[Editor’s note: As J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, debuts today, it’s a good time to revisit what writers can learn from her writing style, as laid out in her mega-bestselling Harry Potter series. I originally wrote this in 2009 and it’s been the No. 1 most popular post on this blog ever since. For a sneak peek at Casual Vacancy, you can download the first 50 pages onto your Apple device from this iTunes store page and watch Rowling talk about the book here.– MVR]
I came late to Harry Potter. I’d seen the movies but hadn’t picked up the books. That is, not until May when my 8-year-old started reading them. I figured I should too, to help him with the scary parts.
I got hooked. I read at lunch. I read instead of watching TV at night. When I finished a book late one night I sneaked into my son’s room to get the next one, so anxious to keep reading I couldn’t wait until the next day.
After two months of total Harry Potter immersion, I finished all seven in the series, then found myself scouring author J.K. Rowling’s official website and blog, and fan sites like MuggleNet and The Leaky Cauldron and watching documentaries to learn more about the woman behind the story and the publishing phenomenon.
Rowling’s success isn’t news to Harry Potter fans. Even before I read the books I knew the highlights: poor single mom gets inspired, sells first book, goes on to become one of the most-published authors ever, and possibly the richest. But I didn’t know much about Rowling’s writing process, which is worth sharing with anyone who makes a living with their words.
Here’s what Rowling and my Harry Potter experience taught me about writing:
1. Persistence counts.
Rowling got the idea for the Harry Potter in 1990 and spent the next 17 years working on it before finishing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in 2007. Seventeen years – that’s as long as it takes a kid to go from kindergarten through high school.
The takeaway: You may start out loving a project but the day may come – days, weeks or months into it – you’re so bored, frustrated or fed up you want to scream or put it away forever. But look what can happen if you gut it out.
2. Think things through.
Rowling wrote in the biography on her website that she was on a train when the idea for Harry Potter “fell into my head.” She didn’t have paper or pen, so for the four-hour train ride all she could do was think. She says her forced rumination could have saved the series: “I think that perhaps if I had had to slow down the ideas so that I could capture them on paper I might have stifled some of them.”
The take away: Don’t be too quick to get something down on paper. Think about the structure, the concepts, the conclusions and the way you want something to play out before committing it to paper.
3. If the story’s good enough, the writing can be secondary.
Face it, Rowling isn’t Hemingway, at least she wasn’t when she started. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone isn’t Beowulf. The writing in the first books in the series was downright pedestrian, though it definitely improved in her later books. But with that story, who could resist? I couldn’t. [Update: 50 Shades of Grey is a more recent example of a book that’s a smash hit not because of the writing, but in spite of it.]
The takeaway: Got a good story to tell? Tell it. If you write enough, you’ll get better on your own. Rowling did in her later books.
4. Go for it.
Rowling was a struggling single mom when she started Harry Potter. She had no clips, no publishing industry connections, no platform.
The takeaway: It takes persistence, passion and a little Harry Potter-style bravura to believe in yourself enough to take on the publishing world as an novice writer – which may explain why many beginning writers sell themselves short by working for a pittance for less-than stellar publishers and websites. Could someone replicate Rowling’s rise to author stardom given what it takes to get a book published today? I’d like to hope so.
5. Write when you’re on.
Rowling likes to write through the night, or in cafes with just enough people and music to get lost in. When she was finishing Deathly Hallows she checked into a hotel room so she could write the ending with no distractions.
The takeaway: You might not be able to afford a hotel room or pull an all nighter, especially if you have kids to get to school in the morning. But you can structure your work day so you’re writing during your peak energy time, whenever that happens to be.
6. Don’t be afraid to make things complicated.
The Harry Potter series is a thicket of characters, subplots and themes – all in what is supposed to be a children’s fantasy series.
The takeaway: Give your readers – even young ones – credit for their intelligence. Don’t dumb down your ideas, or your writing.
7. Leave stuff out.
In 2007 British documentary on Rowling that re-aired earlier this month when movie version of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince opened, the author shares about details of her characters that never made it into the books, including back stories and what happens in their lives after the books ends. The tidbits either didn’t fit into the plot or weren’t interesting enough to be included (although fans live for this kind of stuff).
The takeaway: Pick the most telling details, the juiciest quotes, the most spot-on examples to tell your story and leave the rest out, especially if, unlike Rowling, you’re writing to a specific word count.
8. Write what you love.
Rowling obvious loves her Harry Potter universe – she wouldn’t have drawn up the family tree that British TV documentary shows with details of who Harry, Ron and Hermione go on to marry after the conclusion of the books.
The takeaway: Enjoy what you do and how you do it, otherwise, why do it at all?
9. Be good to your people.
Rowling blogged during and after writing Deathly Hallows so readers could find out more about her and the books. Besides book signing and official appearances, she also did Q&As with the people who run her fan sites.
The takeaway: We live in an age of interactive media. If you’re writing you need some kind of relationship with your readers, whether it’s on a blog, Twitter, book signings or all of the above. Depending on what you do, you can use the interaction to shape what you write, or build an audience for your next project.
10. It’s OK to goof off.
After she gave up cigarettes, Rowling took up Minesweeper, the game that comes bundled with Windows, when she needed a writing break. She got so good she even brags on her blog about her expert-level times.