Dorothea Brande and Alternate History

By | August 15, 2023

Guest post by Jack Dann

I think that most professional writers are well acquainted with the idea of synchronicity…of meaningful coincidences. I certainly am! In fact, I experienced a bit of it when the good folks at Bloomsbury asked me to write something for the Literary Studies blog about my new book, The Fiction Writer’s Guide to Alternate History. Frankly, I always seem to be at sixes and sevens when I’m asked to write about a book I’ve written. Oh, various ideas flickered past my mind’s eye, ideas such as “I’ve been a fiction writer for some fifty years, and I wanted to give something instructive back for all the help and advice I’d gotten along the way”—that’s the kind of idea that you immediately and absolutely know is trite and muzzy.

But it’s embarrassing: I’m a writer. I should be able to expound with wild abandon and authorial authority on my own work!

Thank goodness for synchronicity.

I just happened to be browsing aimlessly through my endless email queue when I came across an article I’d saved from The Guardian entitled “Hilary Mantel’s “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.”

“Rule #1. Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.”

That elicited a chuckle, but it was Rule 2. that did the trick.

“Rule #2. Read Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. Then do what it says, including the tasks you think are impossible… This book is about becoming a writer from the inside out.”

Aha! Dorothea Brande. I remember reading her book when I was just starting out. It kept me going when I needed to be kept going. I followed her suggestions such as “cultivating a Writer’s temperament” and “the five-finger exercises of Writing”, which helped me to set myself up psychologically to…write! And when I wrote “Books for Writers: an Essential List” as a workshop handout, Becoming a Writer was my first entry. To quote myself:

“When I started writing, this book was out of print, and writers passed dog-eared copies around. It was written in 1934, if I recall correctly; but if you can compensate for the dated psychology, you’ll find that her suggestions actually work! I think this book should be in every writer’s library.”

Dorothea Brande “spoke” to me as a writer, spoke to me as writer to writer; and that is exactly what I’ve tried to do in my book, The Fiction Writer’s Guide to Writing Alternate History. I wanted to explain how this genre came about, where it is now, and what the practitioner needs to know in order to write counterfactual fiction with confidence. I wanted to present a plain-speaking how-to-write guide that will actually teach you how to do it. Dorothea, I’ll admit it: I wanted to channel your engaging, human, no-nonsense approach into this handbook. I wanted to produce a book that could actually help writers, writer to writer!

You the reader will decide whether I’ve reached my goal. In the meantime, here as a teaser is the first chapter of The Fiction Writer’s Guide to Alternate History… and my aforementioned booklist, which should point the way to writing “from the inside out.”


Books for Writers:

An Essential List

by Jack Dann

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brand: When I started writing, this book was out of print, and writers passed dog-eared copies around. It was written in 1934, if I recall correctly; but if you can compensate for the dated psychology, you’ll find that her suggestions actually work! I think this book should be in every writer’s library.

Fiction Writers Handbook by Whit and Hallie Burnett: Hallie and Whit Burnett edited the prestigious Story Magazine, and they published the first work of Norman Mailer, J. D. Salinger, William Saroyan, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Carson McCullers. This is a good solid book. Gardner Dozois and I wrote a very short chapter on writing science fiction for Hallie. If I had to choose between this book and Becoming a Writer, I would definitely go for Becoming a Writer.

Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step By Step by Edward De Bono: This is the first book by De Bono that made a stir. If I remember correctly, it was written for engineers. I have found it a very useful tool for generating ideas. I still think it’s the best. De Bono is a hero of mine. I met him at a literary festival in Perth, and we schmoozed about life and the weather for a while. Later, my wife asked me what I had discussed with De Bono; and I asked, “Who?” Sigh… I had no idea who I had been talking with.

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner: I knew John. He was a lovely, generous man and a wonderful teacher. Although I have never been able to warm to his fiction, the two books listed here should be on every writer’s shelf. I should mention that in one of these books, John criticizes Harlan Ellison’s prose style. But other than that isolated instance of critical tintinitis, these books are wonderful.

On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner: As above.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway: This autobiography recounts Hemingway’s experiences as a young writer in Paris during the 1920’s. It won’t teach you anything about the actual craft of writing; but if it doesn’t make you want to be a writer and ‘live the life’, then nothing will. It’s poignant and romantic, a good anodyne for those times when you wonder why you wanted to become a writer instead of a cost accountant. But be careful: The real writer’s life is inside our heads. It’s about persistence and the lonely slog hour after hour at the keyboard (or putting the adamant pen to the yellow-lined paper). All the rest, romantic as it may seem, is…incidental.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamont: This is a book that will help you learn your craft, but, more importantly, it is a book that will feed your writer’s soul. It is a self-help book in the best sense. It is a book to be read over and over again, especially when you feel that the sky is falling and that you’ll probably never be able to write another word again.

My Mother, My Writing and Me: a Memoir by Iola Mathews: A wise, brave, and personally revealing guide by a successful journalist, labor union officer, women’s rights advocate, and author to life, writing, and the writer’s life.

Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee: Although written for screenwriters, this—to my mind—is the best analysis of plot and dramatic structure you’ll find anywhere. If you want to learn how to write a tight plot that will keep readers turning the pages, this is the book I always recommend. A must for all those writers who are told their fiction seems to lack narrative drive.

I Have This Nifty Idea…Now What Do I Do With It?: Writers Show You How They Sold Their Books From Outlines, edited by Mike Resnick: Mike was a prolific, award-winning writer. He also edited a line for Five Star Press and was a prolific anthologist. He asked me if he could publish one of my novel outlines. I sent him an outline. What a strange, yet wonderful idea for a book for writers. This book will give you an idea of the diversity of approaches writers can take to sell their novels.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White: This book, called affectionately “The Little Book,” is the one I suggest to anyone who wants to write. It is very concise and isn’t burdened with a lot of difficult terminology. I would suggest rereading it at least once a year. To quote the late, great Dorothy Parker: “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” As an aside, E. B. White also wrote Charlotte’s Webb and Stuart Little.

If You Want to Write: a Book About Art, Independence and Spirit by Brenda Ueland: Like Dorothea Brand’s excellent handbook, Ueland’s If you Want to Write was published in the 1930s. And as with Brand’s book, some of the material will appear dated to the contemporary reader. But while I recommended the Brand book without reservation, I cannot do so for Ueland’s. Brand’s style is clear and precise, while Ueland—who seems to be reaching for the exact word—gives us approximations. She is a person of her time, and that is to be expected and overlooked; but Ueland often employs overreaching generalizations and fallacious arguments of authority, which impaired my reader’s suspension of disbelief. And yet…and yet, she is so warm, positive, and engaging that you might forgive her anything! She makes you want to write. She believes in you…in everyone reading her book. Reading her book was catalytic…it pushed me right through a writer’s block. That’s why it made the cut for this list! Read it and decide…

How To Write a Blockbuster Novel by Al Zuckerman: This is a terrific step-by-step course in plotting ‘big’ popular novels. Al was Ken Follett’s agent, and by using actual drafts of Ken Follett’s outlines, he shows you how to work out plots and tighten them until they hum. This book might be difficult to get, but it is well worth the trouble…if you feel that is the kind of books you want to write. Al founded the literary agency Writers’ House. I should probably tell you I might have a wee bias, as I’m one of their clients.

Jack Dann, author of The Fiction Writer’s Guide to Alternate History, is an internationally published author, editor, lecturer, anthologist and Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, School of Communication and Arts, University of Queensland, Australia. He has written or edited over eighty books and his awards include the Nebula, World Fantasy, Aurealis, and Shirley Jackson awards. He received his PhD from the University of Queensland.

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