Saturday, 16 August 2014

Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction written by Jeff Vandermeer and with design and illustrations by Jeremy Zerfoss. As you may have gathered from the subtitle, it's not fiction, but rather a guidebook to writing fiction, specifically speculative fiction. It was shortlisted for a Hugo this year and the sample of it that was in the Hugo voter packet led me to pick it up when I saw it in a bookshop and not put it back down.
This all-new definitive guide to writing imaginative fiction takes a completely novel approach and fully exploits the visual nature of fantasy through original drawings, maps, renderings, and exercises to create a spectacularly beautiful and inspiring object. Employing an accessible, example-rich approach, Wonderbook energizes and motivates while also providing practical, nuts-and-bolts information needed to improve as a writer. Aimed at aspiring and intermediate-level writers, Wonderbook includes helpful sidebars and essays from some of the biggest names in fantasy today, such as George R. R. Martin, Lev Grossman, Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock, Catherynne M. Valente, and Karen Joy Fowler, to name a few.
I've read a lot of writing advice in my time, mainly online, I have to admit, and the lack of an SFF perspective has often bothered me. Generic writing advice is great up to a point, but eventually I felt like I'd read most of it before, in one form or another; I had already gotten what I could out of it. And it rarely addressed some of the issues that can come up in writing science fiction (I don't really write fantasy, I should mention up front).

What's really great about Vandermeer's book is that it starts with the assumption that you're writing some form of speculative fiction. It covers some generic writing advice as well, but puts everything in the context of spec fic, even while using examples from more realist fiction. The chapters cover key elements of fiction writing: "Inspiration and the Creative Life", "The Ecosystem of Story" (including narrative elements and so forth), "Beginnings and Endings", "Narrative Design", "Characterisation", "Worldbuilding" (which, obviously, is much more central in spec fic than real-world fiction), "Revision", and some extra stuff and writing exercises in the appendices.

Other than the focus on fantasy, what really stands out about Wonderbook are all the gorgeous illustrations. The book's accompanying website (which I have not explored in detail) gives a good idea of the aesthetic. The whole thing is trade paperback sized (I don't think there's a hardcover version) and filled with glossy pages. To give you a clearer idea of the illustrations, I've taken a few crappy photos with my four-year-old phone. At night. With a paper Ikea lampshade doing most of the lighting. We have the endpaper + inside cover, an illustration of story structure (more or less), and the journey of a writer. Click to embiggen (but not really to enhance much).


The only thing I didn't love about Wonderbook was that it did focus more on fantastical fiction (rather than science fiction). This mostly came across in specific examples, so it wasn't a huge problem and there were some SF examples. But I felt there was a bit of an emphasis on degrees of surreal fiction — reflective, I think, of what Vandermeer writes. People looking for specific subgenre advice (other than what I've mentioned) won't quite find that here. But that did not, for me, diminish the value of the book. I will definitely come back to it as a reference down the line.

If nothing else, I would come back for some of the writing exercises, of which there are several (and of which I only attempted a few). I should also note that I found the process of reading Wonderbook inspiring in itself. It inspired one short story semi-directly and helped me finish another that I was part-way through. The main text is also broken up with short essays from other writers on specific topics, which I can also see being useful references to come back to.

I highly recommend Wonderbook to writers of speculative fiction looking for an extra push. Or to beginning writers wanting to learns skills through something other than trial and error. As you might guess, it's not the kind of book you read straight through without stopping but it is a book worth reading all of. Including the appendices, which contained a very interesting interview with George RR Martin. Or, really, you could just buy it for the pictures.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2013, Abrams Image
Series: No.
Format read: Paper! Illustrated! Pretty!
Source: Purchased from a real-life bookshop, and also a present

1 comment:

  1. This looks fantastic. And based on VanderMeer's won books, he seems to know what he's talking about - I'm loving the Souther Reach trilogy and can't wait for the final instalment.


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