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Show Your Working is a regular column exploring how some of our favourite writers get things done. In this instalment, we take a peek into the writing routine of author Shelley Parker-Chan. Their latest novel, He Who Drowned the World, the sequel to the award-winning She Who Became the Sun, is out this month.

Images: Supplied.

What does your workspace look like?

I used to work in my bedroom at a desk in front of a nice sunny window. But then we had our Melbourne lockdowns and I was desperate for a working space that I could keep my family out of. So I moved into the cupboard under the stairs. I’ve painted it now, and gotten some shelves and a lamp, but at the beginning it was just me, a bare desk and my laptop. It was great for focus. If I was in the cupboard, I knew there was only one thing I should be doing: writing. I wrote the whole of my last book in there, but now that I’m starting on a new project I’m finding it hard to force myself back in. So these days I’m doing most of my writing at libraries around Melbourne. I like the companionable atmosphere of other people tapping away at their work.

Are you an analog or digital writer?

I have a lot of lovely, unused paper notebooks. It turns out that the best notebook is the one you have on hand—which for me is my phone. Every time I have a thought related to a project I’m working on, which is usually while I’m walking somewhere, I dump it into Apple Notes before I forget. I’ll sketch out the bones of scenes or jot down character ideas. If I come across something project-relevant or inspiring as I’m reading, I’ll cut and paste, or snap a pic, and put it in there too.

It turns out that the best notebook is the one you have on hand—which for me is my phone.

The Notes app is now a part of my brain. Which is unfortunate as it’s complete chaos in there. My organisation is limited to going through it every six months or so to delete what I’ve used, then I throw the rest into folders, never to be seen again. I should really learn to use tags so I can find things better. I have a fantasy of being a well-organised writer, but I guess if it hasn’t happened by now, it probably won’t.

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

I use Scrivener for drafting and it’s fantastic. I’d struggle so hard if I didn’t have the ability to move quickly around a long manuscript, to drag and drop scenes into new locations, to edit a scene in two different places simultaneously and to sort scenes by the point-of-view character.

I do my initial plotting all in Excel, though. To get a grasp of a big, complex project, sometimes you need to lay it out as simply as possible. I put a timeline down the side of a sheet, characters across the top, and a scene in each cell. The most vexing thing about Excel—for Mac, at least—is that row height is limited. If my scenes grow to a certain length, the bottom of the text gets cut off in the main view. I usually take that as a sign that it’s time to move to Scrivener.

Describe your writing practice?

I don’t believe anyone has to write every day, but I do find that if I’m putting consistent desk time into a project, then my mind will go into problem-solving mode in the background while I’m doing non-writing tasks. It means I can get my solutions ‘for free’, rather than having to grind away during work time to find them.

I have a fantasy of being a well-organised writer, but I guess if it hasn’t happened by now, it probably won’t.

I’m a slow writer at the best of times, so I have to leverage all possible efficiencies! That means I try to stick to a weekday routine. I’m not a night owl, so I’ll get my working time in during the morning and early afternoon. By the time I start drafting a book I’ve usually nailed down what the plot is, and that rarely changes. But the momentum of my stories comes from the characters’ emotions—I like to call my subgenre ‘emo fantasy’—so I spend inordinate amounts of time shaping and re-shaping character arcs, and making sure I understand what they feel and think at every given moment. I’ll have to write a scene twenty times, with twenty slight variations on a character’s understanding of themself, before I find the one that works for their arc, the story themes and the plot. I guess it’s a form of discovery writing. But as a process, it’s slow and frustrating and it sucks.

Image: Supplied.

How do you navigate your different kinds of work?

I’ve been lucky enough with my writing career that I was able to quit my day job a couple of years ago. But it turns out that writing full-time doesn’t mean writing all day. Horror of horrors, it means running a small business. Admin, promotion, events, blurbing, website management, social media and commissions for other kinds of writing: it could expand to fill your entire life if you let it. Honestly, I hate all the parts of this job that aren’t writing novels. I try to put boundaries around my writing time, so that no matter what happens, each day I’m doing something that feels like the real thing.

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

I used to do a lot more writing in groups, especially when I was just starting out. I was lucky enough to know some authors who’d already had books published. We’d get together every weekend in a cafe to sit and chat and write. I learned so much from them: not just about the craft but the business of selling books, how to make a living from writing. But the pandemic broke all of that. And by the time it ended, we’d become full-time writers, isolated at home while we frantically worked towards our individual deadlines. I miss the social side of writing, though—I’d like to get that back.

How do you encourage inspiration to strike?

Sometimes writing a long novel with a lot of moving parts can feel like solving a twenty-sided Rubik’s Cube. Back and forth, back and forth, and whenever you fix one thing, it’ll break something else.

I’m a slow writer at the best of times, so I have to leverage all possible efficiencies!

Desk time is crucial, but the solutions come to me strictly in two locations: in the shower, or while I’m walking somewhere after having wrestled with the problem all day. I’ve learned not to panic and to trust the process. There’s always a solution. If I keep plugging away, it’ll come to me eventually.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently touring North America to promote my new book, He Who Drowned the World. It’s the last book in a gender-bending historical fantasy duology set in 14th-century China, so now I’m very keen to get started on something new.

I’m thoroughly sick of historical fiction, so I’m going to build some bonkers cultures and make the next one a secondary-world fantasy. It’s going to be fun!