Book Review– Jeff VanderMeer’s ‘Wonderbook’
This thing is so cool…
Not long ago, dear readers, I was at the Quail Ridge Bookstore in Raleigh, near my home in Wake Forest, as a number of cool writers were coming to do readings from their books. Among the writers was Jeff VanderMeer, who (along with his wife, Ann, an editor of great renown), is responsible for a number of steampunk anthologies that I highly recommend, including “Steampunk” and “Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded.” (“Steampunk III: Steampunk Revolution” is also good, though Jeff wasn’t a coeditor.) But this article isn’t about any of those books. In fact, it’s not about a work of fiction at all. Jeff VanderMeer’s “Wonderbook” is about the creation of fiction, especially speculative fiction–my personal favorite. When Mr. VanderMeer showed us some slides of his book at the bookstore, I knew that I had to get my hands on a copy of it, and lo! I did so.
Now I get to share with you what I liked about it.
First off: the visual imagery.
You wouldn’t think that a book about writing would include so many pictures, but that’s something that “Wonderbook” does differently from most other books on writing, and was one of the reasons I wanted it so badly. While it’s true that I find it easiest to express myself through words (and I draw about as well as a slug juggles), some concepts seem to work themselves more easily into my brain if expressed visually, and the visuals of VanderMeer’s “Wonderbook” are just weird and strange enough that my mind instantly absorbs them.
Take that story lizard up there, for example. The story lizard is a reimagining of the traditional plot graph, which looks something like this:
Plus it’s overly simplified. Enter the story lizard. Not only does the lizard’s shape help cement the idea of a plot line into my head–I like lizards–it also gets me to think about everything that’s missing from the regular plot line. What happens before the beginning of the book? Sure, it doesn’t need to be on the page–I’m not expected to write the history of the universe–but I should know what’s happened in the past so that I can write with confidence about what will happen. Speaking of what will happen, I want my books to feel like they’re slices of reality. They shouldn’t feel like the curtains go down when they read the last page of my story. My characters should be real enough that readers can imagine their lives going on after the book ends. Now that I have the image of the story lizard’s tongue, I won’t forget about that topic.
The pictures in “Wonderbook” were assembled from a large number of artists, with the biggest contributor being Jeremy Zerfoss. As I said, I’m not a visual artist, but I can appreciate visual art, and the “Wonderbook” did a great job with its pictures. If other fiction writing guides had more of them, I might pay them more attention. But–and I feel like this is important when talking about a book on writing–the words of “Wonderbook” struck me as helpful. While there were some exercises sprinkled throughout the text, there were only a handful, and I liked that. (I’m not a big fan of writing exercises, so if you are, heads up.)
What “Wonderbook” does have is chapters on all the different aspects of stories, from dialogue to tension, character-building and style, beginnings and endings (and middles). VanderMeer goes over the differences between “things that happen” and “plot” (you’d be surprised how often writers confuse the two), and he always does so in a way that made more sense to me than any previous fiction writing guide.
I should point out that every writer is different. What works for you may not work for me, and vice versa. But any person who likes writing stories, whether professionally or not, can find something of value in VanderMeer’s “Wonderbook.” A number of people have mini-essays in it, including the likes of George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman and Ursula K. Le Guin, so if you’re interested in knowing what those people have to say on elements of the craft, check out this book.
Coming to us from Abrams Image, “Wonderbook” is available at all kinds of places for $24.95 (though Amazon has it on sale at the time of posting for $15.26, which is a great deal). With 300+ pages, weighing over 2.5 pounds, and featuring a vast menagerie of strange images and illuminating pages on writing good fiction, what’s not to like about the “Wonderbook”?
If you do happen to check it out, dear readers (or for those of you who have already done so), what do you think? Be sure to let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter at @ColinOBoyle. And, as always–stay geeky, my friends.