Do you need to burn your ships or have a catastrophe plan? Depends. On . . .

Image for post
Image for post

How do you get things done?

When that big paper was due in school, did you do it as soon as you got it, or did you wait until the last minute and crank it out with an all-nighter?

Do you need to have your back against the wall for optimum production? Or do you need to know you have a safety net if your primary plan fails?

In Write It Forward: From Writer to Successful Author, I discuss and recommend having a catastrophe plan. I’ll tell you what that is below, but recently I’ve had a “moment of enlightenment” where I realized there are people for whom a catastrophe plan is not necessarily a good thing. Some of us need to “burn our ships.” Which are you? Even more importantly, it occurs to me that perhaps they are both the same, it’s just having a different approach to the same objective. Here are the reasons to have a catastrophe plan, and the key for creative people is #3:

  1. To prepare for things that might go wrong to keep those things from going wrong.
  2. If the catastrophe happens, you have a plan and can deal with it.
  3. To provide a sense of calm about possible catastrophes since you have a plan in place, thus freeing your mind to focus on what you want to create instead of being worn down with worry.

This is all very nice and well. But as we always note: there are many roads to Oz, so one size doesn’t fit all. Some people work better under pressure, and not so well when they are calm and at peace with their world. Crisis and catastrophe motivates them rather than defeats them.

Throughout military history there are numerous accounts of leaders who committed their troops to a course of action where there was no catastrophe plan. Where it was all or nothing. Victory or annihilation. Caeser crossing the Rubicon: Alia iacta est as I learned in my Latin classes at Cardinal Spellman High School in da Bronx.

When Cortez arrived in the New World, he had his ships burned. No looking longingly over their shoulders for a way home for his men. Forward and win. Or die trying.

On the other side, David Morrell advises writers not to quit their day jobs because then they’ll “write scared” and he believes scared writing is usually bad writing. I remember hearing him say that at Thrillerfest a few years ago and it worried me for a little bit until I realized writing was my day job and I certainly had no inclination to quit it. Sometimes scared writing is inspired writing. Sometimes we are most creative when we are under the most stress.

Image for post
Image for post

In Special Operations training such as the Q Course (Special Forces Qualification Course), Ranger School, scuba school, etc. there is an emphasis on placing candidates under extreme stress and then evaluating how they perform. Those who can’t perform under stress aren’t ‘bad’ people. Or losers. They just aren’t people who should be in a unit that is expected to perform at a high level under extraordinarily stressful environments.

To reverse this, however, a person capable of thriving under extreme stressful situations is probably not the best candidate for an occupation that requires repetition and drudgery. They might go postal on you. To muddy an already confusing situation, perhaps always looking ahead for possible catastrophes is a form of burning ships. Perhaps the ship I am currently afloat on has a good chance of foundering. In fact, I’m pretty certain that nothing is certain.

I stayed “afloat” in traditional publishing for 20 years by always having a “spec” manuscript written in addition to the manuscripts under contract. Thus whenever my “career” ended because a publisher didn’t renew me for more books, I was already selling a new series to another publisher in the form of that spec manuscript.

In indie publishing, I am preparing for possible changes in royalty rates and business models that might have an adverse effect in the way we are currently flourishing with Cool Gus Publishing. We’re acting, rather than reacting.

So which are you? A person who needs that backup plan? The person who needs to burn their ships? Or the person who always has a backup plan in case their ship burns?

Like this:

Like Loading…


Originally published at on September 9, 2016.

West Point grad; Special Ops Vet; NY Times bestseller of over 80 books; for free books and over 200 free downloadable slideshows go to

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store