The imposter complex is very real. It’s something a lot of us feel when we first start to write, in my case after the initial burst of youthful exuberance had worn off. I remember that time well, when it became clear that while my debut novella was well received and had earned me a few followers, the world of fiction hadn’t exactly caught fire the way I planned.
Years later and at least a few weeks wiser, I know that was unlikely to be the result of a novella by an inexperienced writer, wet behind the ears and full of certainty that his ideas would have Hollywood knocking on his door. In a few short months I went from feeling like the lost prince with a crown birthmark on his arse, waiting to be hauled from obscurity, to wondering what the hell I was doing here. Of course I’m not Neil Gaiman. I’m not Pratchett. I’m not Joanne Harris. I’m just another writer, slogging away with thousands of others, torn between feeling like I don’t belong and clinging to the certainty that if I give in and give up, I will never be a Gaiman, a Pratchett or a Harris.
That feeling doesn’t seem to go away. Whether it’s ever going to or not I don’t know, but I do know that I’ve spoken to writers far more successful and experienced than I am who still feel exactly the same way. That they don’t belong, can’t believe they’re getting away with it, and as though some day they’re going to get found out.
One way or another it’s something we have to deal with, and that’s going to be personal to the individual, but the way I manage is to set goals. I’m also a weight lifter and a fairly decent one at that, and that’s another discipline where you have a task to complete today and an idea of where you want to be in a month, six months, a year. There’s no final end date, just like a writer isn’t training to write a book and then stop, or a guitarist practices for ten years, plays a gig and then bins their instrument, job done.
Over the time I’ve been writing I’ve gone from fanfiction to short stories, to a novella and then a novel, which I was fortunate enough to have published. Again, great response, much greater than the novella, but no commercial firestorm. That’s not what I wanted of course – who doesn’t want to write something that turns you into J K Rowling overnight? – but it’s progress. Serious progress, and you have to hold onto that. A writer better than they used to be is a writer heading in the right direction, getting closer to that long term goal, whatever it may be.
The thing that keeps me going, through the hard days, the low mood days, the disappointing days, the days I feel like an imposter, is a single story. It’s a story I’ve had in my head for a long time, since I was writing fanfiction in my early twenties. I started writing it more than once but it’s a bigger, more complex, more personal story than anything else I’ve written, and I’ve abandoned it every time because I couldn’t write it. I didn’t have the skill set yet, and I still don’t. That stung, but instead of abandoning it, I’ve put it away until I’m ready. Now it’s a goal, one I intend to tackle the moment I feel I’m ready for it.
Obviously there are no guarantees – I’m not saying it’s the book that will make me or break me, it’s not the last or hopefully best big idea I’ll ever have, but for now it’s big enough, challenging enough and distant enough to keep me going, always on the horizon and inching closer with every other thing I write. Every good day, every positive or helpful review brings me nearer to the day I turn a blank page into the first page of that book.
One day I hope to hark back to this post, the proud owner of a book that made the fiction world sit up and take notice, but if not, I’ll be sat there writing something else, aiming for the glimmer of that next big project on the horizon.
You don’t have to do what I do, but I hope that helps someone else. Knowing you’ve got a story in you that you’re not good enough to write yet can break you, or you can turn it into a goal.
I didn’t think I’d ever be good enough to write a whole novel, once. I was wrong. I’m now finishing my second, a better writer than I was when I thought I was brilliant.