Saturday, July 31, 2010

Happy Potter Day!

Happy Birthday JK Rowling and Harry Potter!

If you haven't already, please check out our Birthday Contest a couple of posts below.

To celebrate the life of JK Rowling, and the richness of imagination she has shared with us, I've posted below a few quotes from her that focus on writing and her inspiration. Enjoy!

  • (On whether she has unpublished works): Yes, quite a lot, though none of it is published (which is no loss, I assure you). The first things I wrote were the Rabbit stories, which were about a rabbit called Rabbit. I wrote them between the ages of six and eight. Then when I was eleven I wrote a novel about seven cursed diamonds and the people who owned them. Since then I’ve written loads: short stories, bits of novels for adults, all kinds of things.

  • The five years I spent on HP and the Philosopher's Stone were spent constructing The Rules. I had to lay down all my parameters. The most important thing to decide when you're creating a fantasy world is what the characters CAN'T do. - Southwest News Interview, July 8, 2000

  • It took me a long, hard five years to complete The Philosopher's Stone. The reason so much time slipped by was because, from that very first idea, I envisaged a series of seven books - each one charting a year of Harry's life whilst he is a student at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. And I wanted to fully sketch the plots of all the stories and get the essential characteristics of my principal characters before I actually started writing the books in detail. - Interview, November 3, 2001

  • Whenever Jessica fell asleep in her pushchair I would dash to the nearest cafe 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.

  • Only once have I sat down, written something end to end, and let it stand. That was the chapter in Philosopher's Stone when Harry learns to fly. - BBC Interview, Fall 2000

  • There were many different versions of the first chapter of 'Philosopher's Stone' and the one I finally settled on is not the most popular thing I've ever written; lots of people have told me they found it hard work compared with the rest of the book. The trouble with that chapter was (as so often in a Harry Potter book) I had to give a lot of information yet conceal even more. There were various versions of scenes in which you actually saw Voldemort entering Godric's Hollow and killing the Potters and in early drafts of these, a Muggle betrayed their whereabouts. As the story evolved, however, and Pettigrew became the traitor, this horrible Muggle vanished.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Sleight of Hand

Over the course of seven books, JKR plotted a complex mystery embedded in the frame of a fantasy adventure. Ms. Rowling expected a lot from her readers, and she got it. She expected an active participant to pick up on her clues and to follow their trail. What she got was a world full of HP readers who not only jumped in enthusiastically to sleuth out the clues, but also delighted in stringing them together to plaster the Internet with theories of what was yet to come.

There are three central questions to the Harry Potter mania which drove the search for clues:

1) What exactly happened in Godric’s Hollow?
2) Where did Snape’s loyalty lay? and
3) How would Harry defeat Voldemort?

JKR's mystery-plotting style rests heavily on that old reliable magician’s trick: sleight of hand.

Misdirection is perhaps the most important component of the art of sleight of hand. Using misdirection, the skillful magician choreographs every movement in a routine so even the most critical and observant spectators are compelled to look where the magician wants them to. (source)

While laying her most important clues, JKR diverts the readers’ attention away from the clue and to her carefully plotted distraction. There are various methods she employs for this diversion, including some aspects that are not necessarily sleight of hand.

A Dozen+ Golden Eggs for Tricking Your Reader:

1) give meaningful names
2) use of "running bits" here and here
3) divert with action or a joke
4) distract with high emotions
5) camouflage by use of myths and folklore
6) hide in a list
7) discredit the witness
8) drop in dreams
9) mark with colors and themes
10) mirror parallels
11) reverse expectations
12) juxtapose the villain with the scene of the crime
13) character lies or misperceptions

Play fair with your reader. You must leave clues.

Plotting a mystery is a very fine balancing act. If the author leaves insufficient clues to give the reader a shot at solving the puzzle, the reader feels cheated. However if the author makes the clues too obvious, the reader also feels cheated out of the pleasant surprised “gotcha” at the end. The evidence is overwhelming that JKR has walked that tightrope gracefully and masterfully and has not cheated her readers, but left them with many hours of happy sleuthing, and definite pleasant surprises.

We'll break apart each of these steps in separate posts over the next few months. I will not do them back-to-back, but will label them all under "Mystery Plotting" and "Clues" so you can follow the thread.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Celebrate Harry Potter's and JK Rowling's Birthday Contest!

Harry Potter and his masterful creator, JK Rowling, both celebrate their birthday this Saturday, July 31. To honor (or hallow :-) this event, I am announcing my first contest for the Harry Potter for Writers blog!

With prizes! Three of them!!!!
That's right. Not one, but three winners!
  1. A copy of Wizarding World Press' Ultimate Unofficial Guide to the Mysteries of Harry Potter. This book caused a sensation in Harry Potter fandom when it was released, and still is highly sought after today. Not only will HP fans thrill to discover all the clues JKR slyly wove into her text, but writers can learn a lot from this book by dissecting JKR's craft.
  2. An electronic copy of one of my chapters from A Writer's Guide to Harry Potter, "Revealing Wormtail: or How to Bait a Rattrap." This lesson is 56 pages of detailed analysis, with examples, of JKR's adept mystery plotting. It enables the writer to learn new methods to plot their own trail-of-clues mystery, weaving subtle clues and red herrings into the subtext.
  3. A one-chapter (25 page) critique of your own manuscript. Not only have I published editorials, short stories, and a novel over the last several years, I have also worked in the publishing industry as an editor and marketing consultant for smaller presses. Send me your first chapter from your WIP, and I will provide detailed feedback on what I think is working, and where I feel you need improvement.

So, the nitty do you enter? Follow TWO of these simple steps:

  1. Follow me on Twitter: @HP4Writers
  2. RT my contest announcement on Twitter. For your convenience, I've placed it here as well.
    RT @HP4Writers #HappyBirthdayHarry CONTEST!: Win 1 of 3 prizes for fans of Harry Potter & writers. Rules here: #HP4Writers

    OR, if you do not have a Twitter account:
  3. Post a comment here on my blog, on the comment thread below or any of the other articles, and
  4. Follow my blog!

  • I will choose three winners from those who complete either the first two or last two tasks above. Double your chances by doing all four!
  • The first winner gets first choice of the prizes, the second chooses from the two prizes remaining, and the third the prize that is left.
  • Anyone local and overseas my enter, but I will only ship the Ultimate Unofficial Guide book to a US address.
  • Please post any questions you have about the contest on the comment thread below.
  • The winners will be chosen at 9:00 am EST on Sunday, August 1, 2010 and will be notified through their e-mail or Twitter account.

That's it! Have at it. Spread the word. Enter now!

And Happy Birthday Jo Rowling and Harry Potter!

PS: Happy Birthday to my dad, who also celebrates his B-Day this Sat!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Text Analysis - The Sneak

So, here's a fun game I like to occasionally play. I pick up a Harry Potter book from the many on my shelf, flip it open to a random page, and break apart what's happening in a particular section ... what's working, and, sometimes, what's not.

For today's game, I opened Order of the Phoenix (Bloomsbury edition) to Chapter 16, "In The Hog's Head," page 309, where the group that will soon become known as Dumbledore's Army is meeting for the first time.  They are all rather nervous, what with Umbridge's crackdown at school, meeting in a dodgy place, and a nearby heavily veiled witch whom Harry fears may be Umbridge.  The atmosphere is set for a risky venture and Hermione is about to provide a critical clue.

She rummaged in her bag and produced parchment and a quill, then hesitated, rather as though she was steeling herself to say something.

'I - I think everybody should write their name down, just so we know who was here. But I also think,' she took a deep breath, "that we all ought to agree not to shout about what we're doing. So if you sign, you're agreeing not to tell Umbridge or anybody else what we're up to.'

Bolds and italics are my addition.

In this short passage, JKR laid a critical clue that there would be a traitor within Dumbledore's Army and how Hermione would reveal her.  Of course, in hindsight, we all know that this is the parchment Hermione had placed a binding oath upon, which later pox-marked Cho's traitorous friend. None of that is obvious here.  However, with subtle wording, JKR played fair with her reader that something was afoot, giving three words/phrases showing Hermione's reluctance for asking people to simply sign a roster. Hermione even warned the students, and thus the reader, that they were signing an agreement--she just never said it was bewitched.

Another hint of what is to come lies a few paragraphs further into the text.  JKR diverts her reader with Ernie Macmillan's reluctance to sign.:

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Zooming in on Your World

In the last post, The Wide-Angle View of World Building, we looked at how JKR used a wide-angle lens to provide the feel of a fully bustling world for her reader. Now let's look closer at the rich texture she provides through a zoom lens.

JKR filled her world with such minute details, and loads of them, that her critics claimed it was over done. But consider her primary market--kids eat this stuff up, quite literally:

• Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans
• Drooble's Best Blowing Gum
• Chocolate Frogs
• Cauldron Cakes
• Licorice Wands
• Pepper Imps
• Sugar Quills
• Blood Flavored Lollipops
• Cockroach Clusters
• Fudge Flies
• Butterbeer
• Gillywater
• Ogden’s Old Firewhiskey
• Pumpkin Pasties
• Jelly Slugs
• Acid Pops
• Hagrid’s Treacle Fudge
• Magotty Haggis (served at the Deathday Party)

This is a short list, just to give you the idea of the minute and interesting detail she puts into every ounce of her worldbuilding. Notice not only does she pay attention to the foods that her characters eat, but she made her confections fun and appealing to her age group.  I mean, who couldn't love a cockroach cluster?

Here's another list for a slightly different focus:

• Advanced Potion-Making by Libatius Borage (includes the Draught of Living Death)
• An Appraisal of Magical Education in Europe
• The Beaters' Bible by Brutus Scrimgeour (wonder if he’s related to Rufus Scrimgeour)
• Broken Balls: When Fortunes Turn Foul
• Curses and Counter-curses (Bewitch Your Friends and Befuddle Your Enemies with the Latest Revenges: Hair Loss, Jelly-Legs, Tongue-Tying, and Much, Much More) by Professor Vindictus Viridian
• The Dark Forces: A Guide to Self-Protection by Quentin Trimble
• Death Omens: What To Do When You Know The Worst Is Coming
• The Dream Oracle by Inigo Imago
• Guide to Advanced Transfiguration
• Hairy Snout, Human Heart
• A History of Magic by Bathilda Bagshot
• Hogwarts: A History (a major treasure troves of information)
• Magical Water Plants of the Mediterranean (talks about Gillyweed)
• Magick Most Evile (mentions the Horcrux)
• The Monster Book of Monsters
• Moste Potente Potions (includes the Polyjuice Potion)
• Nature's Nobility: A Wizarding Genealogy
• Olde and Forgotten Bewitchments and Charmes
• Prefects Who Gained Power
• Quintessence: A Quest (a clue to the series' theme)
• The Rise and Fall of the Dark Arts
• Unfogging the Future by Cassandra Vablatsky

What is really cool about this list of books, beyond the fact that I'd like to buy them all, is that most of them are not just throw-away detail, but contain clues toward the series. Indeed, most of her details add something beyond mere description, whether hiding or highlighting a clue, or providing information on the backstory of the characters and setting. Very little of her zoom details are thrown in just as fluff.

The details you will add to your story will vary greatly by genre and target audience. A mystery should be filled with clues or red herrings. A romance will be packed with hints of the developing love between characters, with their backstory packing emotional luggage. A thriller or suspense should have details that hike the tension and darken the feel.  But make each one serve double-duty, not just to lay building blocks for your world, but to also build character, hide clues, highlight themes, and hint at the plot to come.

What fun worldbuilding details have you layered into your world? And what purpose do they serve beyond mere window dressing?

Also Recommended:

See TS Tate's World Building and a Cure for the Block.  She gives excellent examples of how JKR uses sensory details to build her world!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Wide-Angle View of World Building

Most readers cite JKR's world-building as the lure that drew them into the Harry Potter series to begin with. JKR riddled the text with so much fabulously imaginative, fun, and complete detail that readers fully believed, for the few hours they were engrossed in the books, that they were indeed living in a world among wizards and witches, goblins and house-elves, giants and ghosts, and basilisks and hippogriffs.

JKR uses many layers to create her world. Her rich details come into focus through both a wide-angle and zoom lens. The reader experiences these angles simultaneously, but in this post, we'll look at the wide.

I find it highly significant that Harry’s introduction to the Wizarding World was not at Hogwarts but at Diagon Alley. Think about it--JKR could have had Harry’s books and supplies provided by the school once he arrived. But she wanted Harry, and the reader, to experience from the start that the Special World Harry was entering was full and complete and only diagonally set apart from our own.

At Diagon Alley, in that first visit with Hagrid, Harry encounters:

  • The Leaky Cauldron, Tom the barman, all the customers who are thrilled to finally meet him ... Doris Crockford several times

  • Gringotts, the wizarding world bank, where he meets goblins and hurtles hundreds of miles below London on a wild amusement park ride, past an underground lake and dragons, to his own vault of gold

  • A snotty rich kid trying on robes at Madam Malkin’s who asks if his parents were “our kind”

  • Flourish and Blotts, the Apothecary, and Eeylops Owl Emporium as he acquires his books, quills, parchment, a cauldron, potion supplies, and a birthday gift from Hagrid--Hedwig

  • Ollivanders, where his wand chooses him and he learns the special connection he has, through his wand’s phoenix core, to He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named
All of that in one chapter. As the book and the series progress, Harry's Special World, like Perkins’ tent or the trunk of the Ford Anglia, magically enlarges even more. Throughout the series, the reader experiences: Setting -- (Muggle Equivalent) Hogsmeade -- (an entirely magical village)
St. Mungo’s -- (Hospital)
Ministry of Magic -- (Government)
Department of Mysteries -- (Research Facility)
Beauxbatons and Durmstrang -- (Foreign Schools)
Azkaban -- (Prison)
The Burrow -- (the Weasley home)
Grimmauld Place -- (Sirius Black’s home and Order headquarters)
Godric’s Hollow -- (Lily and James’ home village)
Quidditch World Cup -- (The World Soccer Cup)
The Daily Prophet -- (Newspaper)
The Quibbler -- (like the National Enquirer)
Little Hangleton -- (Riddle and Gaunt hometown)
Tom Riddle’s orphanage -- (Riddle’s “home”)
Tom Riddle’s cave -- (Riddle’s hiding place)
Slughorn’s home -- (Muggle dwelling)
Malfoy Manor -- (Rich "gated" mansion)

This list is by no means exhaustive. The reader, and Harry, experience a vibrant world thriving and performing on a daily basis. A world full of people who are going to be affected by Harry’s choices. Some of these people would live or die as a direct result of Harry’s actions.  And if the reader is going to be affected by their fate later on, they need to experience them and their world personally beforehand.

Have you fully realized the world your hero or heroine inhabits? Have you built the bank, the prison, the government, the newspapers, the books, the schools, the playgrounds, the hospitals, the homes, the shops ... even if your reader may not ever go there? A variety of settings not only provides the feel of a fully developed world, but helps prevent the reader from getting bored.

What other wide-angle settings from Harry Potter can you remember?

Be sure to check out JKR's Zoom Angle of Worldbuilding as well.

** Credit to Neville at for the Diagon Alley picture.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Gathering Your Wits

Remember back in high school literature class when your teacher would point out all the analogies, metaphors, themes, and innuendo in the classics you were forced to read? If you were like me, you probably rolled your eyes and asked how she could be sure the writer intended all that crap.

I've presented my workshop, A Writer's Guide to Harry Potter, numerous times at both writer and fan conferences, and invariably I get this question from one of the participants. My answer is always "yes," ... probably.

Of course, fans and analysts can get carried away and see subtext where JKR did not intend. But the fact is that Ms. Rowling deliberately played a game with her readers, planting clues and real-life analogies for her witted fans. She's openly acknowledged this in interviews. "I want you to be able to guess if you’ve got your wits about you."

Where we fanatics tend to get off track and see more than is intended by JKR is truly due to the author's own masterly craft. JKR dipped her quill into a very deep mythological well, one from which many other storytellers throughout time have dipped into also. Thus, it's only natural that alert readers can weave a web of connections between all these foretold stories and JKR's Potter, even if the author did not intend the links herself.

Account Beside You

Friday, July 16, 2010

Welcome and Mission

Welcome to my place on the web where writers can gather to discuss all things Harry Potter as it relates to writing. I hope you will take out your potions homework, pull up a chair by the fire, and join in our common room discussion.

I'm a long-time fan and analyst of the Harry Potter series and have written several articles over the years dissecting the mythological mysteries and writing secrets that underpin this great saga. I've spoken at many writer and fan conferences and taught online to help readers and writers better understand and appreciate this storytelling phenomenon beyond the page.

My goal through this blog is to post short, targeted pieces analyzing JKR's style and technique which made her series so successful. My hope is that all writers, whether fanfiction or traditional, YA or adult, science fiction/fantasy, mystery, romance, or mainstream, can gather something from our collective insight to help improve and deepen our own work.

I do not desire to create little Harry Potter clones. Learning from the master, or in this case the mistress, is a long-standing, respected tradition of any craft. What the apprentice does with his newfound abilities, when mixed with his or her own voice and interests, can be fresh, creative, and magical.

So, let's all get fresh! And may the magic begin.