Applying The Art of War to Writing


undermyskinUntil a few years ago, I hadn’t taken the time to read the classic book on The Art of War, the ancient book by Sun Tzu on military tactics. To be honest, the thought of reading it seemed boring. All this time I thought to myself, would I really need to apply troop formations and battle plans? For my latest YA sci-fi release, Under My Skin, I studied the text for my book. My heroine, Tate, lives in a world where the affluent members of society use the bodies of teens to live forever. In an auction, an evil military official buys her and enters her mind. Long story short, a battle ensues between the two in her head for control of Tate’s body. The book plays an important role in how her enemy thinks and she learns a lot about life in general. I did too and I want to talk about applying a few points from the text into how writers could use it.

Laying Plans:  It’s so easy to sit down and think, “I’m gonna write a book and finish it.” Those of us who have finished a few books know it’s never that easy. In the Art of War, it’s stressed that those who achieve victory plan and prepare for it. Those in command make plans to reward their troops when they do well and reprimand them when they do poorly. So how does this apply to writers? We need to make realistic goals, choose consequences for those goals not being met, and really reward ourselves when we do well. The keyword here is realistic goals. We also need to make sure that when we sit down to write, we create the most productive writing scenario possible: dedicated writing time (day or night), plotted scenes/characters, etc. Are you writing for the joy of writing words or are you active working on a manuscript for publication or an agent/editor? What is your ideal writing time? In the morning on weekends? On your smartphone while you are waiting for your kids to finish their soccer game?

Another point in laying plans is knowing your enemy and deceiving them, if necessary, to achieve your goals on the battlefield. Rather harsh, huh? The fact is writers know their enemies quite well in the writing process: procrastination, stubborn plot points, real-life problems. The planning from the previous paragraph is how you conquer the issues keeping you from writing. Do you have plans in place just in case you miss a few writing days/weeks? Know yourself. Know your weaknesses. If you tend to spend a long time getting over tangled plot points, work that extra time into your schedule. Make note of your process and accept it. There are so many times where I run into problems during editing and I actually need time to work them out in my head.

Waging War: It’s not the positions of troops and numbers that are important to writers. We are concerned with arming ourselves with the tools that make sure we achieve our goals. Are you using the tools that keep you productive? I’ve found the Write or Die tool useful when I need a cattle prod to get back to work. I’ve also used Excel worksheets to keep track of my plot and word count. Be sure to check out Jami Gold’s worksheets. They are fantastic.

Another important point. Know your limits and what to do when you reach them so you can keep going if necessary. You might be able to tackle a high word count right now, but like Sun Tzu states, prolonged warfare isn’t good for anyone. The same goes for writing. You will tire and you will run out of gas sooner or later. Protect your writing time and your body.

I’ve had a chance to chew on the Art of War, and in my opinion, it’s a book about control. Controlling your habits and emotions to achieve your goals. And how do you control your habits? You plan ahead and anticipate/know what’s coming for you.

Good luck with your writing!


Shawntelle Madison is a web developer who loves to weave words as well as code. She’d never admit it, but if asked she’d say she covets and collects source code. After losing her first summer job detasseling corn, Shawntelle performed various jobs—from fast-food clerk to grunt programmer to university webmaster. Writing eccentric characters is her most favorite job of them all. On any particular day when she’s not surgically attached to her computer, she can be found watching cheesy horror movies or the latest action-packed anime. She lives in Missouri with her husband and children.

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