This is a guest post written by Benjamin Ethridg, author of Bottled Abyss.
I attempted to write a novel without outlining at all and it was quite an experience. That’s rhetoric for: it almost drove me out of my pink-gray ever-lovin’ mind. See, up until then I’d gone through two types of story building. 1) the loose outline, and 2) the full outline. I’d used both and only remembered writing novels using the full outline model, which is a very organized, thought-out, detailed document that essentially pulls all the joy out of writing. What’s left to experience when you’ve got everything right in front of you? For me, the sense of exploration translates through your writing. If you’re bored, your prose will have about as much flavor as the paper it’s printed on.
Now, back to the “no outline” scenario. I made a mistake of lumping together all of my past experiences with outlining and said, well the hell with that, I’m gonna go the Stephen King route and just make stuff up as I go. This is the feather-in-the-wind, Forrest Gump approach to writing. Not to imply mental handicaps or simplicity of expression—it just really is a fateful way of crafting a story. Whatever you end up with, that’s what it is. You could change it, if only you knew where to begin.
The method did work for my story up until about three quarters of the way through the first draft. I had no sense where to take the story any longer. Having free reign for so long, following no direction, I’d been building toward something that wasn’t there. Perhaps with another story the method may have succeeded, but this time it was a liability. I had to regain focus on the plot at a very late stage and that led me to, I believe, a quite lopsided book.
I still like that novel and would love to jump back into it one day and insert more story in the first half, but that’s a lot of leg work for a novel that was already supposed to be done.
If that novel is going to be sacrificial, I think it’s a price well paid for a lesson well learned. I discovered I fall somewhere in the middle with outlining. Rigid outlines hamper creation and directionless writing can erect catastrophic roadblocks. So, if you’re at all like me when approaching a novel or even an involved short story, have some sort of idea where you’re headed, make a thin outline every three chapters (sections) or so. You don’t have to follow it—in fact, try not to explicitly follow it—but if you sense your feet coming off the road, it’s great to have your bearings when you wish to return to from the wilderness.
Herman and Janet Erikson are going through a crisis of grief and suffering after losing their daughter in a hit and run. They’ve given up on each other; they’ve given up on themselves. They are living day by day. One afternoon, to make a horrible situation worse, their dog goes missing in the coyote-infested badlands behind their property. Herman, resolved in preventing another tragedy, goes to find the dog, completely unaware he’s on a hike to the River Styx, the border between the Living world and the world of the dead.
Long ago the Gods died and the River dried up, but a bottle containing its waters still remains in the badlands. What Herman discovers about the dark power contained in those waters will change his and Janet’s lives forever…
About the Author:
Benjamin Ethridge is the Bram Stoker Award winning author of the novel Black & Orange (Bad Moon Books 2010). For his master’s thesis he wrote, “CAUSES OF UNEASE: The Rhetoric of Horror Fiction and Film.” Available in an ivory tower near you. Benjamin lives in Southern California with his wife and two creatures who possess stunning resemblances to human children. When he isn’t writing, reading, videogaming, Benjamin’s defending California’s waterways and sewers from pollution.
To learn more about Benjamin, visit his website www.bketheridge.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
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