Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Art of War for Writers, by James Scott Bell

I've never actually sat down and read a book on writing advice until William Zinsser's On Writing Well. I've followed blogs, specifically K.M. Weiland and Go Teen Writers, to pick up helpful community with other writers. But this year I wanted to delve into more books about the writing craft, so I picked up James Scott Bell's The Art of War for Writers, after a glowing recommendation from a friend. It made for an enjoyable day's reading while working election polls.

The Book 
Based off Sun Tzu's war tactic quotes, James Scott Bell puts together a classy volume of writing advice. He divides it into three sections: Reconnaissance (the mental disciplines required in writing), Tactics (tips on the craft itself) and Strategy (navigating the publishing industry). The basic common sense is surprising in its simplicity, but remarkably refreshing as well. It's written in a conversational style, like a one-on-one meeting you might experience at a writer's conference. A fast read, with some snazzy binding layout, it provides writers with the best of battle advice: that which is clear, and that which is necessary.

My Thoughts
To be honest, I don't know if it would have helped me to read writing advice sooner or not. I picked apart what I liked in literature simply by reading good books and writing blog reviews. Then I wrote a story I liked. But I view writing advice as taking your weapon to a sharpening stone, or cleaning your gun. It gives you the encouragement of knowing you're on the right track, and provides a fresh round of ammunition for the next stage of the writing journey.

My favorite part was how short each chapter was--most of them being 2 or 3 5x7 pages. Easy to get through, boiled down to the cleanest, most pithy advice Bell could muster. Whether you're a mother, a student, or simply a busy stay-at-home daughter, that makes for easy read. :) I enjoyed going through a section and then thinking about it as I attended to other duties.

The best exercise was in section 21 when Bell has you take a few of the movies and books that have impacted you most deeply and pick apart the elements that you are passionate about. Including one or more of these elements in each project, he says, adds a deeper level to any book you take on. To keep a high quality of writing, he encourages readers to scan over this list every so often, to make sure they're not getting off track with their main vision. I found that passion points for me were justice, mercy, passion, perseverance, suffering, friendship, and heroes that set my soul on fire.

Another encouraging light bulb moment was in section 29, where he discusses making improvements outside your comfort zone. Sometimes, to really make a character pop off the page (especially for an introverted writer) you have to write their actions and thoughts more explicitly than you yourself would prefer. Bell encouraged writers to delve deeper into the emotions of the character and write it out clearly and vulnerably on paper. I found that to be a rewarding exercise in my last War of Loyalties rewrite. As Bell says, you can always scale it back later. A couple of times I did--but most times I ended up with a scene much better than the original, because I pushed myself.

One of my biggest insecurities was how my writing day looked like--if it was normal and efficient enough. In section 76, Bell collected a 'typical writing day' from a variety of successful authors, and it helped to see that mine really wasn't much different than theirs--especially during the editing stage, when it's basically scarf pizza, sleep, and walk around like a zombie.

Some of it is basic methodology that I had knocking around in my head but never bothered to put into words. This book is crisp, reassuring, and avoids writing fads (the biggest detriment to young writers). It gives experienced advice to avoid the worst tactics and pitfalls in the war of words. I highly enjoyed it, and recommend it to any of my writing friends.


  1. I've noticed this book round on the Goodreads profiles of several friends lately, so reading your review has made me even more curious to read "The Art of War for Writers". The title intrigues me too, because it reminds me of advice my editor M.K. Hume told me as I was editing my short-story "A Love that Never Fails". She told me how words should always be fought over for their right to be and remain on the page. That was something that really stuck with me over the years, and made me want to aim for a more deliberate and articulate as well as poetic way of choosing words in my sentences, dialogues and description, instead of blindly dumping a bunch of words together for good measure, to give a more general idea. I've been learning just a little, how writing with skill is quite the feat of artistry, both a fight of tactics and battle plans, and yet also an intricate, weaving pattern, like a great, flowing dance!

    I've read a share of creative writing books in the past several years, which have helped me immensely and taught me so much on the art of writing that I probably would never have come upon otherwise. But I've sort of had a break since picking them up, over the past year or so, and my writing training has mostly been focused on gleaning wisdom from the classics, literature and how other novelists and artists write. I confess it is a little awkward when I'm not doing much practical writing to apply the concepts and ideas I've been gleaning. . . I hope they'll not be in vain when I do pick up my pen again, Lord willing, some day soon! :D

    Have you read "Bird by Bird" by Ann Lamott, Schuyler? It's actually a writing-advice book I borrowed from the library a few months ago, and I've been going through it these past weeks with much delight. I must say that I've found it deeply refreshing and helpful, and incredibly honest and inspiring. Lamott has an unfortunate tendency for using a bit of language to express her writing frustrations and cynicism, which sometimes I find just a little unpleasant and crude, but on the whole she writes very personally with great wisdom on being a writer, and about having courage with one's writing, taking it one step at a time. . . bit by bit, even when it hurts and is unpleasant, and is a great plod.

    A good review, Schuyler! Looking forward to hearing how goes the progress with "Homeschooler's Diaries" as well :).

    Much love and blessings,
    @ joy-live4jesus.blogspot.com

    1. The quotes you shared on FB from Bird by Bird were wonderfully inspirational, and so true to what we've experienced, aren't they? :)
      Keep reading writing advice! Even if you're not doing a lot, it will tuck down in your heart and plant seeds that will bear fruit. This year I'm reading several writing books, and you know what? They are so encouraging! A lot of the advice I find confirming to what I already know, but the fellowship is sweet and refreshing, just to read a book about my favorite craft. :)


  2. My sister had this out from the library, and while I didn't sit down and read the whole thing, I made a habit of walking by her desk, picking it up, and reading a chapter at random. It's the perfect book for that. :) And I can heartily second your recommendation. It's a very good book!

    Another one by James Scott Bell that I really like is Write Your Novel From the Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between. It's changed the way I think about structure, and even the way I watch movies!

    1. I've seen that title bouncing around the writing community a few times. I shall have to check it out. :D I am really impressed with Bell's advice. He seems like a very kind, straightforward person that would be fun to have a writing chat with. :)


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