Wednesday, June 26, 2013


First Paragraph: Harry sat there, aware that every head in the Great Hall had turned to look at him. He was stunned. He felt numb. He was surely dreaming. He had not heard correctly.

Esteemed Reader, I must say this up front: I adore J.K. Rowling. Of course I do. I admire great middle grade writers every chance I get and she's among the absolute best. I'd be out of my mind not to respect her and study her craft with reverence  which is why I'm still doing these posts 17 weeks in. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is my favorite in the series and I think it ought to go on and be declared literature at this point. 

But I truly believe every writer has weak parts of their writing. For example, Stephen King knows how to create suspense, but he rarely crafts a satisfying ending (about 40% of the time). Mark Twain was cleverer and funnier than any other writer since, but he did stretch his stories thin for theme and metaphor from time to time. Ernest Hemmingway wrote the manliest fiction I've ever read, but he was a terrible human being:) J.K. Rowling is magical, but I swear she swiped some things from the movie Troll, and the Harry Potter books are not perfect. 

The word perfect and I have never been associated and this blog is often tedious, yet you come back week after week, Esteemed Reader:)  I'm not saying J.K. Rowling is any less awesome just because her books aren't perfect. I also acknowledge that it's a lot easier for me to sit back and criticize than to write my own magical middle grade novel. But no book is sacred and we writers must cut our teeth every opportunity we get. A writer must be a sharp critic of his own work, and an impartial observer of what does and doesn't work in the writing of others.

Chapter 17 is mostly great. There's one rather tedious passage I'm going to pick apart, which is the reason for the long intro. But the chapter opens and ends strong and it's short. I like that in a chapter. 

When we last left Harry, his name had just been drawn from the Goblet of Fire, which is bad news. Chapter 17 is a master class in how to make a bad story problem even worse. First, Rowling has to deal with the aftermath of Harry's joining the tournament, but she gives us hints at what's coming by the chapter's end:

Harry turned to Ron and Hermione; beyond them, he saw the long Gryffindor table all watching him, openmouthed. 
“I didn’t put my name in,” Harry said blankly. “You know I didn’t.” 
Both of them stared just as blankly back.

What's going on with Harry's homies, there? And why are they mysteriously absent from the after party later on? It's because Ron's finally mad at Harry. There, I said it. Also, Cedric Diggory dies.

I'm not worried about spoilers for this series of posts. If you don't like or haven't at least read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, why would you be reading this? So as we all know, Mad Eye Moody isn't really Mad Eye Moody. He's the devious bad guy who put Harry's name in the Goblet of Fire and who is plotting Harry's death at the hands of Voldermort. So look how Rowling plays us all for fools:

“After all our meetings and negotiations and compromises, I little expected something of this nature to occur! I have half a mind to leave now!” 
“Empty threat, Karkaroff,” growled a voice from near the door. “You can’t leave your champion now. He’s got to compete. They’ve all got to compete. Binding magical contract, like Dumbledore said. Convenient, eh?” 
Moody had just entered the room. He limped toward the fire, and with every right step he took, there was a loud clunk
“Convenient?” said Karkaroff. “I’m afraid I don’t understand you, Moody.” 
Harry could tell he was trying to sound disdainful, as though what Moody was saying was barely worth his notice, but his hands gave him away; they had balled themselves into fists. 
“Don’t you?” said Moody quietly. “It’s very simple, Karkaroff. Someone put Potter’s name in that goblet knowing he’d have to compete if it came out.”

Moody comes to Harry's defense. We haven't liked him this much since he turned Malfoy into a ferret. In fact, I liked Mad-Eye Moody so much, the first time I read this book and learned Mad-Eye Moody was never really Mad-Eye Moody, I felt betrayed. I felt like I'd lost a friend. But I didn't figure out the mystery before it was revealed and I'll wager most readers didn't. 

The last section of this chapter is Ron and Harry's big fight after which they call off the wedding! It's a great moment and one that's been subtly building over several chapters, as we've been discussing in laborious detail for many weeks. I promise to leave you with the whole fight so you can enjoy it again, but first I want to talk about thinking. 

One of the great strengths of novels is their ability to put us completely in the head of a character, so we can see the world the way they see it. A character in a movie usually can't tell the audience exactly what he's thinking unless he's Kevin Spacey in House of Cards, but book characters do this all the time.  Even in third person, authors can dip into character's heads and tell us what they're thinking. 

Here is a truly excellent passage from early in this chapter, just after Harry's name has been drawn for the tournament, in which the reader knows exactly what Harry is thinking:

Harry got to his feet, trod on the hem of his robes, and stumbled slightly. He set off up the gap between the Gryffindor and Hufflepuff tables. It felt like an immensely long walk; the top table didn’t seem to be getting any nearer at all, and he could feel hundreds and hundreds of eyes upon him, as though each were a searchlight. The buzzing grew louder and louder. After what seemed like an hour, he was right in front of Dumbledore, feeling the stares of all the teachers upon him. 
“Well . . . through the door, Harry,” said Dumbledore. He wasn’t smiling.

Rowling never tells us Harry is feeling nervous and apprehensive. She shows us by showing us what Harry sees and by having him stumble. Having Harry say or think: "Oh dear, I've soiled my school robes," isn't necessary because we know from the details of the scene that he's soiling his school robes (metaphorically speaking). I especially like the detail that Dumbledore isn't smiling. We know Dumbledore loves Harry, so his sternness here is as unsettling to us as it is to Harry, allowing us to know just by virtue of the scene what Harry must be thinking.

Like it or not, storytelling has been forever changed by the advent of television and movies. Showing us the character's reactions will always be more interesting than a chunk of exposition, or worse, a character sitting and thinking. Even when he's telling us exactly what he's thinking, Kevin Spacey's character in House of Cards is killing a dog, not sitting inactive. I've harped on this before, but nothing is more boring than a character sitting alone and thinking about things the reader isn't shown in scene.

Rowling doesn't have Harry sit and think. Heavens no! She has him walk and think. Contrast this scene with the previous:

Harry stood listening to him going down the stone steps beyond it, then, slowly, he started to climb the marble ones. 
Was anyone except Ron and Hermione going to believe him, or would they all think he’d put himself in for the tournament? Yet how could anyone think that, when he was facing competitors who’d had three years’ more magical education than he had — when he was now facing tasks that not only sounded very dangerous, but which were to be performed in front of hundreds of people? Yes, he’d thought about it . . . he’d fantasized about it . . . but it had been a joke, really, an idle sort of dream . . . he’d never really, seriously considered entering. . . . 
But someone else had considered it . . . someone else had wanted him in the tournament, and had made sure he was entered. Why? To give him a treat? He didn’t think so, somehow. . . . 
To see him make a fool of himself? Well, they were likely to get their wish. . .
But to get him killed? 
Was Moody just being his usual paranoid self? Couldn’t someone have put Harry’s name in the goblet as a trick, a practical joke? Did anyone really want him dead? 
Harry was able to answer that at once. Yes, someone wanted him dead, someone had wanted him dead ever since he had been a year old . . . Lord Voldemort. But how could Voldemort have ensured that Harry’s name got into the Goblet of Fire? Voldemort was supposed to be far away, in some distant country, in hiding, alone . . . feeble and powerless. . . . 
Yet in that dream he had had, just before he had awoken with his scar hurting, Voldemort had not been alone . . . he had been talking to Wormtail . . . plotting Harry’s murder. . . . 
Harry got a shock to find himself facing the Fat Lady already.

Yawn. I sort of drifted off for a moment there, Esteemed Reader, but I'm back now. Maybe I'm too picky, but that scene is, in my ever humble opinion, the worst moment in this book since Chapter 2, in which Harry literally sat and thought. We, the reader, know exactly what Harry's thinking, and I doubt many of us care. This is the sort of scene that would usually be played out with Ron and Hermione, but of course, Rowling's keeping them distant because of the way the chapter ends.

I submit to you that there isn't one piece of information in this passage that the reader doesn't already know. If I ever build a Terminator, I'm not sending him after John Connor--let somebody else worry about that kid. I'm sending my Terminator back in  time to convince Rowling or her editor to cut this scene out of the novel. It's dry, it isn't interesting, and if it weren't directly following an awesome scene and directly followed by an awesome scene, it would slow the book to a stop.

Harry isn't doing anything. He is in no way advancing the plot aside from his walking from point A to B. There's no direct conflict here, only thinking about conflict. Unless your before and after scenes are as exciting as Rowling's, Esteemed Reader, seek out sitting-and-thinking passages like this in your manuscript and terminate them. Otherwise, when I write a weekly criticism of your work, I will complain!!! Do you really want to risk that happening!?!

That's going to do it for this week, Esteemed Reader. I'm off to play cards with the YA Cannibals as we're winding down the Writing Day I told you about Monday, even though I wrote both these posts on Sunday. But before I go, I'll leave you with Ron and Harry's big fight as we'll be talking about it more in the coming weeks:

Last Paragraph(s): “Congratulations.” 
“What d’you mean, congratulations?” said Harry, staring at Ron. There was definitely something wrong with the way Ron was smiling: It was more like a grimace. 
“Well . . . no one else got across the Age Line,” said Ron. “Not even Fred and George. What did you use — the Invisibility Cloak?” 
“The Invisibility Cloak wouldn’t have got me over that line,” said Harry slowly. 
“Oh right,” said Ron. “I thought you might’ve told me if it was the Cloak . . . because it would’ve covered both of us, wouldn’t it? But you found another way, did you?” 
“Listen,” said Harry, “I didn’t put my name in that goblet. Someone else must’ve done it.” 
Ron raised his eyebrows. 
“What would they do that for?” “I dunno,” said Harry. He felt it would sound very melodramatic to say, “To kill me.” 
Ron’s eyebrows rose so high that they were in danger of disappearing into his hair. 
“It’s okay, you know, you can tell me the truth,” he said. “If you don’t want everyone else to know, fine, but I don’t know why you’re bothering to lie, you didn’t get into trouble for it, did you? That friend of the Fat Lady’s, that Violet, she’s already told us all Dumbledore’s letting you enter. A thousand Galleons prize money, eh? And you don’t have to do end-of-year tests either. . . .” 
“I didn’t put my name in that goblet!” said Harry, starting to feel angry. 
“Yeah, okay,” said Ron, in exactly the same skeptical tone as Cedric. “Only you said this morning you’d have done it last night, and no one would’ve seen you. . . . I’m not stupid, you know.” 
“You’re doing a really good impression of it,” Harry snapped. 
“Yeah?” said Ron, and there was no trace of a grin, forced or otherwise, on his face now. “You want to get to bed, Harry. I expect you’ll need to be up early tomorrow for a photo-call or something.” 
He wrenched the hangings shut around his four-poster, leaving Harry standing there by the door, staring at the dark red velvet curtains, now hiding one of the few people he had been sure would believe him

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