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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Writer's Guide to Harry Potter By Susan Sipal

Harry Potter. The very name conjures up images of magic and books, movies and fans, and the extraordinary midnight release parties that looked more like mega rock concerts than a mere book release.

JK Rowling. For fellow writers, this name brews up visions of wealth and prestige. Of an author so high in the publishing stratosphere that she can eschew review copies and demand security so tight for her pre-release books that stores must sign secrecy oaths in blood in order to stock her latest release on their shelves.

The popularity of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series reached monumental heights of popularity, which were never before considered possible for a novel, let alone a children’s story. With the release of the final book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in the summer of 2007, 8.3 million copies were sold in the first 24 hours in the US alone. The series as a whole, throughout the world, has sold a total of over 400 million copies and been translated into 67 languages. Think of where just a small smidgen of this magic “Floo Powder” could carry many of us more mortal authors in our own writing careers.

But, it’s all hype, isn’t it? Though many an envious writer would like to think Ms. Rowling’s secret to success is just a bunch of magical mayhem, we do ourselves a disservice by focusing on her writing imperfections and not appreciating—and more importantly learning from—the skills which have made her Harry Potter series more than beloved, but truly an absolute obsession among millions.

While I understand the desire to take apart and criticize a popular-selling work, and indeed there is much to learn from understanding the mistakes of others, I think that the greater learning experience is to understand the craft techniques that made any NYT bestselling author what she is today. After all, millions of people on various continents and across time zones do not plunk down their hard-earned cash solely because of hype. SOMETHING must ring true, emotionally true, to a wide band of readers in order to create this hype in the first place. And I believe that this something can be learned. All we have to do is delve into the pages of the bestseller with a writer's practiced eye and discover the techniques that we can then incorporate into our own work in our own way.

Writers learn first through imitation before practice and experience paves the way to developing our own unique voice. Since antiquity, apprentices have studied by the side of their mentors. Just as Harry Potter learns the power behind the magic from the greatest wizard in a hundred years, Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, so too can writers worldwide learn the power behind their words, to tell their own stories, by studying the craft of the headmistress of bestselling fiction, JK Rowling.

The evidence is all there, in black and white, on the pages of the books so dog-eared and well read by millions. And yet, the first Bloomsbury print-run, back in 1997 for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was only 500. Yes, 500 copies. Obviously the now beloved Harry Potter series did not burst through the opening gate by way of a high-level marketing campaign and push from the publisher. JK Rowling gained her success the old-fashioned way—word of mouth.

Word of mouth comes from crafting a story so engaging that satisfied readers rush to tell everyone they know to immediately go out and purchase the book for themselves in order to share the same wonderful, emotional rush they just enjoyed. Word of mouth is born of the words on the page. With Harry Potter, I believe that there are three fundamental aspects that drove these fans to share with their friends from the very beginning--characterization, world building, and mystery.

First, JKR breathes to life a motley assortment of quirky people with varied emotions and viewpoints--such as a half-giant gamekeeper who drinks too much and greasy-haired, nasty old professor that hangs out in dungeons and antagonizes Harry. She sets these fun and engaging witches and wizards into motion against the backdrop of an extremely large, delightfully depicted world, so rich with details that we want to eat their cockroach clusters and visit their Leaky Cauldron. And then, to tie the whole series together, and keep the reader forever looking forward, she envelopes each story in an ongoing mystery, one that takes place both on the superficial level and as a massive iceberg below text. She enticed her fans, engaging their minds as well as their imaginations, to scour old myths and legends in search for clues that would guide them to who was the next to die, or what had really happened in Godric's Hollow. In all ways, she gave the reader more than they were expecting.

Indeed the greatest asset, I believe, that JKR had as an author was her reader involvement. From online searches for clues, to sharing their latest theories on forums, to fanfiction, wizard rock, and fansites, her fans were (and still are) completely immersed in her world. They felt compelled to continue living the wizard experience even after they'd put the books down. This level of reader enthusiasm is the result of a technique JK Rowling excels at—reader involvement. Indeed, this engagement of the reader by giving them more than anticipated, in my POV, is the ultimate secret to JKR's success.

Yes, there are many aspects JKR didn't do quite right. She may have used too many adverbs. She probably didn't think through all the ramifications of all the magic she created. And towards the end, she seemed to have bitten off a bit more than she could chew by leaving a few too many loose-ends untied. You can indeed go through her books and find countless problems that many writers love to jump on. But for me, this imperfection is vastly reassuring. That a book with flaws can sell so astoundingly well lets me know that my work doesn't have to achieve absolute perfection to sell a more modest amount.

What any book must have, however, is power. Some aspect must be so strong that it engages the reader and inspires them to tell their friends. It is my goal in A Writer's Guide to Harry Potter to nudge us all toward this empowering process in analyzing our own work. By dissecting JKR's series, and learning what we can from it, we hope to improve our stories in such a way that will engage and inspire our readers. Through twelve lessons, we will analyze how to not only keep your reader reading, but to draw them so deeply into your text, your world, that they become full participants in discovering and unlocking the mysteries and experiences you have created.

And then, go tell their friends!


Published in fiction and non-fiction through essays, short stories and a novel, S.P. Sipal is a professional writer who also happens to be a Harry Potter fanatic. She has worked seven years in the industry as a writer, editor, and marketing director and has presented multiple workshops, both at home and abroad, either to help writers develop their craft or to analyze the mysteries of Harry Potter. Her most recent release was “Grandma’s Cupboards” in On Grandma’s Porch from BelleBooks.


Karin Shah said...

I adore Harry Potter. I've read through the series so many times I've lost count. When I finish, I walk around in a daze, still immersed in her world, still wanting more.

Nice post! I agree, her characterization and world building are fantastic.

Karin Shah
In print now!
An undercover agent, a beautiful space pirate, with the fate of t he galaxy at risk, love may not be enough...

SP SIPAL said...

Thanks Karin! Your experience is akin to so many readers. They just want to stay in her world, it's so real and fun. Can't wait until her encyclopedia comes out!

Neringa said...

Plotting, great characterization and a tightly knit world, yes, oh, yes, but she presents it to a world of readers who are linked by her very strong visual writing... great post. Thnks for sharing those incredible insights.

Astrid said...

Sounds great! Can't wait. Your last class was so good.

SP SIPAL said...

Neringa - you're absolutely right. Her level of detail in bringing her world to life for the reader is amazing. She always gives her descriptions an extra zing. One of my favorites of these is the gnome "angel" on top of the Christmas tree at the Weasleys. Great vivid description that ends with, "and rather hairy feet." That little extra zing!

Astrid -- thanks so much!

Keena Kincaid said...

I agree, Susan. JK's characterization is amazing.

Another key to Harry Potter's success, in my opinion, it fulfills the childhood fantasy of discovering we really are a long-lost princess of a forgotten kingdom, and we are desperately needed there. For Harry--and Hermione--that wish was fulfilled.

SP SIPAL said...

You're right Keena. And maybe that's one reason why it had to be Hermione and Ron and not Harry and Hermione. Ron really had to come into his own and out from under his brothers' and Harry's shadows. And Hermione, as we saw with the Horcrux, was a big part of that.