Impostor Syndrome

(For most of my life, I thought “Impostor” ended in “-er.”)

I’ve learned a few things over the last couple of days. One of those is that the bravado I wrote of in my last post was somewhat premature. Criticism might be necessary to get a book finished, but it can also make me seriously consider skipping the whole thing. (Yes, I know that’s an overreaction, and I’ll get to that.)

I submitted the Problematic Prologue to my writing group for critique, and I feel like I’ve been run over a cheese grater. Little peels of bleeding, oozing Lizmonster are littering the floor of my house. My husband has no idea what to do with me; he’ll probably never agree to read my book now. (I may ask him to read but not critique, which would let us both off the hook.)

In retrospect, I made a few errors when submitting. First and foremost, I should have told people I thought the piece was a problem and was looking for help. That would have alerted people that I knew there were issues, and that they could skip all the “You need to go and learn about writing” advice. Second, I should have told them why I thought I needed a prologue. (Someone asked me that in his response.) Prologues are viewed with deep suspicion, and probably with good reason. Without a distinct purpose, they really shouldn’t exist. I should have made the purpose of mine clear; people could have helped me figure out how to make it do what I wanted, instead of just telling me it was dull.

Because that was the gist of it: dull and uneventful. And they are right, and for the most part I found that really helpful to hear. It made me realize I’ve been approaching this prologue from the wrong angle all along – no wonder I haven’t been able to make it work. I’ve been trying to jam it with exposition and background and backstory, and introduce some character relationships. That’s not a hook, that’s a reader’s guide. It doesn’t belong as part of a prologue to a suspense story.

My writing buddy – who appears to have figured out I’m still something of a hothouse flower in this environment – was extremely tactful and precise in pinpointing what was wrong. In the prologue, my character is thinking about one thing while doing something else. Instead, he needs to be doing something while thinking. What he’s doing – an action that precipitates the entire plot of the book – needs to be the focus. Noodling around in his head may be OK, but only if it adds texture and tension to his actions.

And all that backstory and character crap? Who the hell needs it in a prologue? Why was I jamming it in there?

I actually found an answer to that one: Because I forgot what my book was about.

For a while I’ve been wrestling with how science-fictiony the story is. More than one person has asked me why it’s set in the future. “Because it is” seems to be an insufficient response. I tried, in the query letter, emphasizing the other-worldliness of it, but for the most part those details just got in the way. In the prologue, I tried to include more setting to fix the reader in my universe – and there it’s nothing but clutter.

I’ve known from the beginning I have a genre problem with this book. It’s not hard SF, despite faster-than-light travel and terraforming. It’s an amateur-detective mystery, complete with the fish-out-of-water living in the small town. It’s a romance, after a fashion, although that’s not a point of conflict. It’s speculative fiction, set in a relatively now-like future, and I’ve been trying to evoke ray guns and high tech when that stuff just isn’t important to this story.

Genre, I think, is mainly at issue when you’re marketing. When you look for an agent, you want to send a query to someone who represents your type of book. When you’re selling, you want people to understand what kind of book they are buying so they aren’t disappointed. I’d call my book a murder mystery, but there aren’t a lot of futuristic mysteries out there that aren’t sold as SF. (J.D. Robb comes to mind, but I suspect a lot of her audience crosses over from her romance fandom. Additionally, her universe is only about 50 years in the future.)

I’ve known from the beginning that this one – even if I write it the way I want – would be a tough sell. Until a few months ago, I was on the fence about attempting traditional publiishing. I finally decided I should at least give it a try, and suddenly I got caught up in trying to shoe-horn what I was writing into what I thought might be marketable.

Like the prologue, I was doing it backwards. I was trying to change my book into what I thought someone might want instead of figuring out how to find out what agents might want the kind of book I have.

It’s interesting. My sequel is, in a lot of ways, much more traditional SF, and much more traditional romance. I suspect it will be easier for me to write a query for it that falls into a well-defined genre.

But what of this book?

I’ve taken the next week off of work, and I’m going to do one last hard revision before getting ready for beta. (Because, despite wanting to wrap it up in cotton and keep it safe from naysayers after the prologue critique, I’m still sending it out to beta.) And while I’m doing that, I’m not going to think about what I need to add to make it more science-fictiony; I’m going to think about character and consistency and pacing. That will likely include more science fiction elements, but it’ll include a lot of other things as well. I’ll be fleshing out the whole story, not just soldering on window dressing.

So, given that posting for critique got me such great answers, what was so awful about it?

I’ve been writing for more than 40 years. I have a style. There’s a rhythm to my prose that sometimes wanders toward stream-of-conscioiusness. Sometimes it works pretty well. Sometimes it turns into chewing gum and needs to be pulled apart. My style, though, is what it is, and it’s not going to change.

One critic hated my prose. It flat-out annoyed him. That, above and beyond the useful criticisms I got from him and others, really threw me. I dropped right into the black hole of self-doubt. What if I can’t do this? What if the problem is not my prologue, or lack of ray guns, or too few suspects? What if – despite a lifetime of practice – I just can’t write?

I do recognize what an overreaction that is. For one thing, a couple of people specifically said they liked the style of it, and were just pissed off that nothing happened. For another thing – oh, all the famous writers I don’t enjoy. Hemingway, Faulkner, Melville, Thoreau, Steinbeck…undeniably great writers that people have loved to read for decades. I don’t like their prose. That doesn’t mean they can’t write; it just means that they’re not writing for me. And so what?

I’m not writing for this critic. He would hate the rest of my book, even the parts I am happier with. Guess what? He’s not the only one. A lot of people are never going to like the way I write, no matter what story I am telling. That’s not humility, it’s just statistics.

And still, the self-doubt spiral. Impostor syndrome. This thing that I’ve wanted to do my whole life – what if I am really terrible at it?

What would convince me I’m not?

2 thoughts on “Impostor Syndrome

  1. It’s SOO hard to take those critiques. You are blessed to have your tactful friend. So was I to have a similar friend. And you WILL keep writing because it’s what you do, You are a writer.

    1. Thanks, Lucie – I am blessed in an awful lot of ways. And yeah, I’ll keep writing – even when I was feeling my absolute worst, I was already doing the rewrite in my head! I don’t think I could stop, no matter what happens.

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