Partly because I am a writer of fiction and partly because I can’t seem to help but engage myself in the meta-discussions of any field I take an interest in, I have consumed quite a few books of writing advice over the years and have come to the conclusion that such books are reflective of the concerns and practices of the authors and editors who write them. This does not mean that if you like a particular author or editor’s works, that you will find their writing advice useful (or vice versa) — only that, generally, the limits found in their work also manifest in how they write about the production of that work.
This is why I was excited to learn about Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. I’m a fan of VanderMeer’s fiction (and editing). I don’t necessarily want to write more like him, but I did want to hear what he had to say about the art and craft of fiction.
Wonderbook did not disappoint.
It is an information rich book, lush and layered rather than dense. It is also deeply, unapologetically weird. The fantastic, imaginative illustrations facilitate both the richness and the weirdness, but that also carries over to the text itself: in the examples VanderMeer uses; in the way he describes certain processes; in the ingenious and effective (but weird) guides and helps and formulations.
And yet for all that weirdness, boil the carcass of the book down and you’re left with a sound, familiar, useful skeleton (albeit one that may have a sixth toe or an extra rib [by the way, this is a work that invites such a metaphor. In Wonderbook stories are creatures of bone and meat and fleshy and wiggly bits]). Its structure is rigorous and logical, and the layout is a work of design genius — it keeps the wildness of the illustrations from overpowering.
Just as welcome is that VanderMeer, perhaps aware of the limitations I describe in the first paragraph, recruits a multitude of voices to plump out topics that may be less in his wheelhouse or that present alternative routes from the ones that he traces out. These range from in-text citations, summaries and quotations to pull quotes that stripe a page here and there to full blown mini-essays embedded in the chapter (plus an appendix with more essays). These contributions open up the writing advice, creating a polyphonic marketplace of ideas in the reader’s head rather than carve out some monument to arid dogma. The writer comes away full of possibilities rather than anxiety to fit a system.
There could be a downside to this lush, multivocal, intense approach, of course. It could overwhelm. It could enervate. And if you can’t get into VanderMeer’s voice, it’ll fall flat. But I think it’s worth the risk for writers of all types. It’s also the rare book of writing advice that could be of interest to readers as well as visual artists and other creative professionals.
Finally: see that cover up above? It’s awesome right? Yeah, well, Wonderbook is chock full of illustrations that are just as cool and weird and evocative. The thing is worth the cover price even if you don’t read a single word (but I recommend reading all of them).
Two more observations:
It’s quite amusing in places.
The section where VanderMeer reveals and evaluates the various openings he attempted for his novel Finch is one of the most valuable sections in any writing book I have ever read.