On The Subject Of: Wonderbook

Wonderbook deserves its name.

It’s a guide to writing and storytelling so amazing, I have a hard time conjuring words to even describe it. Mostly what comes out of me are sputtering guhs and wuhs with the occasional drawn out whoooooooa. It’s easy to be wowed and cowed by the list of contributors (including folks like Lauren Beukes, Joe Abercrombie, Cat Valente, George R.R. Martin, and oh, that one guy, Neil Gaiman). But to look just at the list of names is like marveling at a fancy brand of chocolate bar without ever taking a bite.

This book is chockablock with sublime bites.

It is a smorgasbord of authorial value — and what’s great is, it doesn’t just take you down the bog-standard here’s how you create compelling characters, here’s how you outline, here’s how you drink yourself into a shame-spiral stupor. It covers that stuff, sure. But this tackles the countless shapes that story can take. This offers an utterly unparalleled look at the elements of character, plot, theme, style, and story. It explores genre and worldbuilding and editing and, and, and. Loaded for bear with examples. (And hey, tiny brag: Blackbirds warrants an itty-bitty mention…)

Endless essays. I’ll be chewing through this dude for a long while, revisiting again and again. And if you pick it up, so will you.

It’s beautiful: a piece of art all on its own.

It’s dense, like baklava.

Oh, and it’s heavy. Like, you could bludgeon a horse with this thing.

Vandermeer and Zerfoss — sounding like a malevolent Vaudeville team — have put together a storytelling guide for the ages.

I am in awe.

You need it.

It’s coming out next week.

In the meantime, though, here’s Jeff to talk more about the book:

1) Where’d the idea for Wonderbook come from?

Ever since Booklife, I’d been thinking about moving from career advice to a book on the craft and art of writing. Then my editor at the time at Abrams Image, Caitlin Kenney, told me they had wanted to publish a writing guide for a while, and so I pitched Wonderbook to them as a follow up to The Steampunk Bible. It seemed like an incredible opportunity to do something unique. Also, Abrams had been really good to me to that point about creative control, so it seemed like a no-brainer. And that held true throughout the entire project. Basically, they gave me the finances to go off and hire my own designers and artists and come back to them with a camera-ready book. They did offer edits on the text and copy-editing/proofing, of course, but they really did just let me bring it to them camera-ready, exactly as I’d envisioned it. In fact, we came in almost 100 pages over our intended page count and I expected to have to cut something but David Cashion, who took over as editor when Kenney left Abrams, made that go smoothly, too.

2) This must’ve been an epic undertaking, so I gotta know: how the hell did you wrangle this thing into existence?

Without a Las Vegas artist named Jeremy Zerfoss I don’t know if it could’ve happened. He has a playful pop art sensibility that’s flexible enough to do a variety of things, and he was willing to collaborate with me for over two years on the project, working from my crude rough sketches. Having World Fantasy Award winning artist John Coulthart as a design consultant to stabilize and bring structure to the layout was also essential. Then I knew I wanted the book to be layered—to make use of the margins for notes and extras, to include sidebar essays by other writers like Neil Gaiman and Ursula K. Le Guin, to weave in a running commentary by little cartoon characters (Jeremy’s invention), and for the images to be a mix of functional diagrams, functional art, and decorative art—with some diagrams pushing beyond beginner/intermediate level. So, it was imperative to have the ability to make adjustments throughout the layout stage so main text, image, and subsidiary text matched up. It was also a process of delaying at times to let ideas mature, to think about the text you’ve written—and to run it by my first readers and my dear friend Matthew Cheney, who is extraordinary when it comes to thinking about creative writing, and many other things. I also got to test parts of it at Shared Worlds, the teen SF/F writing camp I help run, even though the book’s not specifically for teens. But it’s true Jeremy and I began to joke about the process through a series of images on facebook, to relieve stress and because I think subconsciously we were afraid the project would never end.

3)  I know this is like choosing a favorite child, pet, or ice cream flavor, but what’s your favorite page from this book?

The lifecycle of a story two-pager is definitely a favorite. You can see from this image that we went through a process to get from cartoonish but gross to something…cuter. And I like how it ties in with the Resurrected Story diagram near the end of the book, which turned out, I think, just gorgeous. But it is tough—I kinda like the nutso page of Action in Dialogue, with its variations on “Halt, thief!” And then for stuff that came to us from other people, Michael Cisco’s The Zero’s Relapse, taking the piss out of Joseph Campbell’s Mono Myth still makes me laugh out loud.

4)  Can you give us a taste from the book? A paragraph you love, or a random paragraph, or however you care to choose it.

In general, one thing I like is how Facebook affected the text. Like, I posted a paragraph about description on fb, and Margo Lanagan pointed out another option, so I just included her quote about it in that section. So, that aspect of the text acquiring depth and layering in unique ways is kind of cool. In terms of a specific paragraph, I like this one quite a bit because it is part of a running story within the narrative involving a talking penguin, who also appears in the images at times, so the reader gets this kind of embedded meta-story that instructional but fun too. The art accompanying this, by Jeremy Zerfoss of course, is, in this case, mostly decorative.

Scene time blossoms within the reader, triggered by your level of control over your material. A fistfight (wingfight?) between our friend the talking penguin (let’s call him Fred) and his nemesis Danger Duck might play out in seconds in real, objective time but seem to take long, fascinating minutes in the context of your story, as you draw out every detail of every slapping blow and every bead of feather-sweat knocked off in the process. You might slow things down even further by opening up the fight scene to show us a glimpse of Fred’s first wingfight as a chick. Or, sped up, the scene might be dismissed in a couple of lines, depending on your purpose in telling us about the fight. Perhaps it’s the aftermath you need the reader to fully understand. The important thing is that, in going back over your first draft, you know what you wanted to accomplish.

5) Anything get left on the cutting room floor for a Wonderbook Two: Fantasy Boogaloo?

We couldn’t fit an editor roundtable dissecting a promising story by a new writer, with participants including Ellen Datlow, Asimov’s editor Sheila Williams, Nick Mamatas, Gardner Dozois, James Patrick Kelly, Liz Gorinsky, Paula Guran, and my wife Ann VanderMeer. It was a case of the visual aspect making it take up over 30 or 40 pages, which we just didn’t have if we wanted the book to breathe. So that’ll run in a more basic form onWonderbooknow.com when it goes live on October 15 and then in a more visual form once Jeremy Zerfoss gets finished with it, that’s a bit like this example.