Reading About Writing – Part One

Part one of something I might do more of, since I have another book on writing I want to talk about fairly soon. Today I’m talking about Nascence, by Tobias Buckell.

One of the truths of life is that failure can teach you more than success. We all know it, and we all hate it. Not many of us look at failure and see it as part of a growing process.

In Nascence, Tobias Buckell collects several failed stories–stories he never published and, for the most part, never worked to correct–while introducing each story with the reason(s) why he considers that story to be a failure.

There’s a lot you can learn about writing from writers, but some things are less concrete and you end up getting vague suggestions about what the end result should look like without them being able to tell you the HOW of it. At least from an amateur perspective it is, I suppose some of this stuff is well and clearly explained in many writing classes. From my experience, learning from writers can feel like having a map without roads. “You want to gamble? You need to get to Vegas. It’s this spot right here. I’m not sure exactly where you are now, and I can’t show you which roads go to Vegas, but that’s where you need to go.” Depending on where you’re starting from, you’re likely to be killed along the way and you never know how long the trip will take you.

Buckell’s approach is different. He doesn’t point you to some vague end result. He doesn’t hint at what consensus says makes for a good story. He has you read bad stories and tells you exactly why they’re crappy. He tells you the mistakes that led to the failure so that you can do better. The mistakes are big ones, and probably common ones. Errors much worse than bad grammar or bad spelling because those little mistakes are easy to find and fix. Definitely they’re mistakes I made in almost all of the stories I consider failures, I just didn’t know why they failed before now. If this were baking, then knowing exactly what you did wrong wouldn’t change the taste of the crappy pie in front of you, but it would give you a clear path and a series of good questions to ask for the next try. Buckell tells you something is clumsy and then he shows you how bad it looks when it’s done. Instead of simply telling you that a story should be about a character who has the most at stake and the most to lose, letting you figure it out from there, he provides several stories in which the main character is a bystander and shows you how boring and unsatisfying that is for a reader. Buckell puts his flawed stories out there, warts and all, and shows you exactly how those warts can kill your work. He’ll also occasionally point to things he could have done to make the story work, so you can picture in your head how the framework would have changed. I could summarize many of the points he makes into a concise blog post, but I don’t believe it would have the same effect as seeing the bad, right there in front of you as you learn to identify what’s wrong, so I’d encourage the full reading of the book.

Nascence is probably not worth it for fans of Buckell’s fiction looking for more since many of these stories, and especially the earliest ones, are not just flawed but decidedly rough, though some still present interesting characters and settings which might appeal to the hardcore fans looking to see where his imagination was going at the time. But Buckell’s insights into why his own stories failed are golden for writers looking to improve. I’ve read a lot of books about the craft of writing, but no book on writing has ever helped me fix a broken story before I read Nascence. Not fixed in a vocabulary, grammar, or sentence structure sort of way, but fixed in a story-structuring way. In an almost extra-story way. I fixed some of the stuff you wouldn’t be able to see but which is there in the sum total of the words on the page. Writers should definitely learn from Buckell’s experience. Learn from his mistakes so that you can spot those mistakes in your own writing. When I bought it for $5 as an ebook, it was a steal, and it looks like it’s now been dropped to $2.99 on Amazon and B&N, which is even better.

Available only as an ebook, DRM-free directly from Buckell’s website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble.

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