Ryan Van Loan: 4 Things I Learned While Writing The Justice in Revenge (And One Lesson Relearned)

The island nation of Servenza is a land of flint and steel, sail and gearwork, of gods both Dead and sleeping. It is a society where the wealthy few rule the impoverished many.

Determined to change that, former street-rat Buc, along with Eld, the ex-soldier who has been her partner in crime-solving, have claimed seats on the board of the powerful Kanados Trading Company. Buc plans to destroy the nobility from within—which is much harder than she expected.

Stymied by boardroom politics and dodging mages at every turn, Buc and Eld find a potential patron in the Doga, ruler of Servenza. The deal: by the night of the Masquerade, unmask whoever has been attempting to assassinate the Doga, thereby earning her support in the halls of power. Blow the deadline and she’ll have them deported to opposite ends of the world.

Armed with Eld’s razor-sharp sword and Buc’s even sharper intellect, the dynamic duo hit the streets just as the shadow religious conflict between the Gods begins to break into open warfare. Those closest to Buc and Eld begin turning up with their throats slit amid rumors that a hidden mastermind is behind everything that’s going wrong in Servenza.

Facing wrathful gods, hostile nobles, and a secret enemy bent on revenge, Buc and Eld will need every trick in their arsenal to survive. Luckily, extra blades aren’t the only things Buc has hidden up her sleeves.

Sequels are the easiest books to write.

I was completely unprepared for how much FUN it was going to be returning to the world of Sambuciña ‘Buc’ Alhurra and her partner-in-crime-solving and master swordsman, Eld. I’ve written a fair number of novels (12), but aside from this one and the concluding novel to The Fall of the Gods series, those were all first novels. As a lifelong reader I should have been prepared, right? One of the best things about a favorite series is watching the characters and the world grow before our eyes. There’s a reason why Frodo and Samwise linger with us longer than Bilbo does. And there’s a reason why I really enjoyed writing this novel. If you’re not familiar with Buc, she’s an autodidact streetrat who isn’t afraid to use a blade when others’ brains prove too slow to follow her own. Eld is there for when her mind and tongue get her into situations where one blade won’t be enough. The pair are a loaded blunderbuss and I’m the one who gets to pull the trigger. It was a literal blast. Beyond that, I got to dig into worldbuilding and magic more this time around (it is a fantasy novel after all) and watching Servenza, this island gear-wrought city-state rise from the blank page like Atlantis returned was really cool. Cooler still was showing us magic through the warring rival mages’ eyes (and talons and fangs), whether it was Sin Eaters with their mind magic allowing them to communicate with their Goddess directly or the Dead Gods using blood magic to transform into were-creatures or better yet, Buc and Eld caught in between both sides. And the foreshadowing, ye Gods, the foreshadowing. It was almost too much fun.

Sequels are the hardest books to write.

Say what? I know, I know I just said how much fun I had writing this one and I absolutely did, but if a book was going to ruin my confidence in my ability as a writer it was this one. Why? Well, last time Chuck had me on, I talked about discovering I had a brand: that there are specific aspects of storytelling I tend to really lean into (fast pacing, tight transitions, fireworks, all tied together by emotional character arcs). In writing The Justice in Revenge I discovered I had an audience. I didn’t know who they were just yet, they were faceless ephemeral, but they were waiting: someone (hopefully a lot of someones) was going to read this book and this was the first time I’d ever known that for a fact. When you’re in the query trenches as a young writer, past the first book or three, you start to forget that the goal is for a lot of people to read your book because it just doesn’t seem likely to happen. The odds are astronomical and in their enormity, there’s some freedom. I didn’t realize how much freedom until I sat down to write the opening chapter and realized, holy shit, YOU are going to read this. Or your sister might. Or her friend. Or their friend’s Mom (sorry for the swears, Mom). That kind of pressure puts a lot of weight on the mental cogs turning in my mind that eventually translates to my fingers moving across a keyboard and, through the magic of the written language, creating a story. A novel. I usually write a pretty solid first draft. I may add some scenes, tweak a few moments, and play with the linework, but it’s rare I have to make major changes. This one required a significant rewrite. One sans nerves. I really love how it all came out, but boy howdy, was I unprepared for the journey it would take me on.

I can juggle better than I knew I could.

I’ve never been much of a juggler…I can just manage three balls for a few tosses without dropping them, but that’s about the extent of it. In my daily life, I do juggle a day job and writing and having an actual (sort of) life. I’ve been doing that for years now and I’ve got that down pat, but when it comes to the business of writing, I’ve alway been very methodical: do one thing at a time, then move on. I was never one who could query while drafting a new novel for example. I could brainstorm, outline, but I couldn’t do prose until I was ready to start the next novel. Well, turns out being a published author changes things. I no longer have the luxury of doing one thing at a time…a lesson I learned on the fly while finishing final edits with The Justice in Revenge. Basically, in the spring/summer of 2020 (recall that summer? Of the pandemic and reckoning with systemic racism and the decade that was 2020) I was editing Book Two, promoting Book One for my debut release, writing the conclusion with Book Three, and my dayjob was in healthcare…it was A LOT. I survived it, though, and I learned that I can do multiple things in multiple areas at once. It’s not always fun, but it’s called being a professional and I realized if I want to make my dreams a reality, I need to level up. I’ll say this though, I never knew how full my brain could feel until I had 4 versions of Book One, 2 versions of Book Two, and a coalescing version of Book Three in my head. This is why authors talk to themselves, folks. Well…one reason anyway.

I have (almost) no control over the success of my career.

“The rocket’s already been launched, so there’s not much more we can do but watch.” I think my agent, DongWon Song, meant those words to be comforting to me when I asked them two weeks before The Sin in the Steel hit shelves, what more I should be doing to ensure the book that had won me an agent and a 3-book deal with Tor Books would find readers. What I really was asking was, “How do I ensure this book is a financial success? That the book, and ergo me, are not failures? Flops?” The answer, I learned, over the course of the past year, is that you don’t.

You can’t.

I’ve never been a fan of can’t. You can’t write a novel, only special people do that. You can’t write another novel, the first was a fluke. You can’t write something good enough to land an agent. You can’t get a book deal. You can’t have a career as a writer. A lot of can’ts I’ve heard or told myself in the lonely, midnight hour of the blank page and I’ve overcome all of them. Save that last. So I did what I’ve always done when faced with can’t. I threw everything I had at it…and here is where reality asserts itself, friends. Turns out, one person can’t actually do a whole lot themselves. That’s why publishing exists (duh, Ryan). The problem with that, is, publishing is a numbers game. No one knows what will stick, so they chuck a bit of everything at the wall and wait and see. I’ve no complaints with the toss Tor gave The Sin in the Steel, far from it, but once the book hit shelves they were onto the next book and I was still there, screaming out into the void that you all should read my little adventure fantasy with heart. There were pirate queens for Dog’s sake! It’s a lonely time when you realize that whereas a publisher can make waves, you can barely stir ripples. It’s not that those ripple don’t matter, every one that finds a reader absolutely matters, but ripples don’t make one a bestseller overnight. It was something I should have remembered, because writing is like that every step of the way. A sentence doesn’t make a paragraph and a paragraph doesn’t make a chapter and a chapter doesn’t make a book. There’s a lot of rowing to be done before that bathtub crosses the Atlantic (to repeat one of my favorite Stephen King quotes on writing) and you get to type ‘The End’. I’m not sure if I’ll ever fully make my peace with the fact that I’ve set my sights on a career that is so externally subjective, but I do know that I can keep writing and that brings me to the lesson I relearned this past year.

I have all the control in the world: butt in chair; hands on keyboard

Hamilton, the musical has a wonderful line in the number Hurricane: “I’ll write my way out.” In the musical, Hamilton, full of ego, thinks to write his way out of being caught paying off the man whose wife he was sleeping with, and instead ruins his marriage and political aspirations. There’s many lessons to learn there, but to be fair to Hamilton, he had written himself out of poverty, into college, into the right hand of Washington, into his future, socially superior wife’s heart, and into the Constitution and that’s the lesson I relearned this past year. I don’t have control over something so nebulous as a career, but I do have control of what I do in those fleeting moments between book releases. Butt in chair; hands on keyboard, is oft repeated advice to new writers–that the only way to complete a book is to show up and put in the work. I’ve a sneaking suspicion that the only way to keep having books land on library shelves and in bookstores is along the same lines.

I said a moment ago that I probably wouldn’t ever make peace about my lack of control, but when I’m writing, I am at peace. It doesn’t mean writing comes easily, the story flowing effortlessly from the keys to the screen, but I am happy and full of purpose and hopefully those feelings, however fleeting, however ephemeral, do shine through on the page. We can’t all be Alexander Hamilton (and I’m not sure we should try, the dude did a lot but had some pretty serious flaws as well), but we can try to write our way out. That’s what I’ve been doing while writing Justice and the conclusion to the trilogy, The Memory in the Blood. Writing my way out…I hope you’ll come and join me.

***

Ryan Van Loan is a Fantasy author who served six years as a Sergeant in the United States Army Infantry (PA National Guard) where he served on the front lines of Afghanistan. His work has appeared in numerous places including Tor.com and Fireside Magazine. His debut novel, The Sin in the Steel (Tor Books), Book One in the Fall of the Gods series came out in Summer 2020, the sequel, The Justice in Revenge follows on July 13, 2021, and the conclusion to the series, The Memory in the Blood drops Summer 2022.

Ryan Van Loan: Website

The Justice in Revenge: Amazon | Barnes & NobleIndieBound | Powell’s | Bookshop