We all had the “cool” teacher in school—do you remember yours? Mine was Coach Mahr (I think that’s how he spelled it). He taught anatomy and physiology, and was also the track/cross country coach at our high school. He was younger than a lot of the other teachers (probably mid-thirties), and could often be seen out on the track, running alongside his team. In the classroom, he was funny and engaging, and his class was a lot of fun. In contrast, my 12th grade English teacher was Mrs. Simons, was an uptight Irish woman who ran a tight ship and made her class dreadfully boring to attend.
In books about writing, we have Strunk and White on one end of the spectrum (indispensable as it is, The Elements of Style is a bore—stuffy, and a chore to actually try and read), and on the other end, the “cool” one, is Jeff VanderMeer and his awesome writing tutorial Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction.
Have you ever had the experience of intrinsically knowing something, and the first time you hear or see that something explained a flash bulb goes off in your brain? That’s kind of what reading Wonderbook has been like for me.
See, one of the most common pieces of advice for writers is, ‘you have to read a lot.’ And that’s good advice, because it’s really the only way to see what you do and don’t like, what you think works and what doesn’t, etc. But in the end you pick a lot of those things up almost subconsciously, to the point that you may know what to do but you may not be sure just why (or sometimes, how). Then along comes the amazing, all-knowing wizard Jeff VanderMeer to break it all down for you.
This book explains things I’ve never seen anyone even attempt to explain before (and believe me, I’ve done my share of research and studying). Most writing books lean more to the Strunk and White side of things—a focus on grammar rather than constructing a story. VanderMeer talks about all aspects of creating: from story structure and pacing to character development, and even the act of creating itself, and recognizing and nurturing your own imagination to be your most productive. What’s more, there are a multitude of essays from renowned authors such as Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin, to name but a few.
Wonderbook is also chock full of illustrations, some to help drive certain points home, but also just to keep your brain engaged and make the book entertaining. I’m sure I’m probably violating some kind of copyright laws by putting this on my blog, but somehow I think Mr. VanderMeer would be okay with it. It’s one of my favorites:
The book is chock full of similar illustrations, getting even more bizarre and surreal. The book is so densely packed with useful information that within the first few pages I was asking where this marvelous thing had been all my life. It’s also worth noting that I haven’t even finished the book yet. I was going to wait until I was done to write up this piece, but I soon realized I’ll never really “finish” it, because aside from the text, there are also writing exercises and supplemental online content to further the Wonderbook experience. Not to mention the fact that Wonderbook will also serve as a sort of reference manual for me for years to come.
Add to all this the fact that Jeff VanderMeer isn’t just some guy telling other people how to do what he hasn’t had success doing. If you’re not familiar with the name, you may recognize his acclaimed Southern Reach Trilogy—Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance—which came out to rave reviews last year and are now on track to become a series of movies as well. It gives the advice in Wonderbook a little more weight, somehow.
If you’re a writer or know someone who is (or is thinking about becoming one), they need this book, even if they don’t know it. It’s slightly geared toward fantasy and sci-fi writers, but they’re hardly the only people who will benefit from reading it. I can’t think of a single more useful tool to writers at all levels of competency, and in all genres.