Nine Worlds, One Zombie Apocalypse

One of my favourite talks at this year’s Nine Worlds was Ric Crossman’s presentation on the mathematical modelling of a zombie apocalypse. It’s sadly not a talk I can do justice to. I’m not enough of a mathematician to coherently explain the models, and half the joy of the talk was Ric’s entertaining delivery. That said, here are three points I thought were worth sharing for zombie fans out there:

  1. If you get a chance to hear Ric’s talk, go to it. It’s very entertaining.
  2. If you’re interested in accurately modelling a zombie apocalypse (and who isn’t?) there’s a whole book on that out there. It turns out that quite a few serious statisticians are also the sort of geeks who like zombies (surprise surprise), and Robert Smith? (the question mark is part of his name) edited a book of essays on the subject. If you’re researching for your planned book on the zombie apocalypse, or you like to be able to bring pedantic details to pop culture conversations, this is one for you.
  3. If human beings survive a zombie apocalypse, there’ll be two phases – one where things are changing and one where we reach an equilibrium, a balance between the zombies and humans that is self-sustaining. A stable place, if you will. So as a writer, you can focus on the period of collapse or the period of stability and rebuilding, or one after the other. But be aware, not all equilibriums are stable. In an unstable equilibrium, if something disrupts the equilibrium then that same balance can’t be achieved again. And how people cope with that, as they frantically try to restore something forever lost, could be a story in itself…

The 80/20 Rule and Writing

More Pareto - how exciting.
More Pareto – how exciting.

As writers, we put the most effort into the smallest details. This only struck me today, and now it’s driving me nuts. Here’s why.

I read a design article by Ted Alspach, creator of the board game Suburbia, in which he talked about the huge effort that went into balancing the game’s latest expansion. He cited the 80/20 principle, that 20% of the work on the game, tweaking things to get the balance just right, took up 80% of the time.

This 80/20 principle, which is used in many ways and many contexts, is also known as the Pareto principle. It’s named after its inventor Vilfredo Pareto, who therefore has the dubious honour of being history’s only famous statistician. Famous to maths teachers and business consultants that is, not real people.

Don’t get outraged, maths teachers and business consultants. I’ve done both those jobs. I’m allowed to be rude about them.

Anyway, this is a principle that applies in my writing. 80% of the words are the easy ones, the fundamentals I can throw down on the page and won’t have to change. They take up 20% of the time. But it’s the other 20% that will take up 80% of the time, whether I’m tearing my hair out looking for the perfect way to describe a lightbulb or editing the same paragraph fifteen times because it just doesn’t read right.

I didn’t mind until I noticed this, but now I resent that 20%. How dare it suck up all my time? Screw you 20%, and screw you with nobs on Vilfredo Pareto, for making me notice.*

But it’s that 20% that makes the remaining 80% – the bread and butter of story and sentence structure – worth reading. It’s the icing that turns a bland sponge cake into something exciting. The ketchup in the fried egg sandwich. The Zayn in One Direction.

So maybe I should relish that 20%. It is, after all, what will make my writing worthwhile. Because without that ketchup, who wants to eat a fried egg sandwich?** And without Zayn, who cares about One Direction any more?***



* Not really. Pareto did good work, and is not my type.

** Brown sauce is also acceptable.

*** Wait, you didn’t care about them anyway? Congratulations, you’re a better person than I am. Now go listen to ‘Kiss You’ and tell me it didn’t make you smile.