In honor of the 50th anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird, I’m offering part two in a series about Harper Lee. Read the first post July 15th.
As I mentioned last month, I poured through the book Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields. I’d always wondered why Harper Lee didn’t complete another novel. This book shed light on Lee’s journey toward publication. I think you’ll be surprised to know . . .
. . . that she didn’t hand in a masterpiece. I guess I had these romantic notions that Nelle (her first name) frantically typed her book in the in between times of life, full of the muse. I see her type the last word, smile, and then march the streets of Manhattan, perfect manuscript in hand, and hand it to her publisher, J. B. Lippincott. I see the publisher ooing and ahhing, the editor saying things like, “Well, I added a few commas, but this thing is beautiful!”
Thankfully, that was not reality. In truth, Nelle was able to write the book because of some amazing generosity of friends who believed in her. One Christmas, in New York where Nelle held down a full time job, her closest friends gave her a gift: money to live on for an entire year. And in that YEAR, she wrote the book. She got an agent by showing her short stories to someone who handled film rights, but just so happened to be married to someone who published books.
The manuscript, when handed in, needed a lot of plotting work. Accustomed to writing short stories, Nelle had essentially strung several vignettes together, but without a cohesive story arch. The title originally was Go Set a Watchman, followed by Atticus. Only toward the end of revisions did To Kill a Mockingbird come about. According to the first publication meeting, Nelle’s characters “stood on their own two feet, they were three dimensional,” but the novel had structural issues. It was more “a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.” (Mockingbird, page 115).
That was February. She resubmitted the novel that summer, but it still wasn’t right. According to her editor, “There were dangling threads of plot, there was a lack of unity–a beginning, middle, an end that was inherent in the beginning.” (116). In October of that year, the publisher finally offered Nelle a contract. Once, so stressed and bothered by her book, Nelle read a bit of her book, a page to be exact. She was so fed up, she grabbed her manuscript and tossed it out the window! Her editor told her to go outside and retrieve every page. Which she did.
Encouragers surrounded her, folks who believed in her: her good friends who gave her the gift of a year of writing, her agent, her editor, and many more cheerleaders. Had any of these elements been missing, I doubt the book would ever have been written. A year after she first met with the publishers, she handed the script to her former high school English teacher, and then handed it in afterward. The galleys came the following November.
What can we gain from this amazing story?
First, writing friends and other writing professionals are utterly important. We need encouragement. We need folks to believe in us. We need cheerleading when we want to chuck out manuscript to the wind.
Second, Nelle Harper Lee needed editing. After a year of writing, there were serious flaws in her book. After another year of editing, with constant back and forth banter between Nelle and her editor, the book finally took shape. This masterpiece didn’t happen overnight. And Nelle, like the rest of us, needed the keen eye of an editor. (I know an author who bragged that the editor rarely has edits. I don’t consider that something to brag about. Nothing is perfect when it’s handed in. We all need edits).
Third, good writing takes time. It took nearly three years for To Kill a Mockingbird to take shape. It took one year of day by day labor, morning to night.
Fourth, humility is important. Imagine what would’ve happened if Nelle rejected her editor’s suggestions? We’d be robbed of one of the most influential books of the last century, a book many Americans cite as the second most influential book (after the Bible).
I left the book duly inspired, ready to plug away at the craft. I can trace my writing journey in a similar manner–with dear friends like you who have cheered me on, for my amazing editors who sharpen my dullness, for time to sit in my chair and write, for an understanding that editing is so important.