a longer story.
It's a fair enough idea. A longer story ought to have continuity, so it could be a way to practice that. But I didn't include it.
I started writing short stories because I found myself getting lost in longer ones. I'd start, get tangled in my own words, then stall out and never finish. I'd feel bad about it for a while. Eventually, I'd move on to another idea.
Getting lost starts with noticing the flaws. This part doesn't make sense. This character doesn't feel right there. That decision feels off. Or there are no decisions at all—the story is just one ongoing mudslide, one damn thing after another. Some of these cracks seem to go straight through the foundation—the premise I started with in the first place. And—I'm going to have to write another scene, but I have no damn idea what comes next, because I only had a few images and they don't quite form a complete story on their own.
It starts to seem like there are an awfully enormous number of problems to fix. Fixing them could take a long time. Worse, what if I can't think of a way to fix all of them? What if some of the problems are just unfixable without major revisions that compromise the story I wanted to tell? Or what if I can't find a fix?
A fresh idea doesn't start with any of those problems. I'd start to feel like, hey, maybe we should start from there—maybe without thinking it explicitly. And once I feel that, I start to drop off on the story I started with, slowly at first, then faster. Then I feel bad. Then eventually I start on another story.
So I started writing shorter, simpler stories. I sometimes finish them, probably 80% of the time, which is an improvement. I still think I'd like to write longer ones. Even just slightly longer ones would be nice—instead of 700 to 2,300 word stories, say 4,000 to 8,000 words.
To get there, I think it would help to address some of the problems I've run into before:
- Plot holes.
- Figuring out what to write next.
- One damn thing after another.
I have a few thoughts on how I might address these.
Plot holes. Ideally, I could prevent them in advance, but how? And if I notice one while writing, how can I respond or recover? A silly idea for preventing plot holes: Ask ChatGPT. Tell it the plot and ask it to list any plot holes. A slightly less silly one: Ask a friend. I notice I've never heard any writer suggest telling a friend as advice, and that makes me wonder if this is such a good idea. I've told friends before about stories I wanted to write and it killed my motivation to actually write the story. So that leaves ChatGPT or something else.
Maybe it makes sense to sketch an outline as a simple sanity check. Sketch it however, because it's not a commitment to write exactly that story. Instead, it's mainly a check on the beats I've already figured out to see how "sensitive" they are, and how they might need backup from other scenes. If there are any obvious problems, the outline might bring that out.
Plus, an outline gives me something to feed to ChatGPT. Just a thought.
As for responding—shitty as it feels, maybe the best thing is really to just leave it and come back later. It keeps the story moving, and that's the important thing. I can't think of a better way to respond right now. I've tried bringing the story to a screeching halt while I try to figure out how logically to solve the problem, and I can say for sure that that doesn't work for me.
Figuring out what to write next. Logical backfilling/extrapolation sometimes works, so maybe I could try that? Add a dash of narrative logic, which says that in every scene there has to be a conflict or complication? Add to that a bit of narrative-mathematical reasoning about scene lengths and target piece length to figure out where and how and how much to complicate things? These ideas doesn't seem the most Intentional or Artistic—it's an approach that may work even if I don't know what I'm trying to do with the story—but it might produce ideas.
One damn thing after another. Insert more decision points! Prompt the character to make decisions. But how? And is this really (a) necessary, and (b) enough to make the scenes feel meaningful? It might be enough. It might be necessary, too.
Maybe another way would be to frame this is in terms of new information or events changing the nature of the situation and forcing a meaningful decision. It turns out the lost city we've been searching for isn't lost at all—it's being hidden. That forces a decision. But it's only meaningful if the new information might plausibly change the character's decision. If the character has a death wish, then learning that the McGuffin they're chasing is hidden behind a deadly system of traps doesn't make their decision meaningful. On the other hand, it might if their friend learns this and takes it as motivation to argue them out of going—because now the decision is not "go and die, or nah," it's "listen to my friend or go die." Maybe meaningful in this context means it has to be a decision between two options with comparable value to the character.
Those are some thoughts on what it might take to write longer. I probably won't run out and do this, but I might take some of these ideas forward into writing slightly longer stories, especially the ideas about creating meaningful decisions.