Harry Potter and the Death of the Author

I promised I’d talk about Pottermore and touch on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, so … here we go.

As someone who grew up with the Harry Potter books — in first grade one of our field trips was to see The Sorcerer’s Stone in theaters — I pretty much live and breathe this stuff. It’s not so much something that I actively seek out as something that I know like the back of my hand; it’s as familiar as a beloved stuffed animal, and the series grew along with us. You could probably call millennials the Harry Potter generation and we wouldn’t really protest that much.

Before the Pottermore site ever went live — I want to say this was around 2005 — a piece of fanfiction was written called The Shoebox Project. It centers on the Marauders, James Potter and Sirius Black and their little band, and it’s over two hundred thousand words. Now, say what you will about fanfiction, but even without having read it you’ve got to admit that 200k of anything is a great deal of time and energy to spend on something you’ll never get paid for. Having read it, I think the writing is pretty darn good, and it tells an engaging story. A pair of writers sat down and wrote this Project, and included drawings and photographs, and it was a labor of love.

The reason I was aware of the Shoebox Project — long before I ever felt the interest to read it — was because within that story, one of the plot points is that James Potter’s parents are murdered by Death Eaters.

J.K. Rowling went to the media to say that no, that was incorrect, James Potter’s parents died of old age.

… Which is … great, I guess, except that none of the actual Harry Potter books that were out at that point mentioned the fact that Harry’s grandparents died of old age.

And I remember being ten or so, watching the Today show before heading to school, hearing about JK Rowling saying, very seriously, that James Potter’s parents died of old age and it was incorrect for these fans to write a story in which they didn’t survive to old age.

Ever heard of a concept called “Death of the Author”? It means that once you’ve written something and published it, as long as people are drawing their conclusions from the text, they can draw whatever conclusions they want. You, the author, cannot force them to come to a particular conclusion, nor can you prohibit them from coming to a conclusion you do not like. What’s in the published work is all there is. If you want to write a sequel, then write a sequel; but whatever you write, once you’ve released it into the wild, you can’t control what other people think about it.

It’s the old English Major Maxim: As long as you can prove it with textual citations, you can argue for it.

So JKR, the author, had this idea about James Potter’s parents. She didn’t write it in the books. The fans aren’t mind readers. How could they know? How could she expect them to know? And how could she get mad at them for coming up with a perfectly logical idea with regards to what she had already written?

That incident in ’05 (or ’04, or ’06; I’m hazy on the dates) is JKR saying “Death of the Author doesn’t apply to me.”

Pottermore is that incident magnified, and prettified on a website.

And yeah, it’s neat to be able to Sort yourself into a Hogwarts house (Hufflepuff forever) and see what the website thinks your Patronus should be (polecat?), and it’s neat to have a message board for other fans.

But she’s continually coming out with new content about books that were published … over a decade ago. And treating it like it’s just as canon as the published books.

Sorry, lady, but at this point those are just fancy headcanons, as the fans call them. Ideas that are nice to think about, but that can’t be read as law within the fictional universe, because they only exist in your head. If you want us to think a certain thing about this character, then publish a short story or a sequel or a separate series. Don’t dump snippets on a nice website and then get your nose out of joint when people ignore it.

— which leads into the next subject, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Also known as, Harry Potter and the Flogging the Dead Horse.

Also known as, Harry Potter and the Maybe Quit While You’re Ahead.

Also known as, Harry Potter and the You Actually Wrote A Blue-Haired Daughter of Bellatrix Lestrange And Voldemort? Did You Take A Minute to Maybe Think About This First?

Sometimes — and I would count having your own theme park as one of those times — it’s okay to step back and let a series be finished.

NaNoWriMo

I am not officially participating in National Novel Writing Month this November. I’m not registering an account on their website, and while I have my own word count app to keep track of my projects (Writeometer, available on Google Play, if you’re curious), I’m not going to be publicly logging that word count every single day. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain … the little green one, over there, holding the mind control device. Ahem. That is to say, I don’t think any of you are interested in hearing me whine about how difficult it was to put fingers to keyboard on a Thursday evening, and mentioning plot points is kind of a spoiler even if it is for a first draft and therefore in flux. And while other people find it helpful to commiserate with a large online community, I’d much prefer to pester a handful of close friends. What else are Skype and Google Hangouts for?

But I am going to be writing a novel this month. And I am aiming for a minimum of 55 thousand words in the first draft. And, because public accountability seems to be the thing that kicks my butt into gear, I’ll be posting my weekly word count on Sundays until I finish the draft. (At which point you can bet there will be much throwing of confetti, even if I don’t do it on my blog where you can see it. As a relative novice I do still get excited every time I finish a manuscript. But that’s a post for another day.)

National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo) posits that you can sit down for an hour or so and write about 1400 words in a day, every day, for thirty days, to produce fifty thousand words. To longtime veterans, this is half or one third of a novel. (Or one sixth, if you’re George R. R. Martin.) To newbies who’ve never written anything longer than 3k for a college essay, it’s Mount Everest. Perspective is one hell of a drug, as they say. Either way, the program encourages its participants to sit down and write a given amount of words, every day, for the month of November.

It’s an exercise in discipline rather than creativity, and if you’re looking to get into the business of writing, it’s good practice. Because the point of it is that the draft isn’t supposed to be perfect, it’s just supposed to be finished. That’s what a separate editing stage is for. And even if the drat you produce ends up a steaming pile of crap no matter how much you edit, who cares? You still produced something, and that 50k of crap got you 50k closer to something worth reading.

Inspiration (2/?)

You know what inspires me? Money.

It sounds mercenary, but there you have it. I’ve mentioned before that when I dreamed of being a writer as a little kid, what I actually dreamed of was being rich without much effort. And yes, I still would like to be rich. Wouldn’t you?

The thing about money is that it’s a means to an end. As the saying goes, it’s more comfortable to cry in a Mercedes-Benz than on a bicycle.

I could have chosen any number of other ways to make money, but writing is what I picked, because I’d be doing it no matter what else I was working on, so I might as well try to make money off it. This is what is known in the business world as “freelancing”, and it can be fun, and it can also be a way for you to slam your head against the wall.

Because, whether you like it or not, whether you dress it up with a bathrobe and coffee mug or not, writing, like any other type of freelancing, is work.

Inspiration? The muse with a fluffy white dress and an enigmatic smile, who floats down from the clouds to play her harp at you? She’s a flaky piece of work that can’t be trusted. And plot bunnies can come from anywhere, but you have to corral them, or they’ll multiply and then you won’t be able to focus on anything.

If you’re going to wring a living from typing words on a screen, there has to be discipline involved. Whether the muse is there or not, you have to write. Whether the plot bunnies are multitudinous or not, you have to write. Whether you feel like slamming your head against the wall or not, you have to write.

Yeah, sometimes it feels like pulling teeth. But people who are trying to make a living, to be quite blunt, don’t have the time to get writer’s block. Because you still have to write.

And honestly, if you don’t feel like writing? If, in that miserable moment, you would rather do anything but write?

Imagine what it’ll be like, ten years down the road, if you don’t keep at it.

Imagine what it’ll be like, ten years down the road, if you do.

Like I said, money’s a heck of an inspiration.

And the wonderful thing about writing is even though you’re sitting down, it’s still a muscle. If you exercise it enough it gets easier. The one thing I can say NaNoWriMo did for me, is that it gave me the confidence to know that I could write four thousand words in one sitting. Before that I’d had no idea. So practice, and it will get easier.

And then writer’s block, and inspiration, and the rest of it? Might feel a little bit less like slamming your head into the wall.

WIBBOW (Update)

Monday’s post was going to happen and then didn’t. Today’s post is why.

Working on draft and getting closer to the post-production stage means pedal to the metal, as it were. And sometimes even with carefully rationed time, it burns a body out. Even more so when life gets in the way.

Writing is my job, but I can’t write if I don’t take care of the writing machine. Sometimes that means grabbing an extra twenty minutes of sleep. Sometimes that means spending an evening with a sibling who’s recovering from a medical procedure, instead of shutting myself in the Writing Corner.

That can’t be all the time, of course. Writing is still my job, and you can’t spend hours on the clock watching Game of Thrones. But occasionally that work/life balance has to come out in favor of sitting down for half a second and resting.

Occasionally, the answer to WIBBOW — Would I Be Better Off Writing? — is no.

(Here’s the actual update: We’re nearly at the post-production stage, which means cover art shenanigans this weekend. Stay tuned!)

Making Time

I’ve previously talked about how, if it’s important to you, you have to find the time to write, and if necessary you make the time to write — whether that’s by taking an abbreviated lunch break at the day job, or waking up early or staying up late, or some other way. You create the time you need to do the job you need to do.

Lofty words from someone who was comfortably in the post-production stage of a book, she said, grumbling at herself from the draft-writing stage.

But grumbling is just carbon dioxide. And the people who know and care about you will understand when you have to shut yourself in your Fortress of Solitude. So you grab your beverage of choice, and you put butt in chair, and you work.

There’s more to the job than banging out the draft — blogstuff is the next thing that comes to mind. Going indie means being your own advertising company, in addition to all that other stuff that involves paperwork. It’s funny; you’d think that there would be some people who’ve gone indie who will say “it’s easy to self-publish! easiest thing I ever did!” but the only people who actually say that are the ones who … you know … have never actually done it, and instead are clutching the traditional publishing industry to themselves like little kids with their favorite soft toy that’s coming apart at the seams.

*cough* Anyway.

Wanting to make indie writing into a career, means treating it like a career. So the hobbies that are fun but that don’t, you know, help make money, have to take a hike for a little while. Because you have to focus on the writing, and the blogging, and all the other stuff. You might have noticed that on my home page the description went from “updates weekdays” to “updates Mondays Wednesdays and Fridays” — that’s an attempt to keep myself sane, while I juggle everything. Posting regularly is part of my job (whether I post at home, or from the parking lot, or during lunch break), but I can’t burn myself out. Because then, whether I have the time or not, how am I going to have the energy to write?

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; or close the wall up with our empty coffee mugs.

Keep Making Progress

The number one best marketing tool for new writers is to write the next book. Every single Book or Article On Writing (for indies, that is) stresses that quantity is nearly as important as quality: the more books you have out, the more opportunities there are for people to discover your work, and the more likely you are to actually be successful in the business. You still have to be good — or at least, good enough to sell — but the backlist sells the frontlist sells the backlist, and it accumulates sales like a snowball.

It’s something of a science by now. I’ve heard varying accounts, but the big break for indies seems to be somewhere around the tenth book. I look at that figure, and I look at the publishing schedule I have worked out, and that’s not going to be for another two years. I can only imagine how much my writing techniques, and the length of my books, will improve during that time. Ten books. Yes, I’m a novice in this business; I have so long to go before I even reach journeyman status. It’s a little daunting.

But as they say, the way you eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Which is why this evening when I come home from the day job I’m going to put fingers to keyboard and start writing up the first draft of book two. And which is why I have a publishing schedule worked out of ideas to turn into books. I’ve got a whole series or two basically mapped out. Nothing that emerges in the skull actually turns out exactly the same way on the page; that doesn’t make the end product bad, it just makes it different. So probably things will end up differently than I anticipate. But having a map for those ten books, and beyond, helps that ten-book-goal seem a little less daunting.

I don’t know for sure that I’m going to take off as an indie writer. The week between publishing the last one and starting the next one has thoughts (mostly worries) rattling around in my head. If I sell x number of copies in a month then I’ll be making y in royalties and that means z after taxes, etc etc etc … Shh, self, stop. Of course if I only have one book out it’s not going to sell that well. Who are we, some kind of one-hit-wonder? That might have worked for the childhood daydream, but not for real life. Just focus on the next book, and stop worrying. Well, all that means is that I need to make the gap between finishing and starting smaller next time!

Made progress — good. Now continue making progress.

The Long Game

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” “I want to be a writer!”

The term “writer” signified to me, at the age of six or seven, being able to live in a big white house with a huge backyard and wear a nice bathrobe while you worked, possibly sipping from a mug of cocoa and looking out at the wide forest just beyond the edge of your property. There would be dogs of course, and at least one cat, and a parrot who could talk, and a snake in a big terrarium. In short, it was more about being filthy stinking rich than actually doing the work of writing. I wanted to be a writer the way some kids want to be astronauts.

Now I am slightly older and slightly wiser in the ways of the business, and I still want to be filthy stinking rich, but I want writing to be the thing that gets me there, and for specific reasons, not just because it’s a way to wiggle out of doing an honest day’s work.

In short, even when I said to myself, “self, we are going to be a psychologist” or “self, we are going to be a French translator” or whatever else I decided I wanted to do, I was still writing as a hobby. Not finishing a lot of drafts, mind you, and a lot of it derivative (that’s the fancy word for fan fiction, folks), but still I was writing. I liked doing it. Tapping on a keyboard isn’t just a way for me to yell into the void, it’s a way to share experiences and memories and ideas, to convey what’s rattling around in my head and make it rattle around in someone else’s, too. That’s a really cool thing.

It is work. Seven year old me just thought that inspiration came like a divine stroke of lightning and created the characters fresh on the page. Well, sometimes inspiration comes and punches me in the face, but that isn’t reliable and it can’t be relied upon if you’re going to make writing into a business. You have to sit down, get the fingers on the keyboard, and write whether inspiration comes that day or not.

And the other thing is that it is a business, which means you have to treat it like a business. Tax forms and IDs and bank accounts and paperwork, so much paperwork, dear God save me from the paperwork. But it’s all stuff that has to get done before you can start reaping even the smallest of rewards.

That sounds horribly unglamorous, I know. But the cool thing is that, at the end of it, you’ve made something that is uniquely yours, and not the gift of some weird bolt from the blue. You made those characters, you made an entire world for people to play in and visit over and over again. And you get the satisfaction that comes from knowing you worked to create something — it might not be physical, but it’s still affecting the world we live in just a little. Which is way better than just lounging around in a bathrobe drinking coffee all day.

I’ve just started out in this game. I am a complete novice out in the wide world. Watching the royalties trickle in makes me fidgety, to be honest. I want to be where the big guys are. But just because this is where I am now doesn’t mean that this is where I’ll be in five years — or that that’s where I’ll be in ten years, or twenty. I’m young and I’ve got a long ways to go, and all the time in the world.