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

Rowling has repeatedly 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 and fortune, but us writers need to know more. We need to know the not-so-glamorous version of what it was like to write Harry Potter.

What It Was Really Like to Write Harry Potter

First, we need to appreciate how disciplined Rowling had to be to develop her story nugget 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 the 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. It’s simply that a writer writes.

Below I’ve compiled the oft-forgotten, 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

Book One: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Even though Harry Potter strolled into Rowling’s head fully formed, she still spent several years mapping out the seven books, and then she spent another year writing the first one, Harry Potter and Sorcerer’s Stone. Rowling rewrote Chapter One so many times (upwards of fifteen discarded drafts) that her first attempts “bear no resemblance to anything in the finished book”—which was especially frustrating since Rowling was a single parent and her writing time was 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 also had to waste her already limited time on nuisances like re-typing an entire chapter because she changed a paragraph or, even worse, re-typing the entire manuscript because she hadn’t double-spaced it.

Besides writing, Rowling struggled with many personal problems: 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. Unfortunately, Rowling’s support system was nearly nonexistent. She once told a friend about Harry Potter and her friend’s response was typical.

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.

Rowling grappled with suicidal thoughts and eventually turned to therapy for help.

Once the manuscript was finally finished, Rowling collected a dozen rejection letters over a full year before Bloomsbury Publishing picked it up. Even then, 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?”)

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

Book Two: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

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 U.K. that Scholastica paid an unprecedented $105,000 for the American rights to the series. Rowling, however, still faced major frustrations.

For one, Rowling didn’t believe her success would stick. While writing Chamber of Secrets, she worked as a full-time French teacher (while still caring for her now-toddler daughter).

Rowling also 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 . . .

Other lucrative contracts rolled in after Scholastica, which pulled Rowling out of poverty but also forced incredible pressure on her “to fulfill expectations.” Furthermore, the sudden deluge of money brought on a “tsunami of requests.” Everyone was asking Rowling for a financial leg up, and she panicked.

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

Book Three: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

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 wrote 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 the rewrites were difficult for Book Three, Rowling was about to beaten over the head by Book Four.

The desire to write grows with writing. —Desiderius Erasmus Tweet

Book Four: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

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:

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 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

Book Five: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

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.

Rowling, however, 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. In two years, Rowling wrote an 870-page book, got married, had a 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, she was drowning in a never-ending deluge of media.

Rowling’s fame had grown to such bewildering heights that the attention had become relentless, which was quite a shock for her, especially since she had assumed 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 still expected to churn out another Harry Potter home run.

The secret of becoming a writer is to write, write, and keep on writing. —Ken MacLeod Tweet

Book Six: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

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 feeling nearly as stressed as she did 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 growing as vocal as her fans. “I found death threats to myself on the net,” Rowling said. “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.” She felt like she was “under siege or like a hostage.” She went so far as to sell her house and move her family, and she again turned to therapy, as she did 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

Book Seven: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Even with globally 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 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.

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

Appreciate Where You Are in Your Writing Journey

This post is not about glorifying Rowling, or pitying her. This post is about learning to appreciate where 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 writers. 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!”

An Interview with Indie Author Jenny Bravo

Interview with Indie Author Jenny Bravo

There’s something inspiring about talking to a writer who has just published her first book. It reminds us that all of the pain is worth it in the end.

Here’s my interview with the energetic and thoughtful indie author Jenny Bravo—please give her some support in the comments!

These Are the Moments by Jenny Bravo

Tell us a little about yourself and about your book.

Jenny Bravo Blots and Plots PicHi there! I’m Jenny Bravo and my book is These Are the Moments. I’m a twenty-four-year-old Louisiana native with a B.A. in Creative Writing and a writing blog called Blots & Plots. Fun fact about me? I once was a safari truck driver at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

These Are the Moments, also known by its hashtag TATM, is a YA/NA crossover novel about the love story between Simon and Wendy. It’s an on-again, off-again relationship of a couple brought back together through a mutual friends’ wedding. Can people really change? Can they actually make it work? You’ll have to see!

Is this your first book?

Yes, it is! First published, that is. I do have an unpublished, unedited manuscript that is somewhere collecting dust. But maybe one day, I’ll get back to it.

How did you come up with the story idea?

Originally, I had the idea of this couple when I was still in high school. I wrote about their story in a very elementary kind of way, as I was still developing my writing skills. I loved the idea of a couple reunited over time and thought it would make for interesting tension. After I graduated college, I remembered the story and started writing. From there, I added layers over layers of plot, and it became a real, fully-fashioned story.

How long did it take you to write TATM?

I started writing in March of 2014 and finished that December. It took me about three months to edit before sending it away for developmental editing.

What is your writing process? (Are you a pantser, plotter, or something in between—a plontser?)

I’m definitely a plontser haha! In the first draft, I just let the story take me where it wants to go. It starts out as a collection of scenes, and through my second draft, they blend together into a story. From there, I plan. I have a more concrete idea of the story arc, and I map the scenes to fit. Then it’s edit, edit, edit, and somehow, it makes a novel.

Do you keep a writing schedule?

I don’t have a writing schedule. With a full-time job, I just do my best to find the time. Word sprints are my very best friend. I can write about 1,000 or more words in 30 minutes, so I try to make the most of the time I do have.

What were some of the bumps you hit along the way while writing TATM?

For me, the hardest part was knowing when to stop. I could edit my heart away, and I spent an entire weekend just holed away in my room, working for hours on end. At some point, I just had to call it a day. I had to accept that writing is a fluid art, and it’s never necessarily “finished.” I had to be proud of myself, and then hand it over to its readers.

“I had to accept that writing is a fluid art, and it’s never necessarily finished.” —J. Bravo

 Tweet: I had to accept that #writing is a fluid art, and it's never necessarily finished.—@BlotsandPlots #TATM @RiteLikeRowling

Why did you decide to indie publish? What have you liked about it? What has been difficult?

I love indie publishing, but I had no idea how amazing it was until I started researching it. After graduation, I had big plans to publish traditionally, as most writers do. Then I found indie authors and started listening to their stories. I was so excited to pick my own publishing team and take my book in the direction I wanted it to go.

I’ve loved this experience. It’s amazing to learn the work and time that is required for a book. The whole experience can be difficult, but I was very stressed when it came to creating my own timelines. I wanted to launch it in the right way, and I was scared I wouldn’t give myself enough time. Thankfully, it all worked out perfectly!

What advice do you have for writers who are struggling to write their own first book?

If you’re struggling to write, there could be a number of different factors. Maybe you haven’t found the right story or you are second-guessing yourself. My best, overall piece of advice is to give yourself permission to write poorly. It’s okay for your first draft to be all over the place. It’s okay for you to doubt where your story is heading. Just write something. If you need more tailored advice, I suggest visiting my blog or shooting me an email. I’m happy to help!

Why You Shouldn’t Feel Bad If You’re an Amateur Writer

Amateur Writing Charlie Chaplin

If You’re an Amateur

I’ve been asked before what credentials I have to write about writing: Have I been published? Do people pay me for my writing? Am I a professional? An expert?

Modern-day society especially has become so dependent on proof: Where’s your degree? Your certificate? Your salary? Your followers? Your award? Your little piece of paper that says I can listen to you?

The only credential I need to write is that I write. In fact, being an “expert” isn’t always an asset.

We’re all terrified of being revealed as amateurs, but in fact, today it is the amateur—the enthusiast who pursues her work in the spirit of love (in French, the word means “lover”), regardless of the potential for fame, money, or career—who often has the advantage over the professional. Because they have little to lose, amateurs are willing to try anything and share the results. They take chances, experiment, and follow their whims. Sometimes, in the process of doing things in an unprofessional way, they make new discoveries. “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities,” said Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki. “In the expert’s mind, there are few.”

—Austin Kleon,  Show Your Work

Show Your Work by Austin Kleon Be an Amateur Writer

The less you know about a field, the better your odds. Dumb boldness is the best way to approach a new challenge.Jerry Seinfeld Tweet: The less you know about a field, the better your odds. Dumb boldness is the best way to approach a new challenge. —Seinfeld @RiteLikeRowling

Finding Fans

In today’s selfie-obsessed world where we call our blogs platforms and our Twitter followers contacts, it’s important to remember: we’re not supposed to be somebody to everybody.

When I first started blogging, I didn’t like being a nobody, but I’ve had some epiphanies since then and it doesn’t bother me anymore. I’ve come to accept the fact that I’m not a somebody to everybody; in fact, I’m a nobody to almost everybody. And that’s okay.

Stop worrying about how many people follow you online and start worrying about the quality of people who follow you. Don’t waste your time reading articles about how to get more followers. Don’t waste time following people online just because you think it’ll get you somewhere. Don’t talk to people you don’t want to talk to, and don’t talk about stuff you don’t want to talk about. If you want followers, be someone worth following. . . . Make stuff you love and talk about stuff you love and you’ll attract people who love that kind of stuff. It’s that simple.

—Austin Kleon,  Show Your Work

Sharing Your Writing

Where should you start, then, if you’re an amateur?

The best way to get started on the path to sharing your work is to think about what you want to learn, and make a commitment to learning it in front of others. … Be on the lookout for voids that you can fill with your own efforts, no matter how bad they are at first. Don’t worry, for now, about how you’ll make money or a career off it. Forget about being an expert or a professional, and wear your amateurism (your heart, your love) on your sleeve. Share what you love, and the people who love the same things will find you.

—Austin Kleon,  Show Your Work

I write, not because I have a piece of paper that says I can, but because I want to share what I love. And I’ve been lucky enough to find others (amateur or not) who feel the same way.

Give What You Have Amateur Writer Longfellow

If You Want to Be a Writer, Do This

Most important thing a writer needs

If you could give a budding writer only one piece of advice, what would it be? Below are some of the most well-known and talented writers of our time who tackled that exact question. Do you notice a trend?

Writing Advice from Greats

The most important thing is to read as much as you can, like I did. It will give you an understanding of what makes good writing and it will enlarge your vocabulary.

—J.K. Rowling

You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written . . . Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.

—Stephen King

Above all else, the writer has to be a good reader. The kind that sticks to academic texts and does not read what others write (and here I’m not just talking about books but also blogs, newspaper columns and so on) will never know his own qualities and defects.

—Paul Coelho

If you ask me what I am reading on any given day, it is most likely going to be a work from a great author from long ago. Every writer stands on the shoulders of the old authors who have shaped and refined language and storytelling.

—Laura Hillenbrand

Dealing with Writer’s Block

Yesterday I was struggling with some character development in my writing, so I did the one thing that I knew would help. I grabbed a good book. It was a win-win: I got to soak in a great story while picking up a few tricks of the trade.

Below are some character descriptions I jotted down from Fitzgerald’s first published novel, This Side of Paradise.

This Side of Paradise - character development

The Mother

All in all Beatrice O’Hara absorbed the sort of education that will be quite impossible ever again; a tutelage measured by the number of things and people one could be contemptuous of and charming about; a culture rich in all arts and traditions, barren of all ideas, in the last of those days when the great gardener clipped the inferior roses to produce one perfect bud. . . .

Though she thought of her body as a mass of frailties, she considered her soul quite as ill, and therefore important in her life. She had once been a Catholic, but discovering that priests were infinitely more attentive when she was in the process of losing or regaining faith in Mother Church, she maintained an enchantingly wavering attitude.

The Priest

He had written two novels: one of them violently anti-Catholic, just before his conversion, and five years later another, in which he had attempted to turn all his clever jibes against Catholics into even cleverer innuendos against Episcopalians. He was intensely ritualistic, startlingly dramatic, loved the idea of God enough to be a celibate, and rather liked his neighbor.

The Girl

[Isabelle] had never been so curious about her appearance, she had never been so satisfied with it. She had been sixteen years old for six months.

The Protagonist

“I’ll never be a poet,” said Amory . . . “I’m not enough of a sensualist really; there are only a few obvious things that I notice as primarily beautiful: women, spring evenings, music at night, the sea; I don’t catch the subtle things like ‘silver-snarling trumpets.’ I may turn out an intellectual, but I’ll never write anything but mediocre poetry.”

A Different Perspective: You Don’t Have to Write Every Day

If you’ve had a bad writing day, or if you’ve been struggling with your writing recently, I found this article by Cal Newport to be a reassuring read. I also think Newport’s point of view is an important counter to Stephen King’s. In the end, the goal of all this advice is to help you figure out what works for you, not what works for someone else.

Foreshadowing: The Secret Sauce in Successful Stories

Human beings read stories to make sense out of life—to make sense out of chaos. Stories revolve around “plots” and the simplest definition of plot is cause and effect: “Because this happened, that happened; and because that happened, another thing happened.” Real life, however, is chaotic and often times doesn’t make sense: “You ate a piece of toast for breakfast, and then you got kidnapped at lunch.” Wait, what? And that’s why humans love stories: Stories make sense.

But having a story make sense fulfills only the most basic requirement of storytelling. Readers expect more out of stories, especially fiction stories. They want stories that are engaging, suspenseful and—ironically—unpredictable. How can a story both make sense yet be unpredictable? Here’s where foreshadowing comes in. You could say that foreshadowing is the more genteel cousin of cause and effect. Foreshadowing prepares readers for unexpected events in a story by dropping hints about them earlier on. That way the story makes sense, but it’s still unpredictable.

Foreshadowing, though, involves slight of hand. It’s a literary magic trick, and just like any magic trick, the more you study and practice it, the better you’ll get.

The most important thing is to read as much as you can, like I did. It will give you an understanding of what makes good writing . . . (J.K. Rowling)

If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. (Stephen King)

The great thing about being a writer is that you can study the masters for free. You don’t have to pay them thousands of dollars in order to learn their tricks. You just have to pick up a book. One of the most celebrated and well-known masters of foreshadowing is F. Scott Fitzgerald in his book The Great Gatsby. (If your Gatsby is a bit rusty, here’s a quick SparkNotes summary.)


The most difficult part about properly executing foreshadowing is learning to trust your reader. New writers tend to be heavy-handed with their foreshadowing because they don’t trust their readers to put it together. (On the other end of the spectrum are new writers who don’t connect their story events at all—but that goes back to understanding the first storytelling requirement of cause and effect.)

A studied and experienced writer knows that the human brain is highly sensitive to the smallest story details. Even if readers aren’t consciously putting the pieces together, they are subconsciously. This understanding of the human brain is what allows writers to pull off a story twist that feels both unexpected yet inevitable. (An example of a foreshadowed story twist is Sirius Black’s death in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.)

Let’s look at how Fitzgerald uses foreshadowing’s sleight of hand in The Great Gatsby to prepare us for Daisy Buchanan killing Myrtle Wilson in a hit-and-run. This is an extremely important event in the story that needs to feel inevitable yet unexpected.

A Joke

Fitzgerald connects cars with death right away in Gatsby on page nine (2004 Scribner paperback edition). He cleverly puts a twist on this first connection by having it be a joke—and aiming that joke at Daisy, the character who will eventually commit the hit-and-run. Daisy used to live in Chicago but recently moved to East Egg, New York. The narrator, Nick Carraway, is visiting her at her new East Egg house:

I told [Daisy] how I had stopped off in Chicago for a day on my way East, and how a dozen people had sent their love through me.

“Do they miss me?” she cried ecstatically.

“The whole town is desolate. All the cars have left the rear wheel painted black as a mourning wreath, and there’s a persistent wail all night along the north shore.”

“How gorgeous! . . . .”

Not only does this foreshadowing link Daisy with cars and death (“a mourning wreath”), but it also shows her need for attention and admiration. This need makes her decision to flee after hitting Myrtle seem inevitable because, with her character, she couldn’t very well stop—otherwise she’d risk losing the good opinion and love of others.

Although the term foreshadowing is most often connected to plot, the best foreshadowing is actually based on character development since it’s the characters that act out the plot. The more a character believably embodies the action required to foreshadow an upcoming event, the more believable the entire story is. A story twist will feel inevitable to the reader even if it’s a surprise because it’s based on the developed personality of a character and not on some seemingly haphazard action. As Fitzgerald himself said, “Character is plot, plot is character.”

A Bruised Knuckle

Daisy’s bruised knuckle is another instance of Fitzgerald using character development to foreshadow the hit-and-run. Only three pages after he connects cars with death through a joke, Fitzgerald then links Daisy, the future hit-and-run assailant, to pain.

. . . [Daisy’s] eyes fastened with an awed expression on her little finger.

“Look!” she complained; “I hurt it.”

We all looked—the knuckle was black and blue.

“You did it, Tom,” she said accusingly. “I know you didn’t mean to, but you did do it. That’s what I get for marrying a brute of a man, a great, big, hulking physical specimen . . .”

Daisy’s outburst shows that her immediate response to something unwanted, like pain, is to blame someone else, in this case, her husband, Tom. This early development in her character builds to the later event that she won’t stand up and take responsibility for killing Myrtle.

A Wreck

On page 25, Fitzgerald introduces us to the doomed Myrtle. We meet Myrtle in her husband’s car repair garage, which is the same location where she’ll later be hit by Daisy. The first description Fitzgerald writes about the garage is:

The interior was unprosperous and bare; the only car visible was the dust-covered wreck of a Ford which crouched in a dim corner.

After describing this “wreck,” Fitzgerald has Myrtle, the future hit-and-run victim, enter the scene. We might not consciously register this, but our subconscious takes note. (Fitzgerald later has Myrtle’s lifeless body lying in this same garage after the hit-and-run.)

It’s also important to mention that Fitzgerald brings us to this garage by way of Daisy’s husband, Tom, who insists on introducing Nick, the narrator, to Myrtle, Tom’s secret lover, while Myrtle’s oblivious husband is standing right next to them. The impropriety of the whole situation is glaringly obvious, and it’s through this scene that Fitzgerald shows both Myrtle’s and Tom’s impulsive and selfish characters. This character development, in turn, creates the sense of inevitability of Myrtle getting hit when she’s impetuously running at Gatsby’s car because she thinks that Tom is driving it.

A Broken Nose

After Myrtle’s introduction, Fitzgerald sends her, Nick and Tom to an apartment in New York where Fitzgerald draws out another example of Tom and Myrtle’s selfish and impulsive natures. While partying at the apartment, Tom gets angry at Myrtle and breaks her nose. The fight starts because Myrtle is shouting Daisy’s name. Tom, in a moment of grotesque chivalry, says that his mistress doesn’t have the right to say his wife’s name, and breaks Myrtle’s nose for it.

Notice that Myrtle gets hurt because of Daisy, foreshadowing that Myrtle will get hurt again because of Daisy (except next time it will be fatal). And notice that Tom hits Myrtle to defend Daisy, which foreshadows the scene where Tom is protecting Daisy after she’s killed Myrtle:

Daisy and Tom were sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table, with a plate of cold fried chicken between them, and two bottles of ale. He was talking intently across the table at her, and in his earnestness his hand had fallen upon and covered her own . . . There was an unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the picture, and anybody would have said that they were conspiring together.

A Ditch

The most recognized example of Fitzgerald foreshadowing the hit-and-run is the scene during one of Gatsby’s many extravagant house parties when a car slams into a ditch and rips off its wheel. Standing by the disheveled car is a character named Owl Eyes. Nick, the narrator, asks Owl Eyes about the accident:

“But how did it happen? Did you run into the wall?”

“Don’t ask me,” said Owl Eyes, washing his hands of the whole matter. “I know very little about driving—next to nothing. It happened, and that’s all I know.”

“Well, if you’re a poor driver you oughtn’t to try driving at night.”

“But I wasn’t even trying,” he explained indignantly, “I wasn’t even trying.”

An awed hush fell upon the bystanders.

“Do you want to commit suicide?”

“You’re lucky it was just a wheel! A bad driver and not even trying!”

“You don’t understand,” explained the criminal. “I wasn’t even driving. There’s another man in the car.”

The shock that followed this declaration found voice in a sustained “Ah-h-h!” . . .

This mimics what will happen later when Gatsby is wrongly accused of hitting Myrtle (and just like the wheel of this car is “violently shorn” so is Myrtle hit so hard that her left breast is ripped and “swinging loose like a flap”). This incident also serves to connect Gatsby with cars and chaos.

A Drunkard

In another small detail foreshadowing the hit-and-run, Fitzgerald includes a long list of names of all the people that come to Gatsby’s wild parties. Among the names, Fitzgerald mentions a man named Snell that was at one of the parties “three days before he went to the penitentiary, so drunk out on the gravel drive that Mrs. Ulysses Swett’s automobile ran over his right hand.” Again it seems that chaos follows Gatsby, and it often seems to involve cars.

An Affair

Fitzgerald even connects car accidents to Tom, Daisy’s husband and the lover of the doomed Myrtle.

Jordan Baker, Nick’s girlfriend, tells Nick about Daisy and Tom’s courtship and relates a story about Tom’s first known extramarital affair that he had only a few months after marrying Daisy:

Tom ran into a wagon on the Ventura road one night, and ripped a front wheel off his car. The girl who was with him got into the papers, too, because her arm was broken – she was one of the chambermaids in the Santa Barbara Hotel [where Tom and Daisy were staying].

Again a tire is ripped off in a car accident, and just like Myrtle’s foreshadowed hit-and-run, the victim is a mistress of Tom’s. This information only adds to the escalating trend that girls who get involved with Tom get hurt: Daisy’s knuckle is bruised; Myrtle’s nose is broken, another girl had her arm broken, and soon Myrtle is going to pay the ultimate price. Tom is both a bad guy and bad luck.

These are only a handful of examples that illustrate the many ways that Fitzgerald used subtle details and character development to deftly foreshadow story events that needed to feel unexpected yet inevitable. This practiced sleight of hand is what can turn a good story into a great story.

All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.

— F. Scott Fitzgerald

*Photo by Caleb George @ Unsplash / CC0

Monday Motivation: Nathan Bransford’s Ten Commandments for the Happy Writer

Studies have shown that you’re more likely to be happy if you have happy friends, and I think that’s just as true for writers: Surround yourself with happy writers and you’re more likely to be a happy (and productive!) writer. I love writers that choose to be optimistic even though writing is often times difficult and frustrating. One such happy writer is Nathan Bransford. Last year I read his writing book, How to Write a Novel: 47 Rules for Writing a Stupendously Awesome Novel That You Will Love Forever. Nathan’s strength in this book isn’t based so much on mind-blowingly new writing concepts, but on his ability to convey the writer’s life in an honest yet optimistic and humorous way (just read the Table of Contents).

In a 2009 blog post titled “Ten Commandments for Happy Writers,” Nathan says, “. . . believe it or not, writing and happiness can, in fact, go together.” Here are Nathan’s Ten Commandments for Happy Writers:

1. Enjoy the present. Writers are dreamers, and dreamers tend to daydream about the future while concocting wildly optimistic scenarios that involve bestsellerdom, riches, and interviews with Ryan Seacrest. In doing so they forget to enjoy the present. I call this the “if only” game. You know how it goes: if only I could find an agent, then I’ll be happy. When you have an agent, then it becomes: if only I could get published,then I’ll be happy. And so on. The only way to stay sane in the business is to enjoy every step as you’re actually experiencing it. Happiness is not around the bend. It’s found in the present. Because writing is pretty great — otherwise why are you doing it?

2. Maintain your integrity. With frustration comes temptation. It’s tempting to try and beat the system, whether that’s by having someone else write your query, lying to the people you work with, or, you know, concocting the occasional fake memoir. This may even work in the short term, but unless you are Satan incarnate (and I hope you’re not) it will steadily chip away at your happiness and confidence, and your heart will shrivel and blacken into something they show kids in health class to scare them away from smoking. Don’t do it.

3. Recognize the forces that are outside of your control. While it’s tempting to think that it’s all your fault if your book doesn’t sell, or your agent’s fault or the industry’s fault or the fault of a public that just doesn’t recognize your genius, a lot of times it’s just luck not going your way. Chance is BIG in this business. Huge. Gambling has nothing on the incredibly delicate and complex calculus that results in a book taking off. Bow before the whims of fate, because chance is more powerful than you and your agent combined.

4. Don’t neglect your friends and family. No book is worth losing a friend, losing a spouse, losing crucial time with your children. Hear me? NO book is worth it. Not one. Not a bestseller, not a passion project, nothing. Friends and family first. THEN writing. Writing is not an excuse to neglect your friends and family. Unless you don’t like them very much.

5. Don’t quit your day job. Quitting a job you need to pay the bills in order to write a novel is like selling your house and putting the proceeds into a lottery ticket. You don’t have to quit your job to write. There is time in the day. You may have to sacrifice your relaxation time or sleep time or reality television habit, but there is time. You just have to do it.

6. Keep up with publishing industry news. It may seem counterintuitive to follow the news of a business in which layoffs currently constitute the bulk of headlines. But it behooves you to keep yourself informed. You’ll be happier (and more successful) if you know what you’re doing.

7. Reach out to fellow writers. No one knows how hard it is to write other than other people who have tried to do it themselves. Their company is golden. If you’re reading this it means you have an Internet connection. Reach out and touch a writer. And plus, the Internet allows you to reach out to writers without smelling anyone’s coffee breath.

8. Park your jealousy at the door. Writing can turn ordinary people into raving lunatics when they start to believe that another author’s success is undeserved. Do not begrudge other writers their success. They’ve earned it. Even if they suck.

9. Be thankful for what you have. If you have the time to write you’re doing pretty well. There are millions of starving people around the world, and they’re not writing because they’re starving. If you’re writing: you’re doing just fine. Appreciate it.

10. Keep writing. Didn’t find an agent? Keep writing. Book didn’t sell? Keep writing. Book sold? Keep writing. OMG an asteroid is going to crash into Earth and enshroud the planet in ten feet of ash? Keep writing. People will need something to read in the resulting permanent winter.

*Photo by David Mao @ Unsplash / CC0

Conquering Your Page Fright

Spring is a sign of hope and new beginnings. Spring is a chance for us writers who have fallen off the bandwagon to dust ourselves off and jump back on. But the scariest part about beginning is simply that: beginning—sitting down and starting. Page fright is agony, and even the most renowned and celebrated writers have dealt with it. Ralph Keyes gathered a few of those writers in his book The Courage to Write:

All my life, I’ve been frightened at the moment I sit down to write.

— Gabriel Garcia Marquez

It’s really scary just getting to the desk—we’re talking now five hours. My mouth gets dry, my heart beats fast. I react psychologically the way other people react when the plane loses an engine.

— Fran Lebowitz

I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straightening shyness that assails one.

— John Steinbeck

What is so awful about starting? Why is it so difficult? Keyes says:

The best time of writing is before any words have been committed to paper; when all is prospect, clear in one’s mind, and clearly brilliant. The problems begin when one attempts to record that vision on paper. No matter how gifted and experienced the writer, this simply can’t be done . . . “The awful thing about the first sentence of any book,” agreed Tom Wolfe, “is that as soon as you’ve written it you realize this piece of work is not going to be the great thing that you envision. It can’t be . . .”

No book on paper can ever match the one in one’s head. What Paul Valery said of poems is true of all writing; it is never completed, only abandoned. Once writers realize this, they’re faced with a cruel choice: shall they leave their premature baby in a basket on some publisher’s doorstep, or shall they hide that poor child in the basement and turn away from writing as an impossible dream?

Accepting this harsh reality is the most important step in overcoming page fright.

Once we are aware of our fears, we are almost always capable of being more courageous than we think. Someone once told me that fear and courage are like lightning and thunder; they both start out at the same time, but the fear travels faster and arrives sooner. If we just wait a moment, the requisite courage will be along shortly.

— Lawrence Block

And once we accept this fear, we might even be able to turn it into a strength, like William Faulkner did when he wrote:

All of us failed to match our dream of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible. In my opinion, if I could write all my work again, I am convinced that I would do it better, which is the healthiest condition for an artist. That’s why he keeps on working, trying again; he believes each time that this time he will do it, bring it off. Of course he won’t, which is why this condition is healthy. Once he did it, once he matched the work to the image, the dream, nothing would remain but to cut his throat, jump off the other side of that pinnacle of perfection into suicide.

That’s a strong image Faulkner used, but it shows how he was able to conquer the page. If you’re afraid of starting, or you’ve started but let your fear overwhelm you, now is the time for new beginnings. As Stephen King said, “The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.”

(Congratulations to Poppy for winning a signed copy of Stuart Horwitz’s book, Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline Without Using a Formula. If you’d like a signed copy too, you have until May 5th to order it here for 10% off.)

*Photo by Didier Baertschiger @ Magdeleine / CC0