Writing Advice

On Imposter Syndrome

A typewriter on a wooden table with a black background and the word IMPOSTER stamped in red across the image.

I had a nice weekend at ArmadilloCon! I got to meet some authors I knew from social media, which is always lovely. I’m in decompress mode today, but one panel has been lingering with me, and that’s the one about imposter syndrome. It was a forty-five minute panel with six speakers, so I didn’t get to talk at any length about what imposter syndrome looks like for me and how I get around it, but I have a blog.


If you’ve managed to go your whole life with a raft of confidence and no doubts, let me explain imposter syndrome: it’s the unfounded feeling that you’re not good enough, or knowledgeable enough, or smart enough to do something, and if you go ahead and do it anyway, then someone will immediately notice how terrible you are and expose you to the rest of the group as a fraud.

From this point onward, I’m going to be talking about my experience. Yours may be different! It probably is, but hopefully hearing about my experience and how I deal with it will be helpful or at least let you know you’re not alone. :)

For me, imposter syndrome is tied up with rejection sensitivity, gatekeeping, and having an excellent imagination.

I was put on the panel because I was complaining about feeling like an imposter while filling out the panel interest list. Speakers were supposed to go through and indicate which panels they’d like to do and were qualified to discuss.

That second part is what triggered my imposter syndrome, because am I qualified to talk about writing erotic scenes in SF/F? I mean, yeah, I do write those scenes, and readers seem to enjoy them, and I’ve written nine books, but there is probably someone better who could talk about it.

And that’s the problem. I compare myself to this imaginary “someone better” and always come up short, because the person in my imagination is perfect in every way, knowledgeable on every subject, and never, ever has doubts.

It’s the same reason my doctor had to change the pain scale, because when she asked it where ten was the worst pain I’d ever imagined, my pain always was like a four. Yeah, it hurt a lot, but not like being burned alive, eaten by a grizzly, and falling into a chipper shredder, combined. That would be a ten-worthy pain.

Having an active imagination can be both a blessing and a curse. :)

Another aspect is gatekeeping. Fandom has long had a gatekeeping issue—as does tech, let’s be clear—and I generally avoid situations where I’m going to have to “prove” myself: “Oh, you like Star Wars? I bet you can’t even name everyone on the Jedi High Council.”

You’re right, I can’t! I have to write down my own character names so I don’t forget them in the middle of a talk, and I spend hundreds of hours writing them. My goldfish brain flatly refuses to hold onto some types of information, which just feeds directly into my worry that maybe I am a fraud.

So how do I get past it? How do I put that book out there, or speak on that panel, or offer advice on the very thing that’s whispering maybe you’re not good enough?

Practice and perseverance.

I know you were probably hoping for a magical cure, but alas, if I had one, this post would be a whole lot shorter. :)

Unfortunately, overcoming imposter syndrome means doing things that are scary. It means putting yourself out there, for good or ill. Your brain doesn’t want to be scared or anxious, so it’ll tell you that it’s better to stay quiet, to take the easy path, to not take the risk.

Your brain is a damn liar.

So when it starts whispering its lies, try to look at things objectively, as difficult as that can be. If you truly can’t be objective, ask a trusted friend for advice. I know if I asked my BFF if I was qualified to be on a panel about writing better sex scenes in SFF, she would be like, of course, why is this even a question for you?

Writers tend to fall into imposter syndrome pretty easily, very possibly because we’re so good with empathy and imagination and worst-case scenarios. Are you writing a book and worried that it’s awful and you suck and everyone who said they liked it is lying to you? Welcome to being a writer! I’d say most of us struggle with those feelings, even people who are highly successful. Keep going, you’ve got this.

Did your book come out but it wasn’t an instant bestseller and now you’re worried that you’re a fraud? The vast majority of books aren’t bestsellers. It’ll be okay. Keep going and maybe your next book will be. Or your tenth, or twentieth. Or maybe you’ll have a very solid midlist career that will make tons of readers happy without ever writing a bestseller—but only if you keep going.

And imposter syndrome doesn’t go away with “success.” If anything, it can get worse, because the measure of success moves. At first, it’s just finishing the book. Then it’s getting an agent. Then a publishing deal. Then hitting a list, then hitting higher on the list. When the goal posts keep moving, it’s easy to fall into the thinking that you aren’t good enough.

You are good enough.

And don’t worry if you still feel like an imposter. You aren’t alone, and a little bit of imposter syndrome isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At least you won’t have to worry about being a pompous asshole. :)

I had several people come up after my panels this weekend and tell me how much they enjoyed my contributions. If I’d let imposter syndrome keep me at home, then those attendees would’ve missed out on my perspective, and that would’ve been a shame.

So keep going, keep doing those scary things, and it will get easier. Not easy, at least not for me, but easier. I’ll never measure up to that imaginary perfect person in my head, but I don’t have to. Even messy and imperfect and unable to remember the answer to a single gatekeeping question, I still have value to contribute.

Maybe the thing I say or do or write will be the thing that someone desperately needs right at that moment.

And that’s worth taking the risk.

Carving Out a Place For Joy

A black-and-white photo of a woman in an evening gown looking sad while writing a letter at a desk with a single candle.
Her creative well is empty. Also, I totally look this nice while writing. 😉

It’s been about a month since I turned in book two of Starlight’s Shadow, and I’m finally starting to decompress and think about book three. My life would probably be a lot easier if I worked at a steady rate all the time instead of in bursts fueled by deadline panic, but I’ve made peace with my process. :)

The downtime immediately after a deadline is when I do a lot of the administrative tasks that get pushed off when in I’m in crunch time—things like creating promo graphics, updating the website, and cleaning the house. It’s also the time when I give myself permission to work on whatever catches my interest.

Which is how I started writing a little magical fantasy romance story (very) loosely inspired by beauty and the beast.

It’s supposed to be a short story, but we’ll see. It’s already 5k, so it’ll probably turn into a novelette, assuming I finish it at all. One of the joys of writing for pure fun is the complete lack of expectations. I’ll write until it’s not fun anymore (or until I need to start on book three) and no one will be disappointed by the lack of ending except for me.

One of the things I’ve really had to grapple with is that once I turned writing into a job, it became work. It’s work I love, granted, but it’s still work. It seems obvious, but it’s not, exactly. It’s insidious, until creating for pure joy suddenly becomes “I really should be working on X, instead” because there is always some X that needs doing.

No matter how fast I write, there will always be an X lurking in the back of my mind as the “better” use of my time. And purely from an economic standpoint, that’s not entirely wrong.

But from a creative standpoint, all of those expectations and demands can kill creativity, especially straight off deadline.

Creating for pure fun is an important part of refilling the well, the inner space where ideas are born. An empty creative well sucks all the joy from writing—assuming one can write at all. I can power through for a while, but it’s agony.

So guard those moments of joyful creation, and carve out space for them, even if it’s just five minutes.

Then, hopefully, if everything aligns, the project you have to do becomes a source of joy, too, because your well is full. And there is no better feeling than writing a story that is flowing perfectly.

I can tell I’m nearly there because I’m starting to think about the characters for book three rather than avoiding it like the plague, lol. And even if the short story goes nowhere, those words weren’t wasted. They were exactly the escape my brain needed. :)

Drafting with Scrivener

The previous blog post generated the following comment:

Quick question if you’re busy putting off book two … Do you use any particular software for your first draft?


Since I am still putting off book two (though I hit my word count goal every day last week! 🎉), I thought I’d get into a little more detail than a comment would support. The short answer is that I use Scrivener for all of my drafting, including edits, but if you’d like a peek behind the curtain, read on!

I’m going to use my actual Scrivener file for Polaris Rising, so if you haven’t read the book yet, you may want to do that first. There shouldn’t be too many spoilers, but why wouldn’t you want to read about a badass space princess and an outlaw soldier? ;)

Scrivener has a default project type for novels, which is what my custom template is based on. My template evolves a little bit over time as I find ways to tweak it just so for my writing style, but the basics remain the same as the default template. All of my new projects start out looking like this:

A freshly created empty Scrivener project based on my custom template.
Click to enlarge

One of the things I really like about Scrivener is that text is broken down into scenes. A scene is technically just an arbitrary piece of text—it could be anything—but thinking about them as actual scenes of a book is useful for me, especially for pacing. And scenes can be moved around, split, reordered, and dragged from one chapter to another with ease, which helps when the pacing isn’t quite there and things need to be adjusted.

This is what the first nine-ish chapters of PR look like in Scrivener:

The Scrivener project file for Polaris Rising.
Click to enlarge

There’s a lot going on here, so let’s break it down. On the left (called the binder) is a list of the chapters and their various scenes. I give mine short descriptions so I remember what’s in them without having to open each one.

In the middle is the main editor. This is where I spend most of my time, because it’s where the words actually happen. You can see that I’m one of the ancients who still uses two spaces after a period while drafting (but weirdly, only while drafting). Scrivener handily strips them out for me when I export, another perk.

On the right is the inspector which has all of the meta info about the selected scene. Here it’s showing snapshots of the scene’s history. This is another big benefit of Scrivener: version history. Just like git for code, Scrivener can keep a history of your documents, so if you make a big change and decide you hate it, you have the original. You have to set it up (mine snapshots changes on every manual save), but it’s a nice feature. Before I do any edits, I make a titled snapshot of the whole manuscript so I can roll back if I need to.

Scrivener can also hold all of the information about a project, not just the manuscript itself. So all of my notes and research can go right in the file, keeping everything together. Here is part of the research and notes section for PR:

The character and notes section of Polaris Rising's Scrivener file, with Marcus Loch's character sheet open.
Click to enlarge

Here you can see I keep character sheets for my main characters, as well as place descriptions and tons and tons of notes. Mostly my character sheets are just places I dump description as I write it, so I don’t accidentally change their hair or eye color, but it also keeps some personality info and other things important to keeping their progression consistent throughout the book.

The research section is where everything else goes. I keep a list of minor characters so everyone doesn’t share the same name, or the same starting letter. Apparently I love some letters more than others, so I have to watch it.

When I start the second book in a series, I’ll copy over all of my character sheets, location details, and research from the first book, then keep adding to it. This helps with continuity and means I don’t have to keep pulling up the first book to check minor details.

The last thing Scrivener really shines at is exporting your text into various formats. Publishing runs on Microsoft Word, so I export to Word in the standard manuscript format (Times New Roman 12, double-spaced) before sending the draft off to my editor. As I said before, Scrivener strips out all of my extra spaces as part of the export, saving me a find and replace step.

When edits arrive, I keep Word open with my editor’s feedback and make the changes directly in Scrivener, then do a clean export of the edited draft. Copyedits are a little trickier, because all of the changes have to be made directly in the Word file, but I duplicate the changes in Scrivener, so my saved draft matches the copyedited text. Same for changes made to the galley pages. When I’m done, my Scrivener project exactly matches the final text in the book.

Scrivener can also export directly to the various ebook formats, which is great for getting the book into the hands of my early readers, as well as output in a HTML format that is compatible with the blog, so I don’t lose italics when I post snippets. And you can set up custom formats that are shared across projects, so the output is always formatted exactly how you want.

All of this flexibility is one of the reasons Scrivener tends to have a very high learning curve. I didn’t even get into a fraction of the features, but I don’t use a lot of them because I usually draft from start to finish, so I don’t need to see my outline or corkboard or any of the other million little things Scrivener supports. Finding the way that works for you is one of the biggest challenges of using Scrivener.

I’ve been using it since 2008, have written seven published (or to-be-published) books, one trunked novel, and countless partials with it, and I still find things I didn’t know about. But if you have any questions, drop me a comment and I’ll do my best to answer. :)

Happy writing!

The Shitty First Draft

A blue outlined book with a blue question mark hovering over it.

I’m procrastinating on writing book two, which got me thinking about how I draft books, so I thought I’d talk about it a little bit. As with all writing advice, use what works for you and ignore the rest. :)

There are as many schools of thought on writing as there are writers, but first drafts generally fall into two broad categories: just get it done (aka the “shitty first draft,” as expressed by Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird) and …not that.

Many, many, many advice articles advocate for the shitty first draft, and they aren’t wrong, exactly, because once you get the words down, you can fix them later. Editing (for me) is far easier than initial drafting, so I can see the appeal.

And much to my eternal regret, I am completely unable to do it.

I can occasionally write fast, if I’m up against a deadline and force myself to—especially toward the end of a book when I have a better grasp of the characters and plot—but generally my writing moves at the speed tectonic plates shift.

The shitty first draft is supposed to fix this glacial dribble of words, but my writing has a rhythm to it, an ebb and flow that I just can’t get right when I try to draft fast, without editing or stopping, and it completely derails me. Instead of a shitty first draft, I end up writing no first draft and that isn’t an improvement.

I am completely, unbelievably envious of the writers who can crank out a first draft in a week or two or four. That’s basically magic as far as I’m concerned.

But everything always looks greener on the other side of the fence, and my way of drafting has its own benefits, because while I write at the speed mountains grow, I do tend to turn out solid first drafts.

My first drafts aren’t perfect by any means, no writing is, but they generally only need a single editing pass before I feel comfortable sending them off to my editor. Shitty first drafts often go through two or three editing passes before the editor sees the work, and those edits tend to be a lot more intense.

So which is better?

Neither. Both. It depends on the writer, and sometimes, the project. For me, slow and steady drafts get me to the end. For someone else, my style of drafting would kill them dead and they just want to get words on the page and fix them later. Figuring out which style works for you is part of the process of learning how you write.

Now go make some words happen—fast or slow, it doesn’t matter, just write. Because one thing always remains true: words won’t write themselves.

Unfortunately. :)

The Weird World of Traditional Royalties

A blue outlined book with a blue question mark hovering over it.

Last week, I got my very first (post-advance) payment of royalties for Polaris Rising! 🎉🎉🎉 Thank you all so much for your support because this means the book “earned out,” a publishing term that means I’ve earned enough royalties to cover the advance the publisher paid me.

Traditional publishing accounting is interesting, so let’s talk about it!

First, having an agent who will explain your contract and answer questions is an enormous help, if not a requirement. I usually don’t lay down laws because everyone’s situation is different, but personally, I would not sign a publishing contract without an agent (hi, Ms. Sarah, I love you!). But that’s a whole other post, and today we’re talking about getting paid.

If your eyes glaze over at numbers and you’re not an aspiring author, you may want to skip this one. :)

When an author signs a contract with a traditional publisher, the publisher generally pays an advance. They calculate the advance based on how well they think the book will do, and where it fits in their lineup, and what phase the moon is in (okay, maybe not that last one, but there’s a lot of things involved I don’t know about). This advance is an advance payment on future royalties—hence the term advance.

Advances range from almost nothing to millions, depending on the author, their audience, the number of books contracted, and the author’s previous publishing history. Publishers Marketplace even has a coy little key for deal news so everyone can tell where the deal fell in the range without actually coming out and saying it:

“nice deal”:$1 – $49,000
“very nice deal”:$50,000 – $99,000
“good deal”:$100,000 – $250,000
“significant deal”:$251,000 – $499,000
“major deal”:$500,000 and up

So someone who got a “good deal” made an advance between $100k – $250k, which is a pretty big range.

Once the number is nailed down by your agent and the publisher, then you get paid—yay! But you don’t get the whole thing at once.