POV and Revision: Lessons from Harper Lee By Andromeda Romano-Lax

This blogpost originally appeared, in a different version, in 2015. But I’ve retrieved and adapted it here because I just talked to my agent today about a novel I’ll be revising—dramatically—creating major POV and plot changes from at least the midpoint, an entire cascade of changes that promises to occupy me for two months, and maybe longer.

What gets us through these marathon editing sessions? Hope, stubbornness, and also respect for all the writers who have gone before us, proving that the art of writing is sometimes really the art of revision.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it,” wrote Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird.

The quote about point of view was said by Atticus to his daughter Scout, but one can almost imagine it as a sly reference to Harper Lee’s own willingness to reconsider POV, in the craft sense, and to come at the novel from a new angle. Based on editorial advice, she consented to rewriting her classic novel set in the South into the first-person childhood perspective of Mockingbird’s famous narrator.

Instead of just looking over the older Scout’s shoulder, she allowed herself to walk around in the young Scout’s skin. The intimate, in-the-moment narration by 12-year-old Scout gets us close to the action, voice and sensibility of a character millions of readers have come to love. It’s probably also a big reason that the book, despite its mature themes, does well with younger readers, who prefer a juvenile narrator.
But was Scout’s 12-year-old, first person POV the only way to tell Scout’s story?
Harper Lee’s original strategy – which she called a “pretty decent effort”—was to tell the story from Scout’s POV as an adult, remembering her father and looking back on her childhood. Lee made the change because “I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told.” Her publisher now says there is virtually no scene-by-scene overlap between To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, the “parent” novel, which was published in 2015.

The latter novel is told from the older Scout’s POV in first or third person, but in an article, Lee’s biographer made mention of a Mockingbird draft that was told from three different perspectives.

Harper Lee’s many iterations of her story, which ultimately spawned two published novels, suggests there isn’t necessarily a “wrong” way to tell a story. Sometimes—dare we say often—there are simply multiple ways, with each promising a different emotional and intellectual experience for the reader. I, for one, loved Scout’s young voice and the immediacy that a mostly non-retrospective narrator can deliver. But some readers enjoy her older, wiser voice—and the author’s approach to excavating memory and portraying the different nuances of an adult character’s mind.
Every POV choice creates both opportunities and limitations. That’s what makes POV such a powerful technique—or set of techniques—to master.

I’m both excited and nervous to dive into my next revision. Part of me feels sure it will result in a more compelling, suspenseful novel. Part of me thinks it may not be better, just different.

In either case, I’m game—much more game than I would have been ten or twenty years ago, receiving these kinds of marching orders from an agent. I enjoy the challenge and the collaboration of incorporating another person’s feedback into my evolving vision. And when I have those midnight moments, questioning whether I have the stamina needed to get to the end of another draft, yet again, I’ll be thinking of Harper Lee.

Andromeda Romano-Lax is a book coach and the author of Annie and the Wolves, recently named a “Top 10 historical novel of the year” by Booklist. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @romanolax.

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