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I just finished reading “Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction” by Jeff Vandermeer, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.  Its 300 pages are filled with words and illustrations containing invaluable writing advice, as well as exercises, planning guides, and contributions from famous authors.  The book’s target audience is writers of genres like fantasy and science fiction, and it is clear that Vandermeer’s personal interests skew more towards the weird.  However, I think the lessons contained within are useful for every kind of fiction, because “Wonderbook” encourages the writer to think outside the box and develop full and meaningful characters and settings, whether those characters and settings are down to earth or completely off the wall.

From the front cover, I was immediately hooked by Vandermeer’s style.  The island city built on the back of a whale seems to say that nothing is quite as it seems in the fantasy world, and that sense of mystery and wonder is what a writer needs to harness in order to capture the reader.  From the illustrations and examples that Vandermeer employs, he seems to delight in the truly odd, often explaining a writing convention only to turn it on its head.  His first chapter, about inspiration fueling creativity, explains how the disparate identities and memories of the writer can combine in the writer’s mind to create the jolt of energy that gives rise to a creative idea.  The examples he offers confirm that stories can come from the most random and unexpected sources.

"Cognitive Transformation" by Ben Tolman, from page 26 of "Wonderbook" by Jeff Vandermeer.

“Cognitive Transformation” by Ben Tolman, from page 26 of “Wonderbook” by Jeff Vandermeer.

Vandermeer goes on to describe the process for outlining a story, using the analogy of a living, breathing creature.  The story-creature must be properly assembled (the muscles, bones, and organs need to be functioning together), much like a story is built on top of a plot which has an internal logic and consistency.  If the author nurtures and feeds the story-creature, it can become a healthy adult creature.  However, as Vandermeer, shows in the diagram below, this is far from the final step in the lifecycle of a story:

From page 70-71 of "Wonderbook"

From page 70-71 of “Wonderbook”

“Wonderbook” also extensively delves into character development, plotting, worldbuilding (and mapping!), and revision.  I especially enjoyed one section where Vandermeer produces a few different beginnings for one of his published novels, “Finch”, and explains why he decided to start the novel where he did.  This is very helpful, because the decision of which exact moment to use at the opening of a novel affects the level of tension that is infused in the first scene, which in turn sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Vandermeer also spends time talking about proper endings, and even middles, which is another topic that doesn’t usually receive much attention.  Here is one map from the book which depicts the perils that await in muddling through the middle:

Map of the Middle Zone, from page 118 of "Wonderbook"

Map of the Middle Zone, from page 118 of “Wonderbook”

Vandermeer’s “Wonderbook” is a rich and engaging guidebook for the creative writer.  Its advice is practical, its examples are colorful, and it is sure to inspire any aspiring author to start putting pen to paper (or hands to keyboard).  You can pick it up from Amazon here:  http://www.amazon.com/Wonderbook-Illustrated-Creating-Imaginative-Fiction/dp/1419704427

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