As I work on improving my writing skills, I have been reading books on the craft of writing. There are a lot of books out there and it can be hard to tell which ones are worth your time and money. So, this is the first in a running series of posts reviewing books on craft.
I think most people have read Stephen King’s On Writing or Strunk & White’s famous book The Elements of Style, but I wanted to find other books on craft, especially those that focused on more technical aspects of fiction writing. So, I went to my local Barnes and Noble and picked up James Scott Bell’s book Just Write.
Just Write is broken into two sections: “Unforgettable Fiction” and “A Rewarding Writing Life.” The first section provides an array of advice on writing the kinds of stories readers want to read, including advice on developing ideas, writing compelling characters, and plotting. The second part is all about the writing life, from the study of craft, to the ins and outs of the publishing world.
For those just starting to delve into the study of craft, like I was, this book is a great introduction into the more technical elements of craft. Bell doesn’t just provide advice, he also gives writing exercises to help you put that advice into practice. This kind of actionable guidance takes the guesswork out of how to apply advice about writing craft to your manuscript. A lot of books on writing tell you not to info dump a backstory onto a reader, but Bell tells you how to cut down the backstory to only what is essential.
While Bell gives plenty of advice about what makes a strong novel or what kinds of writing habits writers should adopt, he also identifies things that writers shouldn't do. In the second chapter, "Develop Your Ideas, Prepare to Write," Bell lists off seven things that will doom your novel. As much as it is helpful to know what to do, it is also helpful to know what not to do. Some of the things that Bell lists, like waiting for inspiration to write, are things that I think many writers are guilty of. In response, Bell quotes author Peter De Vries, "I write when I'm inspired, and I see to it that I am inspired at nine o'clock every morning." Throughout the book, Bell proves that he is a devotee of the writing craft, frequently referencing the advice of other writers.
That said, I feel like this book really shines in its second half. Bell talks honestly about the ups and downs of the writing life. In Chapter Five, "Brave the Writing Life,” he has a section entitled “Don’t Sabotage Your Writing” that speaks to everyone just starting out. Bell runs through the common pitfalls, including comparing yourself to more established writers, feeling like you aren’t good enough, and letting disappointment stall you. Writing is hard and it is comforting to hear that I am not alone, that other writers have the same doubts and fears that I do
This book left me feeling eager to work on my writing and gave me some tools to start planning and writing my next project more deliberately and with craft in mind. For more advanced writers, this book likely doesn’t offer anything new, but for those just starting out, this is an excellent gateway into the study of writing craft.