Trope Tuesday: The Chessmaster

The Chessmaster is a fun trope, especially when done well. A good villain is always at least one step ahead of the good guys, so when it turns out that he’s three or four or ten steps ahead of them, it can make for some interesting plot twists.

Of course, the chessmaster isn’t always the bad guy. Sometimes, it turns out that the mysterious figure behind the scenes pulling all the strings is actually working for good, even though he may sacrifice a few pawns along the way. Or is he? There’s always that tension, simply because of the chessmaster’s manipulative nature.

I’ve played it both ways. The last time I wrote a chessmaster was Gunslinger to the Stars, but the Patrician in Heart of the Nebula definitely also qualifies. In both cases, the character was introduced as a mysterious employer. I won’t tell you which one was the bad guy, and which one was the good guy.

I’ve never written a story from the perspective of the chessmaster. I imagine it would be quite difficult, since all of the plot twists would have to be telegraphed and/or th reader would have to be kept in the dark about the main character’s plans. Dune is an excellent example of the former, but I can’t think of any good examples of the latter. The Davinci Code comes to mind, but the way it kept the viewer in the dark (seen the movie, haven’t read the book) didn’t work for me.

Even as a non-viewpoint character, the chessmaster can be difficult to write. Careful plotting is key, of course, but so is the iceberg principle. For everything the reader can see, there has to be a bunch of stuff beneath the surface that they can’t see. It doesn’t require the same level of detail as the surface level stuff, of course, but you have to at least have an idea of what the chessmaster would do if the story went in a very different direction. Even if the chessmaster never reveals those plans, you can bet that he still has them figured out.

In part, this is what made Heart of the Nebula so difficult to write. The final draft bears little resemblance to the first draft, with characters and subplots cut out or combined with others. Still, I’m satisfied with how it turned out, and it seems that the readers are as well.

In Sons of the Starfarers, Gulchina isn’t a chessmaster so much as a magnificent bastard with delusions of grandeur. She has plans and does tend to be three or four steps ahead of everyone else, but she’s less interested in manipulating events than she is in manipulating people. Her ultimate goal, as revealed in Captives in Obscurity, is to establish a proud warrior race that will one day wipe out and take over both the Empire and the Outworlds. She doesn’t know how that’s going to happen, but she knows what needs to be done to lay the foundation for that work.

The chessmaster is a challenging trope to write well, but I’m sure I’ll use it many more times in the future. The storytelling potential is just too great to leave it out.

Pantser vs. plotter? There is no such thing

I have come to the conclusion that the “pantsing vs. plotting” way of thinking about writing is as impractical and useless as nature vs. nurture, or talent vs. learned ability.

Are you a pantser who discovery writes from the seat of his pants, or a plotter who has to outline every character, every plot point, and the whole world first? Well, that’s about as useful as asking whether you were born stupid or whether you were taught to be. Probably a combination of both.

The pantsing vs. plotting dichotomy is something I learned early on, when I was just starting out as a writer. At the time, it seemed like a useful distinction to make. Beginning writers tend to make a lot of mistakes, and those range from world-builder’s disease (where you spend all your time outlining instead of actually writing), to rewriting the first chapter into oblivion, to writing yourself into a corner and having all your characters scream at you. It’s amazing how many things you can get wrong. By dividing these things up into pantsing problems vs. plotting problems, it was helpful to figure out how to fix those.

But then you start to identify with one side or the other, and that leads to an entirely new set of problems. Because the truth is that to write well, you need both. A pure pantser often writes himself into problems that he can’t easily get out of, or misses key elements that render the rest of the story moot (like “if only these two people would talk with each other, the obstacles to their romance would all go away” or “if only Hermione would use the time-turner to stop Voldemort from becoming the dark lord, no one else would have to die”). In contrast, a pure plotter often writes stories that are too mechanical and predictable, telegraphing every plot turn and reducing every character into an avatar for some theme or idea.

So, while thinking of it in terms of pantsing vs. plotting may be useful for the beginning writer in diagnosing the areas they need to work on, I’ve found that it’s not particularly useful for the professional writer. In fact, it can be damaging.

For the last several years, I’ve considered myself to be a pantser. Discovery writing is my mojo—give me a few good ideas and the barest outline of a plot, and I’m off to the races. Except… I always tend to stumble and fall in the middle. In fact, I often have to throw out entire chapters or set a story aside for months at a time, to “let the ideas percolate.” For the last several years, that’s been my modus operandi.

Until now.

With Son of the Starfarers, I’m working on a set of very tight deadlines to finish the damn series as quickly as I can. It took way too many months to write book 7, and I can’t afford to take that much time for the last two books because that’s time I’m robbing from other projects (like Edenfall or Gunslinger to the Galaxy or The Sword Bearer). As a pantser, I can write any book if given an infinite amount of time, but that’s not practical. I need to find a new way to write, one that maximizes my efficiency.

And I think I’ve found it. I’m still tweaking it, of course, but it involves <gasp!> outlining. But wait—I’m a pantser, not a plotter! Except, it turns out, that I’m not. Because no one is.

Pantsing vs. plotting does not describe the writer so much as the method of writing. It’s not a question of where you fall on the spectrum, it’s a question of whether this particular project requires more discovery writing or more outlining. And it turns out out that there are ways to outline stories that actually make your discovery writing better. Every battle plan falls apart upon contact with the enemy, but you need the plan to know which direction to march your troops.

In the next few weeks, I’ll go over some of the new outlining methods I’ve been trying out. It took me almost five months to write A Queen in Hiding, struggling over multiple drafts, but it’s been only four weeks since I started An Empire in Disarray and I’m more than 2/3rds of the way through it, with a clean first draft, and I’m on track to have something finished and publishable by the end of next week. There are still a few kinks in the process to work out, but I think I have it down well enough to share.

So if you consider yourself a “pantser” or a “plotter,” and you’re still struggling to write as much or as well as you’d like, I’d urge you to revisit your basic assumptions about your writing process. That’s what I did, and it’s made all the difference.

The next few months are going to be CRAZY

I knew that back in March, but with Brothers in Exile about to be published, I’m right in the thick of it! Fortunately, it looks like everything is proceeding more or less according to schedule, which is good for my readers because it means a steady stream of books all summer.

First of all, I’m just about ready to publish Brothers in Exile–in fact, if all goes well, I should be able to hit “publish” tomorrow (it still takes about 24 hours for the book to actually go up for sale, but yeah). Yesterday I got the cover art, today I went through all the edits, and tomorrow I’ll write up the author’s note, format the thing and put it up on Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble.

The second book, Comrades in Hope, is coming along quite well and should be ready in six weeks at the latest. I’ve gotten enough feedback from my first readers to do a quick revision draft, probably in about a week or so, before getting the publishing gears ready to grind. My first readers ate this book up–many of them said they finished it in one sitting. It’s short, but not super short–about the length of a 60s sci-fi novel–so that tells me it’s just about ready to go.

The third book, Strangers in Flight, is going to be a bit more tricky, but I should be able to get it out six weeks after Comrades in Hope. I’m still writing the first draft, and am maybe 1/4 to 1/3 of the way through it, but the story is coming along well and shouldn’t hit any major snags <crosses fingers>. I know exactly how it’s going to end, and I predict a lot of you are going to squeal at the cliffhanger, but don’t worry–I’ll try to throw in at least some resolution, since it might be a few months before book IV.

Right now, I foresee at least nine books in the Sons of the Starfarers series, perhaps as many as twelve. Like Paul Atreides, I can only catch a few fragmentary glimpses of what will happen in the next few books, but the overall direction is very clear. These books are going to be a lot of fun to write–if you guys enjoy reading them as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them, you’re in for a real treat.

The books are fairly short–not as short as the Star Wanderers books, but not too much longer. They straddle the line between novellas and short novels, kind of like the long-form science fiction from the golden and silver ages. Unlike those books, though, these are more character-driven than idea-driven, with the overarching galactic conflict tying all the characters together, rather than the other way around.

Once I’ve finished writing Strangers in Flight, I’ll take a short break to work on some other projects. I’ll come back to Sons of the Starfarers sometime in the fall, though, with the same grueling schedule for the next three books. It’s hectic but fun–I’m definitely not complaining.

So that’s what the next few months are going to look like. With luck, tomorrow will be the day I upload Brothers in Exile–I can hardly wait to get it out to you guys! Definitely look out for it in the next couple of days or so!