Why did this Book get Published: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone?

This is a subject I will be returning to occasionally in my book reviews— sort of like a mini-series without being consecutive. The premise is how did these books even make it out of the slush pile when they break so many rules? I’m not intending to bash anyone: I honestly want to know the answer, and maybe some of you can help me. So let’s get started.

In January, my middle child was quite ill and missed a lot of school. I decided to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with her to help pass the time and ease the discomfort. Harry Potter is a series I actually started reading when my first child was born—a couple of years before I took up writing. I forgot about my anniversary the year Goblet of Fire came out because it came out a night or two before and I hadn’t finished it yet. Despite being out of town when Order of the Phoenix came out, I still went to the midnight release for it. I went to all the subsequent midnight releases as well as several of the midnight showings of the movies. You can say I’m a fan of Harry Potter.

I hadn’t read Sorcerer’s Stone in several years, so you can imagine how surprised I was to find it riddled with adverbs. Holy Hannah. If I ever wrote that many adverbs, my crit group would wash my mouth out with soap. Let’s see a few:

First sentence of the book: Mr. And Mrs. Dursley, of number 4, Privet Drive were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

Still on the first page: He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck although he did have a very large mustache.

Still on the first page: Mrs. Dursley was thin and blond and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful…

From the next two pages:

Mr. Dursley hummed as he picked out his most boring tie for work, and Mrs. Dursley gossiped away happily

…he couldn’t help noticing that there seemed to be a lot of strangely dressed people about.

…standing quite close by. They were whispering excitedly together.

…this was probably some silly stunt— these people were obviously collecting something…

I count 13 adverbs in the first three pages. I think there are tons more adjectives which is something else writers are supposed to do without. Essentially, we are supposed to stick to verbs and nouns in our art form. Sooo, how did this make it out of the slush pile? Did that editor not know the adverb/adjective rule?

And did anyone talk to J.K. Rowling about POV? The first chapter is in an omniscient POV, but then it sort of narrows down into Harry’s POV. Except when it seems inconvenient like at the first Quiditch match. The beginning of the chapter is about how nervous Harry is from a close third person POV and then we back way out through the announcements of Lee Jordan and land at Hermione so we can see her light Snape on fire. Is that legal?

I think one of the keys to JK Rowling’s success is her voice, and, honestly, her use of adverbs adds to the voice. And the POV changes are not something I noticed until I became aware of them as a writer myself. Maybe she gets away with it through smoke and mirrors by starting innocently with a sports announcement and boom: now it’s Hermione.

But still, it makes me sigh in frustration as my crit group tells me I use too many verbs with ING. Maybe the larger lesson here is at some point you have to let go and not worry if you’ve used more than one adverb in your chapter and exactly how many adjectives are there? Do you have too many “was’s” and verbs ending in ING? J.K. Rowling got published with 13 adverbs in her first three pages. Maybe you can too.



10 thoughts on “Why did this Book get Published: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone?

  1. I think the standards for children’s writing is a bit different than adult writing. Also, standards seem to change. Like we were always told don’t use the word “said” over and over again, use exclaimed, expounded, shouted…etc. Now, I’m told just to use the word “said”. Very confusing at times.

    • what I read, and I haven’t had classes just on writing, but have read writing books is to delete excessive adjectives and adverbs and to use colorful verbs. I guess it depends what excessive means.

  2. I’ve had the same experience as Shari, as in “don’t use said” to “only use said”. I find writing styles are like fashion. They come and go, and there’s always a new trend. Lately, I’ve been told to sometimes use “said” or other times use action tags to identify the speaker. That way, you can avoid repetition but still know who’s talking.. but it might only be a matter of time before that goes out of style too.

    As per the Harry Potter book (why did this get published), I think what suprised me most about it was that it was way over the standard word count acceptable for the audience and genre. I’ve seen blogs where agents say if a query letter comes in more than a few thousand words above where the novel should be for a first time author, they don’t even give it a second glance. Some magazines are like this too: “5000 words max. If it’s 5001 words, we’ll send it back.”

    • Yes, trends are tricky to stay on top of, especially when something that is accepted takes a year to get published. Word counts for novels seem to be murky right now, even, or maybe especially in the children’s industry. For now, I’ll right my novel how I want it, and then sift through the requirements for agents to see if I need to change stuff or send as is. It’s like playing a board game with changing rules :)

  3. PS – I just bought “Creating Short Fiction” and browsed the passage about ING words right before I read this post, so the timing was quite serendipitous.

  4. I’ve thought the same thing about HP. It also takes a long time for the key conflict to become apparent. And yet it’s a brilliant read. Her voice is deliciously cozy. I just finished Never Let Me Go, shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2005, and I kept thinking at the start that my crit group would eat me alive for so much backstory. In fact, the whole book is backstory – it’s someone telling a story. I guess breaking the ‘rules’ makes you stand out if you do it brilliantly.

  5. Yes, breaking the rules can make you stand out for good or for ill :) I also think crit groups tend to be harder on each other than anyone else, which is good and bad. Sometimes after I send in my comments I worry for a week that I said too much. It’s a tricky balance. Welcome to the site, Carolyn, and thanks for joining in the conversation!