In 1997 Bloomsbury took a punt on first-time novelist Joanne Rowling, publishing 500 hard back copies (yours then for £10.95) and 5,150 paperbacks (£4.99) of her 1995 children’s book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Recast as J.K. Rowling (boys eschew women writers, apparently), over 500 million copies of the wizard’s adventures have been sold. Those original books fetch thousands at auction – their first-issue price dwarfed by Dumbledore’s robes, which you can snap ip for £495.95 on the Harry Potter tour.
“I don’t think everyone should believe in magic,” says Rowling, “but I’m not sure I would trust anyone who doesn’t.” What of the magic that comes through hard work and enjoyment in what you do? Writing books to deadline amid soaring expectations, words feeding an industry constructed on Harry and his pals, is not easy. You need to get a thrill from watching your ideas pour onto the page, immersing yourself in the impulsive rush of magical reality and creative flow as the book comes alive. Rowling creates characters of depth that stick in the mind. Things shift as the book appears. But plotting matters, not least of it all because it allows the writer to change their mind; a recognition that the writer will one day become the reader. And it’s not left to chance. Many writers have an ending in mind as they begin a novel – Rowling had an idea for seven books when she waited for a delayed train in 1990.
Below is the handwritten plot spreadsheet she used to write the fifth Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It features a map of chapters in chapters 13-24:
The outline is made up of 10 columns. The first four map the chapter’s broader details: the title, the month, the plot, etc.:
“No”: The specific chapter number
“Time”: The month of the school year that the chapter is set in
“Title”: The title of the chapter
“Plot”: An outline of the chapter’s plot
And Rowling uses the final 6 columns to keep track of the story’s various subplots and characters:
“Prophecy”: A subplot about the prophecy Harry finds himself concerned about all through the book
“Cho/Ginny”: The book’s romantic subplot
“D.A.”: What’s happening with the resistance army, or “Dumbledore’s Army”
“O of P”: What’s happening with the “Order of the Phoenix” group
“Snape/Harry”: What’s happening with Snape and Harry
“Hagrid and Grawp”: What’s happening with Hagrid and Grawp
Rowling visualised her creations in sketches. Her drawing of Professor Sprout, the herbology teacher at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, was made the night her mother Anne died. As she recalls:
“I drew this picture on December 30, 1990, and I can be very precise . . . I was staying at a friend’s house and I had been writing Potter for six months and I stayed up when everyone else had gone to bed because I was watching the film, The Man Who Would Be King. The reason I can be incredibly precise about when I drew this was because at some point during watching that movie and drawing this picture, my mother died, 250 miles away, and I got the phone call the next day to say that she had died.”
Quidditch, writes Rowling, “was invented in a small hotel in Manchester after a row with my then boyfriend.
“I had been pondering the things that hold a society together, cause it to congregate and signify its particular character and knew I needed a sport.”
The broomstick-based pursuit, she continues, “infuriates men… which is quite satisfying given my state of mind when I invented it.”