The Red Carpet…to an Empty Room?

Victoria Zackheim – Guest BloggerVictoria Zackheim

I remember a conversation that took place perhaps ten years ago. Someone asked me what would make me happy…as a writer. Getting published? I said yes, that would certainly do it. Or do you need to have strong book sales? Well, yes, that, too. Ah, she went on, and the New York Times bestsellers list? Sure, why not? As the list of goals became more unreachable—I mean, come on, the Nobel Prize for literature?—I began to see how I set the bar so high that I could achieve nothing but a sense of failure. Why do I do that to myself? Why do…we? Perhaps it’s because everyone we’ve ever met, and who learns that we write, tells us about their book. Not that it’s written, but it’s planned out. Besides, once you have the story, the rest is easy, right? You just sit down and let the story flow onto the page. Piece of cake.

I was thrilled—beyond thrilled: ecstatic—when I signed my first book contract. How many years of writing and revising, re-revising and hair pulling, did it take before I saw my words in print? More than a decade, and it still struck me as a dream come true. The publisher was a small press, so I understood that all expenses for PR, book tours, special appearances, etc. would come out of my pocket. They counted on me to get the book reviewed, to have articles written and interviews scheduled. So yes, if I expected copies of the novel to sell, I’d have to make it happen.

I don’t know what I expected, but I recall what I imagined:bookstore readings with popping flashbulbs and fans lined up, my novel clutched in their hands. Why not? My first reading was in front of 120 people, half of whom bought the novel. Publish and they will come! I tried to recall this success months later when I was standing in a bookstore tucked away on Bremerton Island, in Washington, wishing that someone other than the owner would show up for the reading. And then my wish was fulfilled: a girl of twelve entered the reading area and took a seat. Her mother had left her there while she shopped in the nearby boutique. But I could handle it, I was a risk taker! (Except the part about explaining the Holocaust and survivor’s guilt to a twelve-year-old.) In truth, my only memorable anxiety came at the Wordslingers Festival in Nevada City, when I sat on a panel of authors and one of them asked everyone in the room to stand and sing Amazing Grace. Was I supposed to have a theme song and no one told me?

When I teach—which I do often—I never enter the room prepared to talk about me. In a writing workshop, it’s all about the students, the writers eager to share their ideas and discover ways to expand the story, make it deeper and more engaging, more compelling and gripping. We discuss concepts that seem confusing and difficult to those considering these elements for the first time—the arc; plot and character development; back story; creating conflict, and so much more—and then comprehension hits and suddenly all those wonderful ideas become the skeleton upon which the entire book hangs. Forgive my foray into food metaphors, but it really is not easy as pie (which actually terrifies me, never having prepared one from scratch). It is, however, logical and energizing and downright fun!

I’m very excited about teaching at this year’s three Women at Woodstock conferences, and sharing the teaching arena with my dear friend Anne Perry. Between the two of us, fiction and nonfiction are covered—from concept to outline to writing to the final product. I cannot wait until October!


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