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Book reviews, Writing reference books

✎ The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell

Many budding writers like to look at writing how-to books. It doesn’t mean we don’t know how to write at all. Rather, we want to see what the experts say; we want to compare, pick up shortcut tips and so on. We want answers mostly because we’re hesitant to accept the reality that there are no concrete answers in writing. It’s part of the learning process. There are hundreds of such guidebooks out there, from For Dummies books to Stephen King’s On Writing. Where do you even start in this giant forest?

Let me tell you about the first tree I sat under, the first book writing I picked up.

The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell

The Art of War for Writers

From the blurb:

“Strategies and tactics from the master novelist:
You’ll find tactics and strategies for idea generation and development, character building, plotting, drafting, querying and submitting, dealing with rejection, coping with unrealistic expectations, and much more.

If the title sounds familiar, that’s because James Scott Bell modelled his book after Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, a good read that I also happen to have on my bookshelf. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is known for its practicality in many everyday life philosophies, not just war. The tactics are popularly applied to business, sports, psychology and more. This is what James Scott Bell’s guide tries to do. For writers.

The Art of War for Writers is not a comprehensive handbook into any particular area of writing – or even writing in general. Any novelist writing any genre for any purpose can pick up this book. The book touches on specific ideas very briefly, usually in less than three pages. You may even find some pieces of advice common knowledge and that is fine, because I’d take that as a sign that you’re on the same page as a professional when it comes to the basics.

So what is it good for?

The same thing as Sun Tzu’s text: strategies. Writing tips. The Art of War for Writers offers 77 tips split under three categories:

  1. Reconnaissance – Getting into the mindset of being a writer
  2. Tactics – Practical ideas and techniques for your writing
  3. Strategies – Advice on publishing, querying and finding agents

Bell’s writing voice is a great teacher. He has wit, honesty and authority. In the way of writing guides, there are many references to other texts. While this may seem like you’re holding a collection of examples from elsewhere, Bell makes it worthwhile by analysing the snippets in relation to the tactic he used it for. It broadened my horizons by giving me glimpses of different genres by different authors in different eras. However, it’s worth noting that the majority of examples come from literary fiction. Writers of fantasy and other genres may feel a little distanced at times, but there is much to be learned if you keep an open mind.

At just over 250 pages, the book is a fairly quick read. I finished it leisurely, taking in a two page tip or two with my meals. That’s the best part: you can flip to any page and start reading. Reread a helpful tip whenever you feel like it. When I needed motivation, I would choose anything from the Tactics and Reconnaissance sections and just read. It gave me something productive to do. Even if I didn’t end up writing (terrible, I know), I’d at least thought about it and was working that creative part of my brain.

The book is also beautifully designed with scarlet emblems on crisp white pages. I admit I love aesthetic things, so the very thought of a simple design won me over. The length of each tip is reasonably short and did a better job keeping me engaged than other guides with longer chapters. That said, you might find yourself craving a little more detail for some sections, like the publishing tips. But like I said, this is not supposed to be a comprehensive guide.

My only note is that Bell focuses strongly on the published life of an author. His stark frankness on marketing and lifestyle is appreciated and valuable, but to those who enjoy writing more leisurely, it might feel like overkill. I’d love to be published one day – it’s an ambition – but I’m happy to take it slow. I’d probably never quit my nonexistent day job as a student/future speech pathologist to write full time, but if I ever make it to the publishers, I’d be more than happy to take Bell’s advice to heart.

In summary, if you’ve been on the writing field for a long time and have done your research, you might find The Art of War for Writers too simple. Like I mentioned, its strength is not in being specific. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth checking out; you can flip through it in your local bookstore and make that decision yourself. This goes for writers who have already decided their genres. But for those just beginning to invest in writing guides, I personally recommend The Art of War for Writers as a good place to start. Not just for its content, but also for the quality of Bell’s expertise; you’ll come across not-so-good guides in your lifetime and the best way to tell is to compare it to a good teacher. James Scott Bell is a good teacher.

That wraps up my first writing book review. I hope someone finds it useful!

munchkinwrites, signing out.

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About munchkinwrites

Christine: n. a girl perpetually caught between childhood and maturity, reality and fiction. Blogs about writing, music, life and random rainbows.

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