Writing Process & Pottermore: The Unpublished Underbelly of the Story
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 Here is what was said about the previously unpublished material: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to write another novel,” hopefully they’ll take solace in knowing that later this year Pottermore will unveil of 18,000 unpublished words about characters, places, objects and more from the world of Harry Potter.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 Eighteen-thousand unpublished words?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.