Inposter Syndrome: A Case Study

How many times have I put aside/sorta quit/tried to walk away from writing? I could list practically every other blog I’ve posted here. It was almost six months ago that I wrote “Writing Shouldn’t Hurt”, about how awful the grind had become.

(As it turns out, the short break I took has helped a lot. I recharged my batteries, finished the draft of Altars and Acolytes, and I’m now halfway through a new short story, my first in several years. I also found some success, which I’ll be happy to tell you about when an official announcement is made.)

Two years ago I posted a retrospective on my time at Viable Paradise. VP for short, it’s a one-week, intensive writing workshop taught by industry professionals. I hadn’t articulated it at the time, but I was suffering from some severe imposter syndrome. Several writers in my cohort had gone on to publish novels, others broke into the short story market, and I … hadn’t sold anything. (For money, I should add. Giving away stories isn’t worth your time.) I continued to write, request critique, revise, submit … and didn’t make any noticeable headway.

There are a few measures of success for writers. One, simply put, is words written. It’s the one you have the most control over, but also the least noticeable. However, your writing improves incrementally over every page written, so even if the world beyond your beta readers doesn’t see your work, you can still tell you’ve made progress.

A second measure is your overall rejection count. Stephen King famously hung his rejections from a rail spike. Some successful writers I know use this metric. If they aren’t getting rejections, they aren’t making progress. You have a bit less control over this — you can finish your stories, but there also have to be markets to send them to.

A third metric is market sales. How many stories of yours found homes? Are your novels repped by an agency? You have the least control over this: there’s the words you’ve written, plus the preferences of the editorial staff, shifting publishing trends, and the economy as a whole.

When I wrote that retrospective in 2014, I was too quick to judge my own success against others using that third metric: sales. Rejections to sales for an author just breaking out are 100-to-1, maybe an order of magnitude more than that. Oh, and because social media only presents our best selves, we never hear about the thirty rejections a pro author received before a sale, just that they sold their book and yours is on rejection #45.

When your friends are successful, it’s easy to forget just how hard breaking in truly is.

Even now, the hedonic treadmill rolls on. My one sale isn’t enough anymore, not to be a real writer. Real writers have their own anthologies, and three-book contracts, and book tours. Heaven forbid I ever go on a book tour and think, “well, real writers do lectures…”

The times I’ve wanted to quit writing, it’s usually been because I was feeling like a failure, and I felt like a failure because I was using the wrong metric for success. Words written should be the only metric that matters. Some authors, like Brandon Sanderson, publicly track their writing progress, but many are fairly secretive about their process. Writing, after all, is usually a private affair.

Imposter syndrome has also kept me from pursuing further writing workshops and critique groups. I skipped the Viable Paradise reunion earlier this year; although I was short on vacation days, the bigger reason was my reluctance to compare my progress with the rest of my cohort. I didn’t want to look like a fluke, that the VP staff had wasted a spot on me.

That’s changing. I registered for Paradise Lost, a weekend-long workshop meant as a refresher for established pros and graduates of other workshops. It helps that I have something ready for critique by then, whereas a year ago everything was either too old or half-finished.

If I care about my writing, I have to treat myself like a real writer. And the first step is measuring progress in a way that makes sense.