Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide To Creating Imaginative Fiction: Revised & Expanded by Jeff Vandermeer (book review).

July 3, 2018 | By | Reply More

I never read Jeff Vandermeer’s original release of this book, ‘Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide To Creating Imaginative Fiction: Revised & Expanded’, but I became curious as to what he has to say about writing. He isn’t alone here as he ropes in a lot of writers he knows to also give their opinions. There are also a lot of imagination tests for you to try out.

Vandermeer points out in his introduction that although there are a lot of books about writing in other genres, there aren’t many for both SF and fantasy, let alone an illustrated volume. The intent here is to stimulate your imagination. In that respect, that makes a lot of sense. After all, how many of you here don’t look at SF films or TV series? Even comicbooks are now more acceptable in the SF fraternity.

As I also write SF already, I can see whether or not there are any flaws or things Vandermeer might not have covered. After all, his intention is to be comprehensive so he’s covering all the techniques. Oddly, there is more emphasis on fantasy than SF as I read the book. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn from some of the techniques and at least we’re spared from the endless journeys characters do in fantasy. The importance of this book is in getting your brain bubbling with ideas and putting them into substance, ergo, writing that other people can make sense of.

One thing he explores is write what you know and re-defines it as write what interests you. That’s hardly surprising as most fantasy and SF themes aren’t really practical in our current reality. Mind you, it does tie into an old problem of copying an existing theme rather than doing something with a bit more originality.

I was a bit puzzled with Vandermeer’s examples of the different names for word count stories even though he shows but doesn’t cover flashfiction or poetry in context on page 43 in more detail. Later, he does point out that poetry can be used to express ideas in few words. If you were confused by the different tenses stories can be written in then you will have them explained properly here. I agree with his comments about no two characters should speak the same way but doesn’t cover the idea that you should avoid haven’t more than one character with an extreme voice pattern in a story, although I’ve broken that rule myself.

Mind you, there are lessons here about avoiding have pages of dialogue and a reminder that in a story it shouldn’t necessarily be the same as real life dialogue with all its faults. Dialogue’s purpose is to tell a story after all. Something that is omitted about a writer’s style is just how many stories it can take to find your own writer’s ‘voice’. I would still advocate doing several short stories or so until you find your feet and get more confident than run into spending time on a novel that will end up with countless re-writes and still not get right. If you know your own flaws, then you know what to concentrate on first. First and foremost, learn to do grammar correctly as it’s the first thing pro-editors look at. If you can’t get that right, you might as well not have bothered. Mind you, seeing the number of writers here who say they did start off with novels and their problems does make me think that would have sorted that out a bit better.

Vandermeer also has a thing for sentient penguins, although he doesn’t specify which species. He also spends some time using his book, ‘Finch’, as the means to explore how he writes his stories.

His exploration on how to satisfy the reader should be required reading. Considering the number of ways writers have described how they work out the ending before the beginning, which oddly isn’t covered here, the novice writer has a problem of coming up with a satisfactory ending, let alone achieving one. If you read here, you will learn a lot about the pitfalls.

One thing I think Vandermeer missed out in his plot devices and that I’ve used from time to time is having the same information capable of giving two or more different results. It might not have a fancy name other than misdirection but it is the basis of detective plots.

The knowledge he imparts on creating scenes has to be required reading, as is keeping dialogue confined to the task at hand with no meandering. Something I think I might have done is differentiate between simple and advanced techniques in all forms of fiction writing as it would probably stop the novice doing some things without building up some experience first.

The further into the book I read, the bigger the realisation that Vandermeer was giving more emphasis to fantasy than Science Fiction, although using a similar rule structure. Also, with very rare exceptions, all writers who included articles were of the last 20 years, so don’t expect any sage advice taken from the Golden Age. Only one mentions Heinlein and his basic mantra of writing to completion.

When it comes to writing characters, about the only information he doesn’t explore is play-act the character with all the restrictions or lack of them compared to your own personality. There is more mention by others in the appendixes but I thought it would have been given more space. The same applies to composing character histories. If they all come from the same place, you can short-cut a lot of it by focusing on what makes one different from the other than relying on bottle histories. Storycraft is a big subject so don’t expect absolutely everything covered but all the useful stuff is here, not to mention a lot of books to look up.

The information on the revision stage should be an eye-opener, especially if you think writers get it right in their first drafts. I still think ironing out any problems you have in short story writing would help more or at least know your own weaknesses to focus on. Something Lev Grossman points out is invariably true. You need to see your material away from the screen to spot mistakes although I do wonder how many of you can afford the ink to hardcopy the draft of a 500 page book double-lined. Sensibly, if you do hardcopy, get it down to single line, if for no other reason than to save paper. Vandermeer points out the pros and cons of belonging to a writer’s group. For you George RR Martin fans, there is an extensive interview on how he goes about his own writing and bringing your own experiences into the story.

There is a lot of information to digest and learn from in this book. None of the extra info I’ve added above means I disagree with Vandermeer. Quite the opposite. It just means I’ve learnt some other things along the way and I was paying attention to add my own lessons.

Even if you write stories already, there is a lot to be learnt here and it might also sort out any writer’s blocks you have when you think you’re written yourself into a corner. Reading how various authors get around this should at least prove no problem is insurmountable, even if you have to re-write your draft. Learn and digest.

GF Willmetts

June 2018

(pub: Abrams Image. 364 page large softcover. Price: £18.99 (UK), $24.99 (US), $31.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-4197-2966-9)

check out website: www.abramsimage.com

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About the Author ()

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 15 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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