Monday, March 16, 2015

Rewrite or Trash? What Harper Lee’s Story Tells Us

Ever since the sequel to TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was announced, Harper Lee has been all over the news. The latest is that the state of Alabama is getting involved to make sure she’s not being exploited. Feelings about that particular state aside, the quality of the book seems to be one of the driving issues behind the investigation. The story goes that, rather than a traditional sequel, the manuscript is actually an earlier version of MOCKINGBIRD. Lee originally wrote the story about an adult Scout, with flashbacks to her childhood and her lawyer father. The publisher who read it found the story told in the flashbacks more interesting (I’m guessing) that present-day adult Scout’s dilemmas, and encouraged her to rewrite it with that focus. And a classic was born. This story fascinates me because as a reader/editor, it’s not too unusual to find a manuscript with this exact problem: a back story that’s more interesting that what’s going on in the protagonist’s present day life. A novel should tell the story of the biggest thing that ever happened to the protagonist. If that happened in the back story, then just like Harper Lee did, the writer should rework the story so those incidents in the past become present day.

But how does a writer know when a book is worth rewriting or if it should be tossed out all together? After all, we all hear stories about how certain famous writers threw out the first three novels they wrote. They were horrible, these writers say. They should never see the light of day.

I honestly have trouble believing that they were really THAT bad. It’s more likely the writer just got completely fed up with the story and abandoned it. It’s hard to fathom that someone whose voice attracted the traditional publishing world would create something so bad it couldn’t be salvaged.

Or maybe that’s just because I think most books that aren’t working can be rewritten. Plots can be reworked; characters further developed. The only thing a writer is really stuck with is her voice. Unfortunately, a flat, stilted narrative voice coupled with obvious dialogue is a sign that writing is perhaps not the creative outlet this particular person should pursue.

So unless you’ve been told by a couple of people that your writing seems forced or artificial, don’t toss that novel in the trash and start another one. Rework it. Make sure it’s about the most important thing that ever happened in your protagonist’s life, and go from there.

We aren’t all Harper Lee, but we can learn from her example.

And controversy aside, I’m dying to read the new book. What if the publisher was wrong, and Scout’s adult life is even juicier than her childhood dilemmas?

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