Guest post by Jake Kerr: Behind The Scenes of “The Old Equations”

This week’s guest post comes from Jake Kerr, whose very first sale–the novelette “The Old Equations”–was just nominated for a Nebula award. Many thanks to Jake for giving us this peek at what was a very dramatic and grueling editing process, and congratulations on his nomination!

Warning: Lots of spoilers in this. I recommend you go read the story here first. Then you’ll understand a lot of the references.

Recently on Twitter, there was a discussion about the author/editor relationship and how important both pieces are to a fully realized story. I noted that this was certainly true of my Nebula-nominated story “The Old Equations,” which required an enormous amount of revision between being sold and publication. Author Jason Sanford said others might be interested in that story, so here it is.

After selling the story to Lightspeed, John Joseph Adams sent me an edited manuscript with very light line edits, mostly consisting of a few corrected typos. However, he did mention that he thought the story would be clearer if there was an introductory element or preface that explained the alternate history.

This sounds like a pretty minor request, but it was not. The reason being that I had written the story with the structure of “dawning reader comprehension” in mind. The characters and the readers both slowly understand what is happening as the story moves along. If I did my job right, there is an identical “a ha!” moment where the readers and the characters understand the tragedy that is unfolding at the same time.

John was recommending that I discard that narrative plan and move to one of dramatic irony, where the reader is told right up front what is going on, and then he or she watches the characters slowly understand and then come to grips with what is happening. My instincts told me that my approach was more emotionally resonant, but my critical eye was telling me that John was right–I was asking too much of the reader. I should note that John never presented this as “do this or else.” His approach was to recommend something as an idea, and then open things up for discussion. I fully expect that if I had put my foot down on a change, he would have given in.

As it turns out, I decided that John’s recommendation was the correct one, and I worked on an introduction that was an excerpt from an interview that relayed the alternate history. I liked the interview approach because dialog allowed me to do a bit more in providing casual commentary around the alternate history context. In short, it was less dry and more rich than something like an encyclopedia entry. John wanted the encyclopedia entry.

Again, I understood what he wanted, which was clarity above all else. I thought about it, and again realized that he was right. This wasn’t the story proper; it was a scene-setting introductory piece. I wrote up what I considered a compromise–an excerpt from a physics textbook introduction. This was a little more casual than an encyclopedia entry but still formal. John liked it.

At this point, I felt that we had a finished product. Boy, was I wrong.

Shortly afterward, John emailed me with a problem. He had sent the piece off to Doctor Mike Brotherton, the astrophysicist who runs the Launch Pad science workshop for writers, and Brotherton had a major critique: I got the science of time dilation completely wrong.

Originally, the story featured an astronaut named James departing for a ten year mission, but due to him approaching the speed of light, while he would come back in 10 years, his wife back home on earth would be 30 years older. The essence of the plot was that his life was moving at a constant rate for him, but those people on Earth would be aging three times faster. Brotherton broke the news to me that the reality is actually the opposite: the trip from the astronaut’s point of view goes faster, while it is unchanged for those back home.

This was a catastrophic error. The entire plot of the story hinged on a wide gap between the astronaut’s age and his wife’s age when he returns to Earth, and that age gap had to be both tragic and survivable. Additionally, the structure of the piece was such that it is told in epistolary format of messages sent back and forth, with a time dilation gap between them. As I originally wrote it, the constant difference in time dilation meant that each message was a factor of three apart. I had plot points based on time such as new years and birthdays that were based on this schedule.

In short, everything was wrong.

I had to find a way to fix the science, and, assuming I found a solution, then I had to find a way to make the science work within the requirements of the story, and then I had to rewrite the entire story with a new timeline. As the scope of the challenge ahead of me became clear, John sent me a note basically saying he loved the story so much he would run it with the bad science and that if I couldn’t make it work, that was okay. I said I’d work directly with Brotherton on it and see if I could save it.

At this point, the editing process became a three way interaction between John, Mike, and myself. Mike outlined the new rules I had to work under, and then I examined the scenarios. If the destination was 15 light years round trip, then James would get back quickly. I hated that because the sense of aloneness I wanted at the end would be lost. Even 20 years seemed rather weak to me. Still, I didn’t have many options, and I rather sadly settled on 20 light years as the round trip duration. The good news for that distance being that Gliese 581 d is about that far and was recently in the news as a habitable planet.

The 20 light years timing framework meant that James would be away for roughly five years. That was long enough that I thought it would cause readers to really grasp that he would still be gone a long time, even if it was 15 years shorter than he expected, and the 15 year difference between James and his wife Kate’s ages would still be significant, even if it wasn’t psychologically quite as dramatic for the reader as a 20 year difference.

So I sent this solution off to John, feeling rather depressed because I felt a lot of tension in the piece had been lost due to the science.

John came back with a second setback. None of the other editors believed that a 20 year mission apart would be remotely realistic. The female editors were emphatic–ten years would be about the maximum they would agree to for their husbands to go off, even on a groundbreaking historical world-changing mission.

I honestly felt my story was dead.

Ten light years was too short to make the story work and yet anything longer would have been too unrealistic to suspend disbelief. At this point, Professor Mike Brotherton stepped in. In a depressing email to Mike I outlined the issue, and he wrote back a truly elegant solution. He posited that since this was an alternate history where Einstein was discredited anyway, we could make it so that the scientists hadn’t discovered that the speed of light was an upper limit.

Since the scientists would assume that they could send an astronaut out at faster than light speed, they wouldn’t even have a concept of “light years.” To them it’s a longer distance that they would be able to reach in a reasonable amount of time by just having the pilot travel faster.

In other words, with constant acceleration, the scientists could plan a mission to a planet twenty light years away while assuming it would only take ten years round trip due to faster-than-light travel.

I loved this solution. It took my unsolvable problem and fixed it using another “cold equation.” After Mike gave me the calculations using John’s planet choice, I worked this new story framework out in my head. The trip would be 20 light years in length, which everyone in the story assumed would take only 10 years for both husband and wife. In reality, with time dilation and the cap of the speed of light, it would bring the astronaut home in about 8-10 years, while due to the normal flow of time it would be forty years for his wife. I even added a bit in the story where the astronaut discusses his body augmentation, which Mike recommended to make the toleration of the G forces due to the constant acceleration more realistic.

So my original idea of a 10 year/30 year split for the round trip was now a 9 year/40 year split. I told John with some amount of glee, “That’s even more tragic!”

This solution, elegant as it may have been, created a huge structural problem for me in the story. Since James is traveling at a constant rate of acceleration, his time dilation would no longer be a consistent 1:3. It would start out with he and Earth being barely out of sync–a few hours or so at his first communication linkup, and then that gap would increase at a faster and faster rate. By the end of the story his wife, Kate, is already over a year ahead of him in space-time.

I tried to figure the math out for myself, but eventually I sent Mike Brotherton a spreadsheet with dates down the left hand side that indicated Earth’s time point-of-view, and I asked him to fill in how out-of-sync the time would be for the astronaut in the right hand column. Being the awesome guy he is, Mike filled out the spreadsheet.

I remember very clearly flying from Los Angeles to Dallas and spending the entire three hour flight working on my original timeline and adapting it to these new dates. I had to match up things like the date of James’ father’s death, new year celebrations, birthdays, and a number of other emotionally charged moments in time that now existed in a different time frame and perspective.

I also had to make every single one of the out of sync time stamps scientifically accurate. Yes, I’m sure that few of the readers very much care, but every single time stamp in this story is accurate to the day based on the formula of acceleration, distance, and resulting time dilation that Mike put together for me.

That was the easy part.

With all of the science, the timeline, and the groundwork in place, I had to completely rewrite my story from scratch. The original story had a three month gap between Earth and the ship during the first communication link (remember my mistake of 1:3?). Now it was only a few hours. That required not just a change in timeline and timestamps but entirely changing the emotions and responses of the characters to the changed circumstances. I doubt there was a single scene in the entire 9,000 word piece that I didn’t need to substantially rewrite, from the scientists’ (revised for accuracy) explanation of time dilation to General Marsden’s (now more profoundly sad) statement that he’d be waiting for James, even though he’d be over 100 years old when James would return.

With every change I worried that I was destroying the emotion that everyone identified with in the original version. Would adapting to this new time frame and changing the interactions of the characters somehow lessen the tension or the feelings involved? These are the things writers worry over as they edit a piece with an editor, and I had to do this for every single scene. Luckily, I had sent the edits off to John, and the response from him and the other editors was very positive. At that point, the editor’s role is as cheerleader, and it can be a quite important role, because, frankly, I needed it at that point.

All told, after I finished my final revisions and sold the story to Lightspeed (you know, the point where us writers all assume we’re “done”), I probably had to do another twenty-plus hours of plotting and rewriting. Heck, it could have been even more.

There is no doubt in my mind that the editing of “The Old Equations” is way outside the norm, but I think its lessons are relevant–the editor identified a problem, and then did his best to provide the author with the resources to fix it. At that point it was up to the author to fix it. The fact that I worked hard, Mike worked hard, and John worked hard to do just that illustrates to me the perfect editor/author relationship–one where publishing a finished story as good as it can be is the only goal that matters.

Jake Kerr got his start in writing during the grunge rock era, spending those years kicking around Los Angeles as a columnist for music publications. He not only wrote about rock music, he sat on panels with Stone Temple Pilots lead singer Scott Weiland, slept in Henry Rollins tour bus, and experienced the hedonism of a Van Halen tour–among other things he’d prefer not to mention.

Looking for a bit more sanity, he and his family moved to Dallas, where Kerr transitioned his writing and career toward digital media. Working for a digital services company, he couldn’t keep his fingers from the keyboard, ending up writing articles for publications like Venturebeat and Mashable.

Through it all, however, Kerr never could shake the writing that inspired him from my youth–the soaring imagination of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the reality-bending novels of Philip K. Dick, the stories from Stephen King that kept him up at night. Having always dreamt of creating stories like these, he finally turned his writing from journalism to fiction a couple years ago. His first published story, “The Old Equations,” has been nominated for the Nebula award for best novelette.

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  1. Grayson Morris
    22/02/2012 at 1:19 am Permalink

    Thanks for this insightful look behind the scenes, Jake! It’s inspiring to hear about the lengths a good editor will go to for a story they love (and rightly so; it was gorgeous), and to see the teamwork involved. I assume you’ll be thanking Mike Brotherton effusively in your Nebula acceptance speech. 🙂

  2. Tom Crosshill
    22/02/2012 at 4:05 am Permalink

    Ha! I was impressed with how you got SR right — many people only get the superficial level — and now I see why :D. Also, I’ll have you know, I started cackling madly a few paragraphs into your story. 


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