Writing Books That Work

If you’re reading this, the odds are that you are a writer, have considered writing, or like reading about writers. Most writers (perhaps fewer than should) read an awful lot, and into every writer’s life must come at some point a book about writing. Whether it’s Strunk & White or The First Five Pages, that book is the first in a long series of epiphanies and disappointments.

A book about writing that resonates with you can change your writing life, especially early on, but most books about writing suck. Not the “your favorite band sucks” kind of suck, but the suck that comes from being average and not striking lightning. Some writing books are better or worse in terms of their prose or organization. Some are targeted so excruciatingly close to the current market that they’re useless ten years later, let alone twenty. Many of them won’t resonate with you because the author is a hack, prude, panderer, aesthete, jackass, moralizer, nobody, or other type that just doesn’t jibe with you.

What books work for me? I listed a pile of these in a comment to a post on Jeff VanderMeer’s blog several years ago, and if you’re looking for a survey of writing books, check out that post. Of the long list there, I regularly go to John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist and Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing. Both are complex and opinionated enough that they reward rereading, and they get me to rethink my own opinions, as well as helping me past rough patches.

wonderbook by jeff vandermeer

Wonderbook, by Jeff VanderMeer

To my long list of writing books that work, I would now add Jeff’s new book about imaginative fiction, Wonderbook. (Amazon; companion website). Whether I’ll be going to it ten years from now, only time will tell, but there are many features to recommend it…

  • Difference. This is not like other writing books you’ve read. It looks more like an art book, or (to some extent) a graphic design book than a writing book.
  • Multiple voices. Sidebars, comments, etc. feature conflicting viewpoints. I value having my writing assumptions challenged, and this book does that. The list of contributors is long, but includes a host of people, such as: Joe Abercrombie, John Crowley, Karen Joy Fowler, Neil Gaiman, Lev Grossman, George R. R. Martin, Nnedi Okorafor, and more.
  • Well made. How many badly typeset, illustration-free writing books printed on pulpy paper have I read? Reader, you don’t want to know. Every one of these pages, however, is a delight to the senses.
  • Visual richness. The web can be blamed for many, many things, but we can thank it for the widespread dissemination of new ways of displaying information. Wonderbook has this down pat, from diagrams to sidebars to layout to lists to “recurring characters.”
  • Recommendations. Many suggestions for authors to read more of, from non-fiction to fiction.
  • Multiple levels. This is a book I could have gotten help from at age ten… and from which I am getting a lot of useful stuff right now, in my current superannuated state.

I’m not an unbiased reader of this book, but my comments above are made with a clean conscience. This is a good book about writing, and frankly it’s good for you regardless of what kind of fiction you’re writing. What didn’t I like about it? At this point, nothing. The one thing I’ll say that could throw some people off is that is is a dense book, physically and otherwise. There’s a lot here. If you’re looking for a quick, mono-focus book about how to do X writing task more effectively, this ain’t it. Instead, it’s a book that attempts to say a little about everything in creating imaginative fiction, from many different perspectives. I think it’s beautiful, I’ve learned things from it, and I intend to keep it nearby for rereading. Here’s a trailer, if you’d like to know more.

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