The Art of War for Writers
In the Art of War for Writers, James Scott Bell kicks writing butt by coupling the principles set forth by the great military strategist, Sun Tzu (544-496 B.C.), a general, philosopher, and all around savvy guy, as well as author of one of the first military treatise ever written. Sun Tzu’s time honored strategies are transferable, it seems, as Bell ingeniously applies proven military tactics to the art of writing. That writers have employed many of these exercises since the first stories were told is something Bell readily acknowledges, but he’s not afraid to retread a few of these writing tips in support of the cause. He also provides some very useful advice on getting yourself published. I found The Art of War inspiring in ways that other books on the craft fall short. If you’ve been at this awhile, you’ll have read more than a few books on writing and after a bit, the advice all blends together. The great thing about Bell’s book is that even when the advice is nothing new, the presentation is both novel and inspiring. If you haven’t been at this long, then The Art of War is essential as it forces you to break your writing down into small, bite-sized pieces which, as any good writer must accept, is the only way to get anything done. You can only hold one scene or chapter or even paragraph in your mind at once, assuming that you’re in the zone and letting your voice speak through you not the persnickety critic, mind you, but your Voice.
The book is broken up into three parts: reconnaissance, tactics, and strategy. Each chapter is headed up with a quote, adopted from Sun Tzu’s Military strategy. Reconnaissance deals with the mental clarity it takes to be a writer. Just about every chapter deals with overcoming this or that phobia, lazy attitude, or fear, and turns it into a writing event. “Do the thing you fear and death of fear is certain,” was a principle set forth by Teddy Roosevelt with much success, says Bell. As a writer, you should be no less fearful and fearless. Don’t worry, don’t compare, and for Godsakes, don’t compete; just write.
The section on tactics deals with honing skills, not settling for mediocrity, and shaping yourself to acclimate always with the goal of supreme victory in mind. This means you will need to work outside your comfort zone and wrestle your demons into submission, but it will be worth it for your story. Bell wants you to yank your readers into your story from word one and for Godsakes, don’t talk about the weather, at least not at first, unless weather happens to be critical to whatever opening salvo you put forth. Tactics is the meat of the book and the place where the most practical advice lives. Finally, there’s strategy, and if you aren’t interested in being published or produced, move on, but if you are, these chapters round out the book like creme brûlée and cognac after a delicious meal so don’t walk away just yet. Agents, publishers, query letters, elevator speeches and writing conferences — they are all there, waiting to guide you into battle along with Bell and Sun Tzu. So grab your weapons — pen and paper — and get to it. We’ll see you on the battlefield.