On writing

Great books are seldom written, they’re rewritten

If you don’t know the story behind the publication of Go Set a Watchman by now, you’ve probably been living without television or internet for the last few months.

Back in the late 1950s, Harper Lee tried to sell a novel, Go Set a Watchman. Publishers J. B. Lippincott bought it, and came into the hands of editor Tay Hohoff.

Ms. Hohoff was impressed. “[T]he spark of the true writer flashed in every line,” she would later recount in a corporate history of Lippincott.

But as Ms. Hohoff saw it, the manuscript was by no means fit for publication. It was, as she described it, “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.” During the next couple of years, she led Ms. Lee from one draft to the next until the book finally achieved its finished form and was retitled “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Jonathon Mahler, “The Invisible Hand Behind Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’“. New York Times 12 July 2015.

The rest is history. To Kill a Mockingbird had been Lee’s only published novel until the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman resurfaced recently. There was some controversy over the discovery of the manuscript, and whether or not Lee truly wanted it to be published, but published it was, and sold a million copies in its first week on sale.

Another controversy is over the quality of the book. As Joe Nocera says in “The Harper Lee ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Fraud”

Issue No. 2 is the question of whether “Go Set a Watchman” is, in fact, a “newly discovered” novel, worthy of the hoopla it has received, or whether it something less than that: a historical artifact or, more bluntly, a not-very-good first draft that eventually became, with a lot of hard work and smart editing, an American classic.

Joe Nocera, ” The Harper Lee ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Fraud“, New York Times, 24 July 2015

One thing everyone agrees on. Tay Hohoff had a lot to do with just how good ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was.

I think many people underestimate the work an editor does.

Most authors I know would say that the novel they initially turned in is not the one that gets published.

Sure, the days of the having two or three years to work on the edits is gone (for most of us, anyway), but a good editor will make suggestions as to how you can fix your work and make it better.

The editor doesn’t rewrite the book for you—that’s your job—but your book will be better once the editor has given their input.

To paraphrase one of the commenters on Nocera’s article,

… Lee’s two books are … the perfect example of the adage that great books are seldom written, they are re-written.

Bejay, commenting on The Harper Lee ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Fraud. 25 July 2015.

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