Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Guest Post: Why A Small Press? by Alicia Rasley

I first met Alicia Rasley several years ago when I was in charge of programming at my local writing chapter and she graciously agreed to come and present a workshop.  I'd heard from so many chapter members who'd been fortunate enough to attend one of Alicia's popular workshops at RWA nationals how fabulous she was.  I learned a lot as well as enjoyed getting to know a writer with such insight who was also so down-to-earth.

Since then, I've followed Alicia's career through a mutual good friend and was thrilled when I saw that she had come on board with BelleBooks, the publisher of my short stories.  Belle (and its imprint BellBridge) is truly making a name for itself as an independent publisher, drawing in top-notch writers, like Alicia.  And so who better to blog about the advantages and disadvantages between a "Big 6" publisher and a smaller press than someone who has been published by both and has been involved in multiple aspects of the publishing industry from writer to instructor to freelance editor for over twenty years?

I know many of you are actively considering which path to pursue among the new possibilities growing stronger in today's publishing.  So, please join me in welcoming Alicia Rasley to the blog!

Why a Small Press?

My publishing career is so checkered, I call it a "herringbone." I've been published by major publishers and a couple small presses, and self-published too. Susan asked me to write about why I chose to go with a small press for my women's fiction novel, TheYear She Fell.

I got my first publication back in the Golden Era of romance publishing, when all the major NY publishers were starting romance lines and romance writers had print runs of 300K. (Not me, but others!) I never benefitted much from that wave as I wrote in a small niche genre (Regencies), but I stayed published by major pubs for more than a decade. I never made much money, but the prestige of major publication helped my teaching career, as nearly everyone was impressed to hear that I was a "Dell author." (Of course, I published only one book with Dell before they suddenly dropped their Regency line. The great thing about prestige is it can be based on singular and long-past events.)

But consolidation of the big publishers in the 90s led to the greater commodification of books, and the multi-nationals didn't seem very interested in marketing to niche readers anymore. Even with a top agent, I couldn't get back into the closed circle with a book I'd certainly considered commercial. Why? Because I'd been writing "small books," with print runs under 40K, the suddenly all-important "numbers" – how successful an author was at making lots of money for the publisher—meant editors had to send letters with high praise and that "Unfortunately" last paragraph. ("Unfortunately, with the market as it is, we can't take a chance on Alicia who hasn't the record of success we want.")  I knew the book was good, and I knew it would sell well if it got the chance. But it looked like I wasn't going to get a chance. Then someone suggested submitting the book to Belle Books, a small press that a friend of mine had started years ago with some friends.

Small Press, Big Advantages
For someone like me, who had mostly read big-press books, and had published only with "The Big Eight" (soon to become The Big Seven and then The Big Six), looking beyond NYC for publication was scary.  I mean, I'd heard about small presses, but thought they published only literary fiction and poetry, and regional publishers, but thought they published only local histories. Boy, did I get an education when I sold the book to Bell Bridge Books (the women's fiction imprint of Belle Books). I learned that small presses like BB can aim for niche readers because their lower overhead (no Manhattan office to rent!) means they don't have to sell as many copies to make a profit on a book.  I also learned that compared to the ocean-liner-sized major publishers, a small press is like a nimble cruiser, able to turn on a dime to take advantage of new technologies and techniques. So though my book came out initially in print, the publisher quickly realized that the rise of the Kindle and other e-readers would open up low-cost opportunities. So they published my book in several electronic formats, and while the sales were small for the print edition, the title caught on for Kindle readers.

The costs are lower, and the royalties much higher in e-format, and a small press like mine can experiment without much cost. For example, my publisher put the book up for free in Kindle format the week after Christmas 2010. I admit, I thought it was crazy to give away books. But it worked, generating many reviews and getting the book onto the top 10 list in the Kindle store. Even when the free period ended, customers still downloaded the book, only this time they paid for it.  In fact, for a brief moment (and I do mean a moment), my book was the #1 bestselling book on Amazon Kindle. Hey, it's not the NYTimes, but you better believe I now call myself a "bestselling author." For a Regency writer, used to sales in the lowest five figures, this was a heady experience. (And yes, I checked my ranking constantly, and suffered through every bad review too!) And when I got my first royalty check, well, it didn't pay for a new Lexus, but it was several times larger than any of my big-press book royalties.

So paradoxical as it seems, giving the book away was an effective way to sell the book. But I'd never encountered that method with a big press. They didn't even like to give the author many copies.

And small presses are more likely, I think, to explore opportunities for alternate revenues like foreign sales and subsidiary rights, because that way they can maximize income from their relatively short list of books. Just an example: the Harry Potter books were released both in the UK and the US by relatively small presses. Of course, these novels sold millions, but much of the revenue (JK Rowling is the first writer to become a billionaire) came from adroit dealing of film rights and other sub-rights. Of course, the big presses do try to sell film rights and the like, but very seldom for books in the midlist or below.

There are, of course, limitations to the small press experience. The advances tend to be small because the companies are usually under-capitalized, using the profits from one book to fund the production of the next. The smaller presses can't afford to have marketing divisions that go out and sell the books to big accounts. (On the other hand, this means that the marketers don't get to interfere with editorial decisions as I kept running into with big publishers.) Small presses also don't have the clout to force booksellers to sell a "small" book in order to get enough copies of a "big" book like a Grisham or a Koontz.

There are always trade-offs in any decision, and going with a small press has meant giving up a few perks, especially the powerful influence created by the huge multi-national publishers. However, my decision was validated this Christmas, when my publisher once again did a marketing push for my book (now out for more than a year), and got The Year She Fell up onto the bestseller list again. This persistence was in great contrast to my experience with big publishers, where a book was pretty much up for sale for the release month, and never again. I'd gotten used to doing a frantic round of promotion that month, and then seeing the book taken from the store shelves and stripped to be sent back to the publisher.  Instead, here I am in awaiting a second sizeable January royalty check, because my small press can keep the book for sale literally for years.

So I think my own experience shows that there's no reason to confine our submissions to big New York publishers. Small presses might have the flexibility and resilience to keep up with the near-constant changes in the marketplace. However, because small presses don't have the name-recognition and long public histories of a Random House, I'd suggest doing some due diligence before signing that first contract.  Google the company name and check with the author-warning sites (like Preditors and Editors) to make sure there aren't a lot of author complaints (especially ones concerning unpaid royalties!).  Read the contract carefully and compare it with sample big-press contracts. Make sure that you're not expected to contribute any funds of your own. Ask about the company in your writer's groups and lists. Check the biographies of the company personnel to see if there's a good mix of editorial and business expertise.  Check their own website, and the sales pages of some of their books at Amazon or bn.com to see if the presentation is professional. Finally, talk through with the publisher what is planned for your book in terms of publication and marketing. These common-sense precautions will also help you get to know the publisher and get some ideas of how together you can make your book a success in a rapidly changing marketplace.

Has anyone else tried the small-press route? What's been your experience?

 Alicia Rasley is a Rita-award winning author and nationally known teacher of writing workshops. She teaches composition and tutors students in two state universities. She grew up in the mountains of Southwest Virginia but now lives in the midwestern flat land. Her book The Year She Fell has been a Kindle fiction bestseller.

Her blog is at: www.edittorrent.blogspot.com, and her website is www.rasley.com. Her writing book, The Power of Point of View, is still available from Writer's Digest Books. All her books can be found on her Kindle page.


Susan here -- Thanks so much, Alicia, for sharing your years of experience and wisdom with us!

Alicia is willing to take questions, so please feel free to post in the comments.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Have You Considered the Risks of Publication?

"My family and I were literally under surveillance for their amusement... There's a twist in the stomach as you wonder what do they want, what have they got? It feels incredibly threatening to have people watching you." --  JK Rowling

I read several blog posts yesterday discussing the news that JK Rowling had settled out of court with her former literary agent, Christopher Little. Speculation ran wild and rampant as to why she left Little and how much she had to pay to close his mouth. Some of the speculation was clearly negative toward Rowling, accusing her of betraying the man who brought her out of obscurity and "conjured up her millions."  As if her storytelling had nothing to do with it.

But, what do any of us really know about what happened in that professional relationship? It's almost like looking at a marriage from the outside. If you're not in the bedroom, do you really know who said what and who did what? Plenty of writers leave their agents every day...and sometimes, for just cause.  If you've been writing any length of time, I'm sure you know someone who has.

The repercussions are much larger, however, when you've achieved the wealth and fame of a Rowling.

Once, just like many of us, Jo was an unknown, unpublished writer who had no idea if her story would even sell, much less become a world-wide publishing phenomenon. As she said herself when asked if she'd known how successful her series would one day be, "I'd have to have been insane to have imagined this." And that was in the year 2000!

While most of us will not get the huge bank accounts, instant name recognition, and the perks that go along with both, we'll also not face the stress and trials of having (perhaps unwittingly) left our privacy behind.

If we leave our agent, we're not going to make headlines. While we might have a few writing friends and acquaintances gossip behind our back about why we did it and who done whom wrong, we're not going to become fodder for the tabloid press.

Also, most of us are at no risk of having reporters with zoom lenses snap photos of us in our bikinis as we vacation with our families on the beach. We don't have to worry about someone rummaging through our bins, looking for any snippet on our upcoming release. We're not likely to get sued almost yearly by some rinky-dink author from years ago with a barely published story claiming plagiarism. And we won't have to testify in court proceedings about reporters slipping notes into our children's backpacks.

However, as unlikely as it may be, for every single one of us, once we let our stories out into the world, we relinquish a certain amount of control over both them and our privacy. Have you considered this? Even without achieving the level of success as a JKR, many other writers have found themselves facing intense publicity and the loss of anonymity and the security that goes along with it. In an article publishing on Huffington Post this week, Amanda Hocking reflects on the "necessary evil" of letting go of her privacy to promote her books.

We want the best for our books. We tell stories because we want to touch hearts. We hope for the widest audience possible. If that is to be achieved, we must sacrifice certain things. Up front, we sacrifice time, money, and energy as we write late into the night after our day job, skip fun times with our families and friends, pour money we don't have into conferences and workshop to improve our craft. We're all familiar with these sacrifices.

But what about those sacrifices at the back end that we may not have planned for? I heard once that an aspiring author said to Nora Roberts that when she grew up, she wanted to be her one day. Reportedly, Le Nora responded, "Would you? Would you really?"

Think about the sacrifices that Roberts has made to get where she is, as well as the sacrifices she's been forced to make as a result. Think about the crazy fans, negative publicity, and intense scrutiny that has become the norm for authors like Roberts, King, and Rowling. Would you really want to sacrifice your privacy for that? And, by publishing, are you running that risk?

What do you think?  I know this is going to seem like a ridiculous question to most, but have you considered the negative side of what you may face if your publication dreams become a reality?

Also, a heads-up -- You'll want to be sure to check back here next Tuesday when bestselling author Alicia Rasley will guest blog. She's drawing from her many years of experience, both with traditional publishers and with a smaller press, on where to go and what questions to consider amid all the changes in publishing.

Quote from JK Rowling taken from a CBC interview in October 2000.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Through the Trapdoor -- JK Rowling's Blueprint for the Harry Potter Series

A couple of weeks back, I did a post, Mirror Mirror on the Series, showing how JK Rowling had plotted books five, six, and seven to reflect three, two, and one, with four as the hinge.  In putting that post together, I discovered another game she'd played, that's really more foreshadowing than it is a reflection. Jo foreshadowed key elements for the entire 7-book series at the end of the first.

Don't believe me?  Then take a look at this.

Chapter 16 of Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone, Through the Trap Door, takes the reader with Harry on a quest to stop Voldemort from capturing the Philosopher's Stone and obtaining eternal life.

There are several key gates/challenges along the way that Harry, Ron, and Hermione must pass in order for Harry to triumphantly face Voldemort at the end.  And each of these challenges relates, in order, to an upcoming book.

1) Neville, a Toad, and a Chamber of Secrets:

The first challenge Harry, Ron, and Hermione face, before they even leave Gryffindor Tower, is Neville.  But Neville is not alone.  He's carrying his pet toad, Trevor.  In fact, it's so important for the reader to know that Neville has Trevor that Jo mentions it twice.  Neville has gathered up his courage to face his friends and stop them from losing any more house points.  But Hermione casts a Petrificus Totalus spell on Neville, making him go all rigid and fall "flat on his face, stiff as a board."

A book later, we saw some other people struck with magic go all rigid, stiff as a board -- they too had been petrified.  This happened in Chamber of Secrets as students were attacked by Riddle and Slytherin's pet basilisk, who was born of a hen's egg hatched beneath a toad.  Maybe Hermione should have petrified Trevor as well when she had the chance**.

Then, on the way to the third-floor corridor, Harry, Ron, and Hermione run into Peeves, who though he can't see them, knows they're there and threatens to notify Filch.  He is only dissuaded when Harry imitates the Bloody Baron and threatens Peeves.

Ghosts figured prominently into the plot of Chamber of Secrets as well with Nearly Headless Nick's Deathday party and Moaning Myrtle's "guarding" of the entrance to the Chamber.

2) Prisoners of Devil's Snare and Dementors:

The second challenge the Trio faces also comes in a pair.  Hagrid's pet, Fluffy, a three-headed dog, guards a trapdoor that drops them onto Devil's Snare.  To get past Fluffy, Harry must play a bit of music from the flute Hagrid gave him for Christmas.  And when they drop onto Professor Sprout's Devil's Snare, it immediately snakes its tendrils around Ron and Harry's legs and arms, imprisoning them.  Only Hermione, the last to drop and the first to see the danger, can set them free with the light of a fire.

"Devil's Snare, Devil's Snare...what did Professor Sprout say?--it likes the dark and the damp--"
[Hermione] whipped out her wand, waved it, muttered something, and sent a jet of the same bluebell flames she had used on Snape at the plant.  In a matter of seconds, the two boys felt it loosening its grip as it cringed away from the light and warmth.

Sounds almost like casting a Patronus at a Dementor, doesn't it?  A Dementor who also lives and breeds in the dark and damp.

We first meet the Dementors in Prisoner of Azkaban, where Hagrid again has a fearsome pet, Buckbeak, who Harry is able to tame and ride.  And it is through Buckbeak, and the light of truth, that Sirius, a prisoner of lies, is finally set free.

3) Flying Keys and Disguised Villains:

Flitwick's challenge involves hundred of winged, flying keys, disguised as birds, where only one fits the door through which they must pass.  The Trio must fly high among the keys to seek out and catch the one key which will allow them to continue.  In a game of magical cooperation, Harry directs the other two and puts his Seeker skills to the test to identify and capture the true key.

In Goblet of Fire, Harry once again uses his flying skills to capture the golden dragon's egg, which is the key to the next challenge in the Triwizard Tournament.  Furthermore, in this book, we are introduced to some very special keys, portkeys, which carry Harry and his friends to the Quidditch World Cup, and then Harry and Cedric to face a rejuvenated Voldemort in the graveyard.  And finally, Pseudo Mad-Eye's disguise is removed to reveal the true face of Voldemort's most loyal servant, and the true Mad-Eye hidden in a trunk guarded by seven locks.

4) The White Queen of Death and the Noble Knight:

Fanart by glockgal
After Harry, Ron, and Hermione pass through the door guarded by keys, they are confronted with McGonagall's life-size, transfigured chess games.  Harry becomes a bishop, Hermione a castle, and Ron a knight as he directs his friends about the board.  Finally, Ron sacrifices himself to the white queen so that Harry can checkmate the white king and proceed.

In Order of the Phoenix, as the Order faces the Death Eaters in battle, a noble knight is indeed lost to a queen as Sirius is killed by Bellatrix, Voldemort's top female warrior, giving his life to protect Harry.  Harry then confronts Voldemort and, in the end, forces him out of his body.

5) Potions and Memories from a Half-Blood Prince:

The Trio then passes a foul-smelling troll, who has already been knocked out by Quirrell, who'd placed him there anyway.  They enter a room with a table holding seven bottles of potions--Snape's logic challenge.  Hermione figures out the riddle, which allows her to determine which bottle is safe for her to drink to go back, get Ron, and summon the absent Dumbledore, and which one is safe for Harry to drink in order to proceed through the flames and face Voldemort alone.

In Half-Blood Prince, Snape is once again the object of a logic puzzle.  Harry is in possession of Snape's old potions book, but doesn't know who the Half-Blood Prince is to whom it belonged.  Not only must Harry figure out who is the potions master in this HBP challenge, but he is confronted with seven vials.  Instead of potions, however, these vials contain memories providing insight in Voldemort's past to prepare Harry for the ultimate confrontation.

6) Facing the Conflict of Desire and Sacrifice:

Finally, Harry stands face to face to face with The Man with Two Faces.   He looks deep into Dumbledore's Mirror of Erised and sees himself in possession of the Philosopher's Stone.  And when Quirrell/Voldy finally attacks, he cannot touch Harry because of his mother's sacrifice to save her son's life.

Likewise, in Deathly Hallows, Harry must finally face Voldemort alone, but capable this time, after having passed through the prior challenges, of finally defeating him.  After an internal struggle of facing what he truly desires, Hallows or Horcruxes, an intense challenge forced upon him by Dumbledore, Harry sacrifices himself to save others. As a result, he gives those he loves the same protection from Voldemort which his mother gave him.

I don't know about you, but I find it amazing that JKR had plotted her series so in depth from the beginning, that she was able to include all these clues in the first book.  Foreshadowing like this comes from hard work and preparation.  It is because Jo took the time to plot out her whole series before publishing Philosopher's Stone, and knew intimately what was to come, that she was able to drop these clues in from the very start.

What's more, JKR didn't stop with setting the stage for key elements in each of the books to come, but she also foreshadows the final battle.  Each of the professors who provided a protection at the end of Philosopher's Stone, also provides a weapon against Voldemort during the Final Battle.

Professor PS/SS Protection DH Weapon
Neville himself himself as resistance leader and beheading Nagini
Peeves himself dropped giant worms
Hagrid Fluffy Grawp
Sprout Devil's Snare Devil's Snare
Flitwick Winged Keys Incantations; (a shield charm Protego Horribilis)
McGonagall Human Chess Game Mobilized Suits of Armor
Snape Potion Logic Riddle Taught Harry to control emotions and provided final memory
Dumbledore Mirror of Erised At King's Cross, informed Harry he had choice between joining his family or going back to fight, also forced Harry to examine his innermost desires and deliberately choose to not go after the Elder Wand for himself.
**Although it could be argued here that these points of comparison are more of a wrap-up, where she made the parallel links work at the end rather than having foreshadowed at the beginning.

A couple of other foreshadowed tidbits from the first book:

  • Petunia saw Dedalus Diggle in a shop in PS/SS when he bowed to Harry; he is part of Dursley's escort in DH
  • The original quidditch team are all at Hogwarts for the Final Battle
  • Snape is bitten by Fluffy in PS/SS and bitten by Nagini in DH.

I love how JKR plays with her reader by inserting these clues and making these connections.  She used tricks like this to help set the tone and establish the rules.  Jo wanted her reader to play along with her.  While she wanted the reader deeply invested in the emotional arc of the story and characters, she also wanted their minds fully engaged in analyzing the mysteries and finding the Easter eggs hidden about.

I'm really curious, have any of you ever tried playing a game with your readers like this?  Also, what other links between the ending of PS/SS and the upcoming books did I miss?

** The note about Hermione petrifying Trevor is meant as a joke as the basilisk is several hundred years old. But what JKR is doing here is providing a slight link from one toad to another.  This is an example of her running bit clues.

(Check Out JK Rowling's Newest Release -- Harry Potter and the Cursed Child here!)  

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Upcoming Online Workshop - A Writer's Guide to Harry Potter

Are you a writer wanting to improve your craft?  Would you love to learn some of JK Rowling's techniques which helped make Harry Potter the phenomenon it became?  Put your cold days of February to good use and join me for my month-long online workshop, A Writer's Guide to Harry Potter.

Cost is $10 for the whole month.  This will include all the lessons plus class discussions and feedback for any questions you have as to how the material relates to your own work.  You can sign-up via PayPal below, and once you do, you will be subscribed to the class Yahoo Group.  The workshop begins Monday, February 6 and runs through Sunday, March 4.

Beware -- the lessons are intense and include a lot of reading.  While beginning writers will learn a lot, the workshop is not geared to be an introduction to writing but rather an immersion into what we as writers can learn by studying JK Rowling's work.

The normal lesson plans are listed below, but the course is flexible to the needs of the students, so will include new topics as brought forward by those who participate.

Workshop Summary:
Though many an envious writer would like to think JK Rowling’s secret to success is just a bunch of magical mayhem, we Muggle writers can learn from the skills which have made her Harry Potter series more than beloved, but truly an absolute obsession among millions.

Using Ms Rowling’s phenomenally popular series as a base, we will delve below the surface of her prose to determine what made her writing so magical for so many. Learn about giving the reader more, the value of subtext, using mythic themes and structure to advantage, plotting a trail-of-clues mystery, and the business of self promotion.

Please note that while familiarity with the series is helpful, it is not required. Also, this is not a workshop about writing fantasy (magic), but rather about how to learn techniques from a bestseller in order to improve your own writing and style. While fantasy will be included, the workshop is by no means geared exclusively to that genre.

Lesson Plan:
Introduction: No Polyjuiced Pretenders Here
(On Learning Techniques, not Cloning a Duplicate)

Lesson One: Characters with More Emotional Range than a Teaspoon

Lesson Two: Quidditch, A Prisoner of Azkaban, and Thestrals to MoM
(Voice and Reader Fulfillment)

Lesson Three: Return to the Dursleys
(Establishing and Breaking Story Patterns)

Lesson Four: Shrieking Shacks, Whomping Willows, and Moaning Myrtles -- or the Dark Lord's in the Detail
(World Building)

Lesson Five: Revealing Wormtail
(Dropping Clues, Hiding Secrets)

Lesson Six: Put a Fidelius Charm on Your Godric's Hollow

Lesson Seven: Myth Connections
(Mythic Structures, Archetypes, and Themes)

Lesson Eight: His Royal Snivellus -- the Ambiguity of Snape
(Themes and Borders)

Lesson Nine: Of Grindelwald and Hitler
(Real World Relevance)

Lesson Ten: Keep it FUN
(Engaging the Reader)!

Lesson Eleven: Draco Loves Hermione! At least in fan fiction.
(Fan Involvement)

Lesson Twelve: Make a Magical Impression in the Muggle World
(A Few Tips on Building a Public Presence)

Bonus Lesson: Flying High Above the Quidditch Pitch
(High Concept and Pitching Your Manuscript)

You can find out more about me by reading my bio pagepast publications, and past workshops.

Sign up here:

A Writer's Guide to Harry Potter month-long online workshop

WHEN: Monday, February 6, 2012 - Sunday, March 4, 2012



As this is my first time teaching this class directly through my own blog rather than a writers group or conference, I am keeping the registration cost lower than normal.

Also, most of the prepared lessons are the same as what is included in the Kindle version, A Writer's Guide to Harry Potter.  Where the workshop differs is in the personal feedback through the month-long course and the additional materials as presented due to the needs and questions of the participants.

Have questions? E-mail me at SPSipal AT gmail DOT com.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Try a Trelawney: When Will J.K. Rowling Announce Her Next Book?

UPDATE: J.K. Rowling announced new release today (Feb. 23, 2012)! 

Also, we have two predictions in the comment trail below that hit the mark or came very close.  First off, author Lisa Gail Green predicted the next release would be for adults! Yay Lisa!!  And I was 9 days off predicting when the book would be announced as I had chosen February 14 for an announcement.

Original post started here:
Many of you may remember that at the premiere of Deathly Hallows part 2 this past summer, J.K. Rowling mentioned in an interview that she had been waiting for the release of the last movie to move forward on a new book.
"I think always felt that I didn't want to publish again until the last film was out because Potter has been such a huge thing in my life. I've been writing hard ever since I finished writing Hallows, so I've got a lot of stuff, and I suppose it's a question of deciding which one comes out first. But I will publish again. And I feel in some sense this is a beginning for me as well as an end!" --JK Rowling
She has multiple books if she has to choose which comes out first.  As it's been over four years since the release of Deathly Hallows, and now the last movie is out as well, I feel fairly certain that she'll at least make an announcement this year as to a new release.

But what will it be?  We know from past interviews that she had at one point been working on a political fairy tale (whatever that may be) for younger children.  She's also mentioned that she was working on something for adults and has promised at some point in the future to do the ultimate Harry Potter encyclopedia.

I thought it might be fun to have a Trelawney thread of speculation.  In the comment trail below, cast your prophecy.  You can predict the date you think Jo will announce her next book, or the type of story that she'll publish next, or when the book will actually be released.  Or whatever.

Whoever comes closest to hitting one of these will win a copy of either A Writer's Guide to Harry Potter or Mad-Eye's Magical Eye (a Turkish nazar boncugu shown on the right) to hang on your wall.  Your choice!

My prediction -- I think we might get a lovely Valentine's gift from Jo when she announces her next book, a political fairy tale for children, to come out in July 2012!

Also, you will not want to miss a fabulous opportunity provided this week by Jami Gold on her blog.  Throughout the week, she'll be hosting a Pitch Your Shorts opportunity with editors from Entangled Publishing reading the pitches and making requests.  So if you have a manuscript between 10,000 - 60,000 words, hurry on over to Jami's blog (after you cast your prediction below) and submit your pitch!

Good luck on both!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Guest Post: J.K. Rowling's Writing Process in Her Own Words, part 2

Welcome to part 2 of Shelley Souza's fabulous compilation and analysis of J.K. Rowling's writing process from Jo's own words.  Shelley has scoured old interviews to bring together anything JKR has said regarding how she wrote her phenomenal series. Part 1 was posted on Tuesday, and if you haven't read that yet, you will definitely want to check it out as well.

Here, in part 2, Shelley delves more deeply into what Jo had to say regarding her choices of names, her use of myth and folklore, and how everything was created from the core of Harry's character.

So, once again, please welcome Shelley!

A Peek Into J.K. Rowling's Writing Process in Her Own Words, part 2

When a writer who is character driven (as Rowling is) involves herself in a long project, a large amount of the material that's generated, in the creation of the characters and their world, will never find its way into the books. As she mentions in the previous quotation,[18] amassing that much material was, in part, for her own pleasure.

Part of that pleasure for Rowling is in the naming of things:
I collect names. I've always collected names, so I've got notebooks full of them.[19]
Ideas come from all sorts of places and sometimes I don't realise where I got them. A friend from London recently asked me if I remembered when we first saw Hogwarts. I had no idea what she was talking about until she recalled the day we went to Kew Gardens and saw those lilies that were called Hogwarts. I'd seen them seven years before and they'd bubbled around in my memory. When Hogwarts occurred to me as a name for the school, I had no idea where it came from.[20]
Names are really crucial to me. Some of my characters have had eight or nine names before I hit the right one. And for some reason I just can't move on until I know I've called them the right thing - that's very fundamental to me.[21]
Sometimes invention gives out. I was writing the latest chapter of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and I needed to come up with another name for another potion. I sat for ten minutes at the keyboard then I just typed “X”. I thought, ‘I’ll go back and fill that in later.’ Sometimes you really want to get on with the story. Sometimes names just come to you, which is a great feeling, but sometimes it is difficult and you have to batter your brain for a while. Sometimes it comes to you while you are washing up or on the loo or something. My husband is quite used to me saying, 'Wait!' then running upstairs and writing something down.[22]
(article continues below)

The conception of new words:
I love making up words. There are a few key words in the books that wizards know and muggles, as in us non-magic people, don't know. Well, muggle is an obvious example. Then there's quidditch. Quidditch is the wizarding sport. A journalist in Britain asked me...she said to me, 'Now, you obviously got the word quidditch from quiddity; meaning the essence of a thing, its proper nature.' And I was really, really tempted to say, 'Yes, you're quite right,' because it sounded so intellectual. But I had to tell her the truth, which was that I wanted a word that began with Q—on a total whim—and I filled about, I don't know, five pages of a notebook with different Q-words until I hit quidditch and I knew that was the perfect one.[23]
And twisting the repertoire of folklore and mythology into a new narrative, to fit her story:
I've taken horrible liberties with folklore and mythology, but I'm quite unashamed about that, because British folklore and British mythology is a totally bastard mythology. You know, we've been invaded by people, we've appropriated their gods, we've taken their mythical creatures, and we've soldered them all together to make, what I would say, is one of the richest folklores in the world, because it's so varied. So I feel no compunction about borrowing from that freely, but adding a few things of my own.[24]
The liberties Rowling has taken with words, mythologies and ideas of writers she admires (Dorothy L. Sayers’ belief that romance and mystery do not made good companions in bed, for example), are the building blocks of the wizarding world. For the reader they come to life in much the way Harry did for Rowling--with a sense of excitement and surprise.
You can always tell if it's a good idea because you get a physical response to it, you get this sort of big leap of excitement.[25]
This sense of excitement, I suspect, is also the gauge by which Rowling determined whether the internal logic of her characters and their plot was credible or not. Each new idea that gave her this "big leap of excitement" provided much needed inspiration to keep her on track, at a time when life circumstances were difficult and prospects bleak.[26]
When asked about the source of her books, Rowling says, "I get it all from remembering what it was like to be a kid. So everything Harry goes through, and all these feelings of being lost sometimes and confused, these are all things I remember really vividly.”[27]
Rowling’s answers to questions James Runcie poses, at the beginning of his documentary J.K. Rowling…A Day in the Life, show how her personal values have infused the world of Harry Potter, consciously and unconsciously:[28]
Runcie: What’s your favourite virtue?
Rowling: Courage.”
Runcie: What vice do you most despise?
Rowling: Bigotry.
Runcie: What are you most willing to forgive?
Rowling: Gluttony.
Runcie: What’s your most marked characteristic?
Rowling: I’m a trier.
Runcie: What are you most afraid of?
Rowling: Losing someone I love.
Runcie: What’s the quality you most like in a man?
Rowling: Morals.
Runcie: What’s the quality you most like in a woman?
Rowling: Generosity.
Runcie: What do you most value about your friends?
Rowling: Tolerance.
Runcie: What’s your principal defect?
Rowling: Short views.
Runcie: What’s your favourite occupation?
Rowling: Writing.
Runcie: What’s your dream of happiness?
Rowling. Happy family.
The plot came entirely from Harry. This statement, more than any Rowling has made about her process as a writer, reveals how she found the internal logic that holds the story together to create a plot that is loophole free.
He really is the whole story. The whole plot is contained in Harry Potter; his past, present and future—that is the story. Harry came to me first and everything radiated out from him. I gave him his parents, then his past, then Hogwarts, and the wizarding world got bigger and bigger. He was the starting point.[29]
In A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver writes:
The part of the psyche that works in concert with consciousness and supplies a necessary part of the poem—the heat of the star as opposed to the shape of a star, let us say—exists in a mysterious, unmapped zone: not unconscious, not subconscious, but cautious. It learns quickly what sort of courtship it is going to be. … If you are reliably there, it begins to show itself—soon it begins to arrive when you do. But if you are only there sometimes and are frequently late or inattentive, it will appear fleetingly, or it will not appear at all.
This is what I think Rowling meant when she spoke of finding herself at the moment she hit rock bottom, when she discovered she had a strong will, and more self-discipline than she had ever suspected, to finish the only work that mattered to her.[30] When, in her darkest hour, writing was all she had left to fall back on, Fortuna smiled, because Rowling had always turned up to write, even when it didn’t appear to count.

There’s so much to say about J.K. Rowling that has helped me in my life outside of writing. But perhaps I’ll end with the two things that struck me most when I was searching for my path as a writer. In talking with Oprah Winfrey, Rowling described herself as someone who had very little self-confidence in most things except her ability to tell a story. She also told Oprah that she had never felt as excited about an idea as when Harry and a school for wizards leapt unexpectedly into her mind, even though she had never considered writing for children.[31] The story, she says, chose her; she didn’t choose it.[32]
I think that the biggest lesson from the success of Harry Potter is that you need to try not to follow a trend. It's almost a cliché. You have to follow your heart. In Harry Potter, the wand chooses the wizard; and when the wand chooses you, you take it. You don't try to find which other books are selling, which ones are hot right now.[33] Arthur Levine
“How do you want to be remembered?” Runcie asks J.K. Rowling at the end of his documentary.

“As someone who did the best she could with the talent she had.”[34]

The creative process is a mysterious thing. It's not linear, and it has its own agenda. It's not there for us to use it—we are here to be used by it. In this sense, J.K. Rowling gave fully of herself—her intelligence, wit, morality, political beliefs, knowledge of literature, life experience, and abiding faith in the redemptive power of love—to the agenda of the creative impulse that chose her to write Harry Potter. Her conviction in the one thing she believed she could do—tell a story—and her belief in the story that chose her, is the reason fans of all ages have fallen in love with Jo Rowling the person, not just with J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books. Through learning about what inspired her process as a writer, I gained insight into trusting my own.

-- Shelley Souza

(Check Out JK Rowling's Newest Release -- Harry Potter and the Cursed Child here!)

Shelley Souza received a Master of Fine Arts in directing from U.C. Irvine and spent over two decades developing and staging new plays by established and emerging playwrights. She has authored hundreds of articles on new technology (which she loves) and ghostwritten four books of non-fiction for clients of an independent publisher. She is a member of the Authors Guild and SCBWI.

[18] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aDhtJU7uLrQ
[19] http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/1999/1099-connectiontransc2.htm
[20] http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2001/1001-sydney-renton.htm
[21] http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/1999/1099-connectiontransc2.htm
[22] http://www.jkrowling.com/textonly/en/news_view.cfm?id=80
[23] http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/1999/1299-wamu-rehm.htm
[24] http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2005/1205-bbc-fry.html
[25] http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2005/0705-edinburgh-jones-official.html
[26] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p6-6zaa4NI4
[27] http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/1999/0199-scotlandsunday-goring.html
[28] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p6-6zaa4NI4
[29] http://www.jkrowling.com/textonly/en/news_view.cfm?id=80
[30] http://www.ted.com/talks/jk_rowling_the_fringe_benefits_of_failure.html
[31] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Y8TJqBtV8Y
[32] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kn7nlfoMcwQ
[33] http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/1999/1013-nyt-levine.html
[34] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p6-6zaa4NI4

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Guest Post: J.K. Rowling's Writing Process in Her Own Words, part 1

                             (Read part 2 of Shelley's post here.)
I am delighted to welcome to the blog today published writer and theater director Shelley Souza.  I met Shelley recently through SavvyAuthors as a participant in my online class, A Writer's Guide to Harry Potter.  As always when I present this workshop, I learn more than I teach, and Shelley is a perfect example of why.  To help inform her own writing and understanding of craft, Shelley has delved deeply beneath the surface of Jo's work in order to understand the person and the process which produced Harry...thus she is a font of great insight.  Also, having been raised in Britain, Shelley helped me understand much of the cultural background of JKR's work that I had missed.

Shelley is as enthused about JK Rowling's craft as I am, and because she believes the best way to understand Jo's writing process is through her own words, Shelley's spent a huge amount of time researching through old interviews.  The post she has put together for us is a wonderful compilation of what JKR has said throughout the years in various interviews regarding her own writing process.

So now, please join me in welcoming Shelley!

A Peek Into J.K. Rowling's Writing Process in Her Own Words, part 1

As a writer, I am as much drawn to J.K. Rowling as I am to her books. The books came first but my interest in Rowling as a person and as a writer followed very quickly. As a reader, I would love to have read these books when I was young as much as I love reading them today. For one thing, they’re very British. And their inventiveness is legend. But as a writer, what inspires me more than Rowling’s imagination is her intuitive approach to the construction of the plot, and her self-confidence in her ability to tell a story.

I was born and raised in London (and attended boarding school). At first Harry Potter reminded me of one of my favourite series when I was about ten, the St. Clare books, by Enid Blyton. Both stories are set in a boarding school but that’s where the similarity between them ends. In Enid Blyton’s books, girls of a certain class in the forties and fifties attended boarding school. The goal was to train these girls to be morally good and practically efficient, in preparation for becoming a good wife and mother. (Not that I read them to learn how to be a good wife and mother! I liked the St. Clare books primarily for the classroom and midnight antics the girls got up to. And I also liked the teachers, in particular, the headmistress, who was always fair; unlike my teachers and headmistress in real life). Rowling has said the reason the Harry Potter books are set in a boarding school has nothing to do with the British class system.
In Britain, it's a big deal. In Britain, it's, 'Aha! So which boarding school did you go to?' I didn't go to boarding school. Harry Potter has to be set in a boarding school for reasons of plot. How would it be interesting if the characters couldn't get up at night and wander around? You're going to have them go to a day school and trot home, and then break into school every night?[1]
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Readers readily accept that Hogwarts is a boarding school because Rowling plants the idea in their imagination before they see the school for the first time, along with Harry and his friends. Students arrive at night, after travelling all day on a special train. On their arrival, Professor McGonagall tells the first years that their house will serve as their family during their time at the school. Hogwarts provides a safe environment in which to meet even the most dangerous wizard. In the early books, it would be implausible for Harry to encounter Voldemort away from the protected grounds of Hogwarts. He wouldn't know enough magic to defend himself successfully against the greatest wizard of dark magic in the last fifty years. When a reader accepts the author’s main setting without question, the author has succeeded in laying down the cornerstone of her world in the reader's mind. Rowling's cornerstone is Hogwarts. It stands for the learning of magic; and as such plays a pivotal role in the continuity of the wizarding world.

The credibility of Harry Potter’s world depends on strict rules that govern the internal logic.
I loathe books that have inconsistencies and leave questions unanswered. Loopholes bug the hell out of me. I hate getting to the end of a book and thinking, but if so and so had told Mr. Y. back in chapter three, it need never have happened. And so I try to be meticulous and make sure that everything operates according to laws, however odd, so that everyone understands exactly how and why.[2]
The five years I spent on Harry Potter 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. . . . You can tell with The Simpsons. It's a work of genius. You can tell that they've structured it in such a way that they're never at a loss for what their characters can and can't do. That's why they're so believable - even though they're little yellow people.[3]
My impression of J.K. Rowling is that what you see in Harry Potter is who she is, as a person. Not the magic (which is her imagination) but her logic, morality, themes, and sly sense of humour.

When asked why the wizarding world needs money, she answers:
There is legislation about what you can conjure and what you can't. Something that you conjure out of thin air will not last. This is a rule I set down for myself early on. I love these logical questions![4]
And on whether Harry Potter is a moral tale, she says:
I did not conceive it as a moral tale; the morality sprang naturally out of the story, a subtle but important difference. I think any book that sets out to teach or preach is likely to be hard going at times (though I can think of a couple of exceptions).[5]
One exception might be Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.
I know I read Little Women when I was eight, because we moved house shortly afterwards, when I was nine. Naturally, I whole-heartedly identified with Jo March, she of the burning literary ambition and short temper.[6]
Or The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge.
The tone is perfect; a seamless mix of the fairy-tale and the real. It also has a plain heroine, which delighted me beyond words as a child, because I was a very plain little girl and I hadn’t met many literary heroines who weren’t breathtakingly pretty. The opening paragraphs of The Little White Horse have stayed with me all my life. Goudge says that there are three kinds of people in this world: Those who find consolation in food, those who find consolation in literature, and those who find consolation in personal adornment.[7]
Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (the tale of The Deathly Hallows was inspired by The Pardoner's Tale); and possibly, Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan.[8]

I think it is fair to say Dumbledore embodies Rowling’s ideal philosopher.[9]

Finally, though not exhaustively, Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels possibly influenced Hermoine’s conscience to fight injustice, just as Mitford's life has influenced Rowling's political beliefs.
Jessica Mitford has been my heroine since I was 14 years old, when I overheard my formidable great-aunt discussing how Mitford had run away at the age of 19 to fight with the Reds in the Spanish Civil War. She was incurably and instinctively rebellious, brave, adventurous, funny and irreverent, she liked nothing better than a good fight, preferably against a pompous and hypocritical target.[10]
Rowling has said she writes for herself and that she writes for herself as a reader. So that even though she is not writing with a particular audience in mind—“I never really imagine a target audience when I'm writing. The ideas come first”[11]—she is writing with a particular reader in mind: herself. When Diane Rehm wanted to understand why children were drawn to the books, Rowling replied:
That's such a very hard question to answer, because...without being disingenuous, I wrote what I wanted to write. And I wrote the sort of thing that I knew I'd like to read *now* as an adult, and I knew that I would have liked to have read it when I was 11.[12]
I didn’t go into it thinking, this is what works; therefore, I will do that. But from letters I get and the reactions I get, particularly from children, it is the characters they care about most. Yes, they are very deeply amused by the magic going on, and so on. But they really deeply care about the characters, particularly the three central characters – Harry, Ron and Hermione.[13]
In a sense, I'm too close to it to be able to see whether there's, you know, a particular thing that draws children in, and in many ways I don't want to analyze it too much, because I'm scared that if I decide that it's factor X that is making children in these numbers like it, I might try a little too hard to put a lot of X in book 4 or 5. And I don't want to do that. I just want to write it the way I'm writing it at the moment, and enjoy writing it, and do it my way, without trying to, you know, work to a formula[14]
Rowling’s decision to introduce the thestrals near the beginning of book five, instead of at the end of book four, reveals her thought process as both reader and writer. Because Rowling writes the idea of a story for herself, first, rather than with a target audience in mind, how she thinks as a reader during the course of her writing greatly influences the choices she makes as a writer:
At the end of Goblet of Fire, we sent Harry home more depressed than he had ever been leaving Hogwarts. Now I knew that the thestrals were coming and I can prove that because they are in the book that I produced for Comic Relief, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. These unlucky black winged horses. However, if Harry had seen them then, and we hadn't explained them then, I thought that would be rather a cheat on the reader in that Harry suddenly sees these monsters but we don't go anywhere with them. So to explain to myself, I said, you had to have seen the death and allowed it to sink in a little bit, before, slowly, these creatures became solid in front of you. So that's how I am going to sneak past that one.[15]
Her compelling cast of characters came to life in her imagination because she never faltered in her belief that Harry Potter was the story she was meant to write.
It took me five years to work out this very long plot. On that train, I came up with lots of the characters you meet at the school. Loads and loads of detail, but not really the narrative. It’s as though, subconsciously, for years, I had been preparing for writing Harry Potter.[16]
During those five years this mass of material was generated, some of which will never find its way into the books, will never need to be in the books. It's just stuff I need to know, for my own pleasure—partly for my own pleasure and partly because I like reading a book where I have a sense that the author knows everything. They might not be telling me everything but you have that confidence that the author really knows everything.[17]
At first glance it appears that there isn't much interpretative thought appended to the quotes I selected. I deliberately structured the post to comprise mainly of Rowling's words, not my interpretation of them, because I learned so much about my process as a writer, simply by reading what Rowling had to say about hers.

-- Shelley Souza

(Read part 2 of Shelley's post here.)

(Check Out JK Rowling's Newest Release -- Harry Potter and the Cursed Child here!) 


Susan here -- I can't thank Shelley enough for wading through all these interviews and organizing a wonderful peek into Jo's writing process.  Please be sure to join us Thursday for the second half of Shelley's post.  And in the meanwhile, you can get to know Shelley better through her Tumblr blog!

Shelley Souza received a Master of Fine Arts in directing from U.C. Irvine and spent over two decades developing and staging new plays by established and emerging playwrights. She has authored hundreds of articles on new technology (which she loves) and ghostwritten four books of non-fiction for clients of an independent publisher. She is a member of the Authors Guild and SCBWI.