As I write this, I am surrounded by the news that June 26th 2017 marks an important 20th anniversary. If you’ve had your head under a stone, let me enlighten you – it was the 20th anniversary of the day J K Rowling (JKR) published the first in her hugely successful Harry Potter (HP) series. So, what better time to revisit my thoughts on this publishing phenomena?
Three years ago I wrote this, expressing my enthusiasm for all things HP. And have my feelings changed? No, I can’t say that they have, certainly not as a reader. I found them pacy and perfectly plotted (yes, I’m afraid I’m an alliteration addict) and they tell a cracking yarn. I love the way the books were structured so that children could grow up with the story, year upon year. I also admired the way the story matures with them – both in terms of content and the time required to read them.
So, I had to ask myself – how can I look at the series in a different light, from a different viewpoint? As a writer seemed the obvious answer – and what writer wouldn’t want to learn from JKR’s mega-successful series?
Let’s start with the fact that JKR didn’t just write these stories, although simply writing them was a hugely impressive feat in itself …
She also planned all seven books before she sat down – in that now famous coffee shop – and wrote the first one.
<Sigh> and as a pantser, it’s got to teach me the value of planning … and planning … and planning. The following extract from JKR’s notebooks isn’t overwhelming in itself, but let’s not forget, it is only one extract …
JKR is famed for having multiple notebooks filled with background information for each and every character who appears in the books, no matter how small a part they play.
I’ve read multiple interviews where it’s been stated that she could answer questions on how someone might have behaved in a situation that didn’t happen in the books, in order to move the story along correctly in one of the films. Daunting, huh?
And, of course, long ago I carefully saved all those pages of questionnaires whereby an author “interviews” their characters and so knows everything about them. I’m also hugely grateful to those people who prepared – and shared – them, but I am more than slightly boggled about completing them for even my major character, let alone every single one. But I solemnly swear that
I am up to no good I will do so now … honest.
What else have I learned from JKR and HP? This is a big one for me … rather than worrying whether I can match the purple prose of my favourite literary authors, to write something people will enjoy reading. A good story, characters that readers will engage with and care about, oh and to make sure there are no factual inconsistencies to annoy and distract. Remember that there will be people who will behave as I did with HP – talking at length about the book, discussing the plot, and picking over the minute details of what this or that means in the grand scheme of things.
OK, so this pre-supposes that my book will get written, edited, published and read … but there’s no point writing if you don’t make that supposition, is there?
And, with that in mind, let’s talk about those fine qualities to be learned from JKR …
She had a story in her mind and she was determined to tell it. Equally, she was going to make it the very best it could be (need I mention the planning?) Yet she trusted her instincts and didn’t allow all that detailed plotting to have her shy away from making the changes that she believed were right, once it came to writing time. Of course, when she did make those plot changes – even substantial ones – she knew exactly what tweaks to be make to keep it all on track (and yes, we’re back to all that planning). As to persistence, let’s just say that JKR appears on that list of famous people who were all rejected multiple times before they found one … who believed.
But to end this revistation of HP, I’d like to return to my thoughts about the books as a reader, and to mention one final thing. You see, I love, absolutely love, that their heroine is a girl. Yes, I did say that. I know the books are called Harry Potter and the … but, come on. Hermione is a heroine, if not the heroine. After all, where would Harry have been without her? And that’s before we talk about her status as the best ever female role model. Come on – she’s brainy, an unashamed swot, and has unruly curly hair <sigh> She’s bloody perfect.
From a gender-perspective, is it a shame that JKR had to hide behind her initials as an author and that Hermione had to hide behind Harry? Well, yes … but that’s a different story for a different day. If I’m going to pick one fight with JKR, it’s that in the recent epilogue, Hermione doesn’t become Minister for Magic but only “something senior” in the Ministry for Magical Law Enforcement, whilst Harry heads up the Auror’s department. Hermione went back to study for (and no doubt ace) her NEWTs, whilst Harry never did. What message are you giving there JKR …?
© 2017 Debra Carey