Sunday, January 9, 2011

Lessons from Chess

Just before the holidays, our family found the Windows 7 pre-loaded game of chess. After many hours of playing it, I felt obligated to find a way to apply the lost time to writing. The computer opponent (who I’m sure was trained by Bobby Fischer) provided more than a school room for how to lose graciously – the following is a sort of penance and an attempt at being helpful by drawing from my many losses.

After hours of desperate games, the chess board began to look more like a theater than anything else. It became an eerie reflection of a medieval world. Novels like The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin have been based on chess. You can almost hear whispers of intrigue drift up from the board as two Queens square off for a mutually agreed-upon death. A pawn gives his life to protect his nobleman’s. Decisions of who must advance to a certain death, or who should be traded reminded me of a brutal time in human history.

Aside from the intrigue of the game, its complexity is noteworthy. Winning against the masters is as immense a task as crafting a novel. Pieces, like characters, possess their unique roles and skills. Pawns become the supporting characters to help or hinder the flow of the game while the royalty (main characters) battle it out. Strategies, like plot twists, open and close as the game unfolds. Attack too fast and an unsustainable situation develops. Too slow and players pile up one upon another.

One particularly daunting aspect of the game is the many seeming missed opportunities. Nagging doubts about what could have been stopped me. At times like these, the undo button came in very handy. Scenarios could be played and replayed for a different result. This reminded me of the writer’s rewrite option. It can be very much like the undo button, giving the author another chance to view a plot from a different angle or build a character in a new way.

As the holiday drew on, I found myself beaten at every turn and very discouraged. It is amazing how fast the computer can remove your pieces. Playing the game with my nephew helped me go beyond those barriers. Though he’s only sixteen, he's read over eighty books on chess, has been on the high school chess team and routinely plays multiple players on-line at the same time. His few lessons gave me the edge to pass to levels three (and yes even four).

Writing can be like that too. Every now and then a person just needs some advice, pointers – help to get past a particularly hard point. Our SCBWI chapter strives to be such a resource to our members. We’ve lined up a few of the best speakers in the industry to come and present workshops and help us all get past those difficult points and on to the next level. I hope you'll take advantage of those opportunities.