Book Recommendation: Wonderbook

Wonderbook: the illustrated guide to creating imaginative fiction, by Jeff VanderMeer

Kate Cayley. Credit: Livia Ambrose

Full disclosure: I have not read Jeff VanderMeer’s fiction, though I’ve been meaning to read The Southern Reach Trilogy for years. His work, as I understand it, is technically fantasy/sci-fi, though he seems to prefer “imaginative fiction,” as less constraining. I think I do too. It encompasses more. And isn’t all fiction imaginative?

Even fuller disclosure: I don’t read much fantasy or sci-fi, and what I do read is heavily freighted towards the literary, a bit like people (including me) who know so little about country music they think Gillian Welch is a country singer (I was recently sternly informed that she isn’t a “real” country singer). That said, this is a failing in me. But I am hopelessly aligned with literary realism, and it might be too late to change that now.

This book, which is a how-to guide like no other, was recommended to me by a writer friend. And it’s brilliant. If you come from a family that exchanges presents in December, put this on your wish list. If you don’t, consider buying it. If money is tight, get it out of the library, which has multiple copies. It is, as far as I can tell, everything you need to know about writing: what feeds it, what it is, where it comes from, and the strange and difficult to calibrate balance between discipline and freedom required to pull it off. It has bonkers, over-the-top illustrations, sidebars by other writers, and a website the reader can visit if they want a point elaborated. It’s sprawling, messy, inspiring, weird, generative. I’ve left it open on the floor beside my desk at home, so that when I’m stuck (which is often) I can glance down and feel like there is someone to remind me that this work is difficult, temperamental, indefinable, and achievable. That it’s hard because it’s meant to be, because you are trying to tap into something thrumming and obscure and particular to you and translate it into terms that are explicable to someone else. And also that writing is delightful, and done for reasons of delight. All fiction is imaginative, whether it’s speculative, fantastic, or (like most of what I write) squarely within the bounds of a cautious and constrained realism, which is, of course, also an act of speculation, throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. If you want to write fiction, or be reminded of the reasons you write fiction, give this a look.