Tag: allen gannett

jk rowling

How J.K. Rowling Created the Incredible World of Harry Potter

This is an excerpt from the new book The Creative Curve: How to Develop the Right Idea, at the Right Time by Allen Gannett.



It was 1990.


J. K. Rowling was stuck on the train from Manchester to London. The train was delayed, and it was looking less and less likely she’d reach London on time. Her mind started to wander. Then, as she later told The New York Times, “It was the most incredible feeling… out of nowhere, it just fell from above.” Suddenly the ideas for the characters inhabiting a magical world began filling her brain, starting with Harry Potter. “I could see Harry very clearly; this scrawny little boy, and it was the most physical rush of excitement. I’ve never felt that excited about anything to do with writing. I’ve never had an idea that gave me such a physical response.”


Rowling continued, “By the end of that train journey I knew it was going to be a seven-book series. I know that’s extraordinarily arrogant for somebody who had never been published but that’s how it came to me.” 


Image Via BeInspiredChannel.com

Image Via BeInspiredChannel.com


Harry Potter’s origin story has become a legend. It has informed how thousands, if not millions, of people think about creativity. And it has lent credence to the idea that creativity is a mysterious, spontaneous, almost magical (no pun intended) process where earth-shattering ideas drop fully formed from the sky. Rowling’s story of dreaming up the Harry Potter universe in an instant has made her a poster child for this “inspiration theory” of creativity. 


But the story has it totally backwards. Rowling’s story doesn’t prove that creativity is uncontrollable and random. On the contrary, the real story behind the creation of Harry Potter persuasively demonstrates that creativity is a learnable, improvable skill. Let me show you what I mean. 


The Crafting of Harry Potter


J. K. Rowling got off the train when it reached London, feeling inspired. If she had believed in the inspiration theory of creativity, she might have gone home and sat at her desk, waiting for yet more revelations.  Instead, motivated by the vision she’d already mapped out in her head, she began planning her books methodically. Rowling spent the next five years engaged in creative iterations, developing the plots of all seven books, and writing the first book. Five years!


Her story is not one of sudden inspiration leading to overnight success. In fact, Rowling is one of the most organized and driven fiction writers I found in my research. Once, during a television interview, she showed a journalist her papers. Among the troves of boxes were fifteen variations of the first chapter of book one alone, as well as a chart that included every single character in Harry Potter’s class at Hogwarts that Rowling used to develop her plots. 


Image Via Mental Floss

One of Rowling’s early plot charts | Image Via Mental Floss


It didn’t stop there. Rowling published on her website a plot table she created to plan her fifth book. On the left-hand side, she listed every chapter, followed by a column for each subplot, and a map that helped her organize how various plotlines would unfold throughout the book. Her original agent, Christopher Little, described to me how obvious her planning was when the two of them first met. “What was quite extraordinary was that she had a very clear picture in her head of seven books,” he said. “If you asked a question about a particular scene, where you go down a corridor, and you turn into the third door on the left, she knew what was in the first door and the second door on the left.”


Rowling was more than just a visionary; she was also a voracious planner who exerted immense effort. 


The True Nature of Creativity


One of the things I love most about Rowling’s story is the colossal gap between the public perception of her creative process and the reality. She didn’t just get struck by lightning. She didn’t win the creative lottery.


She toiled for years to create something great. Rowling planned, outlined, and developed reference materials, going through endless iterations and drafts to get her story and her characters just right. She built the universe subplot by subplot, draft by draft, and scene by scene. 


And the result, of course, was Harry Potter.


The true story of the creation of Harry Potter should leave you feeling empowered. The way to create something amazing isn’t to wait for it to be delivered to your brain fully formed. Creativity isn’t something that magically drops from the sky, it’s a muscle that can be trained through hard work and dedication.  You don’t need to be a wizard to create something great. You just have to be willing to work your wand off.   


creative curve


Adapted from THE CREATIVE CURVE: HOW TO DEVELOP THE RIGHT IDEA, AT THE RIGHT TIME © 2018 by Allen Gannett. Published by Currency, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.


Featured Image Via The Wrap

beverly jenkins

The Secret Behind 1.5 Million Romance Novels Sold

This is an excerpt from the new book The Creative Curve by Allen Gannett.


Beverly Jenkins was nine years old when she started walking the fifteen blocks to the Mark Twain Library at the corner of Gratiot Avenue and Burns Street on the east side of Detroit.


Growing up poor and the oldest of seven children, early on she discovered that books were a great means of escape. “Books could take you all over the world,” she told me. “They could show you other people. They could show you other places. We were poor economically, but not in love, or spirit, or support, or any of that, and the books were free.”


For the next seven years, Jenkins went to the library every Saturday to get new titles. When she stopped going, it wasn’t because she’d lost her love for reading; rather, she had managed to read every book in the library. At first, I thought when she told me she read every book in the library, she was using hyperbole to make her point. No, she was serious: “Science fiction, Martian Chronicles, Dune, nonfiction, Westerns, Zane Grey . . . I read everything in the library. Doesn’t matter what it was.”


Image Via Google Play

Image Via Google Play


Jenkins had gone through an intense period of reading that left her with an unquenchable love for both books and libraries. After graduating college, she got a job at the reference desk for a drug company, but still continued to read voraciously, especially the emerging category of romance novels that began appearing on bookstore shelves in the 1970s.


Many of the most popular romance novels belonged to the “historical romance” genre. Readers devoured stories of queens, princesses, and forbidden Victorian love. It didn’t take Jenkins long to see a problem: Almost all the characters in these books were white. There were no well-known African-American historical romances.


In response, she made a decision: She would create the book that she wanted to read. The book as she conceived it would tell the story of an African-American soldier in the all-Black 10th Cavalry during the Civil War who was in love with a rural schoolteacher.


Image Via Shondaland.com

Image Via Shondaland.com


Jenkins finished the book, but was resigned to the fact that mainstream publishers weren’t exactly open to acquiring African-American-centered fiction, not then at least. One of her coworkers was also a big fan of romance fiction, and had been writing her own romance novels. When she managed to sell her book to a publisher, Jenkins, impressed, told her colleague about her own book.


The colleague insisted on reading it and a few days later told Jenkins that she needed to find a publisher now.


Jenkins was skeptical, but found a literary agent who began submitting the manuscript around town. After enough rejections to paper her entire home, one day the phone rang. It was an editor at Avon Books. Recalls Jenkins, “The rest, as they say, is history.”


When her debut novel, Night Song, was published, it leapt off the bookstore shelves and into the mainstream press. People magazine published a five-page spread on Jenkins, and the reviews were glowing. Jenkins, it seems, was at the vanguard of an entirely new genre of books: historical Black romance.


Image Via Pinterest

Image Via Pinterest


Without knowing it, Jenkins had hit the sweet spot on the creative curve.


She had produced something familiar (a historical romance novel) but different (one that included Black characters). And, as we have explored, if you’re able to strike a balance between “new enough to be exciting” and “conventional enough to be popular,” you have a good chance of hitting the creative jackpot.


When readers buy a romance novel, they expect a familiar structure that incorporates narrative characteristics classic to the genre. These recurrent features have led to the charge that romance novels are unoriginal. But Beverly Jenkins disagrees. “I don’t think it’s any different from any other fiction,” she says. “Can’t have Westerns without a bad guy and a sheriff. Or a bunch of horses. Can’t have mystery without a dead body and somebody trying to figure out who done it.” They’re not unoriginal; they’re familiar!


Image Via Love Between the Covers

Image Via Love Between the Covers


Jenkins managed to take these familiar romance structures and spice them up with a novel twist. This turned what could have been just another formulaic romance book into a smash hit. Jenkins succeeded because of her mastery of the interplay between the familiar and the novel.


How did Jenkins develop the ability to so successfully master these forces? She read and read and read!


Though she didn’t realize it at the time, all her hours spent reading in the library as a child served as a masterclass in high-quality literature. By following the first law of the creative curve (Law I – Consumption), Jenkins was able to grow an intuitive sense of the type of story that readers would love. She knew in her bones what was old and what was new, so balancing the two was much easier than it would have been had she spent her childhood bobbing in the pool instead of buried in a stack of books.


Jenkins’ story serves as a powerful reminder. If you want to create, you’ll need to consume.


creative curve


Adapted from THE CREATIVE CURVE: HOW TO DEVELOP THE RIGHT IDEA, AT THE RIGHT TIME © 2018 by Allen Gannett. Published by Currency, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.


Featured Image Via Shondaland.com