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J K Rowling's Writing Process


first registered 07.05.08

last online 907 days ago

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This is by far the most underrated of the steps in the writing process. And in the final wash up it is absolutely the most important.

It was 1990 and Jo Rowling was on a train between Manchester and London. Harry literally strolled fully formed into her mind while she was gazing out the train window at a field full of cows. She spent the next four hours (the train was delayed) imagining Harry, the world he inhabited, the friends and enemies he had there and the dangers and joys he may encounter there. She had nothing to write on so had to be content to play this all out in her imagination. By the time she got off the train in London, the central cast of characters were already cemented in her mind.

But did she go home and immediately begin scribbling a story with these characters? No, she didn’t. She spent five years, yes that’s right FIVE YEARS creating and developing every last detail of the wizarding world, including government and education systems, how the wizarding world stood shoulder to shoulder with the muggle world, and she devised a highly sophisticated system of magic that would eventually form the backbone of her own special brand of writing magic. On top of this she sculpted out the entire story, planning the details and events of all the seven books, before she put pen to paper to begin writing the first.

Would you attempt to build a house without plans? Would you attempt to drive across the country without a map? Or would you set sail on the seas without a compass? Writing a book without a detailed planning stage is like attempting to build a house without plans. Miss this step and you are almost certainly destined to become lost in a forest of your own words.

When you are writing, you are just writing. You are not planning, you are not editing. You are writing. Once you have planned your story, it is time to sit down and write it.

JK Rowling planned the Harry Potter series for five years before she put pen to paper on the first book She wrote the entire first book, and felt as though she were “carving it out of this mass of notes”. All the planning was worth it. She was able to devote herself to the actual task of writing, knowing that all the story and character elements she needed were covered.

This is the best possible place for you to be in when you are writing a novel. Novels are long. Usually over 100,000 words and sometimes as many as 200,000 words and more. That is a lot of words! So if you have planned and structured your story effectively, done your research (either real or in your imagination) and collated your notes, then the writing process is an absolute joy, where you can be very certain of your ability to produce the best possible novel.

Jo Rowling said she felt she “had to do right by the book”. She really believed in the story and so when it came to writing it, she made sure she had taken care of all the necessary preparation. Once that’s done, writing is almost easy!

Jo Rowling rewrote the opening chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone a total of 15 times. Her mother died just 6 months after her first attempt at Chapter One of that book, and that sent her into a frenzy of rewriting, essentially changing everything. The Potter books are about death, there is no doubt about that, and they are driven particularly by the death of Harry’s parents and his miraculous survival. When Jo Rowling experienced such a major turning point in her own life, she rewrote the story to reflect and process her own pain.

Writing and rewriting are separate processes. Writing is scribing or sculpting out the drafts of the story. Rewriting is re-looking and re-seeing. Often the rewrite will show up where the story has gone off track and where questions asked at the start haven’t been answered by the end. In JK Rowling’s case, she realised after writing the entire first book that she had given away the entire plot of the seven books. She rewrote it in this light, and held many things back.

Many successful authors say that you only write to rewrite. DH Lawrence even said that he wrote his entire first draft, threw it away and then started again from scratch.

Editing is the process of refining and polishing your manuscript. This part of the process may be done by you, or by an external editor. It is often wise to have an editor look over your work before submitting it for publication as it is extremely difficult to get the distance you need from your own work to see where it can be improved.

Not that you have to listen to what the editor says. In the end it is your name on the spine of that novel and you are entirely answerable for its contents. Having said that, a good and subtle editor can lift your novel to heights that you may not be able to achieve on your own.

It is clear from the Harry Potter series that JK Rowling was more tightly edited at the beginning (the first two novels are barely more than 200 pages and by the time we get to number five, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, we are faced with a weighty tome of over 700 pages) so it is generally advisable at the beginning of your career to bear the advice of your editor heavily in mind, especially if you are new to publishing. In every event, less is more, and a distilled and focussed book is more likely to captivate and intrigue a new audience than a meandering epic that constantly loses its way.

Writing a book is a process, never forget that. Each step in the process is unique but necessary. Don’t mix them, and certainly don’t attempt to skip any steps. Do that at your own peril.

JK Rowling has shown the world what is possible if you adhere to the basic processes of the art and craft of writing a good story. So before you attempt your next novel, address the four steps in the writing process: planning, writing, rewriting and editing, and be sure you give each step its due.

And who knows? You could be the next JK Rowling.

Suzanne Harrison

Posted: 01/09/2010 06:32:52

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first registered 07.05.08

last online 907 days ago

1990 was when the Books Of Magic first appeared, too.

Posted: 01/09/2010 07:21:29

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first registered 07.05.08

last online 907 days ago

1990 was when the Books Of Magic first appeared, too. <nolink>close quotes</nolink>

In case you were wondering where Harry Potter strolled "fully formed" into her mind from.

Posted: 01/09/2010 07:23:00

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first registered 07.05.08

last online 907 days ago

I think the planning step is most controversial. Know the whole thing before you start.

Posted: 01/09/2010 07:23:49

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M. A. McRae.

first registered 01.02.10

last online 10 days ago

That was a very interesting post thank you Nick.

Posted: 01/09/2010 07:28:42

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first registered 03.12.09

last online 920 days ago

What a shame they stopped editing her! The later books are so flabby.

Interesting post, though. J.R.R. Tolkien also spent 30 years creating his world, starting with its language, though in his case he created a lot of the world without knowing about his individual characters. They strolled into it as he was writing.

Posted: 01/09/2010 11:25:32

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first registered 07.05.08

last online 907 days ago

I wonder if Dan Brown and whassernamer Meyer plan much?

Posted: 01/09/2010 11:44:07

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LL Rook

first registered 20.08.10

last online 367 days ago

I've never been a planner. When I write it's as much for me as it is to share with other's and I've always felt that if I planned all the details then all the mystery and excitement would be gone.

My next piece however, the sequel to Gwenhyfar, will be planned out simply because it's set in our not too distant future and there will be events throughout that are directly related to the catastrophe in the beginning. I feel the need to get this right so my story will be true to the realities we would face should something like this ever happen.

Maybe I'll be a planning convert by the time I'm done. Who knows?

But the reality is there are some people who plan and still can't write, other's can't plan but will enchant us with their words. It's a personal preference though I have noticed many on each side of the plan/don't plan debate will attack the other side unneccesarily. Don't judge an entire group based on one bad manuscript (or even a few) because there will always be those few exceptions who surprise you.

The real argument should be for effective editing.

Posted: 01/09/2010 12:37:08

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first registered 04.10.08

last online 1095 days ago

Personally I think the one with the lengthy descriptions of the World Quidditch championship in it is a lesson to everyone on why you shouldn't put every last detail of your imagined world into your books even if you can't bear to leave anything out!
Having said that, I've read all the books and I do admire her achievement, even I can't even imagine planning to that extent myself.

Posted: 01/09/2010 12:54:38

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John Booth

first registered 25.03.09

last online 1 hour ago

I don't think Books of Magic maps into Harry Potter, though I'm a big fan of both.

The most obvious influence in HP is Enid Blyton and the Mallory Towers seven book sequence. The constant references to food, the lake/moat, the tricks played on people, Gwendolyne Stacey is changed into Draco Malfoy (with the same outcome in both series). What was a main plot in Blyton's books becomes a sub plot in Rowlings.

On that base, Jo Rowling laid an intricate tale of magic and revenge with much originality and wit.

This is why the books appear bloated to some because there are two separate threads intertwined

Posted: 01/09/2010 12:58:47

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