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.