20% Work for 80% Improvement: Applying Pareto’s Principle To Your Writing

My fiancé works in quality control and safety. A year or two ago, his company sent him to some training, which was based heavily on Pareto’s Principle, which he explained to me as “if you fix 20% of your problem, the results will improve 80%.” For him, I believe the principle was used to demonstrate that 20% of hazards cause 80% of injuries.

More generally, Pareto says that 20% of the cause equals 80% of the outcome, and this is often applied to wealth distribution in society or the client stable of most businesses (80% of wealth is owned by 20% of people, 80% of your income comes from 20% of your clients, 80% of crime is committed by 20% of criminals, etc.) What’s funny about the 80/20 principle is how universal it is for every discipline. It is such a consistent rule of the universe that it occurs naturally like sacred geometry. It’s kind of eerie.

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I feel creeped out already.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, some have said that 80% of your success as a writer will probably only come from 20% of your writing. The other 80% of your work might never be published or will bring you little success – except practice and perseverance are valuable things to gain from writing, period, so this really isn’t a loss. I think this rule can be used during your revision process though, to prioritize how fixing small/moderate problems can result in vast improvements. It’s a bit more nebulous, because you can’t really measure whether something is 70% or 80% better in quality, but in general I’ve found that fixing small things goes a long way to making me feel like I’ve written a totally different book.

I have been told that the weakest part of Paradisa is my characterization. I have (thankfully) not created a bunch of unlikable emo crybabies that the reader wants to throttle, but I have tried so hard to keep my characters likable that they’re bland. The emotions are told instead of evoked (darn my right brain self). They’re a little underdeveloped. We don’t get a good sense of their ordinary world. We aren’t ever sure how they’ll react in a given situation because we don’t know them well. My Pitch Wars mentor has given me some great tools for how to fix this, and it inspired me to go back to the Pareto Principle and finish this post I started long ago.

Because roughly 20% of a book is characterization. The rest is probably 20% plot, 20% style, 20% world building, and 20% everything else – pacing, diversity, research, continuity, conflict, tension, etc. We’re talking pure craft here, not how much is important to you when you pick up a book. So I’m going to treat plot and style equally, as they do matter and are judged just as harshly when you hand your manuscript to an agent.

By fixing the characterization – this fifth or quarter of what makes my book a novel – I probably will improve Paradisa by 80%. Think about it – a good book with okay characters versus a good book with great characters. One might stick with you for the rest of your life while you’ll probably forget about the other by next year. Careers are made or destroyed based on that audience response. It’s not trivial. And it’s so easy to fix, compared to that result gap. You don’t have to rewrite the whole book or reinvent the wheel. You just have to zone in on that 20% and carve it to the fullest potential.

This works for plot too. My plot stunk in Act I for several of my drafts. It felt like the characters had no agency. They were invited to be the characters of a fantasy novel and they said yes. Once I fixed the character motivations, oh man. Such a breath of fresh air. A couple of rewritten chapters and that plot was flowing like Dune spice.

Even if you don’t buy into the raw numbers or statistics, this is still a good message to take home for anyone in the Pitch Wars 2016 Revision Club, or those who are simply editing their long suffering manuscripts. If you’re staring at the page wondering why it’s not coming out right, try to focus on improving one sphere that doesn’t work. The results from that one improvement could raise the whole book to another level.

#PitchWars Mentee Bio! #PimpMyBio (C’mon guys, there are Fallout gifs)

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I’ve seen all these gif filled Author Bios going around, so I figured I’d get on that list as well! Having a place where I can really dig deep into my creative identity is a good opportunity, because query letters and the story itself only say so much. It’s important to know if you and your mentor/mentee will connect on a personal level and that you think on the same wavelength.

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Who am I? Michelle Iannantuono, native Charlestonian of the Palmetto State, INTJ and real life Tina Belcher. I’ve been writing since I was six. I’m a chemist by day and own a videography business by night, because I really want to be a filmmaker. Therefore, film has probably had a bigger influence on me than fiction has, and you can see that in the cinematic style of my work.

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What stories do I enjoy? I like books with a fantastic, adventurous spirit. Popcorn stories that aren’t afraid to have depth. Deep stories that aren’t afraid to be popcorny. Stories that exist for the world’s enjoyment instead of the author’s ego. Stories that show me a villain I see myself in, and make me wonder if I’m a good person.

As you can tell by the gifs, I am a huge Fallout 4 fan. Other games I’ve enjoyed are Life Is Strange, Heavy Rain, Hitman, Portal, Oxenfree, Her Story, and Red Dead Redemption. For books, my favorite series is still Artemis Fowl, I will always be a Harry Potter kid, House of Leaves was brilliant, and Gillian Flynn is my goddess. TV wise, I’m a sucker for Game of Thrones, Lost, Heroes, Community, The IT Crowd, Bob’s Burgers, and Harper’s Island. I never miss an episode of Last Week Tonight. Favorite movies include Inception, The Fifth Element, Clue, the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Fast and Furious franchise (hey, it’s got heart!), and National Treasure (no, I can’t quote every line, what are you talking about >.>)

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What do I write? Primarily speculative, but gods, everything. I’ve written fantasy thrillers. I’ve got a cerebral Nolan-esque sci fi epic in the works. I’ve self published erotica. I’ve got a political satire coming for NaNoWriMo. I’ve got some postmodernism coming for The Three Day Novel contest. I’m shopping around literary, creative nonfiction…just everything.  I definitely have things that are hard sells for me, like crime novels, historical, westerns, traditional romance…but I could also give you an example of books or films I’ve loved in all of those categories. Like I said, I enjoy stories that are cinematic above all else and have an overt emotional core.

My Editing Styles/Philosophies/Whatever: I want a CP I can talk to for three hours about all the things we can tear down and rebuild and improve. I’ve been through over 10 betas for Paradisa at this point and it’s been a good exercise in teaching me what makes for a good author/editor relationship (and in some cases what makes a bad one.) For me, it’s not about whether you’re hands on or hands off as much as whether you “get” the big picture and really want to make the story the best that it can be. If you want it to be a completely different thing, then we’re not on the same page (my father wanted Paradisa to be an omnisciently narrated thriller about an emotionless, single white male protagonist. He just couldn’t let that go. Not a good beta for this project). Personally, I do like to be given a lot of commentary though. I want to know what’s going on in your head. I also like to give a lot of commentary as a CP, because I really get my hands in and dissect fiction. And if that sounds like you, well…

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More about Paradisa and why I wrote it: Paradisa entertains the idea that all mythologies are true, and that deities from all faiths cohabitate in another realm. I love mythology, especially of the Joseph Campbell tradition, and took a lot of religious studies courses in college. Myth unifies us as a species, and provide an interesting way for us as humans to conceptualize and interpret the world. But Paradisa posits that gods need humans as much as we need them, and their strength and immortality can be outweighed by our free will and value for life. Additionally, Paradisa stars a diverse cast of strong women, POC, an LGBT protagonist, a disabled protagonist, and voices from cultures all over the world. We live in the 21st century and should reflect a modern world when we write.

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Anything Else? Honestly, I am just super glad to be able to participate in #PitchWars this year. It’s a step in the right direction – putting myself out there, getting experience, building this career of mine. Even if I don’t get picked, hopefully some valuable feedback will come of it. And if I do get picked, then it could make my life incredibly different (for the good!).

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Thanks for checking me out! Feel free to follow my blog or follow my twitter @Ladytuono.

Cthulhu smiles upon me

Our lord and savior Cthulhu can be a temperamental being. But maybe he’s feeling lenient now that his presidential campaign is going so well. Just when things were starting to get crazy, and I was worrying how I’d have enough time in the day, the stars were right again.

Two of my video projects got delayed – one a week, and the other a month. But it works out. Instead of having an extremely front loaded August, I now have an evenly spaced August and an evenly spaced September. I’ve picked up one, maybe two contracts to fill in the gaps in early August, and I’m definitely on track to meet my goals for the year. Contracts are getting signed, invoices are coming in, work will (eventually) make it to my portfolio for show-offsies.

I am impatient, as you all know, but I’ve already got half of my year end profit goal on the books, and the other half will probably come with my highly likely but still unsigned leads. Honestly, if I did not book another lead for the rest of the year, I would probably meet my goal. And it may have to reach that point. I have a couple of really big projects coming up. I have two clients who, assuming one actually hires me and the other continues hiring me, could theoretically supply 2/3 of next year’s goal alone. Dunno if I want all my eggs in that basket, but we’ll see how much time I will need for it all.

Paradisa is now with a professional copyeditor, the amazing Leona Wisoker. Leona and I met through AtomaCon and she loves diverse SFF and supporting female writers. I read her first book, Secret of the Sands, and thought she had the most wonderful writing style I’ve ever read and a perfect grasp on psychic distance. Plotwise, we couldn’t be more different – her book was an epic length, slow burn quest adventure while mine is very commercial, short, and very urgent. But I didn’t find that to be an important distinction in choosing her as my editor, because I’m fairly comfortable with my choices in how Paradisa is plotted. To say that much maligned phrase – it is what it is, and the audience will subjectively gravitate towards it or not. What I objectively needed help on is voice and narration and POV, and Leona has that stuff for days, ya’ll.

I’m also participating in #PitchWars! Which could really throw me for a loop if I actually get in, because all of a sudden we’ll have two very fast months of lots of Paradisa revisions (hopefully the copyedits will be here by the end of October, so I’d be able to add them into my #PitchWars revisions too). There are two mentors in particular who I think I’ll see eye to eye with, and two others that are a bit of a gamble. The likelihood of getting picked is low, but I’m hoping to at least get some feedback. I will probably upload my PitchWars bio sometime this week (maybe even today).

Everything else happens during the in between moments. I’ll cram Unreal training in there. I would like to get Devil’s Advocate uploaded to Film Freeway and start submitting it to some film festivals (one’s deadline is today, so I might still have some time…) I submitted to a pub today after an exclusive got rejected. On and on it goes.