Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Writing a book is a Sisyphean task – something that, if you’re not careful, you may never finish to your satisfaction. We’ve talked before about how to accomplish it, but the best advice is to approach writing your book as an actual project. For that, you need the Triangle.
Managing your project
Starting a project doesn’t just mean deciding you’re going to try and accomplish a task. It means considering what it’ll take to do so – the resources you’ll have to put in, the deadlines that will be realistic for your goals, and the parameters of success and failure that will keep you motivated.
Beginning with the general intention of writing a book is great, it’s good for the soul, but it has no natural endpoint. Plenty of people have died with their magnum opus still unwritten, and that’s no surprise. The majority of people aren’t that great at just doing something with no boundaries, goals, or time frames set. If you want to be an author, you need to treat each book as a project, and that project needs to be managed.For a project to succeed, you need to consider your methodology, not just your goal.Click To Tweet
Here, then, comes the Project Management Triangle, also known as the Iron Triangle, the Triple Constraint, the Project Triangle, and simply the Triangle.
What is the Triangle?
The Triangle is a way of expressing the triple constraints placed on any project – three priorities that can’t all be met at once. The shape doesn’t matter too much – there are versions of this concept expressed as a star, a diamond, and, probably best, as a Venn diagram; what matters it that any project faces three major demands.
In business, these are usually expressed as ‘schedule, cost, scope’, but among creatives, it’s more common to hear the language of a demanding boss: ‘faster, cheaper, better’.
In their enlightening final script, Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos discuss creating their independent YouTube series Every Frame a Painting.
Faster, Cheaper, Better. Pick two. A film can be made fast and cheap, but it won’t be good. Or you can make it fast and good, but it won’t be cheap. Or it can be cheap and good, but it won’t happen fast… This is why we encourage every person who wants to make something on the Internet to understand the value of independence. This is not about artistic integrity or even money. We kept Every Frame a Painting independent because as long as we could control this triangle, we could control the end result.
– Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos, ‘Postmortem: Every Frame a Painting’ on Medium
In writing a book (and in marketing it on their own), most authors are working independently – they’re their own project manager – and that means they’re in control of their own triangle. If you’re serious about writing a book, and you’re ready to approach it as a real project, then considering the Triangle is where you begin.
So how do you consider the Triangle? Easy, by considering its three points.
Time is a massive consideration when writing a book, because, unless you’ve been hired by a third party, there’s no real limit on when it has to be done by. Of course, that’s not really true: the project has the same expiry date as you. The best thing you can do to ensure you write your book is to set, and attempt to stick to, a deadline.
The further away that deadline is, the more achievable it’s likely to be (though set it too distant and it’ll stop feeling real). The closer it is, the sooner you get a book, but the harder it is to address the other demands of your project.
The more you work on your project, the better you can make it. Be warned, however, that your definition of ‘better’ is likely to be ever-shifting, and no-one is going to come along and tell you when your book is ready.
Editing and improving your work is essential, but here, as in the other categories, you need to set standards before you begin. What does ‘good enough to publish’ mean to you now? What are you trying to achieve? When you define this idea, again, remember that the better you need it to be, the less leeway you have to give other categories.
To authors, ‘cheaper’ refers to all the resources that go into writing. The time you spend putting words on paper, the other projects you aren’t pursuing at the same time, the things you have to put off so you can focus on your project, the favors called in from prospective beta readers, the money you spend on editing and marketing.
The fewer nights you commit to writing – the less you’re willing to pay an editor to do on your behalf – the ‘cheaper’ you make your project, and the more difficult it becomes to make it better and faster.
Combining the Triangle
Zhou and Ramos argue that you can pick any two aspects of the Triangle to pursue. Faster and better mean it’ll cost more of your resources, cheaper and faster mean lower quality, and better and cheaper means your deadline needs to be way further in the future.
Let’s take a look at these potential combinations and what they mean for your project management.
Faster and better = Long nights
If you want to finish your project quickly but still write something great, you’re going to have to spend a lot of resources. That means really making time to write, spending money to find good editors and/or beta readers, and not letting other projects distract you.
Like all the Triangle’s options, it’s entirely realistic, but whether it’s the choice for you depends on how much of your resources you’re able to spend on a project. If you’re someone who knows they can commit to writing, or who’s able to invest capital in collaborating with others, this is a great choice. If you’re unable to do this, ask yourself if ‘faster’ is really that important to you, and if your standards for this project might be higher than they need to be.
Better and cheaper = Distant deadline
If you want to avoid spending any resources but you still want to produce something good, your project is going to take a while. There’s no point setting a nearby deadline that you’re not going to meet – it won’t work out, and you’ll be dispirited.
This is a good choice for those who can’t afford to spend time and money on finishing their project but still want to make the best version possible. Be aware, though, that it’s also the path ego demands, even when it isn’t realistic. We all like the idea of working our hardest, day after day, but it’s important for writers to get their work out there. Reader reception is part of the process of improving your craft. Spending five years on your first project might not produce better work than two or three projects completed in the same time, so take a real look at quality. If this project needs to be amazing, is it really the project to pursue now? Would it be more realistic to cut your teeth on an idea you love less, or a shorter work (perhaps for a competition), if it means you begin the process of producing real work?
Cheaper and faster = Unrefined writing
If you need to start your writing career and you’re low on resources, it’s time to make peace with producing something that isn’t your highest standard.
Authors hate to imagine this path, but it’s a valid decision, and it might be what you need, right now. If you’re snowed under at work or your weekends aren’t your own, it can make sense to write and publish rather than spend years half-heartedly reworking the same longer project.
This might mean writing for local competitions or trying your hand at flash fiction rather than crafting a longer novel. It might even mean putting your pet project on hold while you play around with some ideas that need less refining.
If you’re just starting out, you need to be writing, writing, writing. Cheap, quick stories are a great way to do this, so don’t turn your nose up at the cheap and fast option until you’ve really considered it.
Making your decision
When you make your decision on which aspect of the Triangle you’re choosing to work by, you’ve taken the first and potentially most important step in managing your project. Now, you have priorities.
For example, someone who is working faster and better knows that, until their deadline hits, they’ve already made the decision to turn down other opportunities in favor of improving their work. Someone who’s working better and cheaper knows that, if the project is flagging, it’s more realistic to extend the deadline than to try and work every hour God sends. Someone who’s working faster and cheaper knows that, if a story isn’t coming together, it may be time to ditch it in favor of something that doesn’t need as much effort to reach completion.Cheaper, better, faster – which are you prepared to compromise?Click To Tweet
Whichever combination you choose, make it your motto – say it to yourself when you encounter hurdles in your writing, and be proud of your decision. You’ve looked at your situation, you know what you want, and you’ve decided on your method of getting it. You know what’s falling by the wayside, and you know what you gain by allowing it to do so. Talk to your manager-self with this in mind: ‘Faster, cheaper, better. Pick two.’
In a few months, or if the path you choose doesn’t work out, you can come back and revisit your priorities, but once you make your decision (after real consideration, of course), try to stick to it. You can lose a lot of time when you keep switching priorities.
Managing your project
If this choice seems too harsh then you’re not yet approaching writing your book as a real project. Of course, everyone wants something that’s faster, better, and cheaper, but that’s not how a real project works. Making a hard choice now, losing something you’d like to get something else, is the start of treating your writing as a real endeavor. The upside? Real endeavors end with real results.Defining your priorities can sting, but that’s how you get results.Click To Tweet
It can help to understand, also, that no-one escapes the Triangle. By preparing for it, you begin the writing process with a clear idea of your goals and standards. Other authors are blindsided by the process, forced to choose their priorities through costly trial and error, but what they encounter as a harsh learning curve, you’ve already turned into a helpful mantra.
Of course, the Triangle is only the first part of approaching your book as a project, but it’s a big step. If you want to know what comes next, check out 8 Steps That Will Help You Start (And Finish) Your Book and Here’s How A Tortoise Can Help You Finally Finish Your Novel. Or, for a different way to start considering your book as a project, try The Three Lies Writers Tell Themselves Every Day (And How To Stop) and Why You Need A Dedicated Writing Space And How To Find It. Was there a point where you sincerely decided to finish your book, or did you run into unexpected obstacles on the road to publication? Share your wisdom with other writers in the comments below.