Yesterday, while every sane person in the country was doing their best to eat themselves into a turkey-induced coma, I couldn’t stay off my phone ( a sure sign times have changed: five years ago, I would’ve been on a computer). Like a million other science and astronomy geeks, I was more interested in the life-and-death struggle of Comet ISON than the time-honored traditions of John Smith and his gluttonous band of pilgrims. Their ships sailed hundreds of years ago, but Comet ISON was on its maiden voyage; their destination was a continent, Comet ISON’s was our home star (geeks bigger than me often call the sun by its name, Sol). Both trips were harrowing, but I already knew how the Plymouth Rock story ended. I had pumpkin pie to prove it.
I have a lot invested in this comet: twenty-three days, and three-hundred pages of first draft; and two months of a second draft that added almost thirty pages of backstory to my original novel. The book, which I’m talking about for the first time, is a decades-long love story told around the arrival of comets. It’s sweet, funny, and, in places, heartbreakingly tragic.
I jumped the gun a little in writing my book in the summer, because, even then, I realized there was a chance Comet ISON wouldn’t survive. This was its first visit to the inner solar system; no one knew if it would hold up. Kind of like a cosmic test of integrity inside a wind tunnel, or the first time you try to put weight on a broken bone. There are hundreds of examples of comets that don’t survive, a new one every few years that, instead of finding majesty, are reduced by the sun’s gravity into plumes of brightly burning dust.
Knowing this potential ending, I wrote the book anyway. I kept asking myself why, and telling myself to wait until Christmastime to see what happened. At least then I’d also have key dates to include in my book, and the comet’s own backstory wouldn’t be as grainy as Hubble’s photos of it were at the time. But my main character, Chance, didn’t want to wait. He had been waiting for this comet since Hale-Bopp departed back in ’97. He was in love, and he was tired of waiting. And his impatience was contagious to me, the writer.
In September, the real speculating began within the science community. The comet was acting weird. Waffling in and out of brightness. Unstable. It didn’t look good. Prognosis: negative.
I was devastated, and on the verge of banging my head into the bathroom stall at work, even though those walls are covered in juvenile graffiti and bloody boogers (the truth isn’t pretty; neither are the bathroom stalls at work). And then my wife saved me. Because, in one sentence, she did what all spouses of writers do better than the writer’s themselves: she found the silver lining; she looked at things with a fresh set of eyes, without the weight of an imaginary world, and its people, on her shoulders.
She told me my book would be better if Comet ISON died.
She was right–the comet’s death would add an extra layer of conflict to my book, and an extra layer of humanity to my characters.
That was the day I saw the alternate ending. The one I might need to use soon.
But I might not. When I went to bed last night, Comet ISON was a streak of shattered debris rounding the sun, the white arc of a fingertip swiped across an infrared image of our star. It was one well-cooked turkey.
This morning, there are signs of life again, renewed hope for a comet that has nine burning lives. Something survived, so maybe my original ending of the book does, too. If not, I’m thankful for it anyway. There are some who believe that comets seeded life on earth, that they delivered to our planet the complex proteins that created life. I don’t know, but this comet brought life to a story, gave birth to men and women. That’s a miracle to me.
I’m going to wait a few days to start my final draft. I’m going to hold my breath with Chance, hope for him, and see what happens. No matter what, there’s still a stubborn woman out there named Faith, and he’s still waiting for a comet to bring her back to him. ABC News is reporting that something emerged from behind the sun.
No matter what it is, the story survives.