What I Learned from Sun Tzu

I bought myself a Christmas present last week. “The Art of War for Writers” by James Scott Bell. I read about it on Steve Laube’s blog and just had to have it. Now I’m glad I splurged.

Sun Tzu presented orderly principles to his generals for battle planning. Bell ran with the idea and offers a collection of principles for writing that will help authors “write stronger books and win the battle to get and stay published.” The book’s divided into three sections: Reconnaissance, Tactics, and Strategy.

My favorite part was Tactics, which has 33 techniques regarding the craft of writing, and contains all sorts of delicious tidbits. I can’t share them all, but I’ll share a favorite or two.

Tactic #45 says “Progressive Revelation Keeps Readers Turning Pages.” The first couple sentences sum it up nicely: “Reveal your plot incrementally. That means leaving mystery inherent and unfolding things progressively.” This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this advice, but it bears repeating. I find myself setting up a beautiful mystery, then feeling compelled to dump an explanation immediately thereafter. Instead, I should dole out the revelations in tiny bits to keep the reader involved. After all, I don’t want my precious reader stuffing in a bookmark and reaching for the tv remote!

Tactic #50 was a hard one for me. It says, “Success may be found in three great scenes, and no weak ones.” Basically, my book has to have three fabulous scenes that stand out from the rest, “packed with conflict, emotion, and surprise.” The hardest part, for me, was the “no weak ones” – there can’t be a single weak scene in the entire book. Bell identifies a weak scene as one that feels “like fluff or filler. No one is really going after anything. There’s a lot of sitting around, small talk, waiting, reacting.” Identifying weak scenes in my own writing is tough, so I’ll have to rely on my critique partners to point them out to me.

This book is packed with gems like these. It’s definitely worth the price, and it’s the right size to stuff in a stocking. Go ahead and get one for yourself!


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