• Andrew Johnston

Dawn of a Storyteller: The First Chapter of a Serial Novel

Today is the 7th anniversary of The Fabulist - don't worry, I'd forgotten it too until I went poking around for material. On this date in 2013, the original serialized version of The Fabulist was accepted on the late, unlamented JukePop Serials and the first chapter went live. That first chapter (unaltered from the JPS version) is below. Remember when I promised to dissect the serial? No? Well...I did.


The initial version of The Fabulist was a lot different. I was writing it as I went, and I didn't know exactly where it would end. The idea was to create a setting - the Illinois Wasteland - with opportunities for various adventures, allow the readers to decide Storyteller's path through the wastes, and let the story unfold based on what they wanted. It didn't quite work out, so I charted his path myself. Unfortunately, this still left the early phases of the story a bit unfocused. You'll note that Storyteller ends this chapter without a definite goal (ignore the reference to Westhigh - unlike the finished novel, he doesn't go there for a few chapters).


Notice how this story seems removed from the rest of the narrative? I wasn't confident that my yarn about a storytelling pacifist would stand a chance on a site dominated by zombies and gangsters and cosmic horrors, so I worked up a little action scene to kick things off. This was a mistake, but it didn't hurt me too much with the readers. Having learned that lesson, I started the novel with a quieter scene - one very reminiscent of the second chapter of the serial.


As to the writing...it's adequate. The tale of Valeri the Thief (which is based on something I wrote for a class in high school) changed little across the various versions of the story. The action elements are good enough, but holy hell, the dialogue tags - "whispered coarsely," indeed. I've noticed that there are more "creative" tags in serials than in self-contained novels, likely a consequence of limited editing capacity (not that this is an excuse for the first chapter). The setting isn't very well established, either, but it didn't seem to bother anyone. "It didn't seem to bother anyone" will be a leitmotif of this series, I assure you - people have different standards for serial novels and self-contained novels.


Anyway, this is a good time to check out the finished novel if you haven't - it's free, if I haven't mentioned that already. Future updates will contain spoilers, and I won't be warning you. What a dire sin of the affluent Western world, to discuss a novel without seeking permission first...



The Fabulist (Serial Novel version): The First Chapter


Once upon a time, there was a place called Pinnacle, the Vault of the Gods. This was where the great powers of their day kept stockpiles of their sacred wealth, safe from the prying eyes and sticky fingers of the rest of the land. You see, the wealth stored within the vault was considered so precious that it was never to be touched by mortals. Only one man in a million would even have a chance to witness the contents of the vault, and no one had ever taken even a single coin for his own.


The location of the vault was widely known, but there were none who would dare draw near it. The gods employed a giant, a man as tall as the skies and as solid as a mountain to secure their wealth. Any fool who dared approach the vault would be quickly squashed within his mighty hands.


But in a nearby village, there was a thief known as Valeri who had dreamed since his childhood days of retrieving a coin from the vault for his very own. He knew that this would secure his position as the most intelligent and skillful thief who ever lived - a man who stole from the gods and got away with it. So day after day, he sat in his hut and plotted his escapade.


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


There was a muffled explosion from outside the building. Mortar dust and fragments of decaying brick showered from the ceiling as the shockwave hit. Suddenly, it was quiet again, save a few faint but urgent whispers from the surrounding halls.


The children in the room ignored it, staring in rapt wonder at the man in front of them. He was a slender man, his small frame exaggerated by the patchwork clothing he wore - strips of other garments hastily sewn together to form a suit and robe of sorts. His age was impossible to glean, with young-seeming features worn down by a life of constant travel and strife. Next to him lay his only worldly possessions - an old leather-bound notebook, a tin vial, and a metal object which had once been a pen.


He climbed to his feet, shaking the dust from his clothes. "Excuse me for a moment, will you children?" He smiled and nodded to his audience, who murmured to each other but remained seated. The man slid calmly out of the room, his muted behavior masking his inner fear.


The surrounding chambers were abuzz with activity. Men and women rushed hither and yon, glancing through gaps in the wall, readying weapons, or delivering messages from one part of the building to another. Despite the commotion, there was an odd hush - no raised voices or even heavy steps. To anyone outside, the building must have seemed abandoned.


One of the men noticed the strange man and rushed to him. "Storyteller, what are you doing up here?" he whispered coarsely. "You're supposed to be looking out for the children."


"And I was," replied Storyteller, "but I heard the blast and grew a bit concerned. Are we in any peril?"


"Not at all." The man peeked through an almost invisible crack in the masonry. "These guys are just ganks. Probably swiped some gunpowder from another gang. They make a couple crappy bombs, set them off outside the base, and we're supposed to shit ourselves." He looked back at Storyteller. "In another ten minutes, they'll give up. But that only happens if they think we're not scared, and that means we have to keep the children calm."


"I understand," said Storyteller, nodding ever so slightly. "I'm sorry to have questioned you, it's clear that you know what you're doing."


The man pulled a blade from a sheath on his belt. "You just do your job, we'll do ours, and everything will turn out fine."


Storyteller backed out of the passage and back into the children's room. Some of them were waiting for him by the door, staring up with eager eyes. A little boy tugged at the hem of his garment. "Mister, what happened to the thief and the giant?"


"Ah, yes. We'll get right back to that one." Storyteller took his seat on the floor in front of the children. "Terribly sorry, I just had to have a word with your parents. I do hate to interrupt a story, and this has always been one of my favorites. Now..." He stroked his chin. "...Do any of you remember where I stopped?"


A little girl raised her hand. "The thief's plan."


"That's right. Now, Valeri was very smart, but he could devise no plan to distract the giant, and he knew that the brute could not be bribed. It seemed hopeless. Then, one day, he was walking through the hills around his village when he discovered something very strange by the river. It was a strange black goo, unlike anything he had ever seen. When he touched it, it bound fast to his hand and would not let go. Panicking, he thrust his hand into the river, and the goo melted away almost instantly. As he stared at his discovery, a smile crossed his face. He knew how he could use this substance to fool the giant."


Storyteller could faintly hear screams and obscenities coming from outside of the building. He briefly felt the urge to run, but drove it down and continued with the story.


"Valeri took an old iron bucket, a waterskin, and several small pieces of coal and headed back to the river. Wetting his hands and the inside of the bucket, he carefully placed a bit of the goo inside, surrounding it with coal. Bucket in hand, he traveled to the vault. When he drew near, the giant bellowed at him..."


There was another explosion, smaller than the first, but still strong enough to shake the walls. "How appropriate, that's just how it sounded." The children laughed. Storyteller could feel his own fears subsiding as he became lost in his art. "'Who dares to near this forbidden place?' roared the giant. Valeri was frightened, but he knew that if he left now, it would mean his doom. 'So the brute knows not who I am?' said Valeri. 'Sad, for I have come so far to witness his might for myself.'"


Storyteller glanced to the side, spotting several adults standing just inside the room. The raid was drawing to a close, and the parents were coming to check on their children. A few of them seemed as interested in the story as their children. "...Valeri held out a piece of coal in his open hand. 'I have heard that it is possible to turn one of these into a diamond, but in all my days, I have yet to meet a man with the necessary strength.' The giant laughed. 'There are none stronger than me, little man!' He snatched away the piece of coal and pressed it between his mighty hands. When he opened them, a small, flawed diamond sat in his palm."


"'Not bad",' said Valeri, 'but it was a small fragment. Even a giant could not perform such a feat on a larger piece.' The giant roared. 'There is nothing that is beyond my might!' The giant thrust his hand into the bucket, seizing the mass of goo at the bottom. Without a moment's thought, he squeezed it between his hands, but rather than producing a diamond, he found his hands stuck together. 'What kind of sorcery is this?' howled the giant. Valeri merely gestured to him. 'I am sorry, great one. Allow me to release you.' Valeri poured out some water into his hand and tossed it across the giant's hands, freeing them in a moment. The giant fell to his knees, shaking the ground as he did. 'You must be a god to perform such a feat! Please accept my apologies. The vault is open to you.' 'There is no need for your apologies,' said Valeri, 'and I desire only a single coin, that I may remember this day forever.' The giant turned over that coin, and Valeri tipped his hat to the brute and walked away."


"When the gods returned to count their wealth, it came up short. The fool they had sent to guard the vault could only tell them that another of their number had visited the vault, but he could not remember which one. And that is how the small and clever defeated the brutish and dim."


The children clapped, then ran over to their parents, still waiting patiently at the side of the room. Storyteller sighed and stood up, gathering his meager belongings. Someone clapped him on the shoulder - the man he had spoken to earlier. "Good job, Storyteller," he said. "I caught a little bit of the last one. You're pretty good at this."


"Thank you for your compliment, Watchman." Storyteller packed his things into a makeshift bag and flung it over his shoulder. "I take it that the danger has passed?"


"That's right," replied Watchman. "It's just like we expected. They made a lot of noise, but when we didn't surrender, they took off in search of easier prey."


"Interesting. The raiders around here are much tamer than the ones I'm used to seeing." A few stray beams of light peeked through the aging masonry. "It seems morning has come. I'll be on my way soon."


"Can't we talk you into staying?" asked Watchman. "You could do a lot of good here, and we would be glad to share what we have. We actually live quite well here."


Storyteller adjusted his garments. "Thanks for the offer, but it's just not my lot in life. My lot is to wander."


"Where are you headed next?" asked Watchman.


"North," answered Storyteller. "I'm going to check out the Westhigh facility."


"Westhigh?" said Watchman. "There's nothing up there but some old broken machines and burned-up scraps of paper. Nothing worth salvaging. The only people who wind up at Westhigh are crazies."


"Maybe you're right," said Storyteller, "but I'd like to see it for myself."


The two of them headed to the surface. The morning was surprisingly quiet, given the activity of the previous night. There was an orange-yellow cast to the sky as the sunbeams struggled to penetrate the cloud of dust that hung over the town. There were a few people outside, lighting cooking fires and checking the main building for damage. The bombs had only damaged a few half-standing houses that had been ruined long ago. A pair of craftsmen were already working on one of the houses, breaking down the masonry to retrieve intact bricks.


Watchman handed a small bundle to Storyteller. "It's not much, but this should last you until you reach the next settlement. I also threw in one of my knives, in case you run into any more gangs."


"Thanks for that, but I plan on avoiding violence." Storyteller tucked the bundle into his bag. "Is there anything else I might do?"


"Well, I did have a question about your story," said Watchman. "There was some other title you gave to Thief..."


"You mean his name?" said Storyteller.


"Yeah. Damn, I must sound dumb." Watchman shook his head. "The children are going to ask why they don't have names."


Storyteller shrugged. "It wasn't my intention to cause a stir. I guess I'm just used to characters having names."


"Then it's true. You do remember the world before it happened," said Watchman.


Storyteller smiled. "I should be going. Perhaps one day I'll visit again." He turned and walked off into the plains, the cruel sun resting heavily on his shoulders.

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