When approaching a due date, my wise high school art teacher would tell us, “When you think you are 80% done, you are really only 50% done.”
So, I am 80% done with my Great Novel.
I have been 80% done with my novel for approximately two years.
In that time I have written thousands of words, gone back and re-structured, written a novella, lost one job, gained another, had my dad in the hospital, and experienced other shenanigans and adventures.
And I only have 20% left to go.
80% is a magical number. It’s the fine line between a disappointing “C+” and a satisfying “B”. It’s the balance of ‘almost there,’ while knowing the finish line could be pushed further away. It’s being closed to finished, while having just enough room to change things.
20% isn’t much.
Except when 100% continues to change and expand.
Then, 20% can take a long time.
I think my current 80% is further along than the 80% of a year ago. However, as I’m chugging and pushing along towards the finish, I periodically hit road blocks and snags. Some of these need some careful filing, or a quick removal. Others require crashing back through and demolishing things as I go in reverse, followed by re-purposing, reconstruction, and then heading down a different fork in the road.
Some of those road-blocks include a climatic near-execution scene that devolved into cliche-esque dreck. It took me a month or so to re-plan and steer around it.
Then, I realized I was running out of road (or word count) and had too much story left to tell. This required a hard-look at my outline, and the difficult decision to hack away 30% of my outline. This left some clean up and suturing to do before pressing forward once more.
Last week, I was pressing on toward the “Big, Epic Final Battle Sequence.” As I came around the final curve towards the finish line, it felt as if I was running on octogon tires and swerving into walls, only to finish as a big, smoking wreck.
So, I’ve gone in reverse, pulled out some seams, lain out the pieces I’ve built, and am in the process of putting them together in a new, better way. In doing this, I realized I’d written 40 pages past the climax. Much of this can be folded in instead of completely exorcised, and there is something liberating in this and having a direction.
Also, there seems to be more action per page, which is good when writing an adventure story. While pondering this, I thought of the audio commentary from the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley in which the director, Joe Wright, is discussing the Darcy / Elizabeth dance scene. He and the editor worked on a version in which they used small intercuts and close ups of hands touching, faces, and movement as the actors proceed through their verbal battle. It was all beautifully lined together after hours of work, when they watched the take that is in the movie. In one single long take, they had already captured every emotion and character point the masterfully-edited version contained.
After this realization, they made a note to themselves to try to use a single long-take as often as possible, instead of killing themselves to capture what was already there.
However, it takes the hours of agonizing work, sweat, and frustration to reach such apparently simple epiphanies. “Of course it’s supposed to be that way! How didn’t I see it before?”
And that epiphany is a beautiful moment.
Currently, I have found two rules that are helping me build a strong novel: 1. Watch the word count, and be willing to give up plot points in order to have a stronger story. 2. Keep the story running quick and actionated.
Word count has been my great downfall before. Draft 2 of this project weighs in at about 200,000 words, with murky drudgery in the middle. Draft 3 is clipping along at a current 85,000 words – which, when trying to write a roughly 100,000 word novel, is about 80%.
Perhaps all stories are 80% done, and are never really completed. Maybe the 20% I’m reaching for is really the reader.
How much is 80% for you? How long do you have left to finish your Work In Progress? What lessons have you learned from director’s commentaries (the one for Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite, as well as Empire Strikes Back)?
Also, a brief thank you for the kind words regarding my friend’s passing.