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A Texas town has banned the Harry Potter books because they glorify magic, and learning to read.
I read this book (okay, I skimmed it) called “Rules of Thumb” which I checked out from the library. My weakness, a book of writing advice: pithy little articles about writing better, writing more, you name it. One lady had four rules (clearly she wasn’t one for following the rules of the assignment, which was list one rule), and she had me until she mentioned she had the first three Harry Potter novels, but was currently using them as doorstops because she found them boring. Dull. Vapid and limp as milk toast.
It became obvious that nothing this woman had to offer after this point would matter to me. Even if she offered me the secret to plotting, her advice was tainted by the fact she didn’t get the magic that is J.K. Rowling.
Now I wasn’t always a Harry Potter fan. I came lately to the church of Potter, but I have all the zealot enthusiasm of a true missionary. So even though this poor, misguided author had no more use for Ms. Rowling’s writing than for keeping her bookends in use, I have to say my writing has very much improved due to Harry Potter. May you also benefit from Ms. Rowling’s advice, even if you never read her books.
First, be yourself. Write what you’re passionate about and what interests you, even if boy wizards are not the hip new trend on the publishing market and it will never sell. Believe in yourself first. Writing what you would like to read instead of focusing on writing "what is selling" is a far better goal--and far more likely, I believe, to get you published. Writing, as with most things, works better when you work to please yourself before you set to pleasing everyone else. You have to learn to trust yourself first.
Second, be quiet. Ms. Rowling is not a blabbermouth. When she started writing her series, she didn’t tell everyone and the milk man she was writing a book. No. Why? Because too much talking diminishes what you’re doing. You either spend all your time talking about the book you’re going to write (instead of writing it), or you tell people about your dreams, and they in turn give their well-meaning advice how you should do something more meaningful with your life rather than writing goofy novels. They’ll tell you to be a teacher…or an astronaut, anything but an author. And it’s usually those closest to you who give this advice because they don’t want you to fail and they don’t want you to waste your life on dreams that can never come true. So for God’s sake, don’t tell just anyone you’re a writer. Screen your confidants. You’ll thank Ms. Rowling later.
Third, be a failure. (Hey, she said it in her Harvard commencement speech.) Okay, she didn’t say be a failure, but she did say, don’t be afraid of it. Failure can be a good thing, a great thing, though it might not seem so at the time. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Be messy. So when you’re looking at your hideous first (or fourth) draft of your Great American Novel, going, why the hell didn’t I become a teacher?, revel in your Great American Failure. Ms. Rowling said she found out a lot about herself when she failed on the scale she did. She found out about her will to succeed, and that she had more discipline than she realized. She also found out who her true friends were. So when the rejects come back from your queries, they’re just there to remind you why you’re doing this—because you know you’re a writer and this is what you were truly meant to do. Right? Right.
Fourth, be empathetic. That’s the true gift of a writer, the ability to draw us so deeply into a character we truly believe they exist. We couldn't imagine a world without them. Their hopes, fears, triumphs and mistakes are as well known as our own. If you want to create an unforgettable character, tap into your empathy. To be a writer, you have to be willing to feel so you can share the human experience through your words.
Fifth, be a friend. This probably seems a weird writing rule, but it’s invaluable. After all, you will need to have someone you can tell your secret to; but also, you can’t live your life in a fishbowl. You need someone who can take you out of your writer geekiness and shake things up a bit. You need someone to challenge you; and you need someone at your back. Friendship is so important throughout the Harry Potter novels—and it’s important in your writing. You need a support system.
Sixth, be courageous. Harry Potter went to a forest and faced death. Luckily as writers, we don’t necessarily have to be that literal, at least not right this second. But the Fear is always there. Fear of being rejected by every single agent in New York and fear of letting down your friends who do support your wild dreams of NYT's bestseller stardom. Fear that your family will read your work and see just too much of you in the pages. It’s like being naked in public. Streak, baby, streak. There is something very freeing about being naked. You’ll survive the Fear. Harry did.
Seventh, and finally, be consistent. In the second novel, Harry despairs that he’s not a true Gryffindor because the Sorting Hat wanted to put him in Slytherin, and wise, old Dumbledore says, “And why is that?” Because, Harry confesses, I asked to be put in Gryffindor. “Exactly! It is our choices, Harry, far more than our abilities, that show us who we really are.” How many talented writers do you know who give up because it was easier? And how many published authors do you know that you wonder how on earth did they ever get an agent? Talent is important, yes; but luck and perseverance is even more important. And Harry would be the first to say that. There will be days where you ask yourself, “Am I really a writer?” It’s not about whether you have the talent to write; there isn’t anyone who’d deny it—it’s about if you do it. Writers are writers because they write.
Okay, come out of the closet: have you or have you not read the Potter books? What’s your favorite childhood book, and how does it inspire you in your writing or life? And do you agree that it’s our choices far more than our abilities that show us who we really are?