In sports there’s an elusive and important quality called clutchness: the ability to deliver under pressure. From Michael Jordan to Robert Horry to Joe Montana, there have always been performers who rise to the occasion, even beyond the occasion, when it matters the most. Through determination, focus, imperviousness to pressure, they come up big when it counts.
If there were ever a clutch writer, it’s J.K. Rowling.
But what does that mean for writing? In sports, clutchness means hitting a big shot, leading a winning touchdown drive, or getting an important hit when it matters. One play or a couple of plays requiring focus and determination.
To be a clutch writer is something else entirely. It’s a long, slow burn of dealing with daily distractions while staying on course. It’s a marathon, not a few key moments of focus.
J.K. Rowling had to have faced some of the greatest pressure of any modern writer. Not only was she hugely successful, but we’re now in the era of paparazzi and the Internet. While, yes, I would assume phenomenal success does come with its rewards, it also surely comes with manifold distractions: the pressure of living up the expectations of a rabid fan base, sudden loss of privacy, lawsuits from nutjobs, not to mention the temptation of resting on one’s laurels and letting your writerly guard down.
And that’s what’s so amazing to me about Rowling. She never stopped improving. While Order of the Phoenix was my favorite in the series, that has more to do with its place in the series rather than the overall quality of the writing and the work, which just kept getting better. And in order to get better at something you can’t be self-satisfied and think you’ve made it and become convinced of your own genius. You have to keep digging deep and keep being skeptical of yourself and keep trying to spot your own flaws and resist the temptations that come along with success. And that is hard!!
That’s what’s clutch about J.K. Rowling. She led us on seven consecutive touchdown drives over the course of ten years, never wavering in focus and quality, and always coming up big when it mattered the most.
And maybe some of that ability to stay grounded has to do with her phenomenal track record in charitable giving. Wikipedia has a whole section devoted to the many ways she’s given back, including a recent £10 million donation to multiple sclerosis research.
That is perhaps the most inspiring thing of all – you can be both a phenomenally successful writer and a great human.
But it doesn’t hurt to be clutch.
Hannah – you make some good points. I think she is the exception rather than the rule.
And I realize that J.K. had to prove herself before she was given the type of latitude she probably was given (or demanded) in the latter books.
But, I have to gently disagree, she is a career model for me! Because that's my goal. I want to be such a good writer that I have POWER. I probably won't use it as wisely as Rowling did. I mostly just want to boss everyone around. I want them to cower when I walk into the building, and run at my beck and call and get me ONLY the green M&M's or I get to throw a temper tantrum.
Boy, that sounds like so much fun.
But I do tend to dream big, Hannah. 🙂
Anyway, good discussion. 🙂
Mira–totally make not having rules the goal, just realize that you have to follow rules before you get there. And we're good. 🙂
Natalie Aguirre says
I'm usually just a lurker on your site because you get so many comments. I just wanted to say how much I've been enjoying the posts this week. I love the Harry Potter series. It rekindled my love of fantasy and got me to start writing.
Hope your new job is going well.
Courtney Odell says
I completely agree Nathan. Rowling is phenomenal! I wish she would write and On Writing book/ autobiography. I think it would be very insightful.
"As good as Stephen King is, some of his cavalcade of books wouldn't be considered publishable if he WEREN'T Stephen King. I know, I've read them. They read like second drafts. Is that a clutch writer? Or is that a writer whose name is so big they can get anything published, even if it may not be up to par?"
Many big name artists are like that. Take the Beatles, for example. We would never have Yellow Submarine, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, or Strawberry Fields if some other band had made them. But because it was the Beatles, and all the popularity that it implies, we have those songs.
Back on topic, I would like to say that J. K. Rowling is one of my favorites authors, but not necessarily the best, for all reasons pointed out above: she was able to consistently turn in epicness.
J. T. Shea says
I thought Americans didn't do clutches? But 'automatic transmission writers' doesn't sound quite right…
Matthew, some of the Harry Potter actors, notably Richard Harris, the original Dumbledore, were Irish.
Hannah, if you truly believe that you'll have to churn out books fairly quickly, then it will be true for you. Everyone is an exception to one or more rules. No two writers have the same career, any more than any two writers write the same book. J. K. Rowling wrote seven HP books, mostly long, at an average of one every two years since 1996. An awesome achievement.
Neither Nathan nor Joisin are lauding J. K. Rowling as a career or role model in the sense of assuming any other writer can or should do exactly the same thing. And if sheer sales are the target, Agatha Christie is a better model. Her eighty short books have sold TWO BILLION copies!
Mira, it is not enough that they get you only green M & Ms. All other M & M colors must be banned on pain of death! And throw a temper tantrum anyway. Every hour, on the hour. And don't walk into the building. They must CARRY you into the building.
J.T., sometimes I think you're the only one who truly 'gets' me.
Hannah, how about this for a meeting of minds? I will acknowledge that the path of following the rules until you can break them is a time-honored, respected and effective path that is followed by many great people, including, but not limited to J.K. Rowling, Nathan and you. An honorable path indeed.
I hope that is a place at which we can agree. 🙂
So true. I love her community service profile and the fact that her writing kept getting better and better.
She's an inspiration in so many ways.
Josin L. McQuein says
J.T — FWIW, Hannah DOES churn out books quickly. Insanely so, in fact.
She's rather infuriating at times.
J. T. Shea says
Good points, Mira. Though I don't think success should necessarily change my attitude to the 'rules'. As I've commented several times before, they're more guidelines than rules. A bit like the Pirate Code in PIRATES OF THE CARRIBBEAN… I learn and respect them, but will break them if I consider it necessary and desirable. And live with the consequences, of course.
But I do not consider rule breaking to be a desirable privilege of success if the results irritate the reader, who is, after all, the ultimate enforcer of the rules.
Josin, apologies for misspelling your name. Hannah's publishing record is indeed most impressive. But I would not take her as a career model any more than J. K. Rowling or Agatha Christie, or anyone other than J. T. Shea.
J.T. – I feel it's an honorable path – that of following the rules. But I don't feel it's the only path. I'm sure Hannah would agree. Seriously doubt it's my path either, since I couldn't write to demand with a gun at my head.
But we all have our different paths. For example, getting back on topic, J.K. Rowling is capable of producing extraordinary works under great pressure. Whereas I would fold like a wimp noodle. See? We all have our ways.
Thanks guys 🙂
Kristin Laughtin says
While I agree with James' assessment–many of her later books could have been tighter, although I find myself noticing more details with each re-read–I think she did up the ante with each book. She may have repeated many of the same devices (Hermione infodumps and "as-you-know"s, knowledge learned by eavesdropping while wearing the invisibility cloaks, etc.), but she found new ways to keep us engaged, play with our emotions, shock or leave us breathless, with each book.
And she's a fantastic human being. She already had to have tremendous dedication to finish the first book, and then to make each book better. She loved the world she had created so much that she wasn't content to simply rest on her fame, knowing they'd sell no matter what. She tried very hard. And she remembered where she came from, and that the rest of the world isn't as fortunate as her, and she continues to give back in staggering amounts. It's commendable.
Interesting discussion about rules. I think there are tiers of authors. The super-talented genius types of authors often spend a great deal of time creating masterpieces, and the world is willing to wait for that. Masterpieces are rare, but they're worth the wait.
About those gaps in the series.
Worth considering that when those last 4 books went to press they occupied a quarter to a third of the printing capacity on the planet! It takes time to free up and coordinate all those presses. It's also time consuming to the acquire paper in sufficient quantity and secure shipping for the tonnage of books involved.
Continuity and copy editing for any book of that length is also a very time intensive process. Furthermore, Scholastic had other important books to put out that decade–books that deserved not to be overshadowed by HP. These were scheduled for release in non-HP seasons.
Knowing all this, I'd never assume that it was Rowling who was off schedule, nor that she was bending the rules, nor that she was calling the shots at her publishing house. I think the timing of those releases was meticulously planned and successfully executed–a testament not just to her but to her editor and publisher.
Anon @10:46 PM – I agree with what you're saying. I had always understood that J.K. Rowling was extremely good at making her deadlines and that she put herself under tremendous pressure to do so. Release of the Harry Potter novels involved even more than the actual publishing, which was complicated enough – parties were scheduled in bookstores and so on, and involved some rather elaborate planning.
Sheila Cull says
Nathan, your recent posts about Rowling have been outstanding. Perhaps since you left lit agenting, you have more time to dedicate to your blog?
When I first learned that you walked away to continue down a different path, I was disappointed. I don't know why. But you're making up for it with posts like these.
I agree that her storytelling became a lot better from one book to the next. But two things seemed to have gotten worse: her edits and her pacing.
Her first three books were very tightly written. Her later books read far slower. And her last book could have easily been cut in two. I'd say cut the last book before and after the chapter the book is named after.
I think the person that also received a lot of stress that folks seem to be ignoring is her editor. Think about the stress that person went through as her popularity grew.
Ishta Mercurio says
I like your perspective. Writing under pressure isn't just about writing to a deadline; it's also about writing under the pressure of matching what you have written before. She did a phenomenal job.
Yeah, another Harry Potter post.
I love how her books got better and better. She didn't let her success make her lazy. I also love that she is so charitable. She has a big heart. I respect her for that more than her writing.
sex scenes at starbucks, says
I really disagree that the books got better. But I don't blame her. I believe her style stayed consistent. I feel that at some point they stopped editing her so rigorously, cutting where it needed to be. I love the earlier stuff best and the last book was a disappointment. All that time in the tent…
Still love the stories though, and even without the rigorous editing, they are some of the best out there, so she's got writing chops.
Congrats on making the transition from agent to author. Been awhile since I've kept up with your blog.
Rowling is my favorite author for many reasons, and there is no doubt she rose to the immense challenges of the pressure HP put on her. And bravo to her, for doing so.
However, the quality definitely did waiver. She needed much stricter editing in Book 7 than ever before. That plot was the weakest of the series, by far, and there's no way she doesn't know that. I suspect she found it quite difficult to get her editors to play ball on that one–they were gilding the lily, after all. Who's going to risk ticking off the golden goose?