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:
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’.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.