Monday, July 20, 2015

The First Draft Of The First Novel

The modern publishng era is awash in Masters of Fine Arts, who never actually sit down to write a first novel. No, they spend their university years in writing bits of this and that, learning how to construct a novel before actually doing it. The idea of just writing in one's spare time, sacrficing a social life for the sake of words, is a foreign concept in academia where the writers come from.

So the discovery of Harper Lee's first draft of her first novel is treated like the discovery of a brand-new work.

GO SET A WATCHMAN is the first draft of the first novel that the writer who did not study writing ever wrote.

Most first novels, at least those penned by someone with a spark of creativity and a deep desire to say something, tend to be bad on some level. The tone may be too preachy. The action may veer into melodrama. The narration may be chunky or awkward in that initial effort.

The first time that Harper Lee thought to use her life's experiences to compose a novel that said something about the way we live, she put it together based on her current living situation at the time. She was a bit older and had left the small Alabama town of her childhood for the bright lights of New York City. She went home to visit, and found that her perspective was a bit skewed by new experiences as an adult living on her own, in a very different place.

The first draft of the first novel reflected that feeling of going back and seeing through fresh eyes. The first novel is told from the point of view of the female character who comes back to her home town, just like Nelle Harper Lee once did. She created characters who were a bit more harsh, like the father who is a racist. The original version of Atticus Finch is probably more accurate and representative of the people Ms. Lee grew up with. She had something, with that first draft, but it was not quite right.

Back in the old days, a writer with talent could attract the attention of a publisher who would be willing to work with that author to hone the craft. Such development takes money, but there was a time when publishers thought it worth the investment. Ms. Lee was telling a story deserving of publication, but she was not telling it in a way that was ready for print.

An editor would have come on board, to find what was good and what needed to be cut. At some point, that clever editor might have suggested a little change, say, to lose the flashbacks and have the girl tell the story as the child in the original flashbacks. Instead of chopping up the narrative, let it flow. It meant re-writing the book, but that's how it is with first drafts. The rawness must be cooked out, and sometimes it involves a full overhaul.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is the result of a talented writer working with an editor to polish prose and rearrange the pieces so that a readable, sell-able novel is pulled from the first draft. And once an author starts revising, all sorts of things start to change. The father figure evolves into a champion instead of a racist, but when you tell a story in a new way, the characters develop in different ways.

The first draft of the first novel was tucked away because it was not the best version of a tale out of the racist south.

There is money to be made, unfortunately, and so the first draft is now marketed as a brilliant new novel, previously undiscovered until Ms. Lee's sister and protector died. The story of how the manuscript was discovered, involving a lawyer who came into the picture after Ms. Lee's sister and protector died, grows shadier by the day.

If you get this feeling that people are taking advantage of an old, infirm lady, you have plenty of company. While some extol the glories of Ms. Lee's brilliant prose, there are plenty who see the book's publication as elder abuse. Not that her literary agent beat her about the head, but a pushy salesman, like your average literary agent, could make a persuasive argument to get their hands on that 15% commission of a best seller.

GO SET A WATCHMAN is worth reading if you are interested in writing. By studying the first draft as compared to the final version, you can see how a book comes to life. It will help you conquer your fear of making major revisions to your own first effort, as you learn how very much a narrative can be changed without losing the heart of the story.

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