I don’t remember where I first heard that the last 10% of any project is the hardest, but I have absolutely come to believe it is the most important.
The first 90% of a project might feel difficult, but that’s the creation section. It’s when you sit down to write and edit your story, it’s when you develop an iOS game, it’s when you build a piece of furniture, it’s when you write the draft of your essay or learn how to play a piece of music. Get the 90% right and you’ll have done a decent job.
The last 10% is making those things fly. Think about playing a piece of music. For ages, depending on skill level and the complexity of the music, you’re learning how to play it. You’re practicing notes, phrases, maybe even a few whole lines, and then you start playing it all the way through competently. You don’t hit any bum notes, you’re playing at about the right tempo/pace and volume. In short, you’re playing the piece and pretty well too. It’s so easy to stop there and call that the accomplishment. Or, you could keep practicing. You vary the tone of the piece, play around with the tempo/volume and bring your own style to it. You develop muscle memory on the tricky passages so that you don’t have to think about the technicalities of it, you can focus on the artistry and how to create that magical moment of audience silence as your last note dies away, the seconds when they’re too stunned to applaud.
Everyone’s stopped before they could have – whether because we’re time-limited, bored, or happy with ‘good enough’. That’s the 90%. It’s good enough, it’s competent, it’ll get done whatever you need doing. But unless you’ve put in the last 10% it’s not likely to have that zing, or flair, or excitement that something genuinely accomplished, polished and finished will have.
Writing my novella has reached its last 10%. It was written and redrafted, so I was done, right?
No. 90% was done – it was good enough, I could have slapped it on Amazon and been done with it. But I want this to be as great in its polish as I think it is in its story, so it needs that extra 10%. It needed the beginnings and endings of chapters tightening to make them as page turning as possible, it needed the first few pages revised because they weren’t as great as what came later, it needed a scene rewriting in a different location so we could hear from another character whose voice is important. It needed proof-reading for typos and odd word clashes or repetition, and my propensity to over-use semi-colons. But for all this, the fundamentals of the story – the 90% – remains unchanged. And then there’s the formatting to provide a good reading experience, making sure the fonts and chapter heading images work well on the device, getting a cover that does it justice and makes people want to buy it, writing a blurb powerful enough that people are inspired to click on the cover and read the first pages. I need to market it, because I need to get them to that page to read the blurb and see the cover, and click on them to read the sample. It’s like the novelist’s version of the house that Jack built, and it starts with ‘hey, have you heard of this?’
So the last 10% takes a lot of hard work, but it’s worth it, because I really believe that this is the best thing that I’ve written yet.