Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Category Archives: harry potter

When Do You Need A Good Dose Of Reality?

In trying to write a story for “New Fables“, I found myself falling into my regular pattern of thinking through the reality and logic of the world, only I didn’t (or may not have) done it quite enough. These worlds always have an underlying internal consistency to me, and I think the problem in this case is not that there’s a big giant flaw in that consistency, but that I didn’t give the reader enough of it to let them see it. So I need to work on that.

But it got me thinking about one of my limitations, which is that all of my worlds need to have a pretty strong underlying reality. I’m not so good with the wacky or surreal fantasy worlds, because I always start thinking “but where did the swarm of blue winged thockwarblers come from? And what do they eat when there aren’t any yellow linen shirts around? What’s their reproductive cycle?” and so forth. I can’t even write fantasy stories with magic without thinking way too much in depth about how magic works. One of the things that always sort of bugged me about the Harry Potter books is that she never goes into depth about that. It seems like magic is basically a combination of an inherited ability to tap into it plus a long series of vocabulary lessons. As soon as you know the right words (and wand motions, yes) for a spell, you can do it. Harry learns the “Sectumsempra” spell from a few words in a book, for example, and carries it off pretty well the first time. Magic doesn’t seem to take a lot out of the wizards, unless it’s convenient for the plot to do so. Nor does it seem particularly hard to learn, unless the kids need to learn it for a plot point.

But here’s the thing: none of that matters to the story. A quick Google of “harry potter theory of magic” turns up only one vaguely relevant link on the first page, which itself links to the really relevant article, a critique of Rowling’s economics of magic by an economist (Megan McArdle). This is kind of how I feel as a trained engineer writing and reading fantasy. I think McArdle misses a point, however much she protests that “Children are great systemisers.” Children are also able to discard systems and invent new ones. In the absence of Rowling giving us a consistent theory of magic, I’m sure most of the fans of the books have constructed some mechanism in their own minds that makes most of the facts fit.

Perhaps the spells are hardest early on, or some people just have a knack for them. Or some spells require a certain concentration component that isn’t really described in detail. Maybe the DA (in book five) had an easier time with the Patronus charm than Harry did because they were able to practice it together en masse, and it’s the kind of charm that requires confidence and positive thinking. Whatever your rationale, it’s clear that the lack of a consistent magical system has not hurt the books.

And what I need to do, perhaps, is learn better what details can be left to the reader’s imagination, and which I need to supply. There are certain things that are going to bother certain readers no matter what, but if you give the story a fabulist sort of feel, and make it work, people will be more willing to let the rest of it slide. The more realism you put into your world, the more people will demand from it. So that’s what I’ll try to do: give my story a bit more magic, and see if I can restrain my inner engineer long enough to let a few things slide.

Harry Potter (again)

One of the interesting memes in the wake of the release of the last “Harry Potter” book has been whether J.K. Rowling is a Good Writer. Many of my friends say no (some with the caveat that she’s a great storyteller); they point to the worst section in the series, the first third/half of book five, in which the relentless dismantling of all the joy of the first four books is nearly unendurable, or they talk about the difficulty in reading “ALL CAPS” Harry. To be fair, there are times when Rowling seems downright uncomfortable with her writing, most often (as Cassie Clare pointed out) when writing about romance. The “monster coiling in Harry’s belly” seemed like someone trying to describe a boy’s awakening to puberty without (a) having gone through it, or (b) being explicit about it at all.

In Salon, Laura Miller (day pass or subscription required) says of Rowling that “the texture and color of her imaginary world is earthy (but not lusty), homely, grounded, irreverent, antic, perfectly suited to the audience of 10-year-olds she first devised it for 10 years ago. Her voice, tone and imagination are rooted in social comedy and observation, not in the metaphysical and transcendent…” This is the best analysis of her writing that I’ve read. I have little to add to it.

Stephen King, in a long article in this week’s Entertainment Weekly, says “she was and is an incredibly gifted novelist.” Novelist (a term Laura Miller also uses) simply means that she writes novels, stories about people, rather than Significant Works such as Paradise Lost, or your average Don DeLillo book. King, whatever you may think of his actual writing, knows a thing or two about the craft (his “On Writing” is one of the best books for writers I’ve read), and I would at this point trust him more to evaluate another writer than to pen a brilliant story.

At the core of it, it feels to me like all of the debate over whether Rowling is a Good Writer or not stems from a touch of professional jealousy, a desire to take down the hugely popular books or demean them because they are so popular. “Yes, well, of course the masses love her, but they don’t know what good writing is.” She is not Dorothy Parker, she is not Madeleine L’Engle; in the world of children’s books, her nearest peer may be Andre Norton, who filled many hours of my childhood with delightful science fiction and fantasy stories that, at their core, were always about the people in them. She introduced me to many strange and wonderful characters (Eet remains one of my favorite sidekicks ever), told gripping and beautiful stories, and took me to faraway worlds. Whatever the quality of her prose, those are the marks of a good writer, and that is as true of the late Ms. Norton as it is of Ms. Rowling.

Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (NO SPOILERS)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling
9/10, book 7 in the famed series

It’s good.

A Bi-Annual Tradition Coming To An End

This will be the last time I read the entire Harry Potter series with the wonderful anticipation of another installment coming at the end of it. Ever since “Goblet of Fire” came out in 2000, I’ve prepared for each new release in the series by reading all the preceding books, to be completely caught up.

It’s not just completism, though. The journey of rediscovery is such a joy with these books that I actually look forward to reading them all again, and I’m certain that even after book 7 comes out, I will do so from time to time. The excitement I felt at embarking back on book 1, and rediscovering the world of wizardry along with Harry for the first time, really surprised me this time around. I popped in the first CD of book 1 yesterday and couldn’t help but grin.

That’s what we’re all working towards, isn’t it? That’s what we’re aspiring to: a story that people will think of fondly, will perhaps re-read to recapture the same excitement it gave them last time they read it, a story that will bring a smile to people’s faces, or perhaps a tear to their eye, that will do it in such a genuine, heartfelt way that they will spend billions of dollars making you the richest woman in England. Whoops. Sorry, lost sight for a moment. But you get the idea: I want to write a book about which someone will write, ten years down the road, “I still pull it down and read it, and when I open the cover and turn to the first page, I’m already smiling.”

If I do that, I will be happy with my work. Thanks, and congratulations, Ms. Rowling. I’m off to rediscover your world.