Effortless Perfection and the Impostor Syndrome

Over the weekend, I read an article in my college alumni magazine about campus efforts to battle “effortless perfection.”  For those unfamiliar with this relatively new buzzword, “effortless perfection” is the impression that someone is handling a challenge perfectly, without any visible effort.  It’s the old ‘don’t let them see you sweat’ work ethic, where people (often women, often minorities, often people who are supposed to be grateful for the status they’ve achieved) are encouraged to hide all of the frustration, fear, and hard work that lead to stellar accomplishments. The article discussed numerous campus initiatives to debunk the myth of effortless perfection, including the creation of safe discussion groups where students could admit how hard they find the balance of their academic and social lives to be.

While I’d never heard of effortless perfection, I’ve spent decades getting to know its sibling, “impostor syndrome.”  With impostor syndrome, people who have achieved greatness fear the day when they’ll be unmasked as impostors.  Lawyers, for example, dread being revealed as people who do not automatically know the answer when a client presents a problem.

Every female lawyer I ever worked with admitted to suffering from impostor syndrome, back when I was practicing law.  (To be fair, there were some women — mostly successful senior partners — with whom I never had this conversation.  And as I sit here typing, I can’t remember ever having the impostor chat with a single male colleague.)  When we felt safe, comfortable, able to share, we all agreed that we weren’t quite sure what we were doing in our legal practice, that we were just waiting to be unveiled as impostors who had no right to pull down the salaries we did, who had no right to win a coveted seat among the partnership.

We were terrified someone would see us sweat.  We had utterly bought into the culture of effortless perfection.

Some of those impostors — many of them — went on to highly profitable careers in the law.  They made partner, or they became in-house general counsels, or judges or high-powered lobbyists.

Others of us chose other professions. I became a librarian, where one of the great joys of my professional life was to say, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I have many ideas about where to look.  I’ll get back to you.”  Later, I became a full-time writer, where I get to say, “I don’t know the answer, but I’ll create it, right here, out of the fanciful ideas swirling through my brain.”  Both careers gave me a chance to exorcise the impostor, to truly work with less effort, less perfection expected.

And yet…

I suffer bouts of self-doubt. I wonder whether a particular manuscript will find a home in traditional publishing. I question whether my promotional plan for a novel is the best it can be. I watch fellow authors succeeding at X and Y and Z and I wonder why I even try to compete, because my books will never be as good, never be as recognized as theirs.

It’s the impostor syndrome stirring again.  And you rarely read those concerns here, or on Twitter, or on Facebook, because really, who wants to read the second-guessing of someone who is supposed to entertain.  Writing, especially writing full-time, is a dream come true. It’s a reward for years hard-worked.  It’s a joy and  a pleasure. Why would anyone show the blood, sweat, and tears to get here?

Bottom line:  I curate my contacts with the outside world. I don’t tell you every time I have a headache, or when the blues have set up residence in my head for a day or two, or when I didn’t sleep well, or any number of other things that prove my life is less than perfect.

In part, I don’t tell you those things because they’re boring — we all have headaches, and the blues, and lousy nights’ sleep some of the time.

But I also don’t tell you those things because I want you to think of me as a fun author, as a person you want to spend time with, as a person who truly enjoys her life and the stories that she tells.  Because that’s true — I do enjoy my writing life — despite the headaches, the blues, the lack of sleep.  Why make you think about transitory negative things when the overall scheme of things is positive?

So, am I perpetuating the myth of effortless perfection? Am I subjugating my impostor fears, with the possibility that I make other authors’ impostors raise their own nasty heads?

Or am I following through on the promise I make to my readers, the promise of every fiction author on some level — to entertain?

I don’t have any answers. But I’m asking myself more questions than usual these days…

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And So, 10,000 Calories Later…

As you know, Bob and Bobbette, I write full time. I set my schedule each day, determining how to accomplish the writing that must be done, balancing that with the administrative work generated by a career that consists mostly of self-publishing. I don’t have to report to a day-job; I don’t have an external boss.  (Okay, there’s a pretty forceful orange kitty, but I still control the bag of treats.)

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Given that life of relative leisure, that schedule of general luxury, why would I ever want to go on a writer’s retreat? Isn’t a retreat really a form of busman’s holiday? A way to take my work and stretch it over more days, more nights, more hours?

Well, yes and no.

Last weekend, I went on a writers’ retreat with three other writers. (There was supposed to be a fifth person at our little getaway, but alas, family crises intervened…) I was “hosting” the retreat; however, my home is too small to host so many dedicated writers. Therefore, I was responsible for feeding three other writers, from Friday evening through Sunday lunch. (I also volunteered to do pre-retreat bed-making and post-retreat laundry, but the actual physical-space hostess declined my offer.)

First, the retreat allows me to socialize with other writers. We get to trade stories — about what we’re working on, about which writers we’ve recently met in person or online, about new developments in traditional- and self-publishing, about the crazy, constantly changing business we choose to call our own. We talk when folks arrive at the retreat, and we talk at meals. We talk at impromptu mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks. We talk when we’re ready to knock off work in the middle of the night.  There’s a lot of talking, even though most of us are relatively introverted people.  (A lot of the talk involves actual meals or improvised snacks, hence the title of this blog post…)

Second, the retreat allows me to write. Yes, I have my own schedule, and I get my own writing done at my own desk in my own office in my own home. But when I’ve committed to traveling 1.5 hours away to write, when I’ve taken a weekend away from family to write, when I’ve carved out days on my calendar, protecting them from other events, to write, then I know I have to actually, you know, write. This past weekend, I generated about 25,000 new words. They aren’t perfect. I left myself some blanks that I’ll need to fill in later. I know I’ll have to add more to some scenes and take some away from others.  But I produced close to one third of a novel in three days, and I’m quite pleased with that output.

Third, the retreat allows me to think. I spent a little more than three hours in the car, driving up to and back from the retreat. Those hours work a bit like time spent in the shower or time swimming (without nearly as much wrinkled skin to contend with!) — my writer-brain is freed to work on plot snarls, on subplot structure, on the rough places where I know the novel still isn’t working. After arriving home, I knew that I needed to revisit two earlier scenes in the book, making clear their connection to the main plot, strengthening the complementary power of the subplot.

I fully expect to pay for my retreat.  (Sure, there’s the economic payout — gasoline and food. I mean the real cost.) That bossy orange kitty didn’t let me out of her sight last night. And I’m typing around her purring little body this morning.

But I’m incredibly lucky. I don’t have to “pay” my spouse for my retreat. He never makes me feel guilty for abandoning him, for walking out on a weekend when he had to wrangle cats alone, when he was stuck by himself for hours and hours and hours. (Yes, I know that he enjoys his own down-time. But I take the choice away from him when I choose to go on retreats.)

And so, 10,000 calories later, I’m rolling up my sleeves. I’m back to work on JOY OF WITCHCRAFT. I’m throwing new obstacles in Jane Madison’s path. Because that’s what writers do. We write. (And eat and talk and eat and plan and eat and outline and eat…)

How about you? How did you spend your weekend?

 

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2014 in Review

There’s nothing like coming back from vacation to make a person all think-y and reflective and introspective.  Or, um, maybe it’s the calendar change-over doing all that…

I started off 2014 with major plans for my career.  I planned on publishing nine books (the Diamond Brides Series) during the year — I had 3.5 of them written on January 1, so I still had 5.5 to go.  I also thought I’d throw together a few omnibus editions, just to keep things fun.  Of course, in the world of indie-publishing it’s not enough to write the books — I also needed to take care of covers, formatting, uploading the books at various vendors, and promoting the work.

And, Reader, I’m thrilled to say:  “I did it.”

What’s more, I enjoyed it.  I found out that I loved writing my short, hot contemporary romance novels.  I truly enjoyed creating the heroes’ points of view, and I reveled in the challenge of making each story unique (not just the bedroom scenes, but the characters’ motivations, the plot conflicts, etc.)  I contracted out the work on cover design, but I did all the rest of the production work, designing and implementing systems along the way that will help with all my future writing.

I underestimated the amount of work, especially with preparing the omnibus editions for publication.  They present some special challenges in production (page numbering, for example, and larger file manipulation), and they require the same level of publicity and promotion that individual books take.  I correctly estimated the physical toll of writing more than half a million published words — my back is fussing with me, and my hips, too, and I accumulated about ten pounds I didn’t have when I started the year.

I also wasn’t prepared for the effect that Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program would have on my success.  I refused to participate in KU because it requires exclusivity; I want to sell my books in stores other than Amazon.  As a result, I saw a huge cut to my sales, beginning in July when the “all you can read” program was launched.  From speaking with other authors, I’ve concluded that KU has most deeply affected romance writers, and its impact seems even greater upon relatively short works with relatively low price points.  By tracking the trajectory of my sales prior to the launch of KU, I estimate that I lost between 50 and 75% of the sales I would otherwise have seen.

Nevertheless, 2014 was a successful year artistically, emotionally, and financially.  I increased my income approximately 60% over the preceding year (when my target was to increase my income by approximately 40%.)  I made the USA Today Bestseller list, a title that I’ll be able to claim for the rest of my publishing career.  I worked with some incredible authors on joint projects (most notably the Playing for Passion boxed set.)  I met new readers who continue to brighten my day with comments and posts about my work.

On a personal note, it’s been a good year, with lots of joy at home, good times with friends, fantastic plays and museum exhibits and books and films to keep me entertained, and many excellent conversations along the way.  There’ve been some sad notes — cancer stalked too many of my friends, greedily taking its last toll just this morning.  Each of those deaths has left me more resolved to do more, to see more, to accomplish more in the time I have.

So 2015 should be an exciting ride.  I have five books scheduled for release — a free sampler containing the first chapters of many of my other works (The Mindy Klasky Sampler, in stores January 27), a non-fiction book on writing (The Rational Writer, in stores May 26), a new Jane Madison novel (Joy of Witchcraft, in stores August 4), and two more works waiting for titles and specific release dates.  I look forward to more time with friends, both in person and online.  And I can’t wait to see what stories evolve, the ones I’m not even expecting.  Yet.

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Why Retreat When You Can Write Full Time?

Last week, I drove two hours north to the Pennsylvania woods, where I rented a cabin with Maria V. Snyder for a week-long writing retreat.

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I suspect some of you are wondering why I’d do something crazy like that.  I mean, I have the luxury (and the responsibility) of writing full time.  Why spend a total of four hours in the car to go to a place where I need to carry in bedding and pots and pans and food, all to write, just like I write at home?  (For reference, I’ve written an article about writing retreats — how to set them up and why do do them — here.)

Short answer:  It’s not just like at home.

For one thing, I’ve driven two hours to get there, and I’ll drive two hours to get home, so there’s a time cost to going there.  Far more importantly, there’s a family cost to going there — I’ve left behind my husband and our cats, upsetting human and feline schedules alike.  I’ve turned my world and the world of those I love upside down.

So I damn well better be productive while I’m there.

In an ordinary week, when I’m writing at full speed, I produce 15,000 words of solid first draft.  Those words aren’t perfect, and there will likely be fairly substantial revisions in specific language, but the plot is set and the general sequence of events and the backbone of the writing.

In the four full days of the retreat (Monday through Thursday, plus a few hours on Sunday after I arrived), I drafted almost 30,000 words.  That’s one third of the new Jane Madison novel, JOY OF WITCHCRAFT.  Those words are more likely to survive editing than my usual words because they were written quickly, in close proximity to each other.  (I find that I do my best writing fast.)

In addition to drafting all those words, I also built a Scrivener file that contains all the Jane novels in one large project.  That file makes my writing vastly more efficient — I can search one file to see if I’ve used a name before, or to track down the characteristics of a crystal or an herb,  or to recall the name of a spell.  It took  me a few hours to do the work (see, Sunday evening), but the labor will benefit me for all the Jane novels to come.

Usually, I alternate writing time with breaks — taking long walks in the woods, heading down to the lake, etc.  On this retreat, alas, it rained *buckets* on Monday.  And then on Tuesday, the temperature didn’t get above 25.  (I took a short walk, but I headed back when the wind nearly blew my frozen ear lobes off my head.)  On Wednesday and Thursday, the words were flowing and the temps were still glacial, so I kept my head down and wrote, wrote, wrote.  On Friday, before we left, I did take one relatively long walk, but it was mostly a chance to say goodbye to the site.

Maria, I’ve discovered, is a great retreat-mate.  We keep very different hours.  I wake up relatively early, write a chunk in the morning, break for lunch, write a chunk in the afternoon, break for dinner, write a chunk in the evening, then go to bed around 11:00.  She wakes up much later (around my lunch time) and she works must later (till 3 or 4 in the morning.)  Therefore, we both have “alone time,” the same way that we have “together time.”  It works out well.

I have two other retreats already scheduled in the new year — mini-retreats that last a weekend and take place at the homes of writer-friends.  I’m looking forward to them, to the socializing, to the discussing business, to the short intense bursts of writing.

But I’m also already planning my next retreat in the woods.  Because I’ll have another third of a book to get drafted.  I always do.  :-)

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Not Dead Yet

Not dead.  Not carried off by the camelback crickets that insist on taking refuge on the ground level of our home (and some of them are HUGE this year!) Not king yet.

But, um, where did the past ten days go?

Let’s see…

We had houseguests visiting from Canada — the charming Julie Czerneda (in the midst of her book launch tour for A PLAY OF SHADOW) and her husband, Roger.  They arrived with flavored coffees (blueberry! maple!) in hand and a ***gorgeous*** matted photograph of a unicorn ice sculpture, taken by Roger himself.  We enjoyed long conversations about writing, books, publishing, politics, music, travel, and I don’t know what else.

Julie and Roger were in town for the World Fantasy Convention, which took place in a hotel just a couple of miles from our house.  I didn’t attend the con as a member (I’ve been publishing too little fantasy!), but I did hang out in the hotel lobby and bar for two days, visiting with friends and catching up with folks I haven’t seen in far too long.  I also had a chance to meet some Book View Cafe members for the first time in person — I’d love to have a chance to visit each of our co-op members, because communicating face-to-face adds so much more to our online chats!

With Julie and Roger in tow, we went to hear Suzanne Vega play at a small venue in DC.  Stranger to music that I am, I only knew a couple of her songs, but I loved her performance.  Stevie Wonder was playing a huge arena show just a couple of blocks away, and I think we *totally* made the right choice for the evening :-)

I’ve begun outlining my next book, JOY OF WITCHCRAFT, which will be the fifth Jane Madison book.  I’m having a wonderful time getting back into Jane’s world.  Poor librarian-witch! Nothing goes easily for her!

We went to an amazing Smithsonian lecture on Istanbul, taught by Nigel McGilchrist.  Alas, I knew very little about Istanbul prior to the talk, but I learned a great deal of history (and some information about art and food and geology and, and, and, and…)  One of the great things about Nigel’s lectures is his ability to fold together so many different disciplines as he speaks.  His slides illustrate his points beautifully, and he speaks without notes, making everything feel very real and immediate.  And now, alas, I have more travel destinations to add to my list :-)

And I’ve been preparing for a writing retreat next week.  I’ll be stealing away with Maria V. Snyder.  We’re heading off to a state park, where we’ll rent a cabin (just as the first major blast of arctic air is set to hit the region!)  I intend to get about a third of a novel written while I’m there — and to have great conversations about writing, publishing, etc.  (Maria and I keep somewhat different schedules — I wake up early and go to bed before midnight; she wakes up after noon and works until the wee hours of the morning.  That gives us both some “alone time” to get a lot of work done and some “social time” to talk.  A great arrangement!)  I’m generally very productive on retreats — I have to justify taking the time away from Mark and the cats!

So, that’s the past.  And I’ll be scarce for the next week.  But after that, I hope to be back in the usual swing of things!

What about you?  How’s the autumn treating you?  Tell me something wonderful about November!

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