Jenna McCarthy is an internationally published writer, TED speaker, former radio personality and the author of five books including the recently-released If It Was Easy They’d Call the Whole Damn Thing a Honeymoon: Living with and Loving the TV-Addicted, Sex-Obsessed, Not-so-handy Man You Married (Berkley Books, 2011). Her work has appeared in more than sixty magazines, on dozens of web sites and in several anthologies including the popular Chicken Soup series. You can find out how Jenna survived tanorexia and watch the hilarious trailer for her new book by visiting jennamccarthy.com.
Describe yourself in 3 words: Tenacious, generous and stubborn.
What is your life motto? Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.
When did you start pursuing your career and how long did it take to become successful? I began submitting unsolicited poems (poems!) and short stories to Highlights magazine when I was about eight, but it didn’t occur to me to pursue a career in writing until much later. In college, I changed my major every semester in desperate search of my elusive purpose. (My parents were particularly impressed with my potential future in Leisure Studies.) I felt I’d reached the top when I landed my first magazine job as a staff writer at Seventeen. At the time I couldn’t even fathom how you could go up from there. Of course, humans adapt pretty quickly and soon enough I wanted more—bigger features, better titles, more prestigious magazines. After that the grail became to write books; now I guess it would be to write a string of bestselling books that are translated into every language and made into blockbuster movies starring Kristen Wiig and Will Ferrell. You have to have goals and dreams, right?
How much time and effort did you dedicate to pursuing your dream? I’ve been writing professionally for twenty years. I couldn’t possibly calculate the time I’ve put into it, but I will tell you that when you love what you do, it doesn’t feel like a great effort. The fact that I get paid to do what I do is still astonishing to me at times.
What are the challenges in your line of work? Oh, let’s see: Meeting deadlines. Making enough money to survive. Keeping up with social media. Coming up with the Next Great Book Idea. Chaining yourself to your desk when it’s 78 and sunny outside and your tennis partner is begging you to come out and play. (I live in Santa Barbara, so this is an ongoing challenge.) Getting Oprah to notice you. Making a bestseller list. Not letting negative reviews get you down. That last one is a killer.
What is the mistake that taught you an extremely valuable lesson? God it’s so humiliating to relive this, but here goes: My very first freelance assignment was for Cosmo magazine. I wrote the story and turned it in; they loved it and published it. Then they assigned me a second story. Well, this time the editor replied with some edit requests. I said no. (I said NO!) See, I thought my piece was damn-near perfect, and I figured I would just take the “kill fee” (25% of the agreed-upon payment) and then sell it elsewhere. Win-win! Except that’s not how it works in real life. The editor’s job is to guide and massage the story, and the writer’s job is to jump through flaming hoops until the story is how the editor wants it. I literally cringe when I think about that whole experience. Honestly, I’m lucky I wasn’t blacklisted from the publishing world completely for that bonehead move.
What is the best piece of advice you have been given to date? Write like you speak. To which I would add: Read everything you’ve written out loud, especially dialogue, to see if it sounds natural or forced. So many writers—especially novice ones—try to pepper their stories with the biggest words they know, or insist on being painfully, grammatically correct at every turn. But there’s a reason they came up with the phrase “poetic license”. We all know you’re not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition, but that’s how people talk. Nobody says “About what is that book you are reading?” It’s, “What’s your book about?”
In your mind, is formal training essential? Well, if you don’t have a solid grasp of the basics (grammar, punctuation, rhythm, plot, dialogue), you don’t stand a chance in this industry. Voice is something else entirely. It’s not generally something you’re taught, but something you develop and hone with practice.
Writing definitely isn’t brain surgery. And by that I don’t mean it’s simple or that any circus monkey can be taught to do it; there’s just more than one way to do it.
Do you think having a mentor is important? How would you go about getting one for this industry? I don’t have an actual in-the-flesh mentor, but I do have authors I admire and try to conjure for inspiration.
Writers tend to be solitary types, so finding a successful scribe who’s eager to spend countless hours coaching you won’t be easy. If someone you respect offers to take you under their proverbial wing, buy them something sparkly or expensive before they change their mind.
What are some steps those starting out can take to start/further their career? It’s never been easier to get your writing out into the world. You can start a blog, a Facebook page, a newsletter or a website. Comment regularly on other sites and pages you like, to draw readers back to your home base. Become proficient and prolific in social media—when you do, you’ll have a network of connections who will help spread the word about you and your work. Approach local magazines and websites with timely stories that have interesting angles. Be tenacious. If you have a solid voice and do your research, eventually someone will notice you.
What kept you going when you weren’t at your best? Yogis refer to the discipline as “practice” to reinforce the idea that there’s always room for improvement. (Which makes it somewhat disconcerting to me that they use the same word in medicine. Ahem.) Writing is like anything else: You’ll have good days and not so great days. There’s a story I love about Thomas Edison as he was trying to invent the light bulb. When asked about his repeated lack of success Edison allegedly replied, “I have not failed. I have successfully discovered 10,000 ways that will not work.” As a writer, you have to accept that not every sentence you craft is going to be brilliant. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough.
Do you believe that ‘making it’ is about luck and being in the right place at the right time? Writing isn’t like modelling, where some hotshot agent might discover you while you’re trying on shoes in Payless. I put in my time and paid my dues. I worked two and three jobs at a time, and never turned down a freelance assignment. If there was in fact a “right place and time,” I like to think I deserve some credit for getting myself there. I’m not trying to toot my own horn, but I think it’s dangerous to think that some people are born under some magical star and others aren’t. People like to tell me how “lucky” I am to have had success at a job I love, but the truth is the harder I work and the more I put myself out there, the luckier I get.