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mantra for the novelist
a novel approach to motivation
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)

You are a novelist.

You’ve never told anyone, not in those words. They haven’t asked. Or maybe you have said it, out loud, and gotten strange looks in return. They ask you if you’re published, and if you’re not, the expressions on their faces shift almost imperceptibly. It isn’t real to them the way it is to you. They want you to prove it.

But, published or not, you’re a novelist.

You’ve written one novel, or three, or five. They are sitting in drawers or, more likely, on the hard drives of computers that have already gone obsolete. You’ve had false starts and lousy endings. You’ve written page after page and trashed it all. You’ve wondered how it’s really done. You have been slaving over the same topic for the past 10 years or just the last three weeks. Or maybe you haven’t even started yet. Maybe you just know you have it in you.

You can be a novelist.

The novel is timeless. Well, not timeless, but a lasting and serious art form. Movies are still new. Screenplays are pointless unless they’re movies, in which case, see above. Poetry is over. Stage plays have evolved, and not in a good way, from a popular art form to the exclusive territory of the moneyed elite, and besides, they’re evanescent. Performed, gone. Writers who are serious about expressing themselves in a completely uncompromised fashion can be short story writers, or they can be novelists. Neither makes much money, but novelists have more room to express and explore complex ideas, and besides, they can use their unpublished works to prop doors open. Try to do that with “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”

Be a novelist.

Maybe you’re me. Maybe you’re at a point where the execution is easy -- okay, almost easy -- but success, real success, still seems impossibly far away. You pour out page after page and lots of those pages have never been seen by any eyes other than your own. You are half generous and half jealous with your work. You're afraid of rejection and you shouldn't be. You’ve written books, and they’re good books. Maybe even great books. But you have a list, a long list, of publishers who’ve said no to you. Sure, they said no to the book, technically, but it feels a lot like they’re saying no to you. Like they’re saying, Novelist? Her? Don’t think so.

To hell with them. I’m a novelist.

You’re going to try harder. You’re going to finish up the latest book and find someone to represent it, someone who believes in you the way you do. You’re going to put yourself out there. Every day. You’re going to work on that book, worry it like a dog with a bone, word by word and line by line, until it can’t get any better. Until every corner is smoothed and every surface is polished. Until it’s a gem. It’s Rushmore. It’s Notre Dame. It’s a work of art.

It’s a novel, and you’re a novelist.

Success isn’t that far away. You can smell it. You can taste it. People who don’t write any better than you do are making a living off it. People who made the right connection. People who were in the right place at the right time. Don’t begrudge them their success; they have nothing to do with you. You are your own person, writing your own words, working toward your own goals. Don’t be bitter. Don’t be angry. Be focused. Be self-centered in that good way, in the way that means you are wholly dedicated to perfecting your own craft, executing on your own plans, diligently moving forward, ever forward.

Being your own novelist.

You’re on your own, but you’re not. You’ve got resources, you’ve got friends. You’ve got fellow writers. Those who say writing is a solitary pursuit are missing out on a hell of a lot of fun. Go to workshops. Stay up late with people you didn’t know three days ago, diligently digging into every phrase of a story to figure out what it really says and what you really want it to say. Go somewhere you’ve never been and read, really read, other people’s work. Meet up with other writers, other novelists, and listen to what they have to say about your work. Are they interested? What would it take to interest them? Learn to listen, and internalize them, their voices. Carry around a writers’ workshop inside your head. Learn not to rationalize away the weaknesses of your own work.

Be a better novelist.

You know they’re there, right, the weaknesses? The way your dialogue sometimes sounds clunky, the way your plots dash too rapidly from one year to the next. The way melodrama creeps into the relationships or the way you only describe peripheral characters by the color of their hair. The way your sentences spill over, trying to do too much between the capital letter and the period, as if commas can do it all, as if that will fix it. The way you force your reader to wonder about things you might just as well tell them up front. You have weaknesses. We all do. Weaknesses don’t make you a failure.

You’re a novelist.

Repeat it to yourself. Quietly or loudly, time after time or just once. Say it. You need to say it.

You are a novelist.

Now go write something.


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry


a guy and a girl and a peach pie
an interview with author therese walsh
by jael mchenry
topic: writing
published: 10.5.09

how to write a novel in three days*
based on a true story
by jael mchenry
topic: writing
published: 6.5.02


robert melos
2.3.06 @ 2:36a

You're also a psychic.

I have to say, as a self-published novelist, the money may not be there, but when I get a sales statement from the publisher, or when I end up giving a copy of my novels to someone, I get the thrill of knowing someone will read my work. It doesn't even matter whether or not they like it as much as the fact it will be read.

Sure I'd like the millions of dollars that go with being a best selling author, and the accolades and Oprah support, and the Hollywood parties, but none of those things would be as fulfilling as knowing my work gets read.

Well, maybe the millions of dollars would be fulfilling.

I often wonder about the people I tell about my "career in writing", when they suddenly seem impressed, if they are even interested or even believe me until I produce a copy of my works, or send them one?

I've got a lot more comment, but too little time. Great column.

jason gilmore
2.3.06 @ 10:45a

Dear Jael,

I love you.



adam kraemer
2.3.06 @ 10:55a

First of all, excellent piece.

But second, can I play Devil's advocate for a moment?

You say one can be a novelist simply by writing a novel? Does that mean that if I draw a house, I'm an architect?

mike julianelle
2.3.06 @ 11:02a

Now, you have to get it built. Otherwise you're an artist.

jael mchenry
2.3.06 @ 11:04a

Sure, let's talk about that. Writing, as I mentioned here, is often characterized as a solitary pursuit. It doesn't require a certain education and it doesn't require other people to help execute on your creation. Being an architect (from what I know about it) requires both of those.

But I think your question is more relevant to, say, poetry. Does anyone who writes a poem become a poet? Am I a songwriter just because I once composed lyrics to a satirical version of "Fever" to enter a contest sponsored by Lever 2000 soap?

It's all about laying claim. I don't lay claim to being a songwriter. But I lay claim to being a novelist. And those uncomfortable moments in the first paragraph ("It isn't real to them...") happen when other people dispute that claim.

Part of what this column is about is not minding the dispute. Or, if you're that kind of person, using that dispute to drive you.

russ carr
2.3.06 @ 11:05a

That's disingenuous, and you know it. A novelist writes novels, period. But drawing a house (a non-technical drawing) is only one aspect of architecture. If you write a novel, yes, you're a novelist. But if you draw a house, you're just a house-drawer.

I understand what you're driving at — simply stating that someone "writes" a novel is an oversimplification of the blood, tears, toil and sweat involved in completing the task. But, unlike architecture, writing requires no formal training, no specific guidelines, no licensed inspections or any of myriad other restrictions; it simply requires a story clamoring to be told and the will to write it.

adam kraemer
2.3.06 @ 11:14a

Well, as I said, I didn't necessarily disagree with Jael's assertions. I was just asking a question I felt needed to be asked. And she's probably closer to a more correct comparison with the question of someone being a songwriter.

That said, I suppose writing a novel does make one a novelist. Then the question starts to be (as with songwriter, artist, poet) the quality of the work. I mean, I could be a novelist, but just a really terrible one.

jael mchenry
2.3.06 @ 11:15a

I don't mean to discourage the devil's advocate approach. Bring it on!

tracey kelley
2.3.06 @ 11:40a

"You're just a tracer!!"

This is very inspiring in many little ways but one big one: overcome your fears. You're allowed to say what you do, no matter how big or little you do it, if that's what you do. I'm a singer - but not a guitar player. I'm a cook - but not a chef. I'm a stained glass artist - just not one who does more than one project every five years.

It's the occupation label people get hung up on - the point at which what you do makes you money. But what you do for money is not all of you -

- or hopefully not.

I, personally, don't say I'm a novelist. But I am a writer. I find it the more general term keeps me in a more open frame of mind, e.g., I'm not one to write a lot of poetry, but because I"m a writer, I can try it.

joe procopio
2.3.06 @ 11:44a

We've all got 20 novels in our heads (I came up with yet another one last night). It's when you type "The End," that's when you're a novelist.

You'll know.

joe procopio
2.3.06 @ 11:45a

Oh... and don't actually type "The End." Unless it's a children's book.

jason gilmore
2.3.06 @ 11:52a

It all brings me back to something Three Name Man said last summer in Iowa. He said that Western culture is the only place where we are defined by what we do for a living as opposed to what we are passionate about.

That's probably why when people ask me what I do, there's always a three second pause. Because my day job is that I work in healthcare. But that has so little to do with my education, interests or dreams that it seems pointless to even mention it as being what I "do." What I "do" and what I have been doing since I was three is writing. And that is what I will always be doing, as long as I am physically able, no matter what other circumstances are going on in my life.

So that's one reason why I love this piece so much. Sometimes we need validation that we're not insane just because we believe something that we can't quote-on-quote prove.


adam kraemer
2.3.06 @ 12:16p

I think all of my future novels will feature, "The end... Or is it?"

juli mccarthy
2.3.06 @ 1:53p

"You're just a tracer!!" Ha! I COMPLETELY identified with Jason Lee's Banky in that scene - I was out of my seat almost as fast as he was.

I am NOT a novelist. I AM an artist, and sometimes I'm a writer. What's funny to me is that friends and family will often use those words to describe me much more quickly than I will - whereas when I use these words to people I don't know well, yes, they look for "proof."

roger striffler
2.6.06 @ 11:27a

While I aspire to be a novelist, I don't feel like I can say at this point that I am. I do believe that some minimal amount of proof is required, like at least one partially completed draft.

I think that claiming you are a *something* implies some kind of criteria that can be used to give it credibility. Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming like actors...when we say we're novelists, people will ask what restaurant we work at.

jael mchenry
2.6.06 @ 1:30p

I think that claiming you are a *something* implies some kind of criteria that can be used to give it credibility.

True enough. It might be a bit premature to call yourself a novelist if you haven't finished your first book yet. But I wanted to draw attention to the fact that it's not the publication of your work that matters; it's that you create the work in the first place.

And, extrapolating on something Adam said, plenty of people who can call themselves novelists happen to be bad novelists, which is just the way it is. Though I do believe everyone's capable of improving their writing. I might get some argument on the nature/nurture bit of that, I s'pose.

roger striffler
2.6.06 @ 1:46p

I really can't argue with you, and to be honest, it's just not as much fun without a bottle of wine.
Here's the thing though...if you tell someone you're a novelist, the very next question is always, "Are you published?". Which makes me think that the question really being asked is not, "What do you do?", but, "What do you do for a living?"

katie morris
2.6.06 @ 3:21p

Thanks for the inspiration, Jael. It reminded me of a quote I love from Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird":

"You don't have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won't be good enough at it."

dan gonzalez
2.8.06 @ 2:03a

Adam raises an interesting point. I may be nit-picky, but in my book novelists are essentially artists and architects are essentially craftswomen and men. Housepainting? Craft. Impressionist working with oils? Artist. Essay? Craft. Screenplay? Craft. Film? Art. Etc. (I have trouble with photography, though, seems grayer than the others.)

Anyway, I think Jael is what she says and Robert too. I call myself a writer, but I didn't for a long time because, I suppose, I didn't get some sort of acknowledgement that seems almost completely unimportant to me nowadays. So I was glad to read this piece, this is important, and inspiring. There are a bunch of talented writers around here who are as legitimate and as anybody else I read, and I say embrace it and keep it coming.

jael mchenry
2.9.06 @ 1:34p

Interesting to bring up art and craft as two separate concepts like that. I feel like each of the things you mentioned has elements of both art and craft to it -- with novels, for example, I feel like art gets me a first draft and craft gets me through all the subsequent ones, until the book is actually good. Inspiration is necessary but it will not carry you through, and although lots of people claim writing can't be taught, there are definitely some formal rules and practices that, in 99 out of 100 cases, will make a work better instead of worse. Or are our definitions of art and craft very different?

dan gonzalez
2.9.06 @ 11:26p

No, I don't think they are. I was waxing absolute. Certainly, there is a craft to writing, and many things have elements of both. I just think that, for the most part, any given pursuit favors one or the other more strongly.

I guess it's the difference between the artist and the artisan. The former creates something aesthetically intructive from his or her imagination, perhaps using craft skills in the process to render it, as a sculptor. But the latter, while equally talented, uses the skills to make something more utilitarian and pragmatic, like a building or a piece of furniture. It may be very artistic, but it's not Art itself.

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