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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, October 09, 2006

novel-writing as chess game

It's Canada's Thanksgiving Day holiday. The long weekend has been sunny and gorgeous. Kimmie and I walked the Stanley Park seawall yesterday, and the West Van seawall today from the Capilano River to Dundarave and back. Yesterday it was quite warm, sometimes hot, as we made out way around the lawns and cliffs of the city part; today it was chilly in the shade, even as the sun was hot when we were directly in it. A great bank of fog lay on the water beyond the harbor.

I haven't opened up The Mission since last week. For one thing, I've been organizing my copywriting notes over morning coffee. For another, I may be experiencing some resistance--old and familiar. Chapter 25 is taking me plenty of time.

But yesterday I had a thought: writing a book reminds me of playing chess, in a way, and each chapter is a move.

Starting in 1972, during the Fischer-Spassky world-title match in Reykjavik, I became a chess enthusiast--a passion that remained through most of my teens, but especially from age 15 to 17. I would study chess from books, playing out games on the combination table-board I had at home. I played the games that appeared in the chess columns that used to appear in the newspaper. I played in a few local tournaments (way down in the "D" section of weakest players), once even winning a prize: a chess book.

The most memorable, or anyway the largest, tournament I played in was Vancouver 1975, held out at Totem Park on the UBC campus. It was a major tournament whose prizes were big enough in the open (top) section to draw international players. The top-rated player there, and eventual winner, was the Estonian grandmaster Paul Keres, who died almost immediately afterward. (He was an anomaly, since, although he never played in a world championship match, he was consistently rated among the ten strongest players in the world for 30 years.) Other notable players there were Walter Browne, then U.S. champion, and future U.S. champion Yasser Seirawan, a fixture of junior-level tournaments in Vancouver at that time. I loved the intense atmosphere, the long rows of tables with their taped-on paper boards and large plastic sets, the purring chess clocks, and even the increasing pall of cigarette smoke as each day wore on. I won a few games, but didn't perform as well as I'd hoped.

In a chess game, some moves can safely be made quickly, but others take time. Grandmasters who can speed through an opening may arrive at a point where they must use up a quarter or even half of their total allotted time on just one move. Such moves have the quality of a crossroads. There's nothing for it: you have to think it through.

Well, I think that writing chapters is a bit like this. Some take more time: they are challenging, and require more thought, more planning. They are like crossroads.

I tell myself this, anyway. I have to justify spending not just weeks but whole months on a single chapter. Just as in a chess game, one has to think, "I'll make up the time later." Or, more accurately: "If I don't get this move right, the time won't matter anyway."



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2 Comments:

  • It's amazing how chess applies to so many different things...but I think writing is particularly applicable. I love chess and writing, and your words highlight how I can further seem them in light of each other. Great post!

    By Blogger Jeshua Erickson, at October 09, 2006 7:57 PM  

  • Ah--excellent. I'm glad someone relates to this comparison. Chess seems to be less popular than it was 30 years ago, but it's still a fascinating game. Nonplayers I think would be surprised at the intensity of the emotions and the level of stress involved. Thanks for stopping by.

    By Blogger paulv, at October 10, 2006 4:31 PM  

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