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Show Your Working is a regular column exploring how writers get things done. In this instalment, we take a peek into the writing routine of author John Morrissey. His debut collection of short stories, Firelight, is out now. 

Images: Supplied.

What does your workspace look like?

I write in our spare bedroom. It’s the same room my partner works from when she is working from home. It also has the cot where our newborn will sleep when he is old enough, so I might need to relocate at some point. I am in general not too fussy about where I write as long as I can shut the door when I need to! It does feel good to not have to work in my bedroom.

I think it helps a lot to have a window you can look out of when you’re trying to think. Our spare bedroom is on the second floor, so I have a good view of the trees across the alley and there’s a platform where our cat can sleep.

Are you an analog or digital writer?

I write on the computer, but I’ll do planning or take notes by hand. If I am working on a particularly tricky section, I will sometimes draft it by hand before typing it up. I find that sometimes you can think more freely when you’re using pen and paper. Once it’s in the word processor it can feel harder to go back and start over.

If I’m away from home and I feel like I need to take a note down, I’ll usually just send it to myself in the Messenger app. It works surprisingly well!

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

I use OpenOffice to write (it’s free) and I have the folder with my drafts set to backup automatically to Google Drive as I’m terrified of losing work due to a technical issue. It also means you can look at your drafts if you’re away from home, although I try not to do that unless I really feel like I need to change something immediately.

Describe your writing practice? 

I try to write every weekday in the mornings. I don’t work on Fridays, so that’s often when I get the most work done. I’m happy if I get 90 minutes in before work. I used to set myself a target of 500 words a day, but now I find that counterproductive. If I get three hundred words down in that time, I’m very happy with that. It all adds up over time, and if you work slowly I find you’re less likely to hit a wall.

I think it helps a lot to have a window you can look out of when you’re trying to think.

The amount of planning I do really depends on the length of the story. For a longer piece, I will usually know the ending and a few key scenes along the way. I find that if I don’t push myself to work too quickly, I will generally have an idea of where the story is going. I think having a clear grasp of the characters and their personalities does a huge amount to keep a story on track, as does having an idea of what the story is really about thematically (even if the theme is very abstract or is more a particular atmosphere that you’re trying to evoke).

I edit as I go now. I used to wait until everything was drafted before editing, but I found that sometimes I would sit down to edit a piece I had worked on for a long time only to realise that it had some serious structural problems or was just very unpolished. That can be a very demoralising feeling. If you’re editing as you go, you’re much more likely to spot problems before they become serious. You also always have a fairly good idea of where the story is going to go next, even if you don’t have the whole thing set down in your head. You probably lose a bit of spontaneity, but the benefits are enormous. I think a piece will also have a much more consistent tone and voice throughout because you’re actively working to homogenise it as you go.

Images, left to right: John holding Firelight (Paperback Books). John’s study (supplied).

You write short stories. What draws you to the form?

Short stories are really the foundation of the horror genre. It is much, much easier to maintain tension and suspense in a short fiction. Drama and characterisation can play a more secondary role, and you can leave things unexplained in a way which might feel unsatisfying in a novel.

In the most practical terms, if a short story turns out badly, you hopefully haven’t spent too much time writing it! You can really experiment with different ideas, and if they don’t work, that’s fine—you can always make another attempt, using a different approach. The two longest pieces in my collection were both second attempts at ideas which had not worked in their first iterations.

What’s your editing process like?

I am always surprised by how much something can be improved in the editing and rewrite process. If I am pulling my hair out trying to make a particular paragraph or description work, I find it is usually because I am trying to save something which I would be better off redoing altogether. I think that generally a work will always benefit from being cut down, both as a whole and on a line-to-line basis.

One thing I have always had to keep in mind is that structural problems are very, very hard to fix in the editing process. You can tighten things up and improve your prose enormously, but if a story has basic problems with pacing or lacks direction, it might be better to start over rather than attempting to edit it into something which you are happy with.

If you’re editing as you go, you’re much more likely to spot problems before they become serious.

It can be helpful for your morale to show your work to people before it is finished if you are experiencing doubts or are unsure how well it is coming together, but I think you do lose some momentum by doing so. Ideally, I think it would be best not to show it to anybody at all before it is finished, but sometimes it feels necessary.

How do you navigate your various kinds of work/study?

My day job is not creative so I find that it is fairly easy to switch gears when I need to. It doesn’t use up any of my creative energies. I am not as productive as I would like to be, but I find that as long as I try to be consistent the work will get done. Even if I only manage to sit down two days a week, I know that something is happening. I also think that a huge amount of the work takes place in the background, while you are doing other things. Applying a regimen too strictly can dry up the creativity a bit. As long as I’m thinking about what I’m working on, and I have a plan for how I’m going to get it done, I am happy.

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

The main change has been writing more slowly, and not putting so much pressure on myself to complete things quickly. Setting yourself an arbitrary word target for a piece before you have begun it can really ruin a story. I produced a lot of bad stories trying to cut pieces down to meet the word limit for a competition or a magazine.

I am also a bit more realistic about my capabilities and what I can and can’t write well. With more time I find it easier to play to my strengths and skirt around what I know I am not so good at.

How do you encourage inspiration to strike?

If I am hitting a bit of a brick wall with a piece, I will take some time to re-read and edit what I already have written. It always helps to take a breath and remember what you were trying to do with a story in the first place. I also find that if you are sitting down fairly regularly to write or at least to think about writing, ideas will pop up. It’s a cliché, but I began enjoying writing a lot more when I just let myself write the kinds of stories I would like to read!

I also think the best way to keep the ideas coming is just to read a lot—I always find that other people’s ideas are the best inspiration for your own. It’s good to try and read different kinds of things, non-fiction as well, for instance.

What’s next for you?

You can order my collection of stories, Firelight, from Text Publishing. I will also be at the Blak & Bright festival in March in Melbourne, and the Brisbane Writers Festival in May.