“Am I Good Enough?” My Instant Cure for Imposter Syndrome

That's not the king! It's an imposter!
He’s not the king, he’s an imposter! The Prisoner of Zenda (1952), MGM.

A lot of writers feel like imposters, and not in a good way, like Rudolf Rassendyll in The Prisoner of Zenda. What to do?

Imposter syndrome, obviously, is when you feel like an imposter without actually being one, or at least not on purpose. It not only makes writers feel bad, it makes them hesitate to share their work with readers—the ultimate artistic tragedy! Again, what to do?

Well, several things, but let’s start by recalibrating your expectations. Against all the evidence, we tend to believe that all successful authors write really well: far better than we do. But do they? Let’s find out!

Who’s the Imposter Now? Check out the Bottom of the Amazon Top 100 List

It’s time to take a look at successful books in your niche and see how good the worst of them are. You can do this for free with the Search Inside the Book or Kindle Free Sample features.

Obviously, if you write as well as the worst stories on the Top 100 list, you’re good enough for the Top 100 list. Maybe just barely, but good enough nonetheless. How good is that? Let’s find out.

Amazon keeps a Top 100 List for everything, including your niche. I’ll use my teen space-opera novel, One Survivor, as an example.

Amazon bestsellers in books
Amazon book bestseller list.
  • When I scroll down to “Science Fiction & Fantasy,” it shows me subcategories. I chose “Science Fiction” and then the sub-subcategory of “Space Opera.”
  • In my desktop browser, at least, the bestsellers are divided into two pages of 50. I go to the bottom of the second page. I’m going to start with #96-#100.

The bottom of the Top 100 bestsellers list

  • By the way, it’s best to ignore books like Ender’s Game (#99) that have been around for years. Until you’re a famous writer yourself, you’re not competing with famous writers, you’re competing with the other relative unknowns.
  • So let’s take a look at #100, Leviathan Wakes, by James A. Corey. But it’s been around for years, so never mind.
  • #99 is Ender’s Game, which we’ve already decided to ignore.
  • #98 is part of a Star Wars series: Light of the Jedi. 4.5 stars,10,336 ratings. It must be really well written, with a snazzy hook and poetic prose, right? Take a look.
  • #97 is just the second book in a series: close enough. Let’s take a look. Doubt by Jenny Schwartz. 1,726 ratings, 4.5 stars. This reminds me of the previous one but looks more unedited.
  • #96 is the fourth book in a series, so let’s skip to #95, Only Bad Options by Jennifer Estep, 4.7 stars, 880 ratings. This one’s better, and I may circle back and give it another look.
  • By the way, You can take a look at the free sample of my SF novel, One Survivor, or the free episodes of my fantasy serial, Silver Buckshot. Neither of these have been anywhere near the Top 100. You can decide for yourself whether this is due to weak writing or weak marketing.
  • Most importantly, look at your own opening pages after looking at the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Top 100. Are you in the right ballpark, if only barely? If so, great. If not, you’ll have an idea of how much you have to do to close the gap. It’s probably less than you thought.

Anyway, this exercise will show you that even best-selling authors have feet of clay. You’ll find mistakes in their work, and sometimes boneheaded ones. Their work isn’t perfect. No one’s is.

So who’s the imposter now?

And yet, all these authors have thousands of satisfied, even enthusiastic readers. Which means … what, exactly?

If you look at the other end of the Top 100, things are better, of course, but not that much better. It’s a funny old world.

What This Means

People who suffer from imposter syndrome exaggerate how good other people’s books are. They exaggerate how good a successful book has to be. If you overestimate the competition, it looks like you can’t win. Don’t do that.

Once you grasp the minimum standards for success, your task is to consistently exceed this, at least by a little. This is a very different task from dethroning Hemingway, and infinitely more achievable. That’s where you start. That’s where we all start. Don’t try to dethrone the masters while you’re still an apprentice. Trying will make you feel like an imposter.

Notice, too, that craft goals and sales goals are two different things. My medium-term sales goal is to become a solid B-list writer with a satisfyingly large fan base and the ability to land contracts from traditional publishers more or less at will. I’m not there yet. (A-list writers are usually B-list writers who suddenly strike the public’s fancy and have a hit for no obvious reason.)

My current craft goal is more modest: write new stories that are like my old ones, only more so. I don’t plan to do anything revolutionary with my style anytime soon.

What Does it Mean to Be a Writer?

Another thing that stirs up imposter syndrome is the belief that “being a writer” is a thing; that writers are a different kind of being.

Which reminds me of this exchange:

F. SCOTT FITZGERALD: You know, the rich are different from you and me.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY: Yes, they’ve got more money.

If you believe that a writer is not a mere mortal, but a different kind of being; that to be a writer, you have to become someone else, like a beautiful caterpillar turning into an ugly moth; I have news for you: You’ve fallen for centuries of shameless self-promotion. It ain’t so.

Which is probably just as well. Instead of having to become a bad imitation of The Ideal Writer, you get to be you, but with ever-increasing writing skills.

Writers are different from other people because they write and other people don’t. That doesn’t mean a given writer is intelligent, insightful, talented, creative, or even sanitary. Many aren’t.

It’s uncomfortable to be up on that high pedestal, and I recommend that you not go there. Recognize that the relentless self-promotion in the “glamour industries” makes people nuts. Don’t be nuts.

Fans who love your stories will think there’s something special about you personally. There’s something special about your stories, not you. The rest is projection. People who haven’t even read your stories will think so, too. Glamour is like that. It’s not your fault! Having fans can be gratifying, but try not to think like them. It’s too weird.

So go forth and write like the real you. Writing as yourself, using the skills you currently have, and about as well as you know how, is something anyone else would have to fake, but for you, it’s the real thing.

All About the Lester Dent Master Plot Formula: Step-by-Step Story Creation

Doc Savage #1, March 1933.

Lester Dent was the creator of the classic pulp-fiction hero, Doc Savage, and a powerful story-creation formula, The Lester Dent Master Fiction Plot, published in 1939. I’ve presented it below, fleshing it out where needed with my own commentary.

From here on out, Dent’s words are shown in normal text, while mine are in italics.

The Lester Dent Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot

This is a formula, a master plot, for any 6,000-word pulp story. It has worked on adventure, detective, western, and war/air. It tells exactly where to put everything. It shows definitely just what must happen in each successive thousand words. Continue reading “All About the Lester Dent Master Plot Formula: Step-by-Step Story Creation”

Using First-Person POV for Characters With Attitude

Photo credit: The Letter Writer by Johanne Mathilde Dietrichson.

If you have a main character who’s articulate and has plenty of attitude, then first-person narration has more sizzle and sparkle than a more neutral third-person viewpoint.

Why? Because a first-person narrator can tell their tale with passion and conviction. This is quite hard to do with third-person narration.

One of my stories starts like this:

My boyfriend is a real piece of work. Oh, I’m sure you’ve heard of girls whose boyfriends are vampires, werewolves, or even zombies. Those girls are lightweights. I don’t mean to brag, but they wouldn’t last five minutes with my boyfriend. Not that Frank is undead or anything. That would be too easy.

That’s Jen. She has a sharp tongue and a soft heart and her storytelling gives the reader both barrels. Continue reading “Using First-Person POV for Characters With Attitude”

Write Like You Talk. No, Seriously!

Lots of great talkers are terrible writers. Put a pen in their hand and they become dull and inarticulate. Why is that?

I’ll give you a hint: I saw a TV program once that showed kids selling goods at a farmer’s market in Brazil. They made change effortlessly and with near-perfect accuracy. But when researchers asked them to use the arithmetic they’d been taught in school, they became slow, hesitant, and inaccurate.

It’s the same with writing. In school, we’re taught a cumbersome approach that cuts us off from our existing skills as completely as the guillotine cut off Marie Antoinette’s head. That isn’t a good look!

Why do schools do this? Not my problem. This isn’t about fixing the educational system: it’s about you.

It’s the same thing with public speaking. People who are fascinating when you talk to them at lunch become awful if you put them on a stage. But we’re not going to fix that one today.

If you can tell an interesting story without having your audience run away three times out of five, you already have what it takes to be a writer.

Any halfway decent talker can be an interesting writer. You just have to write as entertainingly as you speak. The “making stuff up” part of fiction writing is less of a problem. Channeling a lifetime of telling whoppers into writing comes more naturally.

I admit that you’ll eventually need to learn all the nuts and bolts of the written word: how to place paragraph breaks non-randomly, for instance. But the things you were taught in school that still give you that deer-in-the-headlights look today aren’t that important. Some were never important in the first place. The others you’ll pick up soon enough. In writing, the main thing is to get your story written at all, because you can’t fix it until it exists.

Surf the Colloquial Wave

The trend in writing over the past hundred years or so has been informality. These days, professional writing (and especially fiction) has its tie missing and its sleeves rolled up. It’s been a long time since the button-down look has been fashionable.

Not that beautifully articulate formal prose can’t be wonderful: it can. But it’s no longer fashionable, which means it’s not worth your time.

For example, you’ll notice that I, a professional writer, use sentence fragments. A lot. I’ll boldly split infinitives where no infinitive has been split before and I figure that a preposition is a fine thing to end a sentence on. (Sorry, Mrs. Rosendahl.)

What I’m saying is that if you pretend that you ain’t never been taught no grammar, you’ll end up with prose that, paradoxically, is more likely to win you the Nobel Prize in Literature. Your odds go from “zero” to “so close to zero that it can’t be measured”—an improvement of infinity percent!

Write Like You Talk. I Mean It.

Here’s the deal: if you write down a story the way you’d tell it to a friend, it’ll be livelier than if you told it any other way. This is true for both fiction and nonfiction. Liveliness isn’t everything, but where there’s life, there’s hope. Dead prose is hard to resuscitate.

Here’s the mindset to use:

  1. Imagine that you have a story you really want to tell and an audience who really wants to hear it.
  2. Imagine that your audience is by invitation only. No Negative Nancies; no Teachers from the Crypt with Red Pens of Doom. Just people who are interested in your story.
  3. Tell the story to your audience. (That is, write it down. Don’t just imagine telling it!) Tell it all the way through.
  4. Celebrate. You deserve it.
  5. After the celebration comes the cleanup. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Ugly First Drafts

Many successful authors write first drafts that are so bad, you wouldn’t believe it.

Terrible first drafts are normal, even for the most successful authors. Don’t despair because your work isn’t as good as theirs, because neither is theirs.

They know the secret: you can’t fix it until you write it down. A story’s hard to work with when it’s still in your skull—it’s dark in there. So they bring it into the light and finish it in the second, third, or umpteenth draft. You can live down to this standard!

Ready, Fire, Aim

People who should be writing spend too much time preparing to write. Don’t do that.

When I get interested in something, I’m the King of Research. I read everything I can get my hands on, I watch YouTube videos, I listen to podcasts: the works. But I get my hands dirty at the same time. “Ready, Fire, Aim” is how I roll.

Let’s face it: the idea that you should sit in a classroom for years before you use your learning is what got us into this fix in the first place. As soon as you start writing your first story, you’ll have one relevant and meaningful question after another. That’s a good time to look for answers.

Be careful who you listen to! The best advice on fiction writing comes from published fiction writers. I’m especially fond of James Scott Bell’s books (and audiobooks) on writing fiction.


Here are some questions and answers to get you started, though:

  • Do I have talent? Sure. I don’t believe in talent. I believe that practice makes perfect. By leveraging your existing skills, you put your best foot forward.
  • Should I wait for inspiration? Never wait for anything.
  • Do I need to read a lot of fiction first? See my answer to the previous question. You’ll probably want to read more fiction once you become interested in the nuts and bolts of prose fiction.
  • How do I pick a title? No one knows! It’s typical to pick a working title and change it later.
  • How do I open a story? How do you do it when you tell one to your buddies? Maybe like that. The opening introduces the rest of the story, so if you haven’t written down the rest of the story yet, you can’t tell whether you have the right opening. So don’t lose any sleep over it. Look at examples from books that drew you in right away, too.
  • How big should my story be? How big a story do you tell your buddies? Bigger than that, probably, but not vastly bigger. We’re leveraging your existing skills here. Don’t write something as big as Game of Thrones as your first project unless you absolutely can’t resist.
  • Novels or short stories? One of those, yeah. Or both.
  • What point of view and tense should I use? How would you tell this story around a campfire? I’m a big fan of the first-person yarn, where the storyteller is the main character and presumably wrote down the tale after the events are over. It’s a very human mode. If that doesn’t fit your project, I recommend the much-maligned third-person omniscient mode, since it’s the other natural, traditional storytelling mode, used in everything from fairy tales to nonfiction histories.
  • How do I become rich and famous? When you find out, let me know. Part of it is “keep writing,” though. This is a craft. You’ll keep getting better as long as you keep working at it.

So now go write something.

Deep POV is Way Too Shallow

Hey, let’s kick around so-called “Deep POV” for a while. It’s fun! Beating it up is almost too easy, but let’s do it anyway.

The idea of “deep POV” is that if you take a stream-of-consciousness narrative and clean it up so it isn’t too unbearable, you’ve got something uniquely wonderful. (People usually define it differently, but then, they would.)

Now, with stream-of-consciousness, you have an inherently shallow point of view, reporting on the viewpoint character’s surface thoughts and immediate impressions as if you were a brain recorder. Nothing deep about it.

Deep POV is exactly the same thing, but while stream-of-consciousness tends to use lots of self-interruption and sentence fragments to maximize its own tedium in the cause of “realism,” deep POV tends to use complete sentences to make the story marginally less ghastly.

Part of the problem with deep POV is that it assumes that the inside of the viewpoint character’s skull is far more interesting than it really is. Let’s face it: it’s dark and wet in there.

This error is compounded by deciding that only the stuff the character is experiencing in the moment can be described at all. All the things that the character knows but isn’t actively thinking about are kept secret from the reader. Thus, if you want to give some background information, you either have to contrive a scene where somebody talks about it or force the character to ponder it, hopefully in a non-random-seeming way.

In an ordinary story, the narration is done by the narrator. Take a traditional first-person story. The author pretends that the viewpoint character first lives through his adventure, then sits down and tells his story as best he can. Narrating his own story, in other words. This lets the author tell the story in a straightforward way, explaining things the audience needs to know as needed. You know: the way human beings tell stories. This isn’t allowed in deep POV. Strangling the narrator is the defining feature of deep POV.

Why would anyone bother? Admit it: you’d rather gnaw off your own leg than read a stream-of-consciousness novel. You’ll never read one unless you sign up for the wrong English class. Thus, the popularity of deep POV is a mystery to me. I assume that it’s a literary fad that affects authors rather than readers.

I’ve noticed, though, that a fondness for deep POV occurs side by side with a second literary spasm: the superstition that “an omniscient narrator is ipso facto a head-hopping narrator.” This belief is drilled into the heads of aspiring writers in spite of its obvious silliness. Omniscient narration is a narrative form; head-hopping is a beginner’s blunder. It’s equivalent to defining a manual transmission as “stalling the car by letting the clutch out too fast.” Nope. Not even close.

What is my favorite narrative form, you ask? It’s the first-person yarn. For example, Robert A. Heinlein starts his classic Have Space Suit, Will Travel with the paragraph

You see, I had this space suit. How it happened was this way:

From the very first line, we know that the story will be told as a personal anecdote, entirely different from the brain-recorder approach that deep POV uses.

In one of the novels I’m writing at the moment, Jen Meets Her Match, Jen makes it clear from the first paragraph that she sat herself down after the fact and told her story in her own words (and with no attempt to restrain her teenaged attitude):

My boyfriend is a real piece of work. Oh, I’m sure you’ve heard of girls whose boyfriends are vampires, werewolves, or even zombies. Those girls are lightweights. I don’t mean to brag, but they wouldn’t last five minutes with my boyfriend. Not that Frank is undead or anything. That would be too easy.

This entire paragraph would be impossible in deep POV, since it frames action that hasn’t been related yet, and that’s verboten. Nor would the next paragraph be permissible in deep POV:

It all started during the first week of school. Sophomore year. Wednesday, September 4, 1974. Paul Anka’s “Having My Baby” was at the top of the charts, but other than that I was doing okay. I was minding my own business when Frank showed up next to me in the lunch line. He was new and we’d never spoken, but we had a few classes together and I knew his name.

Only the sentence “I was minding my own business when Frank showed up next to me in the lunch line” would be allowed in deep POV, since Jen isn’t consciously pondering the date, the Top Forty, or the list of things she knows about Frank during that particular moment. In short, in deep POV, there’s no framing, no scene-setting, no nothin’.

As you can see, I use first-person narration when I want to take full advantage of the viewpoint character’s voice and attitude. I only use it for highly articulate characters. With characters who aren’t as verbally flexible, I use third-person. That way, I’m limited only by my own verbal ability. While there are exceptions where a not-so-articulate character can be a fascinating first-person narrator (Flowers for Algernon leaps to mind), it’s an awfully tough row to hoe.

Does deep POV have any advantages? I haven’t found one: everything claimed as a unique advantage of deep POV is something I’ve been able to do with other viewpoints.



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