Sunday, September 23, 2007

Process: How long can this go on?

Interviewer: How long does it take you to write six drafts?

Bobbie Ann Mason: Well, I’m on draft eight right now. I don’t know. Two years.

Interviewer: So you’re working for two years without really knowing how it holds together. What keeps you going all that time?

Bobbie Ann Mason: Well, fairly quickly, the plot emerged . . . Superficially, I can see where I’m going, but it’s not written very well yet. So I just keep rewriting it, trying to get deeper. The novel Feather Crowns . . . probably took four and a half years. . . . If I went through a chapter a day . . . I could get through it in about three months. It seemed like I would never see the end of it because it was many drafts, maybe twelve—I wasn’t keeping count.

Heaven protect me; I’m not sure I want to be a novelist that bad. It’s a calling, not a crucible.

Earlier in this interview Mason talks about the drafting process, and I think she must have very different goals for what is achieved in the first draft, so she’s accomplishing some of the work in later drafts that some other writers attack earlier.

I’ve only read her first novel In Country, a couple times, and I think it’s quite good. I read it probably ten years ago, and then a few weeks ago after I finished my draft. It made me a little nervous because there are so many similarities between that and my book in setting and period. She already uses many of the cultural references I’m using. Honestly, I’m not trying to rip her off—it’s coincidence.

I read it to look at technique. It’s yet another coming-of-age story in first person, so there was nothing for me to study there. I was especially looking at the pacing of her chapters, how many scenes they have, what “beats” they break off on, their length, how the framing of a chapter accommodates back story and flashback. My chapters are a lot longer—they really have the pace and length of a contemporary short story.

By the way, this interview is from a book I just discovered called Master Class: Lessons from Leading Writers by Nancy Bunge. (University of Iowa Press) More on the book later . . . I have some issues with it.

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