80% Is The New 50%

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.


Here’s a post that partially inspired this one.

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.

17 thoughts on “80% Is The New 50%

  1. Is that background material absolutely essential for the READER to understand your story, or was it just essential to YOU in writing it? Sometimes background material should be cut; other times it actually makes for a great story to show, not tell.

    Will the reader be interested enough in the characters and plot to read through a digression? Or is the digression the real plot?

    If everything could always use more rewriting and editing, how do you tell when you’ve reached 80% done with real work to do, and 80%, where it isn’t worth it to make more changes and you really should stick a fork in it?

  2. Enjoyed the post! You sound like you’re quite comfortable with the knife but I’ll second that: don’t be afraid to cut. And word-bloat and uncertainty are often inter-related: when uncertain where to go, it’s easy to ‘write through it’ and pile up too many words. On the flip side, if there’s a long stretch of scenes you don’t really like, it may be a sign you need to re-think it all.

    As to my “half-way through”, that was just with respect to the 2nd draft (after I had replanned it and marked new scenes and deletions). It’s past 75% now- just 8 more chapters to revise :). Is the project 80% done? Nope. That, I won’t predict.

  3. Oh man. You’re stirring up the feelings of inadequacy again. I just recently posted on my Epic Novel and how far I’ve come…you’re at 80%, i’m at 0.02%. It’s sad, but c’est la vie, I guess. Can’t spend all day on my Novel when I have a working job and am married. However – I find I go through stages. I’m not a steady worker on this Novel, so it’ll probably be done when I’m 70 years old. The little I have written has been in bursts of passion and motivation that quickly fade.

    Here’s what I wrote on my lack of progress: http://starwarsanon.wordpress.com/2013/02/21/only-a-few-more-decades-to-go/

    • Sometimes I feel as if there will be no end. Before my latest epiphany, I was in the bleak, “Maybe I shouldn’t write, what am I doing, this will never end” phase. However, going back a bit, I feel reinvigorated. Also, I should note that overall – including all drafts – I’ve been working on this book for about five years.

  4. It’s sooooo true. Last year I went to my first big writers conference thinking I was at 80%. I didn’t know the agents would be serving humble pie. My WIP was at best 50%. It took me a little time, realizing all the significant changes and improvements I would need to make to my story, if I was serious. I think I spent a week or two just playing video games while all that change marinated in my mind. Then I rolled up my sleeves, and spent the summer working on a major revision of my novel. We’re talking a major overhaul. Significant portions of it look nothing like the original. But when I finished I realized how much greater of a story I had.

    I entered this contest, Pitch Wars, and gained a mentor who helped me with my story. Here I was thinking, surely I’m past the 50% mark now. Maybe even really at 80% this time. Nope. More growing to be done and an even tighter story came out of it, but this time with a time limit. I’ve realized now that there’s probably really never a 100% complete with a WIP, just a point perhaps where you’ve taken it as far as you can at this time in your life. That either means it’s good enough to be published or that it’s time to shelve it and work on something else. Hard things to swallow, but the sooner one learns the lesson, the better.

    Great post! Got me doing lots of thinking. 🙂

    • Video games can often be a great meditation device. I’ve spent many hours with my fingers on the buttons, my mind running, and then the answer comes.
      Writing a novel is as much about perseverance as it is about skill.

    • Enjoyed this post, and the discussion is great. Love the whole percentage thing.
      I agree with you Jae. They really mean it when they say “kill your darlings.”

  5. Pingback: Author Interview Program #2 | When I Became an Author

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