Book Review, Books!, Inspiration, Signal Boost, Weekend Writer, Writing

Weekend Writer: The Ecosystem of Story, or Chapter Two of Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer

Hey all, Dani here.

If someone had told me years ago that I would have a decently successful blog posting content every day, or that I would have a dedicated blog series focused on the craft of writing and inspiring people to write, I don’t think I would have believed them. Sure, I’ve always dreamed of being at least moderately successful with my writing and/or creative endeavors, but there’s always been that nagging ball of reality/negativity keeping me firmly rooted to the ground. Some days it’s a struggle to fight that internal nag, but on other days the creative ideas just flow. So I slog through the struggling days and relish in those flowing days. The creative life can be so difficult but so rewarding. Honestly, I wouldn’t want to have it any other way.

It would be really cool for all of us who want to write creatively (whether that is poetry, stories, novellas, novels, screenplays, RPGs, video games, whatever) to be able to help uplift and inspire each other, and keep ourselves motivated to strive for our dreams, so I decided to start this blog series here. This series will be a lot of me working through books on writing and creativity, maybe doing and sharing some writing exercises, and possibly doing some writing based discussion posts. It’s going to be an adventure for sure, and I hope it helps you as much as it is helping me.

Let’s continue from where we left off last week, by jumping into the next chapter of Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vandermeer.

Wonderbook

Summary

This all-new definitive guide to writing imaginative fiction takes a completely novel approach and fully exploits the visual nature of fantasy through original drawings, maps, renderings, and exercises to create a spectacularly beautiful and inspiring object. Employing an accessible, example-rich approach, Wonderbook energizes and motivates while also providing practical, nuts-and-bolts information needed to improve as a writer. Aimed at aspiring and intermediate-level writers, Wonderbook includes helpful sidebars and essays from some of the biggest names in fantasy today, such as George R. R. Martin, Lev Grossman, Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock, Catherynne M. Valente, and Karen Joy Fowler, to name a few.

Praise for Wonderbook: 

“Jammed with storytelling wisdom.” —Fast Company’s Co.Createblog

“This is the kind of book you leave sitting out for all to see . . . and the kind of book you will find yourself picking up again and again.” —Kirkus Reviews online

“If you’re looking for a handy guide to not just crafting imaginative fiction like sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, but to writing in general, be sure to pick up a copy of Steampunk Bibleauthor Jeff Vandermeer’s lovingly compiled Wonderbook.”  —Flavorwire

“Jeff Vandermeer and Jeremy Zerfoss have created a kaleidoscopically rich and beautiful book about fiction writing.”  —Star Tribune

“Because it is so layered and filled with text, tips, and links to online extras, this book can be read again and again by both those who want to learn the craft of writing and those interested in the process of others.” —Library Journal

Chapter Two: The Ecosystem of Story

“To grow as a fiction writer, you absolutely must engage in some dissection of stories, your own and the work of others.” – pg 42

The different narrative life forms are covered on pages 43-45, and it basically breaks them down to novels (55,000-250,000 words), novellas (11,000-55,000) words though novelettes (11,000-17,000 words), short story (1,500-10,000 words) and shorter is considered flash fiction, and poems.

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The chapter then goes into the various elements of story, covered on page 46. The first element is Characterization, or the methods by which primary and secondary characters are made to seem real or interesting. Characterization will be discussed even more in the fifth chapter. Next is Point of View, or 1st person “I”, 2nd person “you”, 3rd person “she/he” whether limited omniscient or omniscient. After that is a brief covering of Setting, or the physical environments where the story takes place, which will be discussed even further in Chapter 6. Then it mentions Events/Situations, also known as plot and structure, further discussed in the fourth chapter. Dialogue is the next element, or conversations and snippets of speech that can help to dramatize scenes. Next it talks about Description, or the details that help to set the scene, particularly when paired with dialogue to make the scene seem real. Finally it mentions Style, or the way the story is told.

From there it goes even deeper into some of those elements, starting with Point of View.

“First person sounds natural–we all function as first-person narrators every day–and is an easy way to give the reader access to the narrator’s thoughts.” -pg 47

Now, first person doesn’t mean that we have to mean we are seeing through the main character’s eyes. You can have the narrator be someone close to the main character, much like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby or Dr. Watson in any of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Second person is the rarest of POVs, because it is difficult to pull off, basically because the writer is telling the reader who they are, and it causes some readers to have issues relating to the character and such. And with third person you can have the POV be an omniscient god-like narrator, or have a limited focus on just one or a handful of the main characters.

“Many times, too, a point of view will choose you in a sense. You will sit down to write a rough draft, and you’ll just know what character to follow and whether you want to use first, second, or third person.” -pg 48

Finally, if you get stuck with your writing, try changing the Point of View in order to open yourself up to new possibilities.

The next element we dive deeper into is Dialogue. This can be used to serve many different functions, including (pg 50-51):

  • convey a mood
  • reveal character traits or motivation
  • provide information
  • move the plot forward and/or increase its pace
  • create or reflect conflict, tension, or understanding between characters
  • foreshadow what is to come
  • remind readers of things they may have forgotten
  • reveal the complexity of character relationships

Also, the characters should speak and converse in different ways, though it is possible that the characters are simply mimicking the way of speaking of the people they are talking to. Dialogue is supposed to be similar to real speech without exactly reproducing it. Basically the speech in text edits out the extraneous space in dialogue that is filled with umms, ahems, coughs, and the like. Real speech also isn’t proper (in most situations) because people leave out words, they are interrupted or misunderstood, or they say one thing while actually meaning something else. Regional differences also occur, so take that into account. Oh, and big thing is the over use of dialogue tags. The actual dialogue text should convey the tone and emotion of what is being said, so saying “he said excitedly,” or “she said sadly” may end up interfering with a reader’s enjoyment or even insulting them.

Description is the next story element (pgs 53-59). It covers a lot of stuff as well, so in the interest of time, I’m just going to bullet point all the main information for us.

  • Specific and significant detail is the key to good description.
  • Use all five senses to enrich your descriptive powers.
  • Describe people, settings, and things in the right progressions.
  • When describing people’s actions, do not divorce body from mind.
  • Use figurative language appropriately.
  • Study poetry for interesting approaches to description.
  • Keep in mind the (irrational) power of some types of description

Finally we delve even more into Style (pgs 59-64). This covers the arrangement of words by the writer, or the writer’s narrative voice. Here’s a few general points for this particular story element:

  • Each and every story must be told in the style best suited for it, whether simple or convoluted, or ornate.
  • Inasmuch as a story has depth (or depth perception), it achieves this quality not just through insight of society or character, but also through passion or focus.
  • Some writers’ styles cannot multitask, or cannot lithely pivot. Own it and make your style all it can be.
  • Artists and writers are somewhat similar with regard to style.

Different approaches to Style include: Minimal/Stark, Invisible/”Normal”, Muscular/Conspicuous, and Lush/Ornate.

After all of that, the chapter jumps into what it calls the Greater and Lesser Mysteries. These are other components that factor into the narrative of story, but aren’t at the same quantifiable level of importance as the narrative elements. These mysteries include Voice, Tone, Structure, Theme, and Form.

Voice is the quality of the writer’s worldview as what comes through in every piece of writing. Tone is all about the atmosphere and the mood. Structure focuses on the arrangement and design of the story. Theme is the subtext, or the story beyond what is on the page. Form can be the shape of the story’s structure or the format of the story (novel, story, poem, etc).

The next section of this chapter is the complex relationship between story elements. Dialogue doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but instead has the backdrop of the setting, along with the voice of the characters, and the descriptions surrounding the conversation. Plot can be generated by characters and can be expressed by dialogue. So these different story elements can’t be put in some semblance of a hierarchy of importance, but by understanding the importance of all of them we can learn more about how they work together in story.

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The final section in this chapter is the roles of the different types of imagination. Basically there are two different imaginations and they have a relationship between them that also ties into the elements of a story. First is the creative imagination, which is what we use during the drafting process, that focus on getting the story on the page and not worrying about if the words are good or proper. Next is the technical imagination, that inner editor that finds the structure in the story, figures out how to tie the narrative elements together, and draws the depths of the characters and situations out of the rough draft. For each writer the use of these imaginations and their relationship to each other will differ, so each writer must find what works best for them.

This chapter may have been a little bit shorter than the first one, but I think the talk of creativity and inspiration helped motivate me more than this more technical section of the book, but I still feel like the way the information was presented was really interesting, and I did pull quite a bit out of it. Especially since there were another two essays in this chapter as well as a writing challenge that sounded halfway interesting.

I’m looking forward to seeing what I learn from the next chapter.

Where to Get a Copy

If my thoughts on this second chapter have helped you out at all, you can try picking up a copy of the whole book from AmazonBarnes & NobleBooks-a-millionBook Depository, or your local independent bookstore.

You can also check with your local library.

Links to Other Wonderbook posts

Chapter One / Chapter Three / Chapter Four / Chapter Five / Chapter Six / Chapter Seven / Workshop Appendix and Additional Writing Exercises

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