Four Things I’ve Learned About Writing While Working In Retail

While I was in college, I held a work-study position as an office assistant and receptionist at the school’s on-campus advising office. The environment was typically quiet, save for the two weeks of the year when the registration period got underway. My main duties were handling the occasional phone call and relaying messages to the appropriate personnel within the office, assisting students with the submission of paperwork for things such as declaring a major or requesting a change in their class schedule and assuring their electronic profiles were updated to reflect any changes, running errands and making deliveries across campus, and copying and correlating forms. Beyond that, it was an uneventful position. I was even allowed to do homework and work on my novels when things were slow (to which I attribute managing to complete Bound to the Heart in a semester’s time).

Since graduating, I’ve had a couple of retail jobs. The first being a seasonal gig for Halloween at a party supply store (honestly three of the worst weeks of my life, and that’s putting it mildly), and the other at the local shoe store. Even though the position is part-time, it does limit the time I have available to write between shifts and other obligations.

But that hasn’t stopped me from learning some things about writing, and this week I’m sharing a handful of those lessons.

It’s A Lot Harder Than You Think

The office job I had in college was my first job. I had done a lot of volunteer work with different clubs that I was a part of in high school, but I hadn’t gotten a part-time job like a lot of my peers did. For a first job, as much as I loved being in the office, it wasn’t exactly the best introduction to the working world because I went from the casual nature of snacks in the breakroom on Fridays and chatting with coworkers about period dramas around the Keurig during a lull to the absolute chaos of working in a Halloween-themed store leading up the Halloween.

As I was applying for retail jobs following graduation, I was looking at them as a sort of “Placeholder Gig” to have until I either found a career in my field that would let me put my degree to use or get one of my novels published.

Once I did land my first retail job, I had no idea what I was actually in for.

Without going into too much detail and avoiding a rant, I’ll start by saying that the first retail job I worked was a nightmare, and not the fun kind of nightmare you’d want to experience around Halloween. The management was kind of disjointed and careless in everything regarding the seasonal employees like not having enough functioning walkie talkies we were required to wear or brushing us off when we asked for additional assistance in the most crowded and chaotic areas of the store. There was a scary recklessness regarding safety protocol, being shamed for asking questions in your first week on the job, a flippant scheduling system, and forgetting to let employees take their breaks (God forbid you actually asked for your fifteen minutes after working six of your scheduled eight hours). Oh, and the theme from Nightmare Before Christmas being blasted every hour on the hour while the lawn animatronics are going off every five minutes with droves of screaming children run amuck.

It. Was. HELL.

And not the fun kind of Hell you want to be in for Halloween.

Halloween is my favorite holiday, but working that job absolutely ruined it for me that year.

But moving on…

I am willing to grant that working at a Halloween-themed store ahead of Halloween is quite possibly the worst way you could start working in retail, save for the Christmas shopping season. But it was a lot worse than I had expected it would be, between customers constantly yelling at you because you don’t carry a costume in a certain size or at all because it was sold out or was never sold at that store due to not having obtained the licensing (looking at you, Fortnite), masses of people running through the aisles and leaving them a mess even though you had just gone through and put everything back for the fourth time in your shift, and the overall way things were being run by management.

My path in writing is, in some ways, not too different.

I’ll admit I went in thinking, How hard could it be?

Well, writing a book is not an easy thing to accomplish. Apart from creating a solid plot with dynamic characters, there’s the writing part that can be difficult at times. Editing doesn’t make it easier. People frequently ask why I haven’t published anything yet, but the answer is simply because I’m not ready to. It takes a lot of work to write a novel, not to mention editing it and publishing it, whether it be done through the traditional route or self-publishing.

Books aren’t written overnight. I’ve been working on Guises to Keep for almost nine years now. As I’m twenty-three, that’s just under forty percent of my life!

Just like with my first retail job, there was a lot about writing my first novel that I didn’t account for. I’m on yet another round of edits and revisions, and there’s still a long way to go.

Why?

Because it’s a lot harder than you think.

Currently, I’m working at a shoe store and it’s a far more agreeable position, though it will be short-lived as the entire chain is in the process of going out of business so I’m hoping to find something as enjoyable if not more so in the coming weeks.

Selling Yourself (But Not Short)

In several interviews I’ve had for retail positions, variations of the same questions have come up.

Sell Me This Pen

This is the employer’s way of assessing your abilities to promote and sell a product.

In any given shift, it’s common for customers to seek an employee’s opinion about an item. It might be deciding between two similar objects or wondering about a certain feature, and it’s a sales associate’s job to help them reach a decision by presenting their knowledge about the item and answering whatever questions might be asked.

The marketing aspect of writing and publishing is something newer authors including myself don’t tend to think about. In my case, as someone presently more interested in pursuing the route of traditional publishing than self-publishing, my first instinct was that all I had to do was write the perfect story, sign an agent, send it off to the publisher and start trying to get Toby Regbo’s contact information for the film adaption while practicing my responses for interviews on daytime talk shows (remember, I started writing my first novel at age fourteen and I had absolutely no clue how any part the industry worked). I believed that the publisher would handle all of the important details, especially marketing.

However, this is far from the case.

As an author, writing a book is not enough. How will anyone know about it without you promoting and marketing it? Even if your publisher does supply you with some marketing materials, you cannot expect the team assigned to it to do all the work for you. You have to participate and help spread the word about what you have written.

When you have the chance to talk to someone about your book, you have to be able to speak about it in a way that will garner their interest. In some ways, it is a little different than my experience in retail, since in retail the goal has been to help the customer find the best product for their needs rather than promoting a book in a way that will make the reader want to read it, but both require presenting the product in a way that indicates a solid understanding of its best attributes and doing so in a way that makes the person feel like you are promoting a product you believe in if are not at least care about. 

Patience with the Patronage

A lot of retail jobs involve interacting with the public. Sometimes, it’s a fun and even rewarding experience. Working in retail can be a great opportunity to people watch. I’ve been able to observe couples, children of various ages, siblings interacting with one another (which can be helpful to someone who doesn’t have any brothers or sisters), different parenting styles, and overall just some really interesting conversationalists. Working a seasonal Halloween job, I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing a trio of frat boys arguing over who was going to be the second Tinkie Winkie in their party because the only other Teletubbies costume we carried was Po. There have been a lot of memorable moments like that.

But I’ve also had my fair share of headaches.

I’ve had one woman use a variety of swears in Spanish directed at me and threatening to call the cops because the company’s return policy prevented her from exchanging an item.

I’ve had people go from a pleasant everyday conversation to completely lashing out at me because the store didn’t carry a certain Halloween costume in her child’s size even though A| the costume was a toddler’s costume and the child in question was at least eight years old and B| this took place about two days before Halloween so we weren’t getting any more shipments in.

And I can’t forget the one woman who got upset because the debit card reader asked for her PIN number and refuse to complete the transaction because, and I quote, “that’s how the government tracks you.”

And then, of course, there are the usual run-ins with customers who try to tack on additional discounts to the liquidation sales even though they are surrounded by signs clearly stating no further discounts may be taken.

Be that as it may, this is in some ways a crash course for my future as a published author.

We all hope we get invited to do signings at major events where there’s a line out the door of people waiting to get their turn to talk about how absolutely amazing, moving, endearing, inspirational, thought-provoking, etc. your novel is. But the reality is that not everyone who reads your work will be ready to sing its praises in four-part harmony.

There are going to be critics. People are not going to find your book as enthralling as you do. The protagonist you designed to be witty might come across as childish or annoying. The symbolism of the boar in your character’s family crest might not get across well, or the research you’ve done might make a reader feel like the story is too advanced for them to enjoy.

And that’s okay. It’s no different than how our own interests and favorite things shape us. I know a ton people who love Mean Girls. To me, it’s an overrated film. I’ve seen it, I laughed maybe once or twice, but it’s not something I absolutely need to watch again and again. At the same time, I don’t know anyone who likes Titanic nearly as much as I do. I know a lot of people say it’s too long and predictable because you know Jack is going to perish in the sinking, and then there’s the great debate over whether or not both Jack and Rose could have fit on the floating door. In spite of all of that, Titanic is still a masterpiece in my mind and honestly my favorite movie.

And the truth is, you cannot let these people get to you. Your story is not going to please everyone. You’re bound to come across online or printed reviews giving your work few stars. There are the infamous internet trolls and others who will try to convince not only you but others that you have no business writing novels and should quit because they themselves did not like the novel you published.

But for every percentage that hates a book, there’s a percentage that loves it. Just look at Fifty Shades of Grey. The trilogy got so much criticism on everything from its writing style to the portrayal of BDSM relationships, along with its origin as a Twilight fanfiction (a series that has also amassed a deal of criticism). Yet Fifty Shades of Grey has become one of the bestselling books of this century. Say what you will about it, but despite its flaws its audience is not only existent but vast.

In the words of Taylor Swift, Haters Gonna Hate. But you cannot let them get too into your head. When there is criticism, learn what you can but don’t get hung up on it. Just keep moving forward and learn to let it go.

The Importance of Friendship

Let’s face it. Working in retail can be stressful.

However, being able to laugh it off with your coworkers is one of the best ways to deal with it. They may have even had a similar situation, and hearing about their own experiences with the problem can not only make you feel better about yours but can also give you some pointers in case it happens again.

The same goes for writing.

In my earliest days of pursuing a writing path and working on my first novel, I was hesitant to talk about the details. This was in part because I didn’t have too many writer buddies, but also because I had this (admittedly silly) fear that someone would steal my ideas if I talked about them openly. Back then, you would have been lucky to have even gotten a character’s name out of me!

Closing myself off like that was doing a different sort of harm to my story.

Even when I was in college and I had found a few close friends in my major and had settled into something of a niche, I was still tight-lipped about my projects. Everyone was well aware I write historical fiction but few knew what I was ever working on. It wasn’t until the semester I started working on Bound to the Heart that I started talking more about the stories I was writing ~ and that was the semester I graduated.

As I was setting up my blog last autumn, I also created a Twitter account. Since then, I’ve discovered the #WritingCommunity, which is essentially the hub for writers on Twitter. Even though I feel like I’m still trying to find my place in the group, I have been making a point to interact with other users. I also participate in a Discord chat started by one of my college classmates.

It’s still a bit of a struggle for me to talk about my WIPs, making friends is an important step in the writing process. Even though writers are sometimes depicted as reclusive and introverted figures, closing yourself off completely hinders progress. Talking to other writers, bouncing off ideas, getting feedback, even venting when something just isn’t working, that’s one of the ways we learn and grow as storytellers. The truth is you will hardly get anywhere if you are going alone.

 

This is only a short list of lessons I have picked up while working in retail. I’m sure there are others I have not included at this time and things I have yet to learn. As I continue to gain experience in working in retail, I might do a follow-up post.

Until then, I think it’s time for me to clock out for this one.

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