In the beginning, it was supposed to be a straightforward alien-encounter story – no literary flourishes, no profound philosophical content, nothing more than a plain Jane, everything-accessible-at-first-read, man-meets-extraterrestrial being story running no less than 4,000 words and no more than 5,000 words. Oh yeah, and it had to be in English.
If I don’t sound too enthusiastic about the story, that’s because I wasn’t. I was writing it only as a favor to a longtime acquaintance and sometime friend named Bill Miller, who was forever founding – and later folding – magazines that plied various segments of the science-fiction market. He’d started at the hard-science end of the spectrum, and he’d been editing a magazine that specialized in sword and sorcery the last time I’d seen his name on a masthead.
Miller decided to update our relationship via a telephone call at 6 o’clock Monday morning. It probably could have waited until I got out of bed, but that’s Miller – always a crisis. After waking me, he proceeded to inform me in his customarily breathless fashion that he desperately needed a story by Thursday for a middle-of-the-road collection of SF stories he was putting together. He said the writer who was supposed to supply the story had already missed two deadlines, and he hoped the weasel had AIDS or liver cancer or both, and would I please, please, for the sake of God, Buddha and the New York Football Giants, help him out of this terrible jam?
“Not interested,” I said.
“I’m paying four cents a word, Jerry.”
I didn’t say a word.
“Look, I’m desperate,” he said. “How about six cents a word?”
I listened to the static on the telephone line.
“Okay, because we’re friends, I’ll pay seven cents a word, but not a penny more.”
When I closed my eyes and focused all my energy on my sense of hearing, I thought I could detect another conversation elsewhere on the telephone line.
“I bet you kick old ladies when they’re down,” Miller growled. “Eight cents a word. Take it or leave it.”
“Sold! You got yourself a Grade A, USDA-approved writer,” I said cheerfully. “Anything special you want in this story, or do you just need some copy to fill space?”
“It has to have a human. It has to have an alien. They have to meet. It has to be between 4,000 and 5,000 words. It has to be in English. And most important, it has to be here, in my mail drop, no later than Thursday. I’m serious, Jerry. If it’s not here Thursday, don’t bother to send it.”
I hung up, showered, shaved, brewed a pot of coffee, treated myself to a pair of eggs over easy, took a seat in my thinking chair and rummaged through the story ideas I had filed away under “Possibilities” in the recesses of my memory.
That didn’t take long. I didn’t have a single idea.
I wasn’t worried, though. I’m a pro, after all, not some dilettante who writes only when the muse provides encouragement. I must have churned out a dozen alien-encounter stories over the years, maybe more. I didn’t expect much trouble coming up with another. Hell, at eight cents a word, I probably could have written an entire novel by Thursday.
Still, I didn’t have any ideas. Not yet anyway. As I do whenever I’m stumped, I reverted to my daily newspaper training. The first thing you learn in journalism school is that a newspaper story must contain Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. So, in a fashion, must all other stories. And Miller had made it easier for me: He told me what the What was – man meets Martian (or whatever).That left me with the Who, Where, When, Why and How. No problem. I figured I might as well start with Who. The name John sprung to mind. It didn’t strike my fancy. How about Jack? Ditto. John Jack had promise, but not enough. Too staccato, I decided. Johnson Jackson? I liked that, but it sounded too familiar. Sure, sure, I’d used it a couple of years ago in another story. Jackson Johnson? No, I’d probably end up confusing myself, if not my readers. There was something about that name, though. I thought about it for a minute before lighting upon what it was: Both parts were both surnames of American presidents.
An American president as the protagonist of my story? Sounded interesting. But which one? Certainly not the current president, not unless I planned to go the comedy route. (He’d already managed that himself in the classic man-meets-chimpanzee flick, Bedtime for Bonzo.) I went to the other extreme and considered George Washington. No, I’d never especially liked him. Abraham Lincoln was my favorite president, but he seemed too deeply rooted in Americana – log cabins and all that – to be the subject of an alien-encounter story. Next on my list was Thomas Jefferson, the Renaissance man of the Founding Fathers. He had had an abiding interest in science – even dabbled in alchemy, I seemed to recall – and his life was studded with paradoxes, conundrums and virtually unbelievable coincidences. Maybe, just maybe, he could be rigged for the role.
Okay, so Jefferson would be my Who, but what about my When? Before he became president? After he retired to Monticello? The year 1776 jumped out at me. What had Jefferson been doing then? Writing the Declaration of Independence, of course. The lessons learned in high school came back to me. Jefferson had remained secluded for days in a hotel room in Philadelphia while he almost single-handedly wrote a document thought to be one of the finest pieces of prose in the history of political philosophy. Surely, that scene was rife with possibilities. Things started to come together. They fell into place when I recalled Jefferson’s immortal words: “… that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights ….” Inalienable rights! My God, I’d stumbled onto a can’t-miss premise!
By mid-afternoon, I had completed my research and kicked around the various elements of the story long enough to produce a workable synthesis. I sat down at my word processor and started typing:
Had you met him but a week earlier in his native Virginia, you might have judged him a seminary student. He loped in the fashion of a young colt, and his face seemed altogether too boyish for its 33 years. But now his features showed the strain of failure. For four days, he had remained secluded in this Philadelphia hotel room, seeing only servants and speaking to no one. He had been asked to write a document explaining to the world why he and his compatriots had thrown off the shackles of a distant despot and forged a new nation. Though he had dreamed for years of this moment, he could think of nothing to say now that it was upon him. Thomas Jefferson slumped in his chair, cradled his head in his arms and wept like a child.
“Why do you weep?” an oddly metallic-sounding voice asked. “I can sense that it serves no plausible purpose.”
Jefferson whirled around at the sound of the strange voice, and recoiled in fearful shock upon discovering its source. There, in the chair near the head of the bed, sat – or hovered, to be precise – a creature the likes of which he had never seen before. It had no eyes, no ears, no mouth – nothing, indeed, recognizable as a face ….
At dinnertime, I looked over what I had written so far and decided to call it a day. Tuesday morning, I thought, I’d get an early start and polish off the rest of the story. That would leave Wednesday for revisions, if necessary, and I’d get the manuscript in comfortably before deadline.
I got an earlier jump on the day than I’d anticipated. Bill Miller called again – and woke me again – at 6 o’clock Tuesday morning. “Jesus Christ, don’t you ever sleep?” I grumbled.
“Problems, Jerry, big problems. Remember that cover illustration I told you about? The one that’s going to run with your story?”
I was still in a stupor, but not so groggy that I couldn’t see the red flags waving in the air. “You didn’t mention it,” I said with a hard edge in my voice that Miller blithely disregarded.
“Must have slipped my mind. Anyway, the artist sent me a rough sketch of what he planned to deliver. I’d asked for something generic, if you know what I mean, but he’s come up with something kind of specific. It looks great, you understand, but it means we’ve got a problem.”
“”We don’t have a problem? You’ve got a problem.”
“C’mon, Jerry, don’t bust my chops,” he whined. “I got twelve stories in the collection. So when I farm out the art, I figure for sure the guy’s going to give me something I can match up to one of them. I mean, just look at the odds there. How was I to know that he was going to go all artsy-fartsy on me? Now, I got eleven stories edited, and none of them have anything remotely to do with the cover the artist’s come up with. You’re my last hope.”
“What about the time I’ve already sunk into the first story you asked for? I don’t intend to take a loss on it just because some artist didn’t fulfill his obligation.”
“I’ll pay you nine cents a word, but you have to swear on Dwight Gooden and all you consider holy that you’ll never tell the other contributors.”
I sighed audibly into the phone until he got the message.
“Ten cents a word, you bloodsucker!”
“Fine. Send the sketch over and I’ll get started.”
A messenger arrived about two hours later. Expecting the worst, I tore open the package and examined at the sketch. I frantically shoved it back in the envelope, hoping that it had merely been a bad dream, and pulled it out again, this time more gingerly. It didn’t help. Groaning, I picked up the phone and dialed Miller’s office.
“Eleven cents a word and no hard feelings,” he said before I could tell him what I thought of the art.
“Listen, Billy boy, some people don’t do windows. I don’t do sword and sorcery. Not unless I’m very well – I repeat, very well – compensated for my trouble.”
“Okay, make it eleven-and-a-half cents a word.”
I didn’t say anything. I’m not sure about the science involved, but I think he was able to sense me smoldering even though we were miles apart.
“Twelve cents a word,” he finally said, “and not a – ”
I slammed the receiver down – I’d write the damn thing but I didn’t have to like it – and re-examined the sketch. It pictured a man with bulging muscles that seemed to have been inflated with a hydraulic pump. He was stripped to the waist, below which a loincloth protected his modesty. In his gargantuan hands was a broadsword roughly the size of a balance beam. I suspected that the first words out of his mouth would be either, “I am called Vothar the Brave, son of Mylar the Magnificent, servant of the goddess Bruna, ruler of all those lands known as Kronos,” or, “Ugh.” Personally, I favored, “Ugh.” Behind him was a raven-haired women clad in scanty animal skins strategically assembled to cover, more or less, a chest ample enough to have outfitted an entire chorus line. Her ruby lips were parted sensuously, but she seemed to have a non-speaking role in this drama.
From this dreck I had to fashion an alien-encounter story. I certainly wasn’t going to waste much time on it, not with deadline just 48 hours away. It took me, oh, maybe three seconds to realize that the fastest – and most painless – approach would be to rework the material I’d already written. And it really wasn’t that far from Thomas Jefferson to Vothar the Brave, not if you considered the principals from the proper perspective.
Reduce the Jefferson story to its bare bones and you’re left with this skeleton: A celebrated character changed history, but only – and here’s the kicker – with the aid of an alien. This scenario would play just as well in a fantasy format, with one major caveat: Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence were already famous, so I didn’t have to bother establishing how important they were. I didn’t have the same luxury with Vothar the Brave.
My first order of business, then, was to construct a legend for my soon-to-be-famous warrior. The dimensions of his musculature convinced me that he wasn’t the kind of guy who’d write his country’s constitution or discover quantum mechanics. No, I pegged him as the action-hero type. I figured slaying a half-man, half-dragon creature – what the hell, let’s call it an Anodyne – was more his speed. Sure, I could call him Vothar the Anodyne Conqueror. Now, there’s a promising beginning.
I let the old juices flow unimpeded. Let’s say the Anodyne had been terrorizing the people of Kronos for eons, demanding the tribute of a virgin every lunar year. Let’s say he carried the virgins back to his lair and did all sorts of unspeakable things that ended up leaving them no longer virgins. Let’s say his lair was guarded by a small army of nasty, little creatures that I’d name later. Let’s say that if you got past the nasty, little creatures, the Anodyne himself still had four eyes that could shoot laser-like rays of fire at all who approached. The upshot of the situation was that the men of Kronos weren’t too gung-ho to mess with the Anodyne.
Enter Vothar the Brave. Let’s say that while he was offstage slaughtering enemy warriors, his beloved bethrothed, Melea the Comely, was selected as the virgin du jour to satisfy the Anodyne’s appetite. Let’s say that by the time our strapping young lad returned to Kronos, Melea had already been carried off to the monster’s lair. Let’s say that being the headstrong, heroic type, not to mention the protagonist of my story, Vothar vowed to slay the Anodyne and free the land from his tyranny. This quest would serve as the centerpiece of my story.
Yuck, I thought to myself.
I thought it over and reassessed: Double yuck.
The good news was that I was going to be paid reasonably well for this drivel. I planned to open with an introductory section establishing who Vothar was, segue into a flashback about the quest, then return to the present and close with a kicker. Piece of cake.
I sat down at my trusty word processor and began writing something along the lines of: Once upon a time, in days of yore, et cetera, et cetera, there lived a great prince called Vothar the Brave, son of him, father of her, servant of this goddess, drinking buddy of that god, and so on and so forth, and basically the most famous person in the history of history. But Vothar now lay on his deathbed, with his loyal wife, Melea, by his side. And as he awaits his summons to the land of the non-living, he ruminates over the events of his life. In his mind’s eye, he sees his coronation and his great battle against the Western barbarians and his victory march through the grand halls of Goroholla. But clearest of all the images is his memory of his immortal single combat with the half-man, half-dragon beast, the Anodyne.
Bang, zoom, to the flashback. Like Jefferson, Vothar’s got an entire nation waiting for him. And like Jefferson, he’s discovered he’s not equal to the task. In fact, he’s so terrified of the Anodyne, not to mention his army of nasty, little (and as-yet-unnamed) creatures, that all he’s been able to do for the past four days is pound down endless goblets of highly intoxicating mead and relieve his bladder. He’s just begun weeping in despair when an alien appears and says to him, “Hey, big guy, what’s the downer?” Together, they kill the Anodyne. Vothar rescues Melea, returns triumphantly to Kronos, is crowned king of the land and lives happily ever after.
End of flashback. Jump cut to the present. Vothar, who alone knows that he couldn’t have slain the Anodyne without the aid of the alien, murmurs, “I’m a fraud.”
His aged wife, Melea, who’s hard of hearing, misunderstands his words. “Do not be afraid, dearest,” she says. “The gods will protect you.”
Vothar groans. He thinks, as he has done at least once a day each day for the past thirty years, that if he were to do it over, he’d leave the stupid woman in the Anodyne’s lair. Suddenly, he feels his life force ebbing away. Summoning his remaining energy, he leans forward and whispers fiercely, “I loathe you, Melea.”
She falls, whimpering, on his now lifeless chest and cries, “And I love you too, Vothar.”
Whew, what a stinker.
I went to sleep Tuesday night reasonably content that I had the makings of a publishable story. I stumbled out of bed when the phone rang shortly before 6 o’clock Wednesday morning. I took a wild guess about who it might be. “Miller, I presume?”
“Big problems, Jerry. We got big problems.”
I hung up. The phone rang again. “Fourteen cents a word, okay?” Miller said, sounding almost contrite. “What do you say?”
“Just tell me what happened now.”
“Yeah, well, the artist sent over the finished illustration, and it doesn’t have anything to do with that sketch I gave you yesterday. This one’s got two figures – a young guy who looks a little bit like Mel Gibson and a creature that resembles E.T.”
“Real original. So what’s the catch? I’m sure you can use it to illustrate one of the stories you’ve already got, can’t you?”
“Well, that’s the thing,” Miller said, and I could picture him squirming. “The guy’s wearing a uniform.”
“What kind of uniform?”
“Maybe you’d better look at it yourself, Jerry.”
Christ, this was worse than I’d suspected. “Maybe you’d better tell me before I commit myself.”
“Well, it looks a little bit like a baseball uniform, and it looks like a little bit of a spacesuit, maybe a cross – “
I hung up. The phone rang. I picked it up.
“Fifteen cents a word. I‘ll send a sketch over right away,” Miller said in a rush, and he hung up before I could beat him to the punch.
The messenger arrived an hour later, and I immediately got to work. I’ll spare you the gory details. Suffice it to say that my new-and-disimproved story involved the invention of a game I dubbed “Spaceball,” which basically was baseball transplanted to a zero-gravity, non-linear “field” somewhere off the coast of Venus. By the 21st century, spaceball had become the world’s most popular sport. By the 22nd century, it had become a substitute for war.
Why? Although scientists had developed the means to prevent nuclear destruction, there now existed biological weapons that could render all human beings incapable of reproduction – a bloodless but foolproof method of eradicating the human race. As a result, the League of Sovereign States voted to outlaw war. But realizing it was, of course, impossible to enforce this decision, the League also voted to rechannel the forces that would otherwise lead to war into spaceball. Thus, spaceball became the forum by which disputes between sovereign states were resolved.
So I had a framework for a story. What I needed now was a crisis. I came up with a great conflict that arose between the Americas and Eurasia in the year 2142. At risk was the fate of the eastern seaboard of what had been known as the United States. Eurasia was leading comfortably as the Americas came to bat in the bottom of the ninth inning. The good guys scored a few runs, but the rally seemed destined to fall short. With two outs, the Americas were down to their last batter, a lame spaceballer by the name of Thomas Vothar Jefferson. Hey, I’m just an old salvage man at heart.
As with the Vothar variation, I planned to open with a deathbed scene, where we learn that Jefferson is known as the August Savior of the Americas. Next, on to a flashback starting with him swinging at strike two, calling time out and sobbing inside his spacesuit. That’s when E.T. shows up and says, “Lighten up, T.V., spaceball’s been bery bery good to you.” With the alien’s help, Jefferson swats a universe – home run for all you retrograde 20th-century types – and is lionized as greatest man in the solar system.
By the time I finished cranking out the story, I was too tired to come up with a snappy postscript. I didn’t bother going to sleep, though. The clock read 5:31a.m., so I figured I’d be hearing from Bill Miller in a few minutes. The phone rang at a quarter to six.
“Eighteen cents a word,” he said without preamble.
“Twenty, or don’t even bother.”
I hung up. The phone rang. I picked it up.
“Okay, twenty cents, you highway robber,” he said. “Here’s the deal: I showed the edited stories to my publisher, and he really liked them. Except he wants to see a horror story, too.”
“You mean an alien-encounter horror story?”
“No, a straight horror story.”
“I haven’t written a straight horror story in forever.”
“Look, I’m begging you, Jerry. Please. You want to do killer ghosts in Toyland, that’s fine. You want to do Anne of Green Gables meets the Wolf Man at Mandalay, that’s fine too. Just give me a horror story, any horror story. You’ve got until tomorrow.”
I thought it over. Miller must have thought I was negotiating. “All right, already,” he said. “Twenty-one cents a word.”
I kept thinking. “Sweet Jesus, you’re a hard case,” he said. “Twenty-two cents a word, and that’s absolutely, positively my last offer.”
And then it hit me. “Tell you what,” I said. “Make it twenty-five cents a word and I’ll give you 4,200 words by noon.”
I hung up, fired up the word processor and wrote:
In the beginning, it was supposed to be a straightforward alien-encounter story – no literary flourishes, no profound literary content, nothing more than a plain Jane, everything-accessible-at-first read, man-meets-extraterrestrial being story running no less than 4,000 words and no more than 5,000 words. Oh yeah, and it had to be in English.
If I don’t sound too enthusiastic about the story, that’s because I wasn’t ….
Preston Lerner is the author of a novel of suspense, Fools on the Hill, and several short stories in the mystery and fantasy idioms. A longtime journalist, he’s also written several non-fiction books.
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