That's right... My new book, 'Under the Wall,' is the fourth book I've written about magic cats. True, out of my available books, Under the Wall is the second book in the so-called 'Leviticus' series. (I say 'so-called' because I had to tell Amazon the series was called something, but I had never really thought about the series having a title and just typed in the name of the main character.) But in terms of my writing, it's the fourth book about these magic kitties. But, even that isn't entirely accurate... the story of how these books came to be written is anything but simple to explain.
Let me back up.
'Under the Wall' picks up exactly where Through the Woods leaves off. But, when 'Under the Wall' was originally conceived, back in 2009, that's not how it was envisioned at all. The book entitled 'Under the Wall' that went on sale last month isn't even the first book by that title that I've written. The original 'Under the Wall,' undertaken very suddenly and with no premeditation on December 3rd, 2009, was the very first novel I ever wrote (but not my first book: I had written both a book of sheer gobbledeegook called 'Unfettered Coincidence,' and a hard-to-classify book that began as a prank, evolved to become a book of short stories, and ended as bizarre form of novel that wove most of the stories together, sanely entitled 'GhostPopulace, Vol. 1,' in 2006, before I began writing in earnest).
I stumbled into being a writer in a pretty unusual way. On December 3rd, 2009, one of my two beloved kitties, the friendly but meow-y Tomo, was sitting on my lap, when out of nowhere he made a strange face. Everything had been normal, but then he startled suddenly, attending to some sound that I couldn't even detect. This bizarre reaction gave me the germ of the idea for a story about a cat with the ability to read the minds of the people and animals around him. What if, I reasoned, he was picking up the thoughts of an insane killer who is coming to murder us? You know, like you do when your cat moves their head.
I ran downstairs, and, instead of calling 911 and warning them about the killer on the loose that my cat had warned me about, I proved that I wasn't entirely mad by merely jotting down notes. Keep in mind, it had been three years since I had written anything, and when I was writing things before, it was nothing so structured as a novel. I jotted away, and when I had finished writing this all down, I thought only about ten minutes had passed, but my wife (then my girlfriend) informed me that it was actually more like an hour and a half. I had two or three pages filled with a rough outline for my first novel, which I ended up calling 'Under the Wall.'
Though many of the core pieces were in place, such as the story being entirely set in the snow-enshrouded world of Saint Paul in the middle of December, and the opening scene of Leviticus lazing under the Christmas tree, soaking in the thoughts of the world around him, the first story of Leviticus wasn't in anything like the form it is in the new book. Leviticus's foe in 2009 was 'John the Faithful,' a serial-killing madman who chose his victims out of the phonebook. The story's structure was entirely different, revolving around a series of veterinarian visits for the increasingly sick Leviticus.
Many of the central ideas and scenes of Leviticus's story as it would ultimately be told in the new book were already in place, but the narrative was much more artificially structured, and, worst of all, antagonist John the Faithful was much more of a 'boogeyman'--a Very Bad Man who wanted to do Very Bad Things, mostly because he needed to be bad to make the story work. A faint glimmer of hope for my future writing self appeared at the end of the story, in a flashback scene that attempted to provide a reason for his Very Bad-iditude, but overall, this first novel was a nascent attempt. A quality that is, however, forgivable in a first attempted at a novel. After all, I learned a lot doing this book and was, at the time, incredibly proud of it.
In fact, I was perhaps too proud. Out of a complete lack of self-awareness, and drunk off the power that the modern self-publishing landscape gives one, I naively rushed this book out in paperback (I hadn't jumped on the Kindle bandwagon just yet) the moment I was done with it. I gleefully, even wantonly, urged total strangers to buy a book I had barely managed to finish, like precisely the kind of madman I had handed a knife to and urged to kill a perfectly innocent fictional family in my magical cat book!
Who did I think I was? I had absolutely no real writing experience. My first 'book' was little more than a collection of middle-and-high school ramblings I managed to type up. My second book, as I mentioned before, began as a prank. A 500 page prank, I say! Like the naive little man I was, I learned nothing from these experiences. Instead of revising, tightening, re-revising, and proofing my tale of Leviticus the cat, I simply rushed his story out, slapped between two glossy pictures of my dear Tomo. That even a few people were interested in reading this unpolished block of text from a total unknown was, frankly, remarkable.
My writing style--if you could call it a 'style'--in this first book, was painfully bloated to the point where I seemed to restate every single thing three times. This was no accident: frankly, having never written a novel before, I wasn't sure if my idea would end up being long enough to constitute a novel. In all honesty, I should have spent years working on short stories, getting better sentence by sentence, before attempting something of this size. But I, heedless of the indignity on language I was about to perpetrate, simply dove in. And, while the experience did prove to be very educational for me, I now feel deep regret for rushing that story out, and I apologize to those readers who, at the time, took a brave and generous chance on the story of Leviticus the housecat.
But I did find, in writing that first novel, that I loved writing. It was what I had always wanted to do, even if I hadn't realized it. (I was super focused on music for most of my childhood and early twenties.) I mean, you're looking at a guy who, up through 2006, wrote two books as a joke. Somewhere, deep down, I was trying to tell myself what I really wanted to do.
I also started to grasp what I should have realized before trying to sell that first incarnation of 'Under the Wall': I needed to get experience. The best way to learn to write is to write a boatload of short stories. That's what I did, and it ended up being very good for me.
I love short stories: I love reading them, I love writing them. I love editing them. I think they're fabulous gifts to readers' and writers' imaginations and I don't understand how they've fallen into such disrepair these days. But that's not really germane to this story.
After coughing up 'Under the Wall' like a furball, I spent the next half a year cranking out many heartfelt but rather badly written short stories. When November 2010 came around, I had just finished a collection of sorts--long-since mercifully out-of-print, but which I'm still mining for decent story ideas that I had originally failed to execute properly. I needed a new task to turn my developing writer's brain to.
And, as many of you writer sorts will know, November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.
For those who don't know, this is a fun challenge that anybody can participate in. You, along with hundreds of thousands--if not millions of others--try your darndest to write an entire novel (at least 60,000 words) in one month. The pace is extreme, but you feel supported along the way by the community. It's a lot of fun, especially if you are not someone who already writes every day.
Okay, I thought. Let's give this a shot, I thought. I didn't have high hopes for the potential quality of the kind of novel I would be able to churn out in a month after only 11 months of writing seriously. At the time, I didn't have a single published short story to my name. This was before I had any books on Kindle or Amazon, let alone the nine I have now. I didn't know if I even could write a first-draft of a book in a single month. I decided: 'Let's pull one out of our ass!' (I became plural as I thought this, for some reason.)
Turns out, there was a story up there. And man, did it end being crazier than I could have predicted when I started. Once again, my writing skills weren't nearly up to the task of telling it, but that's the whole reason you have to keep writing: to get better. I didn't outline a damn thing--not at the beginning. I like to use outlines once I get a story well under way, to help me stay on track, and don't do any really intense outlining until the very end of a story so I can tie everything together and deliver a satisfying ending. I like the creative freedom of starting with a blank slate. And, as I dug in on this marathon writing experiment, I had only one guiding idea.
In the first incarnation of Under the Wall, I had explored the idea of a loving cat with telekinetic powers, abilities which prove to be the only thing that enables the tiny but valiant feline to save his family from an evil madman. In starting this new novel for NaNoWriMo, my only idea was: what if there was a cat who was the opposite of Leviticus? Just as powerful, but instead of being loving, selfless, and caring, he was just an absolute snot of a critter? What if all he wanted to do was to lash out, to conquer, to win?
I didn't know if that would even make for a good story, and I certainly didn't know if the idea had enough meat on its bones for a novel, but I figured 'eff it,' and started writing. And, it turned out, that this was a rather fruitful vein to mine, to mix some metaphors. I found myself keeping right up with the strict NaNoWriMo time limitations. I learned something about myself: I had all sorts of ideas about how an evil kitty with seemingly boundless powers could go about being a total scumbag.
I quickly chose the name 'Deinonychus' for my anti-hero, after one of the more fearsome dromaeosaurid dinosaurs. What better name could a scary monstercat have? Also, it didn't take long to stumble onto the idea that the furry badass's mystic energies required a semi-vampiric fuel: the more blood of the living the bitchkitty managed to suck down, the more powers he would develop. He guzzled this lifejuice like a crappy old lawnmower with a dirty oil filter burns gasoline. (Note to self: find out if having a dirty oil filter increases gas consumption. This sounds right to me, but...)
Not only was giving my evil kitty the constant thirst for fresh blood just generally kind of cool, but it would perfectly explain why he would have permitted himself to have been trapped in a house, as he is in the beginning of the tale, with a family (the fairly odious Jennifer 'Mommy' Webber and her sweet but Elmyra-from-Tiny-Tunes-like three-year-old) instead of already having simply melted the world down with his mind before the story even started. Inside the house, he could only eat dusty kibble, but once he got outside, he could catch a squirrel or something, and go on a snowballing deathrampage from there.
Unlike 'Under the Wall,' this story was set firmly in the fall, and took place over only two days. But in those two days, one little housecat managed to do a significant amount of damage!
With these ingredients, I powered my way through the composition of a book that I would eventually call 'Out the Door.' I'm not sure if the parallel construction of the title, with its similar 'Preposition the Noun' format to my first magic feline book, occurred to me from the first, but I did eventually seize upon it. But, as I wrote the story, there was no overt link to my older book. Other than, of course, the obvious magical cat element.
That's not entirely true. I did include one shared item: both cats had a strange gold tag with their names engraved on them, a tag that they each had around their necks before they were adopted, and that their new owners never replaced, simply keeping the names their pets had come with. This seems like a clear link, but might, if anything, have been a reference to my own actual cats' names. Though they came with no spiffy gold tags, my two cats (brothers) were adopted with the tongue-twistery names of 'Capriccio' and 'Tomomichi,' We have shortened them to Pricci and Tomo, but these unique names seemed too great to abandon, and I think that element found its way into my first two cat stories.
The original 'Out the Door' ended Deinonychus's story in a very different way than the new 'Under the Wall.' This is because, as visceral and interesting as my evil kitty's original story was, there was literally no structure to this book. I mean, the plot was entirely dictated by Deinonychus wandering about, trying to do whatever he wanted. It was certainly something dramatic enough to read about, but the book was more like an imaginative petri dish exploring 'What would it be like if a cat could develop increasing telekinetic powers and decided to attack the world?'
It was unusual book in other ways, as well. Most notably, the obvious 'bad guy,' Deinonychus, was the main character. Also, he had no real opposition; some of the situations he found himself in were beyond his control, or at least started out that way. And he did, on occasion, encounter some setbacks. But, overall, there was no concerted effort to stop him. Nobody really even understood what was happening. Obviously, when mayhem starts being unleashed, your average individual isn't going to instantly assume that it 'must be an evil housecat wandering around wreaking havoc with his mind!'
The original tale of Deinonychus suffered from that sense of aimlessness, I think. It had a great character (I don't mean that you should think Deinonychus is great, but of all the characters I have ever made up, I just love writing for Deinonychus. He is such a little shit. His snotty, stuck-up, spiteful attitude is just so easy for me to channel. What does that say about me?), but the 'plot,' such as it was, was more exciting than it was substantial. I guess the best way of putting it would be that this original book was entertaining, and at times thought-provoking, but probably wouldn't be worth a re-read.
So, that was that. I was pleased with myself for succeeding at my first NaNoWriMo marathon. Moreover, the book I had 'pulled out of my ass' had been a lot of fun to write. I could feel myself getting better as I wrote it, and in terms of learning-process and development, it represented a huge deal for me. It may have had a lot of problems, but the composition was a great leap forward from the original 'Under the Wall.'
I had other things on my writing plate, so after this, I moved on to lots of other tasks. During this time, I finished another novel--a scifi doodad that I called 'Formland' which I may rewrite and release someday, and which ended up being my last 'write-but-don't-release' work. I kept at it with the short stories, and started getting a few published in journals, reviews, and small magazines. I was making progress, and was starting to feel pretty good about myself.
In the fall of 2011, I was about 50,000 words into a book that I thought was great, a still-unreleased work that I have plans of revitalizing and attempting to approach the publishing industry about rather than self-publishing, so I won't talk about it more here. But then the month of November, and the next NaNoWriMo, came about, and I wrestled with a decision: should I take a 'break' from my work-in-progress and explore an idea that had been growing in the back of my mind as another NaNoWriMo marathon, or instead ignore NaNoWriMo and soldier on with the half-written book? Well, the 'break' on that work-in-progress has lasted to this day, as I realized the book I was writing needed a higher level of skill than I could have brought to bear on it at the time. When I do finish it up, I will be a very different person as a writer and I think the story requires that from me in order to do it justice.
So, I did take the NaNoWriMo 2011 challenge, and I was able to explore that little idea that had been tickling the back of my brain: what if Leviticus and Deinonyhus knew each other? What if they, like my own two precious kitties, were littermates? If that was the case, then who had given them those sparkly gold tags? Where did these two cats come from?
My idea was, in short, a prequel to the two other books, one that would serve to connect them. This undertaking represented a massive retcon, a novel that would recast the two previously released books in a very different light by providing scads of new information. The challenge was pretty huge: remember, these two books had nothing to do with each other, besides those gold tags and the idea of having a magic cat as protagonists. The only other unifying concept was that both novels were set in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. How could I possibly tie these two novels together coherently?
Early on, before composition started and this idea had just started tugging at the loose strings in the back of my mind, I had a weird mental image of some druid-like cult deep in the woods, handing out tags to a near-feral colony of house cats. The one thing that I felt like I solidly knew about the pasts of both Leviticus and Deinonychus is that they came to the Twin Cities metro from the woods. Ultimately, however, I rejected the cat-druid idea, having no idea where to go with it.
Then I hit on an angle that ended up turning some people off the book that all this ultimately produced: the idea of the National Unexpected Countermeasures and Preparedness Agency: NUCPA, or simply 'the Agency.' A fictional U.S. Federal Intelligence Agency specializing in researching the improbable, the fantastical, or the downright supernatural--unlike anything I had put into a book before. I wasn't sure if I would be able to pull it off believably, but this was NaNoWriMo, after all! I only had a month, and I'd better get writing if I wanted to finish in time. Reasonable idea or not, those pages weren't going to fill out themselves!
The challenges in creating a decent bridging story between both earlier books were many. Unlike 'Out the Door,' where I could easily keep up with my intense daily required word count to beat the NaNoWriMo goal by just having Deinonychus do whatever the hell he wanted, this time, I had to put a lot of thought behind the various story elements in order to make sure everything matched up with what had come before. For example, there was a statement in the beginning of 'Under the Wall,' explaining that the animal shelter workers had found Leviticus abandoned near student housing after the college semester ended--a common-enough fate for many cats adopted without much foresight by otherwise well-meaning students. Stuff like that had to be factored in, along with a spate of other such considerations.
Beyond that, I thought the best way to bridge the two stories would be to give a human window into the unfolding events of this new prequel, rather than a purely feline perspective: enter Ben Chesterton.
I tried to channel my own excitement at my first days of my current job (sure, it's not as dangerous or secretive as his, but I was almost as happy to get my current job as Ben was to secure his slot at NUCPA) when creating his character. In the opening pages of Through the Woods, we see this just-off-center-of-real universe through Ben's eyes, and I hoped people would feel happy for the fresh-faced whippersnapper and share his sense of awe at discovering the innards of the top-secret world he was heading into. I took my time, and had a lot of fun building up to the revelation of the cats, which is funny, because I personally knew all about them from the two books I had written earlier, the events of which happen later than those in this book...
The layers of complication are already starting to thicken up here, aren't they?
One of the elements I had the most fun with was the opportunity to introduce a bunch of littermates with lesser, kooky powers for the two feline stars to play off of. I had already explored 'super powerful evil,' and 'restrained but even more powerful good' as ideas for magic cats, but 'Through the Woods' gave me the chance to make up a lot of off-the-wall ideas for powers, ones that didn't have to support the weight of an entire plot. There was one who could mimic any sound, one who could wrap up victims from afar in sticky webs, like a telekinetic spider. One who drained the color from their victims until they dispersed in a puff of ash. My imagination was 'unleashed' (like most cats!) and it was tremendous fun.
In the rapid-fire course of NaNoWriMo-composition, I had other realizations: like that the cats might not necessarily the weirdest things going on at the top-secret NUCPA facility, for example. It was fun to explore the ideas that stemmed from that. Additionally, I had a lot of laughs writing for Ben's cantankerous boss, Rick, who swore like a sailor and chugged semi-clandestinely on his eCig (which weren't nearly as ubiquitous in 2011 as they have since become). I also enjoyed the ultra-sharp, kind of prickly head of the research team, Elmyra Pettinger.
The element of the story that really took me off-guard, but grew in importance, was the emotional attachment Rick developed towards Leviticus. I thought it was interesting how Ben had much less tender feelings for the little grey cat than his rougher, older boss. But hey, if you want to know more, read the book, right?
Anyway, it took a bit longer than NaNoWriMo gave me to finish this one. I got it done a couple months later. By the end of the book, the task of ensuring that the elements from the two prior books lined up exactly with this one newer one (except, the events of the two earlier ones happened later than the events of this later book, remember?) grew more complicated than one month of speedy composing could contain. Little did I know it at the time, but the first threats of the even more intense plot-aligning difficulty I would one day have to face were peeking out at me. The bottom line is: I got the first draft of my spectacular cat retcon prequel wrapped up, and I promptly put it in a folder, not to be touched for around 9 months.
Then, after my first Kindle release--the highly-strange crime novella 'Critical Incident'--in August of 2012, I turned back to the completed cat manuscript, doing an intensive rewrite before releasing what I decided to title 'Through the Woods' in October 2012. Though the name was not one I was super gaga about, I wanted to keep up the 'Preposition the Noun' theme of the titles, and it seemed to fit. (Then, about a year later, I spent a couple months doing another intensive re-write and re-released the book with a new, much spiffier cover. The name, however, I kept.)
After releasing 'Through the Woods,' I was pretty pleased with myself. By this time, I was getting short stories published pretty frequently, and I had found, to my pleasure, that people were actually buying a satisfying amount of my books on Kindle. I mean, I wasn't and still am not breaking any records, but in a few years I've taken my writing from something I did just to see if I could, to something that I have the honor of sharing with generous people from around the world, and it's a great feeling! But, as the readership for 'Through the Woods' grew, it created a problem that I (in my infinite failure to understand the ramifications of my actions) hadn't anticipated.
You see, 'Through the Woods' left off exactly where the original 'Under the Wall' and 'Out the Door' began. As a retcon, it was perfect. I had managed, by overcoming oodles of seemingly intractable difficulties, to unite these two unrelated novels in a way that seemed reasonably cohesive. I am not saying this to pat myself on the back, but merely to explain how I felt: I had pulled off something I wasn't sure I could, and it seemed to work out great. So gleeful was I at having solved this story problem, I didn't realize the glaringly obvious way I had painted myself into a corner of pure dumbery, especially if my presence in Kindle and in paperback were to expand.
Publishing 'Critical Incident' and 'Through the Woods' on Kindle was, at the start, little more than a hopeful experiment. Prior to that, I had experienced some success in the old book sellin' department. After all, a few people actually had picked up paperbacks of the first version of 'Under the Wall' and 'Out the Door.' Not a huge amount, but encouraging for someone who had just started to write and, frankly, more than these early attempts deserved. Once I decided to start putting stuff on Kindle and had released 'Critical Incident,' I instantly rewrote 'Through the Woods,' which was just tickin' away on my hard drive, and sent it out into the world without much premeditation. I didn't definitely didn't have any sort of career pathway in mind, and failed to provision my hopes enough to grasp there was a chance that more than the handful of people who checked out my first two cat books might eventually read 'Through the Woods.'
The problem was that, over time, my readership did grow. Not that that's a problem. Also, it's not like I sell thousands of books a month. I'd need to sell roughly 20 times more books than I currently do, each month, in order to make a similar amount of money from my books as I do at my job. I'm not a professional author in that sense (only about 5% of authors can afford to do nothing but write, anyway. I'd love to be in that boat, but I'm happy with my life!). But, I did get to a point where many, many more people had read 'Through the Woods' than had read either of the first two books.
What had seemed at the time like an awesome ending for a prequel--an ending that left off directly into the beginning of the first two, unrelated books--well, to these new readers, it seemed like a major cliffhanger, a lead-in to two books that these people would never, ever see. These two earlier books were, after all, of dreadful quality compared to what I was then releasing on Kindle.
Worse than being just a major cliffhanger, I came to realize, this ending seemed like a slap in the face. Taken as a prequel, the ending is satisfying, saying, in effect, 'The stage is now set!' To the average reader upon its release, however, 'Through the Woods' wasn't a prequel. It was, for all intents and purposes, a standalone novel, one with an ending that was simultaneously wimpy, and provoking of the thought 'Well? Then what happens?'
It wasn't fair.
I was, without meaning to, straight up cheating my readers. My guilt grew. I had done my rewrite of 'Woods' in the fall of 2013, and re-released it with a much better cover on the one year anniversary of its release. I then turned to my metaphysical-duck novella 'First There Wasn't, Then There Was' and also launched the first installment my bi-annual dark fiction anthology 'Robbed of Sleep.' Once I sent 'First There Wasn't, Then There Was' out into the world in early 2014, I decided that the time had come to solve the Leviticus/Deinonychus problem for all the patient, perplexed people who wanted to know the answer to 'Then what happens?,' to find out what would 'go down' once those mystic kitties wound up getting adopted by their respective families.
Up until this point, I had been releasing things on Kindle and Paperback pretty steadily from August 2012, when 'Critical Incident' "dropped," through February 2014, when I released 'First There Wasn't.' I had a release in August, October, and December of 2012, two in May, one in August, and one in October of 2013, and one in February of 2014. Most of these were novellas, of course, but my readers were accustomed to me releasing something every few months. Of the many projects I had in various states of completion, I evaluated which I should handle next, and figured 'Well, I have to get the cat thing taken care of. Might as well handle that next.'
'How long could it possibly take?' I reasoned. After all, I had the two source books finished already. True, they were my very first two actual novels, and, as such, they would require massive revision. I mean, I am still far from a genius writer, but very little that I wrote in 2009 would pass muster by my current-day standards. And by 'very little,' I mean on a parts of a sentence basis. The ideas were often sound, but the actual writing (which is what writers, ahem, do) was just not there. This would be a lot of work, more like restoring an old film than simply copying it to DVD.
In my favor, though, I had the advantage of having the newest book to draw from. That is, though the events of 'Through the Woods' took place first in the series, chronologically, it was, at this point, the last of the cat books to be written. Just to be, you know, clear. The events of that prequel, though, gave me all sorts of great ideas for how to unite the first two books.
So,in my infinite wisdom I figured that, all told, I would spend maybe three or four months rewriting the earlier two books, do a month or so of revisions, and then deliver a new 'Under the Wall,' a version which would be a sequel to a book that was originally a retconned prequel of two formerly unrelated books, and then this new book would now be a proper sequel to the originally retconned prequel, rendering that retconned prequel both un-retconned and un-prequeled.
Following me so far?
That one sentence might be the single best insight into how absolutely insane and brutally convoluted writing the new Under the Wall ended up being.
The original two books had problems that I might be able to solve by combining them and forging them into a true sequel to 'Through the Woods.' For one, Deinonychus's destructive wanderings in 'Out the Door' were unfocused, with little at narrative stake beyond the burning desire of Deinonychus to break as many things as possible. Whereas now, as part of the broader story, he could be given both real opposition and an actual goal. Meanwhile, the insane madman menacing Leviticus's family in the first incarnation of 'Under the Wall' could now be fleshed out, given a true purpose, and have his insanity developed from a mere 'aren't killers scarier when they're insane?' conceit, into a more veridical, deep-seated, and life-long mental issue that would simultaneously humanize him and render him more disturbing. The rather forced story device of Leviticus's vet visits and his increasing physical repercussions from using his powers to save his family could be 'taken off the hook' of having to bear the weight of the plot, with the vet visits (repeated multiple times in the first incarnation) taken out completely.
But even before I started, I could see a few issues. I wouldn't be able to simply 'rewrite' the two books into one and release it. For one, Ben, Rick, and all the rest of NUCPA didn't even factor into the first two books as originally written, because [drumroll] I hadn't invented them yet. Those story elements didn't join the series until 'Through the Woods,' but they would of course be centrally important to the storyline of the sequel. And, of course, everything involving these guys would have to be written afresh, and then seamlessly integrated into the plots of the other books in such a way that they wouldn't feel tacked-on.
Furthermore, the two source books took place at dramatically different times of the year. Deinonychus starting his two day adventure in the Fall in 'Out the Door' is pretty important to what happens in the beginning of his tale, but, more significantly, the fact that Leviticus's story takes place in Winter is essential to the entire tone of his tale. I had to find a way to bridge the time between these two stories in a manner that didn't seem forced, or ruin the narrative pace. And 'how to put a four month launch pad-style holding time into a story naturally without ruining the plot' isn't something they teach you to do in 'writer school,' that I didn't go to anyway. So heck, maybe they do, but I still didn't hear about it.
Yet, against such drastic odds, I believe I managed to accomplish this in the finished book. In fact, the story elements I employed for this purpose wound up being so central to the story of the new 'Under the Wall' that you might not even realize what I'm talking about unless you think about it. Think about it really, really hard. I'm obviously not going to just say, because you might not have read the book yet! But it took a lot of hard thinking to work my way through these obstacles.
Like always, I didn't outline until I had most of the book in the bag. But I did write out timelines of everything that had happened, just to ensure things were keeping on the right track. Trust me when I say, it was a logistical nightmare!
And, frankly, there were long stretches, sometimes lasting weeks at a time, where I was progressing so slowly, so bowed by the weight of all these disparate ideas that required unification, that I despaired of even being able to pull it off. Each of two prior books I was spinning into a new one were lean: about 300 pages for the original 'Under the Wall,' and a very sprightly 220 or thereabouts for 'Out the Door.' I had been working on this new book for about six months when it became clear that it would be much longer than either of those. The finished product is, in fact, even a little longer than both of them added together.
But this length didn't come about from using everything in both of the books. Indeed, I saw very quickly that only a small bit of the original 'Under the Wall' would be work in then new book, even with major rewriting. Some of the old 'UtW' scenes have been polished and honed, but huge swaths of the book were just not compatible with the new storyline. A larger proportion of the first half of 'Out the Door' survived, in altered form, but the ending of that book didn't fit at all with the new plot. Much more of the new 'Under the Wall' had to be entirely written from scratch than I initially anticipated. But, to my pleasant surprise, these new bits were some of the most satisfying writing I have had the pleasure of participating in so far.
One of the main elements I wanted to address in this book stemmed from one of the best pieces of criticism I had ever received in an Amazon review - in 'Through the Woods,' someone thoughtfully pointed out that, though they enjoyed the book, the fact that the animal enclosures are on the roof of the NUCPA facility seems like a major oversight that basically allows the plot to happen. It just seemed very hard to believe, this person wrote, that the people planning this highly-restricted experiment would allow that situation, which seemed like such an insecure setup. Well, I was very pleased to have the opportunity to retcon the problem my now un-retconned retcon had created in this new 'Under the Wall.' (Do you follow?) Now, I can proudly say that this former plot oversight has been rendered into a plot element, and a key plot element, at that!
Less happily, I had many false starts in terms of announcing the release date for the new 'Under the Wall,' something I still feel deeply ashamed about. I have often used the tactic of announcing 'aspirational' release dates, selected to give me ample room to do a good job and announced for self-motivational purposes. Once I've announced a reasonable release date, I have no choice but to spring into action. It has always worked wonders for me before. But...
This time, frankly, I simply didn't grasp the scope of the unprecedented challenge I had forced myself into facing. When I write, I am usually boundlessly free to explore any sort of plot situation I want. That's part of the fun. But this writing project was different, and the structural confines I was working within were far beyond anything that I have ever faced before. When I finally finished, I was exhausted. This book was one of the most cognitively difficult tasks I have ever undertaken in my entire life, and, clocking in at a year and a half, was one of the most sustained single projects I've ever devoted myself to. Sure, it was hard, but I've learned so much, and I really feel like this has been one of the most important turning points in my short writing life to date.
So, as I mercifully approach the closing of this unexpectedly gargantuan recounting of my fictional cat experience, I would like to summarize: if I had known, when I decided to take this book on, just how difficult it would end up being, I sincerely doubt I would have started. And I'm so glad I didn't know, because this book was hard beyond anything I could have predicted, but it was an incredible experience. I have learned so much as a writer, and I feel like I have produced a very exciting, satisfying, moving, and freaky-feline horror experience, one that goes far beyond my original intention of simply answering the 'Then what happens?' question. True, a 540-page book about psychic cats is not exactly everybody's cup of tea. But if you do want to read something like this, I have created the only thing exactly 'like this' you are going to be able to find, anywhere.
And that's certainly something that, after the year and a half I put into uniting the two previous novels, along with the half a year I spent writing the two earlier books, not to mention the more than half a year I spent writing and revising 'Through the Woods,' that I can be proud of. From that funny look Tomo gave me, almost six years ago, in the bedroom of a house I no longer live in, to my recent completion of the final tale, I have finally done justice to the story that trotted into my imagination like a stray cat. I can now go on with my freaking life, returning to my ability to create from scratch--ahh, scratch! That unfettered, unconstrained place of narrative freedom, which is, coincidentally, a place from which I feel much more comfortable producing.
Now that I have survived--let alone met--this considerable challenge, I have a much better sense of what I'm capable of. I hope to never again put myself into a position where I have to juggle so many cognitive demands when creating a story, but at least I feel much more fearless than before, now that I know that, should a story ever require this kind of effort from me, I'm capable of responding with everything I have. And that is a good feeling.
So, whether you like cats, hate them, are indifferent, or, for whatever reason, don't know what they are (maybe you have lived in a catless bunker for your whole life? Quit reading this blog and e-mail someone for help!), I would be honored if you stepped into a little place I've carved out in the mind, an imaginary version of the Twin Cities where a man in striped suit trudges through the snow, muttering about car batteries, a place where a cat's tail swishes, his green eyes blink, and birds fall out of the sky. A place where love can transcend the boundaries between species, where friends don't always have to speak the same language, and where the only really important thing is family.
It was a struggle, it was a challenge, but, above all, it was a privilege. And now you know why it took me so goshdarn long to write it! Please, if you haven't yet, give me a chance and read my new book, 'Under the Wall.' If you really like it, you can go back and read 'Through the Woods' later. Or, heck, you can read it first if you want--although it really is almost a different genre from its sequel.
All I can say is that I've made the best book I possibly can at my present state of abilities, and I would love to share it with you. Thank you for your time, your generosity in reading this long piece, and, above all, your imagination: the best tool all of us have for getting through this crazy thing we think of as life.