Mantra For the Novelist

image by mailumes
image by mailumes

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.


  1. says

    What a great dose of inspiration, Jael. I think we all go through this process. We don’t feel we have the right to call ourselves writers until we can use our book cover as our facebook profile pic. We go to conferences and hover in the back of the room with the other wannabees. I like to point out that an apprentice still considers himself a professional. Once you make a career decision, you get the title. In some occupations, of course, years of training follow that decision. Why do we think writing is any different. It takes a long time before you reach that point where you begin to understand a process, a structure, and all the other story mechanics that went unnoticed when you read just for pleasure (remember those days?).

    It looks like I’m the first here today, so I’ll begin: I am a writer! Now buy me a cup of coffee.

    Thanks for a great post on this snowy day.

  2. says

    I’m sorry to break the news to you, Jael, but you have an acquaintance for LIFE. You had me at “You are a novelist.” I’m going to take your photo and make it into a FATHEAD poster, and then, I’m going to super impose your words in a color that matches your aura. Today, you are Universe Woman, because Wonder Woman……AIN’T BE GOT NOTHING ON YOU!

    Please excuse, my speech pattern is deteriorating from all of the excitement.

    WoooooSaaaa! That’s my digital bow.

    I accept your Mantra, Master Jedi Jael or Master J.J…

  3. says

    Jael, I like your “Weaknesses don’t make you a failure.” Easy trap to fall into when just starting out. All writers have weaknesses and strengths; you are so right and it’s the process of writing that can fix weaknesses. Thanks for the reminder. This craft tends to accumulate with experience and an enormous amount of hard work and passion. We are mules, after all. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. says

    Wonderful. I’m sitting here over a carton of complimentary copies of my first published novel that just arrived and wondering when I made the transition from typist to novelist. And I think it comes from that sense of community. People read your stuff and help you and you read theirs and gradually the transition happens. It’s a very long build but worth every step.

  5. Kimberley Hughes says

    Thank you for this. I really needed to read it today. I’ve been in a writing group for the past two years and have written a “practice novel” which received great feedback from the group. Now I’m working on the real thing – the one I want to share with the world – and I’ve been second-guessing myself. “What if it stinks?” “What if nobody wants to read it?” “Shouldn’t I just focus on my everyday job, the one that I’m pretty good at, but doesn’t fulfill me in any way?”

    You’re right. I am a novelist and writing this story makes my soul sing. That is reason enough for me to keep going with it. Thank you for the inspiration and happy writing!

  6. says

    Cool, Jael, really cool. So cool–literally and figuratively from where I sit–that I’m going to keep on writing something. “It’s real to me…” Thanks so much!

  7. says

    SUCH a great mantra for any writer. I think I sort of forgot that I was a novelist last year. When things get really tough in “real life”, it can be easy to think you’re a failure in other areas. This is a very special post that I will remember for a long, long time. Thanks for your inspiration today!

  8. says

    Oh, I liked this!

    And it raises an interesting question: what will “trunked” novels be called, when all they do is languish on hard drives instead of, well, in trunks?

  9. says

    What a great jolt of inspiration – a cup of literary espresso, so to speak!

    And a MAJOR amen to this sentiment:

    “Those who say writing is a solitary pursuit are missing out on a hell of a lot of fun.”

    Thanks for posting this!

  10. says

    Definitely, as Keith says, a “literary jolt of espresso”. Love your post. “I am a novelist,” I say.
    It feels like when you stand in front of an audience and say, “I am an alcoholic” – a bit awkward but I believe everyone feels my pain.
    I’m working on my fifth novel and though I have one published in e-book format in 2012, I still don’t feel like a “real” novelist since I don’t have one in print — with sales that would at least buy me a toaster.
    But I keep on writing because I love it and, hey, I’m a novelist.

  11. says

    I’ve been a paid (non-fiction) writer for the past five years, and never had any trouble at all telling people I am a writer when they ask what I do.

    But . . . now . . . halfway through my second novel, I did it. I just said it out loud for the first time ever:

    I am a novelist.

    And I shocked myself by bursting into tears. Thanks for an incredibly powerful, important and liberating post.

  12. says

    Hi Jael, Your post was just what I needed this morning. It’s so easy to be self critical. But not today! Today I am a novelist and I have something to say. Thank you so much for giving me the courage to say that and now to sit down and write! You’re definitely an inspiration.

  13. says

    I love Leslie Miller’s response to this great post. I, too, have no problem with my non-fiction designation, but four unpublished novels behind me and I still feel like a fraud in the fiction world. Thanks for your encouragement.

  14. says

    Thanks, Jael! Such important, simple words…a reminder to all of us who live and breath stories and will keep sweeping our storytelling brushes until the beautiful tales within us are unearthed–every stark, enticing detail, just so.

  15. Tara K says

    Thanks for this – I’m trying to re-convince myself that I am a writer and your mantra really helps. We’re an odd bunch following a dream that only other odd bunchers really seem to appreciate! So really, thank you!

  16. says

    A great post, Jael. It makes me think I can submit to the slush pile at the MWG conference in April – after the last time, I swore off it forever! Thank you.

  17. says

    Wow, thank you for such a gorgeous, inspiring article! Even though I’ve sold two books, I still have a hard time identifying myself as a novelist. I keep thinking that after the next one is sold, *then* I’ll be legit. So thanks, I’ve printed your post and it will be read often!

  18. says

    This is exactly what I needed to read this morning. These are the perfect words for anyone struggling to get words on the page.

    This post is like the literary equivalent to a coach’s pre-game speech. Thank you for the inspiration, Coach Jael! xo

  19. says

    Right before I read your post this morning, I was thinking about the difference between who “makes” it and who doesn’t. My conclusion — those who make it are the ones who just do it. Posts like yours are the fuel for doing it — for sitting in front of the keyboard or pen and paper writing.

    Many thanks!