How J.K. Rowling Set Me Up for Disappointment

Stop Voldemort_ericskiff_flickrWhen you tell someone you’re writing a book, do they ever say to you, “If you’re the next [insert best-selling author here]”? I’m writing a YA book, so I always get compared to J.K. Rowling.  They make it sound like it’s nothing, like, Oh write a book and become J.K. Rowling.  If only it were that simple.

There’s nothing wrong with being the next J.K. Rowling.  Making loads of money from my work and having millions of fans?  Not too shabby.

But something tugs at my gut each time I hear that phrase.  I feel like I have to leap over a gaping chasm.  I get discouraged about meeting the grandiose expectations set by others.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m a huge fan of the Harry Potter series.  They are very well written books.  Even with all the magic and broomsticks, the characters and their stories are human and relatable.  But I don’t know if I’m writing the next Harry Potter.  I’m just trying to finish the damn thing.

This kind of thinking ignores the enigmatic, astonishing, and troubling experience that is the creative process.  It reduces this ambition to a to-do list, pay the electric bill, write a best-selling book, buy milk.

Since 2007 I have spent many evenings and weekends working on The People of Fire and Water.  Like Rowling, I’ve had my own obstacles.  Working full time and writing a book takes dedication, commitment, and grit.  I work a full day, go for a run or to the gym, eat dinner, clean up, and watch television or read.  By that point it’s late, and I’m tired.  But I still have to write.

And that’s just my schedule.  When I finally get around to writing, I have to sit at the same table with the fussy, temperamental creative process.

The words may come easily, or they might not.  And on the good days, I write three pages, but only if I’m lucky.  That’s three pages out of a few hundred.

But before I could do that I had to build the world.  Rowling did this masterfully for Harry Potter.  Building the world is harder than writing the book itself.  I had to draw a map, create the myths, design the social structure, make customs, and write a history before I even started the first chapter.  Not only that, but the rules had to make sense.

I had to be careful with language. Words have roots and origins.  Some may not fit in the context of the world I’ve created.  “Hours” and “weeks” implies means for keeping time.  How do they know how many hours are in a day?  What is their calendar based on?

For those of you who are fans of The Game of Thrones consider for a moment the amount of effort it took for George R.R. Martin to create the worlds of Westeros and Braavos.  Like Edison inventing the lightbulb, the ideas do not come out fully formed.  They require thousands of attempts of trial and error.

I had to think about what people eat and what they wear.  Do they gain knowledge from books?  If so, are the books hand-written, or do they come from a printing press?  If they come from a printing press, then they have some technology, and that raises other questions.  If they are hand-written, then someone has to write them, which also raises other questions.

Designing a world is like creating a web.  One question leads to another and another.  As I work on the final draft of my novel, there are still numerous questions I haven’t answered.  But I can’t ignore these details, because they will enrich the story.

So when I’m compared to a best-selling author, I reconcile that by staying focused on what’s right in front of me.  I concentrate on what I’m working on in the moment.  The last time someone said to me, “if you’re the next J.K. Rowling,” I was writing a business plan and slogging through Chapter Six.

I allowed the frustration to rise and fall.  I stayed present with it in the moment, and then I let it fall away.  Then I went home, and I wrote.

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7 thoughts on “How J.K. Rowling Set Me Up for Disappointment

  1. Great post – I’m right there with you. Before Oprah went off the air, folks always said to me, “You’ll need to send your book to Oprah.” Right on it. I actually sent five copies of my first book to the Oprah show in 2000 – four to producers and one to the queen herself. That was the last time I wasted my books that way. By the way, in 2000 I sat at a B&N for a book signing – right next to a Harry Potter life-sized poster and a table full of Rowlings’ books. I never quite forgave the poor woman for my dismal sales that day. I vented as you did. Then I went home and wrote six more books.

  2. Many people don’t realize what a thin margin of success that is and how very, very few writers make it there. For every J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown there are thousands of writers (rough, unscientific estimate) that are just trying to make it. If we all measured ourselves by those unrealistic expectations, I think we’d give up on writing, develop a hearty drinking problem, and go to a very dark place. It’s partly for this reason that I’ve embarked on self-publishing. I may not become crazy famous, but at least it feels like I’m in charge of my own destiny. Thanks for commenting!

  3. For so long it seemed like getting past writer’s block seemed like the greatest challenge. It’s not. Making time to write is the greatest challenge.

    katanapen.wordpress.com

    1. I agree. I used to wait for long swaths of time in which I could get work done, but that just isn’t possible. Now I’m happy getting 30 minutes here or there.

  4. Not too long ago, I went out with to dinner with a guy and the first thing he asked me was, “So, did you make any money today?” To which I replied, “I’m a writer.” He responded, “Yeah, but they make money, right?” All I could say was, “Occasionally.” I knew dinner couldn’t get over fast enough! 😀 Non-writers have no clue!

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