The last ten percent

piano2One of my sons is a fairly serious piano player. Not serious as in “going to be a concert pianist someday” but as in “takes lessons from a high level instructor, practices daily, and doesn’t suck.” From observing his experience, and also observing other piano students from the same studio who are more serious (as in “might be a concert pianist someday”), I have come to understand something about music: the last 10% is 90% of the effort.

A piano player can learn a piece and master it to a 90% degree fairly quickly. But to get that last 10%–to reach that point where your performance isn’t good but great, where you can play with happy confidence and thus inspire confidence in the listener, where you play with expression and emotion–that takes months. The first 90% comes quickly. The last 10% takes far longer.

It is that last 10% that separates that great players from the merely good ones, because by the time you get to that last 10%, working on the piece is not exciting anymore. You’re starting to get tired of the piece. Your progress is slower and harder won. You figure, I pretty much know this piece; it sounds pretty good. Why spend months making it a tiny bit better when I could learn something new instead?

The great players will spend those months.

It is the same with writing. Getting a novel to 90% can happen fairly quickly, if you work consistently and are reasonably skilled at novel writing. But that last 10% is so, so hard. That last ten percent isn’t writing the ending–finishing the book was part of the first 90%. The last ten percent is deep-structure revision. It’s not wordsmithing; it’s not line editing. It’s taking a step back from the book and honestly evaluating it. It’s cataloging all its flaws–and for most of us, there will be many–then figuring out how to fix those flaws, and in most cases it will be major surgery.

It won’t be adding a little description to this scene, or making this other scene’s dialogue pop a little more. It will be chopping out entire scenes that you love, because they detract from the overall arc. It will be moving scenes from one place to another, changing the tone of conversations, maybe even changing the personality of your hero or heroine such that nearly every gesture, nearly every line of dialogue in the entire novel needs to be changed. It will be rewriting scenes from scratch and adding completely new ones so that the stakes are higher, the tension more palpable, the theme more consistent.

The hardest thing about this last 10% is that by the time you get to this point, you will be sick to death of the novel. You’ve already written “The End”–probably quite a while ago. You’ve wordsmithed and polished, gone over everything countless times. The last thing you want to do is rip the thing to pieces and put it back together again–especially when you have all these great ideas for other novels.

Still, I find that what makes a writer successful is that willingness to finish the last ten percent and make a good novel into a great one.

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3 Responses to The last ten percent

  1. Jessi Gage says:

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, Amy. This is so true. It feels like that last 10% is SO HARD, but without putting it in, most of us won’t have a salable product. I love what you said about it taking good to great. Off to give my wip that last 10%!

  2. Gem Sivad says:

    Yes, that last part is treacherous. So tempting to just say, “done,” and move on when you know in your head that last step is needed. Great post!

  3. Very insightful, Amy. This is something I haven’t heard anyone say before, but it should be repeated a lot and loudly. It’s so easy to overlook. Thanks for sharing.

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