What re-reading my strip-poker Harry Potter fan fiction from 2004 taught me about being a writer

A 14-year-old’s imagining of true love.
A 14-year-old’s imagining of true love.
Image: Peter Macdiarmid/Reuters
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“One Christmas night, when Hermione and Ron get themselves into a thought-provoking game of cards, they start wagering more than just their Bertie Bott’s.”

This is the synopsis of a piece of Harry Potter fan fiction I wrote in 2004 at the age of 14. I am mortally embarrassed to even be typing this sentence in a public forum.

I usually keep my days as a fan-fiction writer a closely guarded secret, locked in the darkest of Gringotts’ vaults. But as today is the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, as it was called in my home country of Australia and in J.K. Rowling’s native UK), I decided to peek underneath the internet’s invisibility cloak to see if I could find traces of my previous pen name online. Fourteen years on, I’m now writing and editing for a living—and therefore mortally curious about how much (if anything) I’ve learned since my pimply, pubescent days.

I always dreamed that I would be a writer. Not blessed with any particular affinity for bats and balls, I grew up a bookish type who was better friends with the school librarian than most kids my own age. Mrs. Roach first introduced me to the world of witchcraft and wizardry when I was 12—just a year older than Harry was when he got his first letter from Hogwarts. With no owl on my doorstep and no beckoning from Dumbledore, I decided to send myself to Hogwarts instead.

I’d spend my weekend tapping away on my family’s elephantine desktop computer, imagining up alternate endings to plot lines or rewriting my favorite scenes from other characters’ points of view. Was Cho Chang actually thinking of her late beloved boyfriend, Cedric Diggory, when she first kissed Harry after that Dark Arts meeting? What would Bellatrix Lestrange have been like as a child—a frog torturer, or a Chocolate Frog Card collector? In the long stretches in between book releases, I would hypothesize what the Weasley twins were doing on their vacations and consider the secret lives of the shopkeepers slinging dungbombs at Zonko’s Joke Shop in Hogsmeade.

It took a lot of cajoling from my workmates to work up the courage to go sleuthing for those old stories. For a while, I thought the evidence had been extricated from the internet’s history, safely saving me from having to write this article. But not only is the fan-fiction website still up and running—it’s called The Sugar Quill, naturally—but my author page is still there, complete with my hotmail address, circa 2004.

Being presented with the writing of my teenage self gave me the same visceral, gut-flip reaction as stumbling across the wedding photos of the first kid who gave you a hickey. I wanted to click—Merlin’s beard, did I want to click—but I was also terrified about being forced to confront the genesis of my career in publishing. I was worried I would realize I was just a muggle in this big, scary writing world full of dementor editors and Slytherin-style critics.

Wishing I had a butterbeer to steel my nerves, I clicked on the first link—and was immediately confronted with the fact that my first piece of published writing was actually a strip-poker fluff fantasy.

“Calling the Cards”

The story was set on Christmas Day, set sometime between The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-blood Prince. All the main crew had stayed back at Hogwarts for the holidays, and after Hermione gifts Ron a pack of (non-exploding) muggle cards, she offers to teach them poker.

“Yeah, why not?” said Harry, tearing opening the bag of Bertie Bott’s that had came along with a hand knitted cage cover for Hedgwig that Hermione had given him. He took the top one out (a crimson bean dotted with yellow) and placed it in his mouth. He had chosen correctly; the taste of Strawberry Tart filled his mouth.

It turns out Ron is pretty good at cards—”Well, Dad brought home a pack of misbehaving cards once from the Ministry. Once he had got the queens to stop swapping suits, he taught me a few games…”—so Harry and Ginny get knocked out quickly and slink off with their remaining Bertie Bott’s. Ron and Hermione are left alone. This is where things started to get interesting.

And oh so very, very embarrassing.

After Hermione tries to make an excuse to slip off herself—even though “she would prefer to stay and stare into his hazel eyes, watch him as he chewed his lip in frustration, watch him run his hands through his fiery red hair…”—Ron makes another suggestion to “up the wages.” (Please excuse some truly terrible, barely teenage imagining of coy flirtation and shoddy grammar, lightly edited for length):

“Strip Poker!” yelled Ron.

“What?!” exclaimed Hermione, missing a step because she had snapped around so fast.

“Strip Poker,” Ron said, more quietly this time. “Instead of Bertie Bott’s, we wager… clothes…” Ron said this last word in almost a whisper; in fact, to say that he ‘said’ it would be wrong, ‘squeaked’ it would be a more appropriate word. Hermione’s mouth opened into a devilish grin.

“What?” Ron said, he too now smiling, more nervously than happily.

“You think I don’t know how to play Strip Poker?” she said, slowly walking back down the stairs, “What kind of Muggle do you take me for?”

How my nascently pubescent 14-year-old self knew how to play strip poker is beyond me. In fact, reading through the next few paragraphs, I don’t think my late-20s self could even lay out the rules of a poker game with this much accuracy. After relaying the stakes and moving closer to the fireplace—for body warmth, clearly—Ron dealt the first hand. Hermione lost.

“Oh, shut up Ron!” Hermione said playfully, throwing her mittens at him. Ron laughed, and placed the mittens beside him on the couch.

The game continued as the embers of the fire grew dimmer. More items were discarded, and finally, after a tense penultimate hand, both parties were set to lose their pants on the next round. (Hermione was still modestly wearing a singlet top—it appears I either had a little class, or a lack of imagination.) The cards are dealt, the bets are laid, and as they are nervously about to reveal their cards, they hear a voice coming from the girls’ dormitories—Ginny. Spooked and barely clad, the pair abandon the game, skittering off to their bedrooms.

In other words, I chickened out. I imagined myself at 14, frantically tapping away on the computer in my father’s office, worried I would be caught writing what I considered to be a particularly salacious story. Was there a draft somewhere—probably on a floppy disk—where I hadn’t let my monkish ways get the better of me? Here was a chance for all of my lusty, coital, middle-school dreams to be realized. And I had manufactured my own literary cock block.

But I wasn’t done yet. The next morning, I wrote, Ron woke early and wandered downstairs to the aftermath of the night before: charred wood in the fireplace, Hermione’s overflowing book bag by the velvet wingback chair, discarded containers of Bertie Bott’s. And the cards—Ron never knew who won.

He sat down in Hermione’s seat, for a second hoping that it would still be warm. He grasped her perfectly fanned cards (typical he thought, even when they where risked being caught, she still had enough time to be perfect) and flipped them over.

Ron held two eights to Hermione’s duds. She had bluffed the last hand. He had won! He had won! Which would have meant—

—just as Ron’s mind started mentally undressing Hermione (another scene I didn’t have the gall to write), Ginny stumbles out of her room and down the staircase, awoken by his celebratory hoots. She plops herself on the couch that contained a mound of clothes only hours before. She slowly pulls Hermione’s tie from behind the cushion she’s leaning against.

“Positive you didn’t hear anything last night?” she said, eyes suddenly wide open and staring at a now very red Ron.

Ron just looked fixedly at Ginny’s face.

“Well, all I can say Ronniekins …” she said, getting up of the couch, “Is that you sure can call them!”

Ginny laughed as she threw the tie at a purely horrified Ron as she walked up the staircase, heading straight for Hermione’s room. Ginny just simply had to hear this story!

Re-reading my teenage fan fiction was every bit as cringe-inducing as I had thought it would be—but it was also oddly touching. There were grammatical mistakes and cliches galore, sure—but there were also correctly used semi colons, a lack of dangling participles, and inventive turns of phrase. I’d thought that revisiting my childhood aspirations would only fill me with a mix of discomfort and mirth. Instead, I was reminded of the passion I had to make a go of this whole writing thing as a career. (And clearly a little sexual frustration.)

I have Rowling to thank for that confidence. She created a world in which young writers could play. Her books are a safe space that provide young people with the characters, plot points, motivations, and stakes on which they can create their own fantasies. I didn’t have to try to create a whole world out of the vat of gelatinous gloop that is the teenage mind; instead, Rowling provided me with the blueprint for Hogwarts. Without her books, I’m sure I would have never had the mettle to begin writing as early as I did. And looking back over my fan fiction now, I can see a younger, fierce, unashamed version of myself—a part of me that now, as a professional editor, I need to find the heart to muster on the days when the words don’t willing come forth.

What did I learn, in the end? I encourage everyone to look back on the old diaries, blog posts, and Tumblrs of yore. You might be pleasantly surprised with what you find. Life doesn’t give us a Marauder’s Map to help guide the way to adulthood. But sometimes looking back at the aspirations of your younger self can make you feel more confident about the direction you’re taking.

Need a little courage? Here’s the link to the full story. Now you have no excuse.

Expecto patronum!