Thinking about books

by admin on December 19, 2007

Some of you have probably noticed that on my profile page, I mentioned that I would like to write a book about chess and see this blog as a small step in that direction. I’ve recently been discussing this topic by e-mail with one of our regular readers, and I thought that some of you might also want to participate in “thinking out loud” about possible books.

Because I am a professional writer, I am particularly interested in writing a book that would not be for the “specialist” market of chessplayers, but would be aimed at a general audience of non-chessplayers. This means: no chess notation, no chess diagrams (except maybe in an appendix). It means telling an exciting story, whether the story is on or off the chessboard. It means trying to communicate to non-chessplayers why chess is such a wonderful, dramatic, passionate game. The models for such a book are Fred Waitzkin’s Searching for Bobby Fischer, Michael Weinreb’s Kings of New York, and Paul Hoffman’s King’s Gambit.

At the moment I have two ideas for a book, but I’m not quite convinced yet that either one is right. The first idea would be a book about the U.S. Chess League. Basically, I would chronicle one season (the 2008 season?). The ups and downs of one season are bound to create a strong story line. But I expect that the book would face one big obstacle: Who cares? The National Football League has millions of fans. Thousands of them buy books. By contrast, the U.S. Chess League has maybe thousands of fans. By simple proportions, we would expect one or two of them to buy a book. Uh-oh. Hard to convince a publisher that the economics of this one are viable … Still, I don’t want to give up on the idea just yet.

The other possibility, which relates to what I was discussing by e-mail with Andres, would be a book of amateur chess games for amateurs. At this point I think we have two different conceptions; he is more interested in an instructional book, while I am more interested in an entertainment book. But since we’re just thinking out loud, let’s try to go with this and see where it takes us.

Instead of presenting chess as a sport, perhaps the way to hook the vast, unsuspecting multitudes of the public would be to present chess as an art. It was Carina’s art that got me thinking about this. Why not a full-fledged art book, with beautiful color plates provided of course by Carina, that would tell the inner, subjective story of a game of chess? It could be written from the perspective of the players, or even from the perspective of the pieces (which is Carina’s specialty). It could be unabashedly mythological and melodramatic (“the black knight impaled himself on the sword of white’s bishop in order to save the king… while meantime, on the opposite side of the board, talk of rebellion was brewing among white’s pawns, who could not understand why it was taking so long to repair the giant sinkhole on b3 …”). Well, I don’t know, this may be a little bit over the top, but it could be a lot of fun, and it would definitely present chess in a new light to people who think of it as a boring game for nerds. I would call the book Chess Epics or something like that.

My original idea for Chess Epics was that the games would be grandmaster games, but of course there is no reason they have to be. Amateur games might actually be better for the purpose, because the strategies might not be so well concealed, and the unexpected swings of fortune would be greater. The most important thing would be for each game to tell an unforgettable story… not necessarily for it to be impeccably played.

But maybe these thoughts are all too grandiose, and I should think in terms of a normal chess book, written for the normal niche market of chess players. That is the kind of book that Andres had in mind. And I think there’s a lot of value to his idea, a collection of games “for amateurs, by amateurs.”

One practical problem is that I’m already up to my eyeballs in other book projects as part of my regular writing career, not to mention the time I already spend on ChessLectures, and so it’s not clear when I would find time to write a chess book. On the other hand, if I had an idea that I knew was right and felt passionate about, I’d probably find a way.

What do you think? Would you buy any of the books I’ve described? Would they make you gag? Let me know!

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Andy Hortillosa December 19, 2007 at 3:17 pm

Your post sounds like a nice introduction to me for the very said book. Your prose writing skills are a given. I will read your work even given my busy schedule. The one reason widely mentioned why authors like Silman, Pandolfini and Soltis sell chess books is the sheer amount of verbiage (as opposed to chess analyses which are hard to follow anyway without a board) found in their books. I believe it is the critical element to their success. These writers are not known for their celebrated victories against grandmasters. I guess that is why I read Soltis’s column in Chess Life most of the time because of the usually humorous stories he tellls behind the game. Truth be told I hate reading endless variations to lines I know were not even considered by players during the game. I dislike the pretensions. I used to enjoy my games a lot more because of the authentic struggles created on the board due to my unpredictability and limited knowledge in the openings until I memorized specific variations in certain openings.

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Rob December 20, 2007 at 12:22 am

Here’s an idea Dana…(it is worth as much as you pay for it, of course.)
This idea is based on what I liked to read as a young reader, and I began to read around age four or so…

I remember reading the same book and the same kind of books as a child when the story was about sports. There was one or two books about a young boy who played on a baseball team and how he and the team struggled through the season.
Following him and his friends and fellow team members through the season with its ups and downs really kept me engaged. I can remember finishing these sort of books then reading them all over again. I suspect even then, as a kid, I could identify with the struggle to get better and achieve?

Perhaps, with your teaching experience, you could draw on this to envision the possibilities of a group of kids learning to play chess and then going out into the children’s tournement world to test their skills and learn lessons both about life and chess.

To me, this kind of book does not have to be another “Harry Potter” tale. I am absolutely certain that a well told story of one individual’s or group’s transformation into something greater than they imagined themselves to be – would be far more interesting than say another book how to keep up with the latest opening fashion. And one plus is that good stories appeal to people of both genders and all ages.

(For possibilities…when you are at your library look at the pre-teen section for young readers, or talk to the librarian about what books are popular and check a few out.)

I like your chess lectures (besides being informative) because your personality comes through. I think most of the chessbooks I really enjoy are those in which the author allows his/her personality to come through.

I like to read about when in a game with a tough position the writer says “geez…where did he get that idea? I had to think for 30 minutes until I found …”

I don’t believe all books about chess need to be “instructive” in the technical sense. But they should at least give us some inspiration or hope to continue our effort to be more successful in our own chessplay.

(And even one more ultimate last thing…) If you have an idea for a book and you are not sure that you could find a publisher for it…I think you should consider self-publishing.
Today at places like blurb.com where they are making publishing more democratic than ever, you can make your own book, and you can even sell it from there or here.

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Dribbling December 20, 2007 at 1:32 am

Two of the best books I have ever read are: “A season on the brink. A year with Bobby Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers” by John Feinstein, and “Bobby Fischer vs. the rest of the world” by Brad Darrasch. “A season on the brink” was a bestseller and made into a movie in 2002. I don’t know how the Darrasch book fared, but with Bobby Fischer in the title at the time it was written it can hardly have lost money.

However, I suggest there may be a market for a “how not to” book, aimed at the beginner-intermediate crowd, along the lines of two classic books: Znosko-Borovsky’s “How not to play chess” and Max Euwe’s “Master against Amateur.”

I would include “Cardinal Sins” in the title, something like: “The X Cardinal Sins of Chess – you can’t stop doing what you’re doing wrong unless you know what it is.”, although it is pretty obvious that this off-the-cuff suggestion can be improved on.

After identification, the Cardinal Sins would be exemplified by a collection of annotated games. The annotators would be two fictional kibitzers, one of them a ne’er do well, happy go lucky, couldn’t-care-less, foolish dilettante, the other a serious, thoughtful, analyst.

From the conflictive interplay between these two you might hopefully reconcile entertainment (humor) with instruction, the best of both worlds.

Whatever it may turn out to be, I hope you go ahead and write it.

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Howard Goldowsky December 20, 2007 at 6:03 am

Dana,
If you’re busy, and you’re not yet passionate about any idea, then don’t write. An idea will eventually come that you’re passionate about. Then you’ll know exactly what you’ll be writing, and you’ll be motivated more than you could imagine.

If I didn’t have to work full-time, what I’d do is travel the world interviewing chess players — GMs, amateurs, kids — and then write profiles of these players, profiles that carve into their heads, explain what makes them tick, what fuels their competitive drive; these would be profiles that describe how a regular Joe-1600-player stays up until 1am playing online blitz when he needs to go to work the next day, profiles that describe the parents of child prodigies, etc. What is it like to be a bum hustling chess in Bryant Square park? The book would be similar to Hoffmans, but less personal and more narrative non-fiction. It probably wouldn’t sell on the chess content alone. To make it sell I would characterize one, two, or more of my subjects deeply, really dig into their psyche. A book could be about tiddlywinks, but if the character development is first-rate, people will want to read it. Human drama sells. I’m not talkign about one-hour interviews; I’m talking about days, weeks, months, spent hanging around chess players of all types, and getting into their heads.

If you go the instructional route, always remember: Instructional books can never have enough prose. My theory is that most titled authors are inexperienced writers, and are therefor afraid to write prose over variations.

Whatever you do, you must have the time to do it right and you must do it with passion, or the book will suck. If you’re really motivated, Dana, I can get you in touch with the Massachusetts chess book publisher (Mongoose Press) who published Chess Gems.

Howard Goldowsky

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Carina December 20, 2007 at 6:52 am

I personally love books about chess without a lot of analysis (which I turn to chess-improvement books for). Books/stories like The Luzhin Defense, The Royal Game, The Immortal Game, How Life Imitates Chess, The Art Of Learning etc all were a lot of fun to read. I dislike King’s Gambit, though. Really dislike it. 😀 But in general, I like it when the psychology of the players and the game itself is served on a silver platter, without you having to get out the pieces and board.

However, I also really like the book Simple Chess, where the author runs through games making different points, and there is almost no side-variations presented. It’s really easy to read such a book, and you’re encouraged by how quickly the pages are turned. I think it’s hard, but a good challenge, to read the really serious-about-improvement books because just one page of “reading” (as in, looking at lines) takes a long time. It’s my lazyness speaking, though. I should probably devote more time to doing just that. But in general, I think readers like it when it’s comfortable reading.

I dislike it when the stories about chess talk about chess, but refuse to give a diagram. Sometimes I’d wish they’d just include it because, cmon, a lot of readers WILL be chess players. And it seems like diagrams aren’t included just because it’ll scare nonplayers away if they see it while leafing through the book at the store. But sometimes I think it’d be nice. In the Luzhin Defense, a position on the board is described and I went and begun setting up the pieces as Luzhin talked about them, but unfortunally he was interrupted by another character and I ended up with only half of the endgame on my board. 🙁

Everybody has their own opinion about what a chess book should be like, though, and it’s impossible to make everybody happy. In the end, I think what you pick will be better than all the suggestions.

About me perhaps illustrating, I’d really love a project like that. I could finally make some real drawings out of the concepts. I’m busy too, though, so it doesn’t matter if it’ll be a long time before they’re needed, if you decide to need them. But if you do, just tell me which of the existing chess cartoons might be interesting in a “real” version, or give a description of whatever new concept you’d like to see drawn, and I’ll do my best. 😀

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admin December 20, 2007 at 4:34 pm

Thanks to all of you for some wonderful ideas!

Dribbling, your idea has already been done — check out “The Seven Deadly Chess Sins” by Jonathan Rowson! Of course I could pick different sins from him, but in general I think that his book is really nicely done.

Howard’s idea appeals to me because it could easily fit in with a book on the U.S. Chess League; that is, I could intersperse the accounts of league action with profiles and vignettes of the people who play in the league (or even people who don’t play in the league).

Carina, I will continue to think about ways to include your art. By the way, I would make sure that you got paid, too. Even though I’m sure it wouldn’t be as much as your work is worth! 😎

We’ll see what happens. I don’t have to decide today and I’m not going to decide today (!), but all of your comments will be helpful to me in thinking about what people want.

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Carina December 21, 2007 at 12:51 pm

By the way, this style would be frigging awesome to write a whole book in (although it might be difficult?):

”the black knight impaled himself on the sword of white’s bishop in order to save the king… while meantime, on the opposite side of the board, talk of rebellion was brewing among white’s pawns, who could not understand why it was taking so long to repair the giant sinkhole on b3 …”

It sounds exactly like the kind of writing that’s used in Luzhin’s Defense. Sure, Luzhin is mad, but the way chess is made alive in his everyday thoughts.. like seeing attacks forming in the colours of some marble tiles and judging that a telephone pole with a Knights leap could knock out a lime tree etc, I was laughing so hard throughout the book and personally think Nabokov a genious.

In short: eccentrism/melodrama is not something to necessarily shy away from. People love it.

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Howard Goldowsky December 24, 2007 at 4:37 am

Carina,

I, for one, do not enjoy melodrama. It’s amateurish, and it doesn’t carry an emotional punch. Instead of focusing on the characters and the plot, a melodramatic writer focuses on fancy words. Take away those words and you’re left with a shell of a story. It’s all facade and no substance. –Howard

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Carina December 26, 2007 at 8:05 am

Howard: You must have read some bad examples on melodrama, then. I wouldn’t mind looking them up, to understand better what you’re talking about. I can think of lots of authors and people who are melodramatic with success and humour, and who get their point across stronger because of it. It’s usually a conscious choise, a method or writing technique chosen as part of the style the story is written in. I honestly think that without this element a lot of stories could not be built – not because the story in itself is a shell, but simply because emotion is the essense of a lot of knowledge/understanding and if you remove this, access to the point is removed. It has nothing to do with long or unusual words. It’s a mentality people adobt or give to their characters. It can be used to get points across to the unsuspecting reader in comical and original ways.

Dictionary.com defines ‘melodrama’ as many things, but here’s one of of the definitions:

“a (type of) play in which emotions and the goodness or wickedness of the characters are exaggerated greatly”

I don’t know why people today are so hesitant to let themselves be effected in any way. It’s likes a trend in postmodernism to be minimalistic and cold, and play ironic games with the reader. It’s ofcourse a matter of taste what you prefer, but I like the romantic writers who paint complete worlds, and make them so engrossing that you end up caring as much about the people in it as the author obviously does. A dispassionate author or one who writes simply out of duty (it’s his job) or perhaps for personal therapy (the really weird stories), is the one who isn’t contributing to the literary world, in my opinion. 🙂

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Howard Goldowsky December 28, 2007 at 5:17 am

“a (type of) play in which emotions and the goodness or wickedness of the characters are exaggerated greatly”

This definition of melodrama proves my point. The old adage “show don’t tell” is violated by melodramatic writing. When an author exagerates the personality of a character, he is being lazy. Instead of using actions and thoughts of the character to convey emotion to the reader, the writer is just using melodrama, which, in the end, is merely a form of telling the reader what emotions the character is feeling.

My point is not that melodramatic writers don’t want to convey emotion; my point is that melodramatic writers convey emotion incorrectly. At least for me, a melodramatic story is boring. The characters are nevery fully developed, because their emotional state is “told” to the reader, using fancy words, rather than shown.

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dribbling December 28, 2007 at 9:22 am

Howard, Carina, I confess that I’m not at all sure of what melodrama actually is, but ¿wasn’t Shakespeare quite melodramatic? ¿Victor Hugo? ¿Tenesee Williams? ¿Arthur Miller?¿Paddy Chayefsky? Maybe there is such a thing as good melodrama even if emotions are exaggerated.

Dana will probably have us all banned for posting off-topic, but maybe we can get away with arguing that blog is psychological thing. 🙂

¡Season’s greetings!

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Carina December 28, 2007 at 9:26 am

I still don’t think it has anything to do with rethorics. I think of it as a state of mind that’s actually visible in society every day: in car traffic, in social relations etc, there’s a lot of melodrama. The stories I like aren’t defined by melodrama, but it pops up at crisis points. It’s just a spice, but ofcourse you can ruin any food by putting too much of it in. If you leave it out, then it’s boring for me. Shall we just agree to disagree? 😆

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Carina December 28, 2007 at 9:41 am

Dribbling: ofcourse there’s such a thing as good melodrama, if you ask me, but I guess I’ve made that clear. 😆 For me it’s only defined as this:

Person/character being absorbed in something to a degree that his emotional world is torn around – or elevated – dramatically depending on how things go, which usually results in a lot of energetic ranting.

It may be bizarre, but I find such ranting hysterically funny if it’s a subject I’m obsessive about myself, like chess, and I can relate.

Maybe melodrama is just a word people stick on it if they can’t relate and they want to be condesending to the person for caring too much. When people comment that this or that is melodramatic, and I was laughing my ass off when I observed it myself (I usually don’t lable it melodrama, it’s said by other people), I usually think that they just haven’t any empathy or don’t know the subject the supposedly melodramatic person is effected by.

Maybe I shouldn’t use the term melodrama anymore. Maybe I should just say that it’s enthusiasm/love made visible that I think is an essential thing in all communication really, not just stories, but chesslecture videos as well for example. 🙂

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Carina December 28, 2007 at 9:56 am

Actually, as my last example on the good and evils of melodrama, check out this chess video and the discussion that follows. I join in the discussion a little down the page:

http://www.chessvideos.tv/forum/about1469-0.html

This is a really good example of something that’s labelled melodrama, but that I personally think is brilliant. Some people are bored by it, others relish it.

Maybe just a fact of life?

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Howard Goldowsky December 31, 2007 at 7:01 am

Lets aree to disagree. –Howard

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Jim Krooskos October 30, 2008 at 2:42 pm

Hi Dana,

I know this is an old post of yours, but I have an idea that may blend some of your ideas/concerns:

Maybe you could write a fictional novel…kind of like a Good Will Hunting meets Rounders. The book could illuminate the eccentric ways of chess players (humorously and psychologically), via a story about a gifted, young chess player struggling against formidable odds to make a living as a chess professional in the United States…the catch is, all along society, his girlfriend, and his family have been telling him his efforts are in vain, but in the end he prevails.

If the book is a hit, chess could become more popular in the United States, and chess pensions could perhaps become greater in value in the U.S., as opposed to Russia :0)

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