Review: Wonderbook

It’s rare to find a creative writing guide that features genre fiction, and even rarer to find an illustrated one. In fact, Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer is the first of its kind, and I’ve just added it to my arsenal of reference texts.

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I don’t have a great camera! It doesn’t do this book justice.

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The pretty pictures, of course, are what draw the eye to the book in the first place, but it’s the combination of essays from successful fantasy and sci-fi authors, insight into character and plot on micro and macro levels, and the visual diagrams (I tend to learn best this way) that make it unique.

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VanderMeer’s more fluid and dynamic approach to the craft and process of writing is also closer to my style than the rigid, often pedantic format that other instructional books have to offer. Though much of the surreal and fantastical artwork accompanied the text for aesthetic appeal, I found them more endearing than distracting.

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Since revision is such a strong focal point of the book, the opportunity to read it really came at a great time for me. Before venturing deeper into my own manuscript, I marked up the ideas and strategies presented so beautifully in Wonderbook to prepare myself for what’s to come.

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Quotes from the book that especially resonated with me (VanderMeer’s words unless otherwise noted):

  • “The impulse to create is like the impulse to breathe. Did you know that people who have been shut down often have trouble breathing?” — Rikki Ducornet
  • “In retreating to the Scar, it is only natural that the writer experiences emotions of sadness, regret, and loneliness — all of which feed into the writing…My particular Scar helped teach me to seek distance from events, to try to be on the outside looking in, to observe. In becoming a writer I channeled that distancing into art, rather than solely into alienation from friends and family.”
  • “The act of becoming a writer — of committing to learning the craft of art or writing — is largely about providing structure to what your imagination creates and is an ongoing process of attaining an elusive mastery (there is always another door).”
  • “A sufficiently self-aware and observant writer should be able to convincingly depict love, loss, family, childhood, growing up, growing old — in other words, the experience of becoming and being a human among other humans.” — Karen Lord
  • “Get rid of the map and get off the road. You need to get yourself lost, at least for a little while.” —Matthew Cheney
  • “Some elements, then, that lead to inspiration and story, that shape and protect your imagination, are deeply allied with your subconscious. But you can train yourself to enter these built-in states by creating the conditions and environment optimal to conjuring up inspiration.”
  • “From the reader’s point of view, the best examples all share that frisson of discovery and mystery, some sense of life beyond the page.”
  • “To grow as a fiction writer, you absolutely must engage in some dissection of stories, your own and the work of others. But you also have to be a kind of zoologist or naturalist of narrative. Observations of a living organism require a different approach, one that doesn’t so much catalogue separate parts as seek to understand how everything works together.”
  • “You shoot the arrow and, depending on how well you judged the trajectory, distance, and wind, the arrow lands where you wanted it to land. Regardless, the arrow lands where the bow that launched it sent it — that end point becomes the bull’s-eye whether you like it or not…All of that lovely tension, pressure, and precision in the drawing back of the bow string, of focusing your eye on the target, the release as the arrow left the bow, the sound it made, the arching progress through the air…it must all mean something in the end.”

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