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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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Independent thoughts

Saturday, July 4th, 2009

What comes to mind when you think of the 4th of July?  For many, the 4th of July means:

  • Fireworks
  • A day off work
  • Spending time with family
  • Brats or hamburgers on the grill

Almost as an afterthought, some will mention, “Oh, and it’s the anniversary of the day we, as a nation, declared our independence from Great Britain.”

Sometimes we get caught up in memories of past family holidays, and forget the true reason for the day.  For those who haven’t been keeping track, today marks the 233rd anniversary of Congressional approval of the contents of the  Declaration of Independence.

For many, it takes more effort to pull up memories of the Declaration of Independence, and how it was the start of the War for American Independence (the Revolutionary War officially started in 1775, but the United States of America was essentially created with the Declaration of Independence).  The distant history learned in school is more difficult to remember than last summer’s fireworks at the beach.

One common misconception is that the Declaration of Independence was written in a single sitting.  In reality, writing the declaration took weeks of work. You may want to compare Jefferson’s rough draft with the final draft.  While there are similarities, there are also significant differences.  There’s nothing wrong with multiple drafts–expect to write many, and rewrite the same section several times.  Even (or especially) the best writers write in multiple drafts.

On this Independence Day, remember some of the names of the key players in the Revolutionary War.   Of course there are far too many to list in a single blog entry, and several are familiar to most, such as Paul Revere, Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine, and George Washington.   However, what’s more important than the names are the stories those names represent.

The stories behind the names have provided inspiration for countless poems, papers, books, and plays, as well as many features on the History Channel.  What’s (perhaps) less obvious is the fact that these stories can also provide inspiration for your own writing, whether your work covers the Revolutionary War or something completely different.  Integrating historical events adds color to your black and white print.

Paul Revere’s midnight ride was immortalized in the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  Longfellow’s poem is somewhat historically inaccurate (see disclaimer below).  The very idea of the story itself, though, of a lone man warning the townsfolk and leaders of the revolution of an impending sea attack, hits directly at the heart of heroism. Similar warning systems (such as the signal fires used in the Lord of the Rings series by Tolkien) can be used in your stories, wherever battles occur.   Historical disclaimer: There were actually three known riders, plus others who have been lost to history.  Read the Wikipedia article–the poem, as well as the story, has an interesting past.

Ben Franklin’s role in the Revolution was primarily that of a diplomat, working closely with France as an ally of the newly formed united States (another aside — originally, the ‘u’ in ‘united’ was not capitalized).  Without France, the revolution would not have been successful–France provided generals, a navy, and financial assistance (for more, read http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/France_in_the_American_Revolutionary_War).  However, what’s notable about Franklin is that he fought the Revolutionary War armed with a pen and years of political savvy. It’s amazing what a writer can do.

Along those lines, Thomas Paine was perhaps the most inspiring writer of the Revolutionary period.  His inspiring pamphlet, Common Sense, was the primary motivator for the majority of the intellectuals to move from sedentary acquiescence to violent uprising.

At the time his pamphlet was written, people living in the colonies were unhappy with the fact the monarchy was ignoring their needs.  However, these people were so used to the idea of a king being in charge that they felt nothing could change the way things were.  Thomas Paine set out to convince them otherwise.

Democracy (more accurately, a Republic, as the US would eventually become) was a foreign concept to the people living in those times, even more foreign as living under the rule of a king would seem to us today.  At the time, there were some examples of Republics (Paine mentions Holland and Switzerland), and he uses those as reasons for people to pursue independence.  He argued against the need for a king. In those times, this was a radical view.

Paine’s simple logic ignited the populace into action, through the use of words that empowered the people, rather than continuing to obey the desires of a king.  This pamphlet defines the moment when the nation abandoned a monarchy in favor of democracy, with such fervor they were willing to fight to the death to do so.  Now that’s powerful writing.

As writers, what can we learn from history?  There are many events from the past that can be adapted to a current work (such as a lowly peasant that warns his city’s leaders that an enemy is sneaking around a mountain).  We can also look at the strategies used by writers like Paine to make such a convincing argument for revolution.  Those same strategies can be used to stir passion in the hearts of our readers, and make them feel like they’re living the story, not simply reading it.

One final note–as you enjoy fireworks tonight, time with family, or simply having a day off, remember General George Washington, as he led armies of revolutionaries to battle for their freedom.  Imagine each explosion as a gunshot or cannon firing, as he and his men fought from the muddy (or frozen) trenches, and each bright flash as a brief moment of heroism as a man defended a friend.

Research history for interesting stories. Use the inspiration provided by these stories to enhance your own writing style.  Integrate these ideas into your works to make your stories sparkle, like the fireworks lighting up the sky.

Happy 4th of July!

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