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Coffee stained first page of The Art of War for Writers, fiction writing strategies, tactics, and exercises by James Scott Bell
The Author’s coffee stained first page of The Art of War for Writers.

Happy Friday! We are nearly thawed out here in Central Texas, or at least will be by tomorrow. Ready for some spring like weather next week – because that’s Texas. We have seasons, we just cycle through the over the week rather than the year.

On to the review! This week’s book is The Art of War for Writers, by James Scott Bell. This book is 77 short chapters based on the book The Art of War by Sun Tzu. Tzu, a Chinese general, wrote his treatise as a way to bring orderly principles to the chaotic mess of war. Bell writes this, not as an end all be all for writing instruction, but as a collection of observations from his years writing fiction. These short chapters are great when you just need a little encouragement before a long day of tapping the keyboard. He breaks the chapters up, as Tzu did, into reconnaissance, tactics, and strategy. 

Finish your novel, because you learn more that way than any other.

James Scott Bell

In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.

Sun Tzu

The Reconnaissance section deals with the mental gymnastics we all do as writers. Whether it be self-doubt, procrastination, eating, or whatever, the first third of the book gives great advice. I like to just read a section or two when I am not feeling like writing. It compels me to get back to work and finish the tasks at hand, but by encouragement, not guilt or despair.  

The second part, Tactics, deals with the craft of writing, dealing with things like dialog, voice, backstory, point of view. I find that these snippets are great when something isn’t working with a current project. I think that the fact that these are short chapters lead me to read it quick and jump back into my work, versus longer craft books that need me to finish the whole thing in my compulsiveness. 

The last section, Strategy, deals with the actual publishing world. Bell hammers home that we are not the product, but our work is, and to separate the two for better mental health. He also offers advice on getting an agent (and when), not quitting the day job,  and the way to make the most of writers’ conferences, when we are able to ever do those again.

I keep this book handy and read a snippet or two every few months, just to stay connected with writing and my work. It’s a great resource and Bell’s style is kind and readable. Which I guess is a goal for most of us.