I will thank the Lord with all my heart as I meet with his godly people. How amazing are the deeds of the Lord! All who delight in him should ponder them. Psalm 111:1-2 NLT

Monday, August 8, 2011

Digging for the last ten percent.

You know what stings?

We’re talking a figurative cocktail of scalding stovetop, bumblebee encounter, rugburn sorta sting.

Answer: Hanging out in Colorado and not hanging out…outdoors, that is.

I spent time in Colorado recently as part of a work retreat. I had a nice time, learned things and, mmm, experienced my first fondue restaurant

I did not: Climb a mountain. Tube down a river. Explore Rocky Mountain National Park. Spend hours on end outside enjoying the scenery, the sunshine, the blessed lack of humidity. All things I consider integral to a proper Colorado experience. Oh the pain!

But I'll tell ya, I came away with one particular nugget of wisdom that made the whole my-insides-are-screaming-to-be-outside experience worth it.

Gathered with other retreat attendees for a fancy dinner – seriously, that prime rib was probably more protein than I normally consume in a week – we got to talking honesty. And this one guy, the executive director of a Midwest rescue mission, offered this tidbit (paraphrasing Eugene Peterson style here):

"A friend in my small group talked to me about how, often, we don't tell the full scope of what we're thinking or feeling – the whole truth. We give 90%, but leave the last 10% unsaid. If we want to be fully honest, we have to ask ourselves, what’s the 10% we're not saying?"

I paused mid-chew, the words, "So stinkin' true" clanging for release. But, you know, I've got manners so I swallowed first.

Since then, I've found myself pondering how so frequently I stop short of that last 10%. Particularly when it comes to confronting hard truths, sharing the deeper things on my heart. Once in awhile, I'll recognize a niggling distance creeping into a relationship – and almost always, I see now, I can trace that distance back to stopping at 90% honesty, holding tight to the last oh-so-vulnerable 10%.

Stepping back, when it comes to us writers, I think that 90/10 theory rings true for our storytelling lives, too.

When we're shaping characters, we have a wonderful opportunity to dig deep into our characters’ emotions, motivations, dreams. But it’s so easy to stop short – identify a surface feeling without sifting to the deeper emotion, noting a motivation in true GMC-style without fleshing out the dreams or fears behind the motivation.

When we slow down enough to ask our characters what thoughts they're not expressing, what feelings they're not acknowledging, what words they're not saying – and when push them past 90% and draw out the last 10% – we'll find ourselves with characters who breathe.

But it means we have to push ourselves as writers, too. No easy way out here...no settling for surface writing. We have to go along with our characters as they say the harsh words, do the difficult things, express the hard emotions...because that's living on the page, that's honesty readers will connect with.

So how about you? How do you push your characters to 100% authenticity? Do you ever find yourself or your characters stopping short at 90%?

Melissa Tagg

p.s. Okay, since I mentioned a small group and we're talking about going deeper, I couldn't help sharing this hilarious video about a shallow church small group...



  1. This is what rewrites are for--and crit grougs: getting past the shallow end of the emo pool. So often, my crit partners will say,"Give us more." Or my husband (a non-writer, but he has great insight) will say, "Uh-uh. Doesn't work for me."
    And I have to go back and find out why. Usually it's because I stopped the scene, the dialogue, too soon.

    Haven't had a chance to watch the video yet. My daughter's up. But I plan too.

  2. Thanks--I always appreciate your comments, MTagg, & the prodding here to ponder, dig deeper. I KNOW you're going to turn out lots of good published writing for years--and I can't wait to enjoy & bran on you.

  3. Thanks, Beth. And thanks for the Colorado photo, too!! p.s. the video is hilarious!

  4. Thanks, Dee! I. Appreciate. You! Are you all recovered from your travels? :)

  5. Awesome post MTAGG! I marvel at the way you put words together. I also know how much truth is in the 90/10 rule. To be so young, you'd you get so wise?

  6. ROFL at the video! I can't tell you how often my husband has whispered, as we approached someone, "What's his name?"

    "I don't know."

    "Hey, man, how's it goin?" LOL

    Ok on a serious note. I love your insight from the conversation and as I read it, I thought, yep. I do that. I leave out 10% on occasion, in my own thoughts and in my characters.

    So glad I can DELETE and revise! Great post, Melissa!

  7. This is great, Melissa. I'm working on my characters right now and I realized on one of my characters, I'd probably stopped at 90%. So tomorrow I'm going to revisit her GMC and dig a little deeper.

    Loved the video. Think I've been in a couple of those groups. lol

  8. Wow, Melissa. GREAT post (no, I'm not screaming--just emphaszing). You really gave me a lot to ponder. You got my mind churning about my characters, even though I'm still on my first draft of my wip. You really do have a wonderfully, expressive way with words. Thanks for making me think.
    BTW, the video is hilarious!

  9. Thanks, Reebs! I don't think I'm that wise...just good at picking up on the wise things other people say. :) Can't wait to see you in September!!

  10. Thanks for the comment, Jessica! You should win something for commenting here and on two Tag(g)lines posts today!

  11. Cool, Pat, that you're digging deep into your characters! I love authentic, honest characters. Can't wait to read your book someday!

  12. Thanks, Jeanne. And kudos for using the word "ponder" in your comment. :) And, yeah, I just love that video - too funny!

  13. "So stinkin' true." My favorite line. That line is so stinkin' you!

    What great food for thought today. I have a character that is showing a lot of emotion right now but I still could get a lot out of her by asking these questions.

    "Soooo Rose, what ARE you not saying?"

  14. Haha, Ginger! Yes, that line is very true to me. :) I hope Rose answers! :)

  15. A day late, but here now...

    Loved your insight, M. I found it's easier to bottle those emotions than spilling them out to clean up the mess. Those spills, though, are very therapeutic. I'm pushing my characters harder to reveal more, but that means I'm pushing myself too.

    Love the photo, Beth--it reminds me that sometimes our tunnel vision prevents us from seeing the whole picture.

  16. Thanks, LJ! You're right...bottling is so much nicer than the mess of an emotional spill. And yet, bottling too long generally means at some point there will probably be an explosion...also not a pretty thing! :) So I guess it's spill now or explode later!