25 August 2018

It Gets Harder (Praise and Imposter Syndrome)

by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl...in which we admit that praise comes with a nasty side dish)

"the Canadian literary heir to Donald Westlake" EQMM, Sept-Oct 2018 issue
How the HELL will I ever live up to this?

A while back, I was on a panel where the moderator asked the question,
"Does it get harder or easier, with each successive book?"

"Easier," said one cozy writer, a woman I respect and know well.  "Because I know what I'm doing now."

I stared at her in surprise.

"Harder.  Definitely harder," said my pal Linwood Barclay, sitting beside me.

I sat back with relief.  The why was easy.  I answered that.

"Harder for two reasons," I said.  "First, you've already used up a lot of good ideas.  I've written 40 short stories and 18 novels.  That's nearly 60 plot ideas.  It gets harder to be original."

Linwood nodded along with me.

"Second, you've already established a reputation with your previous books.  If they were funny, people expect the next one to be even funnier.  It gets harder and harder to meet people's expectations."

"The bar is higher with each book," said Linwood.

This conversation came back to me this week, when I got a very nice surprise (thanks, Barb Goffman, for pointing me to it!)  Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine reviewed my latest book, and called me "the Canadian literary heir to Donald Westlake."

At first, I was ecstatic, and so very very grateful.  Donald Westlake was a huge influence on me.  I still think his book where everyone on the heist team spoke a different language to be one of the zaniest plots of all time.  To be considered in his class is a wonderful thing.

And then, the doubts started.  I'm now looking at my work in progress with different eyes.  Is this plot fresh?  Is it as clever as I thought it was?  Am I still writing funny?

Would Donald Westlake fans like it?

Or am I the world's worst imposter?

So many authors on Sleuthsayers are award-winning.  All of you will, I'm sure, relate to this a little bit.  Was that award win a one-off?  Okay, so you have more than one award.  Were those stories exceptions?  You haven't won an award in two years.  Have you lost it?

Will I ever write anything as good as that last book?

I'm dealing hugely with imposter syndrome right now.  It's a blasted roller coaster.  I know I should be spreading that EQMM quote far and wide, on Facebook, Twitter, blog posts, etc.  Possibly, I should be buying ads.  And at the same time, I'm stalling in my WIP, with the feeling of 'never good enough.'

Luckily, the publisher deadline will keep me honest.  I work pretty well under pressure.  Next week, for sure, I'll get back to the book.

This week, I'll smile in public and suffer a little in silence.

What about you, authors?  Do you find imposter syndrome creeps into your life at times when you should be celebrating?  Tell us below. 

The book causing all this grief:  on Amazon


  1. I think everyone wants to write as well as one's best book but after writing many books, I think one becomes realistic- some will be good and some not so good. But a comparison to Donald Westlake is money in the bank!

  2. Thanks Janice. I have come to the disturbing conclusion that I can't judge my own books anymore. You're absolutely right.

  3. Melodie, I think (almost) every writer gets up in the morning, sits at the typewriter/computer /whatever and says, "Can I really do this again?" And then, somehow, we do.
    You're great! Remember that.

  4. Eve,you are so kind. I'm quoting you on that line: "Can I really do this again?" My students deal with "Can I really do this?" I think they have no idea we constantly face "Can I do it again?" And again. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Oh yeah. I'm up for two awards right now. I should be dancing every night in the moonlight. But in the last few months I got five rejections in a row. Two on the same day! I was quite discouraged, wondering if I had lost my mojo. But all you can do is keep writing and try to not psyche yourself out.

  6. Barb, two awards in one year - I'd be dancing, all right! That's huge. And I know the feeling very well, when those rejections come. What I'm finding interesting right now: We've had three women comment. No men yet, which is unusual. Is this a female thing, primarily? Doctoral thesis, anyone?

  7. Melodie, we had a saying in DEA: "You're only as good as your last case." (Translation: You're only as good as your last book.) And the bosses said,"What have you done for me lately?" (Translation: The same as an editor or literary agent asking, "How are the sales of your latest book going, so we know what to do about future contracts?") Realistically, yeah, the pressure is on for each new project. The best we can do is try to relax and have fun with it while doing our finest writing.

  8. I think the writing gets harder because as you get better, you demand more of yourself, and how many of us can really judge impartially? I struggled for nearly three months to put together an outline, and after sweating blood to write a few pages, I put it away. It didn't feel good enough and I didn't care about it anymore. The quality is hard to judge, but my not caring about it said everything.

    Every book gets harder because I know both my readers expect me to show them I can do it again. Sometimes, I believe it, too. The trick is to keep writing and knowing that eventually the junk you write will generate better stuff. Will it all be great? Of course not, but that's what revision is for.

    Good friends help, too. Or cats.

    Donald Westlake...wow.

  9. R.T.: Yes, I guess that's true. It's a challenging profession (novelist) as publishers do look at your last book rather than your whole backlist, to determine your future. Most other professions are not so single-obsessed. Have fun is the key. I'm with you there!

  10. Steve, you said it well. As I'm sitting here, I'm wondering if part of the pressure I feel is because I've taught writing for so many years, and feel like I should be able to model every aspect of good writing for my students. Every time. And that's probably unrealistic. Thanks for commenting!

  11. Mel, talking about other professions, I was once lamenting that I'd been unable to get Springsteen tickets. My friend said, "Eh. What's he done lately?" After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I said, "He's Springsteen. It doesn’t matter what he's done lately. And he doesn't ever have to do anything again. He's Springsteen."

  12. Lawrence Block wrote, if i recall correctly, that when he wrote his first novel, soft-core erotica, back around 1960 the publisher liked it so much that he offered him twice as much for the second book. Block found himself terrified. He had written the best he could. Now he had to write something TWICE AS GOOD! We all find new ways to panic, don't we?

  13. Laff! Barb, I love that. Wouldn't it be lovely if people say that about us someday?

  14. Rob, Lawrence Block (along with Donald Westlake) are my heroes. Thanks for that wonderful anecdote! I'll remember it, smile, and slap myself one upside the head when I start to panic.

  15. What a compliment! Wow. Having read your works, I agree, too. Well done, Melodie! Wow, again!

  16. You're a prince, Leigh! Thank you for the kind words.

  17. Congrats on the great review--much deserved! And I agree with you. It just gets harder (but hopefully we keep upping our game to match). :-)

  18. Thank you Art! I recently challenged myself to write a YA caper (okay, it wasn't my idea, but when your publisher says 'we need you to write...') Have no idea if it rocks, and won't until it is out next year, so I am a little insecure at the moment. Hey - just got an idea for a new blog post for here!

  19. Melodie, I posted this on the FB page of a writer I know who was definitely going through Imposter Syndrome. (He'd just gotten back from, I think) Worldcon in CA, where everybody seemed to be a bigger, better, more awarded writer than he was! :)

  20. Jeff, that *is* the downside of big writing conferences. I'm overwhelmed at Bouchercon by the shiny stars - it can make you feel out of place. Thanks so much for sharing!

  21. I'll look forward to the YA caper—and to the blog post too!


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