The Mad Scribbler: Imposter Syndrome

“The artist’s two-headed bogey: the hope of being discovered and the fear of being found out.”

—Dawn Powell (1896-1965), novelist

I have been exposed as a fraud. A shallow hack. A no-talent waste of shelf space. An imposter.

I have been found out.

It happened when I broke a sacred rule and… (I’m so embarrassed, I can scarcely bear to write this)… googled my own name.

Yes, I know better. Of course I know better!

The first rule of survival in a gothic novel is: Don’t go into the attic alone. And the first law of sanity for a novelist is: Don’t google yourself.

I had a new book out, Doppelgangster, and I was particularly anxious about this one because it was such a rollercoaster ride to get it published. It’s the second book in a comedic urban fantasy series about a struggling actress named Esther Diamond and her supernatural adventures in New York City.

My third agent had retired the original series proposal after three rejections, declaring it unsaleable. After finally leaving that agent, I sent the series out myself and got a good three-book offer for it, which deal I hired my fourth/final agent to “negotiate.” (Don’t even get me started on agents.) However, although well-intentioned, the publisher had no idea how to market the series and, moreover, put a disastrous cover on the first book, Disappearing Nightly. (How disastrous? During the show-and-tell presentation at a recent sf/f convention panel on packaging, the audience was stunned to learn this was an urban fantasy cover; their guesses had ranged from “a 1970s show biz memoir” to “a financial thriller involving a hooker.”)

Having ensured the first book in the Esther Diamond series was a commercial failure, the publisher then canceled the rest my contract. Behaving in an equally stereotypical manner, my fourth agent started treating me like a leper with halitosis—as did the agents whom I queried after leaving that one. (Really, don’t even get me started.) Agentless and dragging around bad sales figures from the first book, I entered some dark days. But all’s well that ends well, and a few months later I sold the second (and third, and fourth) books in the series—and, by the way, for better money than I had gotten in my previous “agent-negotiated” deal for the same material.

So, all things considered, I was very anxious when Doppelgangster was released, because perseverant though I am, I felt certain that if this didn’t go well, I wouldn’t get yet another shot with Esther Diamond—and, frankly, I love this series and feel it’s exactly what I should be writing.

This anxiety, I assert, is why I compulsively broke the first law of sanity for a novelist and googled my own name.

And I got what I deserved—exactly what people usually get when they behave so recklessly: I immediately stumbled across an internet chat board where readers were discussing Doppelgangster… and no one there liked the book.

The worst thing about the discussion was that this was not the disturbingly common “raving pajama people” sort of internet ranting which one can (with some injured amour propre and a soothing beverage) mentally write off as mindless venom that deserves to be ignored. To my sorrow, these people were not screechy monkeys. No, these people were reasoned and civil in their comments, damn them!

Some of them found the book shallow or tedious. Others thought it was disjointed and poorly structured. Two people in the discussion thought it just didn’t measure up to the first book in the series (proving, much to my surprise, that at least two people had bought the first book). A couple of people said there were so many urban fantasy novels out there that were better than Doppelgangster, they weren’t going to spend their time on my work again.

And so on.

I was freaking out. I was almost in tears. I saw my future flash before my eyes: This publisher, too, would cancel my contract, or at least not pick up my option. No other house would touch me. I’d never sell a book again. And I’d die impoverished, pathetic, and unloved.

I’m a mediocre hack not worth reading, and I have been FOUND OUT.

It took me more than five minutes of this self-flagellation to remember that, just a few days earlier, I’ve been pleased as punch because this exact same novel got a *starred* review in Library Journal. And although not starred, it got a glowing review in Publishers Weekly. My editor, the copy editor, the managing editor, and the cover artist all loved the book. I’d seen an enthusiastic email to my publisher from a key sales account that loved the advanced reading copy. On the same day I read the damning comments on this chat board, the book had an average of 5 stars from readers on and 4.5 stars from readers on (Yes, I was pathetic enough to check.) Numerous bloggers had given it positive reviews, and some had given it enthusiastic rave reviews. And I’d been receiving a steady stream of very nice emails about this book since its release.

Yet I completely forgot all of that and was reduced to convulsive panic and near-tears by reading one chat board where the readers, who all came across as reasonable, civil people—drat them!—disliked the book.

It didn’t balance out in my mind. I didn’t say to myself, “Well, by and large, the book has been very favorably received, and there are always going to be some people who just don’t like a novel.” I didn’t keep my perspective or consider the discussion in context. No, indeed. This spate of negative comments obliterated from my mind all the positive comments I’d previously heard, read, and received.

This is because I am subject to Imposter Syndrome, a not-uncommon phenomenon among professional writers wherein we fear that, sooner or later (probably sooner), someone is going to figure out that we’re not talented or skilled enough to be professionally published and paid for our writing.

Or, in the words of a multi-published friend of mine, after she’d gotten a couple of rejections, “I think I was just an eighteen-book fluke, Laura.”

My Imposter Syndrome is particularly schizophrenic, since I’m a fairly arrogant writer. Much of the time, I think I’m pretty good at this. And when I’m getting rejections, I think the problem is that editors and agents (back in the days when I was silly enough to work with agents) are making bad decisions, rather than that my work is inferior. (I also arrogantly assert that I’ve got evidence to back up my view: book sales, rave reviews, and awards for multiple projects that multiple editors rejected and multiple agents declared unsaleable.)

And yet, despite my long experience (over two decades) of selling my work (approximately 30 book sales, 60+ short fiction sales, and many columns, articles, and essays), every time I read a reasoned, civil, negative commentary about my completed, polished, published work—the best work of which I am capable—I think, “They’ve found OUT. They know.” And I become convinced I’ll never work again.

I don’t have this reaction to agenda-driven, venom-filled diatribes by dung-flinging internet baboons. But whenever I see unfavorable criticism of my work by someone who’s coming across as a reasonable adult… I realize that I’ve been exposed as an imposter!

Which is a good example of why, with the next Esther Diamond novel coming out in a few days, Unsympathetic Magic, I firmly vow not to google my own name.

Published in Nink (Vol. 21, No. 8) in August 2010.