T.N. Tobias

Review: Nascence by Tobias Buckell

Tobias S. Buckell; 2011

Suppose you’re a writer. Suppose you’ve spent a decade and a half learning to hone your skills, learning to turn weak and clichéd vignettes into narrative gold. Along the way, you’re likely to have compiled quite a bit of hackneyed prose as you stab in the dark for something that works. At the end of the road, when you’ve accomplished your goal of breaking into the mainstream publishing world, what are the chances that you’d look back on those dusty cast-aways and find anything of value?

Tobias Buckell’s latest collection, Nascence, explores his development as a writer and storyteller in exactly this way, by going back and dredging up old stories from the trunk and casting a critical eye over them. At first this format sounds a bit daft. Why subject your readers to the worst you have to offer? But the collection unfolds as a fascinating look at the maturation of a story-teller rather than a group of sub-par stories.

Buckell introduces each piece with a comment on the stage of life and narrative intention it inhabits. The first, “Spellcaster,” reaches back to 1996 as the first story the juvenile Buckell ever wrote with a goal in mind. It is, as the introduction rightly concedes, a dreadful story but in the context of building toward a greater sense of storytelling, a frantic reach for that thing that urges on all writers to find and tell stories, it becomes a chance for the reader to connect to the writer’s intention rather than output.

The subtitle for the collection is “17 Failed Stories and What They Taught Me” but if truth be told, several would pass the muster of some of today’s more discriminating short fiction outlets. “The Arbiter” is an interesting look at interplanetary politics and colonialism. “Life!” presents a screwball vision of future alien relations. In even these cases where the story is entertaining, there is the backdrop of writely development, the adjustments over time are plain to see. Leading up to and then out of Buckell’s stint at the Clarion Workshop, Buckell continues to improve and brings the reader along with him. A decade and a half of steady growth condensed into less than 300 pages.

But the jewel of the collection is the growth of the story “A Jar of Goodwill.” Buckell gives us a look at how the story evolved over the course of ten years until it’s publication in Clarkesworld Magazine in 2010. It’s possible to see the underbelly of the story as he searches for that crystallizing idea that brings everything together. It’s easy to overlook the amount of effort and creative chagrin that goes into crafting a coherent and interesting short story but Buckell lays the elements out for the audience to pick apart and reassemble and see what went into creating one of the magazine’s more popular stories.

If there is a complaint, it’s that reading someone’s personal slush pile can become occasionally tiresome. If one isn’t interested in the exterior context of the stories, they’re not likely to find much of value in this collection. For those who are interested, however, an entire short fiction education is available inside the pages of Nascence. Recommended.

For those interested, an ebook is available directly from the author.

Free For All Friday for June 3rd, 2011


I don’t know what to say about this. (Warning: Animated Gore)

'Tonight I'm Frakking You'

Books & Writing

The macabre unpleasantness of Roald Dahl. @ This Recording

Tips for publishing on Kindle. @ Creative Penn

Agent answers “What do you look for in a writer?” @ Janet Reid

Structure from 10,000 feet. @ Storyfix

What’s a newbie novelist to do? @ Advanced Fiction Writing Blog

On taking criticism. @ Mike Brotherton

Around the Web

Desktop Big Bang.

Interstellar flight, it’s coming.

On Writing Action

Action scenes enliven your story. They press your characters into action and force them to make quick decisions. They allow the writer to see personality on display, heroic or craven, strong or weak. At the same time, they are some of the trickiest bits to actually write. Do it well, and the reader is swept up into the excitement. Do it wrong, and your manuscript turns into a slog with page after page of going through the motions.

So how do we write action that keeps us glued to the page? When is the right moment to spring the trap? Is it better to dictate the action step-by-step or just give the reader the gist of it and let things unfold in their minds? Let’s take a look at some things that can improve our writing when we get to these pivotal scenes.

Not What but When

The timing of your action scene is as important as its contents. We all love a big explosion but without context, the action is an empty vessel. Focus instead on building character and conflict. When the time is right, drive the conflict home with some action that encourages resolution, or drives the plot deeper. Gratuitous action has the effect of diluting tension rather than building it. We expect resolution from action and its best for the story to build to that point rather than start from it.

Keep it Short and Sweet

As a result of building to the action scenes deliberately, adding tension and conflict along the way, the action becomes a frantic moment and should be written as such. Write shorter sentences. Abandon conjunctions. Draw your action on with impressions instead of detail. This quickens the pace of the scene and pulls the reader in, allowing them to fill in the gaps. Keep your description succinct, eliminating adjectives where they are unnecessary. He pulled his sword from its scabbard is far more effective in action than He forcefully pulled the gleaming sword from the scabbard that hung at his side.

Paint with Feeling

The actual details of a battle are usually less important than the characters response to it. A close POV dictates a smaller view of events and more feeling. Emotion is what brings intensity to action scenes and focusing on them rather than the mechanics of battle makes for a better story. Resist the urge, however, to do too much deep character building in the heat of the moment. The reader should be clear on what conflict is being resolved by the action and any deviation from the here and now will break the flow.

Maintain a Tight Structure

I’m a big proponent of the micro-structure detailed by Randy Ingermanson on his blog. Using his technique, create MRU’s (Motivation-Response Units) that pull the action along in a single direction, constantly filling the well with motivation and draining it again with character response. Be very deliberate about this, it improves the writing immensely. If you can’t maintain this structure while writing, go back on an edit pass and restructure, it will definitely improve the scene.

Have a Goal

Action scenes are set pieces in a story. They represent physical confrontation of the conflicting forces. Action with no goal in mind does not move the story forward and becomes a stumbling block for a reader to clear before the story resumes. Make sure that the action and its consequences have bearing to the story. It may seem like an obvious point but new writers have a tendency to mistake excitement for interestingness. A bevy of early action scenes with no clear goal disrupts the flow of their stories and relegates them to slush piles. Make it clean and tight, and the action will pop in your work, let it hang loose and the story goes limp with it.

Writers Agree: The Truth is in Fiction

It’s a curt phrase that shows up often in the self-written bio’s of authors; I tell lies for a living. I’ve always felt this pithy statement worked against the ultimate goal of a writer, be she a novelist, journalist, or poet. That is, finding the truth in any situation, whether it happened down the street or was spun from pure cloth from the author’s imagination. The act of writing is to commit to letters the truth that we all feel. Emotions, actions, loves, and hates, if it doesn’t feel true then the writing is not doing its job. To that end, here are some literary luminaries pontificating on this subject.

"The reason that fiction is more interesting than any other form of literature, to those who really like to study people, is that in fiction the author can really tell the truth without humiliating himself." - Eleanor Roosevelt

"Fiction is the truth inside the lie." - Stephen King

"A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight. By using words well they strengthen their souls. Story-tellers and poets spend their lives learning that skill and art of using words well. And their words make the souls of their readers stronger, brighter, deeper" - Ursula K. Le Guin

"A great writer reveals the truth even when he or she does not wish to." - Tom Bissell

"To have something to say is a question of sleepless nights and worry and endless ratiocination of a subject - of endless trying to dig out of the essential truth, the essential justice." - F. Scott Fitzgerald

"That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth." - Tim O’Brien

"We should write as we dream; we should even try and write, we should all do it for ourselves, it’s very healthy, because it’s the only place where we never lie. At night we don’t lie. Now if we think that our whole lives are built on lying-they are strange buildings-we should try and write as our dreams teach us; shamelessly, fearlessly, and by facing what is inside very human being-sheer violence, disgust, terror, shit, invention, poetry. In our dreams we are criminals; we kill, and we kill with a lot of enjoyment. But we are also the happiest people on earth; we make love as we never make love in life." - Hélène Cixous

"One can be absolutely truthful and sincere even though admittedly the most outrageous liar." - Henry Miller

"All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer." - Ernest Hemingway

"Only in men’s imagination does every truth find an effective and undeniable existence. Imagination, not invention, is the supreme master of art as of life." - Joseph Conrad

Friday Free for All for April 29th, 2011


At long last, the animated video of Tim Minchin’s ”Storm.”

How to create an optical Illusion book cover.

Books & Writing

A new picture book for parents. @ Today.com

25 things every writer should know. @ Terribleminds

Why use a pen name? @ Fuel Your Writing

Five writing problems and how to fix them. @ The Creative Penn

The world’s last typewriter factory shuts down. @ Writers Write

Don’t make your blog a private diary. @ Querytracker

What’s the craziest book you’ve ever read? @ Ecstatic Days

The Dervish House is optioned for film. @ Io9

Around the Web

Type like a hacker.

Waterproof ants.

Mind-erasing snails.

Contest Fail

I’m feeling a bit cowed. My Five Minute Fiction contest is past the deadline and there are no entries. I think it’s safe to say this little experiment has failed. My sickness this week (along with distractions from every other aspect of life) kind of kept me from promoting it properly. But, despite several hundred page views, the fact remains, no one was interested in writing 750 words.

So we’ll do it this way. Leave a comment on this post and I’ll randomly select a winner of The Skin Map on Monday, April 4th. US shipping only, sorry to our international cousins.

Friday Free for All for March 18th, 2011


An insane wiring job.

Maybe these monkeys are trying to reenact Crash?

Books & Writing

Oliver Sacks talks about Hollywood Adaptations. @ Speakeasy

Lit geeks write “Game of Thrones.” @ Jacket Copy

First review of DFW’s The Pale King. @ Publishers Weekly

Read Kameron Hurley’s God’s War free. @ io9

8 sites for writing prompts. @ Story A Day

Saturate your life with creativity. @ Write Anything

Organize your writing time. @ Magical Words

Tough lessons from a debut novelist. @ Writer Unboxed

Matt Forbeck on freelancing. @ Booklife

In praise of OmmWriter. @ Fuel Your Writing

A personal writing checklist. @ Mark Charan Newton

Around the Web

Joyce Estate vs. Synthetic Life.

The world’s most scientific cities.

A new, improved Hubble constant.

Review: The Adjustment Bureau

Philip K. Dick was a writer trying hard to understand the nature of reality, of human nature. The Adjustment Bureau is a movie that has trouble finding it’s place in this struggle, aiming to be a psychological thriller and love story, and failing to be either.

The 1954 story, “Adjustment Team” focused on the paranoia of an insurance salesman and, aside from the very basic inspiration, shares nothing with the filmed version. Which is a shame because the themes discussed in Dick’s story are probably more suited to today’s society than the very folksy romance The Adjustment Bureau attempts to be. We are introduced to David Norris, played by Matt Damon, a congressman running for the senate seat in New York. We follow him on the night of the election where, after the embarrassing leak of a bawdy photo, he loses in a landslide. It is in the men’s room while practicing his concession speech that he meets the love of his life, Elise, played by Emily Blunt. She manages to give him the slip after an impetuous kiss and he goes on to deliver an inspiring rebuke of national politics that leap frogs him into the public consciousness once again.

Skipping forward, some weeks or months later, Norris wanders into a board room and finds the titular Adjustment Bureau doing their work on his former campaign manager and current boss. This leads to an unlikely discussion whereupon Norris is informed of the bureau’s function and set free with the knowledge that if he ever revealed the secret, he would be “reset.”

Already a discerning audience is struggling to suspend disbelief. It’s not even that that the bureau let him go with that warning, the same thing happens in the story, it’s that there is no sense of menace whatsoever from the bureau’s representative, Richardson. In fact, the movie tries to do double duty by framing the bureau as a benevolent force of good as well as the prime antagonist. We have a hard time ratcheting up the necessary fear when the bad guys are angels in disguise, setting the world’s wrongs right again.

Norris runs afoul of the bureau again when he seeks out Elise. The “plan” doesn’t allow for the two to be together and for three years the bureau manages to keep them apart. When at last they meet again and strike up a romance, the case gets “kicked upstairs” to Thompson, who, as we are told in a hackneyed bit of dialog, is known as “The Hammer.”

Damon does his best to play it straight throughout the rest of the picture but the premise is already damaged and the script doesn’t allow us to engage with Norris at any emotional level. The two leads bounce wide eyed from plot point to plot point with predictable outcomes.

One of the major disappointments comes in the execution of the bureau itself. We are rarely introduced to their actual powers, the scene toward the beginning is the only instance that we see them alter reality. We don’t understand their motivations for the most part. There doesn’t appear to be any reason that McCrady lends his support to Norris’s cause toward the end, but he does anyway because that’s what the plot needed. Add that to the deus ex machina (literally) conclusion and what could have been an interesting adaptation becomes nothing more than a bitter pill.

If you are looking to experience Philip K. Dick brought properly to film, rent Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, a picture both more true to Dick’s legacy and frankly, a more touching story. The Adjustment Bureau is marred by its inability to excite the imagination. It takes the easy way out where Dick’s fiction never did.

A Game of Thrones Read-Along: Chapters 8-11

Spoiler Alert: I am under the impression that I am the only person in the civilized world who has not read this book and therefore heavy spoilers follow. Proceed at your own risk.

Eighty or so pages in and we’re still only at the precipice of major plot developments. We know that Ned is going to leave with the King, the fate of the Stark children, and a little background on some peripheral characters. One would think that now’s about time to get into the meat of things.

Chapter 8: Bran

Young Bran goes for a run across the rooftops of Winterfell, giving us some back story along the way. Bran is at home in the heights despite his parent’s urging that he keep his feet on the ground. He’s even found a hideaway in a ruined tower but today he finds it occupied by a man and a woman he can see but not hear. They are speaking of Bran’s father and he angles precariously to take a closer look. What he finds is the queen and her brother, not only speaking of their plans against the king and his supporters, but also engaging with each other on a more intimate level. The queen catches sight of the boy and screams causing Bran to stumble and catch himself on a ledge. Jaimie pulls him into the tower before pushing him back out the window to fall to the ground many stories below.

The narrative takes a nasty shift here! Not only are we introduced to Cersei and Jamie’s plots against the king, we are shown their incestuous relationship before Jamie commits a heinous act of violence against seven year old Bran. If political intrigue wasn’t doing it for you, this chapter definitely is an eye opener.

Chapter 9: Tyrion

The Lannister dwarf, Tyrion takes his breakfast with the uncowed queen and her devilish brother. Tyrion has a sense of duty and honor missing from his larger-statured siblings. He admonishes the crown prince for not paying respects to the Starks in their time of need. Young Bran is broken but not dead, lying in a ward with his grieving mother. Tyrion makes short work of Joffrey and moves on to the dining hall where he finds Cersei, Jamie and the children. Jamie, it is explained, was the only of Tyrion’s brothers that took an interest in him, a characteristic that inspires Tyrion’s devotion. Cersei laments that the boy is left to linger is such pain. Jamie openly wonders if the boy should be euthanized. Tyrion, for his part, wants to see Bran wake again, if only to hear what he has to say. We learn that Tyrion will accompany the Night’s Watch to the northern wall.

Cersei and Jamie continue to reprise the role of dastardly antagonists, responsible for the death of Jon Arryn and now the suffering of Bran. The book to this point is full of quite wicked people. It doesn’t take much to see Tyrion will soon be at odds with his family, torn between his devotion and his honor.

Chapter 10: Jon

Jon is meant to be leaving with his uncle Benjen but is finding it hard to leave his brothers and sisters. At last he can no longer delay and if he is to see his ailing younger brother again, time is slipping away. He braves the cold stare of Catelyn to say farewells. She is unsurprisingly hostile with him but she nonetheless confesses a feeling of responsibility, having prayed that he be allowed to stay with her in Winterfell. He grants her absolution but she kicks it back in his face, telling him it should have been him to meet this grisly fate. Afterwards, he seeks out  Arya. He gives her a sword to carry south with her. She names it Needle, as all the best swords have names.

Arya’s storyline has a ton of promise. I hope she emerges as a surprising and strong individual capable of carrying the Stark name into battle in fallen Bran’s stead.

Chapter 11: Daenerys

The wedding of Khal Drogo and Daenerys is the key to the Targaryen’s regaining the throne. The spectacle is quite scary to young Daenerys, the Dothraki’s being so culturally divergent from her own experience. Battles break out at the wedding party that leave men dead, orgies in the honor of the horesman take place right in front of her. Meanwhile, Viserys is impatient to get on with his conquest, bristling that the Dothraki’s might not be immediately ready to cross the sea in search of the crown. Daenerys is unable to speak with her new husband who only speaks a few words of the common tongue. She has an instructor to teach her their language but she’d had no instruction yet and so she is isolated at the wedding. Gifts are presented to the bride, weapons and dragon eggs, but the most prized gift is from Khal Drogo himself, a young filly both spirited and splendid. When it comes time to consummate their marriage, Khal Drogo is surprisingly genteel, a fact that has Daenerys, long used to ill treatment, feeling tender toward him.

The Daenerys character is quickly becoming more and more complex. She shares her brother’s ambition only to a point, it seems, whereas she is probably mostly seeking a normal and stable life. Khal Drogo surprises us as well, seeking the permission of his bought and paid for wife in order to become intimate, something we’ve already seen is out of character for a Dothraki.