By Alice Fowler
When I submitted my debut short story collection, The Truth Has Arms And Legs, for publication a year ago, I needed to come up with a theme. For a while, I scratched my head. My stories are about love and loss, bravery and second chances; our ability as humans to change and grow. One story, for example, is about a young gypsy girl running barefoot against the village girls in shoes. Another is about a mother, home-schooling during a pandemic, who keeps forgetting words. What theme could unite these diverse stories, and the other ten in the collection too?
Pretty soon, the answer came. Whatever challenges they face – from a mother, wondering whether to tell her daughter she’s adopted, to a woman finally standing up to her controlling husband – my characters show resilience. Having found my theme, I sent my collection off to Isabelle Kenyon at Fly On The Wall Press, an indie press based in Manchester. The concept of resilience seemed to resonate with Isabelle too. She accepted my collection, which was successfully published in July 2023.
Looking back, it’s perhaps not surprising that my writing should explore this theme. Of the many qualities we as writers require, resilience certainly ranks highly. All of us, however successful, suffer setbacks along the way. All of us (or very nearly all) know what it is to have a submission rejected, an approach to an agent declined or ignored, or to endure the pain of a critical review.
The idea of ‘author resilience’ has grown commonplace in recent years – a catchphrase for the strength and determination writers need to keep on going – often (it can feel) against the odds. That’s certainly the case for me. After a career in journalism, I’ve been writing creatively for over a decade. In that time, I’ve been lucky enough to receive encouragement: competition wins and short-listings, for example. But I’ve received all kinds of rejection, too, both large and small. From the agent who told me early on exactly why she wouldn’t be accepting my novel (which was kind of her to do, but self-esteem-shreddingly painful to hear), to the emails that pop into my inbox with the subject line Congratulations! – only, it turns out, to be congratulating someone else entirely.
As authors Helen Sedgwick and Elissa Soave pointed out in their recent excellent ‘industry insider’ session for the Society of Authors, author resilience should not mean accepting poor treatment – lack of communication, ‘ghosting’ and so on – from the publishing industry. Rather, it should mean adaptability and developing the kind of sound instincts and ‘thick skin’ that is tough enough to be useful, but not impermeable. What, then, is resilience, and how do we acquire it? A useful definition seems to be: The ability to cope with and recover quickly from setbacks. To help this bounce-back recovery, the mental health charity Mind suggests being kind to yourself, having a variety of interests, spending time in nature and being physically active. (You can read Mind’s article on how such things can build resilience here.)
For me as a writer, these ideas ring true. Getting outside in greenery is an essential part of the strange distillation process in my brain that enables me to write. I frequently find writing inspiration while out walking with my dog and genuinely believe there’s a connection between the rhythm of words and the rhythm of our steps. I also find that more active forms of exercise ( in my case, tennis, while for many other writers, it’s running or other sports) bring mental freedom, allowing us to switch off from our writing entirely.
Another useful tip for building resilience is to share a meaningful support network. For writers, given the solitary nature of our working life, this seems particularly true. To any writer near the start of their writing journey, this is the one piece of advice I would shout out from the rooftops. Find another writer at a similar stage. Share your highs and lows along the way. I say this from hard-learned experience as, when I began writing, I had no support network at all. With a beginner’s foolish confidence, I just sat down at my computer and told myself to write a book.
Some years passed before I realised this was unrealistic. In time, I discovered a more fruitful route; joining a writing class, meeting other writers, hearing them read their work aloud and sharing my work with them. More recently, I’ve developed a ‘writing buddy’ friendship with historical author, Joanna Foat. That, too, has been hugely beneficial, allowing us to share our experiences – both good and bad – and build resilience as we go. This type of mutual support can happen online, as well as face-to-face. Joining Twitter seven years ago, and using it as a place to learn about writing, was a major turning point for me, enabling countless ‘water-cooler moments’ to learn about the publishing industry. It’s possible to find similar support through Facebook, Instagram and other online groups. What networking brings is knowledge. How do friends deal with setbacks? What’s worked for them, and might just work for you? What hasn’t worked for them, that you can then avoid? To me, this point is key.
Another definition of resilience – albeit less encouraging – might be banging your head against a brick wall. I’ve certainly done that myself at points in my writing journey: kept going, with blind determination, when all the signs were pointing otherwise.
What I’d say now, in terms of building resilience, is to be strategic. Resilience is unlikely to mean forging the same path forever. Instead, if something isn’t working, can you tweak it, and try an altered approach? As writers, it’s a given that we need strength and stamina. But I’d also say to listen to your gut. Sometimes we know, deep down, if something isn’t working and, rather than battling on, it may be better to recast a project that’s begun to drag us down. The publishing industry, after all, is fickle and demanding. To meet its challenges, we should be flexible and fleet-footed too.
My final tip to building resilience is, wherever possible, to take control. I read a long time ago that, if you’re submitting a manuscript to agents, it’s a good idea to keep a spreadsheet, detailing your submissions. For one thing, this records exactly what’s been done, and when. In addition, there’s something empowering in placing ‘Y’ for yes, or ‘N’ for no, in the ‘acceptance’ column. A competition spreadsheet can have the same effect. Letters are neutral and the small act of adding that ‘N’, may help you to overcome any pangs of disappointment and so, move on.
The resilience we acquire as writers flows into all other aspects of our lives. Nor is it something we acquire and can then forget about. Throughout our lives, we are endlessly challenged in unexpected ways. I experienced this myself when, just before my book was published, my mother passed away. Knowing her own deep love of books, I felt she would have wanted me to carry on. I told as many people as I could and dedicated my book launch to her memory. Despite my grief, perhaps even because of it, the book launch was one of the happiest and most stirring evenings of my life. I was sharing deep joy and sadness with people I loved.
In at least one of the short stories in my collection, I can see resilience writ large. For several years, I tried to write a novel inspired by some old family letters I found mouldering in a loft. Try as I might, I couldn’t get the novel to work; a source of much frustration at the time. Earlier this year, I returned to the two characters who inspired it. After so much time, I saw them in a whole new light. I fictionalised their story not as a novel, but as a fiercely feminist short story. I was pleased when my publisher told me in response she thought it ‘one of your best’.
You can read that story, Fight Or Flight, April 1916, in my collection. Writing it was a small act of resilience, of which I’m very proud.
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To any writer near the start of their writing journey, this is the one piece of advice I would shout out from the rooftops. Find another writer at a similar stage. Share your highs and lows along the way.