James Scott Bell. 2009. The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises. Cinninnati: Writers Digest Books.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Even if you write for an audience of one, writing does not become ministry until someone reads your book. And they cannot read your book until they buy one. Thus, even Christian authors need to attend to the business side of writing.
James Scott Bell’s The Art of War for Writers begins with this purpose statement:
“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 seek to fill in some ‘cracks’ in what is normally taught in writing books and classes.” (1)
Probably the largest crack is that most authors, like most technology entrepreneurs, fall in love with the craft (or insert your favorite technology) and forget that they are in business.
In the early years of Microsoft, Bill Gates easily qualified as the most hated man in the tech world because his vision was to turn the personal-computer hobby into a business and bought out most of his competitors for cheap. Developers used to whine that Gates made his fortune with MS DOS operating system, which he bought for peanuts, and he didn’t even program it himself. Taking a page from Gate’s book, Bell reminds authors: “You are a business, and your books are the product.” (186)
Part of any successful business is having a quality product—the craft matters (5)—but it is not all that matters. Gates may not have programmed MS DOS himself, but Gates was perfectly capable of standing up and answering technical questions from an auditorium filled with system administrators, programmers, and computer technicians—this was an amazing feat to witness, as I did in the early 1990s.
Bell especially does the same thing—focusing on the details of the writing craft—in the first two-thirds of his book. This is his way of earning “street cred” to enlarge the conversation to include the business side of writing and to differentiate himself from the hordes of writing instructors who are themselves wannabees, not published authors.
On his website, we read:
Jim has taught writing at Pepperdine University and at numerous writers conferences in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. He attended the University of California, Santa Barbara where he studied writing with Raymond Carver, and graduated with honors from the University of Southern California Law Center.
In addition to his writing books, he is known for writing thrillers, television appearances, and legal work.
Student of Sun Tzu
Bell writes in a style that might aptly be described as explained proverbs or aphorisms, many of which are based on the writings of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (400-329 BC). The Art of War is must reading for military strategists, but many of his proverbs have general applicably. Bell’s application to writing accordingly stands within a long tradition of such analogies. Bell writes with 77 proverbs organized into three parts: reconnaissance, tactics, and strategy.
The first proverb under reconnaissance is: “The writer who observes the battlefield before entering the fray will be better equipped to plan strategy and tactics.” (8) In my own career as an economist, I have been a writer from my days as an intern, fully understanding the publish or perish mentality of the field.
The first proverb under tactics is: “The writer of potential greatness settles not for ‘mere’ fiction.” (68) In my first career, my title was economist, not author, and the salary went with the title even if I spent most of my time researching to write. I was not “merely” a writer any more than Hemingway was “merely” a journalist.
The first proverb under strategy was cited in my introduction. The second one is: “A goal is just a dream unless it has legs.” (192) Although I seldom bring it up, my business card states my goal of “writing nonfiction Christian books in English and Spanish.” This fall I have widened this goal to include a novella (fiction) and to translate my first book into German, but my goals have been pretty firm since September 2013 when drafted that first book in English.
James Scott Bell’s The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises is helpful reminder of the many moving parts to a writer’s career. Because author clubs typically have two or three wannabees for every published author, many could benefit from a better understanding the business of writing that Bell provides. If anything, this is advice is more valuable today that it was when this book was published in 2009. I find such advice most helpful during transitional periods in the publication process when writing, editing, or publicity screams the loudest for my attention.
Actually, a bit more than two-thirds of the book: 183 out of 259 pages or 71 percent.
Bell Introduces Writing as a Business
Bell, James Scott. 2004. Plot and Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from Start to Finish. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books. (review)
Bell, James Scott. 2008. Revision & Self-Editing: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Finished Novel. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books. (Review)
Bell, James Scott. 2014. How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press. (review)
Bell, James Scott. 2019. The Last Fifty Pages: The Art and Craft of Unforgettable Endings. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press. (review)
Other ways to engage online:
Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net
Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com