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, right? And perhaps that’s all ordinary readers need to know about Rowling’s path to literary fame, but writers need to know more.
Writers 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 little 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 writers convince themselves that they would write more if only they were more well known, or had more money, or had more time. But in the end, none of that is what defines a writer. A writer is simply someone who writes.
Below I’ve compiled the non-fairy-tale version of the story behind the Harry Potter series.
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 while writing the first book:
- 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 pretty much nonexistent. She struggled with suicidal thoughts and eventually turned to therapy for help. Rowling once told a friend about her book idea 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.
Even with publication now on the horizon, though, 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 the first Potter book 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.
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 her writing success was permanent, so while writing Chamber of Secrets, she worked as a full-time French teacher (and cared for her now-toddler daughter). 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 resulting 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 . . .
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 Rowling thought these rewrites for book three were difficult, she had no idea what she was heading into with book four.
Book Four: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Again Rowling churned out a book in a year, and again it was a massive best seller, but Rowling celebrated her success 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 her to have “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 book 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 burnout:
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.
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 the Harry Potter series 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 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.
Even then, though, 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 her Harry Potter story 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 pull off yet another Harry Potter home run.
Book Six: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Again Rowling exceeded all expectations, smashing publishing 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 was so laissez-faire about it, she probably put some fans in a panic:
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 again she had to turn to therapy, as she had years ago when her Harry Potter idea 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.
Book Seven: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Even with enormously high expectations, book six was a success, 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 Harry 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 her:
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 Harry Potter 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 . . .
Embracing the Journey
You just have to accept that it takes a phenomenal amount of perseverance.
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.
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.
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