It was the summer of 2000, Scottsdale, Arizona. I was fifteen years old — skinny and gawky as hell, with braces and uncontrollably frizzy hair — and the only thing I could think about was the day I could finally read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I believe my obsession for the release of Goblet of Fire marks the very first time I ever participated in fan culture, or in any type of pop culture event, for that matter. My parents, who are both ancient and don’t understand fantasy or science fiction in the slightest, were completely nonplussed by my behavior and insisted that I behave like a normal human person.
I remember sitting in the waiting room of my orthodontist’s office reading a review of the book that I cannot find for the life of me (but which stated that Voldemort was too evil to be a good villain, so I immediately discounted it), and just absolutely dying from want. My father had picked up a copy of the book for me from Costco the day it came out, but my mother wouldn’t let me touch it until I’d finished my summer homework. It was TORTURE having it sit there next to me being so beautiful and full of mystery.
I vividly remember the moment I first opened it after being allowed to start. The experience of reading this book for the first time is seared into my memory. The clothes I was wearing, what chair I was sitting in, what the pillow I had in my lap looked like, the way the light in the room made everything look. I also remember the heat. Middle of July, it must have been at least 110 degrees in the daytime. But mostly I remember the feeling of falling in love, of never wanting that great slab of a book to be over. How it made my heart pound like no book I’d ever read before. How the final battle put me so on edge I had to get up from my chair and run around screaming like a complete lunatic. How I cried when it was over.
And that’s the stage I would like to set for you so that you will understand what happened next.
In the dregs of my senior year of high school, when pretty much everyone just wanted to be done with it already, my English teacher gave us an assignment which sounded cool at the time, but which I interpret now from the lens of ten years and having been a teacher myself as more like desperation to, please God, get these kids away from me. She came to class one day and told us we were all going to write The Great American Novel.
Of course, I set mine in England, so I’m not really too sure of the extent to which I actually grasped the assignment.
A couple of years after this, I read an interview that JK Rowling had given (which I of course also cannot find) where she pretty much stated that all writers start out their writing careers by plagiarizing their favorite books. I immediately felt this to be a true statement, not only because it makes logical sense (we all have to start somewhere), but because I had basically plagiarized much of Ms. Rowling’s work for my Great American Novel, and was only now coming to realize the ethical ramifications of what I had done. I was very glad to hear her talk about writing in this way, because it made me feel better about betraying her so horribly. The difference between 18 year old Ashley and 28 year old Ashley may not seem that apparent on the surface, but sweet baby Jesus is it obvious to me*. It’s a difference of maturity and means, not to mention skills and experience. As a teenager, I was woefully short of experiences, but man alive, did I have emotions.
*This is especially relevant right now as it’s my 10 year high school reunion this month, and I am very much not going.
I can’t remember for sure, but I vaguely recall feeling upset that I was being forced to write a novel for a high school English class, so I may have intentionally done what I’m about to show you. I honestly do not remember. I think it’s more likely that I had no idea what I was doing. Or maybe I did and I didn’t think it would matter because who the hell was going to read it anyway? We’ll never know. What I do know is that I dug up the first chapter (and my notes) of my Great American Novel in order to check the extent to which I plagiarized J.K. Rowling, most of which came from chapter one of Goblet of Fire, which is one of my favorite opening chapters in literature.
And I am going to show it to you.
So begins the only existing chapter of my Great American Novel (untitled). You’ll note that I’ve highlighted some things I’d like you to pay special attention to. I particularly like my phrasing in this chapter. It’s extremely melodramatic and makes use of lots of metaphors and similes which make absolutely no fucking sense whatsoever. But hey! They sound good! For instance, I’m not entirely sure how mildew and cobwebs equate with “the remnants of long forgotten secrets,” but I’m pretty sure I thought that sentence was extremely profound when I wrote it. “Reeked with undiscovered mysteries” is also a gem — I wasn’t aware mysteries reeked when they were waiting to be discovered.
Please also note the second highlighted phrase, and then do a quick comparison with this:
“A breeze ruffled the neat hedges of Privet Drive, which lay silent and tidy under the inky sky, the very last place you would expect astonishing things to happen.” — Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, emphasis mine
There are two possibilities here. First, that by this time in my life I’d ingested so much Harry Potter that I was no longer capable of telling which parts came from me and which parts came from the books. We had melded into one organism. Second, that I loved that line and stole it outright. I actually think the first possibility is more likely. Or maybe it was both.
But what I’d really like you to pay attention to here is the fact that I’ve started out my book, by design, the same way JK Rowling started Goblet of Fire: with an abandoned old house on the outskirts of an English village. The image of the Riddle House so captivated me as a teenager that I obviously felt the need to steal every cool part about it I could get away with and take it for my own. Compare my initial description of the house to this:
“The villagers of Little Hangleton still called it “the Riddle House,” even though it had been many years since the Riddle family had lived there. It stood on a hill overlooking the village, some of its windows boarded, tiles missing from its roof, and ivy spreading unchecked over its face. Once a fine-looking manor, and easily the largest and grandest building for miles around, the Riddle House was now damp, derelict, and unoccupied.”
To my credit, I know good shit when I see it. The biggest difference between our two opening paragraphs, you’ll notice, is that mine sucks hairy donkey balls. So let’s introduce some actual characters now that we’ve got a setting:
Nothing much to say here, except that pale eyes are a dumb thing for a character to have unless he’s some sort of supernatural creature, and last I checked, this book that I was writing was firmly set in The Real World. I also think it’s hilarious that my character is wearing a cloak. This story is supposed to be taking place in the year 2003, and he’s not a damn wizard. I was also extremely concerned with using as many adjectives concerning things broken, beaten, worn, and weathered as possible.
Let’s be honest here: I might as well have called the guy Remus J. Lupin and been done with it (I do, however, take credit for the jaunty cap, which my tiny Italian grandfather used to wear).
I’ve cut out a lot of repetitive and excessively descriptive bits for you, but I feel like I need to hire that trailer voiceover guy to read that last line out loud for me. Excellent use of ellipses, Ashley. Really superb writing. Please note, this bit not stolen from JKR. (She would never ever in a million years write something so melodramatic.)
I was very careful to make this place abandoned for a lengthy amount of time so as to perfectly emulate the atmosphere of the derelict Riddle House in which Voldemort takes up residence. This passage also marks the debut of my character Jacob, whose name is meaningless only because I couldn’t just call him Stan Shunpike and be done with it. (My Ern, though, very different from Harry’s Ern , a kindly old man who drives the Knight Bus and who was modeled after JKR’s grandfather.) I was extremely taken with Stan Shunpike’s diction when I first read Prisoner of Azkaban, and did my very best to copy it so as to steal his essence properly. Pretty sure I also stole the name of the baddie from Goblet of Fire. There’s an old guy at the Quidditch World Cup whose name is Archie, and I always thought it was hilarious how he liked a breeze ’round his privates.
Again, deliberate attempt to recreate the haunted legend surrounding the Riddle House. See:
“Half a century ago, something strange and horrible had happened there, something that the older inhabitants of the village still liked to discuss when topics for gossip were scarce.”
I think there’s also a bit of The Shrieking Shack mucking around in there as well.
Voldemort and Wormtail were sitting in front of a fire? My characters had to have one too. Please note as well the use of “rat-faced man” to describe the erstwhile Jacob.
This is me inserting the Frank Bryce voyeur element into the story. Subtle, yes? (The specificity of him being on the fifth step kills me for some reason.)
Did not know the word ‘nutter’ before reading Harry Potter. Never used ‘Blimey!’ in my life.
Brilliant deduction, Sherlock. Absolutely top notch detecting.
What the fuck kind of name is Bludvak? (I suppose it goes well with the over the top threats I seemed to enjoy writing?)
This whole part is just ridiculously dramatic. And dumb. My attempts to create suspense are pathetically transparent.
And the reveal! In which I conveniently skip over the entire explanation for who these people are, despite my use of close third person POV, in order to leave the reveal until the appropriately dramatic time! In which it also becomes apparent that I watched waaaay too much television where people say things like this, repeat themselves unnecessarily, and then the camera cuts to black. Not exactly sure where this is stolen from, but I’m 99% sure it’s not mine.
No he doesn’t, because I was the author, and I didn’t. This is just me being really dramatic again with no contextual backup and no plan for what any of my sweeping phrases actually refer to. And in case you’re wondering, this is the part of the plagiarism parallels where I copy Voldemort killing Frank Bryce and then make Wormtail bury the body. (Except I don’t actually think my character was killed here. I’m pretty sure I wanted him to pop up again later out of nowhere to provide my main character with exciting new information.)
I’m basically only putting this bit in as historical evidence that I was completely unaware of how cliched it is to set your story on a dark and stormy night. Also hilarious? I don’t know what a wind of anxiety is, but it sounds problematic. Especially if it’s as highly contagious as the next clause implies.
I’ve also highlighted the ‘not knowing’ bits because, again, directly lifted (not sure if intentionally or not) from the ending of the first chapter of Philosopher’s Stone.
“Harry Potter rolled over inside his blankets without waking up. One small hand closed on the letter beside him and he slept on, not knowing he was special, not knowing he was famous, not knowing he would be woken in a few hours’ time by Mrs. Dursley’s scream as she opened the front door to put out the milk bottles, nor that he would spend the next few weeks being prodded and pinched by his cousin Dudley . . . He couldn’t know that at this very moment, people meeting in secret all over the country were holding up their glasses and saying in hushed voices: ‘To Harry Potter – the boy who lived!’” — Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, emphasis mine
And for the last piece of the puzzle, “The Riddle House” ends with Harry waking up like so:
“Two hundred miles away, the boy called Harry Potter woke with a start.”
And here’s my version:
Clearly, I’ve improved on the basic template.
And that’s pretty much it for Great American Novel, although I did find it instructive to screenshot my character list for you so you can see the extent to which I tried to (unsuccesfully) steal names from Harry Potter without anyone noticing:
You’ll see here that my protagonist used to be named Lily as well, and that I seemed to have a pretty crude understanding of the character Ophelia from Hamlet (this was probably because I hadn’t read it yet but thought a Shakespeare reference would make my book more credible and fancy).
Also, if you’re still curious, here is the nearly incomprehensible “outline” for the rest of the story. Good luck figuring it out. Even I can’t tell what half of it is supposed to mean. (For those who are wondering, I highlighted Orlando just so I could tell you that this character was obviously meant to be played by Orlando Bloom in the eventual Hollywood blockbuster made out of my bestselling Great American British Novel.)
- This chapter is essentially the pivot point of the series. Well, the whole book is, but as far as I’m concerned, this chapter kicks it off.
- Little Hangleton is like a much tamer version of Pagford, as far as I can see. And I much prefer Little Hangleton😦 P.S. For those of you who haven’t read The Casual Vacancy yet, you should. The people who have been vocal about not liking it shouldn’t have read it anyway. You should all definitely read The Cuckoo’s Calling.
- “By the following morning, hardly anyone in Little Hangleton doubted that Frank Bryce had killed the Riddles.” It’s little asides like these that make me love her writing. Funny. Succinct. Biting social commentary.
- This chapter is only the second time in the series we step away from Harry’s POV (the first being chapter one in The Philosopher’s Stone). Whenever she does, it’s usually to highlight things we would miss if we were just in Harry’s POV. She does it again at the beginning of Half-Blood Prince (two chapters in a row) and at the beginning of Deathly Hallows (both of which Harry doesn’t even get to see in a dream). And it always feels really really fun.
- This chapter acts as a bookend and sets up a lot of stuff to come: the graveyard, Wormtail’s hand, the introduction of Avada Kedavra, Bertha Jorkins . . . all the clues of the mystery are here, we just can’t understand them yet. I also like this chapter for what it doesn’t say, and what it allows us to infer and guess about what’s going on.
- We also meet Nagini for the first time. I can’t wait for Neville to chop off her stupid head.
– – –
I don’t have much to say about this chapter. It’s the obligatory Let’s Review Everything That Happened chapter that kids and YA publishers seem to require, but I think it’s pretty good all the same.
Harry wakes up from a nightmare with his scar burning on his forehead. His scar hasn’t burned since his first year, when Voldemort was frittering around all over the place. Or, wait, it must have burned his second year, too, when he encounted the Diary and Tom Riddle? I can’t remember. Maybe the Horcrux wouldn’t have the same effect on him since he’s technically only connected to Voldemort himself, not his Horcruxes.
I do think it’s interesting the way Jo uses this chapter to illuminate Harry’s relationships while also weaving in expectations about what’s going to happen with Harry’s scar. He knows he should tell someone about the scar hurting, but he can’t figure out who.
He imagines telling Hermione:
At once, Hermione Granger’s voice seemed to fill his head, shrill and panicky.
“Your scar hurt? Harry, that’s really serious… Write to Professor Dumbledore! And I’ll go and check Common Magical Ailments and Afflictions . . . Maybe there’s something in there about curse scars . . . ”
Yes, that would be Hermione’s advice: Go straight to the headmaster of Hogwarts, and in the meantime, consult a book.
Dear Professor Dumbledore, Sorry to bother you, but my scar hurt this morning. Yours sincerely, Harry Potter.
Even inside his head the words sounded stupid.
And Ron, which is my favorite, because Harry so obviously loves Ron enough to be able to perfectly recreate his voice in his head:
“Your scar hurt? But . . . but You-Know-Who can’t be near you now, can he? I mean . . . you’d know, wouldn’t you?He’d be trying to do you in again, wouldn’t be? I dunno, Harry, maybe curse scars always twinge a bit . . . I’ll ask Dad . . . “
This part KILLS me:
Harry kneaded his forehead with his knuckles. What he really wanted (and it felt almost shameful to admit it to himself) was someone like-someone like a parent: an adult wizard whose advice he could ask without feeling stupid, someone who cared about him, who had had experience with Dark Magic . . .
And then the solution came to him. It was so simple, and so obvious, that he couldn’t believe it had taken so long–Sirius.
He just . . . he wants a parent. And he doesn’t have one. And it’s honestly making me SO SAD RIGHT NOW.
The chapter ends with Harry writing a letter to Sirius, throwing in his worries about his scar in the middle so as to act like it’s no big deal, and then heading down to breakfast with the Dursleys. (And apparently Dudley is on a diet . . . Kevin, you’d better quote the killer whale line on Monday, or I’ll do it for you.)
- “Asleep was the way Harry liked the Dursleys best; it wasn’t as though they were ever any help to him awake.” This makes me picture the Dursleys like wild animals, how they’re only cute when they’re sleeping.
- Speaking of the Dursleys, they’re still pretty turdy, but Harry is better off this summer than he has been before because he keeps threatening them with his escaped murderer godfather. “Harry had conveniently forgotten to tell them that Sirius was innocent.”
- This has nothing do with either of these chapters, but since I don’t have the Yule Ball this book, I wanted to leave this link here. I especially like the back of the t-shirt with all the concert locations on. I’ve always wondered what The Weird Sisters sounded like. Not like the band in the movie, I hope. I hated that music.