August 7, 2014

Choose Wisely…

            Very appropriate title for this week.  If you don’t know it, shame on you.
            This may be a controversial post in some eyes, but hopefully folks will read and digest before diving for the comments to make an angry response.
            On the first week of the first television series I ever worked on, I witnessed a minor snit between the line producer and the director of photography.  The episode was falling behind schedule, and the producer had decided it was the camera department’s fault.  He berated the DP for a while, questioned the abilities of the camera crew, and—in a very passive-aggressive way—drove home the need to pick up the pace.
            When he was done, the director of photography held up three fingers.  “Fast.  Cheap.  Good,” he said with a smirk.  “Pick two.”
            The catch, of course, is that it was a very low-budget show (which we all knew).  And no one was going to say it didn’t have to be good.  So the one thing it wasn’t going to be was fast. 
            The line producer fired the DP at the end of the week.  But the rule held true, and I saw it proven true again and again over my time in the industry.  I would guess that four out of five times if there ended up being a train wreck on set, it was because someone was trying to find a way around this rule and get all three choices.
            I worked on Bring It On, the cheerleading movie.  It was incredibly low budget.  But the director had a very relaxed schedule because, at the time, Kirsten Dunst was still a few weeks away from her eighteenth birthday.  As a minor she could only work so many hours a day.  So the film was inexpensive and good, but it wasn’t fast.  I also worked on a bunch of B horror/action movies that were cheap and shot super-fast, but the directors acknowledged they were making straight-to-DVD genre movies so we didn’t waste time with artsy composition or elaborate lighting set-ups.  We all went in knowing these projects weren’t going to be winning any awards–they just needed to be competent films that would entertain people for ninety-odd minutes or so.  And they were
            Are there exceptions to this rule?  Yeah, of course.  But exceptions are very rare and specific by their nature, so I should never start off assuming I’m one of them.  Because we all knows what happens when I assume…  And I saw more than a few projects crash because someone above the line kept insisting they could get all three.
            The “pick two” rule doesn’t just hold for moviemaking, though.  It holds for writing and publishing, too.  We get to make the same choices for our work, and trying to find a way around that choice—a way to have all three—almost always makes a mess.
            Allow me to explain…
            I’m going to go under the assumption most of us here are aiming for good.  Yeah, some of you are shooting for great, but for today’s little experiment, that’s the same as good.  Which means one of my choices is gone right there. 
            So the real question is, are we going for fast or for cheap?
            Several folks decide to go fast, blasting through drafts and edits like a snowplow through slush.  But going fast—and keeping it good—requires lots of eyes and/or lots of experience.  And those aren’t cheap.  A decent editor is hard to come by, and the good ones aren’t going to work for free—especially not work fast.
            If I want to go fast, and I want it to be good, there’s going to be a cost for someone.  That’s just the way it it.  I know a lot of folks who write very fast, but they realize there’s going to be a big investment after that if they want the book to be good.
            On the other hand, I can decide to keep it cheap and good.  And this is when I really take my time.  I do multiple drafts, going through each one line by line.  No spellcheckers or auto-grammar websites.  If I plan on doing this for a living, then I need to be able to do this for a living.  I can’t pretend I know what words mean or how to string them together.  I need to examine each page and paragraph and sentence with my own eyes.
            Doing a manuscript this way could take seven or eight months—maybe even more.  But that’s how I keep costs down—by doing it all myself and being meticulous about it.  And, yeah, meticulous means slow.  It means seven or eight pages a day if I’m lucky.
            What combination does that leave us?
            Fast and cheap.  It’s one I’m sure we’ve all seen.  The people who aren’t willing to take the time or to make an investment.   Fast and cheap means I write one 85,000 word draft in a month, show it to my friend who scraped by with a C in high school English, run it through the spellchecker, and then put it up for all the world to see.
            That’s fast and cheap.  And odds are it’s not good. 
            Again, that isn’t an absolute.  There are a few books out there that managed all three.  If I choose to go fast and cheap, though, good is definitely the exception, not the rule.
            So be honest with yourself and choose your two.
            But choose wisely.
            Next time, on a related note, I’d like to blabber on about some words every writer should know.
            Until then, go write.

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