How To Write A Novel: Reviewed


As I teach creative writing, taking a writing course might seem like a busman’s holiday, or teaching grandad to suck eggs … or something like that. But I am firmly of the belief that practitioners should keep their practice fresh. There are always new inspirations in creative fields, and it helps teachers to see familiar ideas in new frameworks.

I am also an eternal student, and come September that slant of autumn light makes me wistful for the classroom. So last term I took two online courses on writing a novel from the University of British Columbia’s prestigious writing programme. Offered via the edX learning platform, they use probably the best teaching materials on writing I’ve come across. Week by week, they cover the following aspects of craft and process:

How To Write A Novel: Structure and Outline
* Character, antagonism and world-building
* Internal and external journeys
* Story architecture 1: acts, scenes, beats, and story hierarchy, as well as a broader discussion of outlines
* Story architecture 2: complications, saggy middles, subplots, and resolutions
* Endings and scene analysis
* The transition to writing, including the creation of a detailed writing plan

How To Write A Novel: Writing The Draft
* The aesthetic journey: voice, prose style, point of view, and beginnings
* Conflict and tension, including characterisation
* Dialogue, including subtext
* Plot, including the specific requirements of genre and endings
* Research, including ethics
* Mind over manuscript, including theme, focus, blind alleys and procrastination, and other practical tips on the writing life

They don’t need to be taken in this order, and can be taken independently of each other. A commitment of four to six hours a week is suggested, though the courses are self-paced, and materials remain available to learners after the courses have ended. Downloadable video lectures, backed up with transcripts and additional notes, are pithy, punchy, and engaging, with ideas further brought to life through close readings in all the major genres.

Practical assignments are well pitched, and include the writing of specific scenes as well as various Q&As that will help you analyse what your book needs in terms of craft and technique. I’ve seen many character questionnaires in my time, but the one created for the Structure course must be the most purposeful in making your characters more engaging; I doubt you’ll answer all its questions right away, but it will give you plenty to think about in going deeper with your writing, which can only be a good thing.

The courses do not offer detailed workshop interaction or mentoring, though online forums get you to discuss important matters in your work and share selected samples of your output. Fellow learners, who included beginners as well as experienced professional writers, were dedicated and encouraging, and given the online setting it was refreshing to meet people from all over the world, some of whom were writing in languages other than English.

I particularly enjoyed working in a setting based in Canada, using examples from various writers who were new to me. And who can’t fail to be impressed by a country where working in more than one language seems no big deal at all? Postnational: I’ll take that description. It’s a good one for the country of writing.

The instructors, award-winning authors Nancy Lee and Annabel Lyon, are immensely generous in sharing their own experiences. Throughout the course they bring matters of craft and process to life by discussing their own work, and they also post examples of their own outlines and drafts. Further support comes from sf writer Andrew Neil Gray, who’s active in fielding questions in the discussion area.

The teaching team’s engagement goes even deeper in live weekly hangouts (lunchtimes in Vancouver, 9pm here in London), when they answer specific questions posted in real time or during the previous week. Annabel, Nancy, and Andrew genuinely engage with writers’ questions with good humour, bright ideas, and endless encouragement. Videos of the hour-long chats are saved for learners unable to attend at the designated time. These hangouts were really energising, and one of the things I’ll remember most about these courses.

What’s also sparky are occasional marked differences in the instructors’ style and process. Nancy, for example, told us how she starts her second draft in an entirely fresh document, not even referring back to the first draft. Annabel, on the other hand, returns to her previous drafts in a particularly organised way. Further videos offer valuable contributions from a number of other authors, such as Sarah Dunant, Lauren Groff, Paula Hawkins, Miriam Toews, and Jeff Vandermeer. The diversity of advice reflects the fact that all writers need to find their own way in matters of both craft and process.

I certainly gained plenty of fresh insights and practical tips from these courses. For example, one term that was new to me was half-scene, which describes that blend of summary and scene that I realised is the narrative mode of many books I enjoy; I am already applying this idea more consciously in my own work. The week on research prompted vigorous discussion on the ethics of cultural and personal appropriation in writing. I also came away with a deeper respect for and wider understanding of the possibilities of outlining. A good outline can not only bring the practical focus and discipline that keep you going until you complete a first draft, but also stimulate the imagination and help you find room for the flair a novel needs.

These courses are, I believe, currently running twice a year. A third course, on revising your novel, is in development for later in the spring of 2017, and it sounds most promising. The next offering of Structure and Outline begins on 10 January 2017: you can watch an introduction from Annabel and Nancy on YouTube.

Academic courses are no longer the only route for someone keen to learn the craft of writing. But creative writing is an industry, and some offerings are more practical – and far better value – than others. Of all the courses I’ve come across, online or in person, these are the best on writing fiction that I’ve come across. They are also far more affordable than most (US$295 for each course). I would recommend them heartily, not only to any writer keen to build their own programme of studies, but also for recent graduates of MFA/MA programmes in search of impetus, or experienced writers wanting fresh insights for a project that’s stalling. They could be particularly useful for writing partners or small writing groups who want to share some external structure for their practice. I took these courses alongside another writer friend, and I think it might really help to have that additional motivation to help keep you on track and continue with the work.


Books of 2016


My book of the year is Lucia Berlin’s A Manual For Cleaning Women. It might even be my book of the decade. Its short stories bring to life a certain world of poets and bohemians that reminds me of Boulder and Albuquerque, where some stories are set and where I’ve lived too. In fact, various friends of mine were friends of hers, and she always sounded much loved by those people – so why hadn’t I read her before?! But this was much more than a nostalgia trip (even if I had to read it with a Boulder Book Store bookmark). Lucia Berlin is a real artist. Her writing enjoys a true bite and wit, and great warmth of perception. I was prompted to tears at a number of points.

Stories describe the working life of a hospital receptionist, or getting by as a single mom, or having affairs with a range of different lovers, or teaching in a prison, or growing up in a mining town in Chile, or going home to Texas, or bonding with a dying sister in Mexico, or a love story in letters. Or hitting the bottle, or life in rehab – many of these stories come pickled in booze. So: nothing sensational, really, just everyday craziness related with a certain confessional quality. There are no clever twists or particularly artful surprises, but an unpretentious and effortless magnificence. The storytelling is direct and easy. You can’t help but warm to Lucia’s generosity of spirit, and there’s always a sympathy for the underdog. This is writing that refuses to blink at ugliness, but finds beauty or humour within the grit. Lucia Berlin is a big-hearted, clear-sighted writer.

This is Great Writing. You read her stories and bring away a sense of the value of art in spinning gold out of the darkness. It’s ironic that wider appreciation for her work only came a decade after she died, but this does grant her a wish:

I don’t care about money or fame or New York Times reviews or any of that stuff. But I love the idea that I’ll be read a long time from now. I think more of that than I do of fashionable opinion.

You can read that charming interview with her at Lit Hub, and profiles at Vanity Fair and the Paris Review, and an excerpt of her fiction at Flavorwire, and there’s lots of other good stuff at I want to reread this book all over again, and in fact have some volumes with other stories I shall be reading soon.

I finally read several other writers I’ve been waiting to get to this year. I read lots and lots of Alice Munro’s short stories this summer, often on my kindle in the middle of the night, and I finally get what the fuss is all about: again, that clocking of truth in the middle of the darkness. Elizabeth Strout’s ‘novel in stories’ Olive Kitteridge was another powerful read, once more handling dark matter (many of the characters have problems with mental health), and once again enlarging in how something greater gets created.

My novel of the year has to be Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs To You – an uncompromising story about gay lives, and a deceptively ambitious study in desire and trauma. Stylistically, it’s just about as flawless as you can find. I feel very lucky to have seen him read this year too.

Rabih Alameddine’s The Angel of History was another novel by a great gay writer – imaginative, funny, and (again) unflinching, this time in its rage about love and loss and the AIDS crisis.

Other novels I enjoyed were Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, which is cleverly structured and richly characterised and often very funny, and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, an epic novel about slavery in America with a most inventive central conceit.

Paradise Lodge by Nina Stibbe was a real treat. Humour is hard to pull off, but Nina is brilliant – her voice has ease, her characters are charming, and her observations sharp. And there is, as with her other books, a bittersweet edge to the writing. I recommended her books as holiday reads several times this year. She was another writer I was lucky to see read in person this year.

Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal was a work of nonfiction that give me plenty to think about, as did Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, a memoir whose oversharing tendencies never failed to deliver. To behold such frankness!

This week I squeezed in another wonderful book by an old favourite writer: Moonglow by Michael Chabon (out next month in the UK, but already available on Kindle). I’m not sure whether it’s memoir or a novel, but I’m not sure I really care – the central story about the author’s often unloveable but never unloved grandfather is a marvellous piece of portraiture and a powerful work of history.

I did finally complete Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. I know it has admirers, but I also know I’m not alone in finding this book quite a slog (though I shall persist with other volumes in the series, as I am assured things improve). I couldn’t help comparing this book with various of these autofictions I’ve enjoyed this year, and by contrast found it humourless and laboured. The secondary characters feel interchangeable, the central relationship unexceptional, and (worst of all) the translation clunky; it was hard to read a paragraph without rewriting it in my head. It particularly makes me appreciate the sheer and shiny brilliance of Lucia Berlin’s prose.

Bookmarks remain jammed at early pages of a number of other bestselling, critically acclaimed, or award-winning novels, but there’s no accounting for taste or the bullshit of publishers or the gush of social media.

Overall, though, this was a year of good books. I attribute this in no small part to the fact that it was a year in which I read more because I ditched Facebook (an early adopter in this regard, I’m proud to say). I still find Instagram a pleasing distraction (plant porn and dog pictures), but Twitter so often feels shrill, fawning, or patently showing off, and just about every time I look at it I feel some sense of revulsion. I don’t miss Facebook at all.

I am a fan of newsletters that come from well-curated blogs with thoughtful, intelligent, or practical writing. such as Lit HubAusten KleonThe Frustrated Gardener, and The Middle-Sized Gardener. One thing that marks all of these sites for me is the generosity of their content, and I respond to that.

On tv, Stranger Things was great fun, and even if it’s a royalist plot I succumbed to The Crown. I continue to rave about Transparent and Game of Thrones – I love where the story is taking us, especially in that last explosive episode, and maybe the book of Winds of Winter will come this year?

And before I go, a couple of mentions for books coming in 2017: I recommend in advance Emma Flint’s Little Deaths (out in January), and I’m dying to read Laird Hunt’s new novel The Evening Road.

Happy New Year!

Story Is A State Of Mind


Today is my first day back at my desk, and even though it feels as if summer only began last week autumn is certainly in the air. This is my favourite time of year. There’s something about the slant of morning light in September that makes me think about fresh notebooks and starting back to school. Maybe I’m just a perennial student at heart. Last September I felt a particular pang of envy, and, as I was taking a short break from reading manuscripts anyway, on a whim one Friday night as the new series of Graham Norton was coming on (no, not more Hollywood hard-sell), I signed up for a creative writing course ‘that approaches writing with the rigour of academia and also as a contemplative practice’. I needed a refresher, and wanted some inspiration, and this felt like a perfect fit.

That course was called Story Is A State Of Mind, which is run by Canadian writer Sarah Selecky, author of the story collection The Cake Is For The Party. The course is online and self-paced, which suited me just fine (I’m also something of a hermit at heart). I started the next day, the Saturday, and organised it into a mini retreat of three weeks, three days for each of the seven units.

Those units have the following titles:

* Freewriting
* What Starts A Story?
* Character
* Dialogue
* Plot and Drift
* Consciousness
* Influence

Each unit includes a lecture, readings and reading debriefs, shorter exercises of writing practice, and a longer writing assignment. These materials come in the form of thoughtful audio podcasts (usually between ten and twenty minutes long), alongside print notes in PDF format transcribing the audio. There are also four video lectures, as well as links to other recordings and videos of writers talking about writing; I found the one with Ira Glass particularly incisive. The podcasts occasionally use breezy transition music that succeeds in being ever so energising in setting the tone for the work you have to do. Jaunty jingles clearly rouse me.

Sarah Selecky is in herself the great inspiration within this course. A lot of thought has clearly gone into making everything work in print as well as in podcasts and video, and Sarah brings a warm and inviting presence that is also grounded in a practical grasp of what it takes to write purposefully and effectively. She offers various tips, which range from obvious reminders, such as carrying a notebook with you at all times, to more personal observations on freeing the imagination. The idea of writing as ‘the kind of knowledge that feels like it is coming out of your body’ really makes sense to me, and I love the idea of letting your writing orbit around you in the same way you hold respect for a person you love:

A dear friend or love is always something of a mystery. The beauty of a deep relationship is that you can orbit around each other for years, always learning new things about each other, always trying to understand each other.

My advice: treat your writing with the same kind of respect.

There are many excellent writing prompts too. One of my favourites is a really good twist on the popular ‘I Remember’ exercise.

I gained many fresh insights. I particularly liked the idea of drift as it relates to plot within your drafting:

The art happens when you go off track.

I also brought away a sense of how I need to pay more attention to dialogue in my own writing. Nothing beats good dialogue for bringing life to a story, does it?

Aspects of craft are introduced artfully and easily, and the course gets the balance just right in explaining important concepts and techniques without constraining your creativity. One of the first exercises gets us to understand (and practise) the difference between showing and telling in a straightforward, intuitive way. There are plenty of fun activities for creating characters, and the first-rate lesson on dialogue contains many thoughtful recommendations on, e.g., the importance of subtext. Point of view is explained with clarity. Many introductory courses get schoolma’amy, or bogged down in jargon that belongs in an English literature classroom. Or they are simply boring. This course, however, feels more like a studio in an art school. It possesses a lightness, and energy, and the emphasis is certainly on fostering ways to write spontaneously and easily.

Everything is extremely well organised, and well designed. The choice of readings as explanations and departure points is particularly strong, and includes work by writers such as Karen Joy Fowler, George Saunders, and Tobias Wolff, as well as a number of writers who were new to me. A number of them are Canadian; Canada seems to produce so many noteworthy writers whose work I enjoy, and this added a further freshness of perspective for me. In addition, an interactive style diagnosis quiz in the section on influence presents recommendations for inspirations in further reading based on your own preferences. Apparently I am a Fearless Creative who might enjoy Lorrie Moore or Mary Gaitskill; this is true!

The focus is, on the whole, on the craft of fiction that is most relevant to writing short stories, but would-be novelists should not be deterred – characterisation and dialogue and attention to detail are things any writer needs to practise and grow, and we have to walk across a room before we can run and go the distance of a marathon. And, too, short stories are a joy in themselves. I’ve had a summer reading many good books, and I dare to say that the ones I enjoyed most were books of short stories. No second best.

Best of all, this course gets you to do lots of writing (LOTS), and to finish a short story. I almost filled a notebook with writing – about 140 handwritten pages in three weeks (which, even though it also includes some notes, is significant creative output for me).

Since I took this course in 2015 it has been renamed the Story Course, and Story Is A State Of Mind is now used as the name of the larger online school it belongs to. Other classes include the Story Intensive (a teacher-guided and interactive version of the Story Course, with classmates and fixed deadlines) and the Story Intensive (a critique course with organised feedback for a story from each member of the class). The Story Course currently costs US$250, and you can enrol and start at any time, and take however long you need to complete it.

I can’t recommend Sarah Selecky’s Story Course highly enough. I’m already a believer in and practitioner of contemplative approaches in writing and learning, and I truly enjoyed everything it gave me. If you want an inspiring entry point into creative writing that also offers a grounding in fundamental techniques, this class ranks among the best. An inspiring Friday-night whim!

Syllabus, By Lynda Barry


Lynda Barry sounds like one of those Americans I love to be around: a progressive hippie (I assume …) with a big heart and a boisterous laugh and depths of feeling in her work. She is well known in North America for her cartoons, which have appeared in indie newspapers since the 1970s. I first encountered her name when I was UK editor for the fantastic Life In Hell books of Simpsons creator Matt Groening – they became friends when he ran the student paper at Evergreen State College, where her first work appeared. Her name appears in his books’ increasingly teasing dedications, e.g., ‘Lynda Barry is still funk queen of the galaxy’.

More recently Lynda Barry has also created empowering workshops on creativity. Subtitled Notes From An Accidental Professor, her book Syllabus presents course materials she uses in an innovative class called The Unthinkable Mind that she teaches at the Image Lab of the Institute for Discovery at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:

Open to both graduate and undergraduate students from all academic disciplines, this writing and picture-making class is focused on learning about the basic physical structure of the brain and the particular kind of creative concentration that comes about when we are writing, drawing, or constructing something by hand.

A Lynda Barry syllabus differs from the usual document rattling over class aims and objectives in dreary Academicese in 12pt Times New Roman. They are full of questions and prompts and cheeky asides, and what’s more they are handwritten and illuminated in colour with her own sketches and doodles, which are works of art in themselves. As a Guardian profile says, her ‘collages are densely visionary compositions, as if William Blake had clipped out his cosmology from old magazines’. This graphic quality creates an enlivening and liberating experience from the moment you look at the cover then open the book. There’s a strong a sense of play, which is something Lynda Barry is all about.


‘What is an image?’ asks a scary stick figure from the back cover. ‘How far can a pen, a composition notebook, and a burning question take you?’ The image, for Barry, refers to any thing, experience, or idea that is given form in the arts: ‘the formless thing which gives things form’, she says in one of her other books, What It Is. For any artist, the challenge lies in finding the form that expresses that thing, experience, or idea authentically. Drawing on research in cognitive science, Lynda Barry explains:

I was trying to understand how images travel between people, how they move through time, and if there is a way to use writing and picture making to figure out more how images work.

The creative tasks pursuing that aim in Syllabus feel commonsensical, rather than complex, tasking members of the class on ways to explore, free of inhibition, the sources of our images – our childhoods, our pasts, our everyday lives – and then to make the creation of art and writing ‘unthinkable’: instinctive, spontaneous, and true. The priority here is not about produced finished pieces of art, but about stimulating creativity – though I’d venture to say (if we are allowed to think that way) that such liberating approaches usually arrive at the most successful works of art anyway, however we define success.

The class includes tons of activities and assignments to foster ease and spontaneity in our artistic process. Keeping a Daily Diary with lists of things done, seen, and heard every day as well as a quick sketch of something you’ve seen. Timed drawing exercises based on the deceptively simple cartooning style of Ivan Brunetti. Memorising Emily Dickinson poems. Listening to Grimms fairytales while you draw. Spontaneous writing exercises using in-class prompts. Writing exercises based on memories. Collaborative drawing jams where your peers pass around a 4 x 4 grid and fill it with the names of occupations or types of people, and then you have a minute to draw each character.


All writing for this class is handwritten: students are tasked on filling lined composition notebooks (Syllabus amounts to a facsimile of one). Students also trace and copy pictures. And there is colouring, lots of colouring, especially while you are, e.g., listening to music or socialising. Barry was well ahead of the current fashion on colouring, and she expects students’ Crayolas to get worn down to the stub.

Another important lesson comes in doodling spirals, as students do not give feedback round the table in the style of a conventional writing workshop, but simply draw spirals while their peers read out their writing. It’s a good contemplative practice, with the focus shifting from judgement to expression, listening, and understanding. (I think there is a time for judgement and engaging the critical faculties, but that comes later.)


All the students in her classes are assigned nicknames, e.g., parts of the brain such as Cerebral Cortex or Amygdala. I also like this classroom guideline: ‘Friendly Reminder: No electronic devices are allowed in our classroom between 12:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. Please do not check your devices during our break.’ (I was only saying to someone the other day that it would be great if, maybe, we only used Twitter and Facebook between, say, the hours of 4 and 6 p.m. every day, and then for the rest of the time we could get on with our lives, rather than have it mediated.)

And how about these for Classroom Rules?


Barry offers many sassy insights and savvy aphorisms. E.g., on the ways that taste and judgement get in the way of creative production: ‘Liking and not liking can make us blind to what’s there.’ Much of what she proposes is about restoring the unself-conscious approaches to art and play that we enjoyed in childhood, and about establishing an easy and regular practice:

The only way to understand this is by making things. Thinking about it, theorizing about it, chatting about it will not get you there.

She passionately believes the arts are a matter of life and death, as she describes in a talk for (around 9:45) where she discusses the books or songs that change your world; the arts are ‘the corollary to our immune system’, or ‘our external organs’. One of my favourite Lynda quips comes later in that talk:

I hate art. I hate art galleries. They remind me of intensive care units. Doesn’t it seem like you don’t know what’s going on? Everything’s really expensive and clean.

That sums up her approach for me. Art is a living thing, and, at its best, like life art is messy.

And, importantly: art should be should be accessible to all.

One of my main aims in teaching and editorial coaching is helping writers to find ways to make good writing come instinctively. Syllabus is a real inspiration, and a book every writer and artist should read. Its lessons are deep, its method is fun, it is ground-breaking, mind-expanding, barrier-breaking. I could rave on and on, but it’s a book that is best experienced rather than described.

Lynda Barry is FOREVER the funk queen of the galaxy.


And don’t forget to read her other books too – I can HIGHLY recommend her graphic memoir One! Hundred! Demons! as well as What It Is (extract here) and Picture This. All are gorgeously produced by Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly.

More on Lynda Barry in these clips:

Lynda Barry’s Tumblr

Creativity and Learning: A Conversation With Lynda Barry – video from (ESSENTIAL VIEWING!)

Lynda Barry Will Make You Believe In Yourself – New York Times Magazine profile

Lynda Barry: What Is An Image? – Guardian profile

Join Lynda Barry For A University-Level Course On Doodling And Neuroscience – review of Syllabus from OpenCulture, with lots of sample pages

Lynda Barry’s Wonderfully Illustrated Syllabus and Homework Assignments From Her UW-Madison Course ‘The Unthinkable Mind’ – another OpenCulture review, with plenty more sample pages

The Rumpus Interview With Lynda Barry



Go Set A Watchman: Questions For Writers (And Readers)


So Harper Lee’s new novel is out!

Who’d have thought that?! I’ve always used To Kill A Mockingbird as an example of why writers shouldn’t pressure themselves with deadlines and rushing, or be overly concerned with outcomes. For the author of one of the most beloved books in the world only ever published that one book. And if that was good enough for her …

(And if only some other writers were more cautious about their output!)

But then this week all that changed. And the verdict is in …


But I’m not going that way. Because: whose verdict?

Before it was even published, various hacks have tried to dig up a back story, piecing together fragments of a story about an old lady who never wanted this earlier manuscript published until the older sister who protected her legal affairs died … Rats were smelled, as was fishiness.

But I really doubt that the old lady who worries about the punctuation of the title of her book would really be deceived. (Old people are not necessarily stupid, you know?) And even if the old lady really was deceived: do we really care that an earlier draft has been published?

I avoided reading reviews until I finished reading the book. Some of the earlier ones seem a bit timid. Others are scathing, or bitchy, seeking out every (apparent) cliché or bit of (apparent) ineptitude, which feels to me nitpicky and somewhat pointless; we don’t need to suspend judgement entirely, but trawling over writing looking for problems in that way really takes the joy out of reading. Let’s leave that to the sadists. Clichés don’t always bother me, anyway.

I just want to say to such reviewers, to all readers in fact: This is Harper Lee. Just read the book. Just read it and savour every single word, because this is more than we ever knew we were getting.

As someone close to me said: ‘I don’t think reviews are relevant for some books. A review can be nothing other than “Here’s what *I* think”. It changes nothing in the world.’

Publishers might tell you that negative reviews will harm sales, and good reviews will promote sales, so reviews can change things in the world. But many books with bad reviews are loved by readers long after the death of their reviewers. And many well-reviewed books are soon forgotten. And some books just take off unexpectedly and capture the imagination and even become cultural phenomena: Harry Potter, Fifty Shades. Taste cannot be predicted.

And some reviews are just sanctimonious wank.

For what it’s worth, this review from We Love This Book seems to be the most balanced one I’ve read. I do find that new media and blogs often provide better books coverage than many of the traditional reviews and literary sections: more engaged, less stuffy, less posturing, more authentic.

So, question no. 1 for writers: Why do you read reviews and reviewers, and what value do you necessarily place on their opining?

[Inserted postscript, August 2015: I’ve since come across this excellent take on the book by Ursula Le Guin. Anne Rice was also praising it on Facebook. See, those old ladies know a thing or two.]


Atticus is a racist! Nooooooo! Well, actually, I think it’s probably a bit more complicated than that. (And NO, saying that does NOT make me a racist.) So: Atticus is a man of his time and place, it turns out. The saintly Atticus of To Kill A Mockingbird gives that book a simpler moral clarity, whereas this version of Atticus is a member of a racist citizens’ council, something that was a fact of life in many small towns in the American South in the 1950s.

(I also enjoy a certain cruel mirth in reading all those stories of bourgeois parents who named their little boys Atticus. Here I frantically scrabble around to remember if any of my friends have little boys named Atticus. ‘Mummy, can I go to Hannibal’s for a play date?’ As a Wille, I’ve never approved of the way in which the chatterati often seem to give their children pretentious yet painful names.)

There are plenty of other conversations about the treatment of race in both books by now, and it’s becoming one of those subjects where I, as a white person, in the current climate feel uncomfortable about making public pronouncements. (If that feels cowardly, it is, but I’m not ashamed.)

But we are reading Go Set A Watchman at a time when race is a matter of great urgency in public life, especially in the United States. Maybe Harper Lee thinks that blacklivesmatter too.

We read Go Set A Watchman in the week that a woman who failed to signal when changing lanes on the way to an interview ended up dead in a jail cell in Texas (and if you really care about social justice, like our saintly Atticus Finch, you really must watch that video clip). We read Go Set A Watchman and realise that some things have changed little since the time that these books were set. We read Go Set A Watchman and we watch that video clip and we ask ourselves whether that took place in the South in the 1950s, or South Africa under the state of emergency. No, it was Texas last week.

Publication of this book certainly draws attention to certain unchanging facts of life in America. So question no. 2: What do you have to say about age-old political problems in your own writing?


So: what is the book like? I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot. It was like revisiting childhood friends (while they are still in their childhood, rather than acting out on Facebook). But I did find myself drifting at the end, I’m afraid. It does get clunky and didactic as Jean Louise, the grown-up Scout, digests the racism of her hometown when she returns on vacation from her new life in New York.

Jean Louise is something of a passive central character, who agonises on what she observes via reflection in close third-person point of view. Unlike some reviewers, I liked the way in which she responds to some of the conversations she hears around her, especially at a ‘Coffee’, an occasion where Southern ladies get together to discuss their husbands and the toilet training of their babies and other people’s marriages and the prospect of a ‘good nigger trial’. It’s rendered in something of a stream of consciousness, and it’s possible some readers have missed the point.

All the same, I finished the book a couple of days ago, and I thought I’d forgotten its ending, and then I looked back and realised the book fizzles out somewhat, lacking a significant dramatic resolution. It has big themes and internal musings, but they fail to crystallise in revealing action.

This points up for me, more than anything, how Go Set A Watchman overall lacks narrative and dramatic focus. It reminds me in that way of questions I frequently ask about a lot of early unpublished drafts I read in my work as a book doctor: What is at stake here? What do characters have to gain or lose in terms of both external action as well as their inner lives?

To Kill A Mockingbird by contrast has not only that trial but also and especially Boo Radley. Boo, who in the movie is hiding behind the door in one of the most terrifying screen moments of my life. No longer would I only be scared of things lurking under the bed; thereafter I’d be scared of things hiding behind the bedroom door, the door that had been left open with the landing light on because I didn’t like it closed and I didn’t like the dark.

All the same, Go Set A Watchman has a few other surprises, and other magical sequences. The most captivating are scenes with Scout, Jem, and Dill that call to mind some of those in To Kill A Mockingbird (though I’ve yet to do a direct comparison).

Go Set A Watchman is, certainly, a literary curiosity, in the vein of the scroll edition of On the Road or the published drafts of Howl and The Waste Land. But I think it’s more than that too – it’s a novel marked by plenty of accomplishment already, and it possesses real flashes of wit and saltiness. It has some of the hallmarks of a certain type of postwar American literature that perhaps feel missing in contemporary writing. And even if it has flaws and is apparently an unedited manuscript, it probably interested me far more than plenty of published and apparently flawless books that have been edited.

(‘Flawlessness is overrated.’ Discuss. Many of my favourite books have flaws.)

I’ve read a few commentaries suggesting that Harper Lee’s editor deserves some sort of honour for the way this manuscript was transformed into a great book, but I’ve not seen a paper trail about specific input from an editor, and I’d assume that any editorial conversation would have been followed by Harper Lee’s ongoing revision until she created the draft that became To Kill A Mockingbird. Let’s not forget: editors can be talented, but in the world of books writers are the talent.

Go Set A Watchman is for me, as a teacher and book doctor, an immensely useful textbook. Many beginning (and even experienced) writers seem to think that once a first draft has been planned and then written, editing requires a certain amount of pegging and tidying up, and then it’s plain sailing until you’re checking your Amazon rankings.

But in fact, especially for beginning writers, a first draft can actually be the planning. Terry Pratchett once said something along the lines that a first draft is just the writer telling herself the story.* Once a first (or early) draft is complete, the story is laid out beginning to end, and then the writer can decide how to tell that story: which emphasis to bring out, what to cut, what to expand, how to shift the tone, or vary the pace for narrative tension. The first draft can be more about the process of exploration and investigation, rather than grasping towards any particular outcome.

Go Set A Watchman amounts to one of those sorts of early drafts, perhaps. To Kill A Mockingbird is a seriously different novel: a different timeframe, a different period, a different spirit, a different point of view. And a key event from To Kill A Mockingbird has a very different outcome in Go Set A Watchman.

But both novels have the same setting, many of the same characters, much of the same wit and verve in its style, and it absolutely has the same concerns. It’s not hard to imagine a young writer taking a look at this early draft and thinking, What if I took this and did that with it … ? A focus would have been sought, and found.

Lesson no. 3: What things might lie within the rambles of your own early drafts, and how could you take them and form something else from them? It might not be radically different. But it could also be a wild departure into something that captures some initial spark and does something more compelling, or more heartfelt, or more entertaining, or more poetic, or more [insert adjective]. Either is possible.


Reviews. Race. Revision. Three R’s of Go Set A Watchman.

But lessons are chores. I first read To Kill A Mockingbird in the third year at school, in Miss Batham’s English class. I’d already read some Agatha Christies and having loved The Hobbit had attempted The Lord of the Rings, but this was the first time I really read an adult book with adult themes, and it left a profoundly strong impression on me, as subsequently would Huckleberry Finn, and My Family And Other Animals, and The War Of The Worlds

These lessons were not chores. Books such as these are rare events in our lives that capture our imaginations. Sequels, or allied publications, should be treasured for what they are. They should be left to work their magic, and enjoyed for what they are.


* If you have a direct quotation and source for Terry Pratchett on first drafts, please email me!