There is, unfortunately, absolutely no kicking Charles Bukowski out of the room any more. In one form or another, his much-quoted “so you want to be a writer?” seems to haunt every how-to-write discussion or philosophy under the American sun: a poem that derides writer's block, fame-seeking, sitting at typewriters indecisively, and many other strawmen of the insincere writing life in favor of passion—“unless the sun inside you is/burning your gut,/don't do it.” Putting aside the unanswerable biographical question of whether the sun inside of Charles Bukowski was burning his gut about other people's typewriter time, this poem—this set of quotes from this poem—has become sort of a dreadful coffee-table book in the never-ending conversation about how writers write.
In the world of genre fiction, this concept is basically the bogeyman. The very concept of genre as an artistic label distinct from literary or experimental remains contentious and nearly impossible to define on any grounds of content; many have validly pointed out that terms like mystery, fantasy, and romance describe plot and thematic elements that are as essential to fiction considered literary as to any other publishing category. What’s left is more of an uneasy social and philosophical divide: a large-scale division between the perception of fiction as primarily supported by academic and artistic communities and institutions, or by commercial and popular success. Much of pro-genre sentiment has essentially defended the intrinsic merit of entertainment. Whether or not supporters of genre fiction, of the value of entertainment, are directly referencing Bukowski’s inspiration-driven elite, it’s one of several bound together in an offputting bundle: elitism, feigned artistry, gatekeeping, obsession with inspiration. Famous writers’ essays are rife with them; and, what’s worse, with a generally unpleasant attitude. Many seem to imply that enduring their unpleasant attitudes is some sort of mysterious, Karate Kid-esque test of perseverance.
Given this hostile landscape, it’s no wonder that step-by-step how-to-write books—Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat being a popular one, for people who respond better to marketability than to Joseph Campbell’s similar-but-mystical-ish advice—are hugely successful. Formulas are the anyone-can-do alternative to a no-one-can-do narrative; rituals of workshopping and lists of cliches to avoid hold a similar appeal. This is the appeal of machine tooling: the notion that any generated idea can be refined into a functional product, given the right system.
What I like the most about Jeff VanderMeer’s and Jeremy Zerfoss’s (and many others’) revised Wonderbook—and I like it a very great deal—is that it’s neither of these things. Wonderbook is absolutely geared towards encouraging young writers to express art. As a teacher, I can’t think of any finer mission for a book on writing.
It’s a beautiful, unwieldy collaborative behemoth: VanderMeer’s writing is its main engine, but it’s assembled not only of his words and essays from contributing writers but also as a multimedia piece. No discussion of Wonderbook would be honest without mentioning that the wonder it seeks to inspire, it inspires through the partnership of words, illustration, and design. Many striking pieces are featured—Alexander Ansted’s drawing of York Minster, Scott Eagle’s “Icarus Elck,” Cassandra N. Railsea’s “The Incredible Sex Life of Boogie Crisper”—but even apart from the many vivid diagrams the entire book has a beautiful design sensibility. The effect is hard to describe. It simply wouldn’t be itself without its visual qualities; even the simple experience of reading a sentence about writing in the company of a quietly patterned, intricate border is a unique one.
This is essential to a handbook that tries to evoke the strange, multi-sensory, medium-blurring process of creating fiction. I was already friendly to the idea going in, but Wonderbook has convinced me that all how-to-write books should be illustrated.
The book itself is divided into chapters that varyingly address concepts, elements of story, and elements of process. Of these, I found the strongest pieces to be the opening two chapters, “Inspiration and the Creative Life” and “The Ecosystem of Story,” and Chapter 7, “Revision.” The first two contain a lot of the most encouraging and unrestrained insights in the book, and the third some of its most interesting process-oriented advice.
“Inspiration and the Creative Life” contains possibly my favorite quote from the entire book, on the subject of nurturing a curious mind in order to grow a creative one: “Curiosity reflects a willingness to be disappointed in a search for knowledge” (p. 13). It’s not often I see it acknowledged that being any kind of artist is both a nonstop and a delightful life decision: in all the discussion of words-on-the-page and time-at-the-typewriter, there’s often little acknowledgment that writing means constantly thinking, constantly wondering (“Wonderingbook” is a good subtitle). There’s a tendency in SFF social circles to define time by measurable productivity—even time thinking is noblest if spent actively solving the problems of a tangible project. Wonderbook values the meander, and how much the habit of learning is getting comfortable with the meander: with a pointless question or a confusing Wikipedia click trail. This value rather suffuses the book.
In “The Ecosystem of Story,” however, is some of the most interesting structural and purpose-driven discussion in all of Wonderbook, partly because it delves into subjects that are often not of much interest either to the typical literary craft discussion (let’s call this “straw David Foster Wallace”) or the typical genre one (let’s call this “straw J.R.R. Tolkien”). VanderMeer discusses here, among other things, the progress of focus and attention from a reader’s perspective and the acquisition of context—especially useful in a discussion of beginnings, which are too often anchored in excitingness. This chapter incorporates some very evocative diagrams and exercises, including one illustrating the widening focus of a story’s beginning (through a recurring character Myster Odd) and one encouraging the reader to walk through their own mental process of noticing context (through Armando Veve’s striking if somewhat oddly sexual illustration “Protein Myth”) (p. 64).
Not all of VanderMeer’s priorities and approaches are ones I can relate to, or that I’d even endorse. There is an odd approach to the subject of poetry that kind of underscores the whole book’s odd approach to the subject of genre and audience: namely, there is almost no approach to the subject of poetry, even though it’s something the book references several times. Many of the subjects of VanderMeer’s admiration are grounded in a poetic background and sensibility; it’s pretty pervasive in experimental, slipstream work. Yet there’s almost a distance from the subject assuming an audience who only likes and enjoys prose—at one point he quotes writer Stephen Graham Jones as saying, “The reader doesn’t want to hear how stupidly real people talk. No, the reader wants people to talk in poetry, like on the television show Deadwood. What the reader wants also is just the meat of the conversation, and sometimes for that meat to be pressed until it bleeds” (p. 53). I don’t disagree—though I’m not sure most beginner writing suffers from an excess of naturalism—but, while Jones is himself a capable writer, I rather think a lot of bad dialogue comes from writers who want their characters to talk in poetry but have no idea what that means.
The connection here to Wonderbook’s approach to genre is that, for all the applicability of its insights across a gamut of contexts, its examples almost all come from slipstream or literary fantasy and science fiction. That’s not a bad thing, and writers can’t be expected to teach from far outside their own interests and passions; VanderMeer’s subjectivity is the source of some of the best stuff in the book. What it means, though, is an uncertainty about audience—if this is a book friendly to teen writers, it’s not citing things many of them would have read or admired, nor even the most ambitious stuff they might aspire to. It’s a book friendly to literary sensibilities that shies a bit from engagement on a broad scale with literary fiction—even though, arguably, young writers are closer to poetry and literary fiction than they ever will be, because many of them have recently had to learn to read it. And if it isn’t a book for young writers, then what background does it assume? I’ve no opposition to writing advice to slipstream or literary genre writers, but in many respects I think this focus is even less useful to them: genre fiction with interests outside genre benefits from further exposure outside genre, not spiraling endlessly within it.
In this set of assumptions is also a complicated implicit worldview about the personal and the real. Genre fiction is so traditionally concerned with the literal that discussion of genre fiction almost always takes it for granted; oftentimes critics and teachers take pains to establish that metaphor, surrealism, and unreliability even exist in SFF. This leads to an interesting discomfort with the subject of reality. Early on, the book posits the idea of a “Scar or Splinter” as motivation to write: “the memory of a loss, a disappointment, a perceived great wrong that continues to create an agitation, an irritation, or at times an agony” (p. 16).
That this is the only major allusion to writing from trauma or madness strikes me as extraordinary, and very specific to genre fiction. Only in genre fiction are craft discussions so often intent on disavowing any relationship between art and pain—this tentative reference being a shy and unusual tendril to the contrary. No one pretends that life was kind to David Wojnarowicz or that Close to the Knives was not penned by the hand of, among many, many other things, incredible anguish; that Vaslav Nijinsky wrote his diaries because he was feeling well. But in SFF, at most the prevailing sentiment is that real feeling can be bundled up in extremely far-flung experiences, and that authenticity needn’t be too literal, and in fact might be better off not being. Here in science fiction and fantasy, we are all assumed to be well-adjusted human beings with compartmentalizable negativity in our lives—even if horrible and systemic, compartmentalizable all the same. A Scar, not an ugly mass of scar tissue. Of course, we are not—and I don’t even think it is the authorial belief that we are—but it is very much the current conversation and intended audience, and it leads to the glossing over of some peculiar things.
However, Wonderbook doesn’t aim to be machine-tooled in its own right either—a “Mecha-Fish,” as it charmingly refers to these over-engineered stories in one section (p. 272). Some of its loveliest aspects are where author diverges into genuinely personal opinion, in ways great and small. VanderMeer has an interesting and heterodox set of opinions and tastes; it’s a mark of professionalism and awareness of subjectivity that he doesn’t allow them to dominate a book that’s intended to be accessible to many, but they shine where they appear. At one point he questions the universal usefulness of local writing groups, which I enjoyed and, as a point of disclosure, agree with entirely—”I have always been and will always remain ambivalent about writing groups that also critique manuscripts” (p. 271). He points out the sanding-off effect and emergence of groupthink (and pressure to find things to fix where they may not exist, which is also extremely real); I also appreciated his implicit distinction between the social support of other writers and the ritual of critiquing manuscripts in the same group—that not all friends are good helpers and that the tensions of critique can ruin friendships, and vice versa.
The sensibility of the book is playful throughout. He names common pitfalls as characters—a “Gloomfish” that interprets everything in a haunted, gothic light (I am a proud Gloomfish) and a “Longinus” that writes too much feedback (I am a not-so-proud Longinus) among them. His moments of mild irony in examples are engaging and helpful: “Even a character passing through a marketplace in a fantasy setting may provide an opportunity to position your world in relation to the real world. Thus, writing ‘the marketplace was full of people and stalls selling clothes and food’ might not be your best option” (p. 222). Little devil’s advocate bubbles periodically dot the margins, providing alternate considerations to topics in the central columns. It’s all fun to read, and seldom lets the eye wander.
I haven’t much addressed the many essays and several appendices that comprise a large part of Wonderbook’s text, even though they add a great deal and comprise much of the revision the new edition offers. They are each fairly self-contained, though topical to various things and VanderMeer certainly relies on them to better illustrate or give a perspective on various considerations. They’re also something of a mixed bag, unsurprisingly: my favorites in the main text were Karen Lord’s “What is/What If: the Beauty of Mystery” and Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Thoughts on Exposition.” Of the appendices, I rather enjoyed George R.R. Martin’s lengthy interview because many writers’ interviews have a terminal case of glibness and quotability—of course they do, we all want to be quoted. Martin in particular being in a position not to care, though, means that he can just answer questions, even if the answers are cautious or not terribly committal. I’m always refreshed by noncommittal answers.
My favorite thing in the appendix, though, was “A Classroom Teacher’s Perspective” by Jackelyn Gitlin in the Shared Worlds section. Gitlin calls attention to something I find very important—that most advice for young writers is discouraging. Her philosophy fosters what is basically the ‘yes, and’ approach common to improv and it is incredibly refreshing. So many writers participate in the collective ritual of making fun of over-earnestness and overconfidence—the fact is, most people give up before they’re adults. A section on teaching writing intended to encourage, rather than discourage and gatekeep, is very well integrated into the mission of this book and I appreciated reading about the experiences at Shared Worlds.
I haven’t been able to touch on everything I liked—there were sets of questions about what a story’s ending accomplishes that I found striking, and too many thought-provoking exercises to name, some of which now live in a Google Docs file by themselves. In closing I’d like to draw attention to two things, though. One is a section where VanderMeer touches on the relationship between cinema and prose fiction, including the pitfalls; he talks interestingly and candidly about how cinema can inspire writing and how it can lead it astray. It’s a subject I’m interested in—I have to throw in a link to a series of 2018 blog posts by Wesley Osam on the subject of “Novelization Style” which I’ve thought about a lot—and I found myself wishing the book would explore it more. Cinematic influence on writers is more than just the ill-advised desire to have quick cuts and hard-to-explain fight scenes, I thought: it’s also the vocabulary of our memories and imaginations, the source of many things we picture—we can no longer write to an audience, realistically, who doesn’t have an extensive visual library of many things they’ve never seen. Then it occurred to me I was mentally demanding that someone else’s book be longer, which is, honestly, an excellent sign.
The other thing is that I am considering how to build a lesson around it. I think that speaks for itself. Maybe a few more little Gloomfish can have a chance each time.