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Write Now with Scrivener, Episode no. 7: Maggie Shipstead, Booker Shortlisted Author of Great Circle

Maggie Shipstead's latest novel has been shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize. "I could not have surmounted the organizational challenges of this novel without the writing application Scrivener."

Maggie Shipstead's latest novel has been shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize. Great Circle is a novel of love and loss and adventure, focusing on a woman pilot in the early days of flying, and an actress portraying her in the present. 

Show notes:

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Maggie Shipstead is the author of three novels, Seating Arrangements, Astonish Me, and Great Circle. Her first novel won the Dylan Thomas prize, and Great Circle is shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize. In the acknowledgments to Great Circle, Maggie cited Scrivener:

"It might be odd to thank an inanimate entity, but I could not have surmounted the organizational challenges of this novel without the writing application Scrivener."

Great Circle is a long, slow adventure novel, around 600 pages long. Maggie doesn't plan her novels. "I always start writing without any sort of plan; I don't plot in advance. And I started writing under several false apprehensions, like I thought I would just write it in a year or two, I thought it would be a normal length book, like my other books. It was supposed to be about the legacy of a disappeared aviatrix; I didn't plan for it to have this close granularity of her sort of entire life. So the pacing was sort of accidental."

The novel is about Marian Graves, who gets hooked on flying when she sees some early barnstormers. A second plot thread in the novel involves an actress named Hadley Baxter, who is going to play Marian Graves in a movie. There's a fascinating echo between the two characters.

The idea for this novel came from an accidental discovery. "In 2012, I saw a statue of a female pilot named Jean Batten at the Auckland Airport, and I just had a project die on me. I was waiting for edits on my second book, and I thought I should write a novel about an aviatrix."

Three of the main characters are orphans: Marian, her brother Jamie, and Hadley. "You have someone who's not coming out of a traditional family unit. And, at least in fiction, they're creating an identity kind of whole cloth. And I also thought, particularly for Marian and Jamie, that being orphaned, they start their lives with a sense that there's something just over the horizon that they're looking for, something that can't quite be found."

In order to portray Marian in the film, Hadley had to learn about her past, but there's no way she can know everything. "Part of the function of Hadley in the book became to create that lens on how much is lost of a person. And when we're telling the story of another person, just how many assumptions and wrong guesses and our own stuff has been projected into that."

There are many relationships in the novel, but none of the main characters can be said to be lucky in love. "It is the story of all the loves in Marion's life, and other people do have love relationships, but it's certainly not a marriage plot, which was a conscious decision from the beginning."

About halfway into Great Circle, Maggie started working as a travel writer, going around the world. "My life really became a lot more about seeking out these remote places and having these experiences and a lot less about my career as a fiction writer. And that ended up being really good for me."

Maggie didn't learn to fly, but she did go up in some old planes. "I would take opportunities to go on historic aircraft, planes that landed on skis on snow and ice like Marion's." At the Aviation Museum in Missoula, two pilots were taking a plane out and asked Maggie to come along. "I went up with them in a 1927 Travel Air 6000, which I decided to make the plane Marian learns to fly, because I touched it and smelled it. And I'd seen Missoula from the vantage of it, I had video of it. So that was incredibly helpful."

At 600 pages, Great Circle is a long, complex novel, but about 25% was edited from her initial manuscript. The first draft was just under 300,000 words, about 980 pages. Most of the edits were "small pervasive cuts, sentences and paragraphs. I think part of the length was also that I just wasn't aware of how long it was. I knew the total word count. But I didn't know how many pages it was."

Maggie's didn't use Scrivener to write her first two novels. "As I was about to start writing Great Circle, the thought of this endless [word processor] document filled me with dread, how difficult it is to move anything around within it. I primarily use the Binder to organize the book, and for a book this complex it was unbelievably helpful just to be able to see it laid out. I would sometimes have to make sort of an outline so I could see the ratio between Marian and Hadley and where the Hadley sections were falling. And sometimes I would set sections side by side in the Editor. And I would use other documents and folders to keep bits that I'd cut. I'd have a file called Cut Bits so I could get back to it if I changed my mind. I think I did have a document for each of the main characters where I kept track of their date of birth, and things like that so I could I could figure out how old everyone was at any given moment."

Scrivener is now Maggie's tool of choice for all her writing. "I'm so dependent on it now, even for writing magazine stories. I'll do it in Scrivener; I'll have a document that's transcribed interviews, and a document that's notes, and then a document that's my actual draft."

As for the Booker Prize, "it's exciting. I think there's something really nice about this shortlist period, because you get to go to London and participate in all the kerfuffle. But you haven't had to not win yet. So I'm really I'm just thrilled to be included. And it is a little bit anxiety inducing, but that's okay."

Kirk McElhearn is a writer, podcaster, and photographer. He is the author of Take Control of Scrivener, and host of the podcast Write Now with Scrivener.

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