Book Review: Nascence by Tobias Buckell

Nascence by Tobias BuckellI’ve been a fan of Tobias Buckell’s short fiction since I listened to Metatropolis when it was released as an audiobook. Since then, I’ve read shorts by him here and there (Tides from New Worlds is quite good) and kept up with his blog, which is actually how I found out about his new book, Nascence.

Recently, he posted a blog about a new, unrevealed project he had coming out soon and asked for any bloggers or reviewers who wanted an e-ARC to email him. I jumped at the chance, and what I got in my inbox the next day was a surprise: a short story collection aptly titled Nascence.   In itself, that’s not really exciting.

What made this ebook unique, though, (and it may be the most unique short story collection I’ve ever read) is that it collects 17 stories that Buckell had not been able to otherwise sell.  Each story also has an introduction explaining why it had not sold and what lessons he learned from it that eventually helped him make a living as a writer.

In short: he collected a bunch of stinkers, put them in a pretty package, and told his readers why they were bad and had never (directly) made him any money.

As he puts it in the introduction:

So this is either a really clever way to monetize a number of old stories that I have in my drawers that really shouldn’t see the light of day, or it is a nifty way to talk about how I learned to write.  It could also be a neat way to demonstrate a handful of lessons I’ve learned the hard way over the years about how not to write.  Or possibly, I think it could be both.

I’m perfectly comfortable with holding both concepts in hand at once…if you are.

How could I, a newbie writer trying to figure out what would make my own fiction salable, resist?

The first story, “Spellcast”, is everything he said it was: cliched, awkward, and all around kind of bad.  But I liked it and couldn’t stop reading it. I plowed through it and the next couple of stories in one sitting, and I made around a dozen notes and annotations on my Kindle about the stories and his tips on not repeating his mistakes. And, wouldn’t you just know it, I make many of the same mistakes that Tobias Buckell made. Now that I’m aware of that, and I can work on fixing them.  That was just after reading the first three stories.

In the time since I was sent the e-ARC of Nascence, I have learned more about what I am doing wrong with my writing than I have in the past year of voraciously reading any writing articles, blogs, or books that I have been able to find.

What’s the difference, you may ask, between Nascence and, say, the newest issue of Writer’s Digest? How can this one self-published ebook teach you that much?

It can because Tobias Buckell gives examples. Hard examples that tie directly to his advice.

Instead of just saying “Write compelling characters” or “Make the reader give a damn” and then telling you why you should follow these rules, he shows you. He gives you a story that breaks the precise rule he is trying to help you avoid, and not only that, but it’s a legitimate example of making the mistake and not one conjured up just to show nascent writers what not to do. We see actual mistakes, not manufactured ones.

For instance, we are told that the story “Airtown” “feels like a snippet, a chapter of a wider piece” that “fails to explain some of the wider universe [Buckell] had built in [his] head, so that they’re often just references or names in the story that don’t really make sense to a reader.”

He’s right, but without the story to read after his description, I honestly had no idea what he meant. I thought he was exaggerating, that it was probably just a few passing references or slightly weak worldbuilding. But no. “Airtown” felt very much like the first 1/3 of the first chapter in a much longer novel (an interesting first 1/3, though). There was no plot or real character; there was just…introduction and escalating conflict. Then it ends.

Without reading the story, the lesson would not–could not?–be learned.

By putting himself out there for the world to see, Buckell has created something very special. It’s not a short story collection, and it’s not a book on writing.  Somehow, it’s both at the same time and feels like something entirely new. Nascence would not have worked without the introductions to the stories, as all we would have are some slightly bad, slightly interesting short stories that trace Buckell’s career; however, without the stories (which was his original intent, actually–a book of the introductions as stand-alone essays), readers would be subject to another me-too writer’s guide. And we all know how much the world needs that.


The way I see it, there are two real audiences for Nascence: fans of short fiction and writers of short fiction.

If you find yourself in either of those categories, you need to hop over to Amazon or Barnes and Noble and buy Nascence by Tobias Buckell.

I say it’s for fans of shirt fiction because this collection has probably the most unique premise I’ve ever come across. There is no clear structure or theme that unifies the content, nor is there a standard of quality among them. In fact, many of the stories are downright ooky in their own way, while there are others (“It Is Bitter,” for instance) that make me wonder about why they never found a market. The gimmick alone was enough to make me begin, but the quality and style kept me reading every chance I got.  I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a short story collection quite this much.

And it’s for writers of short fiction because of how it tackles an increasingly tired subject. I’m at my wit’s end with advice that tells me to “show, don’t tell” without doing the least bit of showing themselves. If you’re a writer, I’d go so far as to say that Nascence is every bit as important for you to read as Stephen King’s On Writing. Even though two books are vastly different in style and content, I have learned more about writing fiction from them than anything else I’ve read on the subject.  Honestly.

Nascence is a far cry from your typical short story collection, and that’s why I can’t recommend it enough.  Even the worst story in the collection is entertaining, and that’s something that rarely happens with this kind of book. The whole experience is high concept and well executed. So if you’ve got a few dollars just looking for a good book, toss them toward Tobias Buckell and give Nascence a shot. I can’t really see how you would be disappointed.

By B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.


  1. Authors talking about their personal learning process is quite extraordinary. Some authors do, many more don’t.

    This seems to be a very useful book for aspiring writers and those who are not writers, but interested in literature nevertheless.

    1. I agree. It’s been really useful for me. I was in the mindset of “I don’t want to waste these stories I already have written,” but this collection really got it into my head that I can take the ideas I like and rewrite them into something new and better. My voice has gotten better, and as much as I preach revision, sometimes scrapping the whole mess is the way to go to get something workable.

      Also, I noticed something in what I consider my best short that Buckell talks about in Nascence which might just explain why it hasn’t sold. I got voice and worldbuilding, but I didn’t quite get the self-contained narrative yet.

  2. Purchased, 100% based on this review and the affordable price on Amazon. I’ve not read any of Buckell’s work before, but this sounds like an opportunity too awesome to miss. (I do like to let reviewers and authors know when a review is successful and turns into a sale)

    Thanks so much for reviewing it!

    1. Well, I’m certainly glad to see the review was of use to someone. I was just blown away by the book, so I really like to get the word out there for the ones that really hit home.

      I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 🙂

  3. I loved this review and insight and have put the book in my cart for the next time I buy. Seems to be a great way of showing, not telling, writing techniques and what does & does not work. I also greatly admire an author like this who can open up honestly with his “failures.”

    1. I feel the same way. So often, writers shove their “failures” under the rug and only talk about how they couldn’t quite get it right. I have a lot of respect for Buckell because of how open he is about it.

      I have a big problem with writing guides that tell authors “make your characters feel like real people,” but they never give an example. I just start to disregard them eventually because there is nothing concrete. In “Nascence,” we see, this guy’s not a real person because of X,Y, and Z, but in the next story, I was able to do Y better and still haven’t been able to work on X or Z.

      I hope some of the other stories that weren’t published see the light of day in a second collection eventually.

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