The Dos and Don’ts of Imitating Famous Writers: My Interview with MuggleNet Academia

This week you’ll find me at MuggleNet Academia—one of the most popular educational podcasts on iTunes and nominated for four People’s Choice awards. I had a blast chatting it up with host Keith Hawk, Hogwarts Professor John Granger, and my writing buddy Christine Frazier of Better Novel Project.

In our podcast we talk about the Harry Potter series as a literary artifact and how we can use it to help aspiring writers become better at their craft.

SOME OF THE QUESTIONS WE TACKLE

  • What are Rowling’s three big story signatures? Should other writers try to imitate them?
  • Which best-selling authors have clearly borrowed from Rowling’s writing toolbox?
  • How much of Rowling’s success is due to her use of alchemical imagery and Christian symbolism? Do aspiring writers have to use them if they want to be successful?
  • Can pantsers write as well as outliners?
  • What specific story structure did Rowling use for scaffolding her story? How does understanding it improve an author’s chances of publishing success?

If you’re wondering what I sound like, here’s your chance to hear me talk! You can listen to the podcast at MuggleNet Academiacheck it out on iTunes, or download the mp3.

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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!”

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.

Behind the Scenes of a Bestseller: How Rowling Revised ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’

Writing Is Hard Work

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

Outlining: “You Have to Plan”

Even when Rowling was nearly finished with the Potter series, she still extensively planned out her work. While writing the sixth book, Half-Blood Prince, Rowling said:

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.)

Transcribed Rowling Outline

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 it 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

Transcribed Rowling Outline with Revisions

Rowling’s Revisions

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.

Eliminating Repetition

In Blueprint Your Bestseller, Stuart Horwitz discusses 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 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 sunk.

With the Occlumency storyline, Rowling is dealing with the same issue as Hagrid’s injuries: the repetition of the lessons is becoming boring—not 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.

Increasing Suspense

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 a 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 it increases the mystery around Snape’s past.

A Few More Examples of Increasing the Suspense
  1. Rowling originally has Grawp as Hagrid’s cousin, but he later becomes a 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.
  2. In the outline, Rowling has Harry running into MacNair visiting Bode in the hospital; she later deletes the scene—probably thinking that it would decrease the suspense by giving too much away.
  3. At first Rowling only has Harry suspended from Quidditch, but she decides to increase the stakes by giving him a lifetime ban.
  4. 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.
  5. Originally, Rowling has Harry attack Mr. Weasley and then stay at the school 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), so 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

—Colette

Why You Need to Fail If You Want to Write

The man who gets up is greater than the man who never fell. Concepcion Arenal

Often, you have to fail as a writer before you write that bestselling novel or ground-breaking memoir. If you’re failing as a writer—which it definitely feels like when you’re struggling to write regularly or can’t seem to earn a living as a freelance writer—maybe you need to take a long-term perspective.

—J. K. Rowling

Using Plot Points and Pinch Points in a Story with a Twist Ending

Recently I’ve had a couple of readers ask the same question: What exactly is a pinch point and how do you differentiate it from everything else in a story? And that’s when I realized that I need to address something very important about plot points and pinch points:

Plot points and pinch points should always be developed from the reader’s point of view.

Pinch Points

One of my blog followers (politely) argued that he thought the second pinch point in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone shouldn’t be the successive scenes of Snape showing Filch his Fluffy-bitten leg and then trying to curse Harry off his broom but instead should be the scene in the Forbidden Forest when something creepy (i.e., Voldemort) slithers out of the darkness and drinks the blood of a dead unicorn – because, in the end, Voldemort is the real antagonist, not Snape.

I agree with him that the slithering something is definitely a what-the-freaky-heck-is-that moment, but here’s why I (politely) disagree that it’s the second pinch point:

A pinch point, as defined by Larry Brooks in Story Engineering, is “an example, or a reminder, of the nature and implications of the antagonistic force.” Essentially, a pinch point is meant to show your readers the powerful forces pushing against your hero. This means that your readers have to identify the bad guy as the bad guy in order for your pinch points to mean anything to them. This is especially important to understand if you’re writing a mystery or any story with a twist ending (which Rowling has a particular penchant for in the Harry Potter series . . . Quirrell in book one; Ginny in book two; Sirius in book three, etc).

Plot points and pinch points act like a metronome for you the writer, giving your story beats and keeping it on tempo. But if you have a twist ending or a hidden antagonist that your readers aren’t meant to recognize until later, those “secret beats” won’t mean anything to them; instead, your readers will get both confused and bored with a story that looks like it isn’t going anywhere (even though you know it is). That’s why plot points and pinch points need to be developed from the reader’s point of view.

Snape as Antagonist

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Rowling presents Snape as the supposed antagonist. Quirrell (which includes Voldemort) is the hidden antagonist. This means that the pinch points in Rowling’s story need to be directed at Snape, not Quirrell, in order for us to feel like the story is moving along. But remember, it’s still absolutely vital that she drop hints about this twist ending so we don’t feel gypped at the big reveal (because the fastest way to lose a reader’s respect is to try and trick them).

Notice that Rowling sneakily intertwines Quirrell within Snape’s pinch points, like when Harry’s scar sears in pain while looking past Quirrell’s turban at Snape. It’s such an innocent detail by Rowling that we breeze right past it, not realizing it’s actually critical – and that clue doesn’t come to our attention for a long time so Rowling needs to keep us interested until then. How? With a pinch point that focuses on the supposed antagonist, Snape. Now at least we feel like the story’s going somewhere – just not where we think. Same thing with the second pinch point: We think that Snape is trying to curse Harry off his broom at the Quidditch match, but Snape is actually trying to protect Harry from Quirrell’s incantation. Everything ties neatly together below the surface.

Plot Points

All of this goes for plot points as well. Whatever is presented to the readers as the story (even if it’s a farce) is what needs to follow the story structure of first plot point, midpoint and second plot point. In between all of that, you need to squeeze in the clues that reveal the “real story,” which actually isn’t that difficult because the supposed antagonist depicted in the pinch points typically determines the direction of the “real story.” In other words, the big plot question in Sorcerer’s Stone is: What is hidden in the third floor corridor and who is trying to steal it? Like most of Rowling’s Harry Potter books, we eventually figure out the “what” (the sorcerer’s stone) but we’re just as confused as Harry about the “who.” We think the antagonist is Snape, but then we realize that it’s Quirrell, and then, ultimately, Voldemort. The plot stays the same; it’s our view of the characters that changes.

In short, the entire book of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone could arguably be viewed as a pinch point for the whole Harry Potter series since it’s where we first come face-to-face with the power and evil of Voldemort. But that individual scene with Voldemort drinking the blood of the unicorn cannot be a pinch point for Sorcerer’s Stone because a pinch point depends on the reader’s understanding of who the antagonist is.

*Photo by Bells Design @ Gratisography / CC0

Character Trumps Setting: The Secret behind Harry Potter’s Success

First, Rowling Changes Her Mind

In a 2011 interview, Rowling was asked—for probably the millionth time—why she thought the Harry Potter series was such a jaw-dropping success. In the past, her answer had fallen along the lines of “the magic is so fun and the idea of this hidden world is so appealing.” But in this interview, her answer changed.

After finishing the books and gaining some perspective on them as well as talking to thousands of fans over the years, Rowling said that she’s changed her mind on why Harry Potter is so beloved. She now believes that the biggest reason is:

“[Readers] fell in love with the characters.”

Character Trumps Setting

Some of the most popular novels recently have had memorable settings, including Harry Potter with his secret wizarding world, so it’s tempting to think that a unique setting is the be-all, end-all of a successful book. It isn’t. Only one thing can create a fresh, gripping story and that is: character. Or to be exact: character in conflict.

How to Create Characters in Conflict

Sample Study: This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Every year I reread The Great Gatsby, but this year I also read This Side of Paradise, which was Fitzgerald’s first published book.

One of Fitzgerald’s greatest talents was his ability to succinctly yet so clearly portray each of his characters’ inner and outer conflicts.

Here’s how he introduces the character Rosalind in This Side of Paradise.

Rosalind is—utterly Rosalind. She is one of those girls who need never make the slightest effort to have men fall in love with them. Two types of men seldom do: dull men are usually afraid of her cleverness and intellectual men are usually afraid of her beauty. All others are hers by natural prerogative.

If Rosalind could be spoiled the process would have been complete by this time, and as a matter of fact, her disposition is not all it should be; she wants what she wants when she wants it and she is prone to make every one around her pretty miserable when she doesn’t get it—but in the true sense she is not spoiled. Her fresh enthusiasm, her will to grow and learn, her endless faith in the inexhaustibility of romance, her courage and fundamental honesty—these things are not spoiled.

There are long periods when she cordially loathes her whole family. She is quite unprincipled; her philosophy is carpe diem for herself and laissez faire for others. She loves shocking stories: she has that coarse streak that usually goes with natures that are both fine and big. She wants people to like her, but if they do not it never worries her or changes her.

She is by no means a model character.

The education of all beautiful women is the knowledge of men. Rosalind has been disappointed in man after man as individuals, but she had great faith in man as a sex. Women she detested. They represented qualities that she felt and despised in herself—incipient meanness, conceit, cowardice, and petty dishonesty. She once told a roomful of her mother’s friends that the only excuse for women was the necessity for a disturbing element among men. She danced exceptionally well, drew cleverly but hastily, and had a startling facility with words, which she used only in love-letters.

The foreword to the 1996 edition of This Side of Paradise said that Fitzgerald was criticized for “the novel’s lack of polish, its dreadful spelling and frequent gaffs in word-choice,” which would ultimately prevent the book from reaching “the permanent heights of acclaim attained by his later works.” Despite all that, the book still got “outstanding reviews and sold spectacularly.” Why? Because Fitzgerald built his story around interesting characters who were dealing with tangible conflicts.

Sample Study: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby is one of the most celebrated novels of all time, and it is all about characters in conflict.

Here’s how Fitzgerald introduces Tom Buchanan, a character who must be entirely believable in order for us to accept the story’s ending:

And so it happened that on a warm windy evening I drove over to East Egg to see two old friends whom I scarcely knew at all. Their house was even more elaborate than I expected, a cheerful red-and-white Georgian Colonial mansion, overlooking the bay. The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walls and burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run. The front was broken by a line of French windows, glowing now with reflected gold and wide open to the warm windy afternoon, and Tom Buchanan in riding clothes was standing with his legs apart on the front porch.

He had changed since his New Haven [Yale] years. Now he was a sturdy straw-haired man of thirty with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner. Two shining arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward. Not even the effeminate swank of his riding clothes could hide the enormous power of that body—he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing, and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage—a cruel body.

Gatsby became a classic not because the Jazz Age is an interesting time in history or because it gives us a glimpse into the life of the extremely wealthy. It became a classic because Fitzgerald nails “characters in conflict.”

Help in Creating Characters

I’ve mentioned before that one of Rowling’s greatest strengths as a writer is her ability to create lifelike characters (Stephen King called her the current champ of backstory). I’ve included a chart below that I stumbled across on the Internet. It lists the different personality types of the Harry Potter characterslook at all that conflict!

For those of us who struggle with character development, I recommend Please Understand Me II by David Keirsey. It was my 2013 number one pick for best writing books. It’s actually a psychology textbook that analyzes the sixteen different types of personalities and discusses everything from self-image to parenting styles.

Harry Potter Myers-Briggs Chart