Ryan Van Loan: Five Things I Learned Writing The Sin in the Steel
Buc and Eld are the first private detectives in a world where pirates roam the seas, mages speak to each other across oceans, mechanical devices change the tide of battle, and earthly wealth is concentrated in the hands of a powerful few.
It’s been weeks since ships last returned to the magnificent city of Servenza with bounty from the Shattered Coast. Disaster threatens not just the city’s trading companies but the empire itself. When Buc and Eld are hired to investigate, Buc swiftly discovers that the trade routes have become the domain of a sharp-eyed pirate queen who sinks all who defy her.
Now all Buc and Eld have to do is sink the Widowmaker’s ship….
Unfortunately for Buc, the gods have other plans.
Unfortunately for the gods, so does Buc.
Writing a protagonist who is smarter than you isn’t easy (duh)
Sambuciña or ‘Buc’ is the main character of The Sin in the Steel. She’s a Sherlockian teenager raised on the streets who is an autodidact that took to books like a duck to water. She is also well above genius levels and while I’m no slouch, Einstein I am not. Streetwise and booksmart Buc sees every possible angle and because we see the world through her eyes it meant that I NEEDED to see every possible angle too. That proved harder than I anticipated, especially when she’s thinking through the potential ways to resolve a situation and then we see her execute her thoughts (in both brainy and stabby ways). What was fun about having such a brilliant protag though, was figuring out ways she would fail. Buc’s tongue is often as sharp as the half dozen blades she’s got hidden on her person and one thing that became clear is there is a difference between intelligence and wisdom. A reviewer compared her to Alexander Hamilton and in many ways, that’s an apt comparison. Hamilton never knew when to stop in debates and duels, ultimately to his (final) detriment. Even if it was hard, it was always a lot of fun to see her both get herself out of impossible situations and land in something even worse. Hopefully you’ll think so too!
I have a brand
Before you land an agent or get a book deal, you’re primarily writing for yourself. Singular. An audience of one. Even after you get an agent or a book deal, you’ll still be writing for yourself, but what changes is that you will begin to receive input and feedback that informs how you think about who else might be reading your book(s). I’d been writing for six or seven years when I signed with DongWon Song (who was an impressive editor at Orbit before he became an agent) and if you ever get the chance to hear him talk I can almost guarantee he’ll talk about author brand at some point. A brand is something that should develop naturally, but then once you realize what it is, you can really lean into it. It’s how you know you’re reading a Stephen King or Victoria Schwab book after the first few pages. I wrote a million words before DongWon helped me recognize what my brand was: adventure fantasy with heart. Looking back on the trunk novels (7) I’d written before The Sin in the Steel I realized they had some common elements. Namely fast pacing, tight transitions, and loads of fireworks…but despite all those plot-heavy elements I just mentioned, they were driven by the characters. All of my book ideas have come from a character appearing in my mind…often with a word or a sentence or an emotion appearing with them. Realizing that really helped me focus scenes, character arcs, all of it. It’s kind of like wandering the wilderness, lost, and then discovering you had a compass in your pocket the entire time. Brands…who knew?
I am an underwriter
Kill your darlings. It’s one of the first pieces of advice given to new writers. Right after write what you know. Both are great, but both are, to one degree or another, bullshit. The idea behind kill your darlings is that as a writer you put too much fluff in and by making the prose, the plot, and the scenes tighter you’ll polish that diamond in the rough into a display item. It’s great in theory, but like all things writing, it’s something that may or may not work for you and if it doesn’t work, toss it.
I’d listened to a bunch of authors rhapsodize about the need to cut ten percent–or more!–of your novel and so novel after novel, I tried to do just that. And I hated it. Friends, I hated it so badly because it never felt like I was making anything better, instead it felt like I was just ruining the book.
Turns out, it’s because I kinda was? I only realized after Melissa Singer, my Tor Editor kept asking for more in edits. Being an underwriter means I sometimes end up leaving some knowledge or beats or character growth in my head instead of pushing it out through my fingers that are dancing across the keys. That translates into the reader having questions about how or why certain things happened or leaving some threads of gold in the scene so it reads like a seven or eight out of ten instead of an eleven. For example, the draft that got me my agent? That was 99,000 words. The draft we submitted to editors was around 112,000 and the draft you’re reading clocks in at 123,000. Instead of cutting ten percent I ended up adding nearly twenty five percent to the final version! That doesn’t mean I don’t cut lines or scenes, but it does mean for every scene I cut, I need to add more. I just finished the final edits on book two and it was a similar story.
I have to say, this was probably the best thing I learned while writing The Sin in the Steel. Why? Because I love writing and I do it pretty quickly too. I can crank out 10-15,000 words a week and if that’s what killing your darlings means, hand me the axe.
Writing is solitary, but publishing really is a collaboration
I talked a bit before about how lonely writing is. It’s just you and the blank page (often with a maddening cursor blinking at you, questioning why you aren’t making it go away with words). Stephen King famously said writing a novel is like crossing the Atlantic in a bathtub solo. Writing is all of that, but publishing is something else entirely. I thought I’d done my research before I signed with an agent and we got a 3-book deal with Tor but I was mistaken. Sorely so.
Working with an agent and an editor opened up so many new ideas for me, helped me hone my craft, and really polish my work. But that’s still about the writing. What I wasn’t prepared for was discovering the entire iceberg of folks working below the water that make books possible. There were cover designers and artists looking to not only bring the book to life on the dust jacket, but also to make sure the thousand words the picture told would grab would-be readers and make them pick it up off the shelf and crack open that first page. Marketing folks who reached out to bloggers and bookstagrammers and made sure advanced copies found their way to readers who would become champions and build buzz. They crafted campaigns and worked with managers of bookstores, ensuring the sellers would be fired up to recommend the book to their customers. Social Media gurus who get the word out through Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Twitter and more. Publicists who have to deal with nervous first time authors asking a million questions and wanting to do a million things (while having no real idea what exactly is effective). On the practical level there’s folks focused on page lay out and proofs and the physical act of printing the book. Audio teams finding narrators and laying down recordings and giving audible voice to your world.
The list goes on and on, but the best part? Discovering this new found family of book lovers. Look, no one goes into publishing to get rich. If you’re reading this, you’re one of the tribe, but you know how few we are. How many of your co-workers, friends, or family read more than 5 books a year? The margins are thin, my friends. People get into publishing because they are passionate about books. Books entertain, they inform, they can literally save lives. They allow the voices of those dead centuries, millennia even, to speak to us. Books are magic and so are the folks across publishing working to produce them.
It’s the little things
I thought that walking into a bookstore and seeing my book on the shelf would be the moment that would bring me to my knees, but I don’t believe that anymore (Thank God, right? Because I don’t think I’ll be going into a bookstore until 2022 at this rate). Why? Well as trite as it sounds, it turns out…this debut book was really about the journey.
I wrote the first version of what would become The Sin in the Steel in July 2015. In July 2016 my wife and I came home from a night out at the theatre and a drink at a local bar after. I remember it so vividly because it’d been a great night and a stranger at the bar had asked me about the inkwell and quill and quote tattoo I had on my arm. I told them I’d gotten it because I was a writer and while I’d initially intended to wait until I had a deal, I had realized I wasn’t going to stop writing so I went ahead and got it anyway. That was still on my mind when I came home and saw an email from the person who would eventually become my agent asking if I had time to talk on the phone. Dear Reader, I sank to the floor and my wife thought I was having a heart attack. After eight books, I’d begun to lose the faith.
The day my future editor called me is another landmark moment that I’ll never forget. At the start of the conversation I was very much aware that I was trying to sell her on me and the book and somewhere around the middle I realized it had shifted and she was trying to sell herself and Tor Books to me. It wasn’t a tough sell. I remember hanging up and calling DongWon and saying, “I think they’re going to make an offer.” They did. It was July 2018.
Fast forward to July 2020 and incredibly, surprisingly, finally, The Sin in the Steel is out in the wild. I remember seeing the copy edits in the font that would go into the book. The first Advanced Reader Copies. The first blurb, first review. First time I got a payment for meeting a milestone. All of those were powerful moments. I’ve spent years with Buc and Eld and their story and as I’m writing their concluding adventure now, I realize I’ve had my time with them.
So yes, I’m super excited the book is going to hit shelves, but that moment when you walk into a bookstore and a book catches your eye, so you open it up and see, “Before I learned how to read, I thought knowledge was finite, dead and decaying inside old men’s skulls”, that moment, Dear Reader, is for all of you.
RYAN VAN LOAN served six years in the US Army Infantry, on the front lines of Afghanistan. He now works in healthcare innovation. The Sin in the Steel is his debut novel. Van Loan and his wife live in Pennsylvania.