Wonderbook

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book by Jeff VanderMeer

illustrations by Jeremy Zerfoss

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I have this compulsion to buy people books—books they MUST have. But long ago I learned that it’s impossible to sustain a family on that impulse, so instead, I recommend.  The recommendations frequently come with a bossy, “Seriously, you HAVE to get a copy, you MUST read this,” or run in punishingly long emails about said books filling unwitting friends’ inboxes.

But this year’s recommend,  Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer has gotten a bit out of control, as, since I first laid eyes on it, I want every writer and teacher of writing to have a copy. I would like to lay it in the hands of so many people and have written so many emails and have used giant hand gestures with my students, insisting they each get a copy that, well, it’s getting embarrassing.

It’s difficult to talk about Wonderbook without totally spazzing out about its awesomeness, but fortunately, in this space, it’s not about reviews or raving, it’s about talking about what is useful to us as writers. So I can calm down. And be in control. Right?

Because of its subtitle: An Illustrated Guide to Writing Imaginative Fiction and the writers who appear in its pages (Neal Gaiman, Ursula K LeGuin, George RR Martin and Michael Moorcock, among others,)  realistic fiction writers or writers not in the genre of science fiction and fantasy may think this book is not for them. And that’s where I start jumping up and down and ranting.

As soon as the book arrived in the mail this past October, I started using charts from its pages to help teach my students (all of whom write a variety of types of fiction at a variety of levels) plot, character, process and whatever my class was discussing in our last few lessons. I can yammer all day about plots, their varieties and patterns, but the plot lizards do so much work in gorgeous images, not to mention the Story vs. Situation dragons (pictured above,) the Storyfish (who brings on the Ass Backwards Fish in the revision section, a gorgeous illustration of exactly what was wrong with a certain element of my novel before a very skilled developmental editor got his hands on it) and the evolutionary Lifecycle of a Story.

What stopped me – totally stopped me – in a gobsmacking way in the book was an illustration of The Middle Zones (116) of story. There on the page, completely illustrated, was something I’d tried explaining to so many writers over years of doing notes for friends or in teaching . From my screenwriting days, I’d called it the Second Act Wall. It’s when the initial steam of starting a script, or novel, poops out. You’ve introduced these characters you had so clearly in your head, the world you’ve put them in, the circumstances that got you excited to write it in the first place, but you have absolutely no idea how to proceed.  In this illustration, one of Jeremy Zerfoss’s little faceless (but totally animated) creatures walks around a chart, saying  things I’ve heard from so many writers who are stuck: “This senseless slog.” “I never should have started.” “I will never get to the end.” “My outline is stupid, method suspect. I no longer know what I’m doing.” The chart provides questions to ask of your manuscript, suggestions how to proceed (or as Diane Sherlock has been known to say, ‘poke it with a stick’), but moves in a circle, demonstrating so completely the utter hell that is the Middle Zone. When you’re in it, you feel you’ll never emerge. Along the edge of this wheel are hopeful words of encouragement and suggestions, “persevere,” “new venue,” “new energy.” And to describe it further is not going to get you any closer to having the book, which, if you are a writer and/or teacher of writing, you should probably do. (Like now.) Because a picture is worth a thousand words and I’ve used up only two-fifty in this chunk.

Useful (and beautiful) diagrams and gorgeous illustrations aside, the book is chock full of very useful and practical writing advice on every stage of writing, from inspiration, through characters, narrative design, world building, revision (progression was an revelatory for me and so useful now even in drafting) and the ecosystem of a story, which is my favorite section in regards to teaching:

 Like living creatures, stories come in a bewildering number of adaptations and mutations. Even within the constraint of written words, incredible variety occurs due to the near-infinite number of possible combinations. Anyone who tells you there are only a dozen types of stories should be viewed with as much suspicion as someone who tells you “all animals are the same.” A penguin is not a hamster; nor is a prawn a sea cucumber, an elephant a squid, an anteater, a dragon. (41)

So often I have students coming in with “rules” they have learned from various craft books, or from cranky teachers who believe that there is only one way to write. And often these rules have shut them down completely. It takes all manner of talking to open these writers up a little, to give them courage in their own process, and to give them the nerve to continue or sometimes to go back to the page at all. The greatest asset of this book is that it speaks gently and kindly to the writer. It contains volumes of information and knowledge, but isn’t bossy or didactic. It is more – like the chart of The Middle Zone – filled with gentle suggestions and useful information to help a writer proceed. Because at the end of the day, at least among the writers I know, we face enough demons, we don’t need an instructor prescribing our various processes.

But we sure could use a big, broad, colorful, but carefully laid out guide full of advice from so many writers who have been there, filled with encouragement, tools and tricks of the trade. This book has tools for novices, but also for pros and, were these words not copyrighted on another infamous Guide, DON’T PANIC (in giant font,) would be completely appropriate for its cover.

If you want to dip further into the world of Wonderbook, you can find more here.

The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing

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book by Alice La Plante

annotation by Andromeda Romano-Lax

I must have about fifty trade-edition writing craft books on my shelves, but I still keep buying them, in search of some hidden magic that will help me as a writer, or a clearer articulation of some venerable craft topic (like POV) that I can steal—I mean, emulate—to improve my own teaching. For a long while, I avoided textbooks at all costs: too impersonally written, too dense, too much under one cover, and those bland discussion questions scattered throughout, reminding me not of college, but of high school–yuck. But the more I teach, the more I accept that textbooks do have a place. If only they weren’t so ridiculously expensive!

This newer one by Alice Plante (author of the novel, Turn of Mind), I am happy to say, is not. Marketed, priced, and designed as a general reference but structured as a comprehensive textbook, LaPlante’s 677-page guide covers creative writing process and composition strategies (including purpose of writing, coming up with ideas), craft (characterization, narration, scenic construction, point of view, dialogue, beginnings, revision), and anthology (learning from masters, with full texts of 26 short stories and nonfiction essays).

While focused mainly on fiction, a limited number of anthologized works and one chapter at the end are dedicated to creative nonfiction, and LaPlante frequently makes mention of ethical concerns and crossover issues between the genres. She also uses a nonfiction essay by novelist Francine Prose to elucidate creative writing concepts. Numerous shorter passages from notable authors are also used as examples throughout each chapter. Generative exercises are provided, as are strong examples of students’ responses to the exercises. Not included are more conventional textbook-like discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Instead, a general questioning tone and points to consider (for example, “is it possible to define a short story?”) are woven throughout the discussions of craft.

The elements covered and stories anthologized position this text as appropriate for both undergraduate and graduate study, while the personal voice and non-dogmatic, highly readable text as well as non-textbook style design throughout seem to aim for a wider, general audience. (Not to be overlooked is the more affordable price, $21.95 for the first edition, in comparison with expensive textbooks with similar craft and anthology content, such as Burroway’s Writing Fiction, 8th edition, priced at $96.33.) Discussion of craft is pitched at a sophisticated level, with a spirited, opinionated tone and an occasional emphasis on debunking writerly myths or oversimplifications, as well as an openness to questions that have no easy answers. On the subject of metaphor exercises, for example, LaPlante (a successful novelist as well as experienced teacher) is refreshingly unapologetic (123): “There is absolutely no way to do a metaphor writing exercise, because that defeats the purpose. If it doesn’t come up organically, within the creative process of the story, then it isn’t worth anything. Its only value is within context.”

Technique overviews that stand out as more distinctive or nuanced in comparison with many classroom-oriented writing guides include LaPlante’s  discussion of imagery that works at both the concrete and abstract or emotional level (chapter 3); a defense of narration and a clearer explanation of the showing-telling continuum (in contrast with the too-often quoted simplication, “show don’t tell,” (chapter 5) including bolded passages by authors Smiley, Proulx, O’Connor, Hemingway, and Wolff that help the reader distinguish between showing and telling; a more rigorous explanation of the unreliable narrator and types of reliability (chapter 7); explanation of story versus plot (chapter 9); and the art of transferring true emotions onto sensory events (chapter 12). LaPlante is candid about drawbacks to the workshop method, and carefully defines the multiple developmental stages of a creative work, advocating a more cautious approach to the giving and receiving of feedback, as well as a more process-oriented “anti-workshop method” (551) for “exploding” works in progress using exercises, in contrast with product-oriented editing or polishing. By contrast, a less distinguished chapter on characters (chapter 10) included mostly pedestrian explanations (flat versus round, general versus specific, wants and needs) and few surprises or insights in comparison with other craft chapters in this book.

More commonly anthologized story choices in this guide include Chekhov’s “Lady with the Little Dog,” Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” and Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” as well as stories by Lorrie Moore, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Raymond Carver, and the much-anthologized “Shitty First Drafts” essay by Anne Lamott. There are also some less-obvious choices, including Katha Politt’s “Learning to Drive,” plus a nonfiction essay by D. T. Max about the Raymond Carver-Gordon Lish editing relationship.

In my own teaching, I will consider LaPlante’s guide as a strong alternative to better-selling textbooks. I appreciated in particular the voice used to address writers at all levels (complex explanations clarified by well-chosen examples, without condescension), more nuanced craft discussions on elusive topics, strong examples of student writings (which would help me choose between exercises and frame my own expectations for student work), and the inclusion of creative nonfiction examples and issues within the larger discussion of fiction craft. Bravo to LaPlante, and to Norton, for putting out a more affordable textbook-style reference guide that any writer in any setting can use.