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The Big Idea: Tobias S. Buckell

Short story collections aren’t (or at least don’t have to be) mere compilations, where the author just takes the latest collection of short pieces and shoves them into a single book-shaped container. No, there can be something else going on as well. Tobias S. Buckell has that “something else” going on in his latest collection Shoggoths in Traffic. Here he is to explain what that is.

TOBIAS S. BUCKELL:

Shoggoths in Traffic came when I realized I had hundreds of thousands of words of short fiction that I hadn’t bundled into collections, and that I had enough for 3-4 collections.

When I started writing, I didn’t have that much raw material. I pulled my stories that I’d written, all of them to the point, and collected them.

But now I could do something even cooler.

I could create a mix-tape that represented my love of short stories, and pick and choose. I didn’t have to just throw all the stories I’d ever published together; I could curate!

*****

Here’s the thing: I love short stories.

The other day I invited an author into my class via Zoom to talk about a short story of theirs the class read. “Why,” I asked during the Q&A session, “do you still write short stories when, you and I both know, all the good money is in writing novels?”

Students started at us as we laughed.

It hurts me sometimes to love short stories. Each one represents days, sometimes weeks of my creative output. But making $500 on a piece of fiction that took two weeks to create, or sometimes longer, remains a poverty proposition. It certainly isn’t ever how I’ll make a living as a creative.

And yet…

And yet…

I keep doing it.

Sometimes I feel like fiction is an older brother that grabs my writing arm and punches me in the face with it while saying, “why do you keep punching yourself, huh? Why do you keep punching yourself?”

I’ve written hundreds of short stories, and luckily, I’ve seen over 80+ of them in print in various magazines, anthologies, and websites. I’ve published another 40+ stories on my Patreon, where mostly subscribers read them.

Am I a masochist?

No, I just can’t quit having so many ideas, and not all of them can be a novel. Plus also, I’m ADHD, so the short story is an easier mountain to climb in terms of how long it takes to get to the end.

*****

One of the most common questions I get asked is where I get my ideas.

I’ve recently taken to developing an external brain for myself. As someone with ADHD, ideas flit around in my head and disappear like fireflies in a dark field. Unrelated concepts form up somewhere in my brain and bubble out at inopportune times and I need a place to put them.

At my university, when I was baby writer just starting out, one of my writing professors pulled a small book out of his backpack and held it up.

“You need a notebook, or something, where you put all your ideas as they come to you throughout the day when you’re doing something else so you don’t forget them,” he said.

Everyone nodded.

I did not have a notebook. I relied on the fermentation happening in my subconscious so surface ideas. This had never gone wrong for me in my younger life. I brimmed with ideas, more than I could ever had the time to write.

When other writers said they “didn’t know what to write about” in class, I stared at them like they’d grown snakes from their eye-sockets.

Ideas? I always felt like I was trying to take a sip out of an idea firehose.

But that also meant I couldn’t escape them. That firehose always runs in the background, those fireflies light up my brain constantly when I should be, I don’t know, listening to something a colleague is telling me.

Writing down ideas, I discovered at some point years ago, gets them out of my head so they’re not ricocheting around while I’m trying to, you know, write another idea. It stopped all the other new ideas from being so shiny so I could get on with work.

I’m not able to take the good ADHD meds due to a heart defect, so writing them down to get them out of my short term memory turns out to be really, really important to keeping me focused.

Russian scientist Bluma Zeigarnik’s research into how open loops keep information in our short term memory finds out that writing something down actively removes the information from our short term memory. It’s for this reason that journaling is such a powerful tool against anxiety and crowded thinking. But for someone who’s ADHD it’s interesting how powerful the act of writing down something is for me.

So for the last few years, I’ve been writing down all the ideas. And I’ve been building a personal knowledge management system to keep all my research notes that’s become large and cross linked enough it’s started suggesting its own short story ideas. I now have 60+ short story ideas waiting in the queue to get written.

And I’ve been writing more and more short stories because they are the fastest way to take these ideas and try them out, to see where they’ll take me.

I’m writing more short stories now than ever before because I am not losing all my ideas, and because they’re things I can write in a smaller frame of time.

*****

So what to curate?

If you hit me up at the start of my career, I would tell you I was a science fiction author. I didn’t sneer at fantasy. I loved it. Ray Bradbury taught me so much about how to write, and his anecdotes about how much it took for him to sell his story were an inspiration that got me submitting my stories.

But I wanted to be a science fiction novelist so much!

In short fiction, though, I have the freedom to try anything in a story. It easier to escape expectations and branding in the short story. So unlike my novels, I’ve always played with the fantasy genre in my short fiction.

For this collection, as I looked at the 40 or 50 uncollected stories, I thought it would be fun to take all my fantasy stories and showcase them in a single book and create a mixtape to my love of fantasy. Second world fantasy, magical realism, urban fantasy, all of it.

I grew up in the Caribbean. My love of the fantastic came from an oral tradition of duppy stories, carnival, and Anansi folk tales. Of course I had fantasy stories in my blood. And Shoggoths in Traffic grew out of that love.

It’s a collection of stories that begin with zombie tales, stories about the way we live in the world today, and then slowly begins to get weirder and further away from the real world, all the way into secondary world, and then I bring it back. It explores the landscape and range of over 20 years of my writing these hard, fast hits to the brain.

I love the novels that have put a roof over my head. I love my science fiction, which allowed me to travel the world to speak about my visions of the future and worries about our present.

But it is in the fantasy that I really get to share with you what it’s like to be bombarded all the time by a firehose of ideas and strangenesses that I see when I look at the world around me.

Pick up Shoggoths in Traffic, and you’ll get a taste of what these ideas are like that I have to write down…

…or they’ll plague my mind otherwise.

Better for me if they now plague yours!


Shoggoths in Traffic: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

By John Scalzi

I enjoy pie.

5 replies on “The Big Idea: Tobias S. Buckell”

I pre-ordered this back in August and then apparently forgot I did so, so it was a very pleasant surprise to see it magically appear on my Kindle yesterday morning.

I’m currently reading Dune, which is a bit of a slog for someone like me. I’m pretty sure I, too have been ADD since I was a kid, but back in the sixties, I don’t think they even had a name for ADD, let alone all these great meds. But short stories were a great way to read back then, with Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Heinlein et al. providing them.

Thanks for providing some shorts with which to wind down after I’m done with Dune.

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