Full steam ahead – 2020 Writing Week 38

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

Aaaaand, I am back into writing.

Hoo-fucking-rah, am I right?

Today I plugged back into Wren book 5 for a cheeky 1500 words, which puts the count at 35,500 total. Basically halfway done! And it feels it, too. Couple of major movements left, we’ll be all set.

To boot, I spent a few hours throwing out ideas for another thriller series. One that is less literary, more of a ‘cozy’ thriller, with more black and white issues, more a superhero ‘fantasy’ vibe to the main guy’s life.

Thus far it’s at 9,000 words. I’ve got the story going forward. The hero is very similar to Wren, but his world and the plot are very different. It’s not political, activist, or very dark. There will be no cults. The villains are black and white. The goal is to make it comforting vigilante justice, not disturbing.

Will I write this or Wren? Or both?

Honestly I’d love to just send this beginning to some prime readers of vigilante justice and ask if they want to read more. I could raise it with my list, but I’m not sure they will be that same demographic. I’ll just finish it, I expect, put it out as a single, and if it hits it off, then I can write sequels.

That can be my approach now. Put out series starters and see if any hit. I brainstormed ideas for a couple potential thrillers. Best case would be they’re all in a consistent universe, and could do cross-overs like the Avengers! Only problem is that the new guy is basically Wren lite. Hmm, we shall see.

Marketing

For a while I was spending $100 a day, but not making good enough returns to justify. Broadly I’ve made money, but not enough. So I shut down all my Amazon ads (they never work for me) and dropped my Facebook spend considerably.

Further, as a stop-gap until I get a new cover for Wren, I’ve put the red-saturated cover image up for the ad and the book cover on Amazon. I changed the blurb to one that signals the darkness, weirdness way better.

Clickthrough thus far on FB is wacky. Way up, and very changeable. Yesterday FB UK was giving me clicks of 40p average. Unsustainable. But then it was a dynamic ad, and some blurbs worked very differently to others.

I duplicated, made the best blurb a non-dynamic ad, and we’ll see if it takes off. Of course no way to know for some time if this more accurate signaling leads to better readthrough and reviews.

Alternately, it may that now I have made changes to the text itself, the old Reacher-like cover might lead to better readthrough. But I rather doubt it. The literary-ness of the series is kind of baked in. Cults, violence, darkness. I can take off some of the surface violence, but can’t undo the bones of social activism, cruelty and pain.

So! New cover!!

Soul Jacker

Today I took a look at my Soul Jacker/Mr. Ruin books. These are crazy weird. I look for similar genre, and come up with China Mieville, who doesn’t sell anything on Kindle, and Crashing Heaven by Al Robertson.

I’ve already packaged it as cyberpunk, but that whole genre doesn’t sell. It’s not space opera, which does sell. There is no psychic vampire genre – just Slade House by David Mitchell, which doesn’t sell either.

Another literary vs. Genre reflection?

My reflection now is that it’s damn hard to sell literary works. Stuff that breaks molds and makes new genres. Even if you can do it, the amount of money you expend to market something new will likely render it unprofitable.

Of course there are outliers. Harry Potter.

But even then – it’s best done by a big publishers, with the ability to get killer social proof blurbs, get you newspaper reviews, get you into bookshops and book clubs. I don’t know of any indie authors who went big with a literary work.

Not true. The Martian. WOOL.

OK, not many, then.

For an indie, genre is the way to go. Build a readership and a name. Maybe at some point those mainstream readers will look at your wackier stuff. So I’ll keep writing Wren, and explore other avenues in genre fiction. Looking forward to putting something new in front of you.

More literary/genre musings – 2020 Writing Week 37.5

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

I’ve been reading up some more on the difference between literary and genre, and found a way to express that feels true for me, as the guy who writes it.

When I’m writing, I want to feel like I’m on an adventure. I’m exploring a new space. Maybe it’s the human condition. Maybe it’s a social issue. Maybe it’s how far a plot/character thread can go. I don’t know exactly where it’s going, and I don’t know exactly what the end is.

All of these unknowns are what make this kind of writing so fascinating for ME.

I’ve always just assumed that what I find interesting, others will find interesting too – since there are many books and movies and TV shows that feel fimilar to my writing.

I’m sure this is true. The audience are out there. Finding them for more literary works is famously harder.

So literary is like a genuine adventure into the unknown, for both me and the reader.

Genre however is more like a guided tour.

It’s over ground I as the tour guide/writer have been over many times. It’s to see an array of things without too many surprises, but we know we’ll all enjoy. It’s familiar, self-contained, comforting and safe.

You know what you’re getting with both genre fiction and a guided tour. It’s not an adventure of the tour guide, obviously. It may feel a little adventurous to the reader, but there are guard rails up in place. We all know it’s not a real adventure where anything can happen, and we don’t want that.

A couple of things set off thinking of genre this way. I was reading reviews on Gregg Hurwitz’ Orphan X (which I’m reading now). All his front page reviews are bad (though his overall score is great). One reviewer said something about not wanting to read the book before he goes to bed, as he doesn’t want that kind of stuff in his head.

That turned me right around. Reading before going to bed. Of course!

Genre fiction, certainly in vigilante justice, should probably be, above all, comforting. It’s about restoring justice. The readers want to be pushed, like a little rush on a rollercoaster ride, but not too far. Not too urgent. and not be made to wait too long for resolution, as that’s uncomfortable.

Stay up late/all night reading just to get that wanted sense of comfort/all is right with the world? Many readers don’t want that kind of intensity.

Another thing that pushed me here has been Su’s experience researching feel-good romances similar to the one she’s written. She says they are very soft. Extremely sweet. No edge. No misery. No real sorrow. Bad things in the backstory are distant and foggy. Good things in the present are like a warm blanket.

They are massively comforting. Su’s book is very comforting too, but there are some unexpected spikes of reality that push through. It has a literary edge.

Adventure vs. Guided Tour

This kind of contrast fascinates me. It really makes me think what I want from my writing. I obviously love going on adventures in my writing. But the more ‘risk’ there is, the fewer people will want to come along. The less risk, the more people will want to.

I’ve been reading a few fellow books in Vigilante Justice. Mark Dawson, Andy Maslen, of course Orphan X. There is far more time than I would have thought spent on seeing these guys’ everyday lives. Walking their dogs. Walking around their homes describing everything. Mixing drinks. Talking to people in the elevator. Looking out of windows. Having the full backstory described in info dumps.

With Wren it’s pedal to the metal from the start. Inspired by movies like ‘You Were Never Really Here’ – which is obviously literary, and ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, which is the same. We get little on Wren early on, and it’s dosed out gradually.

The genre-obeying books don’t do this. The backstories are straightforward. It’s the standard one – lead guy was a killer, accidentally killed a kid, now is haunted by that and trying to make up for it.

Wren has that backstory too, but it’s more complex and inverted. It explores the human condition. It’s unfamiliar territory. Not a guided tour.

So do I keep adventuring, and hope to find enough takers? Or do I take a crack at guided tours (not even sure I can do that – obviously I need some standout feature for my stories, they can’t just be Reacher carbon copies – but it can’t be too different)?

Or maybe both? With the difference signaled by cover and blurb? Alternate series, one for me, one for the readers?

I’m thinking about it. It would be a kind of adventure, actually, to see if I can crack a guided tour.

I write literary?? – 2020 Writing Week 37

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Maybe I write literary books.

I’ve heard people say this before. My writer friend Matt has said I’m a literary writer yearning to write genre. I took it on board, thought I understood it, but yesterday the same idea hit me deeper than before.

First, let’s look at what ‘literary’ writing is, and why I have resisted embracing the label for so long.

Here are 6 features of literay fiction according to Wikipedia:

  • A concern with social commentary, political criticism, or reflection on the human condition.

I definitely do this. With Wren the social commentary, political criticism and human condition are right there at the forefront. It’s about race, about social media, about the fragility of the human mind which we are coming more and more to accept/understand.

In my zombie books these same themes are also there, if less overtly. My apocalypse is very diverse, and we watch Amo basically get his mind broken by trauma over the books.

In my Sen fantasy books, diversity is everything – they’re all different races. There’s a caste/class system based on race, and one factor of the story is about breaking that system.

In the Mr. Ruin books, it’s all about the fragility of the mind, and the nature of evil people – how far dictators would take things, if they were allowed.

  • A focus on “introspective, in-depth character studies” of “interesting, complex and developed” characters, whose “inner stories” drive the plot, with detailed motivations to elicit “emotional involvement” in the reader.

I most definitely do this. All my characters are integral to all my stories. Without their inner drives, there is no real story. I always transform characters, or have them arc organically thanks to their choices and the world they’re embedded in.

I don’t think I overdo this though. I’ve read literary books that endlessly noodle on inner thoughts. I can occasionally lapse into this, but I always aim to trim it for pace and purpose.

  • A slower pace than popular fiction. As Terrence Rafferty notes, “literary fiction, by its nature, allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way”.

I have done this – the Sen books were pretty sumptuous on world and details, likewise with Mr. Ruin, and even Wren had some in depth (if quite fast) sidetracks into the backstories of his various cult members.

This is not something I much want to encourage in myself, and my goal has been to speed things up. I dislike slow stories in almost cases, except maybe Haruki Murakami, where the slow pace is the point. In pretty much everything else, I want pace.

  • A concern with the style and complexity of the writing: Saricks describes literary fiction as “elegantly written, lyrical, and layered”.

I’ve been getting in trouble for purple overwriting in the past. I love to play with words, use neologisms, use non-standard grammar to fuel the pace or the impact.

I’m reducing this. While I love literary wordplay as a writer, I’m not a big fan of it as a reader. I’m happy to rein this in, if it allows me some leeway on the social issues

  • Unlike genre fiction plot is not the central concern.

I don’t do this. Plot and character and interwoven. Wren’s backstory, emotions and mental state are always integrated to the things he does and what happens around him. Same with all my books. I don’t know how I would extricate them.

Probably the ‘standard’ literary book is not set in genre worlds, as I do though. It’s family drama, which I have no interest in. I’m dealing with end of the world stuff, in all my books. So the emotions are heightened, and the heroes’ inner worlds are essential.

  • The tone of literary fiction can be darker than genre fiction.

This is me all over. I always go dark, go to the end of the line, because it feels true. If your bad guy is holding back, then the story is not genuine. The hero is not fully challenged. There was never really that much threat.

My comments are always about the Wren books being dark, gory, scary.

So, literary then?

So, literary.

The reason I wouldn’t want to accept a label like this is because my experience of ‘literary’ books is that I hate them. I read some of ‘Freedom’ by a much-vaunted author, and despised it. I forced myself to read 100 years of solitude, hundreds of pages of descriptions mounting on top of each other with no story at all, and despised every second.

I am not THAT. I really dislike that.

But genre literary?

I think about other definitions of genre – and they’ve got to be around a story following certain tropes, motifs, structures and plot expectations. I always subvert these, and can’t seem to help myself.

In Wren? Constantly. About the nature of the hero. About the way the climaxes play out. About the nature of the bad guys and the good guys.

In Amo? Baked into the core story – the very nature of the zombies.

And so on. If I had to write genre fiction without subverting expectations, I don’t think I could do it. It would feel pointless. Why not just put all my energy into my day job?

This makes it super clear for me – I’m not writing solely to entertain. I have messages I want to share. I want to challenge my readers to some degree.

So I write literary genre books.

This may explain many things.

Why Wren 1 sells but Wren 2 doesn’t.

I have honed my Wren 1 cover, blurb and marketing materials to target Jack reacher readers. They expect Reacher-like books. Reacher is edgy, but not nearly as edgy as Wren. So they buy book 1 expecting that, find out it’s not what they expected, and read no further. You can’t blame them.

It’s my fault.

The cover needs to look like literary genre. This is more symbolic, like Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Livia Lone, Silence of the Lambs, I Am Pilgrim, even the early Reacher covers (bloody palm print).

The blurb needs to target readers of this darker, more challenging stuff – so I need to mimic books in those sub-genres and patterns. Not Reacher.

Why Mr. Ruin doesn’t sell.

I can diagnose this but not easily fix it. My first instinct was to put a China Mieville-esque cover on book 1, but it didn’t look good. The concept was fine, but the delivery (led by me) was poor. I then tried various Action/Adventure types of cover, now it’s cyberpunk, but the book is none of those.

It doesn’t fit into any easy subgenre. It’s a new genre. It needs a literary SF cover – whateevr that means. Then the blurb needs to do the heavy lifting.

Why Sen book 2 doesn’t sell.

I have a great kind of grimdark fantasy cover – it definitely helped me sell books. But book 2 doesn’t sell at all. This has to be the same thing as with Wren. The contents of the book are very different from what you might expect in a book with a cover like that.

So maybe it needs a new cover. Literary fantasy – perhaps like the Mieville covers again. A different blurb that makes the weirdness the selling point. Eschew the genre readers, because they largely won’t like it. A cover that is symbolic.

And the zombie books?

These remain my biggest success. The cover is solidly on genre. The book content starts on genre, then subverts that massivelky, and continues down a somewhat wacky path. It gets pretty good reviews though, and fair readthrough these days.

It’s possible it would benefit from a more literary, symbolic cover. That’s something to think about.

What is genre, anyway?

Genre is just a story/world/character combination that people previously enjoyed, and want more of. Twilight became a new kind of genre. Lord of the Rings, when first written, had to be literary because not much like it really existed. It broke new ground and created a massive new genre.

TL;DR, what’s the takeaway?

My covers, pretty much across the board, may not be right. They signal genre conventions that I don’t follow. Some readers will find that departure delightful. Some will just put down the book.

I need to signal as honestly as I can. I may need more literary covers, more symbolic, and blurbs to match. Don’t push them towards mainstream too far.

Interesting. Could be expensive. We’ll see.

More Chris Wren noodling – 2020 Writing Week 35

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Today’s thinking about the Wren readthrough takes in a new direction.

Yesterday I remade the cover and rewrote the blurb, but am thinking one or both of those may have been missteps. Here’s the ‘new’ cover (quote marks because it may not be the cover for long).

I made it dark after feedback from the 20books thriller group, and a survey of other dark thriller books out there. One key is – there’s a lot of black, often they’re monochrome, and often feature red heavily.

I do rather like this. Maybe it’s too much though – could be signaling horror, dystopia, apocalyptic even?

Here’s the Facebook ad I started:

Pretty good.

Here’s the new blurb:

????? “A gripping dark bombshell of a thriller from start to finish.” – Eclectic Reviews.

Hundreds of homeless people ripped off the Chicago streets. Branded like animals. Brainwashed like slaves. Launched to some terrifying fate.

Rogue CIA agent Christopher Wren walks into a biker bar in Price, Utah after three weeks on the road. Traumatized by the loss of his family, he’s looking for anything to keep the dark memories at bay.

The bikers oblige, attacking Wren, leaving him for dead and stealing his truck.

Now he’s going to get it back.

From a secret warehouse in the desert. Ringed with fences. Filled with human cages.

Wren despises slavers and sets out to destroy them all, but as a nationwide terror conspiracy unfolds and the body count mounts, secrets from his own dark past emerge.

Wren must reckon with a hideous truth that could tear his tattered mind apart, before the slavers can plunge America into blood and chaos on an epic scale.

Saint Justice is a serial killer/vigilante justice thriller that delves into cults, white supremacy, brainwashing and the mind of a mass murderer, ideal for fans of Dean Koontz’ Nameless, Stieg Laarsson’s Lisbeth Salander, Barry Eisler’s Livia Lone and Terry Hayes’ Pilgrim.

It doesn’t pull punches. Maybe it goes too hard right off the bat. Words like slaves, branded etc… Then it dicks around with Wren’s truck and the bikers. Trying to be organic. the thing is, a CIA guy getting beat up by bikers is not a massive injustice. It’s not great, but we get the impression he can handle himself.

Here we come to my new thinking this morning, something which is obvious, but here it goes.

Why people read Vigilante Justice books

Because they want to read about justice being done.

It’s super simple. It starts with a horrible injustice. A badass hero vigilante gets inserted. The injustice gets resolved and justice is meted out.

This is it. It’s simple. Is my blurb doing this? Is my story doing this?

The blurb is only doing it with summary words. Not with emotion. I’ve heard from many people that the opening chapter of Wren, featuring Mason getting snatched up, is an agonizing injustice. But he is not named in the blurb. Reduced to an amorphous ‘homeless people’.

People can’t emotionally connect to that. It’s a statistic, not a story. They might feel guilty, but they won’t feel emotionally engaged. So I’m part-hooking people on a vague, pretty grotesque-sounding injustice, then expect them to get upset about Wren getting beaten up, when he sought out the fight himself.

Then the actual story. Am I delivering?

The Mason chapter definitely opens with injustice. Wren comes in hot and proves himself an interesting, tough vigilante. Is justice done?

Honestly, no. I make justice impossible in the broader sense – which is one of a happily ever after. Part of the reason we like Mason is because he adores Wendy so completely. But by the end of the book, Wendy is dead. Mason killed her.

That is unutterably bleak. It’s miserable. Wren’s whole reason to get involved with this thing is to try and save Mason and Wendy. So he fails. In earlier versions, Mason was dead as well. Basically everybody was dead.

Reading this book is just bleak. There is no happy ending for anyone. Not for Mason, not for Wren, not for anyone. It’s like the movie – Requiem for a Dream or any other down ending story, like Memento or We Need to Talk About Kevin. It breaks the covenant with the reader.

There’s no call for sequels to those movies. They are landmark movies, but you don’t enjoy them. Real damage is done. The injustice at the end is larger than the injustice at the start. And who wants to feel that way, book after book?

Nobody has said this in feedback. Not once. So maybe I’m way off base, but I’m lookng at other similar books in the genre and comparing.

Mark Dawson’s book The Cleaner has John Milton fall into the orbit of a woman and her son (named in the blurb) who he’s going to help get out of the gang life. Imagine the son dies by the end of the book, and the mother is left deeply physically and emotionally damaged.

Would you feel like justice was done, just because the gang was arrested? Would you want to read the next book?

Imagine the A-team roll into town. Take out the bad guys. The victim of the original injustice is left in a vegetative coma, but oh well…

It’s not good. It’s too bleak, justice isn’t done, there’s no endorphin spike of the good guy triumphing.

So what about Game of Thrones, season 1 ending? The Red Wedding? I’m not sure, really, except to say that those carry over the same injustice to the next book. With the A-team, that could be a double episode special. A further injustice calls for even greater justice. They wouldn’t do it, but yes, it’s not injustice done, then move on to the next story.

It feels less realistic to me that Wendy will survive. The real results of human slavery and abuse are awful. But that reality doesn’t work well with a happy ever after.

New plan

My new plan is to give vicarious justice thrills. Rewrite the blurb so it is 3 paragraphs – injustice (with emotional engagement), Wren introduction (focus on being damaged but badass), and acceleration of stakes (move toward civil war).

In the book, it means unkilling Wendy. I can do this easily. I can even keep all the psychological shenanigans intact, and pull a bait and switch. It’ll seem cleverer still. And Wendy will be alive. Mason can rescue her himself at the end.

Justice done.

It won’t be bleak anymore. Are the other books bleak? Book 2 introduces several injustices with Charles DeVore. I may put him back in, or swap him out for another viewpoint on the same events. Book 3 is a powerful injustice. Book 4 too. Also Book 5, in the works.

Is this it?

Will this improve readthrough? I don’t know. As I said, nobody ever mentions this. But it’ll certainly make for a more visceral, vigilante justice emotional reward. Close out Mason reasonably happy, and we can accept that Wren moves on to take on deeper, broader injustices. He succeeded here.

One further thought – it even says this in the tagline for the book! Justice Will Be Done. I have to deliver on that promise. Also in the title. Saint Justice.

Christopher Wren crossroads – 2020 Writing Week 34

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It feels like I’m standing at a crossroads for the Christopher Wren series right now. For months I’ve been eliciting and getting feedback, working on the book, trying to increase the uptake from book 1 to book 2 and onwards through the series.

There are lots of pieces involved in this, but primarily it’s been about reducing the violence.

BUT

What if this is the wrong direction?

My earliest inclination in the marketing copy for Wren was to use lots of horror-tinged words like bloody, gory, terrifying, vicious, brutal etc… Over time I’ve been counseled not to use these, which has made perfect sense, if I was targeting the most mainstream of mainstream Jack Reacher / action thriller readers.

They are the ones I’ve been targeting. My cover screams that. My blurb has morphed to say Reacher (it’s modeled on Reacher).

WHY?

Hmm. Good question.

Everything I’ve written in my career is horror tinged. Mr. Ruins is pretty horrible. The Last is obviously a gory zombie apocalypse full of horrors. Even the epic fantasy is very bleak and full of cruelty. I think in those genres, the horror nature was much more part of the package.

In thriller, your genres are diced fine. Jack Reacher, Jason Bourne, James Bond, John Milton, even Barry Eisler, they’re PG15 action thrillers.

The Wren books are R rating.

I have always felt surprised when readers say the violence is too extreme. I didn’t know what they were talking about. Today I made a list of all the violence in book 1, and stumbled over the scenese where Mason is tortured and brainwashed.

Everything else that happens, I can buy that Jack reacher or even James Bond might be involved with it. But the ‘inside the operations of the cult’ scenes are too much for that kind of reader.

Here’s the crossroads. Do I take out all the Mason interior scenes, along with all the interior scenes from all the books? I already took out the creep Charles DeVore from book 2, and could feasibly take out the interior scenes from all the others. We’ll lose a lot. Maybe the soul of the books. They’re about how cults work, how cult leaders work – that’s what fascinated me when I wrote them. How people can be brainwashed. Take that away, and what’s left?

So I felt down facing that.

The alternate is to rebrand completely. The genre the Wren books may fit better in is Serial Killer. In Serial Killer, readers WANT to get inside the killers head. they want to delve into darkness. they don’t need loads of humor or light moments – in fact they don’t want that. They want bleak, or at least that’s my impression. Look at Silence of the Lambs. Not much light-hearted jokes in that. It just gets grim.

So.

Would this make a difference? Nobody knows. Books in this genre sell big. James Patterson comes straight to mind. Alex Cross is way grimmer than Jack Reacher. Baldacci. Vargus & McBain.

What would this shift to Serial Killer require:

  • Maybe a partial rewrite to re-embrace the darkness, remove excess humor I added.
  • Definite cover changes. Darker may be enough, though I may need a whole new cover. This concerns me. I love the current cover. Serial Killer covers are often just a dark, red-tinged street with big jaggy font. Something like Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a good model also. You know you’re in for darkness.
  • New blurb. Embrace the darkness. Stop talking about Jack Reacher. Talk up the viciousness and brutality as we peek into the minds of serial killer cultists.
  • New categories. Embrace the darkness.
  • New ads. Target to Thomas Harris and the like.

So this is the choice before me. Swallowing the cover change may be expensive. I’ll decide in next couple of days.

Rush of Wren critiques – 2020 Writing Week 33

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing 1 Comment

In the last week a number of Wren critiques have come in, kind of reaching critical mass for me. At the same time, I’ve had a couple of fantastic reviews.

Let’s go with fantastic first. A review on one of my Facebook ads. Usually all I get on these is people arguing about whether Tom Cruise makes a good Jack Reacher. I actually deleted all of those.

But the good review said this person loved Christopher Wren. Honestly, this may be the first person to say this. In the early days, a lot of people said he was impressive, but they wouldn’t want to hang out with him – whereas they would hang out with Jack Reacher.

I didn’t get it.

Well, now I’ve had more feedback.

  • Last Saturday – Ever since my wife Su tried to read Saint Justice, she’s been asking ‘Who is Christopher Wren?’. I never understood this. There’s info. I tried adding an info dump here or there to further explain his backstory, faster than before, but that doesn’t help. I provide flashbacks. Still, nothing. I am left totally puzzled. A few days ago, she says maybe Wren can’t ever go mainstream, because of his personality, the focus on cults, and the ‘real’ social issues that play out in the story. A little crushing, actually.
  • Last Sunday – In the morning I got a beta read back from a paid reviewer. She said it was very fast-paced, very action-packed, but she was left cold. Said the writing was dry. I had no idea what this meant. It could have meant it’s not colorful enough. I don’t think this is true. There’s plenty of metaphor, simile. If anything, I veer too purple at times. So what?
  • Last Sunday afternoon – I go visit my Dad and Ailz, and we have a chat about Wren. They’ve both read all the books, and Su has read half of book 1. I asked about the dry comment. They interpret it as not about the prose, but about Wren. He’d fundamentaly unlikeable. He’s a machine. He’s not human. He’s totally unrelatable. I try and take this on board. I get it, but it’s not easy to reckon with.
  • Mon-Wed last week – I start reworking Wren book 1. I see places where he can show more emotion. I pump up his first encounter with slavers at the warehouse. Make it visceral, not assumed. Make him nicer to Eustace, make him happy with a job well done. Make him also way more urgent and crashing at the start. The old ‘fog’ doesn’t cut it. Wren should be falling apart at the start of the book. He’s near suicidal, which is why he walks into the bar. Maybe this is off-putting, but it’s the only way his actions make sense.
  • Thursday – The beta reader comes back to me and explains what she means by ‘dry’ – which is ‘literary’. So this means we see too much that we don’t need to see. Not emotional enough. Not connecting with people enough.
  • Friday, today, got comments from my writer friend Matt – Matt has been on at me for some time to trim my overwriting. This doesn’t mean purple writing necessarily. It just means more words than we need to tell the story. Basically he and the beta reader feel the same way. We don’t need to see everything. He says if there’s something we the reader already know, we don’t want to spend some time reading it. He says my descriptions of scenes is great, but he’s sometimes left wondering why I spent the time describing, and why he as the reader had to see it.
  • Su gives more comments right after – Su doubles down on Wren being emotionless after this. Who is he? She raises the question of foibles/habits/mannerisms/hobbies which really challenges me. Wren doesn’t have any. I guess, hmm, he’s not human in that sense? Ouch. I think others raised this before. Holmes plays violin. Bond is very particular about his drink and looking smart. This can humanize Wren, alongside a lot of other changes. Also – why is he even chasing the slavers? Su wants it to be to retrieve his family, and if not his family, then someone he really cares for. But he basically forgets about Henry and Abdul. So what’s his purpose?

This week, some things start to really click for me. Not entirely new, but in new ways.

As ever, I have gone too original. Wren’s background is bizarre. Nobody had life experience like that. Wren’s reactions to everything happening now are flat or very muted. Nothing touches him.

Maybe it makes all these action-packed scenes feel flat. Mechanical. It makes it worse that Wren doesn’t get too hurt by things. We know he’s going to plough his way through. So maybe it’s not genuinely exciting. Like a boring action movie. Like Sucker Punch.

OMG. I hate that movie.

So what is the dryness? It’s a lack of emotional resonance, and genuine stakes for Wren. What does any of this mean to him? The events of this book? Nothing personal at stake, or so it seems. He gets shouty and angry, but so what if he just walks away?

Ugh.

Of course, none of this is my intention. It’s my poor execution. I love Wren. I have massive sympathy for him. I get him. He’s also a little anti-heroic. I know he’s good, and I know that when he cuts corners, it hurts. But readers don’t get that from the page.

Everything is easy for him. No real people are at stake. He doesn’t feel real.

So. We need to make Wren likeable. Humanize him more. Make his stakes and investment real.

How to fix this? Here are my initial changes/ideas:

  • Open on Wren in a real awful state. None of this ‘fog’ of guilt BS. The shame/guilt of his recent backstory is agonzing, crushing and urgent. Make it feel urgent. Make it a weakness. Like a junkie. He’s not OK, when we meet him. Part of him going into the biker bar is hoping he might just die. When he’s in there, have him more hungry for the fight. Go hot on his internal life/emotions. Desperate to escape the guilt.
  • Give him a mannerism. Got an idea for this, can resonate through books. Def. relatable.
  • Have him address surviving when he wakes on the roadside. Consider what it means to stil be alive.
  • Have him be nicer to the kid in the gas station. He’s pretty nice now, but yeah. Being nice to randoms is important.
  • At Eustace, Wren part wants his Jeep, part wants to do something good. Have him try to help Eustace more. No hint of bullying. Tough love, yeah. After Eustace, Wren can feel a little happy. We never see him happy.
  • Then send him to warehouse. Now shit needs to get real. We need to see one of the human slaves. That slave probably needs to stare right into Wren’s eyes. Terror. Horror. Throw Wren right back into his own childhood. Make this all-consuming. Tries to give chase, leads back to Brazen Hussy. No dice, can’t raid them alone.
  • Warehouse scene is more intense. Bigger fight. Afterward, Wren chastise himself he didn’t see it coming. He’s not perfect.
  • Get more upset that Henry and Abdul are missing. This becomes his driving mission.
  • After this, we need more moments of painful reflection. After seeing dead cops in Price. After Teddy and Cheryl. Just honest moments of worry, guilt, fear.
  • Wren haunted by the eyes of the woman he saw.
  • Also some happy/light moments. Find something.
  • Make Wren less invulnerable. Feel his aches and pains more.
  • I was thinking to cut Mason’s storyline, for a couple of reasons. One is that he pulls focus off Wren. Everyone has sympathy for Mason. They’re waiting to see him again. Su actually suggests we have his chapters alternating with Wren. But he is a one-book character, so all that focus on him wrecks the chance of book 2. Also, because we always see behind the scenes with Mason, we see them first with him, then second with Wren. This could make Wren’s story feel dry and repetitive. It is.
  • I was thinking to add the Wren wife flashbacks, but I don’t think I will. If I humanize him properly in the present, I just need hints of the past, not a whole backstory.

I did a google for how to make a story less ‘boring’. Here’s the highlights:

  • Spending too much time on things that don’t matter. This is pretty relevant to me. When I go off on a tangent about Chicago’s vampire clubs, this is what’s happening. It doesn’t matter. I remember first writing Chicago, and feeling really strongly that I needed some more background, some world-building. I guess that urge is the wrong urge. Need to learn to shut it up.
  • Slowing down things that should be fast. Actually Su said this. I often use Wren’s driving time to have him make phone calls and check in on stuff. Probably it would be better that he just arrive somewhere. Driving is boring. We don’t need to be there in it with him for the whole time. Skip ahead.

I also google how to make a character likeable:

  • Have them be nice to a dog/kid/people generally. Wren hardly ever does this. He’s brusque and bullying to everyone, even decent people, when they don’t move fast enough. People don’t like him.
  • Vulnerability. People think Wren is invulnerable. I thought I was saying all the time that he gets injured, he gets emotionally wounded, but I guess saying is not enough. We need to feel it. I watched a movie last night where the hero got shot in the shoulder, had some stitches, then was back in full fighting mode. I’m not nearly as bad as that. But, yeah… Also emotionally – when his people die/get hurt, he doesn’t seem to care. It’s awful. He should.
  • Other people like them. I have this at times. But many characters seem to dislike Wren. Alli, Teddy, Cheryl, they all dislike him or seem to.
  • Have worthy goals. I think Wren’s motivation is not always wholly clear. Why is he doing all this?

I believe I can fix all this. I’ll do it, then submit for another beta reader, and relaunch and we’ll see. If it goes better, and people start saying they love Wren, I need to give this treatment to all 4 existing books.

Writing Retreat wk 1 – 2020 Writing Week 32

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This week has been week 1 of mine and my wife’s writing retreat. We have a 2 week summer holiday that was going to be a couple of different trips, which all got squashed by corona, so now it’s a staycation.

A Writing Retreat staycation! Intense writing. I did the following to prepare for this:

  • Make a sun screen hood thing for my laptop so I can write in the garden without screen glare. Wear a black shirt helps. this involved ordering black card from Amazon and necessitated waiting a day.
  • Right after I made my screen, family came for a day trip. Sister, brother-in-law and 2 awesome daughters came for a bbq and stayed 3 hours. This obviously knocked us out for 2 days.
  • 2 days later I went out with my wife to take new headshots for our author pages. This involved looking toward the sun to be fully lit. An unintended side effect was that I blasted my eyes and was knocked out for another 2 days, unable to look at screens.
  • Proof-listening to book 4 audiobook, approving, paying and sending for Audible approval. Change cover for book 1 in audio, prep new covers for all 4.
  • Inspired by my new audio covers, today I did some tinkering with my kindle covers to make the title big and my name small. Maybe…
  • Go through my Facebook Wren ads and hide/delete every comment that is talking about other authors or debating if Tom Cruise is a good Jack Reacher. Way too many of these.
  • New words? Well, I’ve been so busy!!

No new words!! But I did visit my mom today, got stuck in traffic, so obviously had to recover while watching 2 Masterchef Professional episodes. The last 2 nights I’ve been sleeping on the floor downstairs as the bedroom is too hot, so that has done my back in. Obviously can’t write new words like that!!

Maybe tomorrow. More likely though I will tinker, watch TV, and make excuses.

Holiday 🙂

Back to writing Wren 5 – 2020 Writing Week 31

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It’s been a quiet week in terms of editing/writing – I tinkered a little with books 1 and 2, whenever Su gave me some feedback. I got a couple of really great reviews from new readers on book 1.

This one is on the US store:

The story is a pulse-pounding tale where the protagonist’s external struggles are only slightly more harrowing than his internal ones. When I finally reached the epilogue I took the first breath I’d enjoyed in about 30 pages. Loss and triumph are carefully interwoven so that each heightens the other and the tension between them becomes nigh unbearable. I’ve grown too old for roller coasters so I’ll take a break before picking up my next Christopher Wren story, but there WILL be another. Many others, no doubt.

This is pretty great – I don’t know for sure, but I’m thinking he read a more recent version of the book.

Here’s the UK review:

This is book one in the Christopher Wren series and what a brilliant start to the series. I would love to continue reading this series. Within the first few pages I was hooked, intrigued. It is a fast paced story with plenty going on to keep the readers attention.

Christopher is the main character… He’s clever, determined, brave and will not give up until hes finished the job and solved the case. Even if that means putting himself at risk. A page turner of a read. Brilliantly written. Full of action.

A well deserved four stars. Highly recommend. Perfect for fans of Lee Child. I can’t wait to see what lies ahead for Christopher in this series.

It’s 4-star but it reads like 5-star. What I love most is that the reader seems to like Wren. This really matters to me. In fact, I may have gone so far to making Wren likeable that I got a negative comment saying that Wren is nothing like Reacher – he leaves too many people alive!!

lol – you can’t please everyone…

Couple of tinkers I made:

  • There’s an extended series where he takes drugs, then plunges into a combat situation which ends with casualties on his side. I thought at the time of writing that Wren was sympathetic – he needs these drugs just to be able to function, since he’s in so much pain – but now I think it makes him unlikable. It’s massively irresponsible to get high before potential combat. So now he takes some ADHD type drugs – to make him more effective and focused – and goes into combat. It just looks better.
  • Other little bits, like removing all reference to the Foundation as a cult and Wren as a cult leader. It’s just too negatively charged a word. Call it an organization. This probably helps make Wren more likeable. The Foundation really exists to help the members, not to exalt Wren.

Has readthrough improved? It’s probably too early to tell. I’ve hired a beta reader for $50 to give me comments on this new version of book 1. Will be interesting if she comes back with anything. Readthrough is everything!!

New words on book 5

I wrote 3,000 new words this week. It was an effort to pull focus back after digging into book 1, but I’m on it now. 22,000 words. Not near to meeting goals, but things should speed up. Lots of research on actual special ops gear – grapnel guns, underwater scooters, autocannons, the like 😉

By next week

I should be 35,000 words on Wren 5 by this time next week. 40,000 would be great – halfway!

Chris Wren series fixes pt. 4 – 2020 Writing Week 30.5

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More fixes to Chris Wren book 1, Saint Justice, have been coming to me and getting implemented over the weekend. Here’s the story so far:

Part 1 – The questionnaire answers on Chris Wren readthrough, and my responses – Mostly people mentioned lack of engagement, the sickness of book 2, Wren was unlikeable, and cost. I vowed to do better.

Part 2 – I got feedback from Su and boughtt he K-lytics report. Here I thought hard about my book titles and blurbs, and changed them all. I also started thinking about streamlining book 1.

Part 3 – More feedback from Su and my own thoughts. I wrote several characters out of the book, several scenes got shrunk, and flashbacks start getting moved.

Part 4 – now.

So here’s what I’ve done:

  • Taken out the flashbacks. I added these in response to some people saying Wren was unsympathetic. Adding flashbacks to him meeting his wife and having happy times seemed a route to fix this, but I’m not happy with it. It slows the pace down and disturbs the narrative, and does nothing for Wren in the present. How to fix that?
  • I make him nicer, more reasonable. For example, he goes hard at a church administrator who doesn’t help him fast enough. But she’s not the enemy. So now he goes softer.
  • Throughout I try to reduce the uber-authoritative tone. Wren speaking for other people, Wren guessing things then acting like those guesses are established facts. I’ve heard that pushes the reader out of the story. So now I try to present the evidence more, then have Wren hi the conclusion. Less leaping, more legwork. One example is when he goes to the warehouse. Now Wren shoots down a Saint, finds an executed Viking, and puts the pieces together after a further search. Makes more sense.
  • Other tinkers here and there, streamlining stuff.
  • A different epilog. This may be pretty major. I’ve become aware I ended the book very happy-clappy. Things begin, things end – those were the exact words. Super low stakes. Nice chitchat with Alli. When in truth he’s still estranged from his family, just discovered the Apex may be real, and the CIA are still hunting him. So – I cut the long Alli chat. Bring in Dr. Ferat, and let him say Wren needs to deal withthe past, or he’ll never be any good to his family. And here’s a clue to the Apex. It links the Saints to the villains of the next book, the Blue Fairy. It sends Wren roaring off into the sunset right at the end, filled with rage and purpose for book 2 – No Mercy.

I think this new ending may make a difference to readthrough. Cliffhangers work. People ‘hate’ them, but they also love them – especially if the major plot line is closed, and the next book is available. I just got started mentioning the Apex. Now he’s coming more into the picture. The book ends on a high.

Now I need to bring that sense of threat and excitement through to book 2. Currently there is no link to the Apex. A few lines here and there will add that in. Also a cliffhanger of some kind at the end of book 2 will be good. Books 3 and 4 have cliffhangers already.

Review

I got a negative review on book 1 this morning, pretty interesting. The guy gave 1 star, said he got to 40% and gave up because it was directionless and there were too many cults.

At first I think – what? Then I realize, we’ve got hints of the Pyramid, and the Foundation, and the Saints, then right around 40% we’ve got all the weird vampire cult stuff with Teddy and Cheryl. It’s a lot to take in. It’s weight without forward momentum.

So I also trimmed all this pretty deeply, almost a whole chapter gone of background on Teddy and Cheryl. The book is faster and leaner than ever. Down to 73,000 words from a high of 87,000. I don’t know Wren if comes across as likeable, but I know he’s nicer than before.

Now to wait for further feedback on this current cut. Look at book 2, maybe. Also write book 5!!

Chris Wren series fixes pt. 3 – 2020 Writing Week 30

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I have written no new words this week ahahahaha!

Rather I have been reworking past Wren books in line with feedback I got from the questionnaire and from Su, and proof-listening to book 4. Let’s take those one by one.

Reworking the Chris Wren series

Part 1 – The questionnaire answers on Chris Wren readthrough, and my responses – Mostly people mentioned lack of engagement, the sickness of book 2, Wren was unlikeable, and cost. I vowed to do better.

Part 2 – I got feedback from Su and boughtt he K-lytics report. Here I thought hard about my book titles and blurbs, and changed them all. I also started thinking about streamlining book 1.

Part 3 – now.

So this week I spent a couple of days reworking books 1-3. As already listed in part 2 – I removed Charles DeVore from book 2 completely. Fine. I looked at doing the same for book 1.

I took out the Mason opening. It made chapters 1-10, even 1-15, look slow and self-indulgent. If I take out the major crime of Mason being snatched, what’s the next really sympathetic action Wren takes?

Beating up the white supremacists? Trouble is, he’s doing it kind of on a whim.

Here I return to how I felt when I wrote the book. I was going forward blind, and spent longer on Wren breaking the gang than I should. With Mason gone, this became clear.

Too many characters introduced, who do little. Baggy as hell. Weighed down. And not sympathetic. So I set out to change that. Here’s what I did:

  • Write Jay Durant out of the book. He brings Wren the semi he uses to steal the bikes. It was a brief encounter originally, responding to other feedback that Wren was too demanding with his teams, but noiw it looks way overlong. So I cut him. Now Henry and Abdul bring the semi. Easy.
  • I remove Demeter, the clerk to the county sheriff’s office. He never got properly introduced anyway, a nd really only served as another person for Wren to explain himself to. He ended up repeating the same things to Demeter, to Humphreys, to Henry and Abdul. Surprisingly easy to remove him.
  • Later on, in Chicago, Wren goes to the Mobil convenience store and has a long chat with two teenage attendants before getting access to the owner, who knew Mason. This is all needless – more explaining. Instead Wren just flashes his CIA card and gets the guy to come down. Easy.
  • Now the beginning is flowing faster, but I’m still feeling little urgency. As the writer, I knew these bikers were bad, but it’s not coming across. So I make them bad. Wren sees the warehouse, then seeks confirmation. Now he crawls right up, and he hears faint screams from inside. Smells baby formula. This confirms human slavery for him. His plan to take down the Brazen Hussy makes more sense from hereon in.
  • The cops at Price PD die. Previously they got abducted. Complex. No need. As I know from the K-lytics report, murder is what people buy, not kidnapping. This raises the bodycount significantly, but we have to hate these guys.
  • Previously he had a nice chat with Cheryl in Chicago, with almost no reference to Wren’s search. Just catching up. I streamlined this right down – Cheryl may have a lead, but they’re working on it. They’ll get back to him. Better, faster.

Overall, I think I’ve lost nothing here – because ultimately I decided to put Mason back. He works. It’s a great crime. Everything else is faster, hopefully boositng engagement, hopefully increasing readthrough. As ever, we’ll see.

Proof-listening to book 4

This is hard work. It’s very listenable, expertly read, but it’s also pretty attention demanding and also dull, since I’ve been through the text so many times. I spot moments where I’ve overwritten a touch, just too many words, and cut them occasionally. Often I let them go because it’s too much work to trim them. If people complain…

Though in the latter chapters things really pick up. Things get fun, there’s quite a lot of laughs – this is probably just because I spent less time re-editing the latter chapters than I did the early chapters.

And sales?

I’m aiming to spend $100 a day on ads. That’s easily do-able, the trick is to do it profitably. That’s happening right now, last couple days I had a 50% return, which is good. Greater readthrough could really transform this number.

Most numbers are moving in the UK. The US I think is crazy competitive.

Oh, one further thing I did was request that Amazon put my books in way more categories in the UK store. I was in 2 or 3 kind of crappy categories. I’m curious if this category expansion (meaning I’ll appear in more category bestseller lists) will lead to more organic sales. It’s definitely more exposure.

I should do the same for Ca and Au Amazon. Takes time, so I’ll see if the UK effort makes any appreciable difference. I’m still waiting for them to put me in the categories – things like Vigilante Justice, Assassins, Conspiracy, etc..

And next week?

Next week, if I get the proof-listening done this weekend, I should be able to go back to new words. Finishing by the end of September is still possible – that’s 2 months off. At 10k a week I’ll still hit it. So 25k by this time next week.