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Archive for July, 2009

J. K. Rowling and the Wizard World

Monday, July 13th, 2009

This Wednesday, wizards and witches from all over the world will dress up to go see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth installment in the Harry Potter series.

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Source:  MTV Movies Blog

It’s amazing to see how, since the first book was released in 1997, an entire franchise has arisen from such humble beginnings.  J. K. Rowling, at the time she wrote the first book, was living on welfare as a single mother, raising her daughter.  While sitting on a train one evening, the idea of a small boy wearing dark-rimmed glasses fell into her head–a boy who didn’t yet realize that he was a wizard.  And, like all writers, her best idea had occurred to her at a time when she had no access to a pen.

While Rowling’s stories about Harry Potter have taken the world by storm, expanding faster than she ever dreamed, what should be more important to us as writers is Rowling’s story.  She wrote these stories while in a situation that many would consider hopeless, and, through luck and a compelling story, was able to create a world that excited children (and adults!) in a way that few other books can claim.

Rowling created the first two Harry Potter books in coffee shops like the Elephant House in Edinburgh.  While the Elephant House has a much better view than a typical coffee house (you can see the Edinburgh Castle from the back room), it’s interesting to note that Rowling, like so many other writers, started her work  in such a common settingAlso like many other writers, she had a difficult time finding time to write–once her daughter fell asleep, she would, according to her own phrasing, “… dash off to the nearest cafe and write like mad.”

Elephant House

Elephant House

http://www.flickr.com/photos/25413523@N08/ / CC BY 2.0

What’s also interesting about the Harry Potter novels, from a writer’s perspective, is Rowling’s development as a writer.  Her dialogue from the first novel is simple, even mundane–when I first read the book, to see what all the commotion was about, I was shocked to see her dialogue mostly surrounded by “he said,” “she said, ” and the occasional “he/she asked.”  From what I had learned at that point in time, in order to be considered an excellent writer, you had to have extraordinary skill with organizing words on paper, eliminating redundancy so as not to bore the reader.  What I did not yet realize (but understand now), is that saying something well is important, it is even more vital to have something important to say.

After reading the first book a second time, ignoring the simplistic writing style, I started to catch on to what others had been talking about…for what she lacked in traditional literary style, she more than made up for with a compelling story, borrowing elements from dozens of other children’s books.  These elements were stirred in a soup of paper, poured into a cover, and became (quite literally, at least for her), gold.  If she’d only started with lead, she would have been the ultimate alchemist.  The ideas were presented in a fashion that was accessible to many, and encouraged an entire generation to read (and for some generations, to start to read again).

And, I have to admit, I too became hooked.

As time went on, Rowling’s books became a worldwide, cultural phenomenon, a story that easily crossed country borders, eventually translated into 67 languages–something very few books have accomplished in the short, twelve-year lifespan (so far) of the Harry Potter books.

Also as time went on, Rowling’s skill as a writer also grew, no doubt, at least in part, to constructive criticism she received from her early books.  She was also able to write more complex stories because of the fact her readers were aging at (approximately) the same rate Harry was.  For me, it was fascinating to watch her skill grow as Harry himself grew.

While Rowling loved her books (as all authors do), she had no way of knowing that her stories would become so well-known and adored by people all over the world.  My opinion is that this is the same with all writers–while we hold out the hope that our story will become as beloved as the characters in Rowling’s stories, we always also have a bit of self-doubt that our story is quite good enough.  However, if Rowling had listened to her own doubts, we may never have seen the effect her stories would have on the worldIgnore your own doubts–if you don’t get your story out to the world, you will never know what effect you may have had.

As time went on, Rowling created and released more and more of the series.  By this time, however, the books themselves had taken a life of their own.  The problem was not getting enough people to read her books — the problem was making enough books for people to read. This culminated in the release of the seventh book.

For a few rare moments, millions of people stayed up, waiting for the midnight release of the seventh book–something very few books have ever successfully done.  I was one of those anxious readers waiting at a local Barnes and Noble for the release of the final book–while I wanted to read the book, I was even more interested in watching the people as the excitement built that night.  As a writer, I was more interested in how the event came to be, rather than the event itself.  What might the story be for these people–why were they compelled to come and stay up that night for a book?

At the time, I thought to myself, “Look at the passion in the faces of these people.  The woman who wrote the stories is responsible for inspiring these people to read more–and there will be more writers in the world because of her.  I want to be someone who inspires people to create more, create something better, and create something meaningful.”  WritAnon is one way I plan to help make that happen.

This weekend, several friends and I watched all of the Harry Potter movies in sequence.  We were able to see the characters grow (literally as well as figuratively) as the story evolved.  We stopped worrying about the inconsistencies (though we noted some of our favorite parts that had been stripped out), and saw how Rowling (and, in the case of the movies, Warner Brothers) had created a universe that captures the imagination of minds all over the world.

This week, or sometime in the near future, enjoy watching the sixth Harry Potter film.  While you watch, though, look for elements that you can borrow and mix into your own story.  Look for the pieces that most interest or inspire you–if something inspires you, you can reshape it to have the same (or greater!) effect on your own readers.  And learn a lesson from Rowling–no matter where you’re from or what your skill level is, you can always work to inspire others.  All you need is a pen.

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A Writer’s Mortal Enemy

Monday, July 6th, 2009

Writer’s block.

The bane of every writer, this disease may be fatal to many works.  However, the disease presents in varying degrees of severity, with symptoms lasting from minutes to years

Symptoms include: blank pages, crumpled papers, a seeming loss of creativity, explosive diarrhea (paying attention now, eh?), and hours spent staring at an unchanging screen.


  • Relaxation
  • Some patience
  • A hint of humor
  • Get started now!

As writers, we’ve all faced this mortal enemy.  Writer’s block threatens to steal the very thoughts from our minds, leaving our fingers useless to type or write anything more than “See Jane run.  Run, Jane, run!”

I’ve developed a series of techniques that have helped me overcome writer’s block.  I now see this once deadly disease as nothing more than an inconvenience.  With a little practice, you too can put this demon to rest.

For right now, though, you’re stuck.  You’ve written yourself into a corner, and no matter what you do, you can’t seem to find your way out.  What do you do?

Treatment #1:  Relaxation (Dosage:  3-5 minutes)

Anyone who has been on an airplane has seen the typical safety routine.  In that routine is a segment where passengers are instructed, if the oxygen masks drop, to secure one’s own mask before assisting a child (or anyone else).  In a similar manner, writers need to take care of themselves before taking care of their work.

For most writers, in order to create their best work, relaxation is key.  I usually close my eyes and imagine a quiet stroll through a forest, or walking along a beach.  Any imagery will do, as long as it relaxes you (though not too relaxed…wake up, wake up!).  The goal is to (temporarily) allow yourself to stop thinking about the work at hand.  In fact, your true goal is to keep from doing anything at all, so that you can approach your work with a clear mind.

After 3-5 minutes of relaxation (or whenever your mind feels more clear), try again.  Often, this is enough for me to get moving again.  If not, I try treatment #2.

Treatment #2:  Some patience (Dosage:  30-45 minutes)

You’ve tried relaxing, but it didn’t work fast enough.  What’s treatment #2?  Essentially, the idea here is similar to treatment #1–you want to try to get your mind off the current problem (again, temporarily).  Take a short walk, eat a meal with your family, or read a favorite book.  You’re looking to take an approximately half hour break from your writing.  When you get back, do not go back to your work. Instead, use treatment #3.

Treatment #3:  A hint of humor (5-10 minutes)

Spend 5 minutes reading jokes online, or, if you have one, rifling through your joke file.  I have several jokes conveniently located above my desk, which are guaranteed to give me a laugh.  You know what makes you laugh…spend 5 minutes reading or watching something funny!

Why humor?  Humor breaks you out of your typical operating mode and frees up your creativity.  Writer’s block is truly just the feeling that you lack creativity, so allowing yourself to laugh breaks you out of the box.

Treatment #4:  Get started now! ( (Dosage:  will vary)

Enough procrastinating! Treatments #1 and #2 are condoned procrastination techniques, which force you to take a break from working on something you’re stuck on.  Treatment #3 helps you to think differently.  The goal with this treatment is to force yourself to get something (anything!) down on paper.

At first, just focus on the ideas that you want to get across.  Don’t worry (right now) about getting full sentences, unless they happen to come to you.

Once you have your ideas down, focus on how you want to put them together.

Example (also available in the forums):
What I want to say: Fish tastes good.

Wait…what type of fish? Am I saying all fish tastes good? Is there anything else missing that I want to say or imply?

What I want to say: Salmon tastes good, and I also like the way it looks.

Okay, this is better, but what do I like about the way it looks?

What I want to say: Salmon tastes good, and I love its pink color.

Okay, this seems like enough about what I want to say. Now how do I want to say it? Let’s pick a story form:

The salmon was delicious–the grill-streaked, peach flesh was so tender that it melted in my mouth.

Or let’s pick a cooking video:

Grilled salmon tastes best when it has turned from a dark pink to a rosy, almost peach color, with nice dark streaks from the grill.

Or perhaps even from the perspective of the salmon’s spirit:

My peach flesh was so tender, marked with beautiful streaks from the grill’s flames, that even I had to admit that, were I still alive, I’d have to eat myself.

Allowing yourself to have fun with what you’re writing is the best defense against writer’s block.  There are many other treatments for writer’s block, but this is the formula I usually prescribe for myself.

Other treatments will follow soon…until then, get started on your 4-step process!

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