Kay: Writing Book 2


Harper Lee in 1962 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Many of the Ladies are struggling to finish a first book, a WIP that’s been “IP” for a year or more. Even so, we know that editors and agents are looking for series, and as we work to finish one book, we’ve got plans for several more involving the same or related characters. One thing we’ve talked about is how to make the follow-up book(s) as good as the first one.

Maybe we should talk to Harper Lee about that problem. The 88-year-old author of To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960, will release her second novel, which employs many of the same characters, after almost 55 five years of silence.

Now there’s a writer who really nailed her debut! Long considered an American literary masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird—a story of racial and social injustice told through a young girl’s eyes—won the Pulitzer Prize and catapulted Lee to fame. Afterwards she essentially retired from public life (“It’s better to be silent than be a fool,” she once said) and never published another book. Until now.

I wonder if she’s worried that her second book, Go Set a Watchman, won’t live up to her first? On the one hand, what book could? To Kill a Mockingbird still sells about 800,000 copies worldwide per year. That’s a record that many best-selling authors would kill to achieve one year after publication—much less after 55.

It’s hard to imagine a second book that could have more impact than To Kill a Mockingbird did. That story of discrimination was written in a time when race relations were coming to the fore across America. Lee became a cultural icon, part of a larger discussion on civil rights and inequality in the 1960s. It’s not every day that an author hits the zeitgeist like that.

But if Go Set a Watchman doesn’t sell as well as To Kill a Mockingbird, or have as big an influence, will her literary legacy be damaged? Probably not, says Gary Alan Fine, a sociology professor at Northwestern University. “What did Leo Tolstoy do besides War and Peace?” Fine asks. “We don’t remember Tolstoy as the guy who wrote whatever [else].”

As I work on a plot for book three of my three-part series, I find this opinion comforting. My book one will never win a Pulitzer, but I like what I’ve written so far. I want my other books to be just as good as my first. But if I write something that doesn’t fully resonate with an audience, well, no book can hit it every time. I’ll have done my best. And that’s all anyone—reader or author, even Harper Lee—could ask for.

10 thoughts on “Kay: Writing Book 2

  1. Hope this is right – I think I read somewhere that To Kill A Mockingbird was a prequel. The article I saw said Harper Lee wrote Go Set A Watchman, and it included some backstory that somebody (her agent? editor?) thought was brilliant, so she wrote that up, and it became a book, and it was the one that got published. And in those days it was all paper copies, and the manuscript of Go Set A Watchman was lost and only rediscovered recently, clipped to the back of something else. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s a great story. And I like the idea that this book was written before TKAM, so it’s not a story that was a child of that book’s success.

    My Book One will never win a Pulitzer either, Kay, but I like it. I’d like the next one to be better, and the one after to be better than that, and I’ll have to do it quicker than one every 55 years – don’t have that long left 🙂 . One of the great things about the digital revolution is the availability of the back catalogue of some very successful romance authors. It’s fascinating to see how authors like Loretta Chase and Julie Anne Long developed their craft. Harper Lee may be out of my league, but if I keep writing and keep improving, I’ll be a happy woman.

    • Whoever thought backstory would be brilliant, right? I’ve also read that story about the evolution of TKAM. The editor of Go Set a Watchman says it’s a good book, so it’ll be interesting to read it when it comes out this summer. It’s hard to imagine that it could be as good as TKAM, but then, we know Harper Lee is a terrific writer. So you never know.

      Here’s to one book at a time, each better than the last!

  2. A few weeks ago, I caught part of a discussion with some publishing people on NPR ( I tried to find a link to share here, but failed :-(). It was really interesting because the editor from HarperCollins Publishing has said the book ‘needs no editing’. Others from the publishing world are not so keen on the idea of an unedited manuscript being added to Lee’s legacy.

    Personally, I’d prefer to read a book that’s been polished by the deft hand of a good editor, but that’s MHO. And I haven’t seen any reporting on whether the book received editing/feedback all those years ago, so maybe it’s not as ‘unedited’ as we’ve been led to believe.

    • It’s all a bit of a mystery. I can’t imagine that a book needs no editing, but…maybe they’re just trying to set expectations so that critics won’t call it awful if it doesn’t measure up to To Kill A Mockingbird. And you’re right—and editor or agent did look at it at one time, so perhaps it’s already had all the development it needs.

      • It’s definitely all a bit mysterious why they’ve decided to release it after all this time. I don’t know if I’ll read it because I’m not sure I would like it if someone rootled through my discarded literary efforts and thought they would publish them when I was nearly 90 and in frail health – of course, if someone did have the misfortune to look at my previous efforts (all safely locked away – why can’t I bring myself just to dispose of them?), they would be more likely to die laughing than reach for a publishing contract.

        • There’s been enough discussion about whether Harper Lee is fully aware of what she’s signed, and so on, that it does make a person a little nervous about what’s going down with this release. The good thing about my discarded literary efforts—they’re all on a disk somewhere, so they’ll eventually just self-destruct. Harper Lee was subjected to rootling because there was a hard copy. Now there’s a lesson for us! (P.S.: No one would die laughing at your previous efforts, Rachel; I’m sure of it.)

  3. Maybe with the racial unrest in the US right now, it is the perfect time to release the adults’ story.

    Or does she need the money? With her name, people will buy it out of curiosity — and people who haven’t read it will buy To Kill a Mockingbird to see what all the buzz is about.

    If it turns out to be a fabulous book, that’s just icing as far as the publisher is concerned . . . .

    I find it a little sad that a person would just publish one book in their life. It’s probably a misplaced sympathy; it may well be that that person is super-efficient and managed to say all they needed to say in the one book. IDK.

    It’s really curious, though. I don’t think I’ve read TKaM. I probably should remedy that over spring break.

  4. Pingback: Jilly: Books Lost and Found | Eight Ladies Writing

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