The Story of “Exceptional”: Part 1

Exceptional, my second novel, has now been published and is available from Amazon. I don’t know about other writers, but for me reaching this point for the second time is quite indescribable. A strange mixture of joy, doubt, fear, and something a bit like indifference – on to the next one, I suppose! But there is a certain pride attached to this book – unique from the pride I felt upon the publication of my first – because of the journey it has taken to get here. So I wanted to tell that story, and share why this has been such an exceptional experience for me.

PART 1: EXODUS

My first novel, Watched, was launched in January 2015, although technically published in December 2014. I was so excited that this story was finally available for people to read that I cracked right into its sequel. I had actually already played around with the first few chapters, which were based on the original ending to Watched (which, being heavily influenced by American superheroes as it is, was set in the remains of New York City after Jason destroyed half of it with his gravity storm). One of the wacky ideas I had had was for Jason and co. to get caught up in a sort of Prodigy fight club, the members of which had come out of hiding to take advantage of the state of anarchy the gravity storm left behind. Having substantially rewritten the ending during Te Papa Tupu (a Māori writers incubator course), revisiting these chapters made it clear I needed to start the sequel afresh.

Image result for watched tihema baker

With no title immediately apparent to me, I code-named it “Exodus”. Genesis, which is the name of Jason’s Prodigy generation, also happens to be a book of the bible, and Exodus is the book that comes next. I’m not religious at all but it seemed like a cool little reference to me. I also thought it was fitting given exodus means a departure, and this book was really about Jason’s departure from the Watchers and Castle Infinity.

It had been a long time since I had written anything new – most of the last few years of work had been on editing – and making the story up as I went once again was quite daunting. I didn’t quite know where to start, nor did I have any real idea about where things were going. It was also a bit weird writing the second book in what I envisioned to be a trilogy. As a first principle, this book needed to stand on its own, but it also needed to be a faithful follow-up to the first and an effective set-up to the third.

So I took a bit of time to just think about how all the various players would respond to the ending of Watched; now that Jason and co. were free, where would they go?; with a number of their subjects on the loose, how would the Watchers react?; San Salvador would not go unnoticed by the world’s governments, so what might their response to it be? Once I had those questions swimming around in my head, I just started writing, and all those individual players’ stories began to come together.

One thing that became clear very early on was that “Exodus” was going to have three separate storylines, each told from the perspective of a different character. What wasn’t clear, as I began writing them, was how I should place them in relation to each other; in other words, when should I change from one perspective to another? Because they each ran parallel to one another, and I only really felt that they would connect at the end of the overall story forming in my head, I felt like I needed to write each one in isolation and then, once all three were complete, see how they fit together.

I started writing Jason’s story first, stopping short of the very end because I knew that would be best written once I had discovered how the other two wrapped up. This was where the bulk of my work went, as Jason’s arc was and always has been the core of the story, and I soon came up against the most significant difference between writing this book and the first: lack of time and energy.

This may well have been an illusion; I somehow wrote the majority of Watched while in my first year of fulltime university study, balancing rugby every week as well as all the antics that come with living in an extremely social hall of residence. Looking back, I still don’t quite know how I did it. But now that I was working in my first fulltime job, I found my ability to write severely impacted. After sitting at a desk and staring at a computer screen all day, the absolute last thing I felt like doing when I got home was, well, more of the same. Even when I could muster the motivation, by the time I got home, had dinner, and relaxed enough to reach that point, it was almost time for bed.

I decided I needed to make that time and energy available to myself. So I reached an agreement with my employer that I would work 9 hour days – an extra half hour each morning and evening – except for one day a fortnight that I would keep at 8 hours. Working an extra hour for 8 days a fortnight bought me 8 hours – an entire working day – that I would use to write.

The arrangement was exactly what I needed. I smashed through the book, some days writing whole chapters at a time. Of course, there were days where I wrote hardly anything at all, but writing is so much more than the act – if I wasn’t in the zone to write that day, I was still thinking, still throwing around ideas. Sometimes, the slightly longer days I needed to work in order to buy that time would become wearisome, but they were always worth it once I got to my writing day, and in truth they prepared me for the even longer days I would eventually come to work as I progressed in my career.

This was a really rewarding time for me. I felt like a real writer, and I loved the story I was telling. It was much more mature than Watched, and seemed to deal with some heavier themes that I enjoyed exploring. There were also lots of cool twists that just happened as I wrote. After all that initial brainstorming I did, I had a general idea of where I needed to get to, but some things – like the return of a certain character from Watched – definitely weren’t planned. It was exciting just letting these moments occur and rolling with them as they impacted my story.

After completing (most of) Jason’s arc I started on Rory’s, which was probably the storyline I enjoyed writing most. I just found his sections came very easily, and I never seemed to run into roadblocks or challenges with him, which was surprising because when I started I had no idea how I was going to fill an entire book with him just wandering an empty, alternate dimension. I know the reason his parts were so easy to write, though, is the introduction of a new character who is probably my personal favourite of the series so far (aside from Jason and Rory themselves, of course). As they say, she simply walked onto the page for me. I hope readers are as fond of her as I am!

Then I started the third storyline, which was a brand-new perspective for me to write from. This was an interesting experience because, since the beginning of Watched, I had only ever been in the heads of Jason and Rory. I knew them inside and out, so it was quite a mental shift to start seeing the world through this other character’s eyes. This made his sections the most challenging to write, but it gave me a real appreciation for his character and the crucial contribution he will ultimately make to the entire story.

By November 2015 all three storylines were complete, and I thought of them collectively as my first draft. Along the way, I had also decided on the book’s title as Exceptional, which one day just kind of made itself apparent. It was important to me that the title be similar to Watched in that it described Jason’s state – in the first book he is one of the Watched, and in this one he is classed “Exceptional”. The fact that it sounded similar to “Exodus” was a nice coincidence for me.

Now that all three storylines were complete, I set about merging them into one cohesive narrative. This exercise didn’t actually take me long compared to writing them all; by this time I was so familiar with each thread that weaving them together was quite organic. To help me, I printed off calendars for the months of November and December 2009, when Exceptional takes place. I then colour-coded every chapter by point-of-view (Jason = yellow, Rory = green, third character = pink) and placed them on the calendar accordingly. This gave me the order of chapters and eventually, a completed second draft.

IMG_1860

I was so pleased with the finished product. I could not have been prouder of it. I just knew it was a better book than its prequel, and it felt like such an evolution of my work. My approach to writing it had been methodical, crafting the individual pieces and painstakingly fitting them all together. The end result felt polished and clean, and fit to serve its purpose as the sturdy bridge between books 1 and 3.

Most people reading this will know that in August 2016 my publisher declined to take Exceptional. After all the success of Watched – its placing as a finalist at the Sir Julius Vogel Awards, the positive reviews, and all the other good feedback I had personally received – this was a real gut-punch. But I’m not going to dwell on it here; I’ve written about it before, and it’s only worth mentioning again because it was the catalyst that forced me into the journey you’re reading about now.

The start of my personal exodus, I suppose, from the world of traditional publishing and into the unknown.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s