Part 3: The Life of Writing
The life of writing isn’t like a job where you clock in and clock out. Sure, if you’re a journalist, but not if you’re writing fiction. If a day goes by and you don’t write a single word, there’s no one to dock your pay.
So now, the final book you need in your regular reading diet as a writer: something about actually living the writing life. Because, guess what? Just focusing on the writing itself isn’t enough. Unless your goal is to finish your novel and stick it in a drawer. Or if you don’t actually care about finishing. Or if you just want to dabble, if writing is just a hobby. But if you want to get your writing out into the world and reach readers, you’ll need to do more. And you’ll need a guide. In The Art of War for Writers, James Scott Bell serves up 77 bite-sized chapters on how to succeed in the life of writing, organized into three parts:
- Reconnaissance, or what the writing life is like. His focus here is on the mental game of being a writer, which is crucial, because “what happens in your head affects everything else” (p. 3).
- Tactics, or the craft of writing. That’s right, no book on writing is complete without something on the craft. But even these chapters are less about adverbs or alliteration or the minutia of getting the right words onto the page and more of a wide-angle view of important things to keep in mind when creating fiction that will be more than “good enough.”
- Strategy, or insights into publishing. Now, a printed book discussing the more traditional approaches to publishing (including proposals, queries, agents, editors, etc.) in these days when options for self-publishing are rapidly evolving might seem as useful as a world map from the 1980s. Even so, the big publishers aren’t going away tomorrow, and much of what he says is good advice whether you are doing it all yourself or trying to be traditionally published.
This is the book I reach for when I want to read a few pages at breakfast or on the train. Think of it like doing your daily workout. (Except it’s more fun, because you can do this workout with coffee.) Often I flip it open at random and read a chapter or two. Sometimes I’m more methodical in going through one of the sections—or the whole thing—all over again.
Some of what he discusses you can find in plenty of other writing books, after all, there’s nothing new under the sun. But some of what he discusses has been a welcome revelation to me, such as his diagram of the career path of writer: from Wanna Be to Learning to Finished Novel to Multiple Novels to Published to Multi-published to the “Wheel of Fortune” that might result in a Breakout Hit. (You’ll have to read the chapter to get the full effect. It’s worth the price of admission.)
Check out this sampling of chapter titles and see if if they’re something you might benefit from:
- Career fiction writers must be aware of what the successful writing life is like.
- The career novelist will develop a writing improvement program, beginning with a notebook.
- Finish your novel, because you learn more that way than any other.
- Write hard, write fast and the fire of creativity will be yours.
- Test your premise to prove it worthy.
- Dialogue will compel the turning of pages if it is a compression and extension of the action.
- Know when to get an agent—and when not to.
- Utilize the principle of overcompensation to generate a killer synopsis.
- For longterm success, design a typical writing day and stick to it.
This book is my writing protein shake. It gives me just the right jolt, just that little bit of insight and encouragement to keep me going in my daily life of writing. I can spend a few minutes with it, take in a good reminder about being disciplined, or how to avoid the pitfalls of unnecessary and boring dialogue, and then get to work.
So that wraps up my survey of the kinds of writing books—on the craft, the art, and the life of writing—that every fiction writer would do well to make part of their reading diet. Hopefully it’s been helpful on your path of becoming the writer you want to be.
I’ll give James Scott Bell the last word on becoming a writer who’s a hero, not a fool:
A hero knows it takes hard work and a long time to get published; a fool thinks it should happen immediately, because he thinks he’s a hero already.
A hero learns the craft; a fool doesn’t think there’s much to learn.
A hero keeps growing all his writing life; a fool thinks he’s fully grown already.
A hero fights to make his writing worthy, even when no one’s noticing; a fool demands to be noticed all the time, even if his writing stinks.
A hero is persistent and profession; a fool is insistent and annoying.
A hero gets knocked down and quietly regroups to write again; a fool gets knocked down and whines about it ever after.
A hero makes his luck; a fool cries about how unlucky he is.
A hero recognizes the worth in others; a fool can’t believe others are worth more than he.
A hero keeps writing, no matter what, knowing effort is its own reward; a fool eventually quits and complains that the world is unfair.
Be a hero.
Matt Randles is spending a year living in Paris, working on his first novel (actually his third, but you’ll never read read the first two), and is currently in the midst of seemingly endless revisions—that is, pretty much rewriting the whole thing from top to bottom. He plays bass in a cover band, speaks enough French to order coffee, and blogs about writing and living overseas at https://ayearwithmona.wordpress.com.
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