‘Bouncebackability’ first entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 2005, after football manager Iain Dowie coined it to describe Crystal Palace’s ascent from the edge of relegation to promotion through play-offs. What happened to his team in the 2003–4 season is, apparently, not uncommon. In 2018, Richard Foster wrote that, ‘the best preparation a team can have for a play-off final is the experience of losing one the year before’ (The Guardian, 25th May, 2018). He backed this up with an amazing statistic: ‘Of the 10 beaten finalists who have returned to the same fixture the next season, nine have succeeded second time around – and the only exception made amends a year later.’
Surely a near miss for writers could have the same effect? The problem is we never know how close our work gets to being longlisted; if it’s not there, it’s not there. The WriteMentor folk addressed this problem recently (as much as it can be addressed) when they published additional lists of ‘Very Close’ and ‘Readers’ Favourites’, alongside their official competition longlist. Those who found themselves on these lists tweeted how hugely encouraging it was. Inevitably, though, there were more omissions than inclusions and I was one of the omissions.
I haven’t had much success lately – and I’ve ended up in a bit of a slough. I’ve been researching a new novel for a year but can’t quite bring myself to write it.
There’s a ton of advice out there to help writers like me who feel discouraged: you should ringfence a slot every morning to write whatever comes into your head; join a writing group; take a course; go on a retreat/workshop; get a mentor, etc.
But what works for one person might be unhelpful to another (assuming it’s even affordable). Stephen King – whose book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is a favourite of mine – says he is ‘doubtful about writing classes’, though ‘not entirely against them’, which I found pretty interesting. In case you’re tempted to stop reading right here, perhaps the following (re his view on workshops/retreats in which would-be writers do daily critiques on each other’s work) will resonate more:
‘The pressure to explain is always on, and a lot of your creative energy … is therefore going in the wrong direction. You find yourself constantly questioning your prose and your purpose when what you should probably be doing is writing as fast as the Ginger-bread Man runs, getting that first draft down on paper while the shape of the fossil is still bright and clear in your mind.’
Getting your first draft down before you lose that vital spark appeals to me. (Elsewhere, he says, ‘If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind – they begin to seem like characters instead of real people.’) He also advocates reading widely. That, of course, has to be right. At the end of last year, I came across an insightful tweet from literary agent Jennifer Laughran (@literaticat):
‘The best advice if you want to write for kids is, GO TO THE LIBRARY AND READ 100 BOOKS PUBLISHED IN YOUR CATEGORY IN THE PAST FIVE YEARS. Put your favourites in a special pile and buy your own copies of those so you can write in them. Tear them apart. Why and HOW do they work? If you do this: CONGRATULATIONS, you just did much of the work for a master’s degree without having to pay for it. While you’re at it – make a spreadsheet of those 100 books, noting WHO PUBLISHED THEM, and agent/editor if they are listed in the acknowledgments. Note patterns! If you do THIS step: CONGRATULATIONS, you just got a crash course in publishing and are armed with the knowledge of “who publishes what” that you will need as you begin your querying/publishing journey.’
I’m thinking this advice is transferable to anyone writing for adults, too, though reading 100 recent books might be a stretch.
I’ve also discovered that outings connected with my subject are really helpful (though this probably isn’t startling news to anyone else!). Towards the end of last year, I had an overnight stay in Dorchester and walked to various places connected with Thomas Hardy. Google Maps took me across fields to the church where Hardy’s father first saw his mother, then to the nearby house (what remains of it) where she was in service, and finally, along the road, to the cottage where Hardy was born. I came back feeling more hopeful and inspired than I had for months!
Ditto after a trip to Charles Dickens’ house in Doughty Street, London, last week.
I’ve also found writers baring their souls about failure and insecurity immensely encouraging. In Cathy Rentzenbrink’s new book Write It All Down, she says:
‘It is pointless to worry whether the work is any good or whether you are any good. It’s all about learning to tolerate the gap between our aspiration for the finished thing and the current dog’s breakfast that we see before us. With each of my five books I wasted aeons of time fretting about whether it was rubbish and I was useless and would everyone laugh at me and had I bitten off more than I could chew …
‘A sea change came when I had a talk about it with my agent, Jo. We were sitting on a wall outside the London Book Fair, and I was crying because I felt so adrift and miserable and unable to finish the next draft of what would become The Last Act of Love. I told her that I just didn’t think I was good enough. “Look,” she said kindly, “self-doubt is intertwined with creativity. I don’t understand why, but all the creative people I know spend a lot of time believing they are useless. You just need to not listen to it.”
‘That was a life-changing moment for me …’
Bouncebackability is about the state of your morale, the ability to shut out negative voices. The reason I remember when the OED first included it is because a boy in my son’s English class decided to celebrate by inserting it into an essay on Romeo & Juliet as often as possible! For example, Romeo, he said, showed bouncebackability when he moved on from his unhappy adoration of Rosaline (‘I have a soul of lead’) to joyous devotion to Juliet (‘Did my heart love till now?’) I don’t know how else he applied it but it must have made his teacher smile (a bit) and I’ll never think about bouncebackability without doing the same. It helps me lighten up.