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Show Your Working is a monthly column exploring how some of our favourite writers get things done. This month, we take a peek at the desk of Ruby J Murray, author of The Biographer’s Lover (Black Inc, 2019) and Running Dogs (Scribe, 2012), and recipient of two Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist awards.

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Ruby’s workspace in Oakland. Image: Supplied

What does your workspace look like?

Over the years my workspaces have looked like whatever I could grab. I had a workspace on top of a jungle gym in a warehouse. I had a workspace in the office of a kind friend’s microscopy company– I was their charity case writer. I’ve dragged that rug all over the place. I bought a kilim rug in 2012, and wherever I put the rug down would become a writing space.

I still have that rug, and at the moment I’m lucky; I have a small office at home that looks out on the front garden. It used to be some sort of a storeroom or servants’ quarters back when the house was built in 1915. It still has a gas wall sconce in the wall. One door opens onto the kitchen, and the other door opens onto the front entryway.

Our house is home to eight adults and two toddlers. It’s a rambling old craftsman in Oakland, California. Without a workspace with a door to close, nothing would ever get edited. Beyond the door, the windows are luxuries.

What would your perfect work/writing setup look like?

I try not to think about that. Like a lot of us, I can become fixated on what the perfect work environment will be. Not having the perfect situation can become an excuse for not writing. Writing and life have to happen at the same time.

Not having the perfect situation can become an excuse for not writing. Writing and life have to happen at the same time. 

In the end, the routine is more important than the setup. The routine, and surrounding yourself with people who understand that your routine is important.

Do you have a writing routine, or do you fit in writing when you can?

It’s changed over the years depending on what my day job is. But my routine has always involved early mornings. For the last three years I’ve had a pretty demanding day job. That first hour of writing in the morning is really important. But honestly, even when I haven’t been in day jobs like that, any writing that happens after those first few hours in the morning feels like a bonus.

In the evenings, I find it much easier to refocus with alcohol. Not great I know. But there you go.

Is there a particular environment you find you write best in?

I find that different writing tasks are easier in different environments. I like to draft things in cafes and bars where life is happening.

Being out in the world while I’m writing first drafts gives me some company, like I have a social life. Which can feel important when you’re writing on a Friday night at the end of a long work week. (My novels would not exist without the kindness of Kelvin Bar in Northcote and the Heart and Dagger Saloon in Oakland.) But I can’t research, re-write, or edit in public spaces. For that, I need to be in a room with a door closed.

Are you an analog or digital writer?

Both.

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

When you’re working across a lot of projects, balancing life outside writing is really important. Otherwise the things that are on fire start creeping in and eating up your writing brain. I use Asana, spreadsheets, and calendars.

For my last novel, I went over to Scrivener for the first time. Because Scrivener make it so easy to organise and externalise your work, you don’t have to hold the story in your head in the same way. You can become… let’s just say, wordy. My editor Aviva says she can tell straight away whether a manuscript has been written in Word or Scrivener.

My editor says she can tell straight away whether a manuscript has been written in Word or Scrivener.

I think writing the first few drafts of The Biographer’s Lover in Scrivener probably added about a year to the process. I’m going back to Word now.

Describe your writing practice. Do you re-write / edit as you go?

Both. I plan, and then I break the plan as I go along.

I come back to the opening of the project a lot, to remind myself of what I was thinking when I started.

How do you encourage inspiration to strike?

One thing that works is leaving the desk and going for a walk. It’s so easy to get trapped inside loops. The other thing that can help with fiction is to have your characters be the last thing you think about before you go to sleep. Sleep and motion are great storytelling aids.

Any advice you’ve found particularly helpful (or unhelpful!)?

My mum Kirsty Murray is a YA and children’s author. She has two great quotes that I always think of – advice passed on from other writers that I think is all you really need.

The first one is: ‘There are no magic underpants.’ The second one is: ‘You can’t edit a blank page.’