I once heard an editor say that developing writers comes to a point where they stop doing most things wrong but aren’t yet doing enough things right. As a writer improves, learning to write better gets slower.
The Pareto Principle
I see this as related to the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule. That rule says things like 20% of the people make 80% of the problems, or the last 20% of the effort makes 80% of the difference, or 20% of the books account for 80% of the library’s checkout. It’s interesting how often that breakdown is useful to thinking about how events work out.
Statistician Nate Silver applies the rule to playing poker. The first 20% of poker skill you develop makes you better than 80% of the players, so when he gambled on line, he could make money. But the most skilled 20% of the players account for the last 80% of skill, meaning you can’t learn it quickly. You have to get better bit by bit at the edges.
I believe learning to write is like that. I used to write Tolkien fanfiction. The biggest fanfic site around is fanfiction.net. When I posted there, the ability to write literate sentences and create a minimal plot (ie, have 20% of the skills of writing) made me better than 80% of the other writers. But that last 80% of the skill has been slow and hard to develop. It’s harder to see what’s happening.
Example: Patrick Rothfuss
I was thinking about this recently as I reread Patrick Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind. As I read, I tried to analyze what Rothfuss does that’s so engaging. There are, after all, writer danger points in that story. Kvothe has the potential to be a Marty Stu. He’s, as they say, speshul. Fellow Inspired Quill author Daniel Stride argued this point about Kvothe recently.
I don’t react to Kvothe that way though, I think because he’s not sucking all the cool out of everyone else, which to me is the essence of a Mary Sue/Marty Stu. Other characters come alive and are engaging in their own right.
Also the book looks like a framed tale, with an objective point of view at the start and then a move into the tale of Kvothe’s growing up. When I thought about it though, I realized it’s not really a normal frame because the series is circling around to the “present” situation of Kvothe at the Waystone Inn. I think the peril of the present lends tension to the childhood scenes too. Plus you get the insight of an adult looking back on childhood, which you wouldn’t otherwise have.
But why is this book so satisfying? I suggest it’s not just that Rothfuss avoids doing a major thing wrong. It’s that he does lots of things right. A thick world. Interesting magic. A sense that the writer believes in the reality of characters and settings, so we do too. And related to the issue of believing, the book has heart without sentimentality. Sentimentality is unearned emotion. It’s the equivalent of holding up teddy bears and expecting the reader to say “aw.” In contrast, this book deals with real human emotion. That’s one of the differences between fantasizing and writing true fiction.
In other words, Rothfuss is doing a lot of things right. I think I’ll go and revise my draft some more now.