Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Labor Pains in the Birth of a Phenomenon -- And Why It Should Give You Hope

We recently concluded a series of posts analyzing what JK Rowling did "write" in her first chapter that launched her series to such high flights of success. However, I now want to take a stroll through the Dark Side.

Fans reading the Harry Potter series, even those deeply passionate about the books, will occasionally notice something that doesn't quite make sense to them. It seems JKR didn't plot her timeline with the pinpoint accuracy (er, obsession) as some of her fans, or indeed The Harry Potter Lexicon. And her memory wasn't perfect.  Londoners got confused when reading about Harry's passage through Platform 9 3/4 because when she wrote King's Cross station, she was actually envisioning the station at Euston.  Fans will squabble over details in the first chapter such as how the Potter home was destroyed when Avada Kedavra is not supposed to leave a mark, or why Dumbledore suggested that McGonagall refer to He-Who-Should-Not-Be-Named with his proper name of Voldemort rather than Tom Riddle. But, as writers, we know that these continuity errors are incredibly hard to keep track of within one book, let alone a series of seven massive tomes that have not all been written when the first are coming out.

As a writer, the "mistakes" I'm most interested in analyzing from JKR concern not her continuity errors, or even some of the larger picture elements, such as whether it makes sense for this band of young kids to get past a labyrinth of booby traps supposedly concocted by the most powerful wizards of the day. What I want to examine are JKR's techniques...especially those methods we've been told are taboo from the writing authorities.

In my recent examination of the First Chapter Series of Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone, I noticed quite a few techniques I've been taught not to indulge in. Let's face it, like her boy Harry, JK Rowling broke a couple, or more, rules:

1) Death to Prologues:

Yes, chapter one of book one is basically a prologue. "The Boy Who Lived" takes place ten years before the story and serves to establish setting and backstory. Prologue, right?

How many of us have heard from The Authorities not to write prologues, that editors and agents wince when they see them, and then usually skip them or reject on that point alone. And here is the phenomenal bestselling author starting out with one. I suspect very strongly that early on in The Boy Who Lived's life, this chapter one was named "Prologue," and that it got rechristened when some wise writing friend, agent, or editor alerted JKR to the mistake which she had made.

But, this prologue works. And it works for her because the reader needs this dip into the magical world and this hint of the mysteries to come before delving fully into the 11-year-old's life in the cupboard under the stairs.

2) Omniscient Point of View (POV):

Not only does JKR not start the story in her hero's POV, she doesn't start in anyone's POV.  She begins her tale in narrator omniscient, which occasionally dips into Vernon Dursley's POV, but never remains there. This storytelling presentation gives the beginning a certain traditional fairy-tale flavor which is familiar to children. What it lacks, though,is a deeply personal emotional investment in the main character. The emotional attachment that she does achieve in this first chapter is through the opinions and reactions of others -- namely McGonagall, Dumbledore, and Hagrid -- who obviously care deeply about this child and discuss how his life has affected the far greater wizarding community. (Check out previous post for more on characterization).

In fact, I would argue that her choice of POV is the main flaw in JKR's technique which affected me the most throughout the series. While JKR quickly switched into Harry's POV, and for the most part stayed there, she never fully achieved what is now termed a "deep POV," though she did approach it in later books.

Deep POV is the craft of writing so deeply in your character's point of view that it is as if the reader experiences the story entirely in his head, through his eyes and ears, and privy to his internal dialogue. It's like writing in first person with the use of third person pronouns.

However, deep POV has some drawbacks. By using it, some writers tend to get very angsty and dwell too much in long passages of internal monologue. JKR avoids all that, and though she definitely shows things from Harry's perspective, she incorporates much more action and dialogue than relying on internal rationalizations and justifications.

3) Those Peskipiksi Pesternomi Adverbs:

I'll be honest with you, JKR's detractors have written much more on her overuse of adverbs than I care to analyze here. She used them. Sometimes they were effective. Sometimes there were better methods that she could have utilized to say the same thing. Her career obvious-ly didn't suffer too much because of it. (Read ThatGirlAni's post for a better explanation on adverbs in general).

4) Harrys and Hagrids and Hogwarts, Oh My!:

One of the first lessons I learned as a newbie novelist was to not start all my character names with the same letter. Too confusing to the reader. When I discovered this "aha" moment, I was forced to go through and change nearly half of my characters' names, who for some reason had all popped into my head with the letter "B."

Then I read Harry Potter and met Harry and Hagrid and Hermione, who went to Hogwarts near Hogsmeade and had friends in Hufflepuff!

I guess JKR so successfully characterized each of these people and places that no confusion was drawn. Plus, we have to consider, that with the humongaloid cast JKR crafted, overlapping of beginning-letter-names was inevitable.

5) Exclamation Points!!!!!!!!!

I'm sure all of you if you've passed anything you've ever written by even one contest judge have heard the mandate not to use exclamation marks! In fact, I've heard some editors say they allow one per book!!! And JK Rowling, in this first chapter (Bloomsbury edition), uses at least 17!!!! Three in one paragraph alone!!!! I admit, there could have been more, but my eyes crossed trying to count them!!!!!!

Our carefully chosen words are supposed to convey our character's excitement without the unnecessary reliance on punctuation. JKR, at least early on, used both. :-)

6) First Paragraph Blues:

Finally, there's the problem of that very first paragraph. You know, the one our whole writing career will either soar to new Quidditch height or perish in the depths of the Black Lake over?:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense.

There's no action!
There's no dialogue!
There's no showing, only telling!
There's no anchor to one character's POV!
There's no inciting incident!

There's only description, telling description at that.

How in the world did this get picked up by an agent, then bought by an editor, and let loose in the competitive wilds of the bookstore where first sentences, first paragraphs must grab each reader by their eyeballs and drag them into the story?

Yes, there's a certain tone and flair, but as discussed before, it's old-fashioned narrative.

So why did this work?

My opinion -- because JK Rowling talked directly to the reader in a beguiling tone that hinted at a mysterious story to come where those who did not consider themselves normal would be welcomed.

Kids loved that. Especially kids who did not consider themselves normal. Which is, what, 110%? :-)

Plus, the first chapter was then backed up with everything we've discussed in this First Chapter Series that did indeed work.

That's it! That's all you need. Something to lure the reader in and make them read your next sentence...and then the next. You CAN break rules while doing this, and you can do so very effectively. It might help, however, to know the rules you're breaking and do them so well that you don't come across as just ignorant.

And what's most important is that you have to do something extremely well. Readers are forgiving as long as you've crafted something very, very right. JKR knocked her readers out of the Quidditch stadium from the beginning with characterization and worldbuilding. She then followed this up with her impeccably timed bludgers of mystery plotting and reader engagement. Her readers' eyes were bewitched to gloss over a few too many adverbs here or there or the occasional continuity error.  Indeed, they had fun picking them out and being the first to announce them online!

Personally, I find it reassuring that while JKR did many things that worked in her first chapter, she also made "mistakes." It tells me that as a writer, I don't have to be perfect. The reader can be much more forgiving than some contest judges, critiquers, agents and editors.

However, what we must not fail at is bewitching the reader. We must bring them through our Platform 9 3/4 into our engaging story, even if the location is somewhat disputed.  And to do that, we must do something, preferably more than one thing, very, very right! (exclamation point :-)

Question: What mistake have you made in a recent story? And how far did it go before you caught it?

This post is part of the First Chapter series, which is now collected on the Kindle for ease of reading as The Boy Who Lived Comes to Life.


  1. Oops! Caught a mistake, or two, after I hit publish.

    In the bit on exclamation points, it should have said "3 in one paragraph," rather than "3 in one chapter." It has now been corrected.

    At least I know I'm in good company. :-)

  2. It's interesting that now that I'm working on my fifth book I often catch myself on not making mistakes that I used to make in the past. It's very reassuring because it means that my writing technique has improved and that I've learnt from judges, editors and my own mistakes. But I must admit that I'm guilty of all those mistakes mentioned above, especially № 3, 4, 5.

  3. I was wondering: are these posts the things that you wrote in your book as well? In that case there's no need to buy the book, is there? xD

    No seriously: when will your book be available in paper? Do you know it already?

    Oh btw, great video in that other post. Pottermore looks awesome!

  4. Farida -- I'm guilty of all, plus more, as well. But that's how we learn -- by writing, by reading, by critiquing others, and by studying the craft of those who've made it. So much of what I struggled with when I began is second nature to me now! :-)

  5. Jeremy -- While some of the posts on this blog did come from my workshop book, most did not, and definitely not this latest series on the 1st chapter. Most of that workshop book just does not translate well into shorter blog posts. Though the type of analysis is definitely the same. In the book, though, I'm able to structure and focus the analysis from point A to B more in-depth and without so much hopping around as I do here.

    And not sure of the paperback. It's in the works, but no sure date set yet. Will update as soon as I know.

    Pottermore does look awesome and we're supposed to get another preview tomorrow. I'll update with a new post with all the latest as soon as it is announced! :-)

  6. I heard an editor say once that the "Harry Potter Defense" is not allowed when we as budding authors try to use any of the points you touched on. My English major daughter is re-reading all 7 books before the last movie comes out and she is constantly complaining about the adverbial tags.

  7. You're right, Leslie. We should definitely not use JKR as an excuse for any of our writing mistakes. Just like writers can't use some other NYT bestselling authors I shall not name as an excuse to head-hop. If we recognize a problem, we should always seek to fix them.

    What I'm trying to hit at are problems we might not recognize we have, or rules we choose to break consciously and with a great purpose. Philosopher's Stone succeeded when JKR was nobody. If we have something as awesome, even with a few "mistakes," hopefully, we can succeed as well. But something must be awesome!

    And you know, as a reader, I never noticed JKR's adverbial tags. :-)

    Thanks for commenting

  8. HP is a masterpiece and all masterpieces have flaws, which to me, enhance their beauty. As a reader of HP, I was consumed by the story, and as a writer, that's what I would want to hear.

    (I'm glad to note she had trouble keeping all details straight. As I'm writing, I look back in my notes or MS to keep timelines on track or details consistent and think, "As the writer, shouldn't I remember???")

  9. I love how you put that, Barbara! Some masterpieces are more valued for their unique flaws. And yes, it's good to know that the divine Rowling is indeed human. :-)

  10. Just today I introduced a peripheral character named Felicia, which I changed to Felicity half way through, LOL.

  11. I like Felicity! Hope she works out well for you. :-)

  12. I can find excuses for almost all of them, except the dreaded adverbs. BUt you can tell that she gets better from book to book. Your "H" tongue twister had me laughing!

  13. Thanks Lisa. And I quite agree -- her craft improved considerably as the series progressed.

  14. Glad to hear someone else talk about all the rules that Rowling broke, yet point out that her stories were still excellent. I've talked about the same thing on my blog too, but you did a much better job explaining it than I ever could.

    I've spent the last couple of years teaching myself how to write fiction and I constantly run into the problem of whether I should write using Rowling's rules or the rules I see on many of the writing blog sites.

  15. Hi Ken, welcome to the blog, and thanks for your comments. I see we share a similar interest. :-)

    I knew a writer who used to say in a Yoda voice, "There are no rules. Only works or doesn't work."

    What Rowling did worked for her. Our challenge is to learn from others to determine what works for us. :-)


    It makes me feel so much better working on my first manuscript. :)

    I have a bad habit of using crutch words. Especially verbs. Push, pull, look, watch, walk. Boring. But that's what editing is for!

  17. Hi Elizabeth Ann. Welcome to the blog and thanks for your comment!

    My crutch words include turned, stepped, shrugged, smiled, just, and way too many others to name. I've set up a list of all the lovelies and do a Word search to hunt and kill. :-)

  18. really loved this..............