Friday, July 1, 2011

The Secret Handshake, JK Rowling Style

We all want it, don't we? The secret handshake to success in writing and selling books? And surely, if anyone's got it, JK Rowling does.

So, shouldn't we be able to study her work, discover that secret, and incorporate it for ourselves?

I've taken apart and analyzed JKR's craft in the Potter series for seven years now. (7!! The magical number! Surely something good is coming my way now. Or...would that be a Horcrux? :-( ) Anyway, I will tell you honestly and truthfully that there is no....

Wait, that's what you hear from every other writer, isn't it? There is no secret handshake. There's only crafting a good book and working hard to get it out there.

From my perspective based purely on Harry Potter...yes, There is a secret. And it is part of the "good book" thing, as well as the "getting it out there" doohickey. But it's something a bit more tangible and not something I hear discussed often in the way that I see JKR doing it.

Engage the reader.

There it is. That's the crux of what you need to know. But it's much easier said than done, and we need to look to Harry to see how JKR did this.

First, unless you've been hibernating in a writing cave the last two weeks (and certainly not been reading this blog), then you know that JKR has recently done it again. She's shaken up the publishing world and unleashed a Fiendfyre among her fans...without even releasing another book. It's all about Pottermore, and more Potter is what it's all about.

On the surface, Pottermore will be the online home of JKR's soon to be released e-books. She's venturing into self-publishing, but in her own way and with her usual trademarked style of engaging the reader. Pottermore will not just be a shopping cart where you can get the electronic books with a few new toys to go along. No, Pottermore will showcase the hoards of backstory and worldbuilding info JKR has been guarding for years in her vault of a brain which her fans have been clamoring to break into. The site promises to involve readers in engaging with each other to discuss the story as they discover the new information and share their own fanart and fanfiction. Games will be included, but the focus, JKR promises, is to bring the literary story to a new digital generation.

As visitors for years have enjoyed hunting out the Easter eggs on her personal website, JKR's readers can now search out new secrets and interact with the story in a whole new way. Her fan base will once again be actively engaged for years to come. All of this is happening just at a time when many believed that with the final movie release the series was coming to an end.

But this magic of engagement did not start with the website, or the movies. It started with the books. JKR challenged her readers to interact with her story in such an engaged manner and to such an obsessive level that I have not seen from many other authors.

Some critics just don't get it. They whine and complain about how JKR was derivative, not well crafted...whatever. They just don't comprehend what exactly she did that was so massively right -- give your reader more. More lovable, quirky, dastardly characters. More deliciously detailed, fascinating and fun worldbuilding. More in-depth, sly, sneaky trail of clues mysteries continuing throughout the series. More layers of subtext that the reader must work to uncover. All of which leads to the greatest secret of all -- more reader involvement.

If you compare Harry Potter to some other phenomenally selling books, you'll see the difference. Take DaVinci Code, for example. I greatly enjoyed this book. It was a fast-pace, fun read with an underlying secret which greatly appealed to my love of esoterica and ancient beliefs. But having read it once, have I ever picked it up to re-read? No. Nor would I guess, have very many fans.

But Harry Potter?

Fans did not stop when the final page of a book was turned.  No, they had to write their own fanfiction while they waited for the next release so that they could play with JKR's characters longer.  They researched and scribbled long parchments of essays regarding the clue they just uncovered and what it could mean for who dies next to then plaster on the Internet before anyone else could jump their theory.  They created fanart and fansites.  A whole new rock genre was born -- wizard rock -- with groups such as Harry and the Potters and the Moaning Myrtles.  They created a YouTube sensation of A Very Potter Musical.  Fans even started playing Quidditch, and today, Quidditch leagues come from many universities to celebrate the Quidditch World Cup!

Fans pride themselves on how many times they've read each book, reliving the story. The reason for this is because the greatest pay-off in reading a Harry Potter book is not uncovering the secret revealed at the ending, but rather the experience along the way. And not only is it the experience of living in that world and interacting with those characters, it's the sifting beneath the layers of subtext to uncover the hidden gems which JKR so slyly hid with such sleight of hand. Even after many readings that include in-depth analysis, I can still open a book and discover a delicious clue or reference which I'd not caught before.

Give your reader more, and your reader will keep coming back for more.

Simple, isn't it?

But how do you do it yourself?

That's where the standard stoic advise comes in. You study the craft. You read other books. You put your work out there, get feedback, and revise and revise again. You put butt in chair and do the intensively hard work of giving the reader something they crave.

But as you go along this writerly journey, challenge yourself at each and every step along the way. Have I gone beyond "good enough" to strive for the Potter gold? Have I added that last bit of worldbuilding flair to make my suits of armor sing? Have I created a character who can fill Hagrid's dolphin-sized boots? Have I even considered adding one layer of subtext, much less buried Emerald Tablets of mythological gold beneath my story's entertaining surface?

Above all -- remember that lonely little orphan under the stairs, and ask I just writing a good story? Or am I inviting my reader in to play along?

PS: I have to run right now, Mom's Taxi Service calls, but check back later today and I'll provide the links to those refs in the challenge yourself paragraph. See, I'm engaging you to come back for more! :-)


  1. This is such a great post. You're right about giving more; my favorite books are my favorite often because I felt so connected to the characters and the world. Harry Potter definitely, but there are tons more books out there that appeal to me in this way, books I re-read every year or every two years. But It's definitely easier to say "engage the reader" than to do it!

    Oh, and I laughed out loud when I read your Dan Brown comment because I was just thinking the other day that I want to read the Langdon books again (I've read them a couple times, already haha)! But that's just me because I'm a re-reader! When I like a book, I nearly always read it again a bunch of times. And when I love a book, I probably re-read it hundreds of times! Good thing I'm a fast reader so I can read new books and re-read old favorites, LoL!

  2. Laura, thanks so much for pointing out a weakness in what I said above that I need to clarify. (Is what I get for posting as I'm running out the door... :-)

    I don't mean to imply that other books don't get re-read, which, of course, they do. There are some very beloved classics out there for a variety of reasons. Personally, I'm one who once I know a story, don't tend to re-read. So, it's amazing that I'll keep revisiting Harry.

    The word I think I was going for above (and will try to work in) is obsessive. It's the LEVEL to which fans want to re-read, re-visit, re-live the Harry Potter experience that I'm always amazed at. And that's a direct result of JKR's style of reader engagement.

    Again, thank you, Laura! I need a beta reader for my posts! :-)

  3. Thank you for this wonderful post! I think you know exactly how to make your blog readers want to come back for more :)) I certainly will!

  4. I'm not one for re-reading books, I've only re-read a few and they all fit what you say. A cast of memorable characters with a rich worldview. I would love to read HP again now that I'm older and the movie franchise is finished. I think it's hard to translate what you're saying into our/my own writing, but you are definitely right.