Guest blogger author Noah Lemelson
Evolution of a novel: The Sightless City
“I thought as an exercise I’d sketch out, rough and quick, the evolutionary story of my own debut novel, The Sightless City”
DMZ editor here, I couldn’t help myself. I interject. Once started, I thought WTH, let’s giphy this post up. If I can’t fit Noah in as a podcast guest, DMZ can at least give him a conversation and all the bells and whistles, amiright? I hope you don’t mind, Noah. – DMZ editor
One thing I find fascinating about stories is the way they evolve. This is more obvious in old myths and fairy tales, oral stories which changed subtly from teller to teller over the years, decades, or even millennia. But it’s just as true for any story written in the modern day.
A published book, then, presents a snapshot, a story frozen in time, bound by page and ink against its natural state of narrative flux. I personally find it fascinating to get glimpses into that evolutionary process. To see behind the scenes, read early drafts, study my favorite stories as they emerged half-formed from the Cambrian soup of their author or creator’s mind, to imagine what other forms these stories may have evolved into in another universe.
So I thought as an exercise I’d sketch out, rough and quick, the evolutionary story of my own debut novel, The Sightless City, whose sequel, The Lioness and The Rat Queen, is coming out this August. Will studying its evolution prove interesting? I have no idea, but at least you’ll get to see how the sausage is made.
(Sausage is made? Nuts I’m mixing metaphors here! Umm… Protoplasm, missing-link, natural selection!)
Natural selection/evolution giph
Lost in the mists of time
The origins of the world of The Sightless City remain lost even to me. Perhaps the Wastes were inspired by my time hiking around the dusty hills of LA, stumbling across the old abandoned ruins of Murphy’s Ranch. Maybe it came from a psychic mix of the media I loved, science fiction and fantasy novels, movies like Star Wars and Mad Max, games like Warhammer. Maybe it all started from some half-remembered screenshot of the industrial wastelands of Final Fantasy 7, I don’t know, all I know is that as a teen I began to craft a setting, a world of magic and industry wracked with war and stumbling past apocalypse. Mentioning offhand this exercise in worldbuilding to my uncle, he suggested I write it down, so I did.
Years later, when I started to write novels as part of a UCLA Extension class, I decided to use this setting I built. I wrote a short story in it and then iterated on it get to the start of a novel, and that novel…
…got dumped in the trash. I had an interesting hook, a man lying about his past in order to save his life, thrust into a sudden horrifying power and responsibility, forced to live a lie or die, but I had no idea where the story was actually going to go. And eventually I shelved it.
So I started again. Around this time I had been reading Dan Simmon’s Hyperion. It had a fascinating structure (cribbed from The Canterbury Tales) where it followed a number of characters from a fascinating sci-fi universe sharing their backstories as they traveled along together. So I decided to steal that structure. I would write six characters’ unique stories. These six would highlight very different parts of the world and with come with conflicting beliefs and ideology, but they would all connect with the desire for vengeance, vengeance against a villain I named Lazarus Roache.
The characters in this first draft were:
- The Resurgence Private Eye
- The Imperial Agent
- The Ferral Engineer
- The Disgraced Monk
- The Librarian
- The Bounty Hunter.
Quickly I cut the Librarian, who had no place in the plot, and gender-swapped the Imperial Agent. I wrote out a first draft and discovered two things:
- The Bounty Hunter, originally imagined as the secret son of Lazarus Roache with dark powers and a morally complicated past, was a boring, overwrought edgelord, who did nothing but take away agency from the interesting characters.
- Writing constant flashbacks was disorienting and made it difficult for me to understand my own characters’ arcs.
Back to the drawing board
So back to the drawing board. I would tell the story in order, starting with the interwoven backstories of the Private Eye, Marcel, and the Engineer, Sylvaine. This worked much better, only issue was that for a first act, this was pretty long. By this time I was at CalArts, doing my MFA, and my mentor Brian Evenson suggested I split the book into two or three books. I told him that that was ridiculous, that it was one story, indivisible and I would never, ever—
—a week later I had split it into three books.
From there the process went, if not smooth, as least with clear direction. I wrote up a draft of Marcel and Sylvaine’s story, combined what elements worked from The Bounty Hunter with The Monk to create Kayip, and shelved the Imperial Agent for book two.
I sent this draft to fellow writers, and got some good feedback. Based on this I made some significant changes, for example in the initial draft Marcel’s former ex-girlfriend was murdered, but I brought her back to life, both to avoid the iffy trope of fridging
Yay for responsible and responsive male authors – DMZ editor.
but also because she was an interesting character, and the generic get-revenge-for-murdered-ex schtick was just not a very interesting motivation for Marcel.
via GIPHY Inserted by DMZ editor. BECAUSE, okay?
Three dimensional villain
I also added the character of Hieronymus Lealtad Namter to give a glimpse into the villains’ plots and motivation, and wrote half-a-dozen failed prologues. With draft in hand I sought out agents (to limited success) and then a publisher (to more success). And eventually, I had a real, physical book.
Oh wow! Today I interviewed Kara H L Chen where I admired her actual three dimensional villain WITH MOTIVATION and JUSTIFICATION (at least in her head) for what she did. On 26 June 2023 that podcast will go live here. Also I talk about 3D villains in my review of The Shot by Naima Brown. And I RAVE about a sympathetic(ish) villain in my review of Winter Be My Shield. I have a feeling I will adore your villain too! Excuse me for butting in. I’ll shut up again. For now. – DMZ editor.
The evolution “ends” at publication – for the author, anyway
So there we go, the evolution of a story from vague world and vibes, into something publishable. What’s the moral of this telling? I’m not sure, perhaps just that if you love something you stick with it, and that changing is a sign of growth, not weakness. But it also reminds me of all the people who helped along the way, my family and wife supporting my journey, my writing teachers giving me guidance, my friends providing notes and feedback, and Tiny Fox for believing in my story enough to print it.
If any of this piqued your interest, my first book, The Sightless City, is available now, and was described as by Kirkus Reviews as “A gripping mystery with an exceptionally fleshed-out world.” Its sequel, The Lioness and The Rat Queen, sets off on where my first draft started, four people, separated by ideology, forced to work together to take down a shared foe in a broken world, and is coming out August 29th from Tiny Fox Press.
That’s all well and good but WHERE ARE YOUR LINKS SO PEOPLE CAN FIND IT? HMM???? Super editor muscle flex.
My work here is done.
Thanks, Noah, for this guest blog. You’ve made me want to read your books, dammit!