Monday, September 3, 2012

Burn the Boats

4028mdk09 / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

When the Spanish conquistador Cortes landed in Mexico in the 1500s, he burned his ships on the beach.  There was no going back.  It was survive—conquer—or die.

I’ll put aside for the moment my moral argument with the Spanish conquistadors, and the fact that this story is utterly false.  (According to Wikipedia, he scuttled the ships to prevent a mutiny.  But whatever.)  Sometimes, it’s a pretty useful philosophy for living your life.  Choices, second chances—these things can be paralyzing.  If I can always go back, how can I move forward after a decision?

This is how I’ve been feeling revising my latest book.  It needs work.  I need to make some big changes.  But there are multiple ways I could take the story, and I’ve been stymied in a swamp of possibilities for weeks.  The only way to get out, I think, is to pick one boardwalk out of the marsh and burn the rest of them to the ground.

Usually, when I’m revising, I save every deleted word.  You never know when you’ll need it, right?  But not this time.  I’m hitting delete on tens of thousands of words and not looking back.  The only way out is to write my way out.

How do you force yourself out of tough spots?


  1. "But there are multiple ways I could take the story" - Welcome to my life. Or my writing life. I don't mean that to sound all "You think you've got it bad" because we all have unique issues. But my big issue is exactly this. I find stories about characters with near-omnipotence fascinating. It's the common thread in the 2 novels I've attempted. Unfortunately, due to the nature of near-omnipotence, there are thousands of ways any one scene could go. How do I figure out which way is the right way? I write every wrong way first.

    And yeah, I've gotten delete happy. I should probably tone that back...

    Best of luck with the redraft!

  2. Yeah, we all have our unique demons, right? My problem is I get too attached to my words. I'll go through all sorts of contortions to keep a beautiful sentence when I really should be cutting it. The trick is to convince myself there's something better on the other side.

  3. I have two go-to quotes for writing advice. The first one is the Aristotle quote about excellence being a habit not an act. The second is: "Write to express, not to impress" and I have no idea who said it. But that reminds me to not be so perfectionist about individual sentences.

    Until I read John Green.

  4. I love both of those quotes, but especially the "express not impress" one. Wise words. Going on my "writing reminders" post-it.