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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4 thoughts on “Go Set a Watchman

  1. Having just read Mockingbird for the first time a year ago, I think I’ll pass on Watchman, it probably should not have been published.

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    • My hunch is that it’ll be valuable for many writers, editors, and literary historians, but that otherwise it will be mostly forgotten before long. It’s too bad it had to be published with all the fanfare. A university or independent literary press would have been better.

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  2. I agree with everything in the blog post, especially “A good editor is a writer’s best friend.” However, given that Lee spent two frustrating years rewriting the book, it’s hard to tell how much of the second book is a result of Lee’s effort and how much is a result of the editor’s. (Of course, the editor played a big role in redirecting the characterization, story, etc. before Lee began.)

    I am not a fiction editor, and I greatly admire the developmental work that they do; it seems daunting.

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    • When you’ve got a strong, active editor involved in the process, I think it’s often impossible to tell how much of the ultimate draft came from the editor and how much from the writer. How much of Wolfe was Wolfe, how much of Hemingway was Hemingway, how much of Fitzgerald was Fitzgerald, and how much was Maxwell Perkins? It’s the writer’s name on the cover, but it’s rarely 100% the writer’s work, or anywhere close. That’s true for much nonfiction as well, both academic and trade — this is why acknowledgments sections can get pretty long.

      IMO frustration is part of the process. It can get very intense and go on for a long time. Pushing at your own limits is scary as hell, and that’s exactly what a crackerjack editor can make a writer do. But it’s the writer who decides, over and over and over again, to keep going and finish the damn thing.

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