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How J.K. Rowling Puts a Spell on Her Readers (and How You Can, Too)

In 1994, J.K. Rowling, the imaginative author behind the Harry Potter franchise, was living on public assistance in Edinburgh, Scotland. As a single mother and estranged from her abusive husband, she was jobless and clinically depressed, but used the time while her daughter was napping to write Harry Potter and the Philosophers' Stone in coffeehouses. It was an idea that occurred to her on a train ride four years earlier, and one she couldn't shake.

Fast-forward ten years later, when in 2004, Forbes estimated Rowling's worth to be at $1 billion, making her the first billion-dollar author. Since the first book was published, the Harry Potter fantasy books have won multiple awards, and sold more than 500 million copies, earning a spot in the Guinness World Records as the best-selling book series for children in history. If there was ever an author success story, Rowling has it. And for anyone looking for the same success in their own writing, here are some of her secrets to putting a spell on her readers.

Don't follow the rules

A quick Google search reveals that there are just as many rules about writing and publishing as there are websites offering advice on both (and that's a lot!). Make an outline or don't, know your ending before beginning chapter one or just start putting words on the page; it's advice that can be as inconsistent as it is abundant. However, according to Rowling, rules can get in the way of your best work. She writes:

I have to say that I can't stand lists of 'must do's', whether in life or in writing. Something rebels in me when I'm told what I have to do before I'm fifty, or have to buy this season, or have to write if I want to be a success.

I haven't got ten rules that guarantee success, although I promise I'd share them if I did. The truth is that I found success by stumbling off alone in a direction most people thought was a dead end, breaking all the 1990s shibboleths about children's books in the process. Male protagonists are unfashionable. Boarding schools are anathema. No kids book should be longer than 45,000 words.

J.K. Rowling, "On Writing"

Read voraciously

While Rowling admits that breaking rules can often work out better than following them, she does list some "you probably won't get far withouts" that can make or break your success as a writer. At the top of that list is being a devoted reader.

This is especially for younger writers. You can't be a good writer without being a devoted reader. Reading is the best way of analysing what makes a good book. Notice what works and what doesn't, what you enjoyed and why. At first you'll probably imitate your favourite writers, but that's a good way to learn. After a while, you'll find your own distinctive voice.

J.K. Rowling, "On Writing"

Develop discipline

According to Rowling, Moments of pure inspiration are glorious, but most of a writer's life is, to adapt the old cliché, about perspiration rather than inspiration. Sometimes you have to write even when the muse isn't cooperating.

The kind of discipline she's referring to means setting daily word count goals and sticking to them, even on days when you don't feel particularly inspired. And Rowling isn't the only one. Hemingway was said to have written between 500 and 1,000 words a day, and Stephen King sets 2,000 words a day as his goal. Simply put—if you wait for inspiration to strike before you write, you'll likely never get a novel written.

Writing a best-seller requires discipline and a daily word count goal
Writing a best-seller requires discipline and a daily word count goal. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.

Have resilience and humility

If there is anyone who understands the pay-off of resilience, it's a writer worth billions who began her best work while living below the poverty line. But along with resilience, she notes that humility is just as important, and the two often go hand-in-hand.

…Rejection and criticism are part of a writer's life. Informed feedback is useful and necessary, but some of the greatest writers were rejected multiple times. Being able to pick yourself up and keep going is invaluable if you're to survive your work being publicly assessed. The harshest critic is often inside your own head. These days, I can usually calm that particular critic down by feeding her a biscuit and giving her a break, although in the early days I sometimes had to take a week off before she'd take a more kindly view of the work in progress. Part of the reason there were seven years between having the idea for Philosopher's Stone and getting it published, was that I kept putting the manuscript away for months at a time, convinced it was rubbish.

J.K. Rowling, "On Writing"

Have courage

In the middle of receiving criticism and rejection from all sides, it takes a lot of courage for a writer to continue the extensive work that is required to create a manuscript—something out of nothing and without the promise of publication and payout. For many, the fear of failure can be overwhelming enough to put down the pen (or close the laptop) and stop writing for good.

That's why courage is so important for any writer's journey. Rowling puts it like this:

Fear of failure is the saddest reason on earth not to do what you were meant to do. I finally found the courage to start submitting my first book to agents and publishers at a time when I felt a conspicuous failure. Only then did I decide that I was going to try this one thing that I always suspected I could do, and, if it didn't work out, well, I'd faced worse and survived. Ultimately, wouldn't you rather be the person who actually finished the project you're dreaming about, rather than the one who talks about 'always having wanted to'?

J.K. Rowling, "On Writing"

Think independently

As with being willing to break the rules, thinking for yourself will set you on the right course to writing bestselling novels that readers can't get enough of. Unless you're attempting to write a formulaic story that won't stand out from the pack, allowing others to think for you in the process is a mistake. Rowling suggests to resist the pressure to think you have to follow all the Top Ten Tips religiously, which these days take the form not just of online lists, but of entire books promising to tell you how to write a bestseller/what you MUST do to be published/how to make a million dollars from writing.

She also suggests a website called Writer Beware, noting that it's a great resource for new and aspiring authors to learn what services are worth paying for and what should be avoided at all costs.

Ultimately, in writing as in life, your job is to do the best you can, improving your own inherent limitations where possible, learning as much as you can and accepting that perfect works of art are only slightly less rare than perfect human beings. I've often taken comfort from Robert Benchley's words: 'It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn't give it up, because by that time I was too famous.'

J.K. Rowling, "On Writing"

Use worldbuilding to immerse your reader

J.K. Rowling's fantastical world of wizards and witches is more than the characters within it. It's a unique, well-thought-out setting that translated into a distinctive, memorable setting for top-grossing movies and even a theme park called The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™, which is now open at Universal Studios Hollywood™.

Rowling created a world that was immersive enough to be turned into a theme park.
Rowling created a world that was immersive enough to be made into a theme park. Photo by Troy Jarrell on Unsplash.

Rowling achieved this through details spanning seemingly mundane topics, from what wizards and witches ate to the curiosity of moving photographs that graced their newspapers. In zooming in on these details, Rowling helped readers become immersed in a world that is vastly different than that of the muggles (or non-magical folks).

Use gerunds in dialogue tags, varied sentence length, and simple verbs

Beyond advice and toward stylistic choices, author J.H. Trumble looks at Rowling's style and tone to determine exactly how she manages to cast a spell on her readers and make them hungry for more. He notes that Rowling uses the following writing methods:

  • Extensive use of semicolons
  • The serial comma
  • Dialog tags that usually precede the name of the character speaking, but following if she wants to include an adverb ("Hermione said brightly" or "he said feebly").
  • Adverbs used sparingly
  • Understated humor
  • Understated emotion, avoiding melodrama
  • Ellipses
  • Dashes to show interrupted dialog
  • Parenthesis
  • Participial phrases employing the -ing form of verbs--used after a dialog tag to indicate what the character is doing. Examples: "said Mrs. Weasley, beaming at him," "said Mrs. Weasley, watching him anxiously," "said Hermione, hurrying into the kitchen," "He said feebly, pointing toward the window."
  • Varied sentence length
  • Tension created mostly through observation and action, with introspection kept to a minimum. ("She ignored this. He could not blame her.")
  • Simple verb choices
  • Straightforward description with little to no commentary (almost cinematic and what you'd expect a camera to pick up)

Wingardium leviosa

As Rowling's own past shows, crafting a great story involves finding your own path as a storyteller and walking it with courage, determination, and discipline. Wingardium leviosa, one of the favored spells from Harry Potter's world, causes levitation—and that's exactly what has to happen to put a spell on your readers. Focus on writing words and creating worlds that can rise from the page to become something other than mere words; make them come to life in the minds of your readers and your bestseller will be inevitable.

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