Like all craftspeople, writers need to keep a bag of tricks handy. A set of tools for the job (writing), if you will. Some of these traits or tools are obvious--like the need to have a hide as thick as a brick, for instance. Some are not. This month, I've been challenged to do a post every day of the week (excluding Sunday) that begins with a letter of the alphabet. I'm going to use this challenge to examine some of those necessary writing tools, both conventional and not. Hold on to your #2 pencil, here we go!
NOTE: I've added a page dedicated to my A to Z Writer's Toolbox posts. I figured I'd soon have a bunch of these things and it'll make it easier for you to browse any of the letters you might have missed. You can find a link to the page under the, "MORE STUFF" heading at the top of the right-hand column of this page.
J & K are for J. K. Rowling
Not even going to lie, I've been waiting for these two letters just so I could (once again) express my diehard fanboy love for the lady that inspired me to write. I know I'm not alone, as Harry Potter is perhaps the most successful series of books ever published. They define the modern 'crossover' phenomenon of books written for kids, read by adults and loved by both.
I believe that every current YA and Middle Grade series author (aspiring or otherwise) owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to JK. If not for the success of her books, the publishing industry might still regard kid-fiction as the lesser cousin to "serious literature". Instead, Harry waved his wand and opened doors (and eyes) to the money making juggernaut that is the teen consumer--and their parents. YA is now one of the top grossing and growing categories in all of bookdom and, as Twilight and so many other blockbusters have proven, there doesn't seem to be an end to that trend as some predicted. Alohomora, indeed.
Not only did Harry and Co. perk up the financial prospects of a dreary book industry, but they rekindled a love affair with reading for an entire generation of people. Kids put down there Playstation and Nintendo 64 controllers, if only for the few hours it took most to devour each book, to read. I've worked with teens for the last 10 years, and I can't tell you how many avid kid readers have told me that Harry Potter was the first book they ever read. Even more astounding is that I know loads of adults who had all but quit reading fiction until they stole their kid's copy of Potter. Now they read every Twilight, etc. that comes down the pipe just to keep the magical feeling that only a good book can give fluttering in their hearts and imaginations.
I'm not writing this as a 'Writing Toolbox' entry to tell you that we need to do all of those things to be considered successful authors. No, there will only ever be one Harry Potter and I'm convinced trying to emulate that in our own writing is more likely to give us ulcers than success. What I am suggesting is that we heed the example set by the woman who wrote the stories.
Jo Rowling didn't go to college to learn how to write a story about wizards and hippogryphs. As the daughter of two working-class folks, she went to school to attain a degree in something that might make her a living. Or so her parents thought. Perhaps she had even thought that herself at the time. Thankfully, she gave in to the weakness of every would-be writer, her imagination. She studied French and Classics, and admits that many of the themes and characters in Harry Potter owe their roots to the myths and philosophers she studied in school.
Upon graduation, she took a job working for Amnesty International. (Note that she wasn't writing full-time, nor was she using her education to any strict degree.) She credits that job with fueling much of the imaginary world (the darker parts) she created for the books. That job would seemingly be a highpoint as in the next 7 years after graduating college, she would get married, get divorced and find herself unemployed. She considered herself to be, "The biggest failure she knew." One thing she didn't do, however, was quit writing.
She eventually finished what would become Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. At this point, she had very little else in the world left to her but her family and her story. She managed to snag the attention of a literary agent, but the book was summarily rejected by 12 different publishers. Bloomsbury eventually agreed to publish the book, but they advised Rowling to get a day job. A few awards, several millions of copies sold and a mega-movie franchise later history was made.
The message for writers is clear: We can never, ever, give up. We must believe in our stories, and above all else ourselves. The writing must be our companion, because we may face a time when we're not left with much else, and at that time the writing has to be enough. Not the success that we may or may not have. Not the dreams that made us start in the first place. Just the words in our heads that flow to the paper/screen.
Furthermore, we must learn to use our experiences as writing fodder, regardless of how mundane and unrelated they may seem. Writers have to eat, we have to pay bills, and we have to make sure our families have a roof to sleep under. That might require us to do some seriously non-writing related tasks. We cannot let that stop us from striving ahead. We cannot let that keep us from the writing.
That's why J.K. Rowling needs to be in your toolbox.
Here's a video of J.K.'s commencement speech to Harvard grads. I've seen it a dozen times, and if you're a fan you probably have as well. If you haven't seen it, or if you've been feeling a little off your writing game of late, you owe it to yourself to give it a watch. It's long-ish, but it'll be the best 20 minutes you'll spend today.