Mantra for the Novelist by Jael McHenry


Mantra For the Novelist

Jael McHenry

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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.

You’re going to try harder. 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 money doing what they love. 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.

(An earlier version of this piece appeared on Intrepid Media.)

About Jael McHenry

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.


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