Harry N. Abrams, 2013, 332 pages
This all-new definitive guide to writing imaginative fiction takes a completely novel approach and fully exploits the visual nature of fantasy through original drawings, maps, renderings, and exercises to create a spectacularly beautiful and inspiring object. Employing an accessible, example-rich approach, Wonderbook energizes and motivates while also providing practical, nuts-and-bolts information needed to improve as a writer. Aimed at aspiring and intermediate-level writers, Wonderbook includes helpful sidebars and essays from some of the biggest names in fantasy today, such as George R. R. Martin, Lev Grossman, Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock, Catherynne M. Valente, and Karen Joy Fowler, to name a few.
If you are a would-be writer and you've read your share of how-to-write-gud books, then after a while they all start to repeat the same advice and it's rare to find one that tells you anything you don't already know. At a certain point, you're at the same place I am in my martial arts training: I've learned most of what I can about the principles behind what I need to progress, but actually doing it right is a matter of (1) practice, and (2) finding that internal accordance that allows you to put into effect what you know on the surface but cannot get your body to do.
So it is with writing: you know what the elements of good story/bad story are, you know grammar, you know why rules are important, and when/how you can break them (or you think you know...), you are familiar with all the bad old tropes and cliches and habits of inferior storytelling, and you've got a handle on concepts like narrative structure, POV, hooks, prologues (when to use, when not to use), Freytag Pyramids and Hero's Journeys, revision and worldbuilding and the artistic and professional difference between short stories and long-form fiction...
None of which necessarily makes you a better writer.
Wonderbook, then, beneath its flashy skin, while containing a large amount of material in its seven thick, illustrated chapters, offers not much that you probably haven't read before if this isn't your first guide to writing speculative fiction (or "imaginative fiction" as editor Jeff VanderMeer prefers).
What it does offer is a lot of artwork mapping out concepts in ways you probably haven't thought of them before. For a very visual person, this may trigger new approaches, but even if that's not how you learn, there are lots of pretty (and funny, and grotesque) pictures to look at.
There are also a lot of writing exercises, and not just your garden variety ones.
Of more interest, perhaps, are the sidebars, essays, interviews, and advice columns by Lauren Beukes, Catherynne Valente, George R. R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Lev Grossman, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Charles Yu, Joe Abercrombie, and tons of other contemporary big names in "speculative fiction."
It is supplemented by a website with additional material.
I enjoyed reading Wonderbook very much. A few chunks offered the potential for some self-improvement, but it was also inspirational in its density of ideas and imagery. Even if, like me, you arrogantly think few writing books bring much new to the table as far as you're concerned, it's the sort of book that is a pleasure to page through and which you will definitely want to own in hardcopy, as a digital edition just can't do it justice. Anyone who feels a need for guidance and writing prompts and exercises will find this book probably the best investment you can make short of going to an actual writers' workshop.
Wonderbook is a 2014 Hugo Nominee for "Best Related Work," and if it loses to a podcast, a blog post, or wanking over Dr. Who, I will be a sad puppy.
Verdict: A fantastic workshop for would-be writers, a masterwork in visual and literary mediums, a huge collection of advice and exercises, recognizable Names galore, and a pretty good coffee table book. Highly recommended.
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