A few years ago, I wrote the online serial novel Unsong. Someday I want to get it published. But I want to fix it up before I try. I know publishers will have their own editors and their own demands. But I want something I’m happy with before I give it to someone else to tear apart.
This post is to solicit feedback on what needs improvement and how it could be improved. I’m going to list some of my thoughts below. All of these are really spoiler-y. If you haven’t read Unsong yet, you may not want to read further. If you have read it, I welcome your input.
Simple Issues I’ve Already Kind Of Decided But Would Welcome Feedback On Anyway
1. I equivocate between the terms “Unitarians” and “Singers” pretty frequently, and it takes a bit of a stretch to establish everyone as Unitarians. Plan to excise the Unitarian plotline and just call that whole group of people “Singers” permanently.
2. Probably will delete Chapter 17, “No Earthly Parents I Confess” with the mythological birth of the Comet King, in favor of having the Comet King offhandedly mention his birth in Chapter 29, “Who Respects The Infant’s Faith” (which he basically already does). I feel like Chapter 17 is a bit out of character for the rest of the book, and we don’t really need to know anything about the Comet King’s birth except that he was born of Comet West. I’m kind of sad I have to delete Comet West’s speech, Aaron’s digression on the word “maiden”, and the cosmic significance of Roe v. Wade, but maybe I can shoehorn some of that in elsewhere (any suggestions?)
3. Probably will drop “the Harmonious Jade Dragon Empire” as a random gag when referring to China. More people were confused than amused, and the benefit from gagginess is probably lower than risk of being accused of racism or Orientalism or something. But then do I keep the story in Interlude Chet where someone golem-izes the Terracotta Army, or do I nix that as plot irrelevant?
4. Will delete Chapter 18 (the Passover chapter) since it’s kind of irrelevant outside the context of a serial that is updating on Passover.
5. Will delete Interlude Nun (the Rosh Hashanah Changelog interlude) same reasoning as above
6. Would like to delete the whole solar eclipse sequence, which led to a lot of really boring unnecessary Sohu chapters. But I don’t know where else to fit in that scene where Metatron takes the Shem HaMephorash away from the Comet King. And that scene is really important. Any advice?
7. Delete Chapter 60 (Robin visiting Dylan to learn how to summon Thamiel) as insufficiently tight – I can just have Robin summon Thamiel later and nobody will be surprised that she knows some way to do it.
8. Probably remove Wall Drug. It got a lot of space for something that never came up later or became plot relevant, and everyone assumed I was going somewhere amazing with it.
9. Merge the characters of Sataniel and Thamiel. Sataniel meets Thamiel, turns evil, and then gets randomly killed off seems unnecessarily complicated. I’d rather having something like Sataniel (good angel) turns evil and renames himself Thamiel. Plausibly this is because God tells him the secret of theodicy and he realizes that evil is necessary. But then where does the second head come from? Maybe he only has one head?
10. Rename Erica -> Valerie, for kabbalistic reasons. Will have to remove the “I am Erica”/America pun, I guess.
11. Comet King’s boat will keep being named “All Your Heart”, not get gag-renamed “Not A Metaphor”
12. Am I on shaky legal ground including a character who is in the body of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and/or a living real-world actress? If so, how do I rebrand Sarah? Bonus points if the name sounds like “Enion”, for kabbalistic reasons.
13. The thing where you feel the meaning of a Name rush through you the first time you speak it is too hokey. Planning to replace this with something where the theonomics have a machine that can sense whether a useful Name was spoken in their vicinity, but otherwise Names do nothing until you direct them with some kind of prayer. You need theoretical kabbalah skills to figure out what a Name does and direct it correctly. You can also have standing prayers so that you can eg speak a Name quickly in combat.
14. Might rework the part where All Your Heart discovers Ana in San Francisco to include something where the Captain had a vision that Ana would be there and that saving her would be their way to get a kabbalist to run the yellow sail. Otherwise it seems too hokey.
15. Might switch Gadiriel’s earthly nickname from “the Lady” to “the Queen of Angels”, to emphasize LA connection.
More Complicated Issues I’m Still Unsure About
1. Should I keep the prologue?
2. Should I begin the book proper with the current Chapter 1 (Aaron discovers the Vital Name at work), Chapter 2 (the Unitarian meeting in Erica’s basement), or Chapter 5 (the history of how Aaron met Ana)? Obviously if I switched chapter order there would be some additional editing work to get everything to make sense, and to keep the world-building in the right order. I’m tempted to start with Chapter 5, delete Chapter 1, and have Aaron discover the Vital Name offscreen and explain it to Ana onscreen, but I’m not sure. I feel like getting the first chapter right is important (in terms of getting people to stick around), and the current Chapter 1 isn’t doing it for me.
3. Should I keep everything intermixed, or separate a few things out into separate chapters/books? For example, I’m considering having the first part be entirely Aaron/Ana up until their escape from Malia Ngo, then the second part being entirely the Comet King up until his death at the hands of the Other King, then maybe something that’s entirely Dylan, and so on.
4. How should Aaron escape UNSONG at the end of chapter 14? I’m unhappy with the current solution, where Aaron uses a mnemonic to spell out the Vanishing Name. I think the overall idea is pretty cool, but it requires brilliant and terrifying Malia Ngo to sit quietly while a random kid says sentences like “It was the skull of a vampire, who had died reciting a poem about a lantern”. There must be a better way to do this.
5. Should I keep San Francisco basically as is? I like the description of the weird holy city, I like the whole set of Neal Armstrong puns, but it seems kind of pointless and disconnected from the rest of the book. And the explanation that Ken Kesey put LSD in the water supply doesn’t really seem to fit (especially with my reusing the weird drugs trope later on with the Drug Lord). Overall I would like to keep SF but integrate it into the book better, but I’m not really sure how to do that.
6. Should I relocate the Comet King from Colorado Springs to the San Francisco Bay Area? I feel like this would make things tighter. SF seems like a more natural capital for the Kingdom of the West. It would give me a good reason to introduce SF – maybe after the Comet King’s death, it was determined that San Francisco itself should not be profaned by the Other King’s touch, and that was why God removed it from the mortal world. It would make it more natural to have Aaron and Ana living in the Bay Area, and all the major theonomics based there, if it had recently been a great capital. And the use of Colorado Springs seems kind of random and jarring.
7. If I were to do that, I would probably recast the Cometspawn from continued governors of a rump Coloradan state, to resistance leaders who had holed up in Cheyenne Mountain / Citadel West / NORAD, which would be some kind of Comet-King-built magically-impregnable bunker where the Other King couldn’t get them. This would let me keep Citadel West as a key location, unless there’s some kind of more appropriate Bay Area equivalent.
8. How do I increase the role of UNSONG the organization and the theonomic corporations? Everyone liked the idea of the theonomics trying to patent the Names vs. the pirates trying to jailbreak them, but it ended up as a kind of pointless piece of world-building that got dropped midway through. Is there any solution to this without completely changing the story? Relatedly, is there a cooler name for the name-finding corporations than “theonomics”?
9. How do I end my fake version of US history? In the current draft, it kind of fizzles out after the supposed Bush-Gore civil war in 2000. Dick Cheney and the Shrouded Constitution were originally going to be big parts of the backstory but never really got developed, and I find myself uninterested in developing them. I think I should combine this with the last problem and somehow have UNSONG take over the entire US as the main secular power, with the Presidency either becoming a figurehead or abolished completely. In fact, it would make more plot sense with them as a kind of world government. I’m not sure how this would happen in-universe, though. Maybe an alliance of major corporations stepping up to solve the chaos of the Bush-Gore war? I’m tempted to just delete every interlude after Ayin and start over.
10. Who or what is Malia Ngo? My original answer – the child of Thamiel and Robin West – doesn’t satisfy me. For one thing, that requires Malia to be three years old when she takes over UNSONG, and although I handwave that away with “demon-children grow really fast”, it seems like cheating. For another thing, Thamiel raping Robin is really awkwardly inserted in there in order to justify this happening, and an awkwardly inserted rape scene probably isn’t great for sending out into the literary world. Her supposedly growing up in Hell off-screen just kind of highlights how awkward all of this is. I feel like Malia’s identity is played up as one of the central mysteries of the book, and this just isn’t a satisfying resolution. But is there a better one? Or should I remove the Malia character entirely and turn UNSONG into a truly faceless bureaucracy led by a counsel of CEOs or something? If the latter, who does Dylan try to assassinate?
12. There’s a weak thread of relevance where Dylan + Erica kill Malia Ngo -} blood of Thamiel ends up on Mark’s clothing -} Ana gets the blood and uses it to open the black sail -} Ana gets the Shem HaMephorash at the end of the story -} finale able to happen correctly. If I change Malia’s identity, I need some other way to tie the Dylan subplot back into the main story.
13. May have to rework the history and geography of the Untied States. If the Comet King is in California, it makes sense to have the entire West as a single empire. One possibility is that only the coasts survived, the President rules the East Coast, the Comet King (later Other King) rules the West Coast, and the Untied States isn’t a thing. But then how do I get Reagan and the Comet King in the same room? Do I delete that whole section?
14. Would like to completely rework Sohu chapters to make them less worldbuildy. I don’t really know how to do that. The one that ends with Thamiel attacking is good. The one that ends with the missile-invitation to the peace conference is good. I need more snazzy things to happen so I can have an excuse to have those (mostly worldbuildy) chapters without breaking the pace too much. Also, everyone on Goodreads said the Sohu/Uriel chapters were the best but also that there was too much boring worldbuilding, but I don’t know how to cut out the worldbuilding except by changing the Sohu/Uriel chapters.
15. Would like to totally rework the Israel-Palestine peace conference chapter. The part where everyone gets angry at Uriel for taking away Ethiopians’ souls so they don’t suffer in the famine was kind of my attack on outrage culture, but I think if it gets published outrage culture might attack me back and win. Also, several people brought up that if Uriel can take away people’s souls en masse, he should do this to everyone immediately to save them from Hell, so probably he shouldn’t be able to do this. Also, the ending – with all of the diplomats getting undiplomatically enraged with Uriel and praising Thamiel – was a little too unrealistic. I need some other way to make the peace conference go crazy and provoke Uriel to angel-nuke Madrid. But how?
16. In Chapter 37, for plot reasons Aaron has to decide to cave in to the Drug Lord’s demands (and save Ana) rather than let her die. I’m still not happy with how I handled that – it’s such a monumentally stupid thing to do that even Aaron admitting he’s scared and young and stupid doesn’t seem to cover it. How else can I handle this?
17. Everyone’s reviews on GoodReads, even the otherwise-very-positive ones, say I can’t write action scenes. What’s wrong with my action scenes and how do I improve?
18. With all of this chapter and interlude deleting, seems unlikely that I’ll keep a perfect 72 chapters spelling out the letters of the Explicit Name + 22 interludes. Probably I should have some number of chapters and interludes that total seventy-two and spell out the Name that way. But that’s going to require deleting or merging a lot more chapters and interludes. I guess I could also *not* have my story be a notarikon for the Explicit Name of God, but that sounds kind of boring.
My current leading solution to the big picture questions – and tell me if you hate it – is that Malia Ngo’s secret identity is Sohu. In this version, Sohu trains with Uriel, and discovers that he’s very good at running the natural world but that the political world is slowly falling apart due to his incompetence (with only the Comet King keeping order). When the Comet King dies, she decides she has to become a sort of social demiurge in the same way Uriel is a physical demiurge. She doesn’t want to use her real identity because Uriel and everyone associated with him have been personae non gratae since Madrid. But after the Comet King dies (and so is no longer around to protect Sohu), Thamiel launches a full attack on her; she survives horribly deformed and contaminated by Thamiel’s evil, producing a natural secret identity for her as the deformed and evil-aura-exuding Malia Ngo. She splits her time between UN headquarters in New York where she runs the world, and Citadel West in Colorado, where she helps her siblings (who are aware of what’s going on). She takes over UNSONG and guides it to pretty complete world domination, with all existing countries as more-or-less independent-ish client states. The Dylan assassination plot ends with Sohu being about to kill them, when Dylan calls in his placebomancy and expects some kind of extremely coincidental intervention in his favor, and at that exact moment the nuke blows up Uriel and Sohu has to teleport out and prevent the world from falling apart.
How do people feel about this?
Besides your opinion on all of these questions, I’d like other feedback in terms of what chapters you liked or didn’t like, which parts seemed to have plot holes or things you didn’t understand, what parts seemed insufficiently tight or pointless, and how you would solve these problems (if you have ideas).
PS: I promised if people got the riddle in Chapter 71 right, I’d post a list of all the easter eggs in the book, so – two years later – here it is.