Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Chequered Game of Writing

I think I have finally come across a nice analogy for why people write novels/stories (fiction, to be vague). This is mainly because, when I started reading fiction for the first time, it made me wonder why did someone take up so much time in their life to sit down & write this book, this story, this whatever?

When I wrote my first short story & posted it on my blog, I realized it instantly, but only subconsciously. It took me about 3 years to finally come to terms to understand consciously what it was I had learned while writing the story.

It is just like a game. To make the analogy better, let's assume a Game of Chess. What is a game of chess, really? A board with black & white pieces &, black & white squares with some rules. Same applies to writing fiction, there are some basic rules - there ought to be characters in the story, they have to do something, that should bring out something much bigger than the face value of the characters' actions. To simplify, the actions mentioned in the story (includes dialog, physical acts, emotions, etc) must represent some broader or a smaller, or any concept which is outside the story. A sort of underlying message or philosophy. The writer should make that connection instantly instead of lingering on & almost trying to reach it. But the best part about this process is evident from millions & millions of writers writing more or less similar plots in so many different ways. Just like a game of chess, despite being centuries old, still has the ability to come up with new moves as new players improvise their games independently.

So the game of chess begins when both players sit across facing each other's arsenal. One player has white which begins the game, the other has black. I think these colours also symbolize a lot more than their intended use of mere distinction. It is a difference in ideology of the writer & the reader. They don't come from the same background & same beliefs. So the writers' words are in fact bearing a different meaning for each of the readers. The white always begins, because the intention is clear, to start off with the game in a peaceful manner, no matter how it ends. The black represents the critical aspect of the game, which has to enter into the game with a defensive manoeuvre. Then the game can progress with one player being offensive & the other defensive irrespective of the colour of the pieces. The reader must be able to critically assess the work in his own head to better understand it within their own context. In short, it has to be understood in some relevant way.

So in the fiction business the game begins with actually writing and publishing the material. That's the first move. The reader being the other player enters into the game by deciding to read. This I presume is a defensive move because we have to react to an impulse which actually made us want to read that work of fiction. We don't know how the game is going to turn out just in the same way we don't know how a chess game is going to end because there is clever tradition of not including a contents page.

So after entering into the game, each player gets settled by aligning their pieces. The writer starts to transmit ideas in a variety of forms, through characters, through narratives, through examples, through analogies & so on. The reader reads these ideas & interprets what the writer is trying to say, literally trying to get into the writer's head. The writer through his words tries to elicit some emotional response to either uplift the reader or to break him down. This is exactly what chess players do. They try to get into each other's heads while the game goes on revealing layers after layers of intentions. These intentions best decide how the game turns out to be. Some players are more perceptive than others so they can guess the opponent's moves & plan better whereas some not so good players end up spending huge amounts of time deciding their next move by brute force. So in the same way good readers, will guess what the author is trying to say judging through the author's words & explanations, whereas bad readers end up hacking their way through the writer's work trying to make sense of the words. Most often without any success.

Similarly good writers understand their own ideas better & can project them in a much better way than bad writers. So the bad writers end up wasting a lot of time reaching any relevant point because they don't know exactly what they are getting at. I think this is also a serious reason for writer's block, not knowing exactly what we are trying to convey. In the game of chess, good players know their moves, styles & their ability to play so well that they don't over reach & set up game plans accordingly. A bad player sets up unrealistic goals & fails to plan or even change plans mid-game & doesn't think through moves because he doesn't really know how to steer the game. The bad player is always at the mercy of a good player's sword (I couldn't resist the pun, in case you missed the pun - you should know who the bad writer is by now).

A good chess player always knows if he is about to lose. That player will know when to forfeit a game, if the odds aren't in his favour. That's also a remarkable trait of a good writer. Sometimes it matters a lot what you don't send for publishing. If everything that the writer thinks is published then it may or may not be up to the same standards that he has set up for his work. This requires remarkable work ethic. It requires huge amounts of ego to suck it up & sit on it. The other end of the spectrum is again trying hard to change the outcome of an out-of-favour game. This usually fails since probability isn't biased. Also good readers tend to move around a book very easily & know when to throw a book away. Bad readers tend to keep reading crap even when they know it's crap, but hope that it might get better. 

I think the whole book publishing industry is based around catering to the really good readers & writers out there & making the bonus on being able to sell the stuff to mediocre readers who cannot differentiate good material from bad. Incidentally there are also good publishers that are different from bad ones who don't know when crap is crap. I think the new self-publishing platforms are pretty cool since it creates a good & fair market for good reading material & bad reading material. The crowd decides what is good or bad. I love free markets for this precise reason. The idea is of deserving the fate for a piece of work. Also in the game of chess, if you are pitted against a good player & you are a bad player, then you will consistently lose until you get the message & rework your game.

In the end, like I said earlier, it is a clash of ideas & opinions. The writer reveals himself as much as the reader reveals himself while reading. The only difference is that the writer reveals to himself & to the world but the reader reveals only to himself. 

But what is true for this game, is also valid for most of the things worth doing in life. All these things can be improved through focused practice & by slowly but painfully learning what not to do.

That's why good writing is as much fun as reading a really well written book, really well. Just like in the game of chess, there can be moments of great excitement when good players battle it out till one of them bows out.

No comments: