November always seems to be a month of change for me, a time when I’m finally able to stop mourning the end of the summer and my dread of grey skies melts away into childish excitement for all things cosy and festive. It’s a month of first frosts, wood smoke, damp leaves, and eagerly scanning the horizon for fireworks—my birthday month. And now it’s the birthday month of The Writing Habit, my little online creative writing club, too.
A year ago, I turned 30 and had that stereotypical soul-searching moment people often have when they reach a “landmark” birthday; I thought about my priorities, what I’d like to achieve in the next decade of my life, what kind of work makes my soul light up, what I’d like to do more—and less—of in life, generally. I realised that, instead of waiting for the perfect time to start writing the novel I’ve been thinking about for over 10 years, I should just start writing something—anything—to flex my creative writing muscles and develop my voice as a writer of fiction.
After talking to a lot of friends both offline and online, I realised so many of us wished we had more time to devote to it, having dreamt about writing books as children and teenagers (before our more practical adult selves took over the show). That’s when I decided to start The Writing Habit, as a way of keeping myself accountable and pushing myself out of my writing comfort zones, while building a sense of community to encourage others along the way.
When I started it was a weekly email series, and it’s now evolved into a monthly email with a writing prompt, along with some tips and/or inspiration and encouragement from a fellow writer—and we also have a private Facebook group where we can talk about our work, ask each other for feedback, and generally reflect on where we’re currently at in our writing journeys, too.
While I haven’t achieved anything very tangible to the outside observer over the past year, I’ve learned so much about myself, my strengths and weaknesses, my goals, and what it will take to achieve them.
Here are a few of my top lessons:
- Schedule writing time in, even when you feel like you’re “too busy”: I feel pretty much perpetually like I’m drowning in to-do lists, messages I haven’t replied to, meals I haven’t prepared, cleaning I haven’t done, life admin that’s piling up, work I want and need to do… And yet somehow, I still find pockets of time every day to aimlessly scroll social media and watch something on Netflix once or twice a week. I’ve started really craving more control and intentionality about my schedule; sometimes that may mean that I plan out my week and I have to face the fact that work and life really is just too busy that week for any more than 10 mins quick note-taking of story ideas a day, but another week I might be able to map out a night or two when the kids are in bed and I can put in two uninterrupted hours of writing. There’s a season for everything, and sometimes we have to admit that this isn’t the season for a certain passion project. But if that’s the case, we should really and truly take it off our mental “to do” list so that we can relax about it and know that we can make it a priority during another season of our lives—I love how scheduling helps me to be clear about what I’ve committed to do, and when it fits in.
- If you really don’t have a few hours to spare a week, take notes: In my busiest weeks, when every spare moment is spoken for and there’s no room for some dedicated writing time, I take quick notes on my phone, which is usually the closest to hand when inspiration strikes. The things I write down usually fall into one of three categories: descriptions and observations about the world around me, “story seeds” (ideas that I’d like to turn into a story later when I have more time), or a line or two of a story I’m already working on. When I get a bit of time, I like to copy these notes from my phone into a notebook, which I’ve divided into sections for random descriptions/observations, story seeds, and stories I’m currently working on. All of these notes keep your writing muscles warm and help you keep growing and learning as a writer, even when you’re really short on time.
- Find out why you’re procrastinating, and tackle the issue head-on: I tend to procrastinate when I’m scared or bored. Knowing what’s behind the procrastination can help me address the fear or boredom (or whatever that root cause is) head-on, rather than trying to push on through blindly with a project, making myself feel terrible in the process. If I’m bored, do I still have to do this thing, this way? Can I change it up a little bit to reignite my interest? Or, can I maybe give it up entirely? If I’m scared, what steps can I take to make myself feel safer, and therefore get going with something? Ask yourself what’s behind your procrastination—freelance writer coach Rebecca L. Weber shares a really helpful method for doing this in this podcast episode.
- Read, read, read (what you want to write): It sounds so simple and blindingly obvious, but earlier this year I realised that one of my major struggles with short story writing could be addressed by reading more short stories; up until that point, I hadn’t made a habit of it. How can I expect to write short stories if I’m not regularly consuming them myself? It’s like the first time I ever tried to make spaghetti carbonara as a kid—I’d never had it before, and I was convinced the recipe couldn’t really mean I should add raw eggs to the pasta, so I ended up frying them first and basically making scrambled egg spaghetti. Reading other people’s work is such an important step in becoming better writers ourselves.
- Ideas don’t just appear out of thin air, you have to hunt for them: I realised over the summer that inspiration is too fickle, and I don’t want to waste any more time passively waiting for it to strike at random. I took a few weeks off writing to practice actively seeking out ideas, asking myself if any of the things I saw or read each day could be a story seed. Suddenly the ideas started flowing thick and fast.
- If you feel stuck, just get some words (any words!) on the page: If you can’t figure out how to write the opening of a story, just plunge in anywhere and get writing. It might be easier to think of a great opening once you’ve written the rest, and you don’t have to start at the beginning—in fact, some writers start at the end of their stories and work their ways back. If you are really stuck, try some free writing (a kind of journaling where you don’t have to worry about anyone reading what you write, and you don’t have to bother about traditional grammar or structure or anything—it’s essentially just getting words down on a page to get past that self-conscious writer’s block we all struggle with once in a while).
- Community is so important: One of the most transformative things about the past year has been the simple act of talking to other writers at different stages along their writing journey, asking them about how they work, sharing struggles, frustrations, and discoveries. As a writer, it’s so easy to work on your stuff in isolation, and then start to feel like you’re a failure because it doesn’t all come naturally; when you talk to other people who are honing their craft, you realise it takes hard work, practice, and a whole lot of dedication for absolutely everyone.
- Remember, there’s space for all of us: With so many brilliant new books being published, so many amazing Instagram feeds, blogs, podcasts, and all sorts flourishing online, it can be easy to start to feel like you’re getting lost in all the noise, like you’ve missed the boat or that there’s no room for you and your stories anymore. When I feel that way, I try to disconnect a bit, put my blinkers on, and focus on creating more than I consume (yes, I know that sounds like it kind of contradicts my points about reading widely and seeking out community—but, there’s a season for each of these things!). I also like to think about the fact that as a reader, I don’t just want one or two new books a year; discovering new and wonderful and diverse stories makes my heart sing, and I can’t get enough of them. If there’s room in my life as a reader, a consumer of books, for many different writers and stories, just think about how much room there is for each and every one of us in the world at large.
How about you? What have you learned about yourself as a writer over the past year?
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One of my loveliest recent discoveries has been Forget-me-not Originals, a vintage fabric bookbinding online shop run by Emma Williams.
Emma lives in an old farmhouse in South East England with her husband, three children, and a large fluffy labradoodle. She started Forget-me-not Originals when all her children were at school so that she could do something creative and be her own boss, after a 20-year career in fashion buying. It all began with making fabric-covered notebooks as gifts for friends, which led to selling them at markets, taking book-binding lessons, and then eventually combining her love of books and vintage fabric with the covered classics. She’s become a pro at hunting out second-hand books, and says her best find was a 1920s copy of Dracula for £1—it’s one of her favourite stories, and she’s never seen another copy.
As I start to build up my book collection again after five years or so of nomadic living, I’ve been on the lookout for beautiful copies of my favourite classics; I immediately fell in love with the idea of second-hand books covered in unique material, and Emma was kind enough to tell me when she had two of my all-time favourite books, I Capture the Castle and North and South, in stock so I could snap them up.
You can find Emma at various craft markets and fairs around the country, including the upcoming event at Lambeth Garden Museum this Sunday, and The Winter Brocante fair in Sussex the following weekend, but she can also always be contacted via her Etsy shop or Instagram feed. She’s open to taking commissions, so if there’s a particular book you’re looking for, get in touch and let her know.
Emma is very generously helping me celebrate The Writing Habit‘s first year with a fun giveaway this week: if you follow us both on Instagram and comment on our giveaway photos to let us know you’d like to enter before midnight GMT this Friday 16th November, we’ll enter you to win one of five beautiful Liberty print notebooks to use as you practice your own writing habit.
I’ll also be automatically entering everyone on The Writing Habit email list, so if you are signed up there and you enter on Instagram, you’ll be entered twice. If you’re not already signed up and you’d like to join us, you can do that, here. We’ll draw the winners randomly on Monday 19th November, and be in touch with them then. Good luck, and cheers to another year of growth (no matter how slow it feels) and creativity ahead!