Five pieces of writing advice that work for me (and three that don’t!) – Cassandra Parkin

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By Cassandra Parkin

There are two short phrases that are guaranteed to open up a whole world of unsolicited advice from people you never even knew had an opinion, and they are: “I’m having a baby” and “I’m writing a novel”. Suddenly everyone – even the non-parents and the non-writers – has a brilliant suggestion for you. Do a course! Don’t do a course! Do a retreat! Don’t do a retreat! Share everything! Share nothing! Follow your dream! Don’t bother!

So, yeah; here are the five writing tips that I personally use every single day. I’ve also included three that don’t work for me, but might work for you. Because we’re all different. Did I mention that we’re all different? Because we are. In fact, that’s my uber-tip; find what works for you, and then do that. It’s all good.

“The first draft of anything is shit” – Ernest Hemingway

When I was starting out, I would re-read my first draft and think, “Well, that’s dreadful. I clearly can’t write. Why am I even attempting to write? What’s wrong with me? Why isn’t this better? What have I done?”

The first draft of anything is shit, and that’s okay, because then there is editing, which is when you make your first draft good. You can’t edit what you haven’t written.

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club” – Jack London

In his short story Everything’s Eventual, Stephen King describes inspiration as “the river of fire in your head”. It’s magical; but it’s rare.

Sometimes, you’ll lose yourself in another world, and look up from your keyboard to see the dawn breaking. That’s great, but you can’t only write at these times. The bulk of your work will get done on the days when you didn’t feel like it at first, but showed up anyway, and then afterwards you were glad you did because you made progress.

“I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide” – Harper Lee

Rejections and bad reviews are like having someone tell you your baby’s ugly. Actually, they’re worse than having someone tell you your baby’s ugly. When it’s your baby, you know in your heart that they are the most wondrously beautiful infant who ever graced the earth. But when it’s your book, there’s always that feeling in the back of your mind that you might just possibly have an ugly baby.

Rejections and bad reviews hurt. But they’re part of the deal. If the pain is too great, it’s okay to stop trying; but that also means you’ll never see your work in print.

“The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes” – Agatha Christie

…or hoovering, or tidying up, or cleaning the bathroom, or scrubbing out the oven. When I’m stuck on a particular problem, I leave the keyboard and go and do housework instead. Just sitting still and making a conscious effort won’t do it; I need the distraction of the other task to free my head. I have no idea why this works, but it does.

“Sometimes you have to leave the house and not do any writing” – my daughter

Writing requires long hours of not moving or speaking very much while eating biscuits, drinking caffeinated drinks and staring fixedly at a screen. It is not a healthy thing to do, either physically or mentally.

My daughter (who is currently in the magical teenage phase of knowing best about everything) regularly stages house-leaving interventions for me. My writing and I are both better for it.

And now, three pieces of advice that I’ve never stuck to, but that might be exactly right for you…

“Write what you know” – everyone

Jane Austen was never married. William Thackeray was not at the Battle of Waterloo. Terry Pratchett did not live on a disc-shaped planet resting on the backs of four elephants who were themselves riding on a giant space-turtle. The author of Beowulf probably didn’t kill a monster and then a monster’s mother and then become King and then die killing a dragon. Richard Adams was never a rabbit. Agatha Christie (as far as we know) didn’t murder anyone.

Writing what you know can be great. It’s just not mandatory. Unless we’re broadening the meaning of “what we know” to “the experience being conscious and sentient”, in which case, yeah, we should probably stick to writing what we know.

“Avoid detailed descriptions of characters; never use a word other than said to carry the dialogue; don’t go into great detail describing places and things” – Elmore Leonard

This works brilliantly for Elmore Leonard. That’s his style. It’s what makes his books so distinctive and cool. If that’s what you like, then go for it.

However, it’s not the only way to write. The library of the universe is very strange and big, and its shelves have room for both the beautiful brevity of Leonard’s “Get Shorty” and the lush descriptive beauty of Tartt’s “The Secret History”.

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by” – Douglas Adams

This is the only piece of advice I firmly believe no one (apart from possibly the much-missed Douglas Adams) should ever follow. Don’t miss deadlines. Seriously; just don’t do it.

Human beings are terrible at waiting for stuff. Go to a busy A&E department and watch how mad people get when they have to wait a few hours to see a doctor – even when doctor has prioritised saving someone’s life over checking out that weird rash on your foot.

Now imagine the person you’re keeping waiting has given you an opportunity that hundreds of aspiring writers would probably sell a kidney for. How upset do you think they might be? Having someone eagerly waiting to read and hopefully publish our work is every writer’s dream. When it comes true for you, make the most of it.

Cassandra Parkin is a Yorkshire-based writer with Cornish roots and a passion for fairy-tales. Her short story collection New World Fairy-Tales won the 2011 Scott Prize, and her debut novel The Summer We All Ran Away was nominated for the 2013 Amazon Rising Stars award. Her second novel The Beach Hut was published in 2015 and her third novel Lily’s House launched on October 15th, 2016.

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