An Epic Journey to the Shelves: Evan Winter & James Islington on the Business of Publishing, Finding Your Readers, and the Book Two Problem

Two of our favorite epic fantasy series of the last few years—one of them, James Islington’s Licanius trilogy, about to wrap up; the other, Evan Winter’s Burning saga, just beginning—come to us from the same publisher, Orbit Books. Today, we’re joined by these two authors and brothers-in-publishing to share in their discussion about the recent launch of Evan’s debut novel The Rage of Dragons.

James Islington: Hello Evan, and thanks for taking the time to do this interview. I’ve said it before, but I absolutely loved The Rage of Dragons. As a starting point for our chat: for those not in the know, how would you describe it?

Evan Winter: Hi James, I’ve looked forward to speaking with you since the first time I encountered your Licanius series. There’s something magical about your titles and covers that screams classic Epic Fantasy for the 21st century, and I love that. And I love it in part because I’m hoping for much the same thing in the story I’m telling. The Rage of Dragons is epic fantasy run through the lens of my life experiences and current world outlook. In general, it’s about cycles of violence and the difficulty we have breaking out of those cycles. Specifically, it’s the story of a young swordsman who has everything taken from him and then learns that he can destroy the people who hurt him, if he’s willing to walk through hell to do it. So, he starts walking…

JI: This was your first book, so I’m curious to know what the catalyst was for your sitting down and writing it. Was it something you’d always wanted to do, and/or were there stories you’ve read that particularly spurred you to start?

EW: I’ve always loved fantasy and I’ve always read it. Several years ago, life got so busy that I basically stopped reading. After a while, it felt like something important was missing and I wanted to get it back. I’d been out of the genre for a bit and, wanting to read the best new stuff, I went searching for book recommendations. The search brought me to Reddit’s r/Fantasy forum (probably the world’s largest online fantasy forum right now) where I was introduced to a brand new generation of writers. I couldn’t believe how much fantasy had changed while still holding onto the heart of all that made me love it in the first place. I devoured the “new” stuff. Then, my son was born and, though it was by then the second decade of the twenty-first century, there still weren’t many books where people who looked like me, and more importantly like him, were the protagonists. I’d always wanted to write, but didn’t have the courage to commit. Being a father gave me the courage and the push because I believe stories have an immense amount of power. I believe that stories, at their best, help us reach beyond what seems to be the extent of our grasp. So, I didn’t want my son growing up in a world where my favorite genre, filled with stories about protagonists learning to reach beyond their limits, excluded him.

JI: Your series has an African-inspired setting, which is not only really cool but serves to give it a very distinctive feel. From what I’ve read, this is at least partly drawn from your own Xhosan ancestry. Did you decide on the setting first and then write Tau’s story within it, or was the world developed more alongside the plot (or a bit of both)?

EW: Like many Black families who’ve spent generations on the North/South American side of the ocean, my African ancestry isn’t well documented, but there is an oral tradition that mentions the Xhosa and a few other tribes. I grew up hearing those mentions, perhaps in part because my immediate family (my mother, father, and I) moved to Africa shortly after I was born. So, when it came time to tell a story of my own, knowing that I wanted it to have people who looked like my family in it, I went back to the place of my ancestry and I went back to the place where I grew up. Africa is my first home in both those ways and Tau, as well as all the other people in his world, were born from that.

JI: One of the things I really appreciated about the book is that it’s a revenge-driven story with some absolutely amazing action sequences, but it’s not just a “revenge fantasy”—it doesn’t shy away from showing that there’s a personal toll for that sort of obsession, too. I loved that you managed to make it such a relatable, justifiable motivation, but didn’t take the easy way out with it either. Was that something you’d specifically decided to do from the outset, or was it something that just felt natural to write that way?

EW: That’s a great question. because I struggled to have the story I was telling make sense in that way and to have Tau’s journey be a journey that he had earned. I knew where he was going, but didn’t have all the details about how he was going to get there, and then the world itself began filling in the blanks. If Tau’s journey does feel earned it’s because of the way the society works, the way the magic works, and the pressures that are caused by those interactions and conflicts. We’re all, to an extent, shaped by the world around us, and I think that’s what happened to Tau. When writing, I felt like I knew who he was, but I didn’t understand why he was, until the world helped me understand why.

JI: Along similar lines—Tau’s rise from so-so fighter to famed, class-defying warrior felt really earned, in a way I think a lot of books struggle to do (because it’s really hard!). Did you plot out that arc with that in mind, specifically? Do you plan everything before you start writing, or prefer to ‘wing it’ and let the story grow organically?

EW: I plot extensively and my outlines are around twenty percent the length of the final book. Thankfully, this seems to mean that I don’t tend to suffer in the drafting stage. I can usually write, and write, and write (albeit kinda slowly). On the other hand, you’ve completely found me out and you’re pointing to what was the most difficult part of the story for me. I was stuck in the outline trying to understand how Tau’s journey was earned for a very long while. I knew who Tau was and I knew the person he was going to become, but the proper catalyst for that change took time to figure out.

JI: I’m not sure if this is right, but I remember seeing somewhere that you wrote the book in only nine months (which is amazing and, you know, just kind of unfair to the rest of us authors). Did you have to carve out the time to write around another job? Has your writing process changed much between the first and second books?

EW: I can’t believe you heard that! And it’s mostly the case. Before I started drafting, I was working full time, and it was during that period that the barest concept for the book came to me. I’d scribble down bits and pieces in my phone’s notepad app, always meaning to work harder on it in the evening or mornings before work, but I didn’t. Then, my full time work ended and the goal was to jump into the next corporate gig. I didn’t really want to do that, and I was in the rare and fortunate position to be able to hold out on having to take another job for a little while. Basically, I outlined for two months, wrote for five-ish months, then revised for two months. That done, I self-published the book.

JI: We come from similar publishing backgrounds, in that our first books were initially self-published before being picked up by Orbit. Did you always intend to self-publish, or did you go through the classic cycle of query-and-rejection with agents first? How did The Rage of Dragons end up catching Orbit’s eye, and how have you found the transition to traditional publishing thus far?

EW: I did always intend to self-publish. I’ve never queried an agent or approached an editor or anything like that. I want to note that, before my most recent 9-to-5 job, I was a music video director for almost two decades. That meant I was constantly creating, and I loved it, but the work I was creating was also heavily subject to the needs of others and they would change the work based on those needs. So, when it came time to write, there were three things I was after:

  1. To write, because I’d wanted to be a writer since I was a child growing up in Zambia.
  2. To write a book that featured a cast of characters that looked like my family and the people I’d known growing up.
  3. To create something for me, without needing to change it, water it down, or otherwise alter its original intent.

My deepest-held belief, throughout the writing process, was that if I could write something that would excite me as a reader, something that I would love, then there absolutely had to be other people who would love it, too. My concern was that those people might not be the agents or editors I’d be able to reach on my own. Given that, I didn’t want to spend months or years trying to convince people who weren’t inclined to be convinced. I wanted to spend that time trying to reach people like me. So, I wrote the book, self-published it, and did my best to let people like me know that the book existed. One of the places I went, to tell people about the book, was Reddit’s r/Fantasy group. My editor, who has a super-secret persona on Reddit (I still don’t even know who they are on the site), found out about the book there, read it, and contacted me.

In short, I think what I’ve learned, and what I was missing in my view of traditional publishing, was that there are people like me at the agencies and publishing houses, too. I saw them as gatekeepers, but they’re not just that. The very best of them are actually brilliant readers cursed with the masochistic desire to mix work and pleasure by getting paid to help tell the types of stories they love. My experience at Orbit has been wonderful so far. They understand the genre better than I do and love it just as much, if not more. I feel very lucky to have the chance to work with people like that. I can’t speak outside of my limited personal experience and that means I’m still inclined to think it’s not this way everywhere, but in terms of agents and publishers, it’s like I won the lottery.

JI: From everything I’ve seen online, the book has already been enormously (and justifiably) well received. Has that changed your approach or expectations, going forward?

EW: I believe no one has ever said this before, but damn is book two hard. (I’m kidding, I believe everyone, ever, has said that, and they say it ‘cause it’s true.) I think I’m fortunate in that my outline for book two was done before things starting to really move at full speed, so I feel confident in the strength of the story I’m telling, but it’s been an interesting ride writing it as people experience and comment on book one. I think, in an ideal and relatively unattainable world, I’d complete an entire series in one go and then release each book in the series annually. It’s really hard to make that happen, but I do wonder if the storytelling would gain something from being conceived and executed in that way.

JI: So lastly, a question that if you’re anything like me you may hate, but I’m going to ask anyway: how’s the next book coming along? Are you finding it harder or easier to write than The Rage of Dragons? Any details you feel comfortable sharing yet?

EW: Why does this question always feel like such an attack? I mean, everyone asking it asks in good faith. Like, if the asker is a close friend, they’re asking to show interest in what you’re doing. If they’re readers, it’s because they’re super passionate about the story, world, and characters, and can’t wait to be part of the narrative again. Yet, every time someone asks how the writing is going, it’s like being sucker-punched.

No worries, though; I’m getting used to taking the hits and I actually do appreciate the question. It’s an important one, and I’m very happy with the story that’s currently on the page. When I read back sections to do minor edits, and get into the flow for new writing, I sometimes just read and end up surprised at the twists and turns, or even break out laughing at what a character is saying or doing. I love that because, to me, that’s how I know when it’s working. It’s working when the words I’ve written don’t feel like words anymore. Instead, they come back to me as moments.

So, I’m happy with what’s done and with where I’m going. Perhaps I just need to get there a bit faster…

Evan Winter’s The Rage of Dragons is available now. The final volume of James Islington’s Licanius trilogy, The Light of All That Falls, will be published in December.

 

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