I was reading a conversation on a forum about YA fiction, and the conversation naturally turned to Harry Potter. I would have posted this there, but I thought it would be interesting for many people to hear, so I’m blogging about it instead.
There’s other things I could talk about with the HP series. I could talk about how the series uses wondrous magic that is made easily accessible in neat juxtapositions with daily life. I could focus on how this sort of mash-up came at just the right time. But you probably got that already from reading the series, or whatever else you’ve read. So I’m going to talk about the series less as YA, and more as a Blockbuster series. The biggest thing (I think) that can be learned from the Harry Potter series is how a series can evolve from rather lackluster beginnings into a real phenomena.
The first couple of books seem so-so, but for a lot of people they had enough interesting stuff going on and were well enough written that this was enough to get them to go read the next book–or at least to listen to their friends and relatives who told them that things were getting better and they should check out the next book. Each book got better until Prisoner of Azkaban–after which the real breakout book of the series, Goblet of Fire, turned the series on its head and made it into a phenomenon with a true potential to be remembered.
PoA was really well-written, tight, but short and to the point and very much in the same vein as the earlier adventure series, which were very much still kids books (yeah, with heavy content, sure, but the Narnia series dealt with fairly heavy issues too). Still, it was a really great read, and it made people highly excited for the next book–which Rowling took her time on, since with enough excitement she could do that. And taking the time paid off: GoF was a giant of a book compared to the earlier novels, with a billion sub-plots, a highly complex set of red herrings for a set of who-dun-its rather than the simple one central who-dun-it of the earlier books. And then of course the series turns entirely on the last few chapters, when Harry is faced with the real danger of Voldemort, Stuff Gets Real, and the promise of not just how the next book will go is set up, but the promise of how the series itself must change and grow is provided to the audience.
This is the best written book of the series, and infinitely more complex than the earlier books. If it weren’t for the author getting better and better at her job like these books demonstrate (if you haven’t then you’ll have to read them to see exactly what makes each book better than the last), then the series would have maybe kept an audience but never really gone anywhere, or just as likely flopped. But as important is that the book already had an audience that developed from the earlier books in the series.
After Goblet of Fire, the books don’t really get better. They get worse, in fact, in many ways. The last book is, in my view, a failure because Rowling hadn’t developed the chops to write the satisfying ending she’d promised for so long. Taking Harry out of Hogwarts–which could have opened the series up in a billion different ways–instead closed everything down because Rowling was trapped inside of the formula that had made her books work before. The formula become a crutch–one she was an expert with, but one that had to go in the last book, and she wasn’t up for the challenge of writing without it. Which isn’t to fault her; it would have been nearly impossible to satisfy most everyone with the last book, once their expectations were so high. Still, that doesn’t change what worked so well about so much of the series. Many of us kept reading because we’d been brought in, spent the time on the early books, read the great breakout books that snagged us for the rest of the series–and then no book was so bad that it tossed us out the door thereafter, until possibly the last book (and that was too late if, like me, the last book didn’t work for you).
So what I think we can learn from the HP series is: If you manage to get to write a series, you’ve got get it out there and get get better at it (duh), and–here’s the important point: After two or three books you cannot feel scared to break through the mold you’ve cast and turn the whole thing on its head. Preferably to turn it on its head in an interesting way that will keep an audience with you from then on. Don’t be scared to take this chance, because it is this chance that makes breakout novels, and break out novels make breakout series. Also, if you can, then learn to do what Rowling did not manage to do; learn to write outside of your formulas before you need to go without them, so that when you do need to go without your formulas then you’ll still have a chance to be writing at or above the top of your game–which is where your audience will expect you to be. In other words, be willing and ready to get the series to break out more than once, if you can find a way.
Not a short order. This isn’t about writing and selling a book or even your average series–this is about making and selling an industry-changing (perhaps culture-changing?) series, which is what I think series writers should be shooting for as often as they can be. Put against that goal, the willingness to risk the series in order to make it truly great doesn’t seem like an unreasonable set of expectations to me.