Saturday, June 16, 2012

Guest post: Christopher Kellen's "5 Things I've Learned From: J.K. Rowling"

As the author of the Harry Potter novels, Ms. Rowling has literally entertained millions. She and her characters are household names. As an author, there is definitely something to be learned here.

1) There is still room for wonder in the world. 

I fully believe that J.K. Rowling proved that in our cynical, 24-hour-news-cycle world, that there is still a need for child-like wonder. She created a world that called to so many people, a place that all of us wish we could visit. She developed characters that spoke to our thoughts, our fears, our hopes and our insecurities. We experienced wonder when we picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and despite what we may claim, humanity still yearns for that sense of wonder.

2) It's okay to respond to criticism. 

There is a story told; whether or not it is apocryphal, I don't know. It's said that after Book 3 of Harry Potter, Ms. Rowling received some criticism about her books not being "real" enough, because there was never any real sense of danger to the characters. So, in Book 4, she (SPOILERS!!!) killed Cedric Diggory. Violently. Unpleasantly. And her work was better for it. Books 5, 6 and 7 were a significant departure from her earlier work. She allowed her writing to become darker, more real, without destroying the sense of wonder that kept us reading. We believed in Harry Potter, as much as his friends did. As his world got more dangerous, we kept rooting for him, and we kept reading. Would the stories have maintained our interest, without that darker turn? Perhaps. Still, it shows us as writers that it is perfectly acceptable – nay, even helpful – to acknowledge criticism of one's work.

3) Tropes are not clichés.

This one is on the very front page of one of my favorite websites, which I shall not link to here (because then you won't read the rest of this post, because your soul will have been devoured). It is a point that bears repeating. Wizards, elves, wands, a destiny to save the world, kindly wise old mentors who know more than they're talking about. I could be describing any number of stories, some of which are tired and cliché. Presentation makes the difference. In Harry Potter, these tropes (devices of writing fiction) are present in scads. Ms. Rowling's interpretation of these tropes is what distinguishes them from every other clichéd fantasy novel. It's what makes her books soar where others languish on shelves. She dared to dream, to innovate, to challenge the clichés and create something new on top of something familiar. Whether or not you like the Harry Potter books, you have to admit that they're something different. It's not just another re-telling of the Lord of the Rings.

4) Don't fight the marketplace. 

Just like every author, Ms. Rowling is human. She made a choice, to keep her books from being available as e-books, in an attempt to fight "piracy". It didn't stop them. Eventually, she relented and allowed her books to be sold electronically. The important point here is, no matter how rich she is now (and boy, is she rich) she could have been richer had she not taken a hard line on this stance. She would have sold thousands or millions of e-books, on top of the paper copies. Sure, some of the legitimate sales would have been replaced with e-books, but she still would have sold scads and scads of dead-tree copies. In addition, some of the people who only ever read the only available electronic copies might well have purchased them, instead of downloading them. The point here is – never do something that doesn't make a difference. Never divorce yourself from a potential stream of income. Make your books available.

5) (SPOILERS!!!!) A "Jesus" ending is only okay if you planned it that way from the beginning. 

And even then, it feels a little tired. If you're going to have your hero die and be reborn for the good things that he has done, make sure it was really the plan all along. I'm mostly okay with the way Harry Potter ended, but that's because it truly felt like that was her intent from the beginning (or at least from the middle). Don't cop out and pick this as the ending, because this one really is cliché.


Christopher Kellen is an IT specialist who thinks he's got what it takes to spin the occasional swords-and-sorcery yarn. His heroes of literature are those who are fearless in telling an uncompromising story. He wishes that there were more people who wrote like Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and Karl Edward Wagner, and while he knows that that he can never live up to their genius, he hopes to contribute something to the genre that they so loved. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and their monstrous black dog.

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