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 Bible author Jeff Vandermeer’s lovingly compiled Wonderbook. The beautifully illustrated book features some of the biggest names in genre fiction, from Ursula K. Le Guin to up-and-comers like Charles Yu, discussing the process they use to create new stories, new creatures, and new worlds.
We think so highly of Vandermeer’s effort that we’ve gotten their permission to present to you a few wonderful excerpts from the book, including thoughts on writing from George R.R. Martin, Lev Grossman, and Karen Lord, as well as an unpublished essay by Kim Stanley Robinson.
I can think of only one time in twenty years of writing fiction when I wrote a passage of any significant length that I didn’t subsequently have to rewrite. The passage involved a character turning into a goose and flying to Antarctica. It was about a thousand words long, it’s still one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever done, and I’ll never know how I did it. It was an ordinary writing day. I wrote in a coffee shop. I sat on a couch. It was hot out. The one thing I know for sure about that day is that unless I start writing novels that are entirely about sentient geese, it’s almost certainly never coming back. When I write a first draft, it is, almost invariably, crap.
One of the first tasks of the writer, I have found, and not the easiest, is forgiveness: You must forgive yourself for writing crap first drafts. Perform whatever ritual of absolution you have to, pray to whatever cruel god or gods you have to, but do that for yourself. Only once you’ve forgiven yourself can you begin the serious work of writing, which isn’t writing at all. It’s revising.
In fact, not only do I forgive myself for writing bad first drafts, I expect myself to write bad first drafts. That’s my baseline assumption. I write my first drafts with the absolute certainty that I’ll either throw them away or that future-me, bless his long-suffering heart, will correct their many egregious faults later. Either way, it’s not something for present-me to worry about. Filling a blank page is hard enough as it is. I find it helps if you set the expectations very low.
And it helps even more if you keep them low, at least for a while. Part of learning to revise is knowing when not to revise. When you’re writing fresh copy, it’s tempting to stop and go back over your pages right away, while they’re still all glittery and new and you’re still under the spell of your initial inspiration. I won’t tell you not to do it, but just be aware that (a) it’s a time suck, and (b) its usefulness is limited. Your job in the first round of composition is completing a draft. It’s all about maintaining forward momentum and not bogging down. It’s about writing the way people read, fast and fluid. Think of it this way: You’re on a Jet Ski, and if you slow down you’ll sink into the icy, shark-infested waters you’re trying to skim over. The only thing worse than a crap first draft is the first draft you never finished in the first place.
“What Is/What If: The Beauty of Mystery” by Karen Lord
Fiction is both process and mystery, knowledge and imagination. It lies somewhere on a spectrum that begins with poetry and ends with statistics. It is art. It takes the forms and shapes of the real world and re-views them with new perception: the shade, texture, and weight of the subconscious and the unreal.
Various stories can be told only using only what you know. Jane Austen wrote what she knew from her own life and the lives around her: a music box of a world with familiar society characters dancing to a familiar wedding burden. An intimate knowledge and a small stage can provide enough material for a story. A sufficiently self-aware and observant writer should be able to convincingly depict love, loss, family, childhood, growing up, growing old—in other words, the experience of becoming and being a human among other humans. It is the literary equivalent of a still life: the portrayal of everyday things in a familiar setting.
Knowledge traces the outline, but adding unusual texture and color to that outline creates the variation that makes fiction more than mere retelling. Breaking into the unexpected and the unknown transforms a photorealist image into the dreamy blur of an impressionist painting, or the edged, off-kilter planes of a cubist sketch. This is art’s paradox: images unseeable from the vantage point of so-called “real life” may be more evocative of the real than the real itself. Similarly, art that uses the medium of the printed page requires more than unvarnished facts to illuminate truths.
A conversation with George R.R. Martin
You mentioned big changes to Fevre Dream? What changed?
My original intention for Fevre Dream was to end the book with a big steam boat race in which the Fevre Dream put out onto the river again and joined the famous race between Natchez and Robert E Lee. When I actually got towards the end of the book, I realized that that really made no sense. It would’ve taken the whole world into the aspect of alternate histories, since that was such a huge public event, and also given the actual life spans of steamboats and so forth. With what had been occurring over the last few years, the steamboat would not have been in a condition to race. So I finally just said, “No, it was a colorful notion when I had it, but…no.” [The idea] sort of survives in the actual text of the book as a dream that Abner Marsh has. You could read that and say that a more fully fleshed out version of that would’ve been the original ending. But I think the actual ending I chose is much stronger and certainly much more realistic.
You’ve acknowledged in the past that your process includes “blind alleys and dead ends” because you write very much by feel. Would you say what would be called “being inefficient” in another profession is in some ways important to a writer?
I think it depends on the writer. I’ve often talked about there being two types of writers, which I call the Architects and the Gardeners. The Architects do plan everything ahead of time, just as a real architect does building a house. An architect builds a house and he knows how many rooms it’s going to be, and how many square feet in each room, and where the pipes are going to be, what the roof is going to be made of, the dimensions of everything, even where the plugs are going to be in the walls. He knows everything before a nail is driven, before the foundation is dug, and all of the blueprints are proofed. There are writers who work that way.
The Gardener just sort of digs a hole and plants a seed and then he waters it with his blood and sweat before waiting to see what will come up. It’s totally random, because obviously the Gardener knows what he’s planted; he knows whether it’s an oak tree or a pumpkin. If he’s not taken totally by surprise [by inspiration] he has a general idea of what he’s doing. Still, a lot of it happens in the process of tending the ideas as they come up.
I know you say that the TV version of the Song of Ice and Fire series is very separate and that the TV version is faithful to the books, but is there anything dramatized in the series so far that made you want to go back and tinker with something in the books?
I’m pretty happy with the books as they are. I don’t know that I would want to tinker too much. The TV series has added some great scenes that were not in the books, though. I’m thinking of the scene in the Black Water between Bran and the Hound or the Robert/ Cersei scene, during the first season, where they discuss their marriage. Those are powerful scenes that I did not have in the books probably because I have a very strict viewpoint structure and I don’t have the viewpoint character present in any of those scenes.
What do you think was the weakest part of your writing in the early part of your career?
Working in Hollywood sharpened my dialogue, most notably. When you’re writing for television and screen, and particularly if you’re on a television show — where what you write is actually going to be made and you’re actually going to hear actors rehearsing it and saying it — it rapidly becomes apparent what kind of speeches work and what kind of speeches don’t work. When you hear actors saying the lines or a line that’s awkward or badly phrased, or admits too many possible readings, that fact jumps out at you.
“Thoughts on Exposition” by Kim Stanley Robinson
Am I advocating a return to the Encyclopedia Galactica? Yes. Its entries were always (at least potentially) bits of Stapledonian prose poetry, soaring like phoenixes out of their stories. Face it: sometimes the world is more interesting than we are. Even if the interest is always human interest.
So: “The door dilated”? That’s now the story’s title. We’ll jettison the long-forgotten plot (I bet it had danger and a chase) and focus on what always mattered: that door. We begin with the door’s manufacturing and installation instructions, badly translated from an unknown language. Next a Wikipedia article about it, apparently mangled in a fierce editing war that left certain ambiguities. Technical details about the door’s pupil mechanism (or, as it turns out, organism, for most are made from vat-grown squid siphons) are followed by a discussion of the door’s uses, maintenance problems, operating quirks, and notable breakdowns. We learn that dilating doors are installed where the air pressure on one side of the door is higher than on the other, but there is not the space to install a sliding door. An ordinary door between such pressure differentials either won’t open or opens much too fast, both dangerous; in fact, some people got killed by a conventional door opening too fast, including a person with the same last name as the dilating door’s inventor. But there have also been cases where dilating doors killed people, sometimes in malfunctions not explained in the accident investigations. Graphs and charts display information about these cases. What’s going on here? Will the reader have to evaluate the data in a forensic process, and imagine what happened? Yes. Because that’s how stories always work.