WonderbookI thought I was done writing lengthy book reviews. Small, one-paragraph capsule opinions were going to replace full-blown analyses. But I recently read a book that I want more people to know about, and that means a longer review.

Writing manuals aren’t things I read much of. Maybe it shows in my writing. But I’ve always chafed at the idea that there are hard and fast rules to this craft. We often talk about it as if it’s carpentry or architecture, jobs where math and formulae are essential to building structures with foundations that hold together.  Surely writing, being an art, needs to play a little looser with the rules, pushing boundaries when that’s what’s needed to make a story work. Most manuals are aimed at making the creative process regimented, direct, and clear-cut, when the hard truth is that it’s rarely any of those things. Fortunately, I stumbled across a writing manual that may be the best one I’ve ever read.

Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide To Creating Imaginative Fiction sounds at first like it’s going to be the kind of thing I dread, and far too focused on a single genre to be of any general help. Neither is the case. Instead of laying down laws VanderMeer dispenses well-informed advice. He asks you to try something out in your writing and if it doesn’t work there are five other options to fall back on.

Most guides to writing begin with teaching mechanics, but VanderMeer opts to set the reader off with an entire chapter on inspiration; how important it is to play imaginatively, no matter what kind of fiction you’re writing. Throughout the book he uses examples from Dostoevsky, Fitzgerald, Nabokov, and Joyce Carol Oates to demonstrate that even though the cover art features a whale with a city on its back, the art of writing good fiction isn’t limited by the marketing tool of genre.

No writing manual has as much artwork in it, either, something VanderMeer points out in the introduction. Clever diagrams and metaphors for techniques abound, especially in the chapter on plot, where I finally found new ways to map out the structure of a story beyond the Freytag pyramid. Which of course opens up new avenues to think about how a story should be told. My favourite aspect to VanderMeer’s teaching style, though, is that he’s clearly poured his imagination into this book. The metaphors he uses to conceptualize techniques and ideas stick long after you’re done reading. My favourite is the recurring motif of the story as a living creature, with various systems and parts all working together in a complicated biosystem – dialogue interacting with setting interacting with point of view to keep an organism alive and functioning.

Small prompts and challenges are scattered throughout the book, and an appendix has longer exercises to put you and your imagination through your paces. I need to carve out some time and work on them. It’s safe for me to say that no book about writing has given me more inspiration or gotten me more excited to put pen to paper. It reminds me why I wanted to start doing it in the first place, and that’s just what I needed right now.

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