I Don’t Know How To Write
I’m not a huge believer in How To Write guides. I’ve tried to read several books on writing novels, but the only one I enjoyed was Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’, because it’s more of a pulpy, bouncy memoir about being a popular writer than a proscriptive list of dry rules for story structure academics. In a way though, even Mr King doesn’t see clearly about his own talents, and I’m not sure any of us do because our work is too close and personal to fully explain.
I consider myself a ‘creator of imaginative fiction’, and mention this because of ‘Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide To Imaginative Fiction’, by Jeff Vandermeer. Now, Mr Vandemeer sells wonder. He makes very beautifully designed volumes and very astutely edited compendia, from collections of time travel stories to strange tomes about freaks and cabinets of curiosities and Steampunk. He produced a superb volume called ‘The Weird’, which covers the entire spectrum of weird writing, which you can only read on Kindle because it’s too big to carry about. It’s understandably more US-centric than Alberto Manguel’s dazzling ‘Black Water’ and ‘White Fire’, which gathered together the greatest international fantastic fiction, much of it translated for the first time.
So, a flick through ‘Wonderbook’ and you’re sold; it’s filled with imaginative, colourful graphs and maps and diagrams illustrated in the style of fantasy novels. It features dozens of writers discussing characterisation, structure, plotting and the creation of worlds. It features ideas about the ‘protantagonist’ and ‘contamination beats’ and ‘tonal modulations’ and ‘subjective interpretation’.
I’ve now tried reading this book six times, and am getting no further into it. The problem must be mine, because the pages are filled with many award-winning authors talking about how to write. Now, there are clearly some world-class tipsters here, including insights from the estimable George RR Martin, whose ‘Fevre Dream’ I was pushing onto people through the pages of my Time Out column many years ago, but does knowing how successful authors work help the novice in any way? Surely everyone evolves their own method of writing?
Looking at the book again, I’ve decided that the problem may be two-fold; one, it’s based on a specific, analytical and uniquely American form of thinking about imaginative fiction, and in that sense feels completely alien to a European mindset. Two, and this is a less kind thought; it may just be that volumes such as these, no matter how prettily they’re tricked out, are for fans who fantasise about writing but read an awful lot about the idea of writing instead, looking for some kind of holy grail of technique that will magic a novel onto their desks.
I personally know a number of people who never stop talking about writing their big novel, and somehow never start. They never even complete a short story. It might be that ‘Wonderbook’ is aimed at them, because I’m just about to begin a fantasy novel (I haven’t written one since ‘Calabash’) and I can’t find anything in these 300+ densely packed pages that’s of any help at all. Either that, or I’m simply not attuned to understanding it. Because even if I’m able to make head or tail of any one of these diagrams, that won’t be the way I want to tackle my book.
Thoughts on writing guides?