Review Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

Review by Lynne Mahan

Becoming a Writer
by Dorothea Brande
First printing: Harcourt, Brace & Company, New York, 1934
J.P. Tarcher, Inc., Los Angeles, 1981
175 pages

Some of the amazing things about Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer, a writing how-to book (in addition to the fact that it was written in 1934), are the techniques used by  Brande to loosen up a writer’s creativity. The fact is that, without creativity, a writer cannot write, so all the technical information in the world cannot unlock the muse, thus causing the writer discontent. Brande believes “that basis of [this] discontent was that the difficulties of the average student or amateur writer begin long before he has come to the place where he can benefit by technical instruction in story writing.” She goes on to say that the frustrated writer seems to think there is a magic or trade secret that successful writers have, and she says in a way he is right.

Her target audience includes “those who are fully in earnest, trusting to their good sense and their intelligence to see to it that they learn the elements of sentence and paragraph structure, that they already see that when they have chosen to write they have assumed an obligation toward their reader to write as well as they are able, that they will have taken every opportunity to study the masters of English prose writing and that they have set up an exigent standard for themselves which they work without intermission to attain.”

Motivated to write the book by attending one too many technical classes where the instructors never addressed the magic, Brande breaks the problems down into four categories; the difficulty of writing at all, the one book author, the occasional writer, and the uneven writer.  She suggests that “we must try to cure them where they arise—in the life and attitudes and habits, in the very character itself.” Addressing them one at a time through the lens of character, Brande zeros in on the issues and creates exercises to practice.

First, the two sides of the writer, the child and the adult must be discerned in daily activities. Creativity is the child’s world, spontaneous and imaginative, and the adult is the business manager; first work, then play. Call it left brain and right brain, or child and adult—some part of the writer has to dream up the plan and some part has to execute the plan. Brande gives us hope that they are both embodied in us and can be recognized and utilized at the right time and place to reach our writing goals.

As we learn to know ourselves through Brande’s exercises, we progress to levels of writing discipline very similar to Julia Cameron’s morning pages and writer’s date. Natalie Goldberg’s techniques are similar, as they involve freeing yourself to write anything without the internal editor, stopping us at every word to check for accuracy.

Following the exercises religiously frees our creative side (the child) and honors the adult to provide for the real passion (the writing). Set up a time for writing. Under no circumstances stand yourself up. If you do, she warns, “give up writing. Your resistance is actually greater than your desire to write, and you may as well find some other outlet for your energy early as late.”

Her intention here is not to discourage, but to encourage the writer to set up a time daily to invite the unconscious to come and play. If the child (the unconscious creative mind) knows it is acceptable to come out every day at eight in the morning, come it will, and serve until it is put away when the adult must provide structure so that the child can come another day.

She says simply, “for the root of genius is in the unconscious, not the conscious, mind. It is not by weighing, balancing, trimming, expanding with conscious intention, that an excellent piece of art is born. It takes its shape and has its origin outside the region of the conscious intellect. There is much that the conscious can do, but it cannot provide you with genius, or with the talent that is genius’ second cousin.”

In a way, this simplifies the writing process. Turn it on and turn it off. Although, when you are a writer, you are writing all the time. But there is a time to turn the faucet onto the paper, and that is the delicious part of writing. To see the words you have been nurturing in your unconscious take form before your eyes.

Brande has several other very practical suggestions. She advises exchanging coffee for Maté and enjoying a meditation session before your writing appointment. She also advises to pay attention to the people who encourage your flow of consciousness and those who do not. If watching television stifles your creativity, do less of it (she would advise!). Be aware of what puts you in a creative mindset and what does not. Be disciplined! “If you are unable to finish a piece of work at one sitting, make an engagement with yourself to resume work before you  rise from the table. You will find that this acts like a posthypnotic suggestion in more ways than one. You will get back to the work without delay, and you will pick up the same note with little difficulty, so that your story will not show as many different styles as a patchwork quilt when it is done.”

I liked this book. I loved this book. The fact that it sat on my bookshelf for nine years has nothing to do with the book. Had I picked it up sooner, I would have avoided many pitfalls.  Brande’s 1934-style prose was a little difficult to wade through at times, but soon I found myself sitting down with her for a cup of Mate and discussing my latest writing block . . . this review!

Dorothea Brande was born in Chicago and later attended Mrs. Starretts’ School for Girls and the University of Chicago, Lewis Institute of Chicago, and the University of Michigan. She held editorial positions at Chicago Tribune, and the Board of the Journal of American Medical Association. She taught private writing classes and lectured throughout the country. Among her other books are Most Beautiful Lady, a novel, and Wake Up and Live, which sold over 2,000,000 and was published in eleven languages. (I remember it on my mother’s bookshelf.)

According to the National Cyclopedia of American Biography, volume 39, she was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, an Episcopalian, a Republican, and enjoyed reading, knitting and embroidery!

I leave you with her words. “All that is necessary to break the spell of inertia and frustration is this: Act as if it were impossible to fail. This is the talisman, the formula, the command of right-about-face which turns us from failure towards success.”

Review: Ask the Pros: Screenwriting 101 Questions Answered by Industry Professionals

Ask the Pros: Screenwriting
101 Questions Answered by Industry Professionals

Edited by Howard Meibach and Paul Duran
Lone Eagle Publishing Company
2004
205 pp.
Amazon.com price: $12.57

Review by Patrick Beltran 

Ask the Pros: Screenwriting is not your typical screenwriting book. Edited by Howard Meibach (of Hollywoodlitsales.com fame) and writer-director Paul Duran, this book does not attempt to teach you how to write a screenplay – at all. The book is exactly what the subtitle says it is: 101 Questions Answered by Industry Professionals.

Now, I have to admit that when I first sat down to read it, I did not think I was going to like this book or find much value in its approach to screenwriting “education.” A big fat frequently-asked questions (FAQ) list, in book form, for screenwriters? Containing such hoary gems as, “what makes a screenplay great?” (that was the first question of the first chapter). As a well-read wannabe, I prepared for the worst; I expected to find all the same questions and answers that I’d already read and heard in various forums, and in a thousand different ways, from every screenwriting seminar, how-to book, and advice columnist on the web.

So you can imagine my surprise when I started liking the book – and my total shock when I realized that I was actually learning from it.

Based on the “Ask a Hollywood Pro” forum from hollywoodlitsales.com, the premise of the book is deceptively prosaic: Gather a long and impressive list of working Hollywood professionals – writers, directors, producers, agents, studio executives, etc. – and get them to answer, in detail, the most common questions that screenwriters always ask about writing, selling, making movies, and breaking into the business. Arrange the answers according to question topic and the profession of the answerers, pepper the pages with sidebars to give extra details and relevant definitions, and voilà, you have Ask the Pros: Screenwriting.

But the real value, I discovered, comes not from the individual answers but from the collection itself – from seeing how each answer compares, side-by-side, with answers by similar professionals responding to the same questions. Look, we’ve all heard stories about the capricious nature of Hollywood, about the Politburo-like mindless conformity that supposedly permeates the corridors of power and leads executives to march in lock-step, regularly rejecting mega-blockbuster scripts like, say, My Big Fat Greek Wedding (“You’ve got to be kidding, right? There’s just no Greek demographic.”). Intellectually, we know that’s not the whole story – we know that good scripts rise or fall for a lot of reasons, and that somewhere on the other side of that monolithic Wall there are individual human beings with differing tastes, opinions and abilities.

Well, Ask the Pros: Screenwriting puts that diversity of opinion in stark black and white, right on the page for all to see. Sometimes the effect is comical: for example, one of the questions the producer-experts answered was, “How much does [script] coverage affect your [development] decisions?” One producer said, “coverage is very important”; a second one’s answer started off, “coverage is a waste of time”; and a third one said, in essence, “It depends.” Other contrasts weren’t so dramatic, but everywhere I looked, I detected subtle shades of difference in approach, attitude, and expectation. I suddenly realized – hey, these guys are professionals, and even they don’t agree on the best recipe for wannabe success.

This was the first, best lesson I learned from reading this book: When it comes to an artistic, creative endeavor such as making movies or writing screenplays, there is always more than one right answer.

The second best thing about Ask the Pros is its sidebar blurbs. I especially like the “Buzz Word” definitions, which explain various “Hollywood-speak” words in ordinary English. These are terms that most of us in “flyover country” (everything between NY and L.A.) don’t use in day-to-day life, but that regularly appear in industry magazines such as Variety. For instance, did you know that “tyro” means first timer? (As in: “Tyro scribe Jim Jones just sold his spec script ‘Drinking Kool-Aid’ to DreamWorks for an undisclosed six-figure sum”). Or that Praisery is another word for public relations firm? And if you ever see a film directed by Alan Smithee, you’ll know (after reading Ask the Pros) that this is a Director’s Guild-allowed pseudonym, and it is probably being used because the real director didn’t want his or her name associated with what he considered to be a train-wreck of a picture.

Ask the Pros also includes a CD-ROM with a demo copy of the latest version of Final Draft script formatting software. If you’re serious about your wannabe status, and if you want to have any real hope of ever tasting success on the other side of that Wall, then you absolutely must invest the money to buy a scriptwriting software package. I don’t care, save your dimes for a year if you need to, cause this type of software gives you 50 spoons’ worth of traction when you’re digging for that next killer script. Final Draft is one of two packages recognized and used throughout the industry (the other one is Movie Magic Screenwriter). The demo CD enclosed with this book has a full-featured copy of Final Draft that you can take for a time-limited test drive. If you like it, you can activate the full copy simply by purchasing and entering a valid serial number.

Bottom line — Ask the Pros: Screenwriting is useful for getting inside the heads of the many Hollywood professionals interviewed. Although the book won’t help you with the mechanics of writing a script, it will give you a clearer picture of how the whole Hollywood success thing works (or doesn’t). It also helps prepare you for what you’ll encounter once you type “The End” and want to scope out which section of the Wall you’ll slam yourself into first. It’s a first-rate spoon, this one: I give it an A. Now go, young wannabe tyros — dig and be happy.

Patrick Beltran is a screenwriter, independent producer, and freelance writer who works as an IT professional during the day to pay the bills. He lives in Virginia with his wife and three daughters

Book Review: 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters

Book Review: 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt

45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters.
By Victoria Lynn Schmidt
Writer’s Digest Books
298 pages
2001
Amazon.com price: $13.99

Victoria Lynn Schmidt is a screenwriter for both film and television who was once told at film school that she couldn’t write a script about a female hero because those stories don’t sell. She vehemently disagreed and spent the next few years searching for the female hero’s journey. Despite taking every class she could find on the subject and learning a lot about myths, writing and feminist theory, she could find no answers, until she found a book about the journey of the goddess Inanna, the oldest myth in history. Then she knew she’d found what she’d been looking for—the female myth.

When she did, Jack Heffron at Writer’s Digest Books threw a monkey wrench into it by asking her, “What about the male hero?” Although she felt that the male hero had been done to death, she began to explore it, and discovered that the human journey was a part of both men and women. It could more appropriately be termed “feminine” and “masculine,” she felt, for men and women both took descending inner journeys albeit at different times and with varying results.

Cover of Victoria Lynn Schmidt's 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original CharactersHer research and thoughts on these matters became 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters, which offers writers a new way of developing characters and plots through the use of archetyped characters taken from the pages of ancient myth and modern literature as well as from the screens of film and television. Ms. Schmidt has a lot of interesting things to say about archetypes and their journeys and how fiction writers can use them to produce blueprints from which to work and maps to plot out where their stories are going. One caveat, though—many of her examples will only make sense to readers who are conversant with U.S. popular culture.

Whether you agree with her theories or not, though—in fact, whether or not you even understand them completely—Schmidt’s archetypes are liable to change the way you write as well as the way you watch television and films, the way you read, even the way you look at friends and acquaintances. If, after reading this book, you find yourself unable to watch your favorite television show or read an entire novel without saying to yourself, “Oh, yeah, she’s a Nurturer!” or “He’s a typical Fool” and you catch yourself at the next family dinner trying to figure out if your cousin is a Father’s Daughter or a Backstabber, just remember—you were warned.

Book reviewed by Betty Winslow