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… it just has to sound plausible

Wonderbook, Jeff VanderMeer


wonderbookThey say everyone has a book inside them. Some people, it seems, even have a book about writing books inside them. While many of the latter have been written by people whose only published work appears to be a book about writing a publishable novel, there are a large number by authors with long and illustrious careers. This is especially true in science fiction and fantasy, a mode of fiction which as been curiously self-fertilising since its inception in the pages of Amazing Stories in 1926. Names from the letters pages of the pulp magazines soon had stories appearing in those same titles. There is a long list of successful science fiction and fantasy writers who have published “how to write” books, from Bob Shaw to Ben Bova, from Lisa Tuttle to Damon Knight, and from Stephen King to Ray Bradbury. And yet, despite the marquee names on the covers, such books are not always useful. Shaw’s How to Write Science Fiction (1993) may be an entertaining read, but its advice can be distilled down to “read lots of books”. The best, despite its age, is probably Knight’s Creating Short Fiction (1981). Bova’s The Craft of Writing Science Fiction that Sells (1994) is simplistic, and the stories – his own, of course – he uses to illustrate his points do the book no favours. However, Bova did go on to edit a series of books on specific aspects of writing science fiction for Writer’s Digest Books and, while necessarily specialist in the topics they cover, they can be helpful.

All of which is a roundabout way of introducing Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer. Vandermeer is no stranger to genre fiction – he is an award-winning writer and anthologist, and he also runs a highly-regarded small press, Cheeky Frawg Books. Wonderbook, subtitled “the illustrated guide to creating imaginative fiction”, has apparently been several years in the making. Given the book’s size, and its copious illustrations, that’s a boast it’s easy to believe. In fact, as an object, Wonderbook is pretty impressive, which is not something that can be said of most “how to write” books.

And yet… There’s something in the whole concept of a “how to write” book which seems vaguely antithetical to the process of creating fiction. The axiom that writing is a craft, that it is a skill set which can be taught, appears to suggest there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. As a result, “how to write” books often come across as prescriptive – “this is what fiction should be”, “this is what genre fiction should be”… And this can lead to a blanding out of literature written in a science fiction or fantasy mode.

If the recent self-publishing boom has taught us anything, it’s not just that everyone has a book in them, but that most of those books really should have never seen the light of day. It’s not simply an inability to tell a compelling story, it’s that many self-published writers simply do not have the language skills – their books are replete with typos, grammatical errors and malapropisms.

But is a facility with written language all that’s required? Certainly, a writer should know what they are doing before they make a deliberate choice not to do it. It’s not that there’s a need for rules, or even accepted ways of doing things… but expectations certainly exist – from editors to readers, from publishers to reviewers…

Wonderbook scores higher in this regard than other books of its ilk – the clue is there in the subtitle. This is a book designed to catalyse the creative process, and then show how to shape that creative impulse. Vandermeer is also clear on Wonderbook’s audience: “although of use to beginner and intermediate writers working in any genre, Wonderbook’s default setting is fantasy rather than realism” (p xiv). The book covers its subject in seven chapters, titled: Inspiration and the Creative Life, The Ecosystem of Story, Beginnings and Endings, Narrative Design, Characterization, Worldbuilding, and Revision. Each chapter contains numerous illustration – some instructional, some merely decorative. There are also a number of sidebar essays by established genre writers, such as Kim Stanley Robinson, Lauren Beukes, Karen Lord, Ursula K Le Guin, Nick Mamatas and Neil Gaiman. And a detailed analysis of Vandermeer’s own novel, Finch.

The sidebar essays demonstrate that asking ten different writers how to write will result in ten different answers, many of which will be either contradictory or too specific to be of much use. Authors with successful careers have by definition experience at writing publishable fiction, but what worked for them is not necessarily transferable. Nor should it be.

There are plenty of examples given of the narrative techniques covered in Wonderbook, but unfortunately some of the details are just plain wrong. The love affair in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 is between Swan and Wahram, not Waltham (p 87). Iain M Banks’s Culture novels do not “postulate a far future in which humankind has spread out across the galaxy”, but are set during our present day – see the novella ‘State of the Art’ (p 147).

Despite all that, if you’re looking for insights into writing for publication successfully, a “how to write” book is not necessarily the best place to look. Shaw’s advice – “read lots of books” – may be trite, but it’s still the best way to learn how to write. Some “how to write” books may present novel-writing as a “get rich quick” scheme, but anyone with any sense knows it’s anything but. Wonderbook makes no such claims: its lessons are clear, its analyses are mostly unobjectionable, the illustrations add welcome texture, and it’s a poor reader who will walk away from the book without learning something. For the “beginner or intermediate writer”, it’s certainly one of the best books available of its type. For the seasoned writer, perhaps not so much – there’s just a little too much which feels restrictive.

But that’s the nature of writing about writing fiction.

This review originally appeared in Interzone #250, January-February 2014.

6 thoughts on “Wonderbook, Jeff VanderMeer

  1. oooh mr pedantic only SOME of the Culture works or maybe even just that one are set in “the present day” and actually isn’t it all pretty Seventies??

    • I think it’s implied all the Culture stories run concurrently with recent Earth history. At the very least, it can hardly be “a far future in which humankind has spread out across the galaxy”, since if the Culture exists in 1977 then humankind hasn’t er, done that yet…

  2. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there seems to me to be something pretty smart & also candid in nudging the “how to write” genre toward the lush coffee table book / art book experience … and also making it all a bit splayed and non-linear.

    Steve Aylett’s HEART OF THE ORIGINAL in some ways matches my theoretical ideal of what a “how to write” book should be like, in that it isn’t overtly that at all, and if you try to use it as that you discover it’s filled with noise and detritus, and anyway it is characteristically gnarled and provocative and really requires a kind of constant origination on the part of the reader … whilst also being exemplarily witty and ingenious and amusing … I also keep meaning to check out HOW NOT TO WRITE A NOVEL by Howard Mittelmark & Sandra Newman.

    But in a funny way, I almost feel like if I were actually wanting something to help me write, I’d rather consult a pile of mediocre & bad & perhaps really prescriptive & perhaps quite dated “How To Write” books than something like WONDERBOOK or HEART or (I suspect, sight unseen) HOW NOT TO, books which do edgy & cunning & redemptive things with the form. Maybe that’s because some stodgy prescriptive A MIRROR FOR VERY COMMERCIAL AUTHORS manual has absolutely no way to enforce itself. So in a way it’s not REALLY deeply prescriptive. Every bit of advice strikes my brain and registers both as itself and as a spreading ring of contrarianism, all the possibilities for subversion, inversion, or whatever. And at the same time as I am absorbing the advice and the opposite of the advice, I can also slip into an attitude of kind of jittery big-headed exploitative scorn — ha! I don’t need to know this stuff! I’m just surrounded by this 101 stuff for a laugh! HA HA HA HA HA HA — & on some level fool myself that I’m not really taking anybody’s advice — I DON’T NEED ANY ADVICE I’M GREAT — b-u-u-ut I just happen to have been coincidentally reminded of something quite important by this plodding hack, this plodding hack who probably doesn’t even recognize the importance of what they’ve said, and couldn’t possibly teach me anything, although they just did. Whereas books that actually take control of the ways in which they are or are not prescriptive, supposedly in order to give me more freedom, can paradoxically feel more constrictive?

    Does that make any sense no

    • Well, I’ve gone on record as saying I wrote each book of the Apollo Quartet to annoy readers of the previous book, which is I suppose antithetical to the sort of advice given out in “how to write commercial fiction” books. To be fair, Wonderbook is not that – but like any book of its type, its advice is partly helpful and partly not helpful at all. And, of course, what you get out of it is pretty much dependent on what you put in.

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