Essential creative tools: Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer

April 24, 2015

I’m starting a new section on my blog to discuss some of the tools that help foster creativity in a practical way. The first book I’m featuring is Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. Written by weird fiction author Jeff VanderMeer (The Southern Reach Trilogy, Finch), Wonderbook is a prolific and thorough overview of the process of writing fiction. Bursting with full-colour illustrations, the book also features interviews with some of the biggest genre fiction writers in the world, including an extended interview with George R.R. Martin. While it’s aimed at genre fiction writers, I imagine that any writer could benefit from this book.

Essentially, Wonderbook is *ahem* wonderful.

I was given Wonderbook as a Christmas present and have been working through it slowly for the last three months, chalking it up with highlighter and doodling in the margins. It’s not a book that you want to whizz through on a Saturday afternoon; rather it’s a book to be studied and worked through in the same way as a textbook (albeit a very fun and colourful textbook). It’s full of ideas, interviews, tips and writing exercises.

Working through Wonderbook has changed the way I write. I know that’s a big call, but I found myself often challenged by Jeff’s way of thinking, as well as the approaches of the featured authors in the book. It’s beneficial to look at other approaches to writing which can often bring up shortcomings of your own creative process. Some of the things that stood out to me were:

Structure is your friend

I’ve approached my last two novel projects in a haphazard way, often jamming out the first 20,000 words in a blind fury only to find out that 1) Crap I’m stuck in a well with only a Swiss army knife and a piece of tin foil to get out and 2) the middle sucks. What I challenged me most in this book is to spend more time on structure and working out the beginning, so that the rest of the book flows more coherently. Wonderbook includes an incredibly detailed analysis of Jeff VanderMeer’s own work Finch, gaining insight into the detailed mental process of beginning and creating that book. While the book looks effortless when you read it, the process of writing it was clearly thought out. Structure also doesn’t kill spontaneity either, which is something I’d often thought while writing in a fragmentary style.

Question everything

Each chapter features extensive lists of questions to ask about your characters and world, which have challenged me to really dig deeply into creating meaningful fiction. I especially loved Catherynne M. Valente’s essay on “What everyone knows”, which forced me to question my inherent bias when approaching a work of fiction. What is the worldview I come from? How does that affect the characters I create? Are there things I could do better? And how do I create characters who are different to my own perspective as an author?

Leading on from that is Lauren Beukes’ recommendation to research and interview people before representing a culture on paper. It’s not enough to say “I want to write a story about x”. Authenticity comes from experience, and if you’re not experienced in a certain area or culture, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask about it.

These chapters also flag some of the pitfalls of imaginative fiction, such as bad beginnings, reliance on typical plot structures and one-dimensional characters, which are fun to read and go “Oh I don’t do that… no, not at all…”

wonderbook on bookshelf

Revision is not scary

One of my most hated parts of the writing process is revision. I love the energy and fluency of writing, not the nitpicking stuff. Wonderbook challenged me to enjoy the revision process. As Jeff writes:

“Perhaps the most important part of that process [writing fiction] is the idea of the act of revision becoming exciting to you. The more positive you can be about the revision process, the more likely you are to actually dig into the guts of your fiction in a meaningful way.”

That was a hell of a challenge to someone who is always moaning and groaning about revision. One of my books is currently up to draft 11, and there’s a page in Wonderbook dedicated to writers discussing their revision process (The Name of the Wind had 200+ revisions, so that’s encouraging). So I’ve vowed to embrace revision rather than revile it.

Define your style

One of my favourite pages of the book is looking at the chart on Approaches to Style (p 62-63). Somehow the book kept falling open to that page. The chart helped me define where my style is – and that I don’t need to write like other people. Often the writers I enjoy are in the same style to mine, but I’d always struggled to articulate what this particular style was. It also helps me assess the writing style of authors in my writing groups and analysing them according to their own style, not mine. (It’s muscular, in case you’re wondering, unless I’m writing hardboiled).

It’s encouraging

Wonderbook-cover

It’s encouraging to know that amazing writers struggle as much as you do with writing. They aren’t glamourous writing machines, deftly pumping out thousands of words while quaffing quality wine in their French villa going “Oh ho ho, another bestseller done.” They struggle with different things to you, but hell, they struggle. They write fifty drafts, they throw out pages, they scratch things out with the red pen of doom. They think about giving up. And then they write the damn thing.

Being a good author is about struggling with concepts and finding ways to present them to the world. And the struggle is important because good books change minds.

It’s not often you find a book which alters your worldview on writing, but Wonderbook is definitely one of them. Jeff VanderMeer must want to fill the world with good writers.

Wonderbook is available from good booksellers and retailers in Australia for the bargain price of $29 (honestly the gems in this book are worth a chest of doubloons). I recommend buying a paper copy, because the illustrations are beautiful and you’ll be marking it up with fury. Online support and resources are also available here.

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