Book Review: James Scott Bell’s The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises

Posted August 19, 2013 by Kathy Davie in Book Reviews

I received this book for free from the library in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: James Scott Bell’s The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises

The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises


James Scott Bell

business in Paperback edition that was published by Writer's Digest Books on November 11, 2009 and has 259 pages.

Explore it on Goodreads or Amazon.

Other books by this author which I have reviewed include Plot & Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot That Grips Readers from Start to Finish

A non-fictional interpretation of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War as applied to writing fiction.

Publishers are not interested in publishing a novel. They want to publish novelists, writers who can build readerships and make money for the company over the long term. You need to position yourself as someone who can deliver the goods.

Does this mean not writing what you love?

No. But write what you love with eyes wide open.

And that’s just the start…it’s a buy. If you write, you want to beg, borrow, or steal this one.

My Take

Right off the bat, Bell addresses a writer’s biggest bugaboo: fear. Fear of failure, fear of success. And fear of reading bad reviews! Fear of your Amazon index. Fear of not being as good as the next guy.

I loved his writing improvement program, and I intend to add these suggestions to my spreadsheet. It’s something that’s been sitting at the back of my mind anyway, examples. Examples of authors I admire, paragraphs and pages that sing. Figuring out your weak points.

Bell provides excuses to stop writing! Good ‘uns, too. Exercises and ideas to restart your creative juices. Improving your writing by finishing the damn book.

The writer’s credo:

A strong sense of story should make your reader wonder what happens next, put your characters in moral, emotional, physical, spiritual ++ difficulties.

Pull your reader into the story, suspend their belief. Do this by keeping it real. Remember, there is no TV in the 1800s.

Then there are his examples of show over tell:
He jumped into his car and drove away — what kind of car was it? You know you’ll get a different perspective on the character if he’s driving Herbie the Love Bug versus a shiny red Ferrari…

She was beautiful — uh-huh. Show how other characters react to her. Describe her so the reader will recognize her on the street.

Make your words / phrases sing. Put some magic into the prose style — unobtrusively

The sun that brief December day shone weakly through the west-facing window of Garrett Kingsley’s office. It made a thin yellow oblong splash on his Persian carpet and gave up.

– Robert B. Parker’s Pale Kings and Princes

She sat up slowly, looked in turn at each of us, and her dark eyes were like twin entrances to two deep caves. Nothing lived in those caves. maybe something had, once upon a time. There were piles of bones back in there, some scribbling on the walls, and some gray ash where the fires had been.

– John D. MacDonald’s Darker Than Amber

He’s pretty silly-looking — a gangly, tall guy with hips like doorknobs and unruly, brittle hair that looks like he styles it by sticking his head in a toilet bowl and flushing.

– Dennis Lehane’s Darkness, Take My Hand

He points out that publishers and agents invest in careers. They want to know you can do this over and over again.

Bell delves into deeply into character and what’s needed to grab the reader, pull her into identifying with the protagonist. I loved his Spencer Tracy method acting technique for fleshing out a character. There’s a lovely bit on inner struggle versus inner conflict. He quickly lays out scenes while covering a great deal of ground. Tips and suggestions on how or whether to outline, dealing with that need to leap right in to writing the next great novel, ideas to bash down that writer’s block, the appropriate use of the backstory and creating the hook, and using first person point-of-view.

He also has a several practical chapters on agents: knowing when — or when not — to get an agent, what the agent wants or doesn’t want, and finding an agent. This is followed by shorty chapters on the proposal and includes the query letter, the synopsis, and your tagline and elevator pitch.

I’m tellin’ ya…it packs a punch for such a short book!

The Cover and Title

The cover is basic with a red background and crossed “swords”, LOL. A katana and an old-fashioned ink pen with nib.

The title is a take-off on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War applying his tactics to writing. It truly is The Art of War for Writers.