Epic Endings: James Islington & Evan Winter on Perfect Titles, Finding Your Fans, and Wrapping a Trilogy

This past summer, we celebrated Orbit Books release of Evan Winter’s The Rage of Dragons—originally self-published, the book was picked up for major distribution after it caught the eye of an editor—by turning the blog over to Winter and fellow Orbit author James Islington (The Shadow of What Was Lost); the latter interviewed the former about the perils and pleasures of debut author-dom. Now that Winters’ book is out and winning legions of fans (including Barnes & Noble booksellers; last week we named it one of their favorite fantasy novels of the year), we are turning the tables: Winters is putting the questions to Islington, who can now boast of having completed his first series with book three of the Licanius trilogy, The Light of All That Falls.

Evan Winter: Hi, James, and thank you for taking the time to answer a few of my burning questions. I’m a big fan of the world and people in your Licanius Trilogy and it’s beyond cool to have the chance to dive into the books with their creator.

To start, I’m easily drawn in by brilliant titles and, long before we’d ever spoken, your titles caught my attention. We have The Shadow of What Was Lost, An Echo of Things to Come, and, shortly, we’ll be able to get our hands on The Light of All That Falls. All three titles are lyrical, evocative, and very, very fantasy. Can you talk to me a bit about your titles? How do you come up with them and how the hell do you plan to top these with your next books?

James Islington: Thanks, Evan; it’s great to be chatting with you again! And I love hearing that the titles caught your attention, because I agonized a lot over them.

For Shadow, finding something I was happy with was constantly in the back of my mind while I was writing—I was playing around with what I thought would suit the book for months, really, until something eventually clicked. And then Echo was the same process but (a little) easier, because I at least already knew the style I was shooting for. So as much as I’d like to claim they were just flashes of inspiration, both basically involved a ton of trial and error—and plenty of hilariously bad titles being discarded along the way, too.

Funnily enough, The Light of All That Falls isn’t mine, but one that was suggested by my editors not long after Echo was released. I had a different working title in place which certainly would have been fine but didn’t have quite the same panache. Because I’m stubborn, I still spent a lot of time mulling it over and trying to come up with something even better—but in the end, really had to admit that Light was just a great fit for the concluding book.

EW: Similarly, there’s no way you’re getting out of this interview without us talking about your covers. They’re gorgeous, somehow manage to be cutting-edge, and yet they’re still powerfully reminiscent of some indeterminate ‘golden age’ in fantasy storytelling. What can you tell me about your cover artist, the process of getting to the artwork we see today, and your level of involvement in getting it all done?

JI: They’re perfect, aren’t they! The very talented Dominick Saponaro is responsible for the cover art, and what you just said (almost word for word!) is exactly the feel we asked him to go for – evocative of classic fantasy, but modern.

For the first book, it was a case of us (myself and my editors) choosing a scene we thought would convey the beginning of an epic journey, and then letting Dominick take it from there. There was a minor amount of back and forth on the details, but really, everything came together so smoothly and everyone was so pleased with the result that there wasn’t much of a revision process behind it at all.

The second and third books were even easier, from my perspective—Dominick did a great job in creating images that were clearly part of the same series, but also immediately distinct from one another. The stages of artwork were run past me for approval, but I (and everyone else involved) loved what he’d done from the outset, so it was all a very streamlined and stress-free endeavor.

EW: There’s the cliché about artists struggling with the follow-up to their first big work. Some say it’s because artists have their whole lives, up to that point, to finish book one, and then, typically, they have less than a year to get boo two out the door. Musicians call this the curse of the second album and one of the bands I liked growing up was The Beautiful South, who named their second album Choke because, as the rumor goes, they were so sure they’d screw up their second release.

So… your book two, An Echo of Things to Come is rated even higher than The Shadow of What Was Lost on review sites. This means that, clearly, you didn’t fall victim to any curse. But, since many artists do seem to hit a wall with their second major work and given that you’ve completed your trilogy, can you tell us which book you found the most difficult to write and why it was book two? (It doesn’t have to be book 2 but, then again, why would you lie about it not being book 2?)

JI: It’s a cliché for a reason! It was way more stressful writing book two, and not just because I was suddenly on a clock (though that was part of it, for sure). I mean, at the time, readers seemed to like book 1, so I felt like there was a good chance they’d stick around for the whole series. Probably! As long as I didn’t screw up book two. And everyone at Orbit and Podium (Audio) were really happy with how things were going. I wasn’t letting them down! As long as I didn’t screw up book two. Plus, the success of the first book meant that I could actually, really make a career out of doing something I love. Hopefully! As long as I didn’t screw up book two.

So… yeah, it was probably book two. Book three did come with its own pressures and its own unique set of challenges, but the positive reception that Echo had was a huge boost. And I don’t know whether it’s just time and experience, but I’m feeling nowhere near as nervous about book three’s release. Which is nice, to say the least.

EW: Many marketers develop a prototypical character meant to stand-in for the product’s ideal or average customer, and they do this to help them hold focus on creating a work, product, or service that will please their end users. It sounds disconnected and clinical when put like that, but even fine artists often have an audience in mind as they create. For example, Stephen King says he considers his wife to be his ideal reader and he writes with her in mind. I want to know if you do something similar. Do you have an idea or concept of your ideal reader? If you do, who are they and, if you don’t, how do you then determine if your writing is doing what it ‘needs’ to do?

JI: This one’s easy (if a little self-centered): I’m very much my own target audience. Or more to the point, I guess, I’m writing for fantasy fans who have similar tastes to mine. I think I’d find it much harder to write something I wouldn’t necessarily love to read myself.

So as far as the writing doing what it needs to do, it’s a pretty simple litmus test—if I’m bored writing it, it’s a fair bet that readers will be bored reading it. That’s not true 100% of the time (sometimes I’m just having an off day, so I’m careful not to discard something straight away simply because I’m not ‘feeling it’), but I do find it proves an accurate gauge more often than not.

EW: Without giving anything away, the series has a lot of intersecting twists and turns that kept me turning pages and then, to top it off, your endings slap! Basically, the complexity and climaxes in the first two books of the trilogy make me think that you outline your books. Is that right or do you do all this storytelling magic on the fly?

JI: I’ve had an endgame in mind all along, so as you guessed, the overarching plot – including where I wanted each book to end – was very much outlined. However, I do a ton of drafting in the spaces in between, too. I tend to come up with my best ideas as I go, so there’s constant revision to make sure that everything still fits together as it should. It’s a weird mix of careful planning and ad-hoc storytelling – not the most efficient writing process, unfortunately (so many drafts!), but it seems to be what works for me.

EW: In line with the last question, there is so much wonderful world-building in the series, and you go deep as well as wide. It has to be a ton of work to develop such expansive coherence. So, how do you create the world in which your stories take place? Do your people come first? Your plot? How does such a captivating and fleshed out universe build from nothing into this?

 JI: I’m very plot-focused, and it’s fair to say the world evolved largely out of that. Particularly when I was writing Shadow, if I had a great idea for a plot point but it clashed with the setup of the world, I would invariably choose to bend the world to fit the story, rather than the other way around. For Echo and Light that wasn’t always possible, of course, but I still did it where I had wriggle room. To me, at least, fantasy worlds are only ever as interesting as the stories that can be told in them, so that just seemed like the natural way to do things.

It was sometimes frustrating—for better or worse, it’s another reason I have such an intensive revision process – but I do think that constant tweaking of the world, giving it details that were relevant to the plot rather than them just being there as window-dressing, really helped give it its depth. So as much work as it was, it’s an approach I intend to stick with!

EW: Lucky question #7 is the shortest and perhaps the most difficult: why do you write and what to hope to accomplish by writing?

JI: You know—fame, fortune, glory. The usual.

Honestly, though, I just write because it’s something I enjoy, and have always enjoyed. If it wasn’t providing an income—even if it wasn’t being read, I think—I’d still be writing stories in my spare time. It provides a creative outlet that I simply can’t get from doing anything else.

And as far as accomplishing things goes? Occasionally readers will let me know that they’ve taken away something meaningful out of my books, and that’s always amazing to hear. But at the end of the day, if people are being entertained, if people can switch off from the real world for a while and enjoy themselves reading what I’ve written, then that’s more than enough to make me happy.

EW: And, to bring things to a close, what’s the most moving song you’ve ever heard or, alternatively, what’s your favorite quote?

JI: I’m not sure it’s the most moving one I’ve ever heard, but a song that immediately comes to mind is the one I had in my head pretty much the entire time I was writing the epilogue for The Light of All That Falls. It’s called “When the Darkness Comes” by Shelby Merry.

Which now that I say it, might sound a little… ominous for the ending of the trilogy? Sorry. But it’s a great song.

The Light of All That Falls is available December 10. The Rage of Dragons is available now.

Follow B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy