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

Note:  Typically I post my reviews on Brabble.  However, as this book is specifically dedicated to writing, I thought I’d include it here as well.  If you are subscribed to both I apologize for the double post!

Another note: Whenever I post a review I include a link to make things easier for you, the reader.  I do not make a profit from my recommendations.

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I’ve always assumed that if one is creative enough to write well they’ll never succeed in business.  Good marketing does take creativity, it’s true.  But the business end of “show business”, be it acting, writing, music, you name it, is usually the last thing the muse has time for.

It was a rude shock when I discovered that to be a successfully published author one must be equally successful in business.  I look at the wide world of “The Suits” with alarm, fear, and dread.  It makes me want to slink away and hide.  Fortunately, there are people like James Scott Bell in the world.

sun-tzus-the-art-of-war-a-52-brilliant-ideas-interpretation.1I’m big fan of eastern philosophy, so I thought I knew what to expect when I picked up “The Art of War for Writers“.  The original “Art of War”, a military treatise written by Sun Tzu around 500 BC, is a strategic guide that can be applied to nearly any situation.  When I was in college it was the “big thing” to read, especially if you were in pursuit of an MBA.  When I saw it applied to writing I pounced on a copy without hesitation.

This book is one of the happier surprises I’ve had in some time.  The original “Art of War” is an outstanding book, but to get the most out of it you’d be well advised to take it slowly and really think about what Sun Tzu is trying to explain.  Mulling the various applications is what takes so long, as the book is quite short.  Unlike its source material, “The Art of War for Writers” is an extremely user-friendly read.  In the introduction he explains “…the publishing business is a messy affair… there are many obstacles on the way to publication… it seems daunting and down-right hostile out there.”

Ah, says me, this guy speaks my language!

“I am, like you, a writer.  We understand each other.  We are not like other people.  We are, in fact, pitiable wretches.”

HA!!  I’m sold.

ArtofWarforWritersThe Art of War For Writers stays focused on three main ideas: reconnaissance (mental focus), tactics (the craft of writing) and strategy (the wilds of publication).  I was pleased to discover that while he does include “how to” tips for the creation of a novel (he is, after all, a writing coach!) James Scott Bell never strays far from the topic of publication.  THAT is what I really need to know!

One of the best surprises in the book is the tone.  Sun Tzu is very straightforward, very matter-of-fact.  What else would you expect from a Chinese general who lived 2,500 years ago?  James Scott Bell, on the other hand, is warm and encouraging.  He spends a good portion of the book acting as your personal cheerleader while at the same time managing to keep things real.  It’s a fine line, but he walks it well.  After reading the book I found that not only had I learned a great deal, but I was calm, focused and optimistic about my eventual success.

Sun Tzu would be proud.

The Unit: My review

Another reviewer perfectly summed up my thoughts as I read “The Unit”.  On the surface the story seems a rather Spartan combination of Orwell’s “1984”, Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale”, with a good dose of Huxley’s “Brave New World” tossed in.  And let us not forget Nolan’s “Logan’s Run” while we’re at it.  These being some of my favorite books, one would think a combination would rise to the top of my list.  Unfortunately, this book is a four-in-one that doesn’t blend.

Dorrit, a Scandinavian free spirit, has just turned 50.  With no job of note and no children, she has become “Disposable” and must therefore move into The Unit, a utopian destination for social misfits.  There she will be pampered and never have to worry about money again.  She will meet people of like mind and for the first time in her life she will fit in.  The catch is that the Unit is a final destination.  Being Disposable, she must willingly partake in medical and/or psychological experiments until they kill her.  Her “final donation” will be all her organs that are still in working order after the experiments.

I was with our author, Ninni Holmqvist, up to this point.  The subtle horror of walking into the Unit is beautifully rendered.  It should at least make the reader uneasy.  It actually gave me a nightmare.  Dorrit cautiously begins to make friends, noting that many of them are avid readers, artists, the educated, the creative.  They, like her, did not fit into a rigid corporate model.  I’m still an engaged reader, but this is only part one.

For me this is when the book stalls.  Dorrit’s observations of the fate of her fellow inmates should invoke the feeling of a noose tightening.  And yet she is as placid as the proverbial Hindu cow, even when witnessing one of her new friends suddenly switching genders.  Instead of dwelling on her fate Dorrit goes shopping, visits the salon, finds a boyfriend and has a great deal of sex.  Well yes, she concludes, it could be unpleasant in The Unit.  But look at how *nice* everything is!  In fact the most interesting character in the midsection of the story is her pet dog.  She misses him and thinks of him fondly.

I think the ending of the book might catch some off guard.  But it won’t if you were paying attention.  This isn’t a mystery or a “shock ending” so much as it is an observation of what happens to society when placed in a gilded cage.  It might be designed to be an indictment of the modern era, and to a certain level this works.  Unfortunately this is also where it falls short of the classics.  Orwell’s “1984”, Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale”, Huxley’s “Brave New World” and Nolan’s “Logan’s Run” all feature people who resist their fate.  When your main character is one of the “Sheeple” it may be an excellent comment on society, but it becomes something of a slog to read.

Three out of five stars for an excellent beginning and an interesting idea.  The ending may be a sad and painfully true social observation, but I found it unsatisfying.

Chalk one up for the good guys

There are many reasons I love the Hunger Games.  Dead last is the story, and the story is rock solid, well written and entertaining as hell.

The first reason is that Scholastic published it.  “Scholastic (or Scholastic Inc.) is a global book publishing company known for publishing educational materials for schools, teachers, and parents, and selling and distributing them by mail order and via book clubs and book fairs. It also has the exclusive United States’ publishing rights to the Harry Potter book series.[2] Scholastic Inc. is the world’s largest publisher and distributor of children’s books.”  Need I say more?  Right now they are making a killing and I’m thrilled for them.

I also like Suzanne Collins.  Like me she’s an Air Force brat.  Unlike me, she went on to get a Masters in writing, lucky kid.  She’s always focused on writing for children and I really like that.  Her style is straightforward and no nonsense.  If anything, it might be described as “spartan” which gives the reader a lot of room for imagination.

The movie has made all the right moves.  I’m thoroughly enchanted by the marketing of the film, which is the most unconventional I’ve ever seen.  “President Snow” sent a white rose to several ranking critics with a note that was so creepy last Valentine’s day that several devoted column space just to share how creeped they were.  (these guys are normally way too jaded to give a damn)  I’ve been “living” in a village in District Nine for about four months and have received many nifty trinkets for my time there.  The more involved the citizens were, the more trinkets we got.  In fact, I was in a pool of 50 to go to the premier.  I didn’t win, but it was cool anyway.  I’m sure the studio is watching closely to see if viral marketing really works.  Thus far, I’d say yes.

Finally, there’s the hollywood stock market.  In every way that doesn’t count, I’m really rich!  I can pick winning Hollywood stocks like crazy.  Well, mostly.  I didn’t buy Hunger Game stock when it first came out.  Yeah, I’m a moron.  The way film stocks work – every virtual dollar spent = 1 million earned in the domestic box office in the first four weeks of release.  And it’s *scary* accurate.  If you want to know how well a movie will do, forget the reviews.  Go to HSX and you’ll be on the money every time.  Right now Hunger Games is trading at $311/share and it’s anticipated to open at $130.  (translated $130 million the opening weekend in the US with $311 million domestic before April 23, not including overseas).  Just incredible.  That’s bigger than the Avengers.  Hell, that’s bigger than the Hobbit!  Not one of the Twilight films earned that kind of cash, though Breaking Dawn came close, I believe.  With those kind of numbers we may be looking at a billion before it’s over.  For one single film, three more in the franchise (though none ever track as strong as the first).

I’m just happy for them.  It’s original, it’s creative, it’s from Scholastic, it features a strong female character, it has a great anti-establishment storyline, I mean what’s not to love?  Sometimes even in Hollywood the good guys win one.

Hunger Games Trilogy

So, I finished reading the Hunger Games trilogy in record time.  I actually would have finished it much sooner, but the third book was a sincere slog.  I’m so glad I read these books.  It’s not just that the story was fantastic, but it also offered a good deal of insight into the publishing industry in its current incarnation.

The language in Hunger Games will never win prizes.  It’s clean and precise and fairly minimal.  Our main character (hero, anti-hero, confused teen) Katniss is a girl of few words and fewer conclusions.  She essentially exists to react, taking the readers with her.  If the situation she found herself in wasn’t so incredible, these books would not have the rabid following they do.

The story carries a strong anti-authority central theme, which modifies through the course of the books.  As in Battlestar, Katniss becomes confused watching the same tactics she despised in the Capitol used against her enemies.  Is it alright to become the thing you hate in order to overcome your foe?  In Battlestar it was suicide bombings, clearly influenced by the beginning of the latest war.  But Hunger Games was published in 2009, I believe.  It carries the weight of soldiers who have deployed several times.

And this is why the story bogs down.  It tries so hard to deliver an accurate social message (and it does, believe me, right down to PTSD) that it sacrifices character.  As I was reading the third book the author in me kept popping up.  I cared desperately what happened to each person involved in the first book, and this curiosity carried me through the second (largely on supporting characters).  But by the third the characters had become props to the message.  Sometimes this might work.  But in this case you need someone – anyone – to care about.  When the most sympathetic character you can find is a mean tempered alley cat that doesn’t even appear until the second half of the book, you’re in trouble.  When I finished the third book my first thought wasn’t lost in contemplation of the fate of our characters.  Instead I mentally shook my head and concluded that whoever optioned the film rights for the trilogy was in real trouble, because the third book will be flat out impossible to translate to a visual medium.  It’s possible to film it.  But getting people to care?  That’s something else.

So what happened?  I can make a strong guess. These books were published by Scholastic press, and they handled their author badly.  It took her 5 years to write The Hunger Games, some of which was devoted to the sequel, Catching Fire.  So you can rough estimate maybe three years each for the two books.  I find this an acceptable time line.  But look when the third was published.  If I’m not mistaken, it was less than a year after the second.  I’m guessing that based on the success and hype of the first two, SC was given a deadline of about six months to produce the concluding volume.  And it really shows.  The clean writing style of the first book disintegrated into near nonsense by the third, her descriptions so brief that many times I had to go back and trace what happened, because the chapter’s conclusion made no sense.  Because all three are told in first person, if Katniss doesn’t know it, neither do we.  Usually this works.  Here it does not because Katniss is largely kept in the dark for all major plot developments, only finding out in retrospect what’s really going on.  By then another plot point is attempting development, leaving the entire thing with a rushed, incomplete feeling.

I take this as a cautionary tale.  Before approaching an editor, have the entire story written.  Don’t let them squash you into a temporal straight jacket, or you’ll suffer the same fate.  While a strong central message is needed, so are characters to hang it on.  All character no message is Twilight.  But no character all message is Mockingjay.  Balance the two, and you get Battlestar.