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Writing Process & Pottermore: The Unpublished Underbelly of the Story

June 24, 2011

So, if you’re a serious, hard-core fan of Harry Potter – or, alternately, if you’re such a SF&F nerd that you actively seek out any and all news on the SF&F industry (and maybe, also, happen to be a fan of Harry Potter, which is clearly a related condition) – then you may have heard about the announcement of Pottermore yesterday.

For those who haven’t, despite ascribing to either of the above-listed conditions, a short primer: Pottermore is basically the official release of the ebook editions of the wildly popular Harry Potter series made concurrent with a fan-community/facebook/online HP-encyclopedia.  You read through the e-editions of the Potter books – which will only be available on Pottermore.com – while also playing games, maybe sharing your family-friendly fanfiction (this is unclear from the announcement, but hinted at), and otherwise interact with other fans together online… as if you couldn’t already do almost all of that online except read the books on your e-reader.  Regardless, it seems like an interesting idea – and almost certainly a keen marketing coup that should drum up interest in the impending release of the ebooks.  If I had an e-reader, I’d definitely be interested… and even so, without one, I’m at least a little curious to see what it’s really all about.

But what caught my attention about this announcement is a line I read here that touches on some of Rowling’s background notes related to the Harry Potter universe.  I was already thinking about writing this week about background notes and research and my “Project Bible”, so this confluence struck me as a good way to open the discussion.  Here is what was said about the previously unpublished material:

Though fans of Harry Potter expecting another book from the author set in the wizarding universe will be disappointed to hear that Rowling has “no plans to write another novel,” hopefully they’ll take solace in knowing that later this year Pottermore will unveil of 18,000 unpublished words about characters, places, objects and more from the world of Harry Potter. For example, there’s material on a certain romance between Professor McGonagall and a Muggle when she was a young woman, how Vernon & Petunia Dursley met each other, more extensive information on Slytherin, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff houses (we know quite a bit on Gryffindor already) and plenty more.

Wow.  Eighteen-thousand unpublished words?  Really?  That’s… all?

My initial reaction was that 18,000 words in background notes was a shockingly slim bit of background material for a series so large as the Harry Potter series.  On “Book of M”, I fully anticipate having well over 50,000 words – probably more on the order of 75,000 words – of background notes and related materials before I’m through (though I don’t believe I’ll be waiting until I  have completed all 50 – 75K words before starting on actual draft prose) – and that’s just for one book!

When I thought about it a little more, though… I’m guessing that’s not all there is to the story.  Of my proposed 50k+ words supporting a single book, a good amount of that will be plot notes, outlines, and character histories – but most of that detail and work will actually come out and be revealed over the course of the book.  There is some that will never be overtly expressed in the narrative… but there is much more that will not.

To which category does “significance of all the difference [sic] wand woods” fall – the former or the latter?  Obviously the latter – the stuff that was never spoken of directly in the story, but which nonetheless underly it.

So, it’s an open question how much of that 18,o00-word release of material is in the one category versus the other.  But so far all the little hints have been of such things as don’t get expressed in one way or another in the story.

As a counter-example, I imagine it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that somewhere in Rowling’s notes she’d written that “Minerva McGonagall is the transfiguration teacher at Hogwart’s”.  But that’s not really “unpublished material”, is it?  Because this is made clear in the story’s actual narrative, even if that exact wording is never used in the books. 

Ultimately, however, I don’t yet know quite what will constitute those 18,000 words.  But I am left to contemplate: if this were my project… how many “unpublished words” would I be able to release?  What would those words constitute?  How much would be a repeat of information that was already known, only now written in an encyclopedia-like format, and how much would be brand-new, never-before-released detail that adds a layer and depth to the story that wasn’t available before?

From where I stand right now… that’s hard to say.  So far, most of my background notes are about things that probably will come up in the story in some way or another – either that, or they won’t because I’ve decided to drop it from the story.  I’ve a long way to go before I’ve gotten to the level of detail that I expect my notes eventually to reach.  In the next week or so, I’ll probably be talking a little more about my Project Bible, background notes, and my current writing process.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. June 24, 2011 5:03 pm

    I would imagine that those 18K words are all spiffed up/edited, so as to be presentable to people who otherwise would have no idea what she’s ever talking about, lol.

    I think the cumulative notes for my novel would be a ridiculous number, especially if they were all typed (my guess is over 200K, which might be on the modest side, lol; my electronic journals total over 168K alone), but if I were to publish any of that I’d want to cherry pick information that made the final cut rather than just publishing every thought that ever occurred to me during the brainstorming, writing and editing processes–because I’m sure that a lot of that stuff wouldn’t make sense to anyone else but me because of the non-chronological, sometimes stream-of-consciousness, manner they were recorded in.

    So my guess is that the 18K words they’re talking about is actually not all of her notes, just the ones she’s willing to share. (But then again, maybe not!)

    • June 27, 2011 11:50 am

      That’s very true, I would think. Most of my notes in my notebook are written as if to myself. I’m the intended audience. Some of my project bible stuff is more matter-of-fact and encylopedia-like in nature, though. But you’re right, it would all have to go through some kind of edit filter to make it presentable for mass consumption…

  2. June 24, 2011 5:04 pm

    I’m such a nerd and CAN’T WAIT for this site to launch. I love HP! 🙂

  3. June 24, 2011 5:20 pm

    Hmm I wouldn’t have much to share if I were her. Most of the ‘other’ writing I did to ground myself in the novel (more than 25k worth of fiction), was exploring options that never came to fruition, and have nothing to do with the final product that resulted.

    My other notes are really not that interesting! I certainly don’t have as much as you in background notes and related material. I don’t even have a pretty map 🙂

    It will be exciting to see how Pottermore turns out.

    • June 27, 2011 11:54 am

      So, what does a “Pantser” do when they’ve written a world that becomes really popular and a huge demand for an encyclopedia or concordance pops up? What if they don’t have notes… Do they pants that, too? If your book became a best-seller, and people wanted an encyclopedia, how would you handle it?

      • June 27, 2011 1:14 pm

        Hmm well it’s not that a panster doesn’t have content. They do by the time they’d be done, but I expect that a lot of it is just stored in the head rather than in words.

        For me, I’d have to go back and fill out an encyclopeida after the fact. There is plenty of world content, it’s just not written out in my notes. Any background stories for the characters would have to be newly written fiction, even though I know the stories in my head, I wouldn’t have written them before.

        So it’s entirely possible to create an encyclopdeia, especially if you look at fan made encyclopedias. Those pick apart the world as it is laid out in the books without any direct insight from the author.

      • June 27, 2011 1:24 pm

        I didn’t mean to suggest it wasn’t possible… Just thinking aloud. It seems like a lot of extra work. Then again… it’ll be a lot of extra work regardless. It’s just a matter of where and when that work is done, I guess, isn’t it? I’m doing all this on the front-end, at a point when it’s entirely unlikely I’ll ever need to do up a publicly-visible world or story encyclopedia. But I don’t do it because I think I’ll need an encyclopedia later… I do it because it helps me keep my story straight now…

      • June 27, 2011 2:08 pm

        Hehe yeah, I don’t think there are any shortcuts for the work. Either way it’s gotta be done, though when it happens in the process might differ.

      • June 27, 2011 2:09 pm

        Right you are: there are no shortcuts. Even so, at least the work is fun! 🙂

  4. June 25, 2011 4:01 pm

    Personally I’m not convinced by Pottermore, sounds like a dolled up forum with some games and some “new” Potter material. All of which has been done before.

    Having said the premise is an interesting one if implemented correctly – I like the idea of a fans of a series being able to contribute to a wiki or something the author occasionally joining is well, congratulating the users for figuring things out or making hints at further things to come.

    A few years back after the Matrix trilogy there was a phase of upcoming movies also having games, comics and animations all tying into the main story, adding more depth. A few flawed implementations (*cough* Van Helsing *cough*) and it fell from favour though. But again it’s an interesting concept that if people get a taste for the content then there’s more there if they want it, maybe add to the story in their own little way.

    Going back to Pottermore, I think if the Potter franchise wasn’t wound up and the site had a bit more meat than just an “official fan site” then it’d be a more intriguing concept. I think we’ll see more like it in the not too distant future.

    • June 27, 2011 12:01 pm

      I don’t disagree with you… it’s nothing really and truly new and innovative, and I think it’s pretty blatantly commercial in nature. But I’m a nerd, and loved the HP books, so I’m curious to see it anyway. As a creator, though, I lament the fall-from-grace that multi-media tie-ins have taken. For a long time I’ve imagined my magnum opus “book that I’ve been writing since forever”, Project SOA, as a multi-media, multi-platform entertainment product. When I was a youngish teenager, or whatever they call a “tween” these days (back in the SNES days, for me), I had even drawn up a game guide book for a Nintendo version of my book – which was meant to include some extra scenes and ideas and challenges that wouldn’t actually be in the book, but could only be experienced in the game. I’d even done a few level designs – in the days before 3D gaming, it was of course a platformer. The idea of the multiple layers of story and content across multiple media platforms appeals to me, for some reason.

  5. June 26, 2011 7:51 am

    I’m not a HP fan, but I must agree that 18000 words does seem rather meager considering what a wide work it is. Even for my relatively short 42,000-word kid’s book and it’s 10%-written sequel, I’ve got roughly, oh say, 14,764 words backing the whole thing up. So you’re right…18,000 words? Really?

    • June 27, 2011 12:10 pm

      Yeah. I’m sort of hoping it means “18,000 words of stuff you’d never seen or read before, plus a lot more that replicates what you’ve read in the books but in an encyclopedia format” or something like that.

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