Success and the Great American Novel By Jena Ball

I’ve always loved words. As a child I was in danger of becoming a couch potato because my idea of fun was leaping headfirst into a book and staying there. I’d become so embroiled in the lives of the characters, that it was all my mother could do to get me to go outside and play. Looking back, I realize I truly believed that the physical world was just one of many. I fully expected to awaken one night and find Borrowers scurrying across the floor or a fairy twinkling over my bed. Thanks to the enchanting prose of C.S. Lewis, I also had great faith in the magical powers of furniture.

As I grew older, words took a more practical role. I majored in English, convinced that I would write my first great American novel by the age of thirty. Then the reality of my chosen vocation began to sink in. Great American novels are generally lived before they are written, and I had no way to support myself while I was busy accumulating life experience. I was forced to get a “real” job, and accepted a position teaching English in Japan. In my spare time I wrote for newspapers and magazines, tackling everything from restaurant reviews and business profiles to travel and adventure pieces.

When I returned to the United States I encountered another stumbling block. While in Japan I had been one of only a few native English speakers, but in the U.S. virtually everyone spoke English, and there was intense competition for any and all writing jobs. I was dismayed, and after a few inevitable rejections, discouraged. My solution was to temporarily abandon freelancing and take up copywriting and editing for small businesses.

Then in 1999 I was asked to write and teach a class for an online university about writing essays for publication. It was while researching and writing the class that I finally learned the skills I needed to land assignments at American publications, and realized how important teaching was to my growth as a writer. Since then I have opened my own online school for writers ), begun selling pieces to a variety of publications, and authoring a syndicated column called Halfway Over the Hill ). Though I have yet to write that great American novel, I no longer measure my success by how much I’ve produced, but by how much I’ve learned. Here are the rules I live by:

  • Learn and practice the basics of both writing and querying. It’s sad but true that it’s not enough to be a brilliant writer. You must also know how to market yourself and your work to the world.
  • Don’t work in a vacuum. Get and give (the giving is as important as the getting) constructive feedback that will help you identify your weak points and capitalize on your strengths.
  • Don’t limit your options. Though generating direct mail copy wasn’t my idea of “real” writing, it taught me a lot about marketing and fine tuned my ability to use short, evocative prose to get my point across. It also paid the bills! Only you can decide if a job will help or hinder your growth and career, but don’t be afraid to explore new options while still pursuing your ultimate goal.
  • Don’t sell yourself short. There’s a temptation as we’re first starting out to work for little or nothing, but if you stop and think about it you’ll realize that’s counter productive. You’re working. You deserve to be paid.
  • Return to the source regularly. Spend time with the authors who first taught you to love words, and always be on the lookout for new ones. Reading good writing is one of the best ways to improve your own and replenish the inner wellspring of creativity.
  • Celebrate the small steps as well as the major accomplishments, and never forget that you and your writing are a gift to this world.

Jena is a writer, teacher, and public speaker whose professional career began at the age of eight when she wrote, illustrated, and starred in her first play, Pumpkin Dreams. Since then she has been gathering material for the great American novel, and pursuing interests in everything from dressage and classical music to web design and the healing arts. In addition to writing, she has supported herself at various stages of her career as a bus driver, short order cook, swimming coach, office manager, ESL teacher, technical writer, and physical therapist. Most recently she founded The Nature of Writing, a small, online school for journalists and is the author of the syndicated column, Halfway Over the Hill.