Monday, 9 June 2014

The Fear and Comfort Of A 90:10 Ratio

Do you ever have those instances where it feels like the universe is ganging up on you to make a point?

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.

ROW 80
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?


  1. At least for poetry, I tend to average about 50%; I'll usually write around two poems for every one I end up publishing.

    Not having finished any yet, I'm not really sure about prose.

    1. 2:1 sounds like a pretty good ratio! Well done and keep it up.

  2. I'm wondering if something I read in "Writing in Overdrive" by Jim Denney could help to cut out the 91/1 issue. He said that writers who are in the zone tend to write better stories because they're coming from a place of truth. If that's the case, I imagine there'd be little to toss out. Revise and polish and perhaps fill out, but toss out? I don't think so.

    I loved "Story" by McKee when I read it, quite a few years ago now. I remember being completely overjoyed at the wealth of information in the book and took copious notes.

    Good luck with the 6 episodes still to go. 5K words a day is doable but really tough. (I did it when I fast drafted in November.) One good outcome, though, is that you pretty much end up writing yourself into 'the zone'. :)

    1. I do think I write better when I'm in flow, but I also fall into the trap of thinking that because it all came out so well formed, it must be the best possible way to tell that story (or the only). I don't stop and wonder if I could retell it in a stronger way, maybe changing the setting, or how characters react. I doubt I'll chuck out 91:1 but it is an interesting exercise to look at each scene and wonder if it is the best way to show whatever it is.

  3. I think my ratio of genius to trash is about 1 to 90. I write crap, but it's usually pretty decent crap. Every now and then, I write something brilliant. Well, I think it's brilliant, at least. Although, I've never been quoted in everyday conversation, unlike my brother and my sister. Their writings have given our family several brilliant quips useful for everyday conversation, while mine hasn't, so maybe my brilliance to crap ratio is actually much lower than 1 to 90. Hmmm.

    1. My family tend to only quote me on my bloopers, so I would consider myself lucky not to be quoted!

  4. I don't know if anything I write is what I'd call "genius," but likewise very little of it is so terrible it's unsalvageable. I find outlining helps keep me from writing scenes that are boring, repetitive, or don't otherwise add to the story. I've also heard that like Lisa says above, that if you're writing from your creative well and not with your critical mind, there will be a lot less that needs to be tossed--something I'm still striving for. Good luck with your drafts!

    1. Thanks! I do keep dithering between plotting and discovery writing. I've found when I straight plot, as I write it refuses to stick to my well planned plot! So this time I'm pantsing and after I'm done, I'm going to replot for the second draft, pulling out what works. Might take longer, but hopefully will create a better finished product. Will let you all know!

  5. I don't know if I could really throw away that much. Even now, when I cut scenes, they go into a storge folder in Scrivener and I tend to want to use them later in some form. What I do have is the propensity to rewrite early scenes to increase tension that require rewriting the rest of the book. I wonder if that counts.
    Your goals are pretty amazing. I don't get 5K days very often, but they feel wonderful. All the best working on that.

    1. I admit everything does get kept in a scrivener folder somewhere too, and occasionally I pull bits back out.
      I don't think I could really throw away 90% but just knowing that could be an option for great writing is an interesting thought.

  6. I'm a huge fan of just writing, however short or long, whether I feel good or not, etc. and worrying later. It's very freeing. It also results in many drafts -- at least for me. I hope to someday lessen the amount of drafts. ;)

    Good luck on the 5k days. I wish I could do that. Between bad wrists and a stressful day job, I just can't. I think the most I've ever written in one day was 4k.

  7. Yeah, job stress makes a big difference. When I was working part time I could get a few 10,000 word days a week. When I worked full time behind a desk I struggled to get much at all. Now that I work full time caring for girls, I can generally get 3,500 before work and usually the extra 1,500 after they've gone to bed, if it hasn't been a stressful shift.
    But a lot of it is just training to sit down and stay there. I would like to work back up to 7,500-10,000 a day. That is a good pace to keep moving through a story without forgetting all the little details.