Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A book recommendation for writers. . . and readers

I keep forgetting to recommend a book I received for my birthday: Scout, Atticus, & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird by Mary McDonagh Murphy.  If you enjoy Harper's Lee's fifty-year-old classic, I think you'll find Murphy's tribute to be an entertaining look behind the scenes of the novel's creation, the making of the 1962 movie, and the life of a private American talent who called it quits on the publicity machine and never published another title.

The bulk of the book consists of essays written by people as diverse as Oprah Winfrey, Mary Badham (Scout from the movie), James Patterson, and Harper Lee's 98-year-old sister (who still works at the Lee family's law office!).  While the essays themselves don't always consist of exemplary writing, they offer lovely nuggets of wisdom about how to write an outstanding novel that will stand the test of time.  Some of the essayists describe the cleverness of To Kill a Mockingbird's opening paragraph.  At least two authors cite one of my favorite paragraphs as being a model use of sensory writing (it's the paragraph that describes the ladies as being "like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum").  Others discuss characterization and the bravery of tackling taboo subjects.

Scout, Atticus, & Boo is also a tribute to the art of writing a stand-alone novel, which is becoming a rarity in today's era of sequels and series.  I personally feel there's a great deal to be said about an author who's able to tie up all her loose ends within the pages of one book.  It's not always easy, but it's something to be admired.

As a writer, what I found most inspiring was the story behind Lee's original, contracted version of To Kill a Mockingbird, which was a far cry from the completed novel we see today.  Editor Tay Hohoff said of the first version, "There were dangling threads of a plot, there was a lack of unity."  It took two years of Lee rewriting the book before Mockingbird became publishable.  As I'm tearing into my own manuscript and rewriting major scenes, I keep thinking of the story behind To Kill a Mockingbird and reminding myself that revisions can be well worth the time and effort.  Even celebrated authors don't get it right the first time.

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