3 Things I Learned About Writing: Analyzing Go Set a Watchman

This reoccurring column takes the classic writing advice “good writers are good readers” and puts it to work, by looking at books across all time periods and all genres to find techniques that we can apply in our own work. This installment examines the most controversial book of this summer: Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.

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 1. Geography is an important character influence.

 “There was no finer young man, said the people of Maycomb, than Henry Clinton. Jean Louise agreed. Henry was from the southern end of the county.” 

This is the absolute first thing the reader learns about Henry, who becomes a large character throughout the book. We are told where he is from. Whenever you try to describe a friend to someone, the first thing you say is usually the thing that sums up your friend the most: “He’s really funny,” “she’s always kind,” “he’s a writer.” We are told that Henry is from the south end of Maycomb county. The implications of this place are revealed throughout the novel. Where Henry was from sums up his character enough that it is the first thing we know about him, other than that he is a good person. That’s important. Let place reveal aspects of your character.

(Listen to agents define what makes a writer an ideal client.)

go-set-a-watchman-book-cover Hannah-haney-writer

Column by Hannah Haney, a regular contributor to the GLA blog
and to Writer’s Digest. She is the Managing Editor for Relief Journal
and has been published in The Cincinnati Enquirer and Writer’s Digest.
In her free time, she reads good books, 
eats good food, and writes bad
poetry. You can follow her on
 Twitter or on her blog.

2. Showing versus telling makes all the difference in the world.

 “Jean Louise put her elbows on the table and ran her fingers through her hair. Something was the matter with him [Jack Finch]. He was deliberately making some eloquent unspoken plea to her, he was deliberately keeping off the subject.”

As writers, we get beaten over the head about showing vs. telling, but it really does make a difference. In the paragraphs surrounding this passage, we see prime examples of Jack Finch evading the question. He goes on about the history of the South, whether or not slavery was the primary reason behind the Civil War, and the duties of government, when Jean Louise is simply trying to ask him why she saw her father at a citizens’ council meeting. The reader clearly knows that Dr. Finch is avoiding her question. When Lee tells us rather than just showing us, it’s feel as though we aren’t trusted as readers to understand what’s happening. Always choose showing over telling. Seeing Dr. Finch skirt around the question is much more powerful than having it told to us.

 3. Revise, revise, revise. And then revise again.

“Originally written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman was the novel Harper Lee first submitted to her publishers before To Kill a Mockingbird. Assumed to have been lost, the manuscript was discovered in late 2014.” — harpercollins.com

Go Set a Watchman is the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. It reads like a draft. There are random flashbacks that aren’t always relevant and several information dumps. Tay Hohoff, Lee’s editor, looked in the manuscript and found the story that Lee was truly trying to tell. She found that when Harper wrote in the perspective of a child, her voice flourished. The two revised and revised and eventually published a book that sells more than a million copies each year. Never be afraid of revision. If your manuscript is struggling, find your Tay Hohoff—be it agent, editor, writing group, or friend. Look for the story you are trying to tell. Don’t give up. Revise and revise again.

(Can writers query multiple agents at the same agency?)

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