In the last week someone has been fiddling with my life to teach me the 90:10 Ratio, a rule I wouldn't otherwise subscribe to.
It started a few days ago when I was listening to a podcast on writing. The presenter was talking about drafting, and the need to overdraft and then cut back. I am, in general, happy with this rule. Stephen King says a second draft should be your first draft minus 10%. That's the sort of thing I'm talking about. You write a bit extra, then pare out the unnecessary words.
This is not what they were talking about. They mentioned Hemmingway. His basic approach was this (please excuse the language):
“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”They were talking about writing so much you could throw 90% out and keep the good 10% (or about 1% in Hemmingway's case). That just seemed ridiculous to me. While I'm all for writing as training, the thought of having to write even 180,000 words to pare down to 90,000, a 2:1 ratio, seems too much.
Then I was reading Story by Robert McKee (which, if you were wondering, is really good. Highly recommended, even if you only want to write novels). McKee argues:
'If your finished screenplay contains every scene you've ever written, if you've never thrown an idea away, if your rewriting is little more than tinkering with dialogue, your work will almost certainly fail. No matter our talent, we all know in the midnight of our souls that 90 percent of what we do is less than our best. If, however, research inspires a pace of ten to one, even twenty to one, and if you then make brilliant choices to find that 10 percent of excellence and burn the rest, every scene will fascinate and the world will sit in awe of your genius.'
Admit it, don't you want the world to sit in awe of your genius?
Why does this 90:10 keep coming up? What's wrong with just editing 10% of it? What about the inspiration that's gone into that scene?
According to McKee, 'more often than not, inspiration is the first idea picked off the top of your head, and sitting on top of your head is every film you've ever seen, every novel you've ever read, offering cliches to pluck.' So he suggests that once you get an idea for a scene, you should then sketch out a list of five, ten fifteen different versions of that scene.
I find this idea a bit scary and overwhelming. Not only do you want me to write a novel, but you actually want me to write about ten novels and then perfect it into one?
Deep breaths, deep breaths.
But, on the other hand, it is liberating. When I'm drafting, it doesn't matter if 90% of what I write is crap. I just have to keep going and I'll be able to cut out all the stuff that isn't good later. It's by trying to write 100% perfectly every session that I get caught up. If I only need a success rate of 10% to be up there with Hemmingway, then I think I can do that. (Though don't be surprised if I start bring out novellas!)
The challenge now is to spend the time editing it down to that 10%. I have the growing fear that I may not have edited After The Winter as much as I should have. While a lot of people love it, I've also received the feedback that in parts it's slow and the language a bit flowery. My poor little criticism sensitive writer's soul wants to pull it off the shelves and hide it away forever. But, instead, I'm going to take my lesson learnt and see if the next book can be better. And the one after that. And maybe one day I will come back and do a second edition of ATW with all that I've learnt. But for now I feel I need to keep moving forward. (That is the one problem with self-publishing, very few people are brave enough to tell you you should hold it back just a bit longer. And even if they did, you often don't listen. Sorry Mum and Anna!).
So, I'm not sure I will go as far as the 91 to 1 or even 90 to 10 ratio just yet, but for Virtually Ideal I'm drafting out 14 episodes. I then plan to try and pare it back to 10 episodes, and then 7. I am going to overwrite to give myself more room to play, more ideas to choose from, and less cliches to get stuck in.
There are just three weeks left in June. My overambitious goal is to get all 14 episodes drafted by the end. I'm currently working on episode 8, so just over halfway. And I have no idea what's actually going to happen. I think I know which guy she's going to get in the end, but one of them keeps surprising me when I try to write him out. Also, her mother has just announced there is another big family secret, I just wish someone had told me this!
So for this week, I'm aiming towards 5,000 words a day and an episode every 3 days. Wish me luck. (Yes, I do still have full time work, and it's the end of the term so everyone is tired and grumpy. But if I can make it through to the 27th of June, then I get three weeks holidays, though I have writing plans for July as well).
After July I'm going into editing mode again. I think.
I'm currently ahead in my reading challenge, but still working through The Aeneid and also Story. Though, while I read Story, I keep getting great ideas to put into Bootcamp, so that slows down the reading process a bit. But I'll hopefully finish one of these in the next week.
So, what's your genius to trash ratio?