Deepsix: It Pays to Think Ahead

The Author Comments


Editors understand that a proposal for a novel seldom bears much resemblance to the finished product. This happens because the act of creation doesn't happen on the afternoon that the proposal is put together. It is an ongoing process, taking place across the months, and perhaps years, during which the novel actually gets written.

The author may become aware that, as the environment in which he's placed his characters takes shape, the direction he's chosen doesn't make sense. It is not what would happen, or not how people would react. Or it is not how a given character -- whom the author now knows far better than he did at the start of things -- would even think. Or the author simply has a better idea. In Omega, which will be the final book in the Priscilla Hutchins group, a character whom I'd planned to kill off survives simply because, while writing the second draft, I saw an elegant way to save her.

A broader example of the better way to do something occurred during the writing of A Talent for War. I was doing the book as straight military science fiction, a tale of two brothers in conflict, and a war against aliens. Sixty thousand words or so into the book, I wondered what would make this novel different from the several hundred others charging over the same ground.

Not much that I could see.

Talent grew out of "Dutchman," a story that had appeared a few years earlier in Asimov's. I'd approached the original story from the perspective of people living a century later, who were trying to piece together what had happened. And I realized belatedly that my initial instinct for that particular tale had been correct. I jettisoned most of what I'd written (save for a couple of short segments that appear as flashbacks) and started over.

Talent became a mystery novel.

Try to think ahead, I told myself. Don't do this again. Tossing 60,000 words overboard is painful.

Years later, I did much the same thing with Deepsix, but in that case I got lucky.

Stranding a few characters on a world that was about to be swallowed by a gas giant had to generate a fair amount of suspense. All I had to do was devise a way to get them off. There'd be several starships in orbit, but none with a lander. I thought that jury-rigging a solution would be fairly easy, so I plunged into the narrative.

If nothing else comes to mind, I thought, just tie a (very long) cable to a shuttle -- the shuttles are ship-to-ship vehicles, but can't operate in an atmosphere --, and crash the thing. That gets the line to the surface. And I had this image of my characters getting hauled up into a cloud. Nicely poetic. I presented this, and several other whimsical ideas, to Walter Cuirle, who's a physicist at St. Joseph's College in Philadelphia, and a writer. Walter tried politely not to laugh out loud. NASA physicist Les Johnson had a similar reaction.

I got the hint.

It was essential to get a rational solution, no teleportation, no last minute arrival by the Space Patrol. For a while I thought I was going to repeat the Talent experience, except that this time I'd lose the entire book. Walter and Les both suggested that the narrative needed a new element, one whose presence would not provide an outright escape mechanism, but which could be applied to make the mechanism possible.

As it happened, the device that presented itself not only served the purpose, but also added a new dimension to events, a dimension that echoed The Engines of God, for which Deepsix is a sequel of sorts.

The solution turned out to be a happy one. Once it was plugged in, I realized it was the direction I should have taken right from the start. Anyone not knowing better would assume it was what I had in mind all along.

When people ask writers where they get their ideas, the honest answer is probably that they come up with a concept, hammer on it, walk around it a lot, and after a while, if they're persistent, or lucky, or they have good help, it starts to resemble an idea.

—Jack McDevitt 8/29/02

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