On my wall hangs a photo of my Russian great-grandfather and an eight-year-old me. Between us is a chessboard. I was letting him teach me the game, and letting him win. He didn’t know that I’d already been playing for four years. It wasn’t long before I was besting my brothers, my parents, and then, my competition as part of the high school team. While lettering in chess has its disadvantages in the social dodge-ball game of adolescence, it was a brilliant way to develop focus, strategy, and problem-solving skills, which I have extended to my fiction writing. For instance:
1. The ability to sit still with your own thoughts is a tremendous advantage. Even though a human being (usually) is sitting across from you during a competitive chess game, you are essentially isolated with your thoughts and reactions. Writing fiction, especially a novel, requires spending lots of time alone. I’ve known several writers who’ve gotten stuck or even packed it in because they got restless or felt isolated. Also, “sitting still” doesn’t always mean square on your sit-bones for hours on end. (That’s not so great for your spine, as I’ve found out.) Sitting still with an idea or a character (especially one that makes you uncomfortable or may be vilified by your readers) is also a challenge, but one that could make for a better novel.
2. Know the value and purpose of your material. One of the first lessons in chess is to learn the names of the pieces and how they move. The bishop moves diagonally. The knight moves in an “L” shape. In a material exchange (he takes yours, you take his), a bishop is equivalent to a knight. Writing has its own nuts-and-bolts, like point of view, choice of tenses, or choice of narrator. Your job is to know how these tools work, when to use them, and why. The Catcher In The Rye would be a totally different novel if told from Holden Caulfield’s mother’s point of view. Moby-Dick probably wouldn’t work as well if Ahab, not Ishmael, were narrating.
3. Keep your opponent on defense. A good offense can keep your opponent off balance and always guessing your next move. A similar strategy, and a little literary sleight-of-hand, will keep your reader guessing the plot points and twists of your novel. And turning pages to find out if he or she was right.
4. Think ahead a few moves. Here’s the typical patter in my head during a chess game: “So if he moves his bishop there, I’ll have to defend my rook, which means moving that pawn up, and that will expose my queen, so…” While you don’t have to know exactly where you’re going or how the story will end when you write a novel, it helps to have a rough idea of where you want to end up in the near future.
5. Maintain control of the center. Most chess masters (and wise amateurs) move their pieces toward the center of the board, from which they can have maximum maneuverability. In fiction writing, the middle of a story is often where writers can get mired. If you write yourself into a corner, you have fewer directions in which to move. If you’re stuck in the middle, try throwing a curveball at your protagonist to see how he or she handles it. Raise the stakes. This may open up story ideas that you might not have thought about before.
6. Have a strategy in mind, but be ready to wing it. Even the greatest of chess masters has to improvise at times when their initial strategy goes awry. Same with writing. If you’re halfway into your outline (if you outline) and your characters simply will not cooperate, try letting go a little. Are you pushing a character in a direction in which he or she would not organically go? Or does the plot need to change?
7. Have a good end game. If you don’t have a good strategy to end the game, you could end up foundering, frustrated, or caught in a trap. Checkmate! Whether the end of your novel is happy, sad, or a combination, your reader will feel more satisfied if there’s a resolution. If it “feels” like an ending. That means the conflict is resolved, the child is rescued, the bad guy is caught…and your loose ends are tied up.
8. Don’t get in your own way. Beginning players, if they’re not careful, can create bottlenecks for their own pieces, preventing movement. Beginning writers are likewise vulnerable to self-sabotage. Does this sound familiar? You’d hoped to do some writing this week, but then you volunteered to make cupcakes for a bake sale, or just had to organize your spice cabinet, your underwear drawer, or your CD collection. Guard your writing time from distractions. Don’t take phone calls or check your email. It’s YOUR time to let your creativity flow. Schedule it like any other appointment.
9. Pawns get promoted and Queens get sacked…it’s all part of the game. In chess, you often give up something to get something. Give up a bishop so you can double-fork two other, more valuable pieces. Sacrifice your queen to take your opponent’s, and leave yourself in a great position for your end game. In fiction writing, this can be a hard lesson to learn. You LOVE that character…but she has no real purpose. You LOVE that scene and worked on it for weeks, but it mires down the plot. Cut it out. And in return, you’ll have a better novel. Maybe that character you cut will star in your next project.