One of the top tips the publishing industry always gives aspiring writers is ‘if you want to write, you have to read’. It seems obvious but it’s very good advice – the more you read, the more you get a feel for what you like and don’t like, for what works and doesn’t work, and the better-informed and better-honed your own writing becomes. So I’ve decided to write some posts about books that I’ve read, to shed some light on my own interests and influences.
And I really don’t think I could start anywhere else but with Harry Potter.
A lazy choice, you might say. Too populist, too predictable. Why didn’t I pick something with a bit more depth, a real classic? Well, all I can say is that it is the most honest choice. J.K. Rowling’s magical series has brought me countless hours of exhilarating reading pleasure and her writing has undeniably influenced my own, so I don’t see the sense in picking another book that might be considered more estimable in general opinion but is less relevant to my personal experience.
At this point, I feel I should include a SPOILER ALERT – although to the one person who has lived in a cave for the past decade, doesn’t know how Harry Potter ends and still wants to read the books, I have to demand, “What are you waiting for?!”
I grew up with Harry. I was eleven or twelve when I read the first two books in paperback and twenty-one when I queued up at midnight in a bookshop in Toronto for the long-awaited conclusion to the series. I have read the books themselves more times than I can count and have even listened to the audio books several times over. (I have to admit that the best incentive to get to work is having another chapter of Harry Potter lined up in the CD player.)
I cannot get enough of Harry’s world, of the characters, creatures and places that J.K. Rowling has brought so wonderfully to life. She is a masterful storyteller, from start to finish, and her invented universe appeals to the imagination so powerfully that I still get as engrossed in the books in my adulthood as I did in my pre-teens.
The overall story arc is gripping in itself but it’s the seemingly-insignificant details that I really love. Chapter One of Philosopher’s Stone sees Hagrid make a throwaway reference to the motorbike belonging to Sirius, a character who doesn’t resurface until Prisoner Of Azkaban. And Peeves broke the Vanishing Cabinet all the way back in Chamber Of Secrets, four books before the cabinet became a vital component in the Death Eaters’ infiltration into Hogwarts in Half-Blood Prince. To weave all those intricate storylines across so many books and so many years, dropping clever clues along the way until you realise that every detail becomes important at some point – it’s genius.
However, there are some flaws; in a seven-book series, it is impossible for there not to be. Chief in my mind is the shaky plot of Goblet Of Fire. It is entirely based around the efforts of Barty Crouch Jr. (in the guise of Professor Mad-Eye Moody) to guide Harry safely through the Triwizard Tournament so that he will be the first to touch the Triwizard-Cup-that’s-really-a-Portkey, thus transporting him to the graveyard where Lord Voldemort is waiting to be reborn in his new body with Harry’s blood.
Only it didn’t have to be quite so complicated. The fake Moody could have just said, “Here, Harry, can you hold this quill for me?” and, boom, the-quill-that-was-really-a-Portkey could have sent Harry straight to Voldemort. But that would have made for a very short book and a not-very-thrilling plot.
Then there are the adverbs. Oh, the adverbs. Lots and lots of them. Stephen King is an avid opponent of adverbs and he does make a good argument when he says that adverbs generally weaken the verbs to which they are attached, and that they are usually unnecessary on the basis that the preceding dialogue or prose ought to have conveyed all the relevant information/emotion.
Rowling, on the other hand, uses adverbs without compunction. ‘Happily’, ‘admiringly’ and ‘excitedly’ are all used in the space of just a few very short sentences in Deathly Hallows (Chapter 22, Page 360 to be specific). The books are littered with them. And yet – sorry, Mr. King – they really don’t bother me. I refuse to stick up my nose and declare that they make for poorer writing because I honestly don’t believe that – in fact, I find that they both enrich the reading experience and suit Rowling’s style very well.
And I think that this is where she has influenced me the most – I see adverbs creeping into my own writing everywhere, and it is probably because I have immersed myself in her work more than any other author. For me, they cause the dialogue to jump from the page far more vividly than if they had been omitted. Perhaps it does not make for very high-brow, literary prose but if it’s still enjoyable to read then what’s the problem?
That’s what it really comes down to, and why Harry Potter has been such a phenomenal success. People simply enjoy reading the books, and they become so absorbed in the exciting plot that they don’t stop to denounce the use of an adverb here or there (and here, and there, and over there too).
Indeed, the enchantment of Harry Potter goes so far that readers are not satisfied with the wealth of knowledge contained within the seven books and eagerly gobble up any information J.K. Rowling can provide about ‘what happened afterwards’. There is some illuminating reading on the Leaky Cauldron website, and, more succinctly, on this Buzzfeed list, for those of us whose fascination with the world of witches and wizards cannot be sated. It says a lot when we care so much about the characters that we just have to know which careers they ended up in and what their children’s names are.
As I am finishing up, I think it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge how much further-reaching Harry Potter has gone than a mere seven novels. There are, of course, the corresponding audio books (excellently voiced by Stephen Fry), the eight movies, the supplementary Quidditch Through The Ages and Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them (the latter of which will be forming the basis of the recently-announced forthcoming movie), the attractions at Harry Potter World in Universal, Florida and the Warner Bros. Studio Tour in London (which bestows a sensation of giddy excitement akin to drinking Felix Felicis), and even the Pottermore website (I got sorted into Ravenclaw and I’m quite pleased with that).
All of the above is a testament to the quality of Rowling’s writing. She has created a fantasy universe that is so tangible and well-constructed it can cross over into all forms of media and entertainment and still be utterly believable and enthralling. This is a truly impressive feat, I conclude firmly.