Brief Discussion of Wonderbook Exercises (Stealing the Skeleton, Cause and Effect, Found History, and Cassandra N. Railsea)

Some exercises in the Wonderbook Workshop appendix are, in a sense, self-explanatory, and in writing to their specifications you will discover why you did the exercise–for example, the tacticle exercises and the cannibalization exercises. Nonetheless, here are some brief notes on exercises not covered elsewhere.


Two more complex exercises, The Rabbit Must Speak and The Leonardo Variations, allow you to write complete short stories using pre-defined plots, structures, and characters. But the Stealing the Skeleton exercise is meant to harness the amazing storytelling engines of folktale to allow you to the same thing–except with more space for your imagination. Here, you receive the entire story, but in such summarized form that most of the details are up to you, and significant variation can occur. It’s in completing this exercise that you truly learn that the tale is in the telling, in that no two writers will create the same story from these bare bones. This is also a great exercise to jump-start you if you’re stuck and you want to at least complete a story. Just beware of choosing nubs that could lead to cultural appropriation; for example, I would never write a tale based on indigenous Australian folktales because the official spokespeople for that culture has said they would prefer writers not do that. And try to find the personal aspect in the tale. Perhaps that hedgehog is actually a lot like your Aunt Ethel.


This exercise, which forces you to create causality where none may appear to exist, is a great reminder of what I discuss in Chapter 1, Inspiration and the Creative Life: that anything can lead to story. One important thing to remember about this exercise is that you don’t so much have to create true causality between disparate elements but that the reader has to believe it exists. Therefore, to some extent, this exercise can be a test of your storytelling chops. What can you do to animate this causality in such a way that it convinces? Keep in mind that context is your best friend, as is either distance or closeness. Remember the example in Wonderbook of Tolkien’s approach to telling the reader about eagles rescuing Gandalf from Saruman’s clutches? It’s rendered in summary, because if rendered in a scene it would be laughable and not at all believable.


It’s important to realize that the personal lies all around us, that anything can be invested with that personal aspect. The mind generally wants to create narrative around the objects in our lives. It is perfectly natural to weave a story around a photograph that is unfamiliar to you, which means that stories exist all around us. We just need to be able to properly “cook” this kind of inspiration so that it has a life on the page, and is convincing. This exercise helps you to do just that, and to recognize that your environment contains all kinds of inspiration. In a sense, this found objection exercise is telling you that there’s no excuse for not creating story if you want to.


If you weren’t you, what kind of writer might you be? The Cassandra Railsea exercises try to force you to inhabit another writer’s skin and to have empathy for a writer who might be very unlike you, someone whose writings you might not, as a reader, respond to. In having to write both as her and under her pen name, you may experience a powerful sense of another writer who lives inside of you. In the details of Railsea’s life you may either realize you have it lucky or think Railsea still had it lucky. But either way, you are forced to consider your life as a writer in relation to her life as a writer. Also, what to make of Railsea being thought of as not radical enough by the left? Is this true? Or was she too reactionary? And what does too reactionary mean? And does it always mean the same thing? Further, what ethnicity did you think Railsea was? I never said, did I?