When you hear the phrase, “writing guide,” unpleasant things may spring to mind: sentence diagrams or even — shudder to think — your high school textbook.
Now, imagine the exact opposite, and you might get Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook. It’s a writing guide, sure, but it’s unlikely you’ve seen one like this before. Misbegotten fish serve as models for revision. Dragons butt in from the margins to contradict lessons. There’s even a talking penguin — but don’t get him started on what he thinks of the duck.
Over email, VanderMeer tells me about his collaboration with Jeremy Zerfoss, the book’s principal illustrator, and his unique approach to teaching writing.
It may seem a bit counterintuitive to turn to visual art when understanding writing. While you were working on the book, did you find there were any points past which words failed you, when you felt an illustrator might explain a concept better?
My mother’s an artist and I tend to think visually in my own writing. So finding the right synergies of image with text while creating the book was fun, even invigorating, because it felt organic and a form of play even as it was also a serious search for useful ways to express concepts.
I’d say the “Lifecycle of a Story” exemplifies the streamlined quality of using illustrative diagrams in a way that words couldn’t necessarily match. It also allowed us to extend the metaphor or analogy of writing through the point of someone publishing a story without diluting our focus (because Wonderbook isn’t a career guide). So some illustrations replace the need for text entirely. Others are meant to push to the edge of what’s possible — like “Approaches to Style,” which uses color swatches to describe different writer styles.
While we’re on the topic of illustration, your name may be bold on the cover, but you still managed to gather a number of cooks in the kitchen for this.
I gave Jeremy [Zerfoss] rough sketches along with a document detailing the text, or an overlay of text (using Microsoft Paint — I’m primitive), and he would create from that. For the Lifecycle of a Story, for example, he gave me four iterations of the frog beastie before we got to the right one. And then either he or I would create visual echoes as we went along, with reoccurring characters or situations, so resonance built up.
Then with others, like the Serbian artist Ivica Stevanovic, he was creating evocative art, not diagrams, so sometimes I’d just email him and say “I need a king hugging a hippo in a realistic style and a flat style” and he’d come back with a sketch. Or, “I need a rabbit that looks like it might be able to talk,” and he’d email back and say, “Is it okay if it looks like a God-rabbit because that is the only kind of rabbit I can draw right now,” and I’d say, “Sure!”
Plenty of writers refuse to even address their writing process, yet you do so in the book extensively. Was it difficult to turn the microscope on your own writing?
There’s this weird thing that happens when you’ve been writing for a long time. It’s not about achieving mastery because I firmly believe you never achieve mastery; you just acquire more tools and more experience.
But what does happen is you can forget how to articulate the basics to other people, especially in written form. So you spend some time thinking about that. You also spend time thinking about things like, for example, why plot, structure, and form seem like such slippery terms in most writing books. I finally realized I don’t really think in terms of plot. I think in terms of characters that inhabit or create structures, and within those structures are beats and progressions that form what is known as plot.
In that case, it seemed more honest and less confusing to just start the Narrative Design chapter by acknowledging this difficulty in defining things. This seemed more helpful than setting out absolutes, to acknowledge there is some subjectivity.
You’re a forgiving teacher, welcoming exceptions and different approaches to writing. So I couldn’t help but think: This guy has to have some pet peeves. Are there any mistakes you just can’t stand to see a young writer make?
There are a fair number of pet peeves expressed in Wonderbook, but there are so many different kinds of writers that being too negative or “thou shalt not”-ish seems not particularly useful — and sometimes dangerous, as too many beginning writers want those Three Tips That Will Get Them Published or The One True Way. At one point, I include an aside: “If you’re a writer like Leonora Carrington, these [plot] diagrams may be as useful as shoving grilled cheese sandwiches into your gas tank.” Although now that I think about it, Carrington might’ve found shoving grilled cheese sandwiches into a gas tank creatively interesting.
In all seriousness, though, pet peeves off the top of my head include: clichés like “off the top of my head”; over-reliance on dialogue tags; writing a deep, emotive scene and then telling the reader what you just showed them; showing the reader what they’d prefer to be told (and quickly); and (this one happens a lot in our internet world) using clichéd details that appear to indicate that you took careful notes on the settings in your favorite TV show rather than from the real world.
But my number one pet peeve? Writers who flail about trying to follow trends or some idea of “writer” that isn’t realistic, or some idea of them as a writer projected onto them by other people. As in all things, you’ll be a lot happier being yourself. And in the long run, unless you’re writing stories about intelligent grilled cheese sandwiches being shoved into gas tanks, you’ll be more successful too. (I think I just laid down a challenge to someone, somewhere … )
Interview has been condensed and edited.
Colin Dwyer is an intern with NPR Books.