Life is chess

Ken glanced at me from across the board. He said nothing, nor was there a hint of gloating on his face. But he knew I was beaten. And he knew I knew.

Right from the start, he had me on the run. His knights and pawns had set up an impenetrable wall from which his bishops were free to snipe at my defenses. He soon had complete control over the center of the battlefield. Any piece that ventured out there would be slaughtered in a ghastly crossfire from his bishops and rooks.

My soldiers did not have the strength to mount a strike into his heartland. After some blundering on my part, my king stood quivering in the right corner protected by a beleaguered knight, a trapped bishop, and three pawns waiting to die. My queen was off harrying his back ranks, but making no real threat. My lone, surviving rook stood next to the king in a feeble attempt to protect him from the inevitable. All my other men were gone.

Ken was only down a couple of pawns and a single knight.

Surrender crossed my mind again. Never! my stubborn will screamed. I had lost the previous game, and I wasn’t going to lose this one. At least not with a surrender.

I suddenly spied a weakness in his defenses. I ordered my queen back to the perch on which she held a few moves ago, directly attacking the pawn in front of his king. It was my only chance. Maybe he won’t see it…

He didn’t. He sent his rook to greedily take of one of the pawns surrounding my king. A loss of a man for me…and a loss of the war for him. My queen attacked the pawn in front of his king. Protected by the rook defending my king on the other side of the battlefield, my queen had him in checkmate.

He stared at the board a moment. His mouth fell open, then he shook his head.

I learned two things from that game. First, no matter how good things look for you, never start rehearsing your victory dance until the game is won. Second, no matter how bad things look for you, never give up until you’ve been checkmated.

I love how principles learned in chess transfer to real life.

Writing that novel

Since most writers are fascinated by the writing processes of other writers, I thought I’d share the process that has helped me write three novels and get me 80,000 words into my fourth. If you’re not a writer, the following mind hacks might give you ideas on how to finish your own major project.

1. Create a challenge

The primary challenge of writing any novel is to simply finish it. If you’re writing your first book, that should be your challenge — just finish it.

That’s why I came up with “100,000 in 100” — write 100,000 words (or finish the book) within 100 days.

I did this for a very commercial reason: to see if I could become a “book-a-year” writer. To build a loyal readership, publishers like to have their authors write one book per year. “100,000 in 100” was well within professional standards, and certainly doable for me.

Not to mention that the more books I write, the better my chances of getting published.

2. Set attainable goals

Writing a novel is a marathon, so it needs to be tackled in chunks or you’ll go crazy thinking about the enormity of it. That’s why I set a strict yet attainable goal of 1000 words per day. Once I reached 1000, I considered the day a success, and gave myself permission to quit. Getting to 1000 was hard at first, but once I got into a routine, I was able to bang out 1000 (first draft) words in about an hour.

3. Accept that your first draft is crap

Without a doubt, this was the single biggest key to reaching my goal. Once I accepted that my first draft will be complete and utter crap, I could simply write the novel’s first draft without second-guessing myself as I wrote.

It’s a freeing feeling to turn off that pesky internal editor. If I wrote something that contradicted a previous chapter, I simply made a note to change that chapter in the second draft, and continued on. If I struggled with the stylistic wording of a piece of dialogue, I wrote the dialogue in sparse text, and continued on. God forbid, I even used cliches! Whatever it took to reach my daily quota, I did it.

4. Stick to your goal

All writers have those days when we look at the computer and say, “I don’t feel like it.” To keep myself motivated and on schedule, I recorded my daily word output on a spreadsheet calendar. It was that little incentive of entering my word count at the end of the day — and figuring out my words-to-date total — that got me to finish my quota on some of the toughest days. Someday I’ll have a publishing contract to keep me motivated, but for now, this will do.

5. Celebrate!

After every book I’ve written, my wife and I celebrate by go going to Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, where the steaks melt in your mouth and the lobster bisque should be illegal. After you finish a project – novel, short story, magazine article, blog post – do something to celebrate. Writing is a blast, but it’s also work. When you’re “pre-published” (thank you Lisa Shearin for the term!), you sometimes need something other than a contract to get your butt in the chair.

Gutenberg’s toy will never take off…

Peter Suderman of Reason Magazine says don’t fear the e-reader. They may be imperfect today, but so was the printed book back in Gutenberg’s day:

Kindles and other e-readers are imperfect devices, but there’s no denying they have touched a consumer nerve. Unlike the iPod, the portable music device to which they are often compared, the e-readers we’ve seen so far aren’t so much a revolution as the proof of concept for one that may eventually happen. The true value of e-readers isn’t what they’re doing now so much as how they’ve opened up the public imagination to rethinking the way we read.

[The printed book] too was initially imperfect. Elaborate illustrations had to be tossed aside, as did many of the personal flourishes that scribes put on their works. But the advantages of mass production won out and quickly made printed books a fixture of middle-class life. These days it’s a cliché to say that the printed book’s ability to store and transmit information cheaply changed the world. But the cliché is true.

E-readers are only going to get better, cheaper, and more widely used. I love my Kindle and I love my printed books, but my 3-year-old daughter will someday look at my shelves full of dead trees and see collector’s items.