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Bewildering Stories

Bewildering Stories discusses...

The Shepherd of Zakhbaal

with Bill Bowler

All writers do well to emulate the models they most admire. But that is not where it ends. All writers must find their own “voice” and strike out on their own. And experiments can often be very instructive indeed...

Vaktar gazed at the mural...

Svak lowered the piece of charcoal for a moment. “Sometimes I think it’s a pile of stinking chok dung, not what I had hoped to show, not what I see. But better a poor image than none at all...”

In retrospect, I would say this about Zakhbaal:

The basic plot device is broken. I wanted Colonel Shepherd to depart Earth after Omar, travel faster, and arrive on Planet X before him. That seemed simple enough, but this fundamental plot line got completely screwed up by insufficient application of science-fictional handwavium.

In attempting to fix the plot after the fact, as you know, I rewrote subsequent chapters to conform to a new logic: it’s not Shepherd on Planet X but his descendant. In so doing, I demolished the original plot twist.

New inconsistencies with plotting and characterization resulted and cascaded through the second half of the piece, requiring ever additional patchwork fixing. In the end, the plot collapsed like a house of cards. The attempted repair work hopelessly crippled the original story.

As for characterization:

I recently was thumbing through a copy of P.K. Dick’s Lies, Inc., and stumbled on his character named Omar Jones. So now I know from what unconscious source I got my hero’s name.

Those who read Zakhbaal found Omar an unconvincing and unlikeable character who did not react to what was happening. My idea was to portray an emotionally injured and repressed person who is at the same time a latent empath. His own emotions are repressed, but he begins to experience directly the emotions of others.

I wanted to represent such a character and such a process from the character’s point of view and without explanation to the extent that third-person narration allows.

In terms of plot, Omar’s emotional apathy prevents him from reacting to events, but it also enables him to elude the emotion sensors and emotion-sensing robot on Planet X. I clearly failed to depict such a character, such thematics, and such a plot thread, since no reader seems to have understood it.

Is the final scene contrived? No doubt. I had the unforgettable pyramid sacrifice scene from the film Apocalypto in the back of my mind. Does it work in Zakhbaal and follow from what has come before? Apparently not. I wanted a slam-bang finish, pulled out all the stops and went where the story took me. It seems to have gone off the rails.

One of my dreams was to write a Journey to the Seventh Planet, a B-pulp futuristic space travel sci-fi adventure with a hurtling plot à la Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Barsoom” novels. Another dream was to write a B-pulp pre-historic romantic adventure like One Million B.C., the one in black and white with Victor Mature. In writing Zakhbaal, I conflated both scenarios into a single work, which I suppose has about as much chance of working as giant ventriloquist crabs.

I wanted to write something that was fun and easy to read, pure entertainment, a page-turner with no message, something on the order of literary popcorn, or maybe cheese popcorn. I wanted to build a fantasy world and take the reader into it. It didn’t happen.

And still I don’t disown my baby. I love it, warts and all. Maybe some shred or glimmer of what I was trying to convey slips through the wreckage.

©2012 by Bill Bowler

Two thoughts come to mind: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose and “There’s nothing new under the sun.” However, a third thought also intrudes: one of our unofficial mottoes says, “It is only the unimaginative who ever invents. The true artist is known by the use he makes of what he annexes.” — Oscar Wilde.

The French proverb and King Solomon both have a point in cautioning against taking oneself too seriously. The Bard of Dublin goes further and makes two points: Emulate the best models you can find and then build on them. My take: as long as we’re here, let’s respect the past and make the most of it.

In my opinion, Bill, you’re a far better writer than the models you’ve chosen. Readers familiar with “Garbage Planet” and “Charlenes 2 and 3” — to name only two — will find true gems and will be engrossed by the characters and their stories. And I recently had occasion to refer a contributor to your High School Honey as an example of a successful experiment in characterization with a minimum of omniscient narration.

In Zakhbaal, you have some interesting characters: Omar, Lyla, Shepherd, Vaktar, Svak, and of course Tiger. I agree that the plot and setting get in their way. My advice — as always, worth what it cost ya — is to emulate another model than the ones you’ve chosen: Isaac Asimov.

Now, I do not recommend that anyone imitate Asimov’s style; that would be a formula for disaster. Asimov himself freely admitted to being at least a mild agoraphobe and acrophobe. As a consequence, his works are almost obsessively interior and have a minimum of sensual description; even his bare-bones visual descriptions seem to have taken a conscious effort on his part.

And yet Asimov’s stories are not all plot. Their popularity is due to an endearing personal quality: he genuinely liked his characters. And even the few he didn’t like, as in The End of Eternity, he understood.

In “Dimmity Dumpling and the Scarlet Cloak,” written for Contest 1, “Twisted Fairy Tales,” I had no idea where the story was going. I had two main characters — Diminutive Chaperon and Gromei Shawloo — and two or three minor characters. I just sat back and let them tell me the story.

The result is a pleasant potboiler that was fun to write and, as a result, is probably more fun to read than anything else I’ve written. Was I trying to convey anything? Not consciously; the story is light-hearted and makes no pretention to weightiness. And yet at the end I was surprised by what it actually says. That’s what happens when you let a story tell itself.

© 2012 by Don Webb

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