Go Set a Watchman: A Lesson in the Agony and Ecstasy of the Rewrite

I find myself fascinated by the coverage of Harper Lee’s “new” novel, Go Set a Watchman. I use quotes because there is every indication that Watchman is actually an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. To me, the fact that the time period, story, and even characters change so radically between Watchman and Mockingbird only goes to show how much the rewrite process can transform a novel. Evidently, Lee’s agent thought the original Watchman was good enough to send to a publisher, and Lippincott thought it was good enough to buy. But Tay Hohoff, the editor who took Lee under her wing, wasn’t satisfied.

tayhohoff-cropShe pushed Lee to turn a good novel, Watchman (I’m judging this from the reviews since I haven’t read it yet.), into one of the greatest works of American literature. It was a difficult process–at one point Lee threw her manuscript out the window into the snow in frustration–but it was worth the pain.

Back when I ran a writers’ group, we would occasionally get a new member I would classify as an “arguer.” He/she couldn’t accept that our constructive criticism was valid. Five or six other writers would patiently explain why this person’s screenplay wasn’t working for us, but the arguer would respond with a dozen reasons why it was fine in its current form. After all, Steven Spielberg’s dentist had loved it!

Were we correct on every point we made? Probably not. But when several smart, literary minded people are telling you the same thing about your manuscript, you should probably at least consider what they’re saying. And more than once the arguer returned to our group many months later to tell us that we were right after all.

Few of us have a Tay Hohoff to guide us through the rewrite process, so we must search out good editors wherever we can find them, and continue to work on making our manuscript better and better, even when we want to throw it out the window and call it quits.

I close with a story about my own rewriting experience. I once wrote a screenplay that went through some 30 drafts, was optioned by a producer, and even got the attention of a major Hollywood star who was interested in executive producing it. But this being Hollywood, the process stalled and then died. I was confident that the script was excellent. I wasn’t about to give up on it. In desperation, I went through my college alumni directory and contacted everyone I could find that was connected with Hollywood in some capacity. One young woman I emailed was a lowly assistant at a production company, only a couple of years out of college. She agreed to read my script. A week or so later she emailed me to tell me how much she loved it. I was pleased until I read her next sentence. She wanted me to call her so she could give me some notes on it.

I put my head in my hands and groaned. This script had been read and dissected by major and minor players. What could a 20-something assistant possibly add to it? But I was desperate, so I called her. She turned out to be a very intelligent and kind person. Her suggestions weren’t major, but they were spot on. Her sensitive reading of the screenplay added a little something extra to my protagonist. When I finally hung up more than an hour later, I was so happy I had contacted her.

While the script still didn’t end up going anywhere, my new friend went on to be producer for a successful Hollywood director. I wasn’t surprised. She clearly was very perspective about story and character. The lesson for me was to always keep an open mind and open ears when offered feedback, and to never stop rewriting.

Best Wishes,