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Advice For Writers by Cassandra Parkin

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cassandra parkin

Cassandra Parkin

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Hello, fellow writer!

Let’s cover the basics first. Yes, you can write, as long as you want to. Yes, you should write, as long as you want to. No, you don’t need to get your spelling, punctuation and grammar right on your first draft (they matter in the end, but they absolutely don’t matter at the start). No, you might not get published. And no, that doesn’t matter, because you have absolute, one hundred per cent, cast-iron, copper-bottomed permission from the universe to spend time doing something that makes you happy. Yes? Good.

Apparently the best way to give advice is to answer the questions you get asked the most. So, here are the three questions I get asked the most, answered in reverse order:

  • Have you seen my shoes / tie / football socks / calculator / phone charger / special glass jar / divining rods / bowl of rainwater / multivitamins / tube of Germolene / dead mouse / half-dead blackbird / special hat?
  • How do you find the time to write?
  • Where do you get your ideas?

Where do you get your ideas?

For me, ideas arrive as a single image – somebody getting off a train, or building a beach hut, or standing at the top of a steep street that ends in deep water. For ‘Soldier Boy’, it was someone standing in front of a mirror, holding scissors, and psyching themselves up to do…something.

Then I start picking and probing. Who’s looking in the mirror? Is it day or night? Are they somewhere safe and known, or strange and dangerous? How did they get there? Where are they going next? Why are they looking in the mirror? And how do they about what they see? The answers are never within my control. Somewhere in the universe, the narrative already exists. I’m not inventing, I’m discovering.

The person looking into the mirror is a girl, and her name is Alannah. She’s in a ropey public toilet, late at night, and she’s angry and frightened. Outside in the car is her dad, Liam. Liam’s a man’s man – an ex-soldier, trained to be tough and fearless, now coming apart at the seams. They’ve left home because of Alannah’s mother Emma, who’s about to leave Liam. They have nowhere to go and no idea what to do. And there’s something else about Alannah, something she feels when she looks in the mirror…

This is the lovely bit – that moment of possession when you can see the basic shape of things, and the characters in the story start haunting you. This is also the bit writers love talking about, because it sounds slightly insane, but in a cool way, and it’s sort of fun to have people looking at you like you’re slightly insane (but in a cool way). It’s the most exciting part, but it’s only a little bit of the process. Because writers aren’t people who have ideas; they’re people who have ideas and then do the work of writing.

How do you find the time to write?

Nobody I know has giant, unused chunks of Time lying around, so like most writers, I’m good at multitasking. I wrote my first two novels in lunch breaks, in the backs of notebooks in really boring meetings, and whenever my colleagues left the room to make a cup of tea. These days I have a job that fits around writing, but that still means lots of switching between tasks. My first-draft goal is 2,000 words a day, but I know writers who aim for 500 words a day, and writers who manage 5,000. The important thing isn’t the size of the number – it’s how consistently you show up and do the work.

(Something it’s important to remember: because writing is work you won’t always feel thrilled to be doing it. Some days, you sit down at your desk and think “Wheeeee!” Other days, you’ll wonder why you’re even bothering. That’s okay. Show up anyway. Write anyway. Have faith.)

Anyway. Within about four to six months, I have a first draft, which is, inevitably, absolute bobbins. Repetitive, sloppy, inconsistent, badly paced, repetitive, full of plot holes, repetitive, confusing, repetitive and generally just awful. Here’s what I wish someone had told me decades ago: if you’ve ever got this far and thought, My God, what have I even done, congratulations! Your first draft is now in the same category as every first draft of every novel ever – Mansfield Park and The Colour Purple and Alice In Wonderland and Rebecca and Valley of the Dolls and My Sister, The Serial Killer and your favourite book and your significant other’s favourite book and the book you loved as a child and yes, seriously, every single damn one of them was once a really shitty first draft with an exhausted writer looking down at it, thinking some version of My God, what have I even done.

Some people edit as they go, but I like to tear through the first draft like a cat crossing the road with its eyes shut, and drag the whole thing into shape afterwards. I start with a structural edit to put everything into its right place, iron out the pacing and figure out the timeline. After that, it’s just an endless amount of finicking around. Editing is a process that never really ends (my first book was published nine years ago and I’d still like to tweak it now) but generally speaking, when you think you’ll start throwing things if you spend one more minute editing, you’re probably about halfway there.

Have you seen my shoes / tie / football socks / calculator / phone charger / special glass jar / divining rods / bowl of rainwater / multivitamins / tube of Germolene / dead mouse / half-dead blackbird / special hat?

The thing you lost is in the place where you left it.

(c) Cassandra Parkin

About Soldier Boy:

Under the shadow of trauma, Liam has been discharged from the army. As night terrors torment him and he struggles to keep his anger intact, he finds himself in his car, his daughter Alannah asleep in the back, while his wife Emma has gone AWOL. With no idea where to go for shelter, his only goal is to hold onto his daughter at all costs. But Alannah is on a journey of her own.As the consequences of Alannah’s choices unfold, nothing will ever be the same again.

Soldier Boy is gripping story about secrets, fear, longing, lies and the power of being true to yourself, even when the price is higher than you could have imagined.

‘The writing is glorious, beautiful… the handling of the subject matter is so tender, so sensitive, so utterly well done. This book is just what the world needs right now. No one could read it and not learn something, not let their mind and heart open up just a little bit more. I adored it.’ Louise Beech

‘Uniquely structured, Cassandra Parkin’s Soldier Boy is a masterclass in interior storytelling that keeps you glued to the page.’ Ana Johns, Internationally Bestselling author of The Woman in the White Kimono

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Cassandra Parkin grew up in Hull, and now lives in East Yorkshire. Her short story collection, New World Fairy Tales (Salt Publishing, 2011), won the 2011 Scott Prize for Short Stories. Her work has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies.
The Summer We All Ran Away (Legend Press, 2013) was Cassandra’s debut novel and nominated for the Amazon Rising Stars 2014.
Visit Cassandra at cassandraparkin.wordpress.com or on Twitter @cassandrajaneuk

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