Burnt Toast Editorial

Writing that smokes

J.K. Rowling and Norman Mailer. How authors of blockbusters plan their plots.

J.K. Rowling and Norman Mailer. How authors of blockbusters plan their plots.

It doesn’t readily spring to mind there’s a connection between J.K. Rowling, author of the world’s most famous wizard since either Oz or Merlin and who has just celebrated the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and the late Norman Mailer, ¹ an author best known for his belligerent and bruising intellectualism.

So what is it that binds them? The answer is planning the plot; what Tony Buzan would call “mind mapping” or what was known in the 1970s as “idea sunbursting”.

Currently held in the Mailer archive in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, ² the mind map of Harlot’s Ghost reveals how its author managed the monumental amount of ideas, events, and characters that propel a novel about the CIA from 1959-1964 to its 1,100 plus pages conclusion. ³

So vast and complex are the strands that pull the story of Mailer’s central character of Harry Hubbard, that each year is worked out in detail with key plot and character developments highlighted with column headings e.g. “Havanna”, “Judith Campbell” (JFK’s mistress), “Hoover and FBI”, and “RFK” (Robert Kennedy). In the column “World Events” you will find amongst many other entries: “Nixon-Kruschev kitchen debate” (1959), “Berlin Wall goes up” (1961), “Glenn first American to orbit Earth” (1962), “Kim Philby named as Soviet spy by British” (1963), and “Sex scandal forces out John Profumo” (1963).

Under the column “Miscellaneous”, Mailer identified contemporaneous keynote detail such as the films La Dolce VitaGoldfingerCleopatra, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, and Psycho; the publication of books such as A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, The Tin Drum and Hertzog; and popular music hits as in Moon Riverand Let’s do the Twist. He even made a reference in the “JFK” column to Motown Records and some of their most famous acts of the time − the Supremes, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.

Yet, Mailer is far from being the only author whose plot planning and story outlines have been captured in formats not entirely dissimilar. Nor is it the first example of plot planning by map that I have seen, for example Joseph Heller’s plan for Catch 22 was hatched in this fashion. But it is perhaps the most fascinating for its use of historical event to flesh out character and context and clearly demonstrates Mailer’s expertise in this form of literary writing.

Which brings me to J. K. Rowling. A writer whose stories could not be further from those of Norman Mailer – except in one respect – they both write (wrote in the case of Mailer) ³ bumper-sized books with complex plots. For example, here is how she mapped out the plot of The Order of the Phoenix, drafted on hole-punched A4 lined paper no less!

¹ Norman Mailer (1923-2007). See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Mailer

² For the Harlot’s Ghost mind map at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas click http://blog.hrc.utexas.edu/2011/06/16/in-the-galleries-mailers-character-timeline-for-harlots-ghost/

³ Mailer’s original intention was to write a two-volume chronicle of the CIA of which Harlot’s Ghost was the first. The project was never completed.

For an enlarged version of the mind map of Harlot’s Ghost click http://editorial.designtaxi.com/news-outline1505/1big.jpg

For an enlarged version of J. K. Rowling’s plan of The Order of the Phoenix click http://editorial.designtaxi.com/news-outline1505/3big.jpg

To purchase a copy of Harlot’s Ghost click here.

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