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Big Idea

The Big Idea: John Dodd

As writers, we all have the Story The Got Away From Us. For John Dodd, however, that story was the one he came around to once more. Here he is to talk about Ocean of Stars, and how it was written, when the time was right.

JOHN DODD:

It started with a book that couldn’t be finished.

Way back in 2014, I wrote a million words in a year, got six novels done that year and one that wouldn’t go the way I wanted it to. That book was Ocean of Stars. I had an idea of a young engineer wanting to find her way in the stars, finding more than she thought she would along the way, and how she dealt with what she found out there.

Except this story wouldn’t play ball, the first draft went off on a roller coaster, till I stopped and looked at the story and wondered how I’d ever managed to get where I was. There was time travel, and ships that travelled the solar winds on sails of light, there were dragons that swum within the stars, and world eating beasts that were only slightly less dangerous than the humans on the ship, and I was only a hundred pages in.

I put it aside, you can lose fingers trying to get a wild horse to trot nicely, and so it was with this. 

I finished it in the following year, wasn’t entirely happy with it, but then what writer is every happy with what they’ve done, and submitted it a few years later, then went to Ytterbium, the 2019 Eastercon. I’d spoken to the convention’s guest of honor earlier that day, and he’d said that the enthusiasm for the story was everything. When you love a story, you can talk about it for hours, and that was how you won people over. I didn’t think that I loved Ocean of Stars, it had caused me nothing but difficulty.

Francesca at Luna however, had loved the story, but at fifty five thousand words, it was too short. 

And so I talked about the rest of the story, the other ideas, the way I’d seen the rest of it going, and by the end of the conversations, Francesca asked me to finish it, not just the first book, but the whole story.

And I found that all the years spent working through the problems on Ocean had given me a vast universe and a wide pantheon of threats and dangers, and that the story running away from itself had not been because I hated it but because I loved it enough to hang on to the reins and try to bring it safe back to the stables.

Ocean of Stars is the story of the Martian people, from the catastrophe of Olympus Mons detonating when greedy corporations dug too deep and too fast, to the rebuilding of Mars in another solar system, millennia later. Still ruled over by corporations and now with more problems than Old Mars had ever had. 

I wanted to tell the story of how life changes us, how we start out wanting to change the world and being ready to do it, but how few of us manage to do that, and how you look year on year as the world goes on changing, but sometimes you haven’t made the difference that you wanted to.  If you could look back on what you did, if you could look forwards on what you’re going to do, would you approve of what you would do.

What if you had the chance to see the mistakes of yesteryear, repeated thousands of years later, and know that the world had not changed, that what had always been, always would be, unless someone took that bold step into the darkness and said no, this will not go on.

This was the big idea.

Catarina is bold, she wants to change the universe, but she’s seen enough of it to know that very often, the universe kicks back when people try and change it. The first line of the book is watching her captain murder someone who dared to speak up against them, then she finds herself in the employ of another captain who holds no regard for any life, and as the book goes on, she sees at every turn that there will always be something in the way of making the changes that you want to make, that you need to make, that you were supposed to make. She realises that it’s not enough to want to make a change, you must be willing to put yourself in harms way to make a change, just as it is in this world, but on a far larger scale.

Most of all I wanted hope, this book was finished in the first stages of the lockdowns, when there was no hope and death was all around us, I wanted the possibility that life was going to be better one day, and that’s the spirit that found its way to the page.   It was still a wild spirit, the third part of the book was completely different from the ending that I’d pitched, but when it came back to the stable at last, exhausted and covered in dirt, it was happy.

And so was I.

What I found in writing Ocean was that the universe I’d created was one that I could play in forever, my first novella, Just Add Water was written in the same universe, after Catarina went out into the stars, but before she started really adventuring.  Got to love time travel.

Speaking of Time Travel and better tomorrows, I couldn’t have imagined three years ago that I’d be here, but when you believe you can do it, you find a way to do it. That’s not just Catarina’s story.

That’s all of our stories.


Ocean of Stars: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

By John Scalzi

I enjoy pie.

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