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having the write stuff
authorship, readership, and the sacrifice that isn't
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)

It's a very common thing these days to bemoan how writers don't get to "just write" anymore. That instead of just getting to focus on writing a fantastic novel, and having your success rise or fall on writing quality alone, writers have to do a thousand other things. Those who want to become published authors also need to be marketing geniuses, self-promoters, social networking gurus, and tireless advocates of their own brand.

In a way, this is kind of true. It's also completely misleading.

Here's the thing. We can moan about this, but it's a trade that was made a long time ago. If it had been the good old days, most of us wouldn't have had a snowball's chance in hell to get published in the first place. Everyone bemoans whether the great writers would've been able to "make it in today's climate" -- this article in Salon asks it about Harper Lee -- but what about all the writers who couldn't make it in yesterday's?

Hemingway was a career journalist who traveled in the right social circles. Harper Lee had wealthy friends willing to bankroll her in New York while she wrote. The authors of yesteryear were disproportionately rich, white, male, and fortunate. It may seem like you only have a slim chance of getting published in today's environment, but for most of us, thirty to fifty years ago that slim chance would have been none.

So you can look at the non-novel-writing part of being a published novelist as a distraction, as people do. Or you can look at it as the price you pay for having a chance to be published, no matter who you are, no matter where you live.

Or you can look at it another way: as writing.

Query letters are writing. Synopses are writing. Pitches are writing. Press releases are writing. Twitter is writing. Facebook is writing. Blogging is writing.

It's all writing, and you learn from it all.

Because when people talk about how writers need to be masters at self-promotion, they're not talking about phone calls or book tours or face-to-face cocktail-party chatter. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they're talking about the internet. And the internet is writing.

(Brief interlude, by the way: my novel comes out in a week, and I swear to you that neither my agent nor my editor nor anyone else at my publisher has ever said "you have to" about anything related to promoting myself or my book. Maybe they'll do it in the next seven days, but I'm guessing if it hasn't come up so far, it probably won't. They've offered me the chance to draft or edit a lot of publicity materials: memos, pitches, flap copy, video scripts, all that, and I always say yes. Because I want to. Because I love to write, and I care as much about writing about my book as I did about writing my book -- besides, who's better qualified?)

The idea that writing fiction is completely separate from other types of writing is seductive. We want to believe it. And yes, it is. It's different. Being able to write good sentences doesn't mean you can write good fiction.

But I'm a firm believer that the more you write, no matter what you write, the better you get at all types of writing. Not all the skills translate, but some of them do. Some of them very directly: being able to briefly describe your book for the sake of appealing to agents makes you better able to briefly describe your book for the sake of appealing to readers. And if you don't want to appeal to readers, what are you writing for? Promoting your book isn't some evil, corporate, constraining thing. It's the art of finding readers for your book, or allowing those readers to find you.

You don't have to do anything. You only have to write a good book, and get an agent for it (which, again, you do by writing.) But you also have the power to do so much more. Thirty years ago, you wouldn't have had the chance. Why wouldn't you do everything you can?

You're a writer. You have the power to connect with readers -- and other authors -- by writing. Call it promotion if you want, but it's a chance to connect. And it's powerful.

(And I promise you, some of it is actually fun.)


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


books are not babies
part i: approaching the launch
by jael mchenry
topic: writing
published: 4.4.12

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


dirk cotton
4.4.11 @ 10:03a

Totally agree, but I have an additional perspective. I love to write and if something I write gets published, that's just gravy. When I write something, then edit it until I'm happy with it and then read it that last time, it feels wonderful. Seeing it published doesn't add a lot more for me. Not that I ever expect anything I write to be published, but I agree that the odds of that happening have improved a thousand-fold in the past decade.

Great column.

jael mchenry
4.5.11 @ 8:45a

It's a good point, Dirk -- publishing is only one of many goals for writers, and it's not what everybody wants. I just wanted to address people who want to be published, and want their words to be read but the widest possible audience... but are resentful that reaching that audience means they have to write something that isn't The Book. It's all part and parcel, in my opinion.

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