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Show Your Working is a regular column exploring how some of our favourite writers get things done. This month, we take a peek into the writing routine of author and artist Asphyxia, whose illustrated novel Future Girl (Allen & Unwin) was recently awarded the 2021 Readings Young Adult Book Prize.

A double bed with blue and pink floral patterned bedsheets and pillows. On either side of the bed are timber crates repurposed into bedside tables, one of which has a large container labelled 'milk'. Paintings of Asphyxia's girl characters are on the wall and a throw pillow, and a large bush is visible out the window.

Asphyxia’s bedroom. ‘Bed is my favourite place to work, and my bedroom is totally my sanctuary.’ Image: Supplied

What does your workspace look like? 

I usually write on my laptop in bed, propped up on a couple of pillows. When I wrote the first draft of Future Girl, I had a rule that I couldn’t get up for the day until I had written 1000 words. Usually by the time I’d written the first thousand words, I would be on a roll and write more. More recently, due to chronic illness, I have actually become largely bed-bound. Luckily for me, bed is my favourite place to work anyway, and my bedroom is totally my sanctuary, with a chandelier I made myself and tidy, white, clear energy, warmed up with a few of my own artworks—quirky girls I’ve painted, watching over me and encouraging me on.

I do need to focus when I write so I tell others in my household that they are not allowed to interrupt me while I’m ‘on the clock’, and I turn off notifications from my phone and email, and am strict with myself about not checking or responding to messages until my session is over.

Are you an analog or digital writer?

When I am first visualising characters, locations and plots, I like to be very visual about it. I created a journal for Future Girl into which I stuck character and world ideas, and I painted several of the characters to help me visualise them. Working in this visceral way helped me to enter the world I was creating more thoroughly.

But having mentally developed the characters and concepts, I find it easiest to go fully digital. I type over 100 words per minute so jotting down notes and ideas is easiest via a keyboard.

I created a journal for Future Girl into which I stuck character and world ideas, and I painted several of the characters to help me visualise them.

While I’m writing, I keep two lists open which I am constantly accessing. One is a scene list, complete with goals. For example, I’ll have in my mind how long I want the book to be, and I’ll know roughly what the word count should be for each chapter, and I’ll be tracking actual words written against that list, which is a guide that tells me if I need to write with more brevity or expand into  more detail. And like I said, I have the minimum 1000 words per day rule for myself, and ticking it off in my scene list helps me stay on track with that. As I’m writing, I often think of things that should happen in subsequent scenes, and I’ll jot them down in the relevant scene notes, so that when I get there, I don’t forget.

The other list I keep open is a to-do list. Sometimes I’ll realise that I forgot to include something earlier in the manuscript, or I need to check I’ve been consistent with some detail, or that a particular thread has been neglected. But if I stop writing to address that, I’ll lose my flow and not move forward. So every time I think of something like this, I quickly jot it down into my to do list. For those items, I either wait until I have completed my first draft, or else I do them when I am too tired to write effectively and can do something more mundane.

An scrapbook-style journal, with the heading

A sample of Asphyxia’s ‘Future Girl’ journal. Image: Supplied

What sort of software and hardware do you use to get your work done?

When I am starting a book, I use Evernote. I love Evernote because it effortlessly syncs my phone with my laptop, and unlike other cloud services, it doesn’t seem to spend time waiting to sync. I’ll make a notebook for the book and separate notes for every aspect of the book: characters, plot ideas, synopses etc. At this stage of development, I do a lot of my thinking through the course of everyday life. Then it’s really valuable to be able to grab my phone and jot down my ideas. Evernote is easily accessible from my phone. I have written entire chapters typed out on my phone in Evernote! Working on my phone allows me to write while waiting in line at the shop, waiting for public transport, and in the bath. My only gripe with Evernote is something that appeared after I became addicted to it: every time I switch out of the app (to my to-do list! I use Things, which also syncs effortlessly with my laptop) the note goes back to the start. Since some of my notes are really long, this is incredibly irritating.

However, when I get to the serious stuff, especially making big edits and redrafts, I find it best to switch to Scrivener. I love that I can have a little window open showing how many words I’ve written for the day. I organise all my material for the world, characters, background and plot, and write with two windows open—one is the manuscript itself and the other is my list of scenes. If Scrivener would just sync with my phone I would be in heaven.

Describe your writing practice?

When I am writing a book for publication, I am very serious about my approach, and have a strict routine of writing each morning, with a few days off every week. I don’t clock off until I have met my target. With Future Girl, I rewrote the entire manuscript from scratch five times, which was a huge undertaking. I had to be very disciplined to pull that off.

If I wait for inspiration to strike, I can sit there forever. I find the best thing is to plan methodically. I love the Snowflake Method created by Randy Ingermanson, though I adapt it a bit for my own purposes. Ingermanson’s method expects you to have a single theme for the book, whereas I like to include multiple themes, and each of these threads needs their own development process. The Snowflake Method is great because it starts with a single overarching idea and then gradually leads you into more and more detail, until finally you have a scene by scene outline. I love this scene by scene outline. When I am out and about and thinking of snippets of dialogue between characters, I can jot it down and then dump it into the note for that scene. There is always somewhere to put my notes. Then when I get up to writing that scene, I read through all the notes I’ve made, I know exactly what needs to be achieved in the scene, and I can set about writing it up. That way, I’m never sitting staring at my screen, trying to think, ‘Umm…what now…?’

Another absolute gem for me was from Margo Lanagan, whose books I adore. She joined a writers’ Facebook group I made while I was writing Future Girl, and she said that when she writes, she doesn’t try to ‘show, not tell’. In her first draft, she ‘tells’. Then later, she goes back and edits, and turns all those ‘tells’ into ‘shows’.

To write a book, I need an initial spark. For me, that spark is often a question: what do I want to say?

In general, I feel that it’s best to write fast and get on a roll, so I resist stuff that interferes with that, like going back and endlessly editing. That’s why I have my to-do list at the ready. I don’t try to write ‘well’ the first time. I just try to get down the story. Then I spend a lot of time editing (five whole rewrites from scratch), and it’s during this time that I refine my word choices and writing style. If I’ve written that a character felt ‘angry’, I’ll take a moment to think what she could be doing, and looking like to show that anger. If I do that in my first draft, I lose my flow and get too bogged down.

Has your writing practice changed over the years? If so, how?

I think I’ve become better at it. Malcolm Gladwell says to become good at something, you simply need to practice for 10,000 hours. I have put in way more than that for my writing—maybe double or even triple? (Yes, I once sat down and did an estimate!) Becoming better at it means I can write faster, and it’s easier to find ways to express what I want to say.

How do you encourage inspiration to strike?

To write a book, I need an initial spark. For me, that spark is often a question: what do I want to say? With Future Girl, I had stuff I wanted to say about Deafness and the environment, and that became the foundation for the book. From, there, as I mulled over how I wanted to say it, the story took shape. The Snowflake Method was a wonderful guide when it came to developing detail.

I also find the Snowflake Method excellent for dealing with writers’ block. Once you know what you want to say, the process and questions asked with that method leads you towards a developed manuscript, so that you never really end up with that ‘What do I do now?’ feeling. I did have a kind of writers’ block for several years from age 18 until my early thirties, and this was because I had set the bar too high for myself, demanding I write well. Margo Lanagan’s approach of writing the first draft quick, loose and without making any effort to write well has cured me of this problem.

I did have a kind of writers’ block for several years from age 18 until my early thirties, and this was because I had set the bar too high for myself.

If you want to be a writer, I think the most important thing is to make time in your daily/weekly routine for writing. Writing most days is good because it keeps the flow going, and your brain stays in a writers’ mindset, which means you’ll have ideas between writing sessions. The more you write, the better at it you’ll get. And stop worrying about writing well—just get it down as quickly as possible and polish it later.

What’s next for you?

Recently I have been pouring my creative energy into painting. I have almost finished painting for an exhibition, Love, Lies and Indoctrination, which will be on show at Lismore Regional Gallery and online via my website from 24 September—10 October (though it may be postponed due to COVID).

The exhibition represents an exploration of the strange customs of our society and the challenge of belonging, when we can’t or won’t follow those customs, perhaps due to feminist ideals, chronic illness, disability, queer identity, or just disagreeing with them. It’s easy for us to assume that many social conventions are just the natural way of things, and yet when you look closely, many are quite bizarre. Are they healthy for us? Should we find another way to live? These are the questions I hope to provoke and explore through the unique lens of being Deaf, queer, chronically ill and needing to use a wheelchair.

Future Girl is available now from your local independent bookseller.