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I really struggled with how many stars to give this. If I evaluate it on its usefulness to me--which is, after all, why I bought it, I would give it three stars, because it is much too basic for me. But I also find that it is beautifully done, and I found some things to like about it, so I decided to go with the four stars because I'm probably simply not the right audience of this book. That said, I'm still glad I bought it!
I've taught creative writing for 20+ years, and have books published in another genre. But I am new to writing speculative fiction, and am a bit stuck on a novel I'm working on, so I hoped to be "jump-started" by this book, or at least get some help on plotting and what to do when you get stuck in the middle. This book, unfortunately, did not help me with that. In fact, my only real criticism of the book (leaving aside for a moment that this was simply not aimed at someone like me, which is really more my mistake than the author's) was the section I most looked forward to, Middles, was virtually nonexistent. As in there was a cool image, but then it seemed to be over. A page or two which seemed more about endings but did relate to middles too, and then, nothing. I actually went back several times to see if I had missed something, but I did not. This is probably my most serious criticism of the book--what happened to the "middle" section, the section I suspect most new novelists struggle with?
If you're an experienced writer or have had good basic creative writing classes, a lot of the information in this book is going to be old hat for you. It explains scenes and exposition, use of dialogue, what constitutes a good opening, etc. There is some information on plotting which was too basic for me, but was well done. In fact, all the information on scene, exposition, etc. was succinct and well done, so I applaud the author for his ability to write about the basics of craft and to do it well and also, to apply it to speculative fiction, because he's absolutely correct--there are few basic books that go over this but use examples from speculative fiction. In other words, the basic information in this book is very strong and engagingly presented, and I was delighted to see all the concerns I have as a teacher covered in this book. If I ever get to teach a class in writing speculative fiction--which I'd love to do someday!--then I would use this book in heartbeat. It really is quite good in that way.
It's also a beautiful book. I sat down with it last night and basically went through it straight through, not reading everything, but most of it. I enjoyed reading it--which can't always be said of regular guides to creative writing. The images are lovely, and while I didn't actually think having visuals of some of the information in the text was necessary, it certainly was enjoyable, and perhaps more visual learners would find some of the diagrams very useful for them. (By then I was reading as teacher, not writer, because it was clear the book would be of more use to me using that lens). I also loved the brief interviews with a variety of writers, and I got a bunch of new names of writers to read, which is always a plus for me. I also really liked that Vandermeer used part of his own novel, Finch (which I must read!), as an example. I find it very useful to have writers talk about the choices they made, and why, and he dissected his own work very well. This was also a part that was useful for me as a writer (rather than a teacher) and some of the discussion on revision did, I think, work well for more advanced writers. Some readers may think the book is worth it just for the parts written by George R.R. Martin and Ursula Le Guin, and I did very much enjoy those parts!
I see that the book is aimed at beginners/intermediate writers. I'd say it's more for beginners, but there are gems to be found for more advanced writers as well. It also would be an excellent book for teaching creative writing, and it is so beautiful a book, so that anyone who collects guides to writing or who loves speculative fiction might find it an enjoyable book to have, even if you are not a beginning writer.
If, however, you already know the basics of fiction, and are looking for more of a "how-to" aimed at more advanced writers, this probably is not going to be the book for you. However, I applaud the author for doing something so different, and so beautiful, and I think a lot of people will really enjoy this book!