Re:Fiction - The Fiction Writers' Magazine

How to Become a Stronger Writer

How to Become a Stronger Writer
Written by Dan Brotzel

Seasoned rejectee and author Dan Brotzel consults with Justin McCarron for tips on how to become a stronger writer, grow a thicker skin, and learn to roll with the punches. 

The writing life has its fair share of rejections, disappointments, and periods where – despite all your hard work and your dogged persistence – almost nothing is going your way. The corporate world is no picnic these days either, with all the pressures of rapid change, increasing competition, and rising stress levels.

As a result, companies are looking more and more at resilience trainers and programs to help their people cope better with what is being thrown at them. I spoke with Justin McCarron, a communications and business resilience specialist, to find out more about what resilience means here, and to see if there were any pointers that could be applied to the writer’s experience, too.  

What is Resilience? 

“Resilience has its roots in post-war psychology, and especially in research work carried out with children living in difficult conditions and adults who have survived the most extreme situations, like battlefields and even concentration camps,” says Justin. “What I’m doing is trying to apply some of those learnings to help improve people’s ability to cope in the modern workplace – to develop what I call everyday resilience.”

One definition of resilience might be “our capacity to mount and then sustain an adaptive response, and, in cases of optimum resilience, to grow from the stressful experience,” says John Reich, emeritus professor of psychology and co-editor of The Handbook of Adult Resilience

For Justin, personal resilience is “the ability to cope, to deal with and learn from setbacks. It’s both an attitude and a set of skills that people can learn and grow to help them deal with the speed and complexity of the world we all live and work in. In a sense, resilience is the art of living,” he says. “It’s the essence of being alive.”

Resilience is a life skill as well as a work skill, he believes, and it’s one we can all practice and grow, by looking at our mindsets and taking some practical steps in the right direction. “The most important skill to develop is the ability to focus our attention on what we can control in our lives, and to let go of what we can’t control or influence. To that extent, resilience is a learnable mindset.”

Practical Pointers for Developing Resilience 

Cultivate Positive Habits to Increase Your Energy Levels

Justin is a firm believer that change has to work from the inside out as well as the outside in, and he designs his programs to take place over weeks or even months and to leave people self-sufficient in the tools and mind-sets they need. A key element of his work is helping people understand that they have a right and a responsibility to themselves to prioritize their well-being. 

“The more I study and train in resilience, the more it starts to look like a proactive approach to managing the well-being of yourself and your energy levels,” he says. “More and more businesses are coming round to the realization that resilient employees, people with a sustainable level of well-being, are in the long run more productive.” 

Tip: Look at what you could do to improve your own productivity by looking at your basic well-being and energy levels. If your primary goal is to write a novel in your free time, for example, that will require lots of emotional stamina and high mental energy levels. Look at core things like diet, exercise and sleep. Could you tweak your habits to make it easier to work towards your goal? 

Align Your Lifestyle with Your Goals 

Another element of this duty of self-care is ensuring that the way you live your life is aligned with your values and goals – something that is all too often not the case, says Justin.

“When I work with groups, I ask people to think about what they really care about,” says McCarron. “Often what you find is there’s a fundamental disconnect between the things people say are their priorities in life, and how they actually live. For example, people often say, ‘It’s all about my family.’ But then, it turns out that they are regularly pulling 12-hour days, then going home and spending the evening on emails and calls!

“So part of the work is helping people to become more aware of that, and encouraging them to take more responsibility for managing their lives in a way that’s more matched to what they really care about.”

Tip: Look closely at your goals as a writer and how they mesh with the rest of your life, and think realistically about whether your life is set up in the best way to help you achieve them. Examine things like work-life balance, setting boundaries, and the way you schedule time. 

Reach Out to Others 

The cliché of a strong resilient type is a grizzled figure who sucks up every threat and ends up the last man on the battlefield, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

“People think of resilience as this macho thing of surviving against all the odds, on your own, you against the world,” he says. “But really, it’s not about being the last man standing. It’s more about being the reed bending in the wind. It’s not Survivor – it’s a community of people linking arms and looking after each other.” 

An interesting find from the research into people who have survived extreme hardship, says Justin, is “their ability to develop and make use of networks of support. Resilient people are not only good at giving help – but also at asking for and receiving help.” On the other hand, people who are less resilient often struggle to reach out to others. “It’s well established that people’s ability to fulfil their tasks is massively increased by their ability to have relationships with other people,” he says. 

Tip: As writers, we spend a lot of our time working alone. But there are many ways to join forces with others and to share problems and answers. There are loads of useful Facebook writing groups, for example, and Twitter has a lively community that’s famous for its supportive, approachable vibe. Better still, joining a writer’s group is a fantastic way to meet other people facing similar challenges, as well as use a forum to practice receiving feedback in a safe, constructive space. Find a way to reach out and connect with another writer today.

Practice Being Turned Down

Part of being a resilient person is the ability to roll with the knocks that life can throw, to find ways to move through a difficult experience, learn from it, and not be overly affected or defined by it afterwards.

One exercise Justin sometimes suggests to help people grow a thicker skin is to practice being refused in small ways that don’t ultimately matter. “For someone who’s afraid of rejection at work, it might be setting them the task of going around for a day asking for things that they’re bound to get a ‘no’ to – for example, asking a shop to gift wrap your groceries!” he says. “In this way, you’re manufacturing a situation where something goes wrong, so you can practice how you deal with it before the real challenge comes up.” 

By being rejected in small, predictable ways, you start to learn how to cope with high-stakes rejections when they come, too. 

Tip: Ask for something today that’s bound to get a “no.” Watch your reaction and think about what you can learn from it. 

Set Aside Time to Play and Make Mistakes

Cutting-edge tech start-up businesses often hold regular “hackathons,” where people are given an interesting challenge and allowed to try things out, go wild and break things, and just see what happens. It’s not a productive day in the traditional sense, but it can generate loads of new ideas. And of course, it’s motivating, too.

Hackathons and the like are great ways to develop creativity and innovation, says Justin, and also to provide some time and space for people to remember why they love what they do away from the pressures of deadlines and client demands. 

Tip: Find a way to jam as a writer, to practice your art in a way that’s all about the fun and where nothing’s at stake. There are lots of informal writing prompts on Twitter and Facebook, such as the regular #vss (very short story) prompt, and some writing groups are just about meeting people and having fun with creative exercises. 

Use Humor and Creativity to Reframe Negative Experiences Like Rejections 

Writers at every level find it hard to deal with rejections, for obvious reasons. But that sting wears off with exposure, and the more you submit, the greater your chances of an acceptance. That’s why some writers even target #100rejections per year. 

“I’m not one to brag, but you’ll struggle to find a lit mag that hasn’t rejected me,” was a recent tweet of mine said that struck a chord with some of my followers. Once we start to dance with rejections, to have a little fun with them, we can stop taking them so seriously, get a bit of perspective, and grow a bit more resilient in the process.  

Tip: Read author Greg Levin’s hilarious “Rejection letter rejecting a rejection notification.” It begins: 

Dear agent or publisher, 

Unfortunately, I am unable to accept your rejection at this time. Please understand I receive a high volume of rejection notifications and must be highly selective in choosing those I'm able to handle…

About Dan Brotzel

Dan is the winner of the latest Riptide Journal short story competition, was runner-up in the 2019 Leicester Writes contest, and was highly commended in the Manchester Writing School competition 2018. Other competition shortlists include Flash500, Sunderland University/Waterstones, To Hull and Back, Wimbledon BookFest, Fish, Dorset Writers Award and Retreat West. He has words in places like Pithead Chapel, Ellipsis, Reflex Fiction, Cabinet of Heed, Bending Genres, The Esthetic Apostle, Spelk, Ginger Collect, and Fiction Pool. His first collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack, will be published early 2020. He is also co-author of a comic novel, Kitten on a Fatberg, now available to pre-order at Unbound (discount code Kitten10).

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