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Personal Essays | Letting Out the Novel Within

By Jon Ziegler

The time was now.

The day was today.

My novel had been trapped inside me for far too long. I could no longer suppress the literary greatness within. I had to get it out.

I think everyone has a story in them waiting to come out. Writing it is just a matter of fighting through the lack of time to devote to it, the tediousness of transferring ideas into sentences and chapters, and the fear of one’s efforts being rejected; these are the mortal enemies of novels. But I would conquer these foes, and the beginnings of my novel would be delivered, kicking and screaming, into the world on this very day. My motivation was at a level that could only be described as epic.

The basic storyline for my book had been floating around in my head for years, so I felt confident that the rest of the details would fall into place without much effort. Besides, I had written many short stories, so how much harder could a novel be? It was basically a short story with more words.

I took my seat at the computer desk with my cup of coffee, spiked with a novel-writing shot of Irish Cream liqueur, and put on my novel writing glasses. Then, with an obligatory cracking of my interlaced knuckles, I began typing.

Everyone knows that the first sentence is one of, if not the most important sentences in a novel, so it was with every molecule of literary skill in my body that I crafted my crucial first sentence. Then, sitting back in my chair, I read my handiwork out loud…

Chapter One

Lord Cartman walked through the snow towards the castle where his beloved resided.

It seemed lackluster, bland. It had the taste of that one chocolate chip cookie in each batch that ends up with no chocolate chips in it. I knew I could do much better. I knew I could create a sentence that was on the level of a Rembrandt, only with words as my paint. Summoning even more determination than before, I leaned back over the computer and let The Force flow through me as I wrote a new first sentence.

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After a solid fifteen minutes of furious writing, thinking, and then re-writing, I once again leaned back in my chair. My brain was smoldering from the creativity I had just poured into my improved opening line. I took a sip from my coffee cup and then read my work out loud…

Chapter One

Brazenly, Lord Cartman trolloped through the loin-deep snow, longingly searching for his beloved lady Chrispness as the agonizingly cruel and horrible Arctic winds razored across his smarting cheeks (the cheeks on his face).

For a moment I stared at the computer screen. Had I heard my own sentence correctly? My wife, who was sitting near me and had heard my out-loud sentence reading, began laughing so hard that she snorted.

“Did you really just say ‘loin-deep snow’?” she gasped.

Ignoring my wife, I marveled at how bad my sentence was. Actually, saying it was just ‘bad’ was a compliment to it. I had just created what could quite possibly be the worst first sentence to a novel in the entire history of sentence writing. Somewhere, beneath the surface of the Earth, my ninth grade English teacher, Mrs. McCleary, was turning in her grave and weeping. My first sentence was not a Rembrandt, it was one of those modern art paintings with gaudy adjectives spattered chaotically all over it.

The excessive use of adjectives was only the beginnings of my sentence’s troubles. I had inadvertently named my main character after the fat kid on South Park, and the love of his life, Chrispness (a name that I come up with as an English sounding take on the Hunger Games Katniss) was actually named after an attribute one would desire from a saltine cracker. On top of that, a Google search of the word “trolloped” (a word I had used all my life) turned up no results referring to word as a verb or walking through snow. Apparently a trollop is “a vulgar or disreputable woman” (and a noun, according to Merriam-Webster.)

Slamming the top of the laptop down, I stood up and walked into the kitchen where I poured a mug full of Irish Cream liqueur with a shot of coffee. I was frustrated.

After returning to my seat in front of the computer, I spent the next few hours contemplating the process of writing a novel. Was I better off waiting until the words just flowed like water from the creative wellspring that was in my soul? Or should I start at my toes and smash every last molecule of creativity from body like trying to squeeze one more smudge of toothpaste from a tube that should have been discarded many brushings ago? Having found no answers to my questions, I went to bed somewhat discouraged.

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The next evening, I sat down and hammered out three more versions of my novel’s first sentence, each one slightly less heinous than the previous. The following evening I had moved on my second sentence, and before long, on to the second chapter.

I have learned that for me, the process of writing is something that needs every bit as much attention as what I’m writing. Often when I’m in a season of inspiration, I need to be wary of over-writing . . . so that I don’t end up with a sentence that includes the phrase “loin-deep snow”.  When it’s been a while since I’ve written anything, it might be time to force myself to write. The result of forced writing is often not what I feel is my best work, but it’s a start of something I can improve on later.

A lot of writing is learning and following rules: Commas actually have a formula to them. Apparently my method of writing and then going back and sprinkling in commas like salting a bowl of mashed potatoes is less than accurate.

A lot of writing is also breaking rules: I’m leaving the word “trolloped” in my first sentence. It sounds too perfect to worry about what Merriam-Webster thinks.

 

Jon Ziegler

Jon Ziegler is the author of the humorous short story collection Single Family Asylum. The self-proclaimed nacho enthusiast draws inspiration for his writing from the chaos that takes place within the home he shares with his wife and two daughters.

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1 Comment on Personal Essays | Letting Out the Novel Within

  1. Happy to see him on here. Jon cracks me up!

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