James Chew is forced to reevaluate his stance on books about writing after reading Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer 

It’s Nanowrimo season. For those that don’t know, Nanowrimo is essentially a self-motivated challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. Crazy, right? Yet scores of people every year sign up, and a significant number go on to completion, helped along by various pep talks and motivational speeches from various pro writers.

Writing advice is a tough game. Everyone’s process works differently (do shoot me if I ever start using the term ‘craft’); the whole point of any creative enterprise is that the results aren’t heterogeneous. As someone who writes—albeit infrequently—I’ve always considered myself somewhat unteachable. Case in point: the Nanowrimo pep talks. Sure, Patrick Rothfuss makes a few good points, but this is the guy who brought us such literary gems as the Name of the Wind. If I don’t respect the writer, I’m not much interested in the advice.  So aside from the odd blogpost here or there, I’ve been quite content in my solipsism. And then I saw avant-garde, New Weird proponent of squid and meta-fiction, Jeff Vandermeer, had released a book on writing.

Thus Wonderbook. I thought I’d put my money where my mouth is and read the damn thing – either I’m wrong and writing can be taught, or I’m right and the business of writing advice is useless regardless of who’s giving the advice. I’m pleased to say that Wonderbook is an incredible piece of work, reflecting the medium it’s examining: a piece of art in itself. Although heavily weighted towards creators of more speculative and genre fiction, the book is an incredibly useful tool for inspiration. Lavishly illustrated with a series of delightfully idiosyncratic images and diagrams – including various mechanical fish illustrating the body and ecosystems of varying kinds of fiction—Wonderbook is a handbook for the creator with a penchant for the strange.

The fabulous artwork serves a greater purpose than just providing sparks of inspiration; each piece has been carefully selected to illustrate points made in the accompanying text. Thus, two markedly different portraits of a King and his Hippo help expound upon the relationship between characterisation and story. Beautifully decorated as the text is, Wonderbook never loses sight of its goal: to be a tool for creative writing. Slowly and carefully, the book explores the creation of a piece of fiction from beginning to end through a series of chapters charting the progression from inspiration to outline to technique. Interspersed are various sidebars – elaborating on things within the main text, or providing commentary and alternate perspectives from other writers. I noted Catherynne Valente, Ursula K. LeGuin and Neil Gaiman amongst the host of contributors. Some of the side-content is a little gimmicky, but the juxtaposition of differing voices works wonders for the most part, providing a compendium of useful advice and possible strategies.

Possibility is important – the text is at pains to make clear that there is no real right way to write, which is its greatest strength. The book is compendium of ideas, inspiration, and technical advice, but it makes sure never to overshadow the role of the writer in ultimately creating the work. It’s easy to get lost in the fine detail The sheer volume of stuff in Wonderbook is a little overwhelming – but a book on writing that actually understand the process of writing, gives an incredible amount of helpful advice, sources for inspiration, and microscopic analysis of a scene from Gormenghast, is a treasure not to be passed over.



James Chew