“Ninety percent of everything is crap.”

Sturgeon’s Revelation

Science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon meant that about fiction in particular, but since then (and not to take anything away from Mr. Sturgeon, before then) it’s become a sort of rule or assumption that’s been applied across the board. This would then assume that 90% of books, movies, paintings, songs, toaster ovens, underpants, and flea collars are crap (or the more family-friendly “crud”).

Well, I can’t speak for underpants and flea collars but I’ve read a lot of fiction, and a lot of unpublished fiction, from exceedingly rough rough drafts to long-published novels considered by various authorities to be “classics,” and I think Sturgeon was mistaken.

In my experience, it cuts 10/80/10.

Ten percent of fiction is amazing. It’s why we read, what started us reading, what keeps us reading. It’s work that sings to us in any of a limitless number of ways. These are our favorite books, which may be different from other people’s favorite books, but I bet if you really thought about your absolute favorite novels of all time, it would end up being about one in every ten you’ve read. Or if you look at any of the various lists of hundred “greatest” novels of all time you’d agree with at least ten of them.

Ten percent of fiction is terrible. I’ve read some. You’ve read some. We’ve all written some at one point or another, too. Sometimes it’s just rushed, padded, disconnected, not thought through. Sometimes we just rush to having written a novel before learning anything about writing fiction. Some would-be authors simply don’t have the talent for it—whatever that magic spark actually is that makes one person a storyteller, another person a basketball player, and another person a math whiz. This isn’t what we’re going for, but it happens. The good news? It only happens about ten percent of the time.

I refuse to call it the Athans Revelation, but you know what surprised me the minute I started reading from “the slush pile”? Not that there’s tons and tons of crap out there, as Sturgeon would have us believe—and had me prepared for, by the way—nor that almost everything is off the charts legendary, but how much of the writing I’ve read over literally decades of doing this is actually pretty good.

This middle eighty percent is where the entire publishing business lives. It used to be known as “the mid-list” but that’s fallen a bit out of style. But even then, a case could be made that most best sellers fall into this category. We’re talking about the ever-elusive “quality” here, not sales, which rarely have anything to do with each other. A book might have sold a gajillion copies and been really pretty terrible (my favorite examples: The Da Vinci Code and Twilight). Books firmly in the “actually pretty good” category are among the best selling novels of all time (the Harry Potter series, and the work of one of my favorite authors of all time: Edgar Rice Burroughs). And then there are spectacular, what should have been world-changing books like J.M. McDermott’s The Last Dragon, that essentially no one has read. So don’t follow the money here, follow the words, the stories, the reading experience.

It is simply impossible to mathematically quantify the quality of any work of art. We are, my friends, living entirely and forever in the subjective. In fact, you may have winced at my examples of books I thought were great, mediocre, or bad in the previous paragraph. That’s fine. I stopped going to war over personal preferences a long time ago. But then this is a blog abut writing advice, so it is fair for y’all to ask of me: How do I avoid ending up in the bottom ten percent? What puts me in the middle eighty? Is there a way to know I’ve made to the top ten percent?

Fast answers: learn to write, you probably already are, and that will only be determined after you’re dead.

By reading this blog you’re already on your way to avoiding being relegated to the ten percent crap pile. Stay with me, and stay with other people like me. You can hire me, even, to help you. Go to or stay in school. Take courses wherever you can—online or in real life. Invest in that education. Read books about how to write fiction, in and out of your genre. And read, read, read, and read. If you want to write a novel and you don’t read novels I beg you to move on to some other pursuit. Read novels across time and nation to learn storytelling, read novels published in the past few years by major publishers to learn the craft of writing fiction. The craft changes over time. Don’t adopt J.R.R. Tolkien’s style. That was his, and that was a long time ago already. Learn from his storytelling and worldbuilding, but not his already archaic English voice. We want your voice. We have J.R.R.’s already.

Do all that for a long time and you’ll make it into the middle eighty with almost everyone else. You’ll learn a bit about story structure, you’ll gain an ear for dialog, you’ll explore ideas that are your own, and you’ll finish complete works that have a discernible beginning, middle, and end. You might even sell a bunch of books and be rich and famous. Hollywood often snatches up the rights to middle-eighty books and turns them into middle-eighty movies and TV series. That might be cool. As to what a middle-eighty book sounds like, I thought David DeGusta got a handle on it in “I Read the Submissions Queue for a Literary Journal.”

Often there are no idiosyncrasies to speak of, at least in my experience reading submissions. The word choice and syntax are as expected. Descriptions, actions, and ideas are rendered using wording that, over time, has become standard: glances are shot, groans are stifled, whiffs are caught. At the extreme, it’s cliché, but what I’m talking about here is broader—it’s a reliance on the language that comes prepackaged with things. Such a voice is generic, like those of automated phone systems or smart speakers, suggesting to us that the prose comes from no particular individual (though of course it does). It doesn’t feel like the writer is describing, say, the ocean directly, but instead has reached for the words and phrases they have most often seen used to describe the ocean.

We’re all going to do this. Especially those of us who think of ourselves first and maybe only as storytellers rather than avant-garde wordsmiths. If William S. Burroughs heard this said of his writing he’d have been furious. If Edgar Rice Burroughs heard this said about his writing he’d probably say something to the effect of, “That’s what I was going for. I want people to understand the story, and yeah, I need to sell this stuff.”

From there, a whole bunch of perfect strangers that have no other connection to you at all except they’ve read and liked your book can but most likely won’t pull you up into the top ten percent of masterpieces. And again, this isn’t about achieving a sales goal. This is about some kind of entirely subjective and amorphous line between good and great that so many of us have tried for, but it’s not for us to decide. Strive for it, by all means. Is there an algorithm? Don’t make me laugh. A formula? Sure, because if there was only ten percent of authors would know about it. The top ten percent either is or isn’t, happens or doesn’t happen.

So then, yeah, keep reading and writing and bathe in the giant community of pretty good authors writing pretty good books and maybe making a pretty good living doing it. If your great-great-grandchildren are forced to read one of your books in high school…? Only time will tell.

—Philip Athans

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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2 Responses to 10/80/10

  1. mjtedin says:

    Thanks for this. I have a hard time figuring out what my author’s “voice” is. It probably means I haven’t developed a distinctive one. I think I rely on “prepackaged” language.

  2. James Ross says:

    The formula is known to all but followed regularly by none.

    You look at your story and ask, “What don’t I want the reader to figure out here?” If you can take that secret and spell it out so that ninety percent of the people can see it your line will be in the ten percent. And if you can do it in every line, you will be in the ten percent of that.

    Specifically, 90% is bull.

    Reading over this comment, two things occur: this is the formula, at least most of it. (Refine it to the secrets others will know.) And I should probably pack up my aspirations, I’m going into the lower percentages.

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