To celebrate the upcoming releases of THE WOLF’S CALL (UK/ANZ) by Anthony Ryan and THE RAGE OF DRAGONS (UK/US/ANZ) by Evan Winter (both out this month!) we thought it would be fun to bring Anthony and Evan together, to talk about writing, publishing and all things epic fantasy . . .
ANTHONY RYAN: I’ll get the ball rolling by saying how much I enjoyed The Rage of Dragons. Something that struck me as being particularly effective was the way the book was structured around Tau’s increasingly obsessive quest to make himself the formidable figure he becomes. I’d be interested to know how the structure came about: did it just emerge in the course of writing or did you do any planning in advance?
EVAN WINTER: It’s an honour to have this discussion with you. Blood Song is a favourite of mine and, when writing The Rage of Dragons, it was one of the books I hoped to emulate in terms of the way it made me feel as a reader. So it’s hard to believe that I get to talk about reading and writing with you!
Jumping to your question about the book’s structure and if Tau’s progression was planned in advance or not: I’m a bit of an obsessive outliner.
In my outlines, I break down each scene that will appear in the book and then each scene’s breakdown is around one to two pages of notes. But perhaps the better answer to your question is to say that Tau’s progression was a side effect of me knowing who I wanted him to be in the end and then asking myself, over and over, how he could come to be that way.
In outlining, I searched for the answer to that question, took many wrong turns and was stuck for over a month on how Tau could, in a relatively short period of time, surpass his peers and betters. I had a few ideas about how it might be done, but none of them felt like Tau had earned the person he becomes, until I stumbled across the path you find him taking in the book.
Here’s something I’m glad I have the chance to ask: as a newbie hoping that I get to keep telling stories, what has, over the years, books and series, made the biggest difference in the way you tell yours?
And, because process fascinates me, do you also outline or do you prefer finding the story in each moment as you go?
‘It takes a lot of practice to hone the craft of writing to the level where you might be able to make a living at it’ – Anthony Ryan
AR: I think the thing that made the biggest difference to the way I tell stories was, after many years of trying, getting to a point with my prose where it read like something that approached a publishable standard, for which I have Blood Song to thank. I pretty much learned to write in the six and a half years it took to write that book. I think certain people have an in-built facility for the written word but even then it takes a lot of practice to hone the craft of writing to the level where you might be able to make a living at it. Once I had the basics of the craft, I was able to tell the stories I wanted to tell. Once you’re in a position to write professionally, it’s really a matter of putting the time in. Books don’t write themselves so I’m a big believer in establishing a routine and sticking to it. Put simply, like any job, you have to show up for work.
I do outline but not to the same level as you – my outlines consist of a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of no more than a paragraph each. To be honest, I find outlining to be my least favourite part of the process. It seems to take longer than it actually does and always feels a bit tedious. However, I find it useful to firm up the overall plot and make sure I have an ending – my golden rule is never to start without an ending, even if I end up changing it later. Overall though, I regard the outline as a kind of insurance policy as I don’t actually refer to it much when writing the first draft and will invariably deviate from it in the course of writing.
Something I was curious about regarding The Rage of Dragons is the setting. It’s very clearly differentiated from the northern European cod-medieval world of many fantasy novels (mine included) and I was wondering where the inspiration came from. I do a fair amount of historical research for my books (history can’t be copyrighted so you’re free to steal at will) so wondered if there are any historical inspirations behind the story and setting?
EW: Thanks for the answers and I love your golden rule!
For Rage, I wanted to tell a story in a place that felt like home. I grew up in Zambia and the land in which Tau’s story takes place comes from my childhood memories of the first home I can remember. I did not try to make sense of those memories or recalibrate them with my adult’s mind. Instead, I wanted to show this world as it seemed to me as a child.
On the research front, I don’t do much upfront. I let the story go where it wants in the outline, refine that and then try not to make any big mistakes by researching the important particulars that come out of the story I’m going to tell.
Your question about historical inspirations is interesting because I do have one. My parents watched the 1980s Shaka Zulu miniseries and, though I’m pretty sure I was too young, I got to watch too. I can still recall specific shots from the show that have burned bright in my mind’s eye for decades. I’d never seen anything like it before (again, I shouldn’t have; I was very young), and I’ve rarely seen anything like it since. It had a profound effect on me and the VHS tapes for the miniseries are in my parents’ basement right now.
I’m going to assume, though please correct me if I’m wrong, that you write fantasy because it’s what you grew up reading. But is there any other genre you might want to write or think you will write? And it’s one thing to read fantasy but what, other than enjoying reading it, do you think has got you writing it?
‘I wanted to tell a story in a place that felt like home. I grew up in Zambia and the land in which Tau’s story takes place comes from my childhood memories of the first home I can remember’ – Evan Winter
AR: I well remember the Shak Zulu miniseries; not sure how well it would hold up these days though. That whole story is probably overdue receiving the HBO/Amazon Prime treatment. It would be interesting to know how much is legend and how much reality, for example, did Shaka really order one of his impis to charge off a cliff etc.?
I did grow up reading fantasy and didn’t really branch out much into other genres until my mid-teens. Since then, my fiction reading varies between fantasy, crime and sci-fi with occasional forays into horror. I’ve written a series of sci-fi noir stories called Slab City Blues (think Bladerunner meets Se7en in space) and would like to write more SF someday if time ever allows. I’ve also got a few ideas for crime novels, mostly with historical settings, which would require a lot of research before I’d be in a position to write them. Something I find both great and difficult about being a writer is that the idea factory in my brain never really stops. At any given time, there are at least ten books in my head waiting to be written. On one hand it’s great because I’ll never run out of things to write about; on the other it’s frustrating to know that some ideas will never be realised due to lack of time.
I think I’m mostly drawn to writing fantasy because of its infinite potential: you can literally (and literarily – if that’s a word) do anything in a fantasy novel. Politics, war, religion, love and everything else can be explored in a fantasy setting and, in contrast to historical novels, your plot doesn’t have to conform to established facts. I also enjoy the feeling of creation that comes from building a world that has never actually existed, although I borrow a lot from history to do it.
Speaking of fantasy, do you have any particular favourite books or authors? I was also wondering what are your favourite, or least favourite, tropes in fantasy?
EW: Yep! Like much of the 80s, Shaka Zulu might not hold up under 2019’s scrutiny. Even so, getting the chance to see a high-budget show where the protagonist looked like me and had agency as well as power was revelatory, and I can say that that story, even decades later, helped give me the courage to write Rage and its lead character as I did.
Also . . . I can’t believe I haven’t dipped into Slab City Blues. I mean, Bladerunner meets Se7en in space sounds awesome! And I find it interesting to learn that you’ve played in both the SF & F sandboxes since science fiction and fantasy are practically literary siblings. I imagine science fiction shares some of the key points you made about being able to explore almost any aspect of the human condition without the plot having to conform too tightly to established facts.
In fact, I think the reason I fell off the truck on the fantasy side is because, although science fiction allows its writers to create almost anything, it does seem to ask for a greater deal of conformity to established facts than fantasy does.
Still, in both we have the opportunity to build worlds almost from scratch and, though we most often create secondary worlds versus tertiary or something even further out, having the freedom to go as far as you want is nice. To me, that freedom means I get to find and fall in love with low magic, almost-Earth books like The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay and, in the same genre, find work like Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, where ash falls from the sky and people ingest metals to gain powers. Then, right next to those two books, I could pick up The Fifth Season and be transported to the strange and wonderful world N. K. Jemisin created for her Broken Earth trilogy. I’m awful at favourites, but I definitely enjoyed those three and think that all of them managed to avoid the most common fantasy tropes.
In an attempt to flip the topic of tropes on its head, what do you think is new or particularly interesting that’s happening in fantasy right now? As well, if you had to make a couple predictions (none of which we’ll hold you to), what would you expect from our genre at the end of the upcoming decade?
‘What I do see happening, which hopefully will continue, is an increasing diversity when it comes to the depiction of characters and culture’ – Anthony Ryan
AR: I really need to get around to reading some N. K. Jemisin soon. You’ll find as things progress that you have a permanently tall stack of books waiting to be read.
In all honesty, I think The Rage of Dragons was one of the most interesting and potentially transformative recent additions to fantasy, especially heroic fantasy. The works of Mark Lawrence and others introduced us to the bloody delights of grimdark and the arrival of flintlock fantasy in series like Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns brought something new to the genre – it doesn’t always have to be swords, as I tried to demonstrate in the Draconis Memoria books. It is, of course, next to impossible to predict the future.
Ten years ago, I assumed China Mieville’s Bas Lug books would spawn a host of imitators and perhaps create a subgenre of city-based secondary world fantasy, but that didn’t happen, probably because there’s only one China Mieville. There doesn’t seem to be any slackening in demand for secondary world, mediaevalesque fantasy (which is something I’ll continue to write because it’s a genre I love), which may be due to the popularity of the Game of Thrones series on TV, though it’s perhaps noteworthy that attempts to replicate that success with other adaptations haven’t really worked out, so far anyway. It’ll be interesting to see how the Witcher and Wheel of Time series work out.
If I had to make a prediction, I’d say that sooner or later something completely fresh and original will come along and either partially transform fantasy in general or at least create a new subgenre. That being said, I don’t think the established tropes are going away any time soon, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What I do see happening, which hopefully will continue, is an increasing diversity when it comes to the depiction of characters and culture – as it doesn’t always have to be swords, it doesn’t always have to be white straight guys either.
I note that we have a similar route-to-publication story in that we both self-published before being picked up by a major publisher. I’d be interested to know how you went about self-publishing The Rage of Dragons, especially as I suspect you made a better job of it than I did (I made a lot of mistakes when I self-pubbed Blood Song and will always be grateful to my readers’ forgiving nature). Also, do you see yourself self-publishing anything in future? The Slab City Blues stories were all self-pubbed and I still dabbled in the field with my Raven’s Shadow novellas.
EW: Thanks for indulging my prediction question. I love your answer and I’d like to see a lot of that come true! I also want to say thanks for your support and kind words about The Rage of Dragons. Blood Song was a major influence and one of the works I wanted Rage to feel like for readers.
I’m also glad you asked about self-publishing. I feel very fortunate to have started that way. Finishing the book and putting it out on my own taught me a lot and gave me a deep appreciation for the many jobs that go into bringing a book to market. Self-pubbing was fun, challenging, exhausting and unbelievably rewarding.
All of which means that I’d definitely self-publish again and, in my very non-data driven opinion, anyone considering writing should at least take a look at self-publishing to see if the process speaks to them. That said, here’s my hedge: Orbit has treated me wonderfully and, from acquisition to this moment, I feel as if they’ve gone above and beyond to do all they can to make the book a success.
In addition to that, it’s been a relief to relinquish many of the hats I had to wear as a self-publisher. Working with Orbit means I can focus on writing and little else. So, if I can continue to do that, I will.
Now, before I run out of time with you, I have to ask: your latest novel, The Wolf’s Call, drops on 23 July and continues the story of Vaelin Al Sorna. What was it like to come back to this world and these people? How easy (or hard) was it to hear Vaelin’s voice in your head again? Lastly, and without giving away all the goods because my copy is coming soon, can you tell me a little about the scene or moment in the book of which you are most proud?
AR: Self-publishing can definitely be rewarding but it’s certainly not an easy option and doesn’t guarantee success. My biggest mistakes were doing the cover myself and not paying for professional editing. Still, we live and learn and I agree that it’s a relief not to have to do everything yourself.
As to returning to Vaelin’s world in The Wolf’s Call, writing any book is never easy but I didn’t find it too difficult to step back into that setting. We get to see a lot more of the wider world in this book and the sequel so I had a fair amount of world-building to do, particularly in regards to the oft-referred to Far West. Writing Vaelin again was a bit like meeting up with an old friend who you’ve stayed in touch with but haven’t really talked to for a long time. Luckily, he had a lot to tell me. Without giving too much away, I’m most proud of depicting the reunion of two characters after a long separation in, I hope, a convincing way that echoes real life. The people you used to care for don’t always stay the same people, especially if you betrayed them years before.
I think we’re probably ready to wrap up so, for my final question, I’d like to know what’s next for you. I assume there will be a sequel to The Rage of Dragons but I wonder if you have any longer-term goals or other projects you’d like to pursue.
‘I love getting my hands ‘dirty’ in the fight scenes, but, in the end, it’s the characters, their lives, their needs and wants that keep me turning pages’ – Evan Winter
EW: The scene you described sounds incredible. I can’t get enough of complicated human connections and it’s something I’m working on including more in book two. Don’t get me wrong, I love getting my hands ‘dirty’ in the fight scenes, but, in the end, it’s the characters, their lives, their needs and wants that keep me turning pages. Basically, I can’t wait to read your scene!
For me, the next couple years will be filled with finishing up my quartet. I’ve heard it’s a good idea to know what you want to write next before the first series closes out. I only have vague ideas about that though. I can’t seem to think past Tau and the rest of his story at the moment. I do know I want to keep doing this. I love it and, odd as it may sound, it’s been a lifelong goal of mine to have work that I could see myself doing until the very end of my life. I think writing is that thing for me, and that makes me very happy.
Anthony, thank you very much for taking the time to have this talk. Your work inspires me and it’s rare to get the opportunity to connect with an inspiration.
AR: I’m really looking forward to Tau’s next adventure and all that follows. Thanks for doing this; it was a lot of fun.