William's home for discarded gems and concepts-in-progress.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Road Trip That Became a "General Invasion"

I met Baron Schuyler when we were high school seniors, way back in 1988. It was at a poetry workshop at Reed College (I think). I remember absolutely nothing about this workshop except sitting at a conference table with Baron on the opposite side of it. He was even skinnier and paler than me (no easy feat back then), long-haired, and clearly the only kid at the table with a clue how to string five decent words together.

Because we each seemed to make some impression on the other, we gravitated together two years later as Portland State University freshmen majoring in English, and we've been close friends ever since. He was the best man at my wedding, and we've been witness to each other's victories and stupidities for over two decades.  Early in our college career, we started making an annual trip from Portland to Ashland, OR to take in two or three plays the town's Shakespeare Festival and work on our respective -- or joint -- fiction projects. Over the years, we've started a lot of such projects, and some of them remain simmering on the back burner, too good in concept to fade completely into the night. Like so many other would-be writing teams, we've spent years getting together, enjoying the collaboration process, but inevitably getting derailed by the other time demands of our lives.

Figuring in lunch, the trip from Portland to Ashland takes about five hours each way. Our traditional pattern is that four of these five hours will be spent bitching about work and women troubles, and about one is spent on writing, which explains why we've never published anything. But we've sure had a lot of good times along the way.

Our 2011 trip was different. For one thing, it was the year we hit middle age and I got serious about self-publishing fiction. ("Good God, I'm 40 years old with no novels to my name," blah blah blah.) I don't think either of us had an undue amount of complaining to do about women on this trip. The stars lined up a certain way as we sped southward down I-5, and something slightly magical happened. The story that would become "General Invasion" (originally called "General Contact" until Baron thought of the better twist) was born.

I'll let Baron describe it...

I don't remember exactly what made me think of this concept, but I'm pretty sure it was after seeing a snippet of the movie Battle Los Angeles. I remember thinking to myself something along the lines of, "Another alien invasion story where everybody tries to blow each other up. It's always that or mysterious abductions." It seemed to me that almost all alien contact stories fall back on one of these two motifs, with only the very occasional exception. Star Trek had a classic exception in its first contact between Humans and Vulcans.

But even Star Trek wasn't immune to the allure of the cliche. I recalled an episode in which aliens were abducting Riker for medical experiments. (IMDB identifies this episode as "Schisms" from season six.) But I also recalled another episode with Riker, where he took on the role of alien invader. Fans of the show will recall that Federation officers often had minor surgery to make them blend in with unsuspecting alien populations, allowing them to obey the Prime Directive. In this episode ("First Contact" from season four), Riker is injured and his human anatomy is discovered by the alien civilization. He tries to escape captivity and he is offered a way out by a lascivious nurse who will help him if he agrees to a sexual tryst with her. This was done rather comically, but as a throwaway line.

Later, I somehow had reason to think about all of this in relation to online pornography. I can't remember why exactly. But it may be because I work at the library and we occasionally have people with poorly defined boundaries come in and view pornography on our public computers. (I mean, c'mon. Really? In public?) We have the annoying task of requesting that they not view it in the library. (Or else.)

At any rate, I wondered, "What if the alien abductions were not for medical experiments or ultimate world domination, but were the work of intergalactic pornographers making stag films?" This seemed rather comical to me. As such, I mentioned it jokingly to William.

Surprisingly, William thought this might make a good story, a sharp and irreverent comic piece. We spent most of our annual trip to Ashland trying to hash it out. Our first attempts focused on a female main character. We kept trying different permutations, but everything came off as crass or tasteless or politicized or politically correct, etc. Most of all, none of it was especially funny.

Just when I was saying that maybe it was best as a passing joke (and not a story), William hit on the brilliant idea of having the main character be a guy. And not just any guy -- a general in the US Army. This struck me as hilariously funny. The idea of it had me laughing so much that I am glad I didn't wreck the car as I was driving us home. He had been working on a story with Roswell connections and linked it to that. It all seemed to fall into place.

William did the hard work of creating a first draft. I had the easy task of doing the first rewrite. It went smoothly after that, with only minor changes and edits.

While most of our rides home tend to be a bit morose -- no one likes ending a vacation -- we laughed almost non-stop for 300 miles. I used the voice-to-text function on my Android smartphone to try and dictate notes into a Google Doc, and only later did I realize how much of the file was gibberish. But enough of the phrases were sufficiently intelligible to trigger my memory a few months later, and I wrote the initial draft in awkward 15- to 60-minute blocks over several weeks. If the final draft strikes you as funny and coherent, you can thank Baron, because those elements were largely absent in my initial sprawling mess.

Honestly, I don't know if "General Invasion" works or not. I'm too close to it to judge objectively. I still believe that humor and horror are the two most difficult genres in which to write well, because you're trying to elicit a more visceral emotional response from the reader. I'll let you decide whether or not we were successful.

For me, even if the story never sells a copy or gathers positive reviews, I'll consider it a glowing accomplishment that's been 20 years in the making. Baron and I finally completed a piece of fiction that (I hope) was ready for a widespread audience. Friendship has no requisite purpose. No two people ever say, "We're going to be friends in order to..." But if there ever were a purpose behind Baron's and my friendship, I think we would agree that it would be to write together. There's an inexplicable joy in the collaborative process that helps keep us together decade after decade. Being able to turn that collaboration into something tangible, something that can be shared with the world, may not be essential, but it sure feels great and long overdue.

Here's to hoping the next one won't take as long...

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