The Ups & Downs of the Writerly Life

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Hope everyone is well and has had a good summer. I'd say "great," but if you've found this blog, chances are you're at a career crossroads and I know how unsettling that can be. If that's your situation, I'm both glad and sorry you're here.

Speaking of forks in the career road, I've recently been comparing my lifelong dream of becoming an author with the reality of it and wondering if maybe it isn't time to retire my laptop and apply for a gig at a garden center where I could water shrubs, daydream about these chocolate sea salt caramels, and preserve what's left of my peace of mind. 

How did I arrive here? Writing can be a lonely endeavor, and much like any other profession, it's hard not to compare yourself to your peers, especially ones who seem to be enjoying loads more success. (In my case, it's those authors whose novels make every "must-read" list and are quickly optioned by Hulu.)

It doesn't help that plenty of well-meaning (I hope?) people have asked me, "How's it going?" with their mouths turned downward like sad mimes. "Is your book selling?" They frown as if I'm foolishly attempting the impossible. (Picture the face you'd make if I'd just shared plans to summit Mt. Everest in pajamas with only a can of Pringles for sustenance.)

I tell myself they're just curious or trying to be supportive in their own way. Still, their questions are forcing me to take stock and ask myself, How is this going?

The answer is tricky. While of course, I hope my books are selling, I've never viewed writing as a get-rich-quick scheme, or even a quit-your-day-job scheme. In fact, last summer a colleague asked, "When all is said and done, what would you say your hourly rate was for your memoir?" 

"Ballpark?" I'd laughed. "Probably negative eight cents an hour if you consider how I could've spent the time I devoted to writing, revising, researching agents and publishers, and willing my tale to make it beyond the iCloud."

For me, writing has always been about my love of words and putting them in an order that helps me figure out how I feel and what comes next. (I guess you could say I'm doing that right now...) 

Don't get me wrong. There have been many wonderful surprises in publishing. So let's start there. 

Just the fact that someone who isn't your long-suffering spouse is willing to read your words feels like a miracle. I've received lovely emails, texts, and photos from friends, family, and former colleagues, and each feels like a gift. I'm beyond grateful for every single one and enormously thankful for the generosity of so many people—people who bought the book or the audiobook (THANK YOU!), people who posted about it on social media (THANK YOU!), people who requested copies from their library (THANK YOU!). In a world where there are constant competing demands for our time and attention, I'm truly honored and humbled by the outpouring of support. 
Spotted at Bethany Beach Books by my neighbor, who fortunately is nothing like the characters in this fictional neighborhood!

I've also had some fun and unique experiences. I appeared on a panel in Bryant Park's Reading Room and had the opportunity to meet and listen to fellow authors share excerpts from their books. 
Photo by my dear friend Alison

Making that afternoon even more special, Gail Shalan, the incredibly-talented narrator who voices one of my characters in the audiobook version of The Perfect Neighborhood, came in from Brooklyn. A lovely man who'd read my memoir attended and purchased a copy. And! I (finally) got to meet my dear friend, fellow writer, and marketing maven Alison Y in person after years of exchanging emails. It was a fantastic afternoon and I felt lucky to be there surrounded by so many interesting people.  

I've also been a guest on a handful of podcasts and I've loved chatting with the hosts who, by the end of our conversations, feel like old friends. 

But there have also been some letdowns and since I've already shared so many career setbacks here, why stop now? Let's begin!

Months ago, I agreed to give a presentation at a nearby library. Rather than offer a reading/signing, the librarian suggested a workshop format. Believing that many readers are also writers, I said I'd be happy to talk about the ins and outs of writing query letters aimed at securing a literary agent. (I'd attended something similar at my local library years ago and found it really helpful and inspiring as did the many others who attended and were eager to learn best practices.) 

The librarian loved the idea and I created a slideshow outlining the query process. I made a handout for attendees so they could jot down notes and then flesh out the rest at home. When I called the library to ask how many copies I should bring, the librarian told me two people had registered. TWO! Ouch. I called my mother who frequents that library and planned to attend my presentation. 

"You're not one of these registrants, are you?" I asked.

No, she assured me. Okay, so at least there'd be three people, plus the librarian, I hoped. When that evening arrived, it was a balmy 99 degrees in New Jersey—even at 7 p.m. Anticipating a terrible turnout, my mom invited two friends (pity attendees), which was lovely, but none of these sweet ladies intends to write more than a grocery list any time soon, so I felt a bit guilty about dragging them out of their air-conditioned homes for a talk that was as useful to them as a how-to video on bull-riding.

Another woman, who I'm fairly certain wandered in hoping to find a ladies room, stayed, no doubt feeling too sorry for me to leave. I appreciated it, especially because the two people who'd actually registered never showed. 

I wanted to crawl under the table like a toddler and pretend none of it was happening, but I went through with my slideshow and fielded questions—mainly from the librarian.  

Before I left, she handed me something, "I thought you might want this," she said.

What I wanted was an IPA with an 11% alcohol content, but I didn't tell her that. 

"This is our newsletter. It has your event in it." She beamed. "It'll be hitting mailboxes later this week."

I bit my tongue not to ask, "Does it come with a time machine?"

Days later, my mom called to tell me she knew why turnout was so low. 

"'Cause no one cares about query letters and I'm an unknown? Oh, and the newsletter advertising it arrives tomorrow?" I was tempted to say, still bitter about wasting everyone's time and gasoline.

"The town was showing a movie in the park that night. I heard there was free popcorn." Her voice was wistful, like she was sorry she'd missed it. "You can't compete with that!"  

Apparently not. But it was good practice, I suppose, as I'll be offering this workshop again at a different library in October. Hopefully, I won't be presenting to a cluster of stuffed animals and errant spiders. If anyone needs tips on writing a query letter, ask away, I'm your gal!

I haven't had great luck with bookstores either. Several years ago when I was the editor of an online news site, I went out of my way to support indie bookstores and their owners. I'd ask them for seasonal recommendations and put together round-ups. I'd advertised their events. I'd profiled their businesses.

One of those owners reached out to me in the spring after she'd received an advance copy of my novel. "I'm really enjoying it," she wrote. It made my day as I've read how a bookseller spreading the word can make a real difference in sales. 

Weeks later, she wrote again, "My sister and I finished your book and really enjoyed it! Nice job! I'm passing it around to my staff."

Encouraged, I took what shouldn't have felt like a leap of faith but did.
"If you decide to stock copies, I'd be happy to come in and sign them," I offered.

"We'll see," she wrote back. 

Ouch again! Unfortunately, that was actually one of the more heartening reactions.

I was in touch with another bookstore owner. When I said I could stop in and sign copies, she wrote back to say she's trying to "reduce the number of signed copies in the store." Huh. I wanted to respond, "I know, right? If there's one thing readers hate, it's a signed copy! It's right up there with a drunken, unreliable narrator!" 

Then, I was scheduled to have signings at two locations of a bookstore chain that is now having issues with ordering supply—so those have been canceled. 

But these problems are nothing compared to what happened last Sunday when I was supposed to have a signing at a South Jersey book cooperative. 

Long story short, I joined the co-op earlier this year as they claimed to support NJ-based authors. (As a member, you're invited to special events, sales, and they say they will host a signing/reading for you when your book is released.) With my book out in July, I thought a signing in a beach town would be ideal.

After exchanging emails with the events coordinator, we settled on Aug. 7 for a signing as he said that would give him enough time to order copies and have them in stock. 

When I showed up Sunday afternoon, the downtown was bustling. There was a buzz in the air as it was a gorgeous, cloudless summer day. Even my usually-unimpressed 17-year-old suggested I pose beside the sandwich board that bore my name. I was excited... until I stepped inside and the manager, staring at my empty arms, asked, "Did you bring books with you?"

I stood there confused wanting to say, "No, 'cause we're in a bookstore. (Duh!) And also no because I was told you were ordering them!"

Due to what they're calling a "miscommunication," there wasn't a single copy of either of my books in stock. I'd have happily brought some with me if I thought I had to, like I would if I were signing books at say a Waffle House or a Jiffy Lube. 

But when you're signing at a bookstore, one that tells you they're ordering your book and supporting local authors, you don't expect to have to bring your own supplies. 

As I stared at a table buckling under the weight of dozens of copies of Elin Hilderbrand's The Hotel Nantucket, (nothing against Elin but last time I checked she wasn't a local author) I wondered if maybe writing wasn't actually the easy part in this business. 

My family and I attempted to salvage the day by heading to the beach where we promptly got a parking ticket while looking for the parking meter station. Some days are just like that. 

I wonder if these are rites of passage. How many times have I read tweets from authors who shared that they'd driven one hundred miles to an event only to read to the bookstore owner and her cat. 

Years ago, I stumbled upon this eye-opening, brutally-honest essay, Who Will Buy Your Book? by Tom McAllister in The Millions, and it may be time for a re-read.

As I wonder: Do I forge ahead or find a new passion? I remind myself of advice I recently gave to someone else: Look at where you are versus where you used to be and be grateful for all you've accomplished.

I need to focus on the fact that years ago I'd have given my lucky writing bathrobe to have had a failed book signing because it would've meant that somewhere out there was an actual book I'd written. And that would've been enough. 

Whatever path my career takes, I'm grateful for the journey and the lessons learned, and most of all for friends, family, and readers who've come along for the ride.

Be well and, as always, thanks for reading!


D. Liebhart said…
This is a great post for writers to read. Too many of us have been led to believe that there is a place we get to where we are “done.” For someone like me still in the trying-to-get-an-agent phase, that feels like the finish line. But then I see a friend who got an agent now has a different finish line. Her book is out on submission and she’s waiting for yet another undetermined length of time for that process. You have books published and are at a different phase of the journey that comes with it’s own serious challenges. I definitely have days that make me wonder why we do it! But then I spend an afternoon playing with a piece and just get lost in the words and am (briefly) totally happy with my creation. The Perfect Neighborhood is my next read.
Liz Alterman said…
Hi D!

Thank you so much for reading and for your thoughtful comment. It's so true, the goalposts are constantly moving in this business. Loving the making of something and getting lost in the words is definitely what keeps me going. Looking forward to reading your novel in its entirety!

All the best,

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