Wonderbook (Jeff Vandermeer)

wonWonderbook is a book about writing — not specific to games, but not unaware of games, either. It takes on many of the standard topics of general-purpose fiction writing guides — plot, character, world-building, revision, the life of the writer, how not to grow to hate yourself in this artform — but with an approach focused on speculative fiction, fantasy, and play. It’s also lavishly, vividly illustrated, with maps and diagrams, portraits and photographs, excerpts of medieval manuscripts, and quite a lot else. There are writing exercises, of several kinds. There are cartoon characters who introduce advice and tips. There are inserted essays and tips from other authors. There are reflections on the history of imaginative literature.

Also, Vandermeer is a good prose stylist, and this is something that cannot be said of all writers of writing books. (You might think…? But no.)

It’s the kind of book that will delight the curious and frustrate the conscientious — since there’s a perennial feeling one might be missing something as one reads. I read it with pleasure, and just a tiny bit of panic that I might be reading it incorrectly and missing things. To be clear, I think this is my problem and not the book’s.

Actually, the book calls me out on precisely this, in its way:

Inherent in this idea of “play” being immature and frivolous is the idea that just like business processes, all creative processes should be efficient, timely, linear, organized, and easily summarized.

Almost certainly there are some diagrams, sidebars, etc., that I did not fully digest before writing this review. I think the book considers that okay, though.

Wonderbook starts with topics like inspiration and self-management, encouraging the reader to view everything in their environment as potential book fodder in some way. At one point Vandermeer mentions that a key scene of an organ bank in one of his novels was inspired by the architecture of York Minster. To Vandermeer, this is a case of looking everywhere for usable material. I’m quite fond of York Minster and find certain stages of English gothic feel humane and rational, not organ bank-like: tastes differ. But also, if you’re bringing everything you see into your work, then you’re also bringing your work as a lens to everything you encounter in the real world. I’m not saying this is bad, and heaven knows I pull all sorts of source inspirations into all kinds of projects. But it’s something to be conscious of — in both directions.

Next there is an introduction to plotting and structure, starting with the very basics about novel vs novella vs short story formats, the use of viewpoints, the application of metaphors, the nature of style, the development of voice. A single two-page spread illustrates different common prose styles, and the strengths and weaknesses of each. Elsewhere, we get essential advice about where to start a tale and where to end it, or about how to design a character. The Hero’s Journey Monomyth gets a couple of pages of illustration and explanation, but, thank goodness, in a context with lots of alternative storytelling strategies.

But though the book begins with elementary teaching points, it doesn’t stay there. In the chapter on beginnings and endings, Vandermeer steps us through the process of deciding how his novel Finch would begin: with what scene, what setting, what characters, what prose style and focus. More than most books I’ve seen on writing, Wonderbook considers the way considerations about character, plot, worldbuilding, genre and prose style interlock.

Elsewhere, in discussing narrative design, Vandermeer talks about what to leave out:

…with the right approach, you can sometimes remove part of a narrative structure from the page, and yet a powerful ghostly outline of what’s missing still manifests in the reader’s mind… a narrative structure that’s about absence as well as presence also speaks to the creative dialogue between writer and reader and demonstrates that creating space in your fiction for the reader to participate is not always about accessibility but can be about generating opportunities for readers to engage in storytelling, which is crucial for the writer’s success. (149)

…and this is another point I strongly agree with. I’ve read a lot of scenes (in various books and games) that covered Important Plot Events — but there was no new information in the scene itself, nothing that the reader could not have predicted completely from what came before and what happened after. It’s okay to spend chapters building up to a pair of characters getting married but not actually narrate the (fully predictable) ceremony, and instead skip to an hour, a day, or a week later, when interesting consequences start to occur.

Besides all of Vandermeer’s own work, the book is full of inset contributions, usually two or three pages long, from other contributors, many of them extremely established. Ursula K. LeGuin’s piece (alas that she’s gone) is about story vs message, and how a story does not need to have or be a message in any particular way. Lev Grossman offers an excellent reflection on revision — how it works, and how to not worry about the fact that your first draft sucks. (This goes with an entire chapter on revision from Vandermeer, which is solid.) Will Hindmarch includes a section on games and storytelling, and Karin Tidbeck on LARP — so if you’re seeking your explicitly game-related material, that’s where to look for it.

There is, in short, a lot in here. I found it a longer read than I expected — the content is plentiful and dense, and it doesn’t lend itself to skimming. While parts covered territory I already know well, I also found suggestions that were useful on my own work in progress.

In a playful way, Wonderbook takes on much of what you might need to know to write a short story or novel, especially in a speculative fiction genre, and quite a bit of its content is game-applicable, too. There are a few spots where I might be tempted to augment. If I were recommending Wonderbook as course material for beginning writers, I’d probably supplement its chapter on characterization with another book or two on the topic (Stant Litore’s is a fast read; I’ll cover that in a future month). And Vandermeer’s discussion of worldbuilding is — unlike many many worldbuilding books — not simply a checklist of things you might want to consider in your imagined world. But sometimes those checklists are a helpful prompt; so, again, it might be interesting to combine this with some other materials.

Because there’s so much in it, it won’t be a fast read — but it’s not a boring or bloated text either. It just has a lot to offer. A beginner will find a lot of basics explained clearly. For a writer who’s been at the craft for a while, there are still good examples, interesting perspectives, and a lot of relatable moral support. The rich collection of other authorial voices, from authors of varied genders, ages, ethnicities, and eras of SFF writing, conveys the sense that you’re part of a creative community, and that has a value of its own.

If you’re the sort of person who experiences mild background anxiety when you see a book with a lot of sidebars, though, watch out.

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