We always love to bring a new author to our readers and a few days ago we reviewed Brian's debut novel, The Emperor's Blades. So for your viewing pleasure, Brian has kindly written this post for us about the problems between strategy and tactics in writing:
I’m struck, as I finish up the edits to The Providence of Fire, the sequel to The Emperor’s Blades, at how frequently I approach my writing in terms of strategic impulses and tactical opportunities. Of course, a writer doesn’t have a clear opponent, but I like to imagine myself playing the artistic game against a real asshole I know only as The Master of Crap. Whenever something works in my book, it’s because I’ve achieved a small victory in our ongoing battle. Whenever something fails, it’s because The Crapster has outsmarted me.
For a long time, I thought tactics and strategy were the same thing, both vaguely synonymous with “sneaky plans to be used in board games, marriage, or war.” Turns out (as it often does) that I was wrong.
Not that tactics and strategy aren’t important in romance and war, but the two are not the same thing. Tactics are focused, limited, and delimiting. The goal of a given tactical situation is always clear: destroy this gun, capture White’s bishop, etc. Not so much, when it comes to strategy. A strategy is a large-scale, open-ended plan aimed at the organic generation of tactical opportunities.
In chess, for instance, it’s considered a sound strategic move to double up rooks on an open file, not because you know exactly what those rooks will do fifteen moves down the road, but because they’re better like that. Likewise with the terrain of battlefieds. Few military thinkers advocate seizing the lowlands and swamps. Almost regardless of the situation or weaponry – longbows right on down to artillery – the high ground is strategically valuable. It makes anyone who possesses it better; it provides opportunities that might not even be clear before the battle is joined.
When I started The Emperor’s Blades many years back, I thought almost exclusively in terms of tactics. How do I reveal this secret? How do I flesh out this brawl? How do I set up this relationship? I was like the classic barbarian warrior, that staple of fantasy novels, who wades into the battle heedlessly, crushes the skull of his first foe, then looks around and bellows, “Who’s next?” While this makes for exciting fight scenes, it’s not a great way to compose a book. I scrapped my early effort after many hundreds of pages.
Then I was tempted by the urge to outline everything, to have blueprints of the whole castle before I started building, but while blueprints are wonderful things for castles, preventing, as they do, the tendency for a vast tonnage of stone to return abruptly to the earth, they are, at least for me, deadly to the process of writing. A story, unlike a castle, needs room to evolve, to grow, to respond to itself in the process of creation. It is a bad thing if you decide, halfway though the building of a tower, that you don’t want a tower in that particular spot after all; it is a good thing, on the other hand, to raze entire chapters of a book. I know there are writers who won’t compose a word until the whole story is outlined plot point by plot point, but I would miss out on most of my good ideas if I tried to do this, ideas that spring up unexpectedly as weeds in the middle of the act of writing.
The only alternative to short-sighted tactics or obsessive planning is strategy, and it’s here that I’m sometimes able to steal a march on the ever-vigilant Crapster. You don’t need to know exactly how things are going to unfold in order to make strategic decisions. Like doubling rooks on an open file or seizing the high ground, certain literary choices are just more likely to lead to interesting outcomes.
For instance: When dividing characters into groups (you three have to go rescue Dipshit the Wizard, while you three have to go hold the mountain pass at Akkadakka) don’t put friends in the same group. It’s sort of like the way teachers approach group assignments, except where teachers are hoping (usually in vain) that the students will learn to get along with someone new, the author is banking on the fact that characters who distrust and dislike each other will, when forced to spend time together, do something interesting. And the great thing is, you don’t even need to know what that interesting thing is when you first arrange the group.
Plenty of strategic moves are similarly obvious:
Should Character A have an injury? Yes.
Should Character B have a phobia? Yes.
Should Character C have a secret? Yes.
It’s self-evident that a group of three characters with phobias, injuries, and secrets are going to offer far richer tactical opportunities, opportunities to seize the high ground from the Crapster, than a group of three healthy, happy, blithely honest folk.
There are, however, other strategic decisions that are far murkier, and as I finish revising the second volume, I’m seeing just how far-reaching some of my early choices really are. For instance, two of the characters in The Emperor’s Blades have burning eyes, irises that actually shift and glow as though they were embers. I am still grappling with the effects of this early decision.
Chess notation uses the following symbol – !? – to indicate an unexpected move that could prove strategically far-sighted or utterly stupid. I feel as though the burning eyes should have been annotated with such a symbol. They have led to some wonderful opportunities, especially in The Providence of Fire, but there are some real tactical drawbacks to having a character instantly recognizable wherever she goes.
And of course, this is what makes any kind of strategy so interesting. Once you’ve doubled the rooks and seized the high ground, there are hundreds more decisions to make, difficult decisions that will affect the story for pages to come, and The Crapster is always waiting.