REVIEW: 'Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction,' by Jeff VanderMeer

  • Article by: WILLIAM ALEXANDER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 14, 2013 - 2:00 PM


“Wonderbook” by Jeff VanderMeer, illustrated by Jeremy Zerfoss © Abrams Image, 2013

Jeff VanderMeer and Jeremy Zerfoss have created a kaleidoscopically rich and beautiful book about fiction writing. Any summary would be inadequate, so let’s illustrate the experience of reading Wonderbook by playing a parlor game.

Yes, I’m serious. The game is called Smoke. Choose a famous person, real or imaginary. The rest of us will try to guess the person you’ve chosen by asking for illustrative metaphors. The first question is always the same: “If this person were a kind of smoke, what kind would they be?” Cheap incense? Cigar smoke celebrating a birth? Acrid smoke billowing from the open windows of a car deliberately set on fire? Tell us.

Next we’ll make up questions. What kind of meal? Muppet? Weapon? Book? Not what kind of book would this person read — if they turned into a book, what book would it be?

At first, guessing seems impossible. Then, suddenly, it becomes easy. Accumulated metaphors coalesce into an accurate portrait, and we all know the person you picked.

Imagine the whimsy, camaraderie, and inventiveness of an excellent Smoke game.

That’s “Wonderbook.”

It is a guide to creative writing, and as such offers exercises, analysis and reconsiderations of received advice like “write what you know.” It also offers essays, interviews and various snippets of distilled insight by a diverse crowd of contributing authors. This turns the book into an open invitation: Come join a vast and welcoming literary community. Play parlor games with Ursula K. Le Guin, George R.R. Martin and Nnedi Okorafor.

“Wonderbook” is also a kind of bestiary, positing fictions as life forms in a flourishing ecosystem. In this mode, it’s like something written by Jane Goodall after years of studying the island of Doctor Moreau. Zerfoss’ rich and strange illustrations show off the teeth and scales of various story-beasts. The guidebook-as-bestiary is gleefully, fantastically silly — and equally serious in its potential for expanding our understanding of narrative. Here’s VanderMeer on the difference between story structure (planned out in advance) and plot (an emergent result): “Structure is the body of the beast as defined by the bones and organs inside; plot is what the beast looks like in motion, from the outside, going somewhere.” It is important to know where the story-bones fit, but a taxonomic sense of structure won’t tell us how our fictions might behave in the wild.

Come join them in the wild — which is also the parlor, where wise and celebrated authors are still playing games.

You’re invited.

William Alexander is the author of “Goblin Secrets,” winner of a National Book Award, and “Ghoulish Song.” He lives in Minneapolis.

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  • Jeff VanderMeer , author of WONDERBOOK

  • Illustration from “Wonderbook” by Jeff VanderMeer, illustrated by Jeremy Zerfoss © Abrams Image, 2013

  • An image from “Wonderbook” by Jeff VanderMeer, illustrated by Jeremy Zerfoss. © Abrams Image, 2013


    By: Jeff VanderMeer, illustrated by Jeremy Zerfoss.

    Publisher: Abrams, 352 pages, $24.95.

    Review: Yes, a guide to creative writing, but one written and illustrated with whimsy, camaraderie and inventiveness.

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