*mild Go Set a Watchman spoilers in this post!
Harper Lee is a beloved household name. Middle and high school kids all across America make friends with Scout and Jem and Dill as a rite of passage. Sleepy Maycomb seems to seep into the lives of everyone it touches somehow. (For real. I named my dog Scout.)
And this is because Harper Lee is a master at her craft. To Kill a Mockingbird is iconic. But, if reports are to be believed, it began its life as a much different draft: Go Set a Watchman, a shelved novel that Lee is supposed to have completed years before Mockingbird. With its eventual release in 2015, Harper Lee left the “one hit wonders” club of novelists.
I finally got around to reading it this year.
I almost wish I hadn’t.
Still, every book is a lesson to be learned. What can we learn from Go Set a Watchman about editing on a big picture scale?
Find Your Story
Go Set a Watchman sings in the parts that flash back to a younger Scout (including a hilarious scene in which Jem and Dill baptize a stripped-down Scout with full revivalist fervor…in Dill’s fish pond). But in Lee’s Watchman, such scenes come as jarring blazes of merriment amidst dour, plodding adult angst. Is it any wonder that Lee’s editor sent Watchman back and waited for the masterpiece that was To Kill a Mockingbird, which engages with a much younger (and 1st person) Scout? Sometimes our ramblings are just that—ramblings. Every once in a while there are flickers of brilliance that deserve a second look. Look for your story within the story.
Tell Your Story—but Make Sure It’s a Story
Harper Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, called Go Set a Watchman “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel”—and she’s right. The book is a rambling stream of vignettes, sometimes tenuously connected, that show off Lee’s creative spark, but never really materialize into, well, much of a story. The disparate pieces result in a lack of narrative urgency. Some of the most important thematic pieces in Go Set a Watchman would be perfect as debates, but in terms of plot? Nothing. actually. happens. (Beyond a lot of talking and one memorable slap, that is.) To Kill a Mockingbird, on the other hand, propels itself forward through the trial of Tom Robinson (just a sidenote in Watchman, where he’s—spoilers!—acquitted) in a 3-act sequence that balances the dramatic tension of Atticus’s world against Scout’s coming of age. Lesson learned: structure counts.
Wait for It
The release of Go Set a Watchman is arguably one of the most controversial episodes in American publication history. Harper Lee herself is supposed to have said after Mockingbird was published that she simply had nothing more to say.
Then Watchman got released. Is the book a rough draft or an abandoned standalone sequel? Was she a victim of financial fraud or elder abuse that lead to the publication of Watchman without her real consent? Questions abound.
After over 50 years, you certainly can’t call its publication rushed. But what would have happened if Lee had written in our brave new world of self-publishing, where the click of a button renders you an instant author? Would the excitement of finishing her early draft have propelled her into easy publication of a lesser book?—and then where would Mockingbird be?
Watchman can’t hold a candle to Mockingbird. It reminds us not to settle for our first drafts. Or second. Or third…or fourth…or fifth or sixth. Good writing takes time. Lee’s editor knew that. Let someone edit your work who cares enough to send you back to the drawing board.
Perhaps Ms. Lee, who only wanted to be the “Jane Austen of South Alabama,” said it best herself: “You see, more than a simple matter of putting down words, writing is a process of self-discipline you must learn before you can call yourself a writer.”
Merry Gordon is silently correcting your grammar. A freelance editor and writer, Merry also has nearly two decades of experience teaching English at the high school and junior college level.
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