Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Book Review: The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell

The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell
$17.99, Writers Digest Books, 2009
--Reviewed by Anne Jayne

About 2400 years ago, Sun Tzu, a Chinesse general, recorded his advice for the battlefield. The Art of War is a field manual covering tactics and strategies for winning battles, and wars.

James Scott Bell is a contemporary novelist, as well as being the author of two books on writing. Inspired by Sun Tzu's work, Bell wrote The Art of War for Writers. It is a compact little book (suitable for carrying in your field jacket pocket) that covers reconnaissance, tactics, and strategy for writers.

He describes his objective for writing this book thus:

"What I want to do with this collection is offer you some helpful observations based on more than twenty years in the fiction writing game. This is not a comprehensive 'how to' on fiction. I've written two other books in that form. rather, I see to fill in some 'cracks' in what is normally taught in writing books and classes."

I think he's achieved his goal. Each of the chapters is short, but punchy. While I was already familiar with some of the advice he offers, I also found great ideas that were new to me. I've implemented some of those great new ideas already.

Bell often illustrates his points with anecdotes. From these I learned, among other things, that a writer should not try to pitch his or her book to an editor who is giving birth to her daughter. Nor should a writer literally get down on her knees to beg an agent to accept her as a client. Desperation does not win the hearts and minds of editors or writers.

The book has three parts: reconnaissance, tactics, and strategy.

Reconnaissance: Bell talks about the fundamental principles of establishing a successful writing life.

Tactics: By this stage, you're in the midst of writing your novel, or perhaps you've finished the first draft. Here, Bell offers pithy words of advice on how to make your novel better. Characters. Plot. Comedy. Pacing. Suspense. (And more.)

Strategy: With your novel finished, and polished up, it is time to attend to the business of writing. Bell offers advice on agents, editors, and publishers; on writers' conferences and elevators; on cover letters and synopses; and on criticism.

As already noted, this is a compact book: three parts, seventy-seven chapters, 259 pages.

This isn't the book that will teach an aspiring writer everything he or she wants to know about the craft of writing, or the business of writing. However, I bet that most writers, aspiring or experienced, will discover some new ideas, some inspiring (or funny) anecdotes, and some great quotations on the writing life within the pages of the book.