J.K. Rowling (born in 1965) is the author of the beloved Harry Potter series.
Here are a dozen of her wonderful quotes to help you write your novel!
1. I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do ever — was write novels.
It takes longer for some of us to figure out what we want to do with our lives, what makes us happy, what we want to pursue year after year no matter how much failure we might face, but at some point you just feel it in your heart and in your gut — you want to be a writer.
You wake up every day inspired to write something new. Ideas come at you from every direction. You walk through a bookstore and yearn to see your name on the shelf. You want to be a writer, damn it! And nobody is going to stop you.
Once you’ve convinced yourself that you want to write, then the real work begins. You have to realize that success won’t come to you overnight. But if you pursue your passion and keep going despite all the rejections, the same way J.K. Rowling did, there’s no limit to the kinds of amazing things that might happen.
2. I just write what I wanted to write. I write what amuses me. It’s totally for myself. I never in my wildest dreams expected this popularity.
Honestly this kind of writing will bring you the most success. It sounds counterintuitive, it seems like you should focus on writing the kinds of stories readers are looking for and that sell the most copies. This is what I did in my early years of writing novels. I didn’t necessarily write the book I wanted to write but what I thought agents and readers were looking for. Something you learn pretty quickly is that this is not the way to become a successful writer.
Success will come to you when you focus instead on the kinds of stories that amuse you and that you’re excited to get up every day to write. Sure, you need to learn some publishing expectations, like word counts for genres and how to pitch your novel in a few sentences and things like that. Don’t go crazy writing something nobody in the world will ever want to read.
But for the most part, you have free reign to explore your imagination and write whatever makes you happiest. J.K. Rowling didn’t write the first Harry Potter book thinking it was going to make her a billionaire. She wrote it to amuse herself, because she enjoyed the story and the characters. Write the book that amuses you, and eventually you’ll discover all the readers (and the agents!) who want to read it.
3. And the idea of just wandering off to a cafe with a notebook and writing and seeing where that takes me for awhile is just bliss.
There’s this belief that every time you sit down at your desk you have to know exactly what you’re going to write for the day and understand every major and minor detail that you’ll be putting in the latest scene or series of scenes. Nothing could be further from the truth!
You should have an idea of what you want to write for the day, but never forget that the fun of writing is the exploration. You want there to be a sense of discovery when you’re putting a new scene on the page. Often you have an intention to do something specific in a scene, but then the scene goes in a different direction once you begin writing it. You should go where the scene takes you, and where the characters tell you to guide them.
Don’t force anything. Forcing stuff does you and your reader a disservice. Instead enjoy the wandering. Sometimes the wandering actually brings you to the most inspired moments of your entire novel!
4. I was set free because my greatest fear had been realized, and I still had a daughter who I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
J.K. Rowling is such an inspiring success story because she truly came from nothing. When she started writing the first Harry Potter book, she was a single mother who was living a life nearly at the poverty level. Anyone who passed her by as she was scribbling down her sentences of the first Harry Potter book probably looked at her with sorrow and believed she was wasting her time.
Well, of course it turned out that writing saved Rowling’s life and brought her back from rock bottom. But at the same time what makes her story so amazing is that the rock bottom actually set her free. There was nowhere further south for her to go. She could have stopped believing in herself. She could have looked at her surroundings and made the decision not to write.
But she had a big idea she adored, and so she started writing. She didn’t write with dollar signs on the mind… but to amuse herself with a story that made her happy. So if you’re ever feeling rock bottom, remember that all it takes is a wonderful novel with an awesome concept and compelling writing that comes from a place of truth and inspiration that can turn everything around for you.
5. I love inventing names, but I also collect unusual names, so that I can look through my notebook and choose one that suits a new character.
Something I enjoy doing from time to time is jotting down a few unusual character names in my little red notebook. In a few of the early pages I have at least fifty names I’ve collected throughout the years, and it’s always the place I turn to first when I want to come up with some fresh names for my latest novel project.
When you’re writing a novel set in a fantasy world, like Rowling did, you have the ability to invent names of your own, just come up with some of the most unusual names imaginable, but even if you’re writing a book set in contemporary times in the real world, you have the freedom to get weird with your character names. Your protagonist doesn’t have to be named Mark. Your supporting characters don’t have to be Bill and Sarah and Nancy.
Your character names are some of the first things that register in your reader’s mind, so if you’re going to take months or even years to work on your latest novel, why not take a few minutes and pick out some names that make those characters memorable and unique?
6. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power to that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.
What a beautiful quote this is. What an important element of storytelling we should all learn sooner or later. When we think of the word imagination, we often think of crazy made-up worlds filled with all kinds of crazy creatures. We think Star Wars. We think Lord of the Rings. And, yes, we think of Harry Potter. Three incredible imaginations were needed to create those worlds, that’s for sure.
But something else imagination can be used for is the power to empathize with other humans because often you’re writing stories told from the perspectives of humans whose experiences we have never shared. We’re seeing the world through the eyes of a different kind of person from ourselves. And that’s part of the magic of writing novels, is it not? To get away from yourself for a little bit every day and spend some time living through somebody else.
You don’t want to write stories about people who are just like you. Trust me, that gets boring after, oh, five minutes. If you want to write about yourself, write a memoir. If you want to write a novel, you’re going to need to explore other kinds of people, and when you have the ability to truly become other people, that empathy will spill out onto the page for readers all around the world.
7. I always have a basic plot outline, but I like to leave some things to be decided while I write.
I believe this is the best way to write a novel. Some people like to just dive in and see where the writing takes them. Others write a specific pages-long outline that goes chapter by chapter, never to be strayed from. I’ve written twenty novels and I’ve never written an outline that went beyond a few paragraphs, but one thing I usually do is write detailed biographies of all my characters. Since character in many ways is more important than plot, you’re best served to have a clear understanding of who your characters are and what they want and what’s keeping them from what they want.
It’s also important to have a basic plot outline, too, of course, but don’t ever feel like you have to map out every scene. Something I like to know before I start writing a new novel is what specifically happens at the beginning and what specifically happens at the end. If I know my ending clearly, along with my characters and their motivations, I can usually get started. Sometimes the ending changes later as I’m drafting, and that’s okay. But know your ending to the best of your ability. Having a destination in mind will help keep your writing on track.
However, when you have too much of the plot outlined, you might be stifling your own imagination and creativity. As I said earlier, the discovery is part of the fun when you’re writing. You’re supposed to have fun with this, and a lot of that fun is robbed if you’re mapping out every moment of your novel. So prepare yourself somewhat… but feel free to make split-second decisions with your story as you’re drafting, too.
8. In a novel you have to resist the urge to tell everything.
One of the biggest mistakes new writers make, especially when they’re attempting their first novel, is telling the reader anything and everything. It’s a novel, so they feel they can describe everything for eternity! A new character walks into a scene, and they feel it’s in the reader’s best interest to learn everything about that person. How tall they are, what they’re wearing, what their backstory is.
You might especially want to include all these details when you’ve previously written that character’s biography and know what all the details are, but no. You have to restrain yourself. You have to resist the urge to tell everything and understand that it’s always more effective to sprinkle details about your characters throughout the manuscript, not just right up front.
Please, please, please don’t give us five block paragraphs of information about your characters. We don’t care. Keep the story moving instead. Get us involved, and then only here and there should you be telling us things about the characters, about the setting. This is honestly one the best skills you can learn especially in the world of novel writing!
9. The most important thing is to read as much as you can, like I did. It will give you an understanding of what makes good writing and it will enlarge your vocabulary.
Oh, look, another bestselling author telling us to read as much as we can. And you know why? Because reading really does work! Reading gives us a foundation. It helps develop our vocabulary, and it shows us the difference between good writing and bad writing. You can learn something new with every book you pick up. It’s why I always try to get my hands on books by authors I’ve never read before.
There are all sorts of ways to learn the craft of writing, like taking classes, and getting an MFA in Creative Writing, and listening to authors talk about writing, and of course just writing yourself. But one of the best ways is to just read. When you are spending an hour of your day reading, you are developing your career as a writer, never forget that. You’re not wasting time getting lost in a story. You are teaching yourself new writing skills.
In the beginning you might find yourself emulating the authors you love the most, you might even find yourself sounding exactly like them, but keep reading works by new, diverse writers, and keep practicing your craft, and eventually your voice will come through on the page. Read enough and write enough and your work will really start to improve.
10. People ask me if there are going to be stories of Harry Potter as an adult. Frankly, if I wanted to, I could keep writing stories until Harry is a senior citizen, but I don’t know how many people would actually want to read about a 65 year old Harry still at Hogwarts playing bingo with Ron and Hermione.
I would actually love it if J.K. Rowling revisited Harry Potter’s story in novel form at some point — I think millions of readers would — but the question, obviously, is if she should. And the answer is likely no. Because the story of Harry Potter reached the finish line in book seven. The conflict came to an end, and the story had a moving and definitive resolution. And I do think it’s the mark of a great author to recognize when she’s done.
There are so many authors who in J.K. Rowling’s shoes would have kept going. Would have banged out another fifty Harry Potter books. And many of them would have delighted us, and many of them would have eventually been disappointments. Because at some point her ideas would have worn thin and we would have realized she was only writing them to put another few billion dollars in her bank account.
I do think it’s important to recognize when a story has reached its conclusion, especially for those of you who write series or want to write a series. I’ve written two trilogies, and I to this day feel like three books in each series was the right choice, not five books or ten books or whatever. Write as much in a series as you want, but recognize for yourself when it’s time to quit.
11. I would like to be remembered as someone who did the best she could with the talent she had.
I think J.K. Rowling will be known for a whole lot more than that, but it’s absolutely true that she’s the picture-perfect example of a person who had little means and had no guarantee of publishing success but who pushed on anyway due to her love of storytelling… and became an absolute phenomenon nobody in her position ever could have been prepared for.
Re-reading the Harry Potter novels again, I recognize just how much talent Rowling has. She’s not the most gifted writer at the prose level, sure, but it’s the detail she brings into her worlds and characters that shoot her straight to the top. I can’t imagine many authors would be able to keep straight everything she does over the course of those seven books. Practically every page has a new character, a new setting, a new potion. I would have needed to map out an entire book of notes just to help me get through the drafting stage!
This is her magic of course, and this is her number one talent. She’s an amazing storyteller, she has a gift for language and dialogue, but it’s the detail that makes her work so extraordinary.
12. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.
This is one of J.K. Rowling’s most famous quotes, and it’s one I think about often. We all feel like failures at times in our lives, and such is especially the case for novel writers like you and me. It’s crushing to spend a year or longer on a new novel project… only to see it go nowhere. To put thousands of hours into something we deeply care about… only to see no literary agent agree to represent it and no editor at a publishing house give it the time of day. That kind of failure physically hurts, and I should know — I’ve been through it more than a dozen times.
But whenever you’re feeling down about yourself, whenever you feel like you’ll never amount to anything as a novel writer, remember J.K. Rowling’s success story, and keep her inspiring words in mind. It is impossible to live without failing at something, and you know what’s far worse than that kind of failure? The failure to ever try. So many people want to write a novel but never do. They’re afraid of failure, and so, in many ways, they fail by default for not even trying.
You know what? You’re trying. You’re putting your heart and soul on the page every day. You’re revising your work over and over to get it just right. You’re querying literary agents and pitching editors and doing everything you can to get your fiction into the world. Don’t fret if you fail. Write another book and try again. If you love writing, and you have stories to tell, don’t be afraid of failure. Be afraid of never trying.
Write your novel, just like J.K. Rowling did. And then see what happens.
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