Rowling’s goal as a writer is surprisingly simple: “[Write] better than yesterday.” When Rowling sent her editor an email about the third Potter book, she wrote:
I am so sick of re-reading [Prisoner of Azkaban] that I’ll be hard put to smile when it comes to doing public readings from it. But perhaps the feeling will have worn off by next summer. . .
Rowling has also said:
You have to resign yourself to the fact that you waste a lot of trees before you write anything you really like, and that’s just the way it is. It’s like learning an instrument, you’ve got to be prepared for hitting wrong notes occasionally, or quite a lot, cause I wrote an awful lot before I wrote anything I was really happy with. [Tweet This]
‘You Have to Plan’
I have a large and complicated chart propped on the desk in front of me to remind me what happens where, how, to whom and which bits of crucial information need to be slipped into which innocent-looking chapters.
Rowling later added in an interview:
I plan; I really plan quite meticulously. I know it is sometimes quite boring because when people say to me, “I write stories at school and what advice would you give me to make my stories better?” And I always say (and people’s faces often fall when I say), “You have to plan,” and they say, “Oh, I prefer just writing and seeing where it takes me.” Sometimes writing and seeing where it takes you will lead you to some really good ideas, but I would say nearly always it won’t be as good as if you sat down first and thought, Where do I want to go, what end am I working towards, what would be good—a good start?
Rowling’s Outline for Order of the Phoenix
Rowling not only plans, she’s also not afraid to revise her plan—and revise it and revise it and revise it. Back in 2006 Rowling posted on her website a snippet of her series grid for the fifth Potter book, Order of the Phoenix.
Below is my transcription of the outline, which I created for Stuart Horwitz’s Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline Without Using a Formula. (I also cleaned up the outline by writing out abbreviations and completing sentences.)
When Rowling shared her outline, she said that it was an “umpteenth revision” of Order of the Phoenix—but she still went on to revise the outline even more.
In the grid below I’ve tracked all of Rowling’s changes between her outline and the final Order of the Phoenix. Red is what Rowling deletes from the story; yellow is what she swaps around; and green is everything she adds after the outline. Very little is left untouched.
As William Zinsser said:
Rewriting is the essence of writing well—where the game is won or lost. [Tweet This]
I won’t discuss every change, but the majority of Rowling’s revisions fit into two broad categories:
1. Eliminating Needless Repetition
2. Increasing Suspense
At times these two categories overlap: If you eliminate needless repetition (the parts that “readers tend to skip,” as Elmore Leonard said), you typically ratchet up the suspense automatically. (My two examples below show this overlap.)
On the other hand, these two categories still need to stand on their own. Increasing suspense doesn’t always eliminate needless repetition, and eliminating repetition doesn’t always result in suspense.
In Blueprint Your Bestseller Stuart Horwitz talks about the importance of striking a narrative balance between repetition and variation:
Repetition can get dangerously close to boring. You have to be careful when you have the same event or adjective or discussion happening over and over again. [But], you can’t have all variation, either . . . it is the pattern created by repetition and variation that communicates meaning.
Example of Repetition: Hagrid’s Return
Hagrid is sporting injuries quite early in the outline—before even chapter thirteen, because Rowling writes that he’s “still” getting injured, which means he’s injured before chapter thirteen as well.
But other than the unexplained injuries, Hagrid’s storyline has no significant development until we meet Grawp in (then) chapter thirteen. I believe that Rowling realized she had too much repetition without enough variation, so in the final Order of the Phoenix, she doesn’t introduce Hagrid’s injuries until chapter twenty and she waits to introduce Grawp until chapter thirty.
Example of Repetition: Occlumency
In the outline Harry is already getting Occlumency lessons from Snape in (then) chapter thirteen (the same chapter where Hagrid still has injuries). But the final book postpones Harry’s lessons until after he attacks Mr. Weasley in a dream. Why is this change important?
First, the Occlumency storyline is vital to the believability of the whole plot. As Lupin says, “Harry, there is nothing so important as you learning Occlumency!” If we the readers don’t buy into Occlumency—if Rowling can’t convince us of its importance—then the entire story is weak.
With the Occlumency storyline, Rowling is dealing with the same issue as Hagrid’s injuries: the repetition of the lessons is becoming boring; there isn’t enough variation. Rowling also needs to convince us that Harry’s situation is indeed dangerous.
If Rowling had Harry starting lessons simply because Dumbledore (or whoever else) said so, that wouldn’t be nearly as believable as Harry needing to start lessons because he’s already proven himself a threat—by attacking Mr. Weasley. Actions speak louder than words.
Example of Suspense: Hagrid’s Return
By delaying Hagrid’s return, Rowling not only eliminates needless repetition, she also increases the suspense. Hagrid’s unexplained disappearance adds mystery to the plot, and therefore, more suspense as well.
Rowling creates another offshoot of suspense by having Hagrid return right when Umbridge is desperate to fire teachers. In fact, right before Hagrid strolls into the story, Rowling has Umbridge put Professor Trelawney on probation. Naturally, we start worrying about Hagrid.
Rowling then uses Hagrid’s tenuous work situation as the reason to introduce Grawp. Notice in the outline Hagrid is refusing to leave Hogwarts, and we only happen to meet Grawp when Harry, Hermione, and Ron try to warn Hagrid about Umbridge. But in the final Order of the Phoenix, we don’t meet Grawp until the situation is clearly out of control (Hagrid is now on probation); and instead of refusing, Hagrid is okay with being fired, which gives him good reason to bring Harry to Grawp—someone needs to take care of Grawp in Hagrid’s absence.
Hagrid’s delayed return to Hogwarts also increases the suspense in the Quidditch storyline. Hagrid shows up right after Umbridge bans Harry from Quidditch. Although Hagrid’s unexpected arrival directs us away from Harry’s ban, it also increases the suspense because we’re not focusing on it—we’ve moved on to Hagrid’s story, yet we’re still wondering how the Quidditch problem will pan out. (Additionally, Harry’s ban from Quidditch serves as his excuse for sneaking into the Forbidden Forest to meet Grawp.)
Example of Suspense: Occlumency
In the outline Harry is skipping his Occlumency lessons simply because he wants to skip them. But in the final Order of the Phoenix, Harry looks into the pensieve and sees something unsettling from Snape’s past. Snape is so furious that he throws Harry out and refuses to give him any more lessons. Talk about ratcheting up the suspense! Harry’s peek into the pensieve both increases the tension around the Occlumency lessons (as Hermione continually nags Harry that he needs to resume them) and increases the mystery around Snape’s past.
A Few More Examples of Rowling Increasing the Suspense
- Rowling originally has Grawp as Hagrid’s cousin, but he later becomes his half-brother. Even though Hagrid has always been soft-hearted, it’s more believable that he’d so desperately cling to Grawp if Grawp was his last lifeline to an immediate family member.
- In the outline Rowling has Harry running into MacNair visiting Bode in the hospital; she later deletes this scene—probably thinking that it would decrease the suspense by giving away too much.
- At first Rowling only has Harry suspended from Quidditch, but she decides to increase the stakes by giving him a lifetime ban.
- In the outline, Rowling has Umbridge not suspect the existence of Dumbledore’s Army until much later in the story, but in the final book, Umbridge not only knows about the D.A. as soon as it forms, she also immediately threatens expulsion with Educational Decree Number 24. This significantly increases the suspense, because now we’re not wondering if Harry is going to get caught but when.
- Originally, Rowling has Harry attack Mr. Weasley and then stay at Hogwarts until Christmas break—she even has him shop for Christmas presents in Hogsmeade. But in the final Order of the Phoenix, she has Harry and the rest of the Weasleys leave immediately for Sirius’ house. The snake attack is an important turning point in the story (the midpoint, to be exact) and Rowling doesn’t want to downplay the consequences.
Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it. [Tweet This]