writing on a triangle

The production triangle is a part of filmmaking you learn about pretty quick, especially if you’re an independent filmmaker. It’s a triangle with each point labeled Good, Fast, or Cheap, and the rule is you can only pick two. (There are variations on the wording, of course, but the basic principle is the same: quality, time, cost—you can only have two.)


I also discovered this is the perfect analogy for my writing.


In film, “cheap” or “cost” is monetarily related. It costs money to make a movie. So if it’s good and it’s fast, then it’s going to be expensive to produce. If it’s good and cheap (monetarily), it might take more time to get finished. Etc.


With writing, I agree with this article by Catherynne Valente in that you can write fast and write well simultaneously. But there is a cost involved, and for me, that registers as the third point—if it’s good and fast, it’s not cheap.


Monetary values are not always applicable—but time is, and so is energy (physical, emotional, mental). That’s where the cost applies in the triangle.


So let’s say I always pick “good” on the triangle as my starting point. This is what I’m aiming for—a story that doesn’t suck. Right? Right.


Every story is a different beast. You gotta tackle ‘em one at a time and assess your resources and goals on an individual basis. So when I have a challenging story, it might take awhile to finish because the cost (time + energy) is high, and I don’t have the resources banked to write it fast. I work in small pieces to get it done. So I end up with “good” and “cheap”—not because the story is a cheap knockoff or unimportant, but because I had to work on a cost-effective basis to be able to finish it. It’s less expensive to spread out the work and energy needed, even if it’s therefore slower to produce.


(“How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps” was essentially done this way. It’s such a personal story that I couldn’t handle writing it all at once. The work and cost needed to be spread out.)


I’ve written short story drafts in a single day. Sometimes a story just pours out and you gotta finish it fast—“Goodnight, Raptor” was written in a few hours, as was “Thread”—and it turns out good. But it’s not cheap. Writing words and creating a story takes a lot of energy, and when I finish a draft, I know this will result in days/weeks/months (depending) of recovery because the cost of writing that story is high.


When I did NaNoWriMo for the first couple years (2004-2008), pretty much everything sucked, and I’ve never done anything with those drafts. They’re abandoned in depths of Kazad Dum that is my back-up hard drive, covered in age and dust and doomed forever to remain forgotten.


But you know, it bugged me for the longest time that I couldn’t figure out why the hell these drafts weren’t working. I mean, sure, a first draft is likely to suck. You hear that all the time. (You also hear “but you can make it better in revision!”) I never bothered to take any of them to the solid revision stage.* A lot of time they weren’t even finished, just the arbitrary word count goal reached.


In retrospect, what was happening (in conjunction with the fact I just wasn’t any good at writing), was an example of the production triangle.


Fast + cheap = not very good.


Those novel drafts were really fast and really cheap because for various reasons, I didn’t have the capacity to put the expense and energy into them (I also didn’t know what I wanted to say, or what I was doing beyond flinging multi-syllable words at a computer screen via the magic of a keyboard) that they needed. Most were barely planned, and I’ve discovered I am a deeply rooted plotter, so they didn’t have much substance to work with.


A few have gone on to become idea-seeds for other, better stories. And I did learn stuff. (For example, I’m incapable of writing 150,000 words in one month without utterly killing my creativity and brain for the next year. That lesson SUCKED, you guys.)


Wolfbook 1 was not a NaNo novel, though I wrote it in three months. It was good. It was (relatively) fast. And it was really fucking expensive. (I didn’t write much for a good six months or more afterwards because that novel, while I love it and wouldn’t change that experience, was hard. I just needed the time to recover.)


One reason I think Wolfbook 1 worked was because it had months and months of preplanning, character work, and thought put into it before I started writing; so I had enough banked up energy to write the whole thing in, essentially, a very short period of time. (Of course I haven’t actually written a novel since, but the why behind that is entirely a different bag of reasons.)


I pretty much just focus on short stories, currently, as that is all the brain and energy I can manage between school and work and filmmaking. But the principles are the same for shorts as well as novels, despite the two forms being nothing alike–I evaluate a story and decide which points of the triangle I can manage for this particular story. 


When I realized how my writing process works, it was one of those “holy crap, this is awesome!” revelations. I can understand why some stories take longer, now, and why some are done fast and then I’m incapable of writing anything for a variable period of time afterwards.


I’ve always aimed for “good” on the triangle, so each new story is a calculation between the other two points (“cost” or “time”) and what resources I have with which to allocate to them.


Everyone’s process is different. This is how mine works, and I’m just super excited I discovered another layer of it and how it functions.


Figuring things out is AWESOME.



*I tried, but I was too much an inexperienced newbie!Merc to have any idea what I was doing, and these attempts at revision just resulted in rewriting whole new drafts that were just as bad and never went anywhere, ultimately. But hey. We all start somewhere, right?


  1. That’s really interesting, and it has me wondering now if I work much the same way. The novella I wrote this past August was good and fast… which would mean it wasn’t cheap, and that might explain why I haven’t written all that much in the last couple months. Or I just lack discipline 🙂 — but this model makes a lot of sense, too. Will have to think about all this…


    1. I’d love to hear if you find out more about whether this works for you as well. 🙂 (Re the discipline thing, I wondered that for aaaaaages. Since I’d hear so much advice about having to sit down and write, etc, etc, etc–which may need to be another post, heh–but, in my case at least, I know there’s a necessary recovery period that I just can’t get around without doing worse damage…)


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