Writing Routines

Maggie Shipstead’s Writing Routine: “I have to write about what fascinates and moves me.”

Maggie Shipstead is an American novelist and author of the books, Seating Arrangements, Astonish Me, and Great Circle which was shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize.

For me, writing a novel is such an epic grind that, in order not to be miserable, I have to write about what fascinates and moves me, even if that brings me to subjects and settings that aren’t immediately identifiable as weighty.

Maggie Shipstead | BookPage

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Maggie Shipstead’s first novel, Seating Arrangements, was published in 2012. The follow-up, Astonish Me, came two years later. Her third novel, Great Circle, however, wasn’t published until 2021, seven years after her second book.

Inspired by Jean Batten, a New Zealand aviator who was the first person to complete a solo flight from England to New Zealand in 1936, Great Circle tells the story about a female aviator, Marian Graves, who dreams of being the first person to fly around the world north to south, and Hadley Baxter, a movie star playing the role of Graves. Shipstead remembers vividly how inspiration for Great Circle struck her while she was travelling throughout New Zealand.

But then I saw her. She was standing outside the international terminal, a woman in bronze. She wore a belted overcoat, and was balanced on the balls of her booted feet, one arm cradling a bouquet of flowers, the other raised triumphantly aloft as though waving to a crowd. I schlepped my bags over to take a closer look. The plaque identifying the statue explained that this was Jean Batten, a Kiwi pilot who, in 1936, had become the first person to fly solo from England to New Zealand. There was this quote: “I was destined to be a wanderer. In flying I found speed and freedom to roam the earth.” Coming off my own recent adventure, Batten’s words resonated. In that moment, I decided I would write a book about a pilot. Simple!

Maggie Shipstead Chronicles the Journey She Embarked on in Writing Great Circle | Oprah Daily

It didn’t turn out to be simple at all. Shipstead had no idea when she set out to write the book, how long it would take and how much stamina it would require of her. “I had written both of my other books in under a year, and so I thought I’d knock this out no problem and be someone who publishes a book every two years,” she said in a TOAST interview.

“But the first draft took three years and three months, and about two years into it, when I realised I was only halfway, it was a dark moment. I had to just focus on stamina, and doing what I could on any given day to keep going.”

In between her work on Great Circle Shipstead also started travel writing on the side. Pitching her story ideas to various travel publications, Shipstead began travelling around the world to places that she could see her main character in. For the author, writing Great Circle and gallivanting around the world as part of her travel writing side hustle resulted in a symbiotic relationship.

“I went to the Arctic six times, to Antarctica twice,” she recalled. “I swam with humpback whales in the South Pacific, searched for snow leopards in the Himalayas, and rode on horseback through Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park and Botswana’s Okavango Delta. All of this travel slowed down my writing, but I hoped it was enriching it, too, giving it spirit and veracity.”

Published on May 4, 2021, Great Circle received rave reviews from mainstream literary critics. The novel was shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, and was also longlisted for the 2022 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.

Maggie Shipstead’s daily writing routine

While working on Great Circle, Shipstead’s daily writing routine varied quite a bit. During the 3-4 years that she spent on the novel, there were some periods where the writer would write every day — often from mid-morning to early afternoon, usually at a cafe near her house — and then there were times when she didn’t write at all.

When I’m really writing, I write seven days a week, pretty much, I don’t really differentiate between weekdays and weekends. I’ll get up when the dog wants to get up, which is about 8am. I live a block from a nice main street in L.A. where there’s lots of stuff—restaurants and bars and whatnot—and I take my computer, go to a cafe, get breakfast, and work probably until noon or early afternoon, go home, putter around the house, take care of things. I like to think that I would go back to work later in the day but usually not. I have those novelist workdays when it’s seven or eight hours but usually my writing workdays would be more like three or four hours.

Breakfast with … Maggie Shipstead | TOAST

During her writing sessions, Shipstead will listen to music on noise-cancelling headphones. She’ll typically listen to music without words, or not English words anyway, and she’ll change up her playlist mood depending on what part of that book she’s working on. For her second novel, Astonish Me, which centred around a ballerina named Joan, Shipstead listened to a lot of ballet scores.

When I am in a good productive phase, just the sort of continuousness of it, the day after day after day momentum, is sort of a structure.

Breakfast with … Maggie Shipstead | TOAST

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