Ciara Ballintyne is a Twitter and Blog friend I have known for some time. Not only is she an engaging writer, she is serious about her craft, and willing to share her insights. Today she shares : Lessons Learned from ‘Nascence: 17 Stories That Failed and Why’ by Tobias S Buckell.
It is a long-ish post, but there are lessons for writers all the way to the end. Take it away, Ciara!
You could look at this book as an attempt by Buckell to make money out of short stories that he failed to sell. However, I find it an interesting look at the early work of a published author that we rarely get. I don’t know that I’d be so inclined to bare to the world how bad I once was if I was a published author!
There are lessons in here for a writer who might be struggling, as well as tips on Buckell’s own writing process that might help you. For example, Buckell says he wrote short stories for a long time because he considered it a faster way to learn how to write a story from start to finish, fail, and try again, than writing novels. He’s probably right. I did it the novel way, not being a short-story writer much, and it’s taken me 20 years to get here! And wherever ‘here’ is, it’s not the same ‘here’ as Buckell.
There is commentary from Buckell on the reasons for each story’s failure, but here is my own analysis as an objective reader and writer.
- The Arbiter – This story does manage to move my emotions if in an incomplete way. In that respect it’s more successful than many other stories in this book.
- Airtown – I completely failed to connect with the protagonist and the story felt like an opening scene or excerpt, incomplete of itself;
- Abrupt Salvage – a step backwards from The Arbiter. Buckell attempts to engage our emotions but his characterisation and building of relationships is incomplete. The climax lacks impact. I was surprised when the story ended and was left expecting more. Buckell notes that many of his stories read like a chapter instead of a stand-alone story. I agree.
- It Is Bitter… The first protagonist I really identify with. He’s got drive and motivation and it’s red-hot emotional! It pushes me to read but the ending is unsatisfying. This was an experiment with voice using present tense, and setting, wold-building and plot suffer as a result. Compare to the earlier stories to see how Buckell helps us identify with the protagonist.
- Sea Legs – Buckell describes this as ‘well-crafted story porridge’. Technically well put together but nothing you want any part of! I can’t disagree with his analysis. Nothing major is obviously wrong with this story, except it’s just not all that interesting. Story porridge indeed.
- Slowboat – A more emotionally engaging story but the events are just something the protagonist witnesses, they don’t affect him. Action is not driven by the protagonist and so the reader does not feel the true impact of the tragedy. It might have been better told from the POV of someone on the slowboat.
- Closed Cycles – Buckell describes this story as a mishmash of all his previous mistakes. Despite that, I find the concept of it interesting, and it pulls me forward compellingly. The dialogue is a bit laboured as Buckell notes but its biggest failing is its ending. Buckell actually says he got to the end and didn’t know how to finish it. This is painfully obvious. The fact it compelled me despite its errors is testament to the fact sometimes story counts more than craft.
- Ambassador – A long piece of short fiction, it has more than the one usual POV. I feel the story suffers for it and Buckell agrees. The world is also sketched out but the colours not really filled in leaving the reader with only a vague idea of the landscape. Buckell describes the story as ‘meh’. I agree on the basis it’s difficult to even say what’s really wrong with it. It’s just… meh.
- Ranger Jim – Seriously? Yes, seriously. At least Buckell doesn’t even know what he was thinking when he named this. The story suffers, by Buckell’s own admission, in respect of world-building, but mostly what he was doing was trying to create a mood experimenting with a dystopian setting. He speculated if its real downfall was a reluctance to be sufficiently weird or failing to sufficiently characterise the protagonist. Even before I read it, I was willing to bet on the latter. It is a common theme of his short stories. When I think about how I might rewrite these, my first thought is to add more depth to the characters. In this case, he fails to closely examine the loss of the protagonist’s humanity and what it might mean. I am not a reader of dystopia, but this story doesn’t set the mood of an empty earth such as exists in King’s The Stand.
- Free Antarctica – This story left me trying to keep up. This is consistent with Buckell’s own analysis that the story fell apart because of insufficient order and failure to think through the whole plot. Because I kept getting confused, I felt the story dragged on far too long.
- Days Limin’ – This story has no plot and no conflict. It’s also told in omniscient which is one my pet hates, but let’s just put that aside. Buckell says it was inspired by an apocryphal tale. It’s really nothing more than a science fiction version of the same thing. I understand he was experimenting… but there’s no real substance to this.
- Life! – A nice attempt at exploring the character and why the events were important, but the story does not immerse us deeply enough in the character or the emotional significance. It also lacks sufficient impetus at the moment of climax, due to insufficient foreshadowing, which Buckell identifies. A bit more dribbled backstory and a lot more emotional punch could have really ramped this story up.
- Vacuum Cures Everything – Buckell describes this as a failure but it resonated and touched me enough that it must have been a close thing. He says he should have written the story from the POV of the robot but mostly he did. Some of the other POVs could have been culled but I think it was necessary to have one (the ship captain) to make the human connection in order to drive the emotional impact home. The emotional intensity could have been cranked up… but this one doesn’t have as far to go as the others. My favourite.
- A Slow Burn Passion – I totally agree with Buckell on this one. The woman was intended to be ‘the story’ but I am so more interested in the POV character. Buckell says one way he could have fixed this would have been to make her the POV character (i.e. he chose the wrong POV character for the story he wanted to tell) but my mind resists this notion. The story I want to hear, it seems, is not the story he wanted to tell. At least he only made this POV mistake in a short story. I did it in a whole novel.
- A Jar of Good will – This story has been rewritten 5 times and signals a break in pattern for Buckell who as a rule didn’trewrite. Three of these versions appear in Nascence.Version 2 – A 9k rewrite of a story originally 3 – 4k long. I’m not sure where it falls down. I’m inclined to agree with Buckell that the shorter version was probably better. Without having seen the original, I can say more words lends a tendency to waffle and include extraneous facts. I also find this story has no readily identifiable climax. It just kind of peters out. Perhaps too many words allowed Buckell to fall into the old trap of pulling the emotional punch. The POV character doesn’t seem to be driving the action either.
- A Jar of Goodwill – Version 3 – Only a fragment of this story is included. I can see Buckell had cut scenes from Version 2 back to their bare essentials, and occasionally including detail he missed in the previous version – such as the fact two scientists are married before one of them dies. Despite that, this version was terminated at 3000 words. Why? Because nothing was happening. This was all lead-up and 3000 words is too much lead-up for a short story.
- A Jar of Goodwill – Version 5 – Version 4 was a one page attempt that went nowhere and doesn’t appear in Nascence. This fifth version was rewritten in 2010 and published in Clarkesworld Magazine. In the lead-in, Buckell gives me information I didn’t pick-up in the previous two versions – the main character comes from a technologically-possible hive mind. This evidently wasn’t explained properly in the previous versions.
This version has been rewritten from the ground up with a different POV character. New cultural/societal concepts are introduced and old ones better explained. The old POV character is still included but better explained from an outsider’s eyes (better realised too I think). And most importantly, the POV character is driving the action. It is the choicesof the POV character that drive the story. This is a key lesson, writers – your characters cannot passively allow things to happen. They must make choices that affect where the story goes.
The most important lessons in this book relate to characterisation, I think, as this seems to have been one of Buckell’s major problems. If you fail to properly characterise, choose the wrong character, or your character doesn’t affect events, you will fail to connect with the readers.
And if nothing else, you can walk away knowing that even published writers were once bad writers!
Bio: Ciara is a writer of high fantasy. She has been reading fantasy since she was 9 and writing it since she was 11. Born argumentative and recognising the long road to make money out of writing, Ciara wisely invested her natural inclinations in a career in law.
Twitter: @CiaraBallintyne , Facebook