Further thoughts on the narrative structure of Mr. Ruin.

MJG Editing, The Ruin War, Writing Leave a Comment

As I wrote yesterday, I got feedback from my beta-read/developmental edit that the new version of Mr. Ruin got dull in the back half. I’ve been thinking about this since then, and this is where I’m at.

I’ve got two threads, call them A and B. A is the ‘real world’, set approx 2364, and it follows Ritry Goligh and his battles with Mr. Ruin, leading to a climactic battle. Thread B follows the chord as they jack deep into a mind, seeking some unknown target at the center.

I wrote the book entirely as an A B A B A B pattern. It threw people off because it was complex. Each thread was hard enough to follow on its own – with concepts and vocabulary and characters – so interweaving constantly left people very confused about who or what any of these people were, what they wanted and why. It didn’t help that both threads are told in present first-person tense.

So I switched it a little, opting for AAA BBB AAA BBB structure. This gave the reader more time to identify the individual threads and figure out what each one was about, before the flip came to the other thread.

In my recent edits, the plan was to go completely AAAAAAAA BBBBBBBBB A end. You see here that the B-thread happens right at the climax moment of the A thread. This chronology is unchangeable. I figured that it could work, gambling people would transfer their sense of narrative urgency from the A-thread to the B-thread smoothly, heightening everything.

Well, I’ve had my editor say otherwise, and that makes sense. At the climax of the A-thread, readers want the climax of that story. They are definitely not in the mode for another 40,000 words of build up to the joint climax.

This makes perfect sense. Even if readers continue reading at that stage, it’ll be with one eye on the A-thread climax, just waiting impatiently for that to come. In all my editing over these months, bringing out the narrative urgency of each individual thread, I didn’t think too much about how this cross-over would work practically.

In most narratives there is one thing providing the urgency. Other goals and threats may dance around it, but ‘story’ itself is one major threat or change. In A-thread it’s Mr. Ruin and the survival of Ritry. In B-thread it’s the general survival of the chord against a range of environmental enemies. Even though they’re connected, they’re different things. you can’t just transfer a feeling of narrative urgency.

A great parrallel is the movie Inception. The first half of the movie is largely told in the real world, with dives into the mind. The second half is one long and deep dive, much like my current strcuture. The difference is – in Inception the characters are all the same characters, pursuing the exact same stakes, fighting fresh enemies but really they’re the same enemies as all along.

In my book the B-thread characters are all versions of my A-thread lead character, but it doesn’t feel that way. The enemy is quite different, ie – it is not directly Mr. Ruin.

OK. So all that leaves is to go back to intertwining threads. AAAA BBBB AAA BBB.

I’m glad to see this. It’s frustrating but I think it’s real, so this is what I’ll return to, and call it done!  

Reeling from the editor’s comment on Mr. Ruin…

MJG The Ruin War, Writing Leave a Comment

It’s late, but this is a tough one and I want to get my thoughts down now before I go to bed.

So, I got the beta-reader/manuscript assessment editor’s feedback on the reworked version of Mr. Ruin. Broadly, he loved it. Great sci-fi. Well-written. Hardly needs any work at all, except…

It’s a big except. Much of the second half of the book was dull.

This a huge blow. Of course it’s just one person’s view. It doesn’t mean they’re right. But – this is what I was always worried about with this story – that straightening it out would leave some parts hanging in the wind.

To briefly explain, I originally wrote Mr. Ruin as two intertwining narratives that didn’t really intertwine until the very end – at which all (maybe) became clear. Readers had to swallow a fair bit of confusion to get that far.

So, really the big idea of the editing I’ve been doing for the past many months was to try and straighten the narrrative out into chronological order. I’ve just got all 3 books straightened, and now my editor says it doesn’t work. By the time the second plot started at the midpoint, all he cared about was the first plot. It makes sense. Straigthened out, you can see how the two plots connect easily, but not a lot of the narrative urgency of plot 1 carries directly into plot 2.

They each have their own urgency. When interweaving, the challenge for a reader was to absorb these two threads of urgency and invest in them both. Now the challenge is for a reader to even care about the second thread, which is hard because in this latest version it comes so late, essentially at the climax moment of thread 1.

People won’t want to delay that climax for too long. They’ll get impatient for the end.

I asked the editor what he thought about re-interweaving. He seemed pretty jazzed about it. Sigh. It does make me feel like I’ve basically accomplished nothing in all this time of editing…

BUT, I also know that that is not true. The de-interweaving really didn’t take that long. Minutes of copy-pasting, really. Most of what I’ve been doing should benefit the twin threads no matter how they’re structured – speeding things up, cutting redundancy, foregrounding narrative urgency – the usual.

SO, it should be better, still. I could argue that straightening it out really helped me see the hooks and kickers that develop through the chapters and serve to bring urgency. They’re accentuated now. It should help.

I guess I’ll re-interweave, then send him book 2 already interwoven, and see if he thinks it’s better that way.

Writing Update 2019 week 6

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

So much happened this past week! I doubled-down on FB ads, finished first-draft editing the Ruin War series, reworked the book 1 blurb with lots of peer input, calculated readthrough for the Last Mayor series and polled my fans with 120 detailed responses now and counting.

All that plus I networked twice – at First Monday Crime and my Indie Marketing group. Phew! Here are links to the key developments:

It’s been a fascinating week for me – so much useful feedback coming in. In summary – the lessons I got from both the Last Mayor survey and the blurb rework largely confirmed my findings in my post – Why I’m not yet a millionaire author. Repetition, slow pace, jargon, too much focus on world-building over narrative urgency. Really useful to keep on learning this.

In coming posts I’ll soon debut the new Mr. Ruin blurb soon, after getting feedback from the Indie group and further suggestions via email later on. I’ll also share my better-performing Facebook ads with some analysis.

Right now I should talk about all the networking I did:

Networking

At First Monday Crime the 4-member panel were really interesting – with most attention seemingly focused on Will Dean, breakout star writer of a Scandi-noir detective series beginning with Dead Snow. He spoke extremely well, was amusing, and was generally a great panel guest.

At the end of the panel I asked the question on my mind – How important to you is Primary Research? If you’ve been following my networking adventures, you’ll know this issue got me down at the end of last year, after a previous First Monday panel waxed lyrical about all the many ways they’d committed to experiencing the travails of their heroes.

Will Dean straight up said – I’m an imagination guy. I love that. Yes, check your details, and for sure – he lives in Sweden in a forest much like the setting of his books, so his whole life is a kind of primary research, but still. Yes. This. Others on the panel I think broadly agreed.

After the panel I went and bought Will’s book and asked him to sign it. We chatted a little on the research topic – he said he was concerned his answer wouldn’t satisfy. Maybe we are all a bit worried about this topic? Well, let’s cut that out. I, at least, am a storyteller first, then a marketer, then lots of other things, and a journalist last.

After that, we went to the pub. I understand a little better now why it was hard to get into chats with the more successful authors present last time – in the audience (and presumably in the pub) it is a target-rich atmosphere for them too, marketing-wise. There are publishers and agents and editors present, apparently.

It makes sense the authors would want to hobnob with these people – kind of gravitating upward. I’m the same way – keen for interesting discussions with interesting people. I get that I am low on the totem pole for this – I don’t even have a thriller published yet! It’s kind of refreshing to see we’re all trying to climb. When I got stuck in a conversation with a reader (obviously not one of my readers), it was time to bail!

We did manage to snag Will briefly – Simon had done his research and read Will’s blog, so was able to grab him on a bit of his life. Pre-research on the panel authors is clearly a must. I’d been reading Will’s book, but I suppose the blogs and social media are more arresting.

Indie Marketing group

This was a great session for me – getting really useful feedback on the Mr. Ruin blurb. We did a quickfire question round at the end, which was new too, but went well – we covered lots of areas like networking, a quick oral critique of Beatrice’s blurb (which she was not interested in any advice on! 😉 ), an issue with Jon-Jon’s Victorian cover showing a modern gun magazine rather than a revolver, and various other things. Good to do these mini checks that wouldn’t occupy a full half-hour.

Looking forward to the next one! I also got some nice comments afterward for running the group well (and on time, I think – I’m strict with the timer). Someone even said I made people ‘feel safe’, which was somehow lovely, though I’m not entirely sure what it means.

Pub was good after, catch up with folks and chat a little to the first other sf-writer I think we’ve had at the group ever!

The answers! Why people don’t read through The Last Mayor series.

MJG Last Mayor, Writing 2 Comments

Yesterday I wrote a post about calculating my readthrough on the Last Mayor series – ie. how many people who start book 1 then read all the way through to book 9.

By a conservative estimate, I came up with 3%, which seems extremely low. There’s got to be a problem there.

I thought about how to figure the reason out. There’s a big drop off in sales from book 1 to 2, but maybe this is because book 1 is often 99-cents, and 99-cent readers are less likely to finish a book, and more likely to pick up a book in the first place that may not really appeal to them.

Reviews are all solid, except for book 3 which is a little lower, but still 4.2. I thought about hiring an editor, but to get them to read all 9 books and calculate the drop-off point would take ages and be prohibitively expensive.

So I had another idea – ask my fans. I put together a newsletter – I owed one anyway – that linked to a simple google form questionnaire with 3 questions.

  • Which book did you drop off on?
  • Why?
  • How would you fix it so you didn’t drop off?

I didn’t expect much. A handful of replies, maybe? I decided to incentivise response with two $25 amazon tokens offered in a raffle draw. Why not? This is extremely valuable information to me – easily worth far more than that. If I hired an editor for this it would be thousands.

Well. Responses started pouring in immediately. I could hardly turn away each time before another response popped through – many of them with long, thought-out comments as to why they dropped off the series. I was amazed. As of this morning there are 78 responses.

I had no idea I would get that – or that so many would be so happy to offer their thoughts and expertise. Now I have a surplus of suggestions, and what do they say? Let’s take a look.

Which book did you drop off on?

All right, this is some real data. It looks like Book 1, 3, 4 and 5 are the culprits. I’m surprised Book 2 The Lost, about Anna, wasn’t blamed more often. All the tiny slivers in the top right are people who gave an ‘other’ response – usually to say they read it all or they haven’t started yet.

So what is it about those books?

Why did you drop off?

Lots of answers here. I’ll categorize them as best I can, then follow up with solutions after:

  1. Cost – Quite a lot of people talked about the price (and number) of books. 9 books is a lot. Each book has been priced at $4.99 for the last year or so, except for book 1 which was 99c. Actually, this is a lot of money to fork over. Almost $40 to get them all! Many people can’t and don’t want to spend that much on just one series – especially with so many lower-priced books everywhere. Added to which, my boxset bundles are also expensive ($9.99) and I haven’t released the boxset for books 7-9 yet.
  2. Not enough Amo – Many people talked about how they wanted more of Amo. This is good, in a way – it’s why they went on to books 2 and 3. The bad point is I didn’t give them much. Book 2 is all about Anna, with a little Amo at the mid-point. Book 3 did the same but for Cerulean, with a little Amo at the mid-point. We can see Book 3 is the biggest drop-off after book 1 – so this clearly plays a big role. I wanted to widen the world with 2 different perspectives on the early days of the apocalypse, but readers want to move forward and see what happens next.
  3. Repetition – If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know this is one of my major issues. Thanks to movies like Groundhog Day and certain episodes of LOST, I’ve come to think of seeing the same events from a different perspective as a really gripping, interesting narrative device. But my readers think I do it too much – and I think they’re right. Books 2 and 3 really do repeat quite a lot of the same ground from book 1 – as seen by first Anna, then Cerulean. I thought it’d be cool to have 3 entry point books, any of which could be the book you start on, but of course it doesn’t work that way. People start with book 1 – so a lot of books 2 and 3 is just repetitive.
  4. Time-hopping – Connected to the above 2 points. Originally – meaning the version most of these readers read, book 1 opened with some serious backstory and exposition, perhaps 3 out of 4 chapters was narrative summary of past events. That so many of them dug through all that is impressive. Then Anna’s book picks up back at the start of the apocalypse, and we have to read half the book to get up to date, then it’s a 10 year jump forward! Then book 3 for Cerulean, we open even earlier than the apocalypse, jump forward, jump back, swap to other perspectives, and…. Exhausting, I suppose, and lacking in narrative urgency across the series.
  5. Complexity – This is more of a latter book thing, going from 5 onwards. The above are mostly early book issues. Complexity picks up with Anna’s quest to take out the bunkers, and more backstory starts rearing its head. People say they didn’t know what was going on. Book 6 is OK, but then 7, 8 and 9 are humdingers. I totally accept this. Book 8 is crammed with ‘theory’ and probably needs a massive thinning out and simplifying. I’m sure they all do. Few people really understand what ‘the line’ is – there were requests for a glossary to explain it.
  6. Brutality – Somebody expressed the charm of book 1 by saying it was ‘an unexpected hero in the apocalypse’. This charm however faded as the books move forward. Book 6 stood out as being about a brutal serial rapist. Book 7 is the big one, wherein Amo becomes needlessly cruel. For some this is a shark-jumping moment. I get it.
  7. Magicky – As ‘the line’ develops in later books, Amo, Anna, Lara and others start to get magic-like powers. This is true. It was kind of baked in to the concept after book 1, though I never saw it going as far as it ultimately did.
  8. Off-genre – Similar to the above point is the fact that these books quickly stop being about zombies. Maybe only book 1 is truly concerned with them, and for only half of the book. After that they become a post-apocalyptic hodge-podge – some cults, some bunker-fights, some The Stand, a magicky war. I get this – zombie readers want zombies, not necessarily what I offer.

Phew. That’s a lot. It’s fascinating, and confirms so much of what I’ve been learning about the flaws in my storytelling, as explained in this earlier post. The answers to resolve these problems will probably also be similar to solutions I took with the Mr. Ruin books – just bigger, and more involved, because there are 9 books! And those solutions are:

How to fix it

  1. Cost – Lower prices across the board. There really is no reason not to do this. The books weren’t selling at higher price points. I’ve got people telling me they want them cheaper – so I make them cheaper. A slice of a smaller pie is better than no slice of a bigger pie. All books are now $2.99, and book 1 is 99c again. Boxset 1-3 is $4.99 and 4-6 is $5.99. I’m getting a 3D cover for books 7-9 made right now, and will release that boxset soon also at $5.99. I think these are fair. You’ll soon be able to get all the books in 3 boxset gulps for only $17 – half the price of before.
  2. Not enough Amo – This is a tough one. I’m not going to completely rewrite books 2 and 3 to fix this, but what I can do is what I already did with book 3. In edits a year or so back I opened it with Amo and Cerulean talking, after the events of book 2. So – up to date. From there, I set a threat, then dive back into backstory that builds on that threat. It then works back up to the modern day and goes forward. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good. I can do the same for book 2 – so open right after the end of book 1 (instead of beginning in anna’s backstory), set a threat, the dive back to explain, work up to modern day and go forward. It’ll be better, and link the books in a straighter narrative.
  3. Repetition – As I do the above and straighten things out, I think there’ll be less need for the repetition. I’ve found this in editing the Ruin War – I could cut large chunks that previously served as mini-catchups on where things were up to, because we’re proceeding full flow and a catchup is not necessary. Trim and cut to the bone. I expect books 2 and 3 will be substantially reduced in length – as I’ll also trim areas that are thematically repetitious – like the first time Cerulean kills a zombie or such. We know from book 1 that it’s easy to do, and there is little threat. So get on.
  4. Time-hopping – This will still happen, perhaps even more so as per the plan above. But – it’ll be less jarring. As each book picks up with Amo front and center, continuing from the previous book, with a clear present-day threat outlined before we hop back, it should make more sense how things connect. Backstory stuff will be briefer. The focus will remain on the current thread of threat. I expect these 80k books (2 and 3) could drop to 50k each.
  5. Complexity – This just requires me to bull through and simplify, mostly in the latter books. Explain the line clearly, and reduce the level of detail on everything else. It’ll mean word cuts too – but I welcome this. I’m through with wanting people to read pages of dense conceptual technobabble. Just get to the point and get on.
  6. Brutality – I want to fix this. Having Amo be needlessly cruel is – if not entirely out of character for him at this stage of his life – a massive reader no-no. He’s been a good guy until now. People just instantly switch off when he becomes a bastard. There are ways around this – like Amo can think he did brutal things, and punish himself accordingly, only to find out later that he didn’t actually do them. The effect will be the same. Also, I can trim references to what Drake is doing as a serial rapist. It can happen, but we don’t need it shoved in our faces as much.
  7. Magicky – Another tough one. It’s mostly book 9 where it goes wild. I can try to tamp this down somewhat. Simplifying things, and clarifying the line, will probaby help. Ultimately, it’s the story, so I have to be willing to take some hits on this.
  8. Off-genre – As above, very little I can do here. I rebranded the series years ago as Last Mayor from the original Zombie Ocean, to take things away from pure zompocalypse in branding. It quickly becomes broader post-apocalypse fare, with bunkers and sci-fi touches and such. I still market it very much as a zombie book, because that’s the hook of book 1. I also market to post-apocalyptic people.

So – that is a great deal of work! When will I do all this work? I don’t know. I need to get on and write a few more in my new thriller series – and if that goes as well as I hope, I’ll probably be writing thrillers non-stop for a while.

I want to do all these changes, that’s the main thing. Maybe they’re the kind of bits I can do between writing new books. Fix a book at a time and upload to Amazon. I can judge then if it’s making a difference, and readthrough climbs. I’d start with book 1 and move through.

It’s pretty exciting, to think I could breathe fresh vigor into these old books. As ever, I’m sure in the editing process I will learn a lot. Thank you again to all my readers who shared their thoughts and expertise!

Calculating readthrough on the Last Mayor series

MJG Marketing, Writing Leave a Comment

Readthrough is a fascinating concept that may seem a little complex and alien at first, but is actually super obvious and essential to know when selling books in a series. You’ve probably heard Mark Dawson banging on about it. Maybe you’ve had a crack at calculating it.

It basically means – what percentage of people who read your first book in series go on to read the later books? I’ve had a go at this before, and came up with something like a 50% readthrough for my whole Last Mayor 9-book series. It’s important because it helps you determine the Cost of Sales you can bear when advertising book 1 in the series.

You calculate it by looking at sales from a given period. 10 copies of book 1 and 5 copies of book 2? That’s a 50% readthrough. 3 copies of book 9? That’s 30%. Factor in KU page reads, and you get a complete idea of how much money you can expect a single copy of book 1 to ultimately earn.

Yesterday I read Michael Cooper’s book My Facebook Ads Suck, and he went through this, and provided a handy Google Sheet that calculates Readthrough and total sales value. I did it a few different ways. All 2018. Jan 2019. The last 6 months. It was hard to get a clear idea, because I’ve variously done mass free giveaways, plus I have the boxset books 1-3 and 4-6, throwing things off.

I just ran a master calculation – not useful for getting the ultimate sales value of book 1, but more to know what my read through is. I add sales and reads for book 1 and books 1-3 boxset together – that’s step 1. Then I add book 4 and books 4-6 boxset together for step 2. Then books 7, 8, 9.

The readthrough number is disappointing. From step 1 to 2 it is 35%. Ouch. Michael Cooper says 50-60% is a good average readthrough. I’m well below. But OK, he makes compensation for 99-cent opening books – and these books were both very often at 99c. 99c readers are less likely to read the books they buy, and they pick up books less likely to really appeal to them in general. So maybe 35% is not so bad.

Then let’s take step 2 to step 3, into book 7. We’re down to 10% from step one. Again, not necessarily so bad given the 99-cent thing. But from books 4 and 4-6 to book 7, the book-over-book readthrough is 30%.

Crap. Two thirds of my readers who’ve already bought in to the series twice (ie – made purchases twice) don’t want to take it on to book 7! From there readthrough is 66% to book 8, then 55% to book 9, which is better, but yes – we’re down to much diminished numbers already.

So what’s going on? Forget the ultimate sale value – it’s probably around $5-$6 (more in a Facebook Ads post soon) – why am I getting such drop-off?

Let’s look at the books, and the reviews.

  • Book 1 – 235 reviews, 4.5 star
  • Book 2 – 40 reviews, 4.7 star
  • Book 3 – 31 reviews, 4.2 star
  • Book 4 – 40 reviews, 4.9 star
  • Book 5 – 28 reviews, 5 star
  • Book 6 – 21 reviews, 5 star
  • Book 7 – 28 reviews, 4.8 star
  • Book 8 – 18 reviews, 5 star
  • Book 9 – 18 reviews, 5 star

Hmm, no real help here. We can clearly see total review numbers dropping off, which matches the sales readthrough calculation. It also makes sense that reviews get better as we get deeper – only the fans are still reading.

But why the drop off from Book 1 to 2? Hmm. Book 1 has great reviews. Readers like it. It’s true there is no cliffhanger – the book is resolved, so perhaps there is no big drive to readthrough? Maybe some people have just had enough of me and my writing style at this point?

Book 3 is a drop off in star rating – so maybe there are issues there? However, I remember when this used to be 3.9. I made numerous edits to speed the book up over a year ago, so now to see 4.2 seems a reflection of this. People like it better.

So why? It’s a mystery. I’d love readthrough to be way up there. It would make doing advertising a lot more rewarding. Maybe I will hire an editor to look at this in particular – why do people stop reading? Your thoughts welcome!

Fresh Mr. Ruin blurb!

MJG Marketing, Writing Leave a Comment

Oh boy, the lessons never end! Recently I’ve been talking and thinking a lot about the interest/excitement factors in my writing. In brief – I’m great at evoking interest, through wacky world-building and lots of deep character hints – and not so great at evoking excitement, through conflict and danger and etc…

Well – in this post I get punched in the face again, and come back asking for more.

I’ve been rewriting Mr. Ruin to punch up the excitement and dial back the interest, and feeling like I’m succeeding. I’m thinking I have a killer blurb to reflect that – so I took it along to my Marketing group last night thinking they’ll have nothing to say because it’s just so on the damn ball.

I got my clock cleaned. Thank you sir, may I have another?

Here’s the old (new but old as of today) blurb:

2164. The Arctic Circle. Welcome to the Skulks…

It’s been a long time since Ritry risked his Soul on a deep-cortex data-hack. Once a renowned Soul Jacker, now he’s on the low-end outs of the Arctic Circle, peddling cheap memories in the neon-lit floating slums – staying out of trouble, mostly.

But Mr. Ruin has other ideas. He tracks Ritry down for one last job – a wetware heist unlike any attempted before – that could rewrite history itself.

It begins with a terrified girl escaping a brutal slumlord, but soon becomes a desperate race through a dying mind, in search of an incomprehensible power that threatens the last flotilla on Earth – and humanity along with it.

Ritry alone can stop it – but it may cost him his Soul.

So…?

Folks pointed out, in their own words, that it’s basically all interest. It’s world, not threat. We open with date, location, a welcome – interest. Paragraph one is all flat, about Ritry’s life to date – interest. Even Mr. Ruin’s intro has no threat – what is he, offering Ritry a job? So he can say no if he wants? Ugh! INTEREST!

However, the group universally hit on the line – ‘It begins with a terrified girl escaping a brutal slumlord.’ EXCITEMENT! Some said the Mr. Ruin para could just be skipped. Ha! That should be the best bit! What were the stakes, they asked? Yes, OK, the world might end, blah blah, but what are the personal stakes for Ritry? In what way is he personally endangered?

Fascinating. Having them point out that one line helps me see the difference here between interest and excitement. So I take that line and put it in the tagline, and reshape the rest so it follows, then reshape some more. I spent much of today wrangling words, trying to organize a blurb that represents the book and also crystalizes down to excitement, not interest.

Here’s what I’ve got:

2164. A desperate race through a dying mind…

It’s been a long time since Ritry risked his sanity on a deep-brain data-hack. Once a renowned Soul Jacker, now he peddles cheap memories on the neon-lit slums of the Arctic Circle – staying out of trouble, mostly.

Then a terrified girl bolts into his jack-site seeking a unique brain-hack, and Ritry helps her – earning the wrath of Don Zachary, vicious lord of the slums.

Ritry’s quiet life is abruptly over. Hounded by the Don, he flees into the abandoned spaces off the edge of the map – only to find a far crueler predator lying in wait, one with a dark taste for living Souls. Ritry’s last hope is a desperate hack into the lethal depths of a dying mind, hunting a legendary power that could threaten the last flotilla on Earth – and all humanity along with it.

Can Ritry save a world that long ago passed him by – and will it cost him his Soul?

So…?

Excitement in the tagline. First para of interest is OK I think, because now para 2 dives into a terrified girl, and Ritry taking a stand. Para 3 moves us forward, Ritry is taking action, his personal stakes (Soul) are clearer, with grander stakes in there too. The final question tag I don’t know about, but yes.

Better excitement, am I right? Man. I have such a blind spot for this stuff. Maybe now I have got too much, though? Maybe it goes from slumlords to mind-hacks and all humanity jerkily.

Either way, I’m more convinced than ever that the blurb matters. The right words in the right order absolutely do or don’t sell a book.

Facebook ads promising…

MJG Marketing, Writing Leave a Comment

The two Facebook ads I posted a couple of days ago have been selling books like gangbusters! And making a profit? Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

It’s the best pay-per-click ad response I’ve ever had. My targeting is nothing different from what I’ve done before, just the ads are different. I’m targeting US and UK, to similar authors mostly. Yesterday I sold 18 books, including one reader who bought the whole Last Mayor series in one go – 9 books. Normally I sell 1 or 2 a day.

From Feb 1-5 I’ve spent 65 pounds on ads and am getting clicks between 11-20p, which is great. I’ve sold 36 books over that period with 2,000 page reads, for a sum of $78, which is 60 pounds.

So, technically I am 5 pounds in the hole.  That is pretty record-breaking in my FB ad history – I always lose more than that. Is this a few day fluke, or will these kind of sales hold out? Because if they do, then readthrough of the zombie series should take me into profit.

Even Mark Dawson, it seems, doesn’t make profit on the direct sale of whatever single book he advertises. It’s the readthrough where he makes his money. The zombie series gets maybe a 30% readthrough to book 9, so each sale of book one is worth around $5. I sold 6 in this period, so add that up and it looks like $30 on top, putting me 20 pounds in profit. 

Not a lot, true, but more than I was getting per day before these ads. Each additional sale is a person who maybe joins my newsletter list, maybe leaves a review, and bumps the book’s ranking a little to increase overall visibility. I’m shoving money in Zuckerburg’s hoodie, but maybe he’s shoving a little back my way. Gotta pay the tithe…

If sales keep up.

  • Just realized I didn’t include Smashwords sales – sold 3 books in the period, which will cover the 5 pounds I was down. Therefore – I am in pennies of profit!

Media Review 2019 week 5

MJG Reviews, Weekly Media Update Leave a Comment

It’s been a great week of media intake!! Well, except for Roma :(.

TV

  • Sex Education – I watched Netflix’s new show Sex Education within the week, and think it is really fantastic. So good-hearted, so upbeat, but also not shying away from darker moments – a coming of age tale for the millennial generation, where sex, masturbation and even nascent stalking, bullying and shaming behaviours are not considered nasty or even evil, but rather accidents of fragile minds on unfortunate detours.

Essentially, nobody is beyond saving – at least at this stage. I love its bright palette, its redemptive tone, and its joyous plunge into moments normally considered taboo, icky or shameful. I swear, I’ve never seen so much masturbating – actually its a bit uncomfortable that we’re watching 16-year-old kids wank – but I’m reassured that surely the actors are older than their faces and makeup let on, so it’s not all that bad. Still, that is a lot of ‘O’ faces.

But that is the point. In this tale of 16-year-old neophyte ‘sex therapist’ Otis (Asa Butterfield) and his pals at a UK-based private school (how’s that for being UK-based!! – though with a clear American aesthetic), gender roles blur, helicopter parents pry, and a lot of people are having sex and wanking – all of which they need sex therapizing about.

What I love most is how it airs all this dirty, shameful laundry and says – what are you all freaking out about people? Let’s stop repressing this stuff. Repressing it and not talking about it is where all the bad shit comes from. Get it out. If everyone gets it out, where’s the down side?

Can’t wait for season 2.

  • Danny Dyer’s Royal Family, part 2 – We watched part 1 last week and found it unexpectedly charming and funny. Danny remains hilarious. Halfway through this one I found myself uncertain if I was enjoying it, even though I was laughing a lot as Danny capered. What’s that about? I don’t know. Maybe the surface-level at which al the gags land? Danny constantly automatically translating himself from Cockney rhyming slang? Danny uncomfortably hugging and kissing everyone (male or female) he meets? Danny calling everyone ‘young man/woman’, especially if they are older than him? Either way, I laughed a lot, and probably learned something too. Good on him. I’ll watch more.

Movies

  • Roma – I despised this movie. Not just disliked it. After watching – and bear in mind I watched 20 mins, then passively watched the next 40 while reading my phone, then fast-forwarded through the last hour just to see if anything happened – I reflected on some of the director’s choices.

Why did he make this movie? To subject us to the dreamy bullshit of his childhood, which wasn’t special or interesting in any way, as told through the perspective of his maid and cleaner – which is obviously not a perspective he shared. Already I’m angry. It’s like some white-washing bullshit. Don’t try to claim your maid’s story as your own. What the hell kind of appropriation is that? Tell it from your perspective, you sniveling shit, Alfonso Cuaron.

I read some reviews afterward that talk about how accurately and wonderfully it reproduces the period – 70s Mexico. What? It looks so similar to today it’s hardly worth doing. Make a documentary of a screen just looking at postcards from the period, if that’s your selling point. It’ll be over faster.

The story is non-existent, and the cinematograpy is preoccupied with dog shit and airplanes. What the hell, right? How is that Oscar-worthy? It’s bunkum BS. Most angering of all though is the opening few minutes as the credits pre-roll with agonizing slowness. We’re watching floor tiles as soapy water rolls toward us. Someone’s cleaning. We have nothing else to watch for minutes, so watch these suds looking for meaning. Oh, a plane whizzes by overhead in the water’s reflection. And what are those soapy blobs, do they mean something?

Only later on do we find out that this dirty water is from the maid, who is cleaning up dog shit. So Cuaron is pushing shit water at us for minutes, and we’re staring at it rapt, wondering what the ‘genius’ is trying to show us in the tea leaves. I’m angry about this. How is this anything but him shitting on us for minutes – at our hunger for something pretentiously arty we can pretend to enjoy? I feel like that woman in the movie The Help felt when she had to eat shit baked into a cake – except I didn’t do anything to deserve it.

Fuck Cuaron. The man who made Gravity made this? I don’t get it. What a waste of 1 hour 10 minutes. Should have fast-forwarded from the opening credits, or better yet, not watched it at all.

  • Polar – Watched 10 minutes of this crappy assassin story, then bailed to Roma. At least it had Mads Mikkelsen in it, of The Hunt. Should have stayed with this.
  • Animal World – A bizarre Chinese movie about the mathematics of a large-scale, life-and-death Rock-Scissors-Paper tournament mixed in with game theory, the prisoner’s dilemma, a bit of Deadpool in the slaughtering antics of a live-action anime clown (irrelevant to the main story), and some Antman-esque tiny-flying. Pretty fun, actually, as the protagonist somehow gets a huge debt, is forced into this gambling tournament on a ship in international waters, then has to outhink like a hundred other players to come out alive at the end.

I didn’t like the basic message that if you’re just smart enough, you can win at gambling. I realize this is not only a problem of Chinese culture, though they do love gambling. We have plenty of movies lionizing gamblers. Still, the way we’re walked through all our players gambits made me somewhat uncomfortable.

Gambling is not good, and you can’t win if you’re smart. It’s not a good message to put out there. Also, at the end our ‘hero’ pours blood into the sink while his ever-suffering girlfriend is washing her hair. WTF? She freaks out. That’s beyond a prank- it’s disgusting! A kind of domestic abuse. If I was her, I’d kick him to the curb immediately. Unless this is some aspect of acceptable Chinese culture I’m missing, it makes no sense whatsoever.

Interesting, for sure.

Books

  • Becoming – I finished Michelle Obama’s autobiography, and enjoyed it immensely. What a great lady. I love how honest she is about her interest in politics – ie, she will never run for office in her life, no matter how may times she’s asked. Just a great woman who cares about people and wants to make things better for everyone. A tonic for these divided times.
  • Dead Snow – Started reading this Sweden-set thriller because the author will be at First Monday Crime tomorrow, and maybe it’ll give me something to talk to him about, if the moment arises. It seems OK, about a deaf reporter who’s early on the scene to a murder in the wintry woods.

Podcasts/News

Nothing so specific, but generally I am loving AOC (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) and others who are boldly saying – “There should not be billionnaires.” I completely agree with this. Why should there be billionnaires? In what world does their hard work so enormously eclipse the hard work of almost everyone in the world? They worked hard, they had good ideas, I accept that – I’d never advocate for communism. Capitalism harnesses important human desires to acquire and succeed. But billions is a joke. Take it off them through tax.

Oh but they’ll leave the country. They’ll take all their precious capital with them. So hunt them down and take it! Don’t let them ever make money from this country, or any civilized country, again. Let them live in tax exile in a dwindling few countries well outside the global mainstream. This is also why we need global laws, and a global police force and government to enforce them. Let’s start with something easy – like murder. A global law against murder. And then move onto tax fraud. Hunt these billionnaires down and drag them out of their ivory towers and guillotine them in the street, if they won’t cough up some reasonable portion of their immense wealth.

But what if I’m a billionnaire? Won’t I resist being hunted down and guillotined in the street too? Ha – who cares what I resist? Chop my damn head off, if I can’t see the suffering my billions of fellow humans are in. It’s a goddamned crime that they’re hoarding that wealth for themselves, passing it down to their children to have better opportunities.

But they’re billionnaires because they’re smart. They know how to better spend this money through charitable donations. Ha! Charity! Take it off them and give it to the people through taxation, who get to vote how it’s spent. Re-align the priorities so that when they say – oh, sorry, we can’t give you a wage increase because we need to increase corporate profits (happened to me recently), we’ll shove it in their faces. No. You decrease your profits. That’s just how it’s gonna be. Bend the curve. Yes, you get profits. Yes, your expertise is rewarded. But not extortionately.

Oh. I forgot to mention I’m reading a book about this – Can Democracy Survive Capitaism? I’ve ranted enough now though. More about that book later.

Writing Update 2019 weeks 4&5

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

I skipped a week! Let’s consider the post about why I’m not a millionnaire yet the week 4 update (even though it’s not titled as such).

Buoyed by the self-revelations that post brought on, I’ve gone ahead and taken another stab at Facebook ads. Almost certainly this will be an ill-fated effort ending with me stuffing more dollar bills down Zuckerburg’s hoodie-front, for paltry returns, but what they hey. It’s a laugh, amirite?

Facebook Ads

Here are my new ads. The copy for these kind of wrote itself. It’s calm, but clear. It gives potential readers everything they need, and throws some of that delicious narrative urgency their way, rather than trying to wow with world-building ‘interest’ factors.

Actually you can’t see the book description in this, so here it is:

Amo’s a horror comic book artist recovering from a near-lethal aneurysm – taking his first steps back into the world, asking the beautiful barista in his coffee shop for a date – then the whole world dies. Zombies throng the streets, and now Amo’s got a job to do – save the girl, and hope that she will save him too…

All Sen’s young life he’s been hunted – by the pitiless King and his nightmare monsters, by the scars of fate and a gnashing black mouth in the sky – and he’s had enough. Now it’s his turn to hunt, and bring his enemies down…

I haven’t pushed The Last series for ages. It’s worth it every now and then, to see if I can generate a little traction. With 9 books in the series, every reader in at book 1 has a great chance to make fat stacks (of cash) if they read all the way through.

Editing

I’m over halfway through editing God of Ruin. I expect comments from my beta read/developmental editor on Mr. Ruin in a week – excited for that. Comments from the thriller book 1 editor come Feb 22. Hope these prove to be a good use of money.

Networking

Monday coming is First Monday Crime, and Tuesday is my marketing group – they’re going to rip into the Mr. Ruin new blurb and cover – should be fun 😉 How many SF/cyberpunk readers in that group? I hope at least one!! Feedback from non-genre readers is a bit empty, maybe…

Why am I not a millionnaire author yet?

MJG Marketing, Story Craft, Writing 2 Comments

This question popped in my head the other day, and hasn’t been far from my thoughts since – begging to be turned into a full-bore navel-gazing blogalysis (blog analysis) of all my past books in summary and why they didn’t go large.

I’ve done this before, in bits. For instance, I’ve blogalyzed in detail all the book covers I’ve ever had – and come up with the unsurprising conclusion that they were always bad. So chalk that one up:

  • Bad book covers

The Saint Ignifer covers were illustrated and weird for the epic fantasy genre. The Ruin books were just weird and ugly and illustrated, then dull and confusing and illustrated, then too Gothic and illustrated, then just blah – and never even close to the cyberpunk genre. The Last Mayor books were illustrated, which was also pretty weird for the zombie genre. Despite this, they did pretty well, but I can’t help but think that if they’d started with the covers they have now (photo-manipulated) I’d have sold a lot more in their moment of greatest visibility (right after release).

So, bad book covers, badly targeted to genre, hamstrung me. But that’s definitely not all. Next most important to cover is a ripping good story, and I think I have always struggled with this area.

I’m not a natural born raconteur. I remember when I was a counselor in summer camp in Boston, USA, telling scary stories to the kids around the campfire.

I would luxuriate in slow, horrific, descriptive tableaux. I would describe the hell out of horror scenes, laying down some sick adjectives. I’m talking great vocabulary, amazing visuals – I always had that. Great detail and inventive gross-out material have never been a problem.

But there was no movement.

Another counselor told a story around the campfire one night, apparently totally winging it, and we were all hooked. Some drip drip bang bang stuff. A ghost, maybe, a serial killer. Some scares and a satisfying denouement. Even then, at 19, I could see I didn’t have that particular gift naturally. I was kind of in awe of the story, which he made up on the spot. It seemed like a magic trick. How did he do that?

People have always said I should be a writer, going off the strength of my vocabulary and world-building creativity. I’m great at those things. Strengths, for sure. But they don’t make for a book. Well – for some people they do. China Mieville has done very well off a similar skillset (though he outshines me in both wild words and world-building). But not for most. For most people they need a story with narrative urgency.

  • Not enough narrative urgency

Chalk up another.

When I started writing seriously I also started writing blogs about the craft of writing. The very first blog I wrote on the topic 9 years ago was about The Dungeon Master’s Screen. In D&D adventuring, the Dungeon Master has a book (and a screen) crammed full of world-building details. Characters, creatures, locations – which they then weave a plot around.

I wanted to write like that. Build the world and have the reader bounce around inside it, figuring out the story from hints in the backstory.

I knew I was great at making up weird stuff. My ‘Dawn’ books, what are now The Saint’s Rise and The Rot’s War, were very fragmented when I first laid them down. There was loads of information and backstory on one character, say a boy made of rock, then I just moved onto the next character and did the same thing. They were barely strung together. There was no real narrative urgency at all.

Somehow, I liked writing that way. It came naturally. Forcing myself to add on a plot, aiming for this mysterious ‘narrative urgency’, has been a 9-year journey to understand the ‘magic’ of how to make a story move. Another way to express it is interest vs. excitement. When you read world-building and fancy vocabulary, you’re interested. When the killer is closing in on the hero, you’re excited. Guess which is more compelling?

I knew it 9 years ago, but not as deeply as I know it now. For all the past 9 years, my books have moved inch by inch toward greater narrative urgency. The Ruin books had some fantastic action scenes. Really exciting stuff – but buried within an inaccessible world, hidden behind a screen of narrative complexity and technical jargon.

With both of these series, Ignifer and Ruin, what I’ve mostly been doing in the edits I’ve done in the last year is find the narrative spine of each book and bring it out more. Cut back the ‘interest’ and vamp up the ‘excitement’.

Zombie books

Then we come to my zombie books. My first taste of success – making money for the first time. It was intoxicating. And with zombies, how could I not lead with excitement? It’s baked in. The bad guy is so simple – it’s the zombies – there’s your story. Fight off the zombies. Escape. Run away.

Except I didn’t open my first book that way. Following old school rules about the opening Act of a story needing to set the world, set the character and all such before you introduce the inciting incident – I had nothing much happen for maybe 4 chapters.

Well, things happened. My main guy, Amo, asked a girl on a date. There’s some narrative urgency there. Even more after I raised the stakes by saying Amo was in a coma a year back related to getting excited, and so going on this date with this girl could literally kill him.

Yeah? I liked it. But in order to set those stakes, I had to go back in time. In like chapters 2 and 3, I went backward. Amo’s coma. Amo’s recovery from the coma. How he came to be where he is now. The guy he befriended en route. Maybe 3 chapters of backstory, and those are chapters 2-4! After leading with a date, in what people thought was a zombie book!

It’s not ideal. So much backstory up front just kills the flow. It’s interesting. Fascinating, I thought. But not exciting. Excitement doesn’t come until maybe chapter 5, when he first sees the zombies. That’s a long commitment for a new reader who picked up the book for free expecting zombies, and can put it down and pick up another right away, also for free.

In edits a year or so ago, I flipped all these scenes around. I opened on zombies, parsed out the backstory over more chapters, with more narrative urgency woven amongst them. When I did that though – suddenly the book just didn’t seem all that unique.

  • Unique Selling Point

Thus a third weakness. Stripped of Amo’s interesting background, how is his zombie survival story unique? Well, he’s a guy alone in New York, but we’ve seen that. He runs around killing zombies, but we’ve seen plenty of that. He goes off to hunt for survivors, OK, seen it. Now we’re a third into a book, and where’s anything unique?

Yeah, he starts to do art to appeal to other survivors, and that’s pretty new. He drops into despair, which is cool, and not a common note.

The real unique plot twist though, that makes the book so special and sets up the whole 9-book series, doesn’t come until two thirds in! So I can’t put that twist in the blurb – and if I did, it’s the kind of thing that would actually make it seem like the book had no narrative urgency at all.

In a blurb it might seem that way, but SPOILER – I think what’s most unique about the book is how it only gets more gripping once the zombies are taken out of the equation as a threat. There are other threats that I find far more exciting. But I can’t put those front and center.

So what’s the USP? I can’t express it. You have to read the book to find out. In my marketing I have to lead with the initial USP that my guy is an artist. He’s not cut out for killing zombies. But hardcore zombie readers probably want a soldier or special forces guy for a reason. They want to see zombie ass get competently kicked. My guy didn’t exactly do that, at least not for quite a while.

Who then am I serving? What is the point of a USP if it doesn’t appeal enough to the target audience? You can’t go too niche. You need to serve the audience, while at the same time offering enough differentiation to stand out. But not too much.

Finally, one more weakness sprang to mind after I finished this post:

  • Genre hopping

Broadly speaking, the biggest bestseller authors stay in their lane. They pick a genre, often quite specifically to a sub-genre, and they don’t mix it up. There are plenty of big zombie novelists, for example, who write only within that genre. Mark Tufo makes serious money, and he has 10+ books in his Zombie Fallout series, then others about werewolves coming after that same zombie apocalypse, then about a dog in the same apocalypse, and so on. I think they all feature the same lead character!

I started with epic fantasy for 2, then switched to cyberpunk SF for 3, then zombie apocalypse for 9, and now thrillers for 2 to date. I thought there would be great cross-over between these audiences, but mostly I think there isn’t.

If I was only focused on making money, I probably should have stuck with zombies; start a new series to serve my existing fans, rather than swing off to a totally different genre. It would have been the prudent business decision. But – I only got into zombies on a kind of whim. 9 books looks calculated, but that’s just how it went. After 9, I was totally satisfied.

Going forward, I don’t know that I can remedy this – because I don’t want to. I like going to stories and worlds that take my fancy. It’s all speculative fiction to me. I read across those genres freely. Broadly, I envisage continuing to do that under the name Michael John Grist. Genre-hop in speculative fiction with abandon. At the same time, though, I will write my thrillers under a pen name – and no other genres. Just thrillers in one contiguous world. That’ll give me some focus. I can write alternately, one speculative book, one thriller.

It’ll be fun. Even, if I go full-time, write the spec stuff in the morning and the thrillers in the afternoon. Or alternate days.

So these are my findings. My weaknesses:

  • Bad book covers
  • Lacking narrative urgency
  • Unclear USP
  • Genre hopping

And, to be fair, my strengths:

  • Very creative worldbuilding and vocab

I am very good at this. The worlds, creatures, jobs and backstories in books like The Saint’s Rise and the Ruin series are out of this world. I can make this stuff up like a champ, producing lyrical, lush, lived-in settings and backstories. I am learning more and more however that this is not enough on its own. It is window dressing. It can’t sustain 80,000 words. It can’t serve as a USP.

  • Strong on character psychology, emotion and dialogue

I think I’m great at this. I understand people well – why they do what they do. I studied Psychology at Uni and the subject has always fascinated me. As a very introspective person, I’ve puzzled a lot of things out for myself. I write convincing arcs. I aim for emotions like awe and wonder – I want to make people cry and be inspired. I think I can make people laugh.

  • Great action scenes

Weirdly, I think I can be really good at doing this. If I overcome my tendency to slow time down, and avoid inserting backstory at pivotal moments, I write some mean action. Editing back over the Ruin books, there’s some awesome action scenes in there. I just need to do it more – and action doesn’t have to be just fights. It’s any kind of conflict – so a big argument, a fast-paced bit of detection, a string of revelations, etc…

  • Satisying twists and resolutions

I always find a way through a story to an ending that makes sense, if surprising, and rings true. I don’t know that I can claim any credit for this – my brain does the work in the background, tossing up options that I get to select from. I’m very pleased that so far, I haven’t reached the end of a book and found that it just doesn’t make sense and there’s no way to resolve it. Even without in depth planning, stories come together. I think that will keep on happening – probably I’ve studied and practised the baked-in structure of story so well that my brain just gets it.

Summation

And that’s my blogalysis. If you’ve read any of my books, do you agree? Disagree? Am I being overly harsh, or even too generous? I know people do like my writing. The Last has some 250 reviews at 4.5 average on Amazon, and that’s not nothing. Other books have all done pretty well, even Mr. Ruin had a 4.0 average on some 50 reviews.

The question is not about whether I’m a competent writer and storyteller. The question is – why am I not a millionnaire yet? I think the answers are above. I also think I’ve improved on all those weaknesses. My thriller books have narrative urgency from page one. With the edits I’m making to the Ruin series, these books are now going to sing.

I can get better covers. I can bring out USPs even more. I can make people excited more than they’re interested, and with the thrillers I will stay focused on one genre. These are all skills and practises I can learn and am learning. Will it be enough to go big? Either way, I know I’ll keep on striving to get better. This is the life path I picked for myself a long time ago, since I was a kid, really. I passed my first 10,000 hours around 10,000 hours ago.

It’s coming. Bring it on.