Go Set a Watchman

Plenty of people have reviewed or written about Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, but my friend and mystery writer Cynthia Riggs pinpoints what I think is the most important issue raised by the contrast between Watchman and the classic that grew from it, To Kill a Mockingbird: the importance of editing. Not just copy and line editing, but the kind of editing that sees the potential in a manuscript that isn’t “there” yet and then coaxes, browbeats, and otherwise persuades the writer to make it real.

It’s rare these days that a publisher will invest this kind of time and expertise in a book, especially a first novel. Writers have to do much of the work ourselves, with the help of workshops and writers’  groups and, if we’ve got the money and can find the right person, an editor. But it’s always possible to improve even the drafts that we’re sure are done.

Martha's Vineyard Mysteries

To All Who Plan to Read or Have Read “Go Set a Watchman”:

Cynthia and Howie comparing copies of Cynthia and Howie compare “Go Set a Watchman” with “To Kill a Mockingbird”
photo by Lynn Christoffers

“Go Set a Watchman” was Harper Lee’s first book, and first books are usually unpublishable, as was “Watchman.”  While it has brilliant writing in patches, it has inconsistencies, improbable passages, repetitions, unnecessary divergences, too much back story, ramblings, boring passages, too much overwriting, and almost every error a new writer can make.

Tay Hohoff, an editor at Lippincott, saw promise in the work, saying the “spark of the true writer flashed in every line.”  She urged Harper Lee to scrap “Watchman” and start all over, write a new book with an entirely different story.  Hohoff saw Scout’s young voice, one of several back stories in “Watchman,” as the potential for a great book once it was rewritten, and, of course…

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