I recall in high school an English teacher admonishing we students to invest in Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. I ignored her, of course, but years later, when doing more writing than I ever intended as a teenager, picked up a copy at a table sale, somewhere, for a quarter. Thinking to have a laugh, I opened it that night to see what my teacher had been on about. Soon enough, I was caught—“Yes, that’s it!” and “They’re completely right!” the statements coming to my brain time and again reflecting on the problems with my own writing. Having just finished Jeff VanderMeer’s 2013 Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction, I can’t help but imagine that if my high school teacher had recommended it, my history would have been different.
There are writing guides and there are writing guides. Some are for a specific purpose, e.g. Scott Meredith’s poison—ahem, prescription for mainstream fiction Writing to Sell, and some are to shore up specific issues a writer may have, such as David Madden’s Revising Fiction. Threading the tight gap between horn-rimmed glasses strictness and loose practicality, Wonderbook is, as VanderMeer writes in his intro, a “general guide to the art and craft of fiction first and foremost, but it is also meant to be a kind of cabinet of curiosities that stimulates your imagination.” Packed to the gills with gorgeous illustrations, diagrams, and art (the striking cover is literally only the beginning) as well as input from a wide range of authors, it aims to be advisory, illustrative, engaging, insightful, and above all, informative.
Wonderbook covers the spectrum of writing fiction, from brainstorming to final revision. There is a slight focus on ‘speculative fiction’ (whatever that means!!), but as easily operates as a guide to writing fiction in general. One look at the table of contents (inspiration, elements of story, writing beginnings, middles, and ends, narrative form, characterization, worldbuilding, revision, and many, many other topics) and it’s clear the sights are broad. Looking deeper and it’s also clear Vandermeer is as knowledgeable of the theory of literature as much as he is a practitioner of it.
Literature an art, VanderMeer conveys this relationship via not only deft exposition but also a large number of eclectic diagrams and representative art; Wonderbook is as much a pleasure to read as look at. Featuring a wide range of art, the work of Jeremy Zerfoss and “more than 30 others” is used to convey the finer points of writing in graphic form. A tiny number of pages are not complemented by visuals that illustrate the point under discussion in one form or another, making it clear VanderMeer put as much time into the text as he did the layout and imagery to create a more holistic view to the craft of writing.
The practicality of Wonderbook? Can an inspiring writer find anything of value in the book? The answer is a qualified ‘yes.’ If you are not a self-aware writer, then the book will not help you. (In fact, nothing may help you.) Advanced writers will probably find more enjoyment looking at Wonderbook than applying the theory, and perhaps should look to more specialized material for the issues they are dealing with. Wonderbook would thus most benefit the would-be, beginner, and somewhat practiced writer who still has a lot of holes in their talent (if any exists at all). For those writing critically or academically about literature, the book offers a baseline for which works under review can be critiqued and analyzed for technique. The tools for deeper analysis are hinted at but must be found elsewhere. If all else fails, Wonderbook makes for stunning coffee table reading.
VanderMeer is not the only contributing writer. Utilizing the knowledge of friends and colleagues, a wide variety of authors bring their perspectives to the table. Ursula Le Guin, Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, Kim Stanley Robinson, Nnedi Okorafor, Karen Lord, and several others add essays on world building, plotting, characterization, exposition, and many other aspects of writing. Along with the illustrations, these writers make Wonderbook a richer, more varied experience than just VanderMeer’s view alone.
Suggestions for writing exercises, clear and lucid description (e.g. the difference between creative and technical imagination), real-world examples, logical organization, how to and how not to characterize (“Buying in to stereotype and cliché about your characters condemns them to act in ways that are based on false ideas about people in the real world.”), dissective analysis, questions for the stuck writer to ask themselves, handy reference (VanderMeer is not shy about recommending not only authors of fiction, but other helpful writing guides), motivation and support, suggestions for first readers (avoid the ‘smile fish’—the reader looking for everything to be happy-happy, fun-fun, or the ‘me-mirror’—the reader who is incapable of seeing any worldview but their own)—there are myriad significant facets to Wonderbook. (I would also strongly advise ignoring me-reviews—reviews by people incapable of seeing beyond their own expectations. ;)
Reading VanderMeer’s novels and stories, it’s clear he is a man in control of his craft; every word exists for purpose where it was placed. And having now read Wonderbook, the reason is clear: he understands the fundamentals of writing at a deep level. VanderMeer obviously investing years of time and effort, the result is a book that wonderfully balances itself between accessibility and technical detail, practicality and theory, beginner to advanced on how to not just write, but write with sound technique and engaging ideas. I cannot go back to high school again, but I can certainly appreciate this book now…