Friday, December 31, 2010

Looking Back

I started this blog in July 2010. Five months later, I'm so happy that I did. I've met a lot of wonderful people both here and through my supporting Twitfeed at @HP4Writers. But there's been a learning curve involved and I'm realizing that I need a game-plan for when life is hectic and its harder to put together a post that requires a lot of time and thought, which most of my analytical posts require.

For the upcoming year, one of my goals is to host more guest bloggers. Jo Hart, of The Graceful Doe, did a great job with her post on What Harry Potter has Taught Me About Writing, and I'd love to have more writers who have learned from JKR contribute in a similar manner.

One thing I find interesting as I look back over the last few months, is which post has been the most viewed. I hate to say "favorite" because I'm not sure that just because it's drawn the most traffic means that it's the one readers like the best. It could just be a matter of search terms. But according to the blogger stats, my top post is All The Kreacher's Men. Sure hasn't drawn the most comments, though. That honor is a 3-way tie split between:

Other top-visited posts are:

2) Dumbledore's Theme Song

3) That Deathly Hallows Symbol, and

4) Best of JK Rowling on Oprah

In fact, I greatly enjoyed the live TweetParty I hosted with other JK Rowling fans during the broadcast of her appearance on Oprah, and hope to do other live events in the future when breaking news occurs.

Interestingly, one of my posts that has drawn no comments, which I'm sorry about, is An Open Letter to JK Rowling. Maybe there aren't enough obsessive-compulsive writers out there (like me!) who want to know more about JK Rowling's writing process, but I doubt it!

If I had worried in the beginning as to whether there'd be enough material to continue this blog for a long period of time, I don't now. I feel that I've barely scratched the surface. JK Rowling has gifted the world with such a rich treasure trove of material both in story and in writing, that I know I can continue happily posting here for many years to come. And by then...hopefully we'll have new works to dissect!

May the new year bring us a new release from JK Rowling, sales of our own work, and the continued vast support of our writer friends from across the Internet!

Here's to 2011...and beyond!

Fireworks picture credit

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

That Extra Zing

When studying the phenomenal world-building of JK Rowling, I like to break her craft apart into three sets: The Wide Angle Lens, the Zoom Lens, and That Extra Zing.

In building your set, not only do you want your reader to experience a fully alive, intriguing world in wideness and detail, but you want some of those details to sizzle with extra flavorful zing.

For examples of the Zing, I'd like to share two of my favorite details from JKR's worldbuilding which I think go beyond the ordinary to add an additional, delightful touch.  And better yet, they both happen to come from Christmas!  (Hey! It's still the holidays.  My tree's still up.  The kids are still out of school! :-)

The Hogwarts staff, demonstrating a continued desire to impress the visitors from Beauxbatons and Durmstrang, seemed determined to show the castle at its best this Christmas. When the decorations went up, Harry noticed that they were the most stunning he had yet seen inside the school. Everlasting icicles had been attached to the banisters of the marble staircase; the usual twelve Christmas trees in the Great Hall were bedecked with everything from luminous holly berries to real, hooting, golden owls, and the suits of armor had all been bewitched to sing carols whenever anyone passed them. It was quite something to hear "O Come, All Ye Faithful" sung by an empty helmet that only knew half the words. Several times, Filch the caretaker had to extract Peeves from inside the armor, where he had taken to hiding, filling in the gaps in the songs with lyrics of his own invention, all of which were very rude.
(p. 395, GoF)

Even though this is a lump of description, it’s kept from being boring by the imaginative, unusual detail, and the action within. That last bit, about Peeves filling in rude lyrics, to me is quite witty and adds the extra zing. JKR could easily have stopped with the everlasting icicles, the hooting, golden owls, and the singing suits of armor. That alone would have provided the whimsical Christmas feel she was after. But in taking it that extra level--the Peeves factor--she truly brings the whole setting to magical life...and makes it loads of fun.

One of my favorite descriptions on steroids, which I also listed in my post on favorite tidbits from Harry Potter, was the Christmas tree gnome topping the Weasley tree in HBP.

Stupefied, painted gold, stuffed into a miniature tutu and with small wings glued to its back, it glowered down at them all, the ugliest angel Harry had ever seen, with a large bald head like a potato and rather hairy feet.
(p. 309, HBP Bloomsbury)

Those hairy feet add the zing to an already fully-imaginative description. I would love to be able to come up with something so clever and amusing with so few words.

As writers, we build a world in whatever story we write, even if that world is the contemporary one most readers inhabit.  Your reader still doesn't know YOUR particular setting.  How you choose to describe that world, and what elements you choose to highlight, will greatly affect the feel and perception of your story by the reader.  Make sure that you've thought your world through in complete detail (even if it is not all given on the page).  Then, include these delightful, tasty nougats to help your reader experience your story as a participant and not merely an observer.

A note of caution on zinging -- a little goes a long way.  With ever-decreasing word counts, we have to be very careful to spend words only where important.  Therefore, make sure any extra details you add to your descriptions are truly wonderful AND that they add to your story significantly...preferably in more ways than one!

What nuance can you add to your perfectly good description to give it that extra sparkle? Can you share one you're particularly proud of?

Gnome picture credit.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Guest Post on The Graceful Doe's Blog

You may remember that Jo Hart from The Graceful Doe's Blog recent did a guest post here on What Harry Potter Has Taught Me About Writing.  Today, I'm honored to return the favor.  My article, Go Where It's Scary -- Into the Abyss, is posted on her blog.

I hope you will all check it out.  Although it's not entirely focused on Harry Potter, it's definitely writing related, and I did manage to squeeze one Harry reference in! :-)

Here's a snippet:

As in life, confronting and traveling through our fears is an essential part of being human, it’s even more so with our characters, our heroes. And no part of story construction addresses “go where it’s scary” more directly than the approach to the innermost cave of the Hero’s Journey.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Riddle for You

Sorry for the long silence. Things got really hectic around here and I was unable to blog for a while.

But, I have a riddle for you. Here's a curious passage regarding a riddle from Deathly Hallows:

"She ain't answering, you old besom! You open it! Garn! Do it, now!"

"Certainly, if you wish it," said Professor McGonagall, with awful coldness.

There was a gentle tap of the knocker and the musical voice asked again.
"Where do Vanished objects go?"

"Into nonbeing, which is to say, everything." replied Professor McGonagall.

"Nicely phrased," replied the eagle door knocker, and the door swung open.

What do you think JKR meant with McGonagall's answer? What exactly is she trying to hint at with Vanished object, and how can it go into everything?

I've got a theory on what she's trying to say here, and I think it directly relates to the theme of the book: death.

If any of you have read His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman (who JKR has commented on), I think she's drawing from a haunting image Pullman gives his reader near the end of his last book, The Amber Spyglass. Lyra and Will travel through the world of the dead, and when Will cuts an opening with his knife into another world, the ghosts step through into the new realm and dissipate into nothingness, the last thing visible their smile.

I think, with very few words, JKR hinted at the exact same imagery and maybe even gave a tip-of-the-hat to Pullman.

At the point where Harry overhears the above exchange with McGonagall, he is very close to facing death. He knows it. The reader knows it.

Throughout the series, JKR has tackled some of the deepest, most difficult issues surrounding death: our fear of it, our avoidance of it, the finality of it. Here's she tackles one of the most difficult aspects of all: the mystery of it all.

Where do we go when we finally die? According to Pullman, it's not locked away somewhere in a realm where we exist as ghost-like corporal beings, but rather our atoms are broken down and reabsorbed into the life around us. Into everything.

So, as the Ravenclaw knocker asks, "Where do Vanished objects go?" JKR gives her reader an extremely subtle clue as to her own view regarding, where do the dead go? Our spirits?

Her answer: Back into the life that surrounds you. Into everything.

Once again, I may be reading too much into JKR's words, but this time, I truly don't believe so. As a writer, I'm amazed by her ability to hint at so much with so few words. Of course, she's had a huge series to build up her themes and subtext to the point where she CAN use so few words to say so much.

But a passage like this is a strong example, when it comes to message, of "Show, Don't Tell." I know in some of my earlier work, I've felt the need to beat the reader over the head with "what it's all about," not trusting my reader to catch onto subtle clues and hints. Honestly, I tended to get preachy.

It takes a lot of time and learning to write in such a way that weaves your message subtly through the fabric of the story, hinting with imagery and action, and perhaps the occasional riddle, at the deeper messages you wish to convey. And too, some styles of story call for more subtle weaving while other styles are blunt, in-your-face.

Who would look for the mystery of death to be camouflaged behind a riddle password to a secret door? Perhaps the same readers who found voices whispering beyond an ancient arch in the basement of a government building.

Death. We can't see them, but we can hear their subtle whispers in the air around us, because those we love never truly leave us. They live on in our hearts and minds and the world that surrounds us. In everything.

JKR quoted on Pullman
Ravenclaw image source