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.

pareto

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.

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Camp NaNo, Here I Come?

Several of my writer friends are participating in Camp NaNoWriMo this month. Camp NaNo is a laid back, set-your-own-pace version of November’s 50,000 word sprint. Unlike the regular competition, Camp NaNo encourages short story writers, and people revising a previously written novel, to participate along with those writing a novel from scratch.

I didn’t concern myself much with the news, as I’ve never participated before. To me, NaNoWriMo is a November thing. I participate mostly out of tradition, and to beat my previous goal every year. I also use it to kick off new projects, which isn’t of much interest to me at the moment. I’m still fully devoted to Paradisa.

But Camp NaNo actually showed up at a good time for me. After some serious thinking, I’ve decided to rewrite the first 40 pages of my book, which I estimate to be about 25,000 words. I don’t want this rewrite to take 7 months like the previous one did (although, luckily, this rewrite is not as extensive as that!). I know that if I put my mind to it, I can probably knock out 25,000 words in just a couple of weeks.

So I signed up. I set my goal at 25,000 words. That means for less than 1000 words a day, I can have my major revision complete by May 1! Of course, I was planning on writing these 25,000 words anyway, but it doesn’t hurt to have an extra fire under my butt. I’m all outlined-up and ready to go!

Some writers are pro enough to set such goals unofficially and carry them out. I was like that about a year and a half ago, despite having a full-time job, but I think my writing productivity tanked around the time I started cohabitating with my boyfriend. We’re now on the same sleep schedule  which leaves me less productive time to write (going to bed far too early, at 10 PM) and I’m naturally drawn to more collaborative activities rather than solo ones now. When I lived alone, I could plop myself in a chair for four hours and forget the rest of the world. When there’s someone else’s feelings to consider,  that’s basically impossible now. Hopefully when we move into a bigger place in the next couple months, we’ll have more elbow room to do our own things in our own time. He’ll be getting his own office in the new house, which he doesn’t have now.

Until then, I think I can set aside a half hour every evening and get 1000 words out. Little goals seem more obtainable than big ones, no? And having a sophisticated word count system (I could rave about NaNo’s statistics system all day, ya’ll. It’s probably the #1 reason I keep doing this) helps motivate me as well.

Feel free to become my writer buddy on the Camp NaNo website. I am under the moniker “musemorgan.”

 

The “Everyman” Is Not Dead

It’s been awhile! I did manage to complete Draft 5, or as it is known now, Draft 5.5 :P Unfortunately, I have decided to rewrite the first 40 pages of my book before passing it on to Beta Round 2. That sure did escalate! But why?

Although I am happy with the plot changes, I am still annoyed by the first third of my book. Both Austin and I agree that the opening of Paradisa is too awkward, oddly paced, and unbelievably random. (To her credit, H.K. Rowe called me out on this too!) I basically drag two normal people into a strange world because of a life-or-death situation, but that life-or-death situation gets fixed in Chapter Four. And, you know, they’re already there, so they decide to join with some deities and save the world.

I’ve tried to build in doorways of no return and urgency and moral pressure that forces the characters to abandon their normal lives. None of it works. None of it seems any more believable than the supernatural characters asking them point blank, “So, do you want to be the main characters of a fantasy novel?” How can one write an everyman into fantasy in a believable way?

Well, here are the methods previous authors have used. And as you can tell, they’re all complete clichés now.

  • “You’re the Chosen One, or you’re Special in some random way that attracts important, more powerful characters to you.” (Jupiter Ascending, The Matrix, Harry Potter, Divergent, True Blood, Twilight)
  • “You have secret powers you don’t know about yet!” (Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, The Mortal Instruments, Eragon)
  • “Your parent/cousin/uncle/someone you know got themselves involved in some crap that’s now fallen on you, or they were secretly powerful in some way. Or you are secretly a royal and a throne is waiting for you.” (Percy Jackson, The Mortal Instruments, Star Wars, Pendragon, Wanted, The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones)
  • “You accidentally fell into some nuclear waste and now you have powers!” (Every comic book ever.)

To subvert these situations, modern fantasy writers often give us protagonists who start the story as a supernatural entity, fully aware of their abilities, and their books are about disturbances in what passes as their ordinary world.  Unfortunately, urban fantasy has beaten this method into a trope as well. If I see one more half-human/half-vampire protagonist struggling with their human side vs. their monster side, I’ll throw a book.

Some writers manage to overcome all these tropes. Artemis Fowl hunts down the mystical world himself, in order to sell its secrets and fund his father’s rescue. Katniss Everdeen brings herself into the larger story by saving her sister’s life. The protagonists of Narnia are curious children who discover a beautiful new world – an escape from their country torn apart by war – and are compelled to help save it because of a kind-hearted Jesus Lion.

I still don’t want Connor and Clara to be ‘special.’ I still hold that the everyman can be a good protagonist. One of the things I love about Doctor Who is that his everyman companions are the true heroes. They’re the ordinary human beings who take a chance on a crazy, mystical, eccentric man. And despite their meager human existence in the shadow of the Doctor’s technology and powers, their depth of humanity is always what saves the day and endears the Doctor to them.

Likewise, one of the major themes of my story is the duality and codependence between deities and humans. I need my heroes to be human.

It’s been a struggle to write this story in a way that brings Connor and Clara into the fold as ordinary people, but also makes the reader believe that they’d stick around with some angels and gods. So, I asked myself “Why did the other memorable, legendary characters of epic stories become involved in their stories? What were their motivations?”

It became clear to me that Harry Potter, nor Tris Prior, nor Katniss Everdeen began with the goal of saving the world. Harry Potter was simply asked if he’d like to go to a school for wizards. Tris was asked to pick a Faction. Katniss was metaphorically asked if she wanted to save her sister. These characters made choices that only affected themselves. Only later, when some antagonist emerges and the characters are forced into unusual circumstances, does saving the world or defeating a villain even become their macrocosmic goal.

Start small. Start with what a character wants. Then, what they want will lead them to the bigger story. Don’t drag the character into the big story and then ask them to stick around.

So, I’m rewriting the first third of my book, and I think I have a good idea for what draws Connor and Clara into the fold. They know their father has been murdered by a creature they can’t explain, and they want answers to what it was. When answers come knocking, it’ll only be natural that they’ll follow.

Think it sounds promising? Do you struggle with realistic character motivations? Do you struggle to avoid cliché?

What Happens After This Draft? – My Revision Process

As I approach the end of my next Paradisa draft, I’m already thinking about the steps that will follow. “Spell check it and send it off to beta readers!” says the village fool. Actually, completing a draft is just the first step – a few other “semi-drafts” will follow, plus a heck of a lot of re-reading.

There are a few types of drafts that I operate in at separate times. That seems like it takes too long, but trying to accomplish all of these tasks at once is just too much to me – I would get stuck on the same page for weeks, picking it apart, when I should be writing the rest of the book. So, splitting it into multiple steps is a much more refined process.

1. The Rewrite. A rewrite is a draft that is formed from a new outline. This is absolutely the roughest draft to slug through, because it basically requires me to write a new book (or a third of one, at least.) Unlike many authors, I do not start with a completely new document, riffing from a completely new outline, utterly ignoring all words used in the previous draft. I do pull massive amounts of content – all I can pull, really – from my last attempt. But when you want Plot Point A to occur three chapters before it did in the last draft, and when you want to separate your characters into two all-new locations for the big mid-book fight scene, and when you want to totally restructure your ending…there’s a lot of new content to be whipped up. This is honestly why Draft Five has taken me 4+ months. I am not only rearranging and cannibalizing so much of the existing text, but I’m adding over 30,000 words of new scenes.

2. The Big Picture Revision. Once a rewrite is done (assuming it was needed in the first place – hopefully 5 will be the last real ‘rewrite’ I do, and that all future edits will be minor), I reread my draft on my tablet. Reading as an ebook gets me into the mental state of a reader. Contrarily, reading it as an editable computer document makes me too much of an editor. I do keep a notebook beside me though, documenting all character, plot, pacing, continuity, setting, and structural issues with the novel. Does each scene have a purpose? Does each scene end on a cliffhanger? Does each scene begin in a way that sets the reader into the scene? Does the novel have a good hook?

Now that I’m past my first beta round, I will also revisit my previous critiques during this stage. I will make sure that all valid concerns from my betas have been addressed in the rewrite. When I’m happy with my re-read, I will annotate my Word doc with comments pertaining to all these concerns.

3. The Seasoning. This is where I trudge through and address all the comments. Sometimes it means changing some dialogue in a scene. Sometimes it means deleting or swapping a scene. The most “writing” I’ll do at this stage is to add paragraphs clarifying intent and setting, or to build pacing.

After this, another reread. Steps 2 and 3 may need to be repeated, depending on how much I like the new version of the book.

4. The Style Revision. I have yet to do a style revision for any previous draft. Now, I feel that the book is ready for a line-by-line analysis, in which I make sure every word is used to its full potential and all lines are my own. Ditch the clichés, ditch the redundancy, ditch the awkward phrasing. My style is very functional and inelegant right now – I have yet to regain the naturally beautiful way I wrote as a teenager (which I swear is due to my lack of reading in recent years, but hey, I’m working on that part!) Until I can turn on good style at a whim, this is the gritty alternative.

5. The Copyedit. Just for grammatical and typographical errors. This is my final read through before other humans see the book.

So basically, five ‘drafts’ in one! I will probably start considering this Draft Six around step 3 though.

And while some may warn me of over editing, fear not – as I said, this is my very first time editing style at all, and that is where over editing rears its ugly potential. I don’t think one can go wrong by making the story a more enjoyable one. I’m kicking myself a bit for taking five drafts to get where the plot needs to be, but part of me knows those previous four trials were all necessary. It’s like a scavenger hunt – you can’t jump to the end until you’ve found all the clues.

I do hope to start Beta Round Two in the spring, but you can see I have a lot of work ahead ;) I feel like it’ll all be downhill once I finish the rewrite though. Ugh. Rewrites really are the hardest part.

What is your editing process like? Do you revise your novel in multiple ways at once or break it down into steps?

You Don’t Need To Write Every Day – Just BE A Writer

Yesterday, I was a bad writer. Since Saturday, I’ve been logging 1000+ words into Draft Five each day, but I failed to write anything on Tuesday. My evening was instead spent in a movie theater, seeing The Maze Runner (side rant: it was really awesome and I have lots to say about it, but if you’re curious, you can ask me in the comments. I will remain spoiler free).

Anyway, I think it’s important to remind myself, and ya’ll, that being a writer is not just about how many words you log daily. There’s a lot more to the process. It’s not about writing everyday as much as it’s about BEING a writer everyday, and thinking like a writer. And perhaps engaging in one of the following 10 activities –

1. Reading. Not only does reading develop your vocabulary and grammar, but it can offer a wide variety of other tools. Read within your genre to get a sense of tropes and commonalities – stuff that’s both cliché and necessary to sell your book. Read books about writing to gain a better grasp on your craft. Read the classics to get a good sense of language – the masters of old may be telling boring stories, but they’re lyrical wordsmiths. Read “fad books” to see what the world is devouring, and try to figure out why. And then maybe do the opposite. After all, Twilight is the anti-Harry Potter and Hunger Games is the anti-Twilight.

2. Watch movies – the good and the bad. Yup, I’m going to advocate for movies again. Movies are still stories. They tell of characters who struggle against an opposition. Movies tend to spawn some really memorable characters, in part because of the actors who portray them (Heath Ledger’s Joker is the only Joker that matters to me), but also because of brilliant writing. Movies also tend to add surprise endings more so than books, so that can be inspiring as well. Equally, watching a bad movie is a lot easier than getting through a bad book. You can bring your friends over and heckle. It usually lasts less than two hours. And it’ll show you what *not* to do in your story. (as a side note, I don’t really advocate TV viewing. It’s just too far removed in format from a novel. You can still learn stuff about character, but a lot of TV shows have filler B-plots or an episode-of-the-week format that doesn’t lend itself well to fiction writing.)

3. Research. No matter what kind of book you’re writing, you’re going to be writing about something you don’t know. It might be minor details, or research could form the backbone of your entire novel. I think research can be as inspiring as it is useful.

4. Plotting/Outlining. This one is a given. I think prep work is just as important as prose. Giving yourself a good sketch of your characters and a solid pathway will save you loads of time down the road. Be careful in overplanning though. Don’t plan every detail of a world you haven’t even written in yet, and don’t nitpick every character detail. You will learn more about your characters as you write them. Most details I write into my book are on an “as needed” basis. Like “oh, I want them to encounter a Babylonian god here. Better open Wikipedia and pick one.”

5. Listening to music. Kind of random, but this always inspires me. I like making playlists for my characters and designing a mental soundtrack for my book. I’ve come up with most of my ideas for big scenes while listening to music.

6. Making art. Again, sort of random, but this often inspires me. Creating some headers/faux book covers/fake trailers jumpstarts my creativity if I’ve been away from writing for a while.

7. Observing. How will we know how real people behave, how the real world functions, if we spend all of it inside writing? ;) I’m an introvert, so being social isn’t natural to me. But the more social we are, the more likely we are to meet some really fascinating characters out there. They could even be people who can help us on our way to publication (“hey, my sister-in-law is a literary agent”).

8. Editing/Revising. This is, quite honestly, how I spend most of my time now. A lot of revision IS writing new scenes, but most of it is rearranging old stuff to fit into my new outline. And quite obviously, this is a necessary step whenever you’re developing a book.

9. Researching the industry. Reading tips about query letters, researching agents in your genre, etc – or if you’re self-publishing, researching e-book platforms and indie promotion sites – may be premature. But that info will still be useful someday.

10. Visiting a critique group. Taking a night off to have drinks with your local writer’s group, assuming you’ve found a good one, can be a really strong use of your time. Bring some flash fiction or a short story, or even the first five pages of your novel, and hash it out with some fresh eyes.

Don’t get me wrong – it IS important to write frequently, and you shouldn’t use these 10 options above as a way to stall. The worst novelist is one who just talks about writing books instead of actually writing them. But we all wake up on the wrong side of the bed sometimes, or we go home with a skullsplitting headache, or time slips through our fingers before we can even say “9 PM!” If that’s the case, put the writing aside and spend your time on the above instead. You might not be writing that night, but you can still feel like a writer.

Word Hoarding – Why I Never Delete My Work

Confession – I don’t understand how writers delete their work. Before meeting some of you, I never considered this as a possibility. I mean, there’s a reason I have so many stories to give on Throwback Thursday!

Yet some writers say looking back will cripple their confidence or style, and the only way to improve is to ignore/delete that shoddy practice writing. I think every writer should do what’s best for them, but here are my reasons – good and bad – for why I am physically incapable of deletion.

Even a bestseller is still just practice. If my novel is published to mass acclaim, I’ll still probably hate it in ten years. I will look back and think “This is so bad. I am so much better now. I wish no one would read this ever again.” No matter how good you are now, you can always get better and you probably will get better. But that doesn’t mean what you’re doing now is necessarily bad and deserves to be trashed. Even professional artists – George Lucas, I’m looking at you – will never be 100% happy with their work. And that’s a pretty bad reason to set your whole writing portfolio on fire.

I’m a hoarder. It runs in the family. My aunt is a bona fide hoarder of junk, like the kind you see on Hoarders: Buried Alive. They say that hoarders collect things with special meaning – which can be manifested as “I have a fond memory of this” or even “I might use this some day. I cannot throw away something with use.” For me, I cannot throw away something I created, even if it’s bad to a level that brings me shame. Mostly because I think it might be useful some day, but also because I’d feel like I was killing a part of myself, my history. I can’t do it, Elsa. I can’t let it go.

It makes me a better editor. My failure to delete may seem like I can’t “kill my darlings.” Yes, I still have every iteration of Paradisa – even 30 pages of an EAAARLY draft from NaNo 2011. But there have been times in the Paradisa process where I’ve said “I’m going to put that scene from Draft One back in”, and was grateful that I still had the file. I think saving stuff actually makes me a better editor because I don’t have to hold back. I don’t have to worry about making massive changes because “Oh no, what if I want that back later!” I have complete freedom to change anything without the stress of it being permanent, which allows me to go crazy with a red pen.

I’m nostalgic. I hold onto movie ticket stubs. I’m that person. And I really enjoy flipping through writing I did as a child, seeing where my mind was during that time. Even in projects that have no potential to be retooled, like The Outcasts, I appreciate the authenticity of my YA voice in it. I wrote it when I was 12, after all. You don’t get much more authentic than that. I enjoy rediscovering the thoughts and voices I’ve projected through my life.

It might be useful some day. And then you’ve got stuff like Beyond Boundaries, which was quite obviously written by a child, but had an imaginative concept I may eventually revisit.

Or it might be worth something someday. Yeah, it’s a stretch, but I bet if Dickens had a childhood notebook full of old stories, it would sell for a gazillion dollars. I can aspire to that, can’t I?

I keep some perspective. Maybe I’m overconfident or ignorant, but I lack some insecurity that other writers have. Oh believe me, I have insecurity and plenty of moments of doubt. But so many writers get hung up on their insecurities to a level of, “Oh my GOD, look at all this passive voice, look at this bad dialogue, BURN IT!”  However, it really doesn’t bother me to see that I wrote something poorly. I can say “I’m way better now and I can see why this piece is totally unpublishable” but I can also say “huh, I wasn’t that bad for a teenager.” And with the more recent bad stuff, I can say “well, I would never show another human being this, but the ideas here aren’t bad. Or the jokes are witty. Or maybe I can use this character in another project.”

Not to mention, I promise that Stephen King still writes bad lines. Maybe even paragraphs. Maybe even…..whole books! We’re all gonna write crap, even when we know what we’re doing. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Good writing is mostly just due to good editing, and none of us have written anything that was 100% full on crap. There is always some kernel of positive that can be mined for later.

Most of all, I believe the reason some stories fail is because we’re simply not ready for them. We call them failures because we wrote them before we were lucid to the world, before we had a mastery of the craft, before we’d done our research on the topic. I don’t believe I should just toss these aside as irredeemable. I can always come back years later and say “it’s all clear to me now. I know exactly how to fix this.”

And sometimes it isn’t about skill. I have stories that I only could have written in the personal era I wrote them. The feelings and thoughts and perspective on the world I had at 17 allowed me to write Heaven For The Weather, which was met to really high acclaim in the fandom community. I couldn’t write that story today. I could probably write it better stylistically, but the mythos and themes of it could only be written by the mind I had then. When I was 18 I wrote another fic that explored a very specific theme of “loving someone who doesn’t know you love them, and who you can’t be with, but being happy about it.” There were only two months in my life that I nailed down that feeling and those were the months I wrote that story. That’s an emotion I probably would have forgotten about otherwise, but now it’s been immortalized.

I’m not going to tell you whether you should or shouldn’t delete your work. That’s for you to decide. But I don’t feel like I’m less of a determined, real writer for holding onto mine. And as you can tell from all the reasons above, I’ll probably never change!