Rowling’s Life as an Author: What It Was Really Like to Write Harry Potter

Rowling has said that Harry Potter “simply fell into [her] head” and “all of the details bubbled up in [her] brain.” She “[had] never felt such a huge rush of excitement and [she] knew immediately that it was going to be such fun to write.”

Sounds like a fairy tale beginning to a fairy tale ending, doesn’t it? Perhaps that’s all ordinary readers need to know about Rowling’s path to literary fame, but us writers need more.

We need to know the not-so-glamorous version of what it was like to write Harry Potter. We need to appreciate how disciplined Rowling had to be to develop her idea into seven hefty books. We have to know that she wasn’t lazily sipping mochas for two decades while jotting down a continuous stream of words like a literary Fountain of Youth.

All too often we convince ourselves that we would write more if only we were well-known, or had more money, or could find more time. But none of that is what makes a writer a writer. It’s simply that a writer writes.

Below I’ve compiled the non-fairy-tale version of the story behind Harry Potter.

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” —E. B. White [Tweet This]

Book One: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Even though Harry Potter strolled into Rowling’s head fully formed, she still spent several years outlining the seven books, and then she spent another year writing the first one, Harry Potter and Sorcerer’s Stone.

Rowling rewrote Chapter One of Sorcerer’s Stone so many times (upwards of fifteen discarded drafts) that her first attempts “bear no resemblance to anything in the finished book.” This was especially frustrating for Rowling because she was a single parent and her writing time was both limited and sporadic—entirely contingent on her infant daughter Jessica.

Whenever Jessica fell asleep in her [stroller], I would dash to the nearest café and write like mad. I wrote nearly every evening. Then I had to type the whole thing out myself. Sometimes I actually hated the book, even while I loved it.

Rowling had to deal with many other time-wasting nuisances, like re-typing an entire chapter because she had changed one paragraph and then re-typing the entire manuscript because she hadn’t double-spaced it.

Rowling also struggled with personal problems during this time:

  • the death of her mother,
  • estrangement from her father,
  • a volatile and short-lived marriage,
  • a newborn child,
  • life on welfare,
  • and a battle with clinical depression.

To top it off, Rowling’s support system was nearly nonexistent. She struggled with suicidal thoughts and eventually turned to therapy for help. Rowling once told a friend about Harry Potter and her friend’s response was cynical. Rowling said:

I think she thought I was deluding myself, that I was in a nasty situation and had sat down one day and thought, I know, I’ll write a novel. She probably thought it was a get-rich-quick scheme.

Once the manuscript was finally finished, Rowling went on to collect a dozen rejection letters over the span of a year before Bloomsbury Publishing agreed to pick it up.

But even with publication on the horizon, Rowling was warned by her literary agent to find a job because her story wasn’t commercial enough to be successful. (“You do realize, you will never make a fortune out of writing children’s books?”)

In fact, Bloomsbury’s expectations of Harry Potter were so low that its initial print was only five hundred copies—three hundred of which were donated to public libraries.

Rowling’s first royalty check was six hundred pounds. A year later, she was a millionaire.

“You’d fail only if you stop writing.” —Ray Bradbury [Tweet This]

Book Two: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Both Rowling’s agent and Bloomsbury Publishing had to (happily) eat their words. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was so popular in the UK that Scholastica paid an unprecedented $105,000 for the American rights to the series.

Rowling, however, still faced major frustrations.

For one, she did not believe that her writing success was permanent. So while writing Chamber of Secrets, she also worked as a full-time French teacher (and cared for her now-toddler daughter). And it was during this time that she suffered from her first and only debilitating bout of writer’s block:

I had my first burst of publicity about the first book and it paralysed me. I was scared the second book wouldn’t measure up . . .

Despite Rowling’s personal skepticism, other lucrative contracts rolled in after Scholastica. The money pulled her out of poverty, but it also put incredible pressure on her “to fulfill expectations.” And furthermore, her sudden financial success resulted in a “tsunami of requests.” Everyone was asking Rowling for a leg up:

I was completely overwhelmed. I suddenly felt responsible in many different ways. . . . I was downright paranoid that I would do something stupid . . .

“A professional writer is an amateur writer who did not quit.” —Richard Bach [Tweet This]

Book Three: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The second Potter book was even more successful than the first, and Rowling finally dove into writing full-time with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Prisoner of Azkaban was one of Rowling’s most enjoyable Potter books to write, but she still had to work very hard. Rowling said in a letter to her editor:

I’ve read [Prisoner of Azkaban] so much I’m sick of it. I never read either of the others over and over again when editing them, but I really had to this time.

Rowling added in a later letter:

The hard work, the significant rewrites I wanted to do, are over, so if it needs more cuts after this, I’m ready to make them, speedily . . .

But if these rewrites were difficult for Book Three, Rowling was about to be beaten over the head by Book Four.

“The desire to write grows with writing.” —Desiderius Erasmus [Tweet This]

Book Four: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Again Rowling churned out a book in one year, and again Harry Potter was a raging success. But Rowling celebrated in a rather unexpected way:

The first thing that I did when I finished Prisoner of Azkaban was discuss repaying the advance for the [fourth] book. Yes, you can imagine. People were a little bit shaken . . . I said: I want to give the money back and then I will be free to finish in my own time rather than have to produce it for next year.

Rowling has been open about her struggle to write Book Four, which nearly caused a “nervous breakdown”:

That was the period where I was chewing Nicorette. And then I started smoking again, but I didn’t stop the Nicorette. And I swear on my children’s lives, I was going to bed at night and having palpitations and having to get up and drink some wine to put myself into a sufficient stupor.

Rowling attributed her stress to the staggering pressure she felt to produce another Harry Potter worthy of global adoration:

I’m sure that I’ll never have another success like Harry Potter for the rest of my life, no matter how many books I write, and no matter whether they’re good or bad. I remember very clearly that I was thinking the same thing when the excitement over the fourth Harry Potter volume literally exploded. The thought was unsettling to me at the time, and I still feel that way today.

Rowling also struggled with her plot for the first time since starting the series:

The first three books, my plan never failed me. But I should have put [this] plot under a microscope. I wrote what I thought was half the book, and “Ack!”—huge gaping hole in the middle of the plot. I missed my deadline by two months. And the whole profile of the books got so much higher since the third book; there was an edge of external pressure.

Rowling faced “some of [her] blackest moments” with Book Four:

At Christmas I sank to the depths: “Can I do this?” I asked myself. In the end it was just persistence, sheer bloody mindedness. It took months. I had to unpick lots of what I’d written and take a different route to the ending.

The worst rewrite for Rowling was one particular chapter in Goblet:

I hated that chapter so much; at one point, I thought of missing it out altogether and just putting in a page saying, “Chapter Nine was too difficult,” and going straight to Chapter Ten.

Not surprisingly, Rowling also struggled with burn-out:

Goblet of Fire was an absolute nightmare. I literally lost the plot halfway through. My own deadline was totally unrealistic. That was my fault because I didn’t tell anyone. I just ploughed on, as I tend to do in life, and then I realised I had really got myself into hot water. I had to write like fury to make the deadline and it half killed me and I really was, oh, burnt out at the end of it. Really burnt out. And the idea of going straight into another Harry Potter book filled me with dread and horror. And that was the first time I had ever felt like that. I had been writing Harry for 10 years come 2000 and that was the first time I ever thought, Oh God, I don’t want to keep going.

“If I waited till I felt like writing, I’d never write at all.” —Anne Tyler [Tweet This]

Book Five: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Rowling stayed true to her word and went on vacation . . . kind of. She stepped away from Harry Potter to work on a completely unrelated book (which hasn’t been published). After a yearlong sabbatical, Rowling started on the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Rowling had written the first four books in a blisteringly fast five years, but she told her publishers that she didn’t want a deadline with Book Five, especially after dealing with the plot problems in Goblet of Fire. Her publishers had no other choice but to agree.

But even then, Rowling still struggled to keep up.

She has said numerous times that she wished she had better edited Order of the Phoenix:

I think [it] could have been shorter. I knew that, and I ran out of time and energy toward the end.

And it’s no wonder. During the two years Rowling wrote the 870-page Phoenix, she also:

  • got married,
  • had another baby,
  • fought a bogus plagiarism lawsuit,
  • started several charity organizations,
  • consulted for the new Potter films,
  • and ran around fulfilling her endless PR obligations.

Worst of all, Rowling was drowning in a never-ending deluge of paparazzi.

Rowling’s fame had grown to such bewildering heights that the attention had become relentless. This was quite a shock for her, especially since she had thought that Harry Potter would only appeal to “a handful of people”:

Everything changed so rapidly, so strangely. I knew no one who’d ever been in the public eye. I didn’t know anyone—anyone—to whom I could turn and say, “What do you do?” So it was incredibly disorientating.

The paparazzi were digging through her garbage, hiding in her hedges, and camping out in front of her house. One reporter even slipped a note into her daughter’s backpack at school.

It’s very difficult to say . . . how angry I felt that my 5-year-old daughter’s school was no longer a place of . . . complete security from journalists.

Rowling was “racing to catch up with the situation” and “couldn’t cope” with the loss of her private life:

I couldn’t grasp what had happened. And I don’t think many people could have done.

Among the uproar, Rowling was expected to churn out yet another Harry Potter home run.

“The secret of becoming a writer is to write, write, and keep on writing.” —Ken MacLeod [Tweet This]

Book Six: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Again Harry Potter exceeded all expectations, smashing records left and right, but no time to celebrate: it was on to Book Six.

Rowling was pregnant with her third child while writing Half-Blood Prince, but she wasn’t nearly as stressed as she had been with Book Five. In fact, she probably put some fans in a panic when she said:

I’m in a very lovely position. Contractually, I don’t even have to write any more books at all. So no one can possibly write that I have missed a deadline, because I actually don’t have a contractual deadline for Six and Seven.

Of course Rowling did write Book Six, which was “an enjoyable experience from start to finish.”

Rowling’s critics, however, were now growing as vocal as her fans:

I found death threats to myself on the net . . . I found, well, people being advised to shoot me, basically.

The paparazzi problem was also spinning out of control. After the birth of two more children, Rowling couldn’t even step out of her house without being stalked by photographers—she was “completely trapped” and felt like she was “under siege or like a hostage.”

Rowling went so far as to sell her house and move her family, and she again turned to therapy, as she had years ago when Harry Potter was in its infancy:

Sometimes I think I’m temperamentally suited to being a moderately successful writer, with the focus of attention on the books rather than on me.

“You just have to accept that it takes a phenomenal amount of perseverance.” —J. K. Rowling [Tweet This]

Book Seven: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Even with enormously high expectations, Book Six was astoundingly successful, and Rowling immediately began working on the seventh.

Deathly Hallows was the series finale, but Rowling had many other responsibilities to fulfill besides writing: being a mother to three children, giving interviews, overseeing the Potter movies, and running her charities, to name only a few.

Ironically, Rowling’s notoriety and wealth had cut her writing time in half—from five days a week to two and a half. She said:

There are times—and I don’t want to sound ungrateful—when I would gladly give back some of the money in exchange for time and peace to write.

The media marathon hadn’t slowed down either, which was exceptionally draining for Rowling:

Fame is a very odd and very isolating experience. And I know some people crave it. A lot of people crave it. I find that very hard to understand. Really. It is incredibly isolating and it puts a great strain on your relationships.

One of the media’s particular criticisms of Rowling was her appearance:

I found it very difficult, when I first became well known, to read criticism about how I look, how messy my hair was, and how generally unkempt I look.

Rowling worried about how such criticisms might affect her children:

Is “fat” really the worst thing a human being can be? Is “fat” worse than “vindictive,” “jealous,” “shallow,” “vain,” “boring” or “cruel'”? Not to me.

I’ve got two daughters who will have to make their way in this skinny-obsessed world, and it worries me, because I don’t want them to be empty-headed, self-obsessed, emaciated clones; I’d rather they were independent, interesting, idealistic, kind, opinionated, original, funny—a thousand things, before “thin.”

Somehow, in the middle of all this cacophony, Rowling finished her seven-book series. After nearly two decades, it was over. Rowling said:

I cried as I’ve only ever cried once before in my life, and that was when my mother died. It was uncontrollable . . .

My feeling is, if you really want to [write], you will do it. You will find the time. And it might not be much time, but you’ll make it. —J. K. Rowling [Tweet This]

Embracing the Journey

This post is not about glorifying Rowling, or pitying her. This post is about learning to appreciate wherever you are in your writing journey. It’s only human to think that the grass is greener on the other side—to think that if only you had a certain amount of money or a certain kind of life, you’d finally get down to writing. But books aren’t written in a vacuum. Life doesn’t stop moving even for the most famous and successful. The best time to write is now—because that’s the only time you’ve truly got.

For of all sad words of tongue or pen,

The saddest are these: “It might have been!”

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35 thoughts on “Rowling’s Life as an Author: What It Was Really Like to Write Harry Potter

  1. This was so inspirational and so informative. Reading this made me think of the long process I’ve gone through for my two novels. Getting the beginning is so very hard to just even start with it. I know this is going to be a long journey for me to get my book to the point of publishing and getting it out there, but honestly, I’m looking forward to the journey.

    Like

  2. Thanks for this post! It’s posts like this that help me to keep going forward. I’m currently working on the second draft of my current book and the first draft had to be almost completely thrown out except for a few major plot points. If Rowling can push through all that, I can push through and get this book finished!

    Like

    1. You got this, wdwritingwizard! I absolutely love reading comments like yours. The whole reason I started this blog was to create an encouraging and inspiring atmosphere for writers—thanks for contributing to it!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Your timing with this post was nothing short of amazing. I am on the third draft of my newest novel, complaining about the number of drafts it’ll take before I’m proud to release out into the world and the plot has gone in a completely different direction than it took in the first draft! So it was bother a relief and therapeutic to read that J.K has done the same thing. I have tried over the years to figure out how painful her writing world was, (because some part of it is always painful) but there are so many interviews scattered everywhere I was never able to find out. You’ve done all that for me, so thank you. Your post was inspiring, therapeutic, reassuring and a well-needed kick in the pants.
    I cannot thank you enough.

    Like

    1. I too am glad to read this about such a famous and successful author. I read the first draft of my first novel just before Christmas and found that I rather liked it. But now I am just about finished the second draft, having solved many problems, and am starting to worry about it. “Is it good enough?” is the main thing bugging me. I was planning on only one more draft before I publish, but now I’m thinking of doing another… in case that helps. But don’t know if it will.

      The other thing that really scares me is getting it “out there”. It’s getting worse as I get closer to completion. Your section on JKR’s 2nd book has particular resonance with me, being as I’m one of those introverted types for whom the sort of fame that she has garnered would scare the pants off me.

      I thought my book with multiple plotlines would be complicated. It’s not as complicated as writing!

      Like

  4. So … wow. This is the kind of distiller wisdom that often comes at the end of a life, in hindsight. As much as it applies to writing, it applies to anything and everything in life of great value. It is really a testament to the purity of the human spirit to rise above everything if given the chance and perseverance. Thanks for distilling this story to 100% proof!!! I feel a bit high on it.

    Like

  5. Not only inspirational in a determined, “I’m-gonna-do-it-no-matter-what” way, but a very good read!

    I’ve heard about J.K. Rowling’s difficulties before, but I only ever imagined them for the first book or two. In some way, it is a relief to know that she had to work so hard, through so many obstacles, to write great books. Because if not, then any time a writer’s life isn’t perfect, she’ll destine herself to not working at all, but waiting for the “right moment.”

    Like

  6. I love this blog there is always something which motivates me to write and this post is a great example of that. Its reassuring to know that Rowling goes through a stage of ‘hating’ her work too, something I think every writer goes through at some point.

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    1. Yep, I agree with you. I think if a writer is completely in love with her story and her writing from beginning to end, then she’s probably not pushing herself enough. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.

      Like

  7. This is a really timely post for me. I’m struggling with getting the first draft of my 3rd novel out. I thought it would get easier, but clearly each book in a series is it’s own challenge. Kind of like having children.

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    1. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment, Anne. I think all writers want to believe that some day writing will get easier—once they’ve written enough or published enough or whatever—but we’re always growing as writers (or at least we should be) so there will always be growing pains. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s certainly not always fun either. Hope your third novel is going well and please drop in again!

      Like

  8. This post was very comforting. It’s good to know Rowling got to a point where she hated her writing, yet she still battled on and got it done. Not only that but she produced something incredible. I think I am going to have to save this post and come back to it when I need motivation and reassurance!

    Like

  9. I just wanted to say that your posts about Harry Potter, structure and the writing process have totally turned me down a new path in my writing development that I think will make all of the difference. You’ve inspired me to reread the fifth book and really try to map the whole thing out, I’m hoping to do a chapter by chapter analysis of it on my blog and already my reading process has been completely revolutionized. Thank you so much for the work you do!

    Like

  10. Like many of the comments above I just wanted to say thank you. This is an inspiring and grounding post, and I am incredibly happy that I’ve come across it.

    Like

  11. A writer’s life-saving article, C.S., and for me personally, divine timing as well. I’m in the middle of the ocean with my fantasy novel Blackcat-Whitecat: The Land of Lost Dreams, and starting to seriously doubt myself, thinking, “If only… my health was better… I had more money… was more agent-connected… blah-blah-blah.” This week, I found myself panicked and terribly depressed that maybe I don’t know the way across to bloody finish this first book. Thank you so, so much for telling us “the rest of the story.” (And thank you, J.K., for sharing your magic — warts and all). Pure Heart, CJ

    Like

  12. What this post is telling me is “You are not alone”. And oh boy if I feel alone, and stupid while writing! I am working through the first outline I have ever written and it feels like too much work! And, if Rowling could, so can I!

    Thank you, C.S.!

    Like

  13. This is exactly the pick-me-up I needed. I’ve been struggling badly with carving out writing time and really focusing on plot. Rowling is such an inspiration and knowing her path was anything but clear, that’s comforting. She created an absolute literary masterpiece and she does nothing to dress it up: it was an amazing idea that required extremely hard work that paid off. I have to get into that mindset of pushing and editing and just WRITING. Thanks so much for this post!

    Like

  14. I do not get it. How do you map the plot ? How do you come up with the ideas?
    I have an amazing idea. There is this boy who goes to school, a school where he learns magic. This idea suddenly came to me. Then what? How do you come up with the scar, the dark lord, the horcruxes? How do you come up with the goblet of fire or a character like Umbridge?
    It is just not magic of language. It is just not perseverance.
    I come up with wonderful ideas, than it just stops there. So how did she do it?

    Like

  15. You are such an amazing person. Dear author who wrote this post.
    Incredibly informed, well opinionated, and a great eye for empathy. I wish J.K. Rowling would read this too. Thanks a lot!

    Like

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