The Week of the Writer Guest Post: “Top 10 Tips of Writing I Learned from Studying JK Rowling”

Welcome to the final day of The Week of the Writer!

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When I first ventured into the blogging and twittering (is that a word?) world, S.P. Sipal was one of the first to make me feel welcome – and she’s a NC native like me 🙂
Her posts on Harry Potter For Writers leave me speechless every time, without fail. I don’t know how she does it, but she’s able to dive deep into the world of JK Rowling’s creation, Harry Potter, and use the creator’s methods to teach us all how to be better writers. Almost every one of her posts have made it into the notebook of writing tips I’ve picked up from blogs, and I’m sure there’ll be many more to that will captivate, intimidate, render me speechless, and inspire me to be the best writer I can possibly be. And I don’t think I’ve really thanked her enough for that.
Thank you, S.P. Sipal for breaking down the creation and writing of JK Rowling and using it to teach us all how to be better writers!

I confess.  Over the last ten years, I’ve had an unhealthy obsession with The Boy Who Lived.  I’ve written editorials, posted comments on fan boards, hunted out clues with the rest of the Potterheads, presented my workshop at conferences, started my own blog, and even published a Kindle book — all with the goal of unearthing JK Rowling’s secrets.
But what has been a bit on the obsessive compulsive side for me, is a good thing for you!  Other writers can benefit from my fascination with ferreting out Rowling’s tricks.
So, here for your amusement or edification, not sure which, are the top ten tips I’ve learned from studying JK Rowling’s phenomenally selling series:
10) Plot like you’re Hermione about to face her boggart:
Hermione’s biggest fear was for McGonagall to tell her she’d failed all her exams. And so she always over-studied, ensuring that she was prepared and would never have to face this horror.  J.K. Rowling, Hermione’s real-life doppelganger, has stated that she is a heavy plotter, working out the details of each book before she writes, and having plotted out all seven when she was writing the first.
Now, I’m not saying that pansters are wrong.  Lots of good stuff comes out of free-flowing writing and it can be a great way to get ideas flowing or even write a first draft.  But before you even consider hitting send on a manuscript, at some point along the way you had better let your inner Hermione get hold of your work!
Certain types of books call for more plotting beforehand than others.  Works like Rowling’s with their multiple subplots and intricate trail-of-clues mysteries would be very difficult to write by the seat of your pants.  
So, know your story and play to your skills.  But keep Hermione close at hand when you need to be sure it all makes sense.
9) Quirky gamekeepers can be captivating:
Who couldn’t love Hagrid?  I mean, what’s there not to love about a half-giant who hatches dragons in his fireplace and calls a three-headed monster Fluffy? 
Rowling is universally acknowledged for creating some of the most lovable and fun characters.  Fans just can’t get enough of them! Which is why they create their own fanfiction and demand more and more details from the author.
So, how does Rowling do this? Her techniques for character development are too numerous to detail here, but one way is to create each character with exquisite detail and give each character their own quirky flair.
Pomona Sprout always has dirt beneath her fingers.  Sour and sneaky old Filch has an equally sneaky old cat he adores. The twins create candies that make students vomit. Mr. Weasley, who’s a Muggle-lover, collects electrical cords.
A wizard who collects plugs?  Where does she get these ideas? These rich, interesting details are what make her characters come so alive to the fans. Make sure you’ve fully envisioned your characters, right down to your batty old cat-lady squib neighbor!
8) You’ve got to have a Snape:
And speaking of well-loved characters, there is no character in Potterverse more discussed and dissected than Snape.  Not even Harry.  Harry, the reader knows and understands.  Harry, for the most part, was always on the side of right.  But Snape….
Snape was a mystery, an enigma.  And beyond his mystery, he most definitely was a man of ambiguity.  Because the readers could never pin this gray Potions master down for sure, he captivated their attention.
Have you written a character who flits between your dark and light sides, whose backstory will not be fully revealed until the end, who is in every way an ambiguous anti-hero?
Explore all the depths of your various themes with characters who inhabit all facets of your fabulous shades.  And make sure you’ve got a gray Snape among the bunch!
7) The Dark Lord’s in the Detail:
Through the 3 points we have discussed so far, and those that are yet to come, one of the recurring themes is the level of detail with which Rowling creates her world. I liken it to pregnancy when women are told to make sure every bite counts because every morsel that goes into your mouth contributes to the health of your growing baby.
Likewise with writing, every word you create should provide as powerful an impact as possible. Don’t just toss words around.
Create your characters down to their leather boots that are the size of small dolphins (Hagrid).  Build your worlds right down to the stuffed gnomes on the Christmas tree (courtesy of Fred and George). Plan your plots right down to the loyalties of wands (the Elder Wand).
If you do your job right, you’ll have more details than you can realistically work onto the paper.  You’ll need these excess details fully fleshed in your mind to make decisions as you go along in crafting your story.  The details you choose to insert should be carefully chosen to carry the greatest amount of impact with the least amount of words. Because, like Voldemort, lack of interesting detail is truly a killer!
6) Challenge the reader as if casting your first Patronus:
For Harry, learning to cast the Patronus charm, which protected him from the depressing attack of Dementors, was one of the most challenging skills he had to learn.  But he learned it years before most other witches and wizards ever attempted to.  He learned it because he had to, because the dementors had such a terrible effect upon him.
If you’re writing for young readers, and even if you’re not, challenge them to go beyond their years.  Don’t ever talk down to them.  J.K. Rowling didn’t, and the kids loved her for it.
Can you imagine what a critique partner would have said about Order of the Phoenix? — This will never work.  You can’t expect a ten year old to read a 257,000 word book!
And yet…they gobbled it up and wanted more.
Many of these young readers also latched onto the layers of subtext and social commentary Rowling wove into her work.  She put it there because she believed in children.  She has stated this upfront. She knew they’d get what she was doing.  And they did.
Don’t underestimate your audience.
5) Dive deep, like seeking your treasure in the Black Lake:
Subtext helps.  You don’t have to lay everything on the line when writing a novel, even when writing for children.  As mentioned above, Rowling worked in rich layers of social commentary, clues toward her mysteries, and mythical allusions…all only hinted at above ground, but living like merpeople, rich and full beneath the surface of her work.
Death Eaters linked to the Nazis? Rowling did it.  Lupin ostracized like people who suffer from AIDS? Check. Clues as to who was to die next hidden in their names? Yes, she did. Mythical allusions to Horus, the original Boy Who Lived of ancient Egypt? Most definitely.
Yes, readers were all over this stuff. Even the youngest of fans. It’s what kept them coming back, reading after reading. With each new read, fans could discover a detail, a layer they’d missed the first six times through.
Don’t just write above the lines. Write all the way through them. You CAN do it!
4) Be like Dumbledore — Withhold your backstory until the very end:
J.K. Rowling has said that if you were to put all the multiple drafts of the first chapter of Philosopher’s Stone together, you’d have the whole story from the very beginning.  The fact that she got wise and so judiciously cut out all that backstory from the start is a huge reason as to why her novels became the phenomenal success they did.
Donald Maass, the great literary agent, says “Backstory is called backstory because it belongs in the back of the story.”  J.K. Rowling intuitively aced this lesson.
What would Harry Potter fandom be without the search for what actually happened in Godric’s Hollow? Who was Snape truly loyal to? And how would Harry defeat the greatest dark wizard who had ever lived?
All these questions were dragged out until the end of the series because they all involved backstory which had been withheld until the reader was dying to know.
Don’t dump it all on your first page, your first chapter. Weave in enough backstory to keep your reader from getting confused, but then withhold it until they are begging for the knowledge only you can give.
3) Keep your mysteries hidden, like Pettigrew:
This point is similar to the one above, just not limited to backstory.  What happened to your interest after you discovered who shot J.R. Ewing (if you’re old enough) or Mr. Burns (if you’re not!)? And where did your interest go after Nanny Fine married Mr. Sheffield? Once a mystery is solved or questions answered, the viewer, or reader, quickly loses interest. Wanting to know a secret, to solve a mystery, to answer a question is what keeps the reader glued to the page.
Even if your story is not a genre mystery, it still must contain a lure of some sort to keep the reader hanging on.  Plot these threads and the release of information well, so that the reader must…keep…reading…until the very last Elder Wand owner is revealed!
2) Engage the Reader…like J.K. Rowling
J.K. Rowling so thoroughly engaged her reader that they brag about how many times they’ve read each book. Not only that, her have birthed several smaller spinoff: fanfiction, fanart, wizard wrock, theme parks (if you can call that small), and of course, we can’t forget the movies.
Why all this action outside her text? Because in almost every aspect of storytelling JKR gave the reader MORE than they were expecting.  More fascinating characters, more complex plots, more mysteries that threaded throughout the series, more fascinating worlds to explore, more intriguing subtext. And each one of these categories invited the reader in to explore and interact with the story. By giving them more, and challenging their abilities, she engaged their interest.
Even outside the book, with her website and interviews, which continue now with Pottermore, JKR never broke form.  Her websites are interactive.  Her interviews were riddled with clues and hinted at mysteries to come.  She alluded to the myths that underlay her series.  All components to make the reader activate themselves in her text.
Do whatever you can to make your story interactive and engage your reader’s interest, and this starts by giving them more than they are expecting.
1) Above all…Have fun like you’re Ron (or the Twins)!
It is evident on every page of each story that JK Rowling was enjoying herself immensely crafting Harry Potter.  She played with her reader from The Boy Who Lived (1st chapter of Philosopher’s Stone) until The Flaw in the Plan (final chapter of Deathly Hallows), and they eagerly joined into her game.
I’m sure there were many down times (especially during the lawsuits) for Jo, but the stories stayed exciting and passionate.  Something like that can only come from an author thoroughly immersed in her world and characters.
Why are you writing if you’re not having fun?  Enjoy yourself!  Take the time to refill your own well so that you will have the water of life to give back into your stories.  Chose your worlds and your people from an imagination full of stories only you can tell and desire passionately to do so.
Then do it with every skill and trick you possess!

Published in fiction and nonfiction through articles, short stories, and a novel, SP Sipal is best known as an analyst of the Harry Potter series. She’s spoken at numerous fan and writer conferences at the national, international, and online level and published articles dissecting the alchemical and Egyptian mythological allusions running through the series.

She continues to discuss with other writers how to improve our writing with Harry Potter as our guide at her blog at Harry Potter for Writers and
accompanying Twitter feed @HP4Writers.  She has recently started a
Pottermore Wiki and Forum for dissecting the newest fun from JK Rowling

20 thoughts on “The Week of the Writer Guest Post: “Top 10 Tips of Writing I Learned from Studying JK Rowling”

  1. Thanks so much, Laura, Becca, and Shelley! It was a fun post to put together.

    And you’re right, Shelley. There will never be another Snape. But..there could be a unique, enigmatic character of our own creation! 🙂

    Thanks so much to Melinda for hosting me and all this week’s great posts!

  2. It’s so hard to believe that Rowling had so much of this story all worked out from the beginning. Thanks for the analysis, Susan. I’ve found your posts and your workshop very useful in my current project.

  3. This is excellent, Susan! I especially like #10. I’m a plotter so I understand the work that goes into it. But I still marvel at how J.K. Rowling must’ve plotted those seven books! There’s just so much important material, big and small.

  4. Thanks Tina, Ken, and Laura! I appreciate deeply all the lovely comments.

    And yes, it’s amazing to me too how much intricate plotting she must have done well in advance of the remaining 6 books. When you see details planted in earlier books that only work out in much later ones, you know she truly plotted it all out from the beginning.

    Glad my workshop has been of some help, Ken! 🙂

  5. Thanks Julie and BonSue! Always glad to meet another JKR fan, BonSue. 🙂

    And Melinda, it’s been a fabulous week with lots of great posts. Thanks for doing it!

  6. Thanks Kiki and Isis!

    Isis – love your name! Did you know Isis, Osiris and Horus play a huge role in the subtext of Harry Potter? I’ve got some posts on my blog about the Egyptian mythological allusions. 🙂

  7. kindof OT: I know someone who got into wizard wrock before he read any of the Harry Potter series. I listened to a couple songs he recommended and thought, “Why would anyone who hadn’t even read the stories listen to this?”
    And I shudder at all the spoilers he was exposed to from it.

  8. Thanks so much Megan, David, iamallwoman, and Lisa! I appreciate the positive comments so much!

    And David – that’s interesting to me that someone would discover Wizard Wrock first. I wonder if he had a friend who influenced that.

    Thanks all! 🙂

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