I haven’t preceded the post with anything in a while, and I hope you haven’t minded. But here’s a little language and publishing tidbit that might interest the word nerds among us (everybody, I believe). I just finished going through the copy edits on Sparrows in the Wind, my next novel for kids, which is a reimagining of the Trojan War. The managing editor queried whether Achilles’, as I had it, should be Achilles’s and cited a section in The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), most publishers’ authority. I don’t like Achilles’s, which sounds weird and ugly to me, and I found this link to the CMOS blog: https://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/PossessivesandAttributives/faq0057.html. Read if you’re interested. I’m going with Achilles’ as I had it, because if it’s Achilles’ heel, how can it be Achilles’s elbow? (My editor is with me on this.)
On August 28, 2020 Jen wrote, How do you deal with ‘Impostor Syndrome’? I have been told my writing is good and there are days I agree that it has promise, but then there are days when I panic and freak out that all my plots and characters are boring and cliche and that my word choices are nowhere near as good as I’d like them to be. I understand all of that can be fixed in editing, but even as I edit I still have those panic flare-ups of not being good enough. I’d appreciate all the tips anyone would like to offer.
Melissa Mead wrote back, FWIW, I’ve known pros who’ve won awards + published multiple books and still feel like this. All we can do is write the best we can at the time.
I find it helps to just finish a rough draft, then put it away for a week or so.
There’s an old Jewish joke, which I read in the charming Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten, that I think epitomizes the impostor syndrome. I don’t remember it exactly, but here’s the gist: A young man announces to his mother that he’s become a doctor. She smiles proudly and also shrugs. “Darling,” she says, “by you, you’re a doctor; by me, you’re a doctor; but by a doctor, are you a doctor?”
My children’s book writing apprenticeship was so long (nine years) that by the time I achieved publication, I felt like a writer. But when I went to graduate school for an MFA in poetry in 2013, I heard the joke, which is a little bit poisonous, over and over in my head. “But by a poet…” I still think it.
I don’t know the cure, but I know the medicine: Keep writing.
More medicine: Dress up as Emily Bronte or pencil in a ragged moustache to look like Edgar Allan Poe, so you are impersonating a writer—and write.
And more: Read about other writers, or read books on writing, like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Learn from them, as I think you will, that uncertainty and self-doubt are our lot (many of us anyway, me anyway). I find this comforting.
I’ve said here before that I try not to ask myself if what I’m writing is good. I try not to ask the question at every stage of the process, from thinking about what I might write all the way to post-publication. And I pay attention to words that are in the judgment category along with good, words like mediocre word choice, boring, cliché.
And not good enough for whom, if I may ask?
I don’t succeed all the time, because the self-attack disguises itself. My latest worry seems to be: Who will read this? Which could be a real question in early planning stages, I guess, but once I get started, it’s unhelpful—
Because I can’t use it or any self-attack. Self-attack isn’t specific. It doesn’t help me see that Marla in the second chapter wouldn’t tell her best friend that she gave away a secret he shared with her. Or that my description of the best friend’s house could be reworked so it reveals something about his character.
Let’s look at mediocre word choice. That’s what a thesaurus is for! If we see a word that we think doesn’t nail what we have in mind, we go to Roget or Thesaurus.com. If we’re me and we’re not satisfied right away, we noodle around, look at more than the first page of options, click on a few possibilities to see where they take us.
Writers need criticism from ourselves and from peers—I do! But we need specifics about things like pacing, character consistency, and, yes sometimes, word choice. We don’t need attack. And we must learn to tell one from the other, especially when the wounds are self-inflicted. We have to police our thoughts!
I’m also not crazy about global compliments from friends and other writers. Good, just like bad, isn’t specific. This kind of praise gives me a sugar high, and after it wears off, I start worrying. Will I continue to please this person? What did I do that was so fabulous? Will I ever be able to do it again? On the other hand, specific praise, for a page of dialogue or a description of a landscape, is nutritious. I’m never going to have to do precisely that again, so I won’t disappoint, and, yeah, I’m glad my discerning friend noticed. Yum!
Here are three prompts:
- Here’s a question that has plagued fairy tale fans for centuries: What is the real form of the evil queen in “Snow White”? Is she really “fairest in the land” before Snow gets old enough to take her superlative? Write a scene from her origin story.
- Sticking with the same tale, if the evil queen is really beautiful, why does she keep doubting herself and checking with the mirror? Write a different origin story, this one about the source of her impostor syndrome.
- Dr. Jekyll has been turning into Mr. Hyde for a while, and he’s starting to wonder which one is his true self. Write two scenes, one when he’s Dr. Jekyll considering the question, and one as Mr. Hyde doing the same—while harming someone in a grisly way.
Have fun, and save what you write!