Every once in awhile I see a tweet or post pop up on my dashboard about how J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was rejected by nearly every major publisher. The message of the post always seems aimed at the foolishness of the industry, and how they missed out on publishing a successful author. To a struggling author, this message might give them hope, a “don’t stop trying” attitude. But, as an editor and author (albeit in the academic world), I can’t help but wonder whether her published work (or proposal letter) bears any relation to her original submission. In a society that values hard work, we also seem keen to hide the number of edits and revisions any art must go through before it reaches publication potential – or before it can even be deemed to be worthy of consideration.
In recent days, I’ve seen discussion of the Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker‘s so-called “original script” floating around on the internet. If this gives people some sense of reassurance that the studio hasn’t killed their childhood, then so be it. (I’ve already discussed in my last 3 posts why I think the movie was awesome, so I won’t get into it here.) But the point I want to draw attention to is the idea that the “original” script is authentic. For people who are extremely unhappy with the final product, they can hold on to this notion of the original script because it’s supposedly what the writers or director “really” wanted. This idea seems to leave out all the hard work of editing, and that, in fact, the final product is what the artist had aimed for all along. True, the artist might not be happy with the result themselves, but the first draft is like a hunk of unrefined clay, waiting to be moulded into something better.
The editing process is long and arduous, and anyone that dismisses it as an afterthought seems to lack a basic understanding of how publication and production works. This last December, 8 years after I formed the initial concept I finally published my article on the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle that I had sitting in my draft folder. In that time I obtained an MA, a PhD, got married, and had a kid. Nearly every year I sat down to re-draft the article all over again, completely revising the focus and perimeters of the paper. I can’t count the number of different forms its gone through – or the number of times it’s been peer reviewed. (In complete honesty, I used one of the earlier drafts to interview potential editors for Fantastika Journal. So if you’ve interviewed with me for the journal, yup, that was my rough work.)
The major problem with this draft (in my opinion anyway) was that there was two disjointed halves, a part A and a part B. This two part structure developed as a result of trying to expand a conference piece into a publishable item. While very few people picked up on the two disparate structure, many of the reviewers pinpointed that the article didn’t follow the argument I had proposed in my introduction.
I use this example, because it’s one that I see over and over again as a journal editor: conference papers that have been redrafted for article submission rarely fit the argument outlined in the introduction (or indeed, in the conference abstract), as, through the course of writing and research, the central argument will shift from the initial proposal. And really, if your article doesn’t change in the slightest after you’ve done all of your reading and research, then I’d question your research process. If you didn’t learn and adjust your ideas in the course of research, then I’m not sure what you might’ve gained from your reading.
To return to Rowling, based on the original synopsis, as an editor I would’ve rejected the work too! I’m not sure if the synopsis was a part of her elevator pitch (the “would you be interested in this sort of work” email), or part of a book proposal which was invited by a publisher who accepted the elevator pitch. But in any case, the first two paragraphs of the synopsis reads:
Harry Potter lives with his aunt, uncle and cousin because his parents died in a car-crash — or so he has been told. The Dursleys don’t like Harry asking questions; in fact, they don’t seem to like anything about him, especially the very odd things that keep happening around him (which Harry himself can’t explain).
The Dursleys’ greatest fear is that Harry will discover the truth about himself, so when letters start arriving for him near his eleventh birthday, he isn’t allowed to read them. However, the Dursleys aren’t dealing with an ordinary postman, and at midnight on Harry’s birthday the gigantic Rubeus Hagrid breaks down the door to make sure Harry gets to read his post at last. Ignoring the horrified Dursleys, Hagrid informs Harry that he is a wizard, and the letter he gives Harry explains that he is expected at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in a month’s time.
It takes two paragraphs to get to the fact that Harry is a wizard; an idea that is absolutely crucial to the plot of the first novel and the series itself. Yes, while Harry being a wizard isn’t revealed to Harry in the first part of the book, the audience knows it from the start, and once Harry discovers his identity, the rest of the plot doesn’t focus too much on this identity crisis. But, from the way this synopsis reads, it would appear that the book focuses on this hidden identity. His identity as wizard is discussed in a mysterious way (“odd things”; “truth about himself”). The reveal itself is delivered in a bland, boring way, “Hagrid informs Harry that he is a wizard.” And, to be honest, the whole language reads, kinda… dull. You can read the full synopsis here and judge for yourself. In fairness to Rowling, the synopsis is much longer than the brief introduction I’ve presented here, and she does go into the actual plot in more detail as she continues. BUT, publishers receives thousands of book proposals. You NEED to be able to sell them on the idea in the first few sentences. If you can’t entice the publisher to read past the first statement, then it’s a clear demonstration that you’re abilities as a writer aren’t at publishing quality. And, ask yourself honestly, if you had picked up this synopsis (on the back of a book at a bookstore etc), would you be enticed to read the whole story?
So go thank your editor today. Or, if you’re a reader and not a writer, give a big shout-out to the editors of your favourite books. They put a lot of hard work in helping the author finesse their writing and ideas into the amazing product you hold as gospel today.