False Flag rework 2024 and Readthrough Report

Mike GristMarketing, Writing Leave a Comment

In the past 6 months I reworked Saint Justice, No Mercy and Make Them Pay to make them the best they could be for audio re-records with WF Howes (narrated by Jeff Harding), with the major goal of increasing read and listen-through. If I can increase readthrough, I both entertain more readers with more books, improve my own storytelling skills and also increase profitability, which takes me closer to making writing these books my full-time gig.

So now I just finished the rewrite of False Flag. Here’s the changelog of everything I altered, followed by the latest Readthrough report.

Reduce Hacker Magic

  • This is proving to be one of the bigger issues across all the reworks so far. For Wren to be able to call his hackers and have them just figure things out for him, as if by magic, really stretches believability. At first, as I did these reworks, I didn’t get it fully – it was kind of a guess. But now I read the arrival of Hellion and B4cksl4cker, and I kind of groan internally. The story starts to wobble on its axis. Like, things just got too easy. There’s no firm ground anymore. They’re too powerful as they are. So I cut them entirely.
  • I’ve already reworked this book back in 2023. I didn’t write it up then, but I made major changes, mostly around the hackers. Their role was cut by maybe 50% – no more drone swarms, no more ‘ghost-tech’ reverse engineering a CCTV record by the absences, no more magical discovery of Sally Rogers as she escaped. Now they are wholly gone. I feel a bit sad about that, but it opens up a world of procedural ‘reality’ (quotes because I don’t know if it’s really realistic, but it’s certainly more realistic than before) where Wren has to work with more characters all embedded in their own hierarchies. It feels good. It feels grounded.
  • So – no hackers tracking down the Ghost – both who and where he is. Wren has to do all this himself now, via additional investigative steps and clever clues he picks out. Yes, he uses some FBI agents to help with the techy stuff, but the role of that is limited. Wren does that hard critical thinking, they crunch numbers. This allows for cool revelations.
  • No hackers tracking down Sally Rogers. She doesn’t really play a role in this book now, other than as a threat – though we’re honestly more worried about Gruber. It was odd she was here at all, and required knowing her from previous books to make it work. We didn’t ‘meet’ her in this book, so didn’t get to care about her here. Not great. But we did meet Gruber, so his role gets stepped up too.
  • No hackers ‘ordering’ Wren a bike, or a monster wheels truck, or anything like that. At best, Wren can just steal vehicles now.
  • No hackers putting together global simultaneous strikes for him (Belarus, Vietnam, somewhere else too) using Foundation assets who’ve never been in a combat role in their lives, like Teddy. That was always quite mad. All that stuff is gone – no international strikes remain. 
  • With the hackers gone, Wren has to use available resources in the CIA or FBI to help him with analysis. He meets several new characters and has good chats with them that cut to the core of the story’s theme as well as what Wren’s undergoing. Much better.

Reduce Silly Humor

  • I didn’t write this in the other reports, but it’s been a factor all along. I guess this relates to the hackers, and my subconscious idea of ‘fun’, but I realize now I’ve been removing it all along. Sometimes it’s authorial stuff like my metaphors and phrasing. The timeless classic example is ‘Wren hit the compound and it crumbled like a wet Graham cracker’. I still think that’s fun, but I can also see it’s silly. I see those phrasings now, and it feels like authorial intrusion. It’s not honest to the story or the current stakes, so it has to go.
  • This kind of silly humor was there with the Monster Truck and the drone swarm and jumping the Sepulveda dam too. Writing those sections (4 years ago now?) felt like a kid smashing toys together and having great fun. Even as I wrote them, I wasn’t sure they were OK. Now I see they’re not, so they’re gone. It’s more realistic now.
  • It often came up with the hackers. They were always so removed from the stakes of whatever Wren was involved in that they’d make silly jokes about poop or sewers or something, and Wren would somewhat join in. but his friend just got killed and he’s hunting a murderer – I don’t think he’d do that. Humor has a place. Black humor is one thing. But silly humor doesn’t really work. Especially if Wren sometimes instigates it. He might be talking to Humphreys and makes an odd comment. I try to cut these. Humor is good but it’s gotta be the right kind at the right time.

   Add Investigative Steps

  • I added lots of these. In the 2023 edit I added a whole series of efforts by Wren to track Steven Gruber’s route off the bus to the Jeddah Mill. In the original cut, Wren got into a fight with an FBI agent and filmed it with a drone (with another magic hacker!) in order to get more eyeballs on his mission and have those people,e post comments of seeing Steven Gruber somewhere in LA. These comments, after processing by his real hackers (via hacker magic) allowed them to tell him to go to the Jeddah Mill. It’s pretty weak. The new process is great, lots of little interactions with different people, some battles, some hoodwinking, some fast talk and car chases.
  • In the recent edit I added a lot more later on. I still relied on hackers and Sally Rogers to find who and where the Ghost is. Now Wren hits a dead-end and chases a historical lead (dating back to their days together in Afghanistan), analyzes multiple instances from real-life (research! Grounding!) to stack a map with pins, then uses his brain to narrow that down to a pattern. From there they analyze some footage, narrow it more, hit on the next lead over, narrow it further in a different way, then finally find the Ghost. It’s a lot more steps. Writing some of these, I felt genuine excitement that we were getting closer. Way better than just the hackers saying – ‘OK Chris, we’re about 50% done with the analysis, get in a helo and we’ll figure it out by the time you get close.’ Sigh.

Build Up the Villain

  • I’ve done this with all the books in the rework so far. Previously, they pretty much all crumbled like Graham crackers at the denouement, and this got explained by them being agents for the Apex. I think this got tiresome. We fight our way to the end, and the villain basically folds, because they’re on orders to fold, often burning themselves alive. That’s how Saint Justice ended (it still is, Acker burns, but not until after a decent fight with Wren), Make Them Pay ended (Harkness burned herself alive), AND False Flag (the method of death was burning alive, ending with Gruber burning himself alive). I changed this for Harkness and the Ghost. They’re not just agents for the Apex. They took his money but have their own goals. They don’t want to die and fight to win until the last moment.
  • As a result, each villain gets their own method of death, which freshens things up. In Make Them Pay, the additional method was hanging, which related to Harkness’ backstory. In False Flag, it becomes a series of jihadi-style decapitation. The Ghost was out there with jihadis for years, so it makes sense. It’s visceral and more real too. We are no longer ‘burned out’ (lol) on burning people alive – which should make book 5 Firestorm feel fresher. 
  • Also as a result, each villain has a clearer motivation, because they’re no longer just following the Apex’s drive. The Ghost is all about corruption, so that’s the theme of the book, and it comes through a lot more. We deal with a lot of instances of corruption, and we see it in Wren’s actions and morality. It’s a different book from the other books because of this. This also gives us a clearer uber-villain, the villain behind the villain, which allows that reveal to punch as well.

 Increased Realism

  • A lot of the above achieved this already. It’s always been a major critique of these books. Just recently I got a review from someone who’d read the first 3 and must’ve liked them enough to get to this one, but then said this one was so unrealistic they had to abandon it. One of the most unrealistic they’d ever read. Ouch. So, there are more ways I worked on this.
  • One small thing was altering ‘aortal flutter’ to ‘atrial flutter’. I recognize now that this is still a big stretch. But at least if someone googles atrial flutter, they will find an existing medical condition. Aortal flutter is something I just made up. But Wren relies on it for his escape, so that’s a big problem out of the gate.
  • At one point Wren rappelled out of a helicopter and tried to grab Sally Rogers on a racing ATV. Kind of nonsensical. He hit pistachio trees and bounced around but still managed to get her. It’s really unlikely so I cut all of it – and then with that cut, I realized there really was no need for Sally Rogers at all.
  • Wren had the Foundation wage multiple international strikes, as well as back him on his strike on the Ghost. Now that team has been replaced by a Marine squad headed up by Miller, who appeared in a previous rewrite. It makes sense. Use highly trained operators for these advanced raids. 

Reduce Repetition

  • This is another one I do often and have been fixing in an ongoing way across all the books. It often happens with Humphreys in an argument. Humphreys will say Wren can’t do something, or Wren will berate Humphreys about something, and it’ll just go round and round several times. The same things get said in different ways. I’m trying to cut all these when I see them.

Improve Humphreys

  • People have been getting sick of Humphreys for several books, mainly because he’s always standing in Wren’s way for kind of silly reasons. He just seems like a jerk. Early in this book he’s threatening to kill Wren and his Foundation, then barely relents by the end. Now he does all that less. He’s still a stuffed shirt, but the threat proves empty and he didn’t know about the torture. He apologizes and gets right. He’s not so one-note.  

Reduce PVE

  • I define PVE as Player Versus Environment, and it happens when Wren spends multiple chapters dealing with an obstacle that is non-plot relevant and not really very hard to overcome. It happened here mostly when he escaped the black site then jumped out of the Chinook he’d captured. He jumps out, gets knocked out, escapes a night dragnet in the desert, survives for a day by foraging, finds a solar plant and steals a car and a phone, then calls Hector Gutierrez to get him across the US border. That’s like 5 chapters of messing around just to escape. I realized as I was reading it – this is boring. It’s also silly. Wren’s in a helicopter. He can go anywhere he wants. Why jump out? So now he doesn’t. We skip all that nonsense and just go straight in the helicopter to a rendezvous with Gutierrez. It moves things right along to something meaningful and plot-relevant.
  • The chase scene had elements of this as well. It took multiple efforts to escape the people chasing him, including vehicle switchouts and a drone swarm. I cut a few of those so the slog to get free doesn’t become boring. 

As ever, that’s a lot of stuff. There are other things too. You’ll have to read the book to find out ;). I cut probably 15,000 words, but ended up adding in more than that back with all the investigation. 65,000 words, now. I’m pleased. I really hope this book will no longer be a kind of log jam turning people off the series.

Now, onto the Readthrough calculator!! Have a look:

Red is bad. Green is good. Figures show readthrough % from the previous book to that book. As we can see, figures for the most recent period, Mar 1-May 30, show either a decrease in readthrough (for orders) at 32%, or the exact same number for KENP page reads at 58.3%. Oh my. 

That’s remarkably consistent. It looks statistically significant and unassailable, untouched by any of the changes I made to Saint Justice. Readthrough from 2 to 3 is virtually the same, with a tiny uptick to 64% in orders and a downturn to 61% for KENP. Not a significant change – basically exactly the same, signaling that no changes I made to No Mercy had any effect on readthrough – at least not yet. I’ve heard it can take up to 6 months to notice an impact, and this has just been 3 months.

On order 3 to 4 we’re down slightly to 57%, but up a decent amount for KENP to 74%, which is nice. After that it continues much as before.

Looking at the long term trend seems disturbing but is probably not really. Lifetime figures up until 2023 showed readthrough 1 to 2 of above 40%. Everything since has been around a third. So despite (or perhaps because of) all my changes over that period, readthrough 1 to 2 (the most important number) has decreased. There’s reasons for that, but it’s certainly not an improvement.

In summary, the story here is of an unchanging, relatively low readthrough. The key readthroughs of 1 to 2 to 3 have either remained consistent or dropped over the last couple of years. Once people get through book 4, though, they consistently stick around. It’s only about 7% of the initial readers that go that far, which is of course disappointing. It explains clearly though why latter books in the series sell fewer books. They may be better books, but nobody’s left to try them out.

I also analyzed my readthrough value – how much I can expect to make on average from a sale of book 1, taking into account readthrough percentages. It varies a little, but across the years is pretty consistent around $14. So as long as I spend less than $14 to make a sale of book 1, I’ll make money.

I ran a quick comparison of how that would look if I had much-improved (similar to decent-selling fellow authors) readthrough. Let’s say 50% to book 2, 90% to 3, then 95% from then on. With my current readthrough, I had total orders of 3300 in the 3 months from March to May. If I had the improved readthrough, but the same number of book 1s sold, that would have been more like 7250 total. Double the total sales. Extrapolate that to the readthrough value and it easily doubles, maybe more than that, because latter books in a series usually cost more than earlier books. At least $30 per book 1 sold.   

So, what to make of all this?

I have some theories to explain it. Regarding the historical reductions in early readthrough, I put that down to people one-clicking the series to buy a lot more back then. When there were only 4 or 5 books, I used to get lots of one-clicks like that. It made readthrough look very good, because people didn’t often return the books for refunds. It inflated my readthrough, while at the same time I got hit with many bad reviews.

These days, I don’t get negative reviews. Hardly any at all. The reviews frequently say they read right through, fast pace, can’t wait for more. Exactly what I want to see :). So that’s one thing the rewrites have definitely addressed. They’re better stories for all the changes I made.

So why isn’t readthrough higher?

One answer is that this is too soon to know for sure. It’s only been 3 months, so maybe we need longer.

Another answer may be thematic. I used to believe it was the stuff people mentioned in their negative reviews, of which there used to be many – things like lacking realism or too violent or something – but since I’ve fixed all those, maybe it’s something else.

My current theory is about the underlying theme of all these books, which is civil strife. It’s there in every book. They’re about domestic terror attacks fracturing America society, and perhaps at best only a third of people want to read more about that. As long as that’s there in the background, maybe I will never get a better readthrough. And across the series, only 7% of people want to read about that enough to reach book 10. Once they get there, they want more, but there’s not very many of them.

It’s interesting. It’s a theory that’s tough to test, but time will tell.

I don’t feel too bad about this data, surprisingly. I have learned a huge amount from these rewrites. I’ve learned what theme not to repeat. I may even be able to repackage the latter Wren books, which are not about civil strife, into their own series with a new starting point, and see if I can get more people reading those books that way.

Another alternative course, and less drastic, is what I’m doing right now:

  • Streamline and maximize my book backmatter to point directly at the next book in the series.
  • Reduce the price of books 2-4 to 99c/p to see if I can increase readthrough and get readers to the later books. We’ll also find out if readers are price-conscious. Thus far, sales of these books are up.

More generally, I’ll also be looking at new series characters. I’ll continue Girl Zero. But with any subsequent series, I’ll be looking closely at readthrough all along. If you shed too many readers after one or two books, that’s something I need to address earlier.

No Mercy & Make Them Pay reworks 2024

Mike GristUncategorized Leave a Comment

I wrote a pretty epic report on how I rewrote Saint Justice back in Sept 2023 – a process which has since continued as I have rewritten books 2 and 3, No Mercy and Make Them Pay – ultimately by much more than I’d expected. I’m doing this for multiple reasons, primarily because I think the books have weaknesses and can be better and get better readthrough – and I’m doing it now because the series is getting re-recorded by WF Howes using Jeff Harding as narrator, and we have a launch schedule to meet.

First, though, a report on the Saint Justice rewrite. It may be too early to say anything about the change in readthrough – I haven’t noticed much of an uptick, but I have noticed a change in the reviews it’s been getting. In the dark days of <10% readthrough, even positive reviews would say the book exhausted them and they’d need to take a break before reading another.

No one has said that in months. The reviews Saint Justice gets now have been wholly positive, with excerpts like:

  • My first book by Mike Grist but I definitely won’t be my last!
  • I really enjoyed reading a new author to me. I can hardly wait to read more of him. This was exciting, nail biting, and sad.
  • First time reading Mike Grist book and will be continuing to read the entire series. The book was exciting and moved at a good pace. Don’t want to spoil it for anyone so suffice it to say I will be picking up the next book in the series. Excellent book.
  • I am a former SpecOps Operator. I am re-reading the Christopher Wren series, having read the Girl Zero series and awaiting the next installment.
  • Decent book – very easy to read – kept me engaged throughout – will definitely read more by this author.
  • I’m pleased to say it was excitement from the start to the end .
    Really well written story a d easy to follow. 10 out of 10
  • Fabulous book kept me enthralled . Even better than auld Reacher.
    Now on book 2 and will buy the rest very soon .

So that’s really gratifying – alongside zero purely negative reviews since the rewrite. I’m onto something, and seem to be keeping readers enthused about the next book and the rest of the series. I would love to see the overall review rating rise from 4.0 to 4.1 and higher, but that’ll take time. With around 5,000 reviews to make that average, I’ll need to sell a lot more and keep getting 5s to move the needle.

Fingers crossed. One small indication, which may easily be an outlier, is the review rating in Germany. I just had Saint Justice translated into German, and so far it’s got a 4.6 rating, but on only 3 reviews. It’s be amazing to keep a rating above 4.5, but lots of factors go into that, including the translation itself. But 4.6 suggests the translation is good. If it was crap, I’d never get that score.

Major spoilers follow.


I honestly thought this one would be easy. I did it around December 2023, right before finishing Wren book 10, Hammer of God, in Feb 2024. I’d already made changes to the original, prior to reworking Saint Justice.

BUT, I ended up changing way more than I expected. Here’s a change-log:


  • I mentioned this with Saint Justice. It used to be that Wren would set his hackers on the job, likely fall asleep while on a plane traveling somewhere, then wake up and they’ve done all the investigation and come up with a target. It’s a cop-out, unrealistic and gotta be unsatisfying to read. In No Mercy, the main instance is when Wren and Rogers get on a plane and head west without a clear idea where they’re going. Mid-flight, amongst a lot of other filler activity, they get their destination. Not great. Now, there’s a lot more on Wren’s investigation. He dives into the research, which gets a little procedural, but it affords some great moments of revelation – like as a string of deductive leaps leads him to the conclusion about who Clara Baxter really is. In the previous cut, he woke up and just had all this explained to him. OMG, Baxter is … . It’s pretty weak. Now we’re live in the moment and the revelation should slap.
  • A second instance of hacker magic happened when they got to the farm in Idaho. With only a couple of hours notice, and using only 2 gig worker operators, Wren’s hackers somehow conjured up a massive swarm of UAV drones that turn the tide in a battle against 20+ Pinocchios. This would’ve involved buying at least a hundred drones (from multiple shops?), transporting them to an extremely remote place that Wren is already racing to via jet and beating him there, unboxing them, linking them wirelessly then launching the perfectly on time to save Wren’s butt, then having them work as effective real-time ‘missiles’. It’s an incredible amount of unrealism. Just not possible – right alongside the ‘hacker’ ability of the Pinocchios to get 20+ armed men to the same remote farmhouse before Wren, when Wren is the first to crack the location and, again, is already on a jet en route. Just silly. So I cut all of it. No more Pinocchios at the farmhouse. No drone swarm. Just Wren and Rogers, with threat coming from elsewhere. A threat that feels far more real and visceral than the cool but comic book stuff I had before.
  • The third instance is the biggest, and relates to the overall power and goal of the Pinocchios. Originally, via some unexplained backdoor hack, they had the ability to blackmail the entire USA, so much so that the country will have to change its Constitution. This is happening independent of the murders that kick off Wren’s involvement, but is never explained nor directly investigated. It’s pretty out there, so now it’s gone. The Pinocchios have a much more modest goal now, much more achievable. This necessitated quite a lot of changes, so that it made sense.


  • A frequent piece of feedback was that readers were finding books 2, 3, 4 were starting to get a bit samey. There was definitely an element of that, not only in the number of times the Apex got mentioned, or the fact that each book ended on a semi-cliffhanger about the Apex’s true involvement. There was also this feeling that the bad guys were doing their plots primarily to please the Apex. This was borne out by them having as a primary motive the dissolution of America, and repeatedly basically giving up and burning themselves alive or surrendering in some other way at the end of each novel – somewhat robbing us of a climax but ensuring maximum psychological impact on Wren. This was samey, and I wanted to get away from it – give each villain their own reasons, along with a strong desire to win and survive.
  • I fixed Saint Justice by adding in more of a final fight with Richard Acker, with suicide only coming at the very last beat.
  • I fixed No Mercy by shifting the Pinocchios plot from total hacker blackmail to the desire to run their own sick ship in secret, plus strike back with terrorist killings of anti-Pinocchio forces. That was it. No government-level blackmail. They also put up more of a fight now at the end – previously Wren invaded Pleasure Island and that was that. It was over. But surely someone would mount an effective defense. Now they do, and Wren barely survives, while Girl Zero/Clara Baxter gets a better introduction, and gets to kick some ass in her own rescue.


  • PVE means Player Versus Environment, and I use it whenever I’ve got scenes with action that don’t link to the main threat and don’t really need to be there. It’s best gotten rid of and acts as stodgy filler. One of the biggest PVE moments comes on the plane west toward Idaho, an 8-chapter stretch of mostly nothing. Rather than having Wren do an investigation, I had him battling Humphreys to escape CIA control (now that it’s no longer a government blackmail situation, Humphreys has no reason to come after Wren anymore – now he backs him firmly, fixing another plot point, where people were just getting pissed off at Humphreys). Humphreys tried to take remote control of the plane, so Wren did some complex stuff to re-take control, but ultimately it was all unnecessary, so I binned it. This made room for an online search with revelations, and a creepier landing and approach to the Idaho farm. Also during that flight we had the death of Dr. Ferat, who was sort of acting as Wren’s go-between with the Foundation. But now the Foundation play a much smaller role, primarily his hackers doing the off-book work the CIA won’t, so there’s no reason for Dr. Ferat to die. It was weird anyway, as she was scarcely introduced in this book. Someone dies who we haven’t even seen on the page – we probably don’t feel anything. All gone now. No death. No involvement at all.
  • There’s also the mega scenes of Wren battling the Pinocchios at two different houses, one the perp’s, one the catfish boss. Those escalated pretty wildly and unrealistically. Now they’ve been dialled right back. No helicopters are getting shot down by shoulder-mounted RPGs. It’s a bit less cool, but the action doesn’t yank us out of any sense of realism.


  • This is an area I’m really proud of. Adding in more investigation was pretty tough, but constantly enriched the book. One scene involved tracking the Pinocchio van in Detroit. We ended up going to the blighted house where they tortured Tom Solent, and picking up some clue that led to the next step forward. Another was getting to the Idaho house, with Wren doing pattern recognition in a huge data set and picking out the threads he needed, culminating in a revelatory photograph of Clara Baxter and Lance Gebhart. Click, it’s a moment we never had in the original, at least not properly, and now it’s earned. Also, after the Idaho house and getting to Pleasure Island is spread out across more steps and clues now.

There’s probably lots more that I did, but those are the big ones. I also made Wren and Rogers’ relationship more friendly, pitching them closer to equals, and reduced how annoying Humphreys is.


I did this one Feb-March 2024, and thought it would be even easier than No Mercy. I’d already made some big changes before I even did Saint Justice, involving adding investigative steps (going to San Quentin to talk to the SAMs) and reducing unrealism. I thought I just needed to make a change or two to the beginning, like take out the helicopter completely from Wren’s effort to get into Theeravit’s dungeon house, and I’d be done.



  • Previously, the kind of entire middle of the book was taken up with Wren squabbling with his Foundation. He did Alaska, then did NameCheck, then San Quentin for the SAMs, then it was still hacker magic that led him to the Anti-Ca compound. On the way to the compound he still fell asleep and got transported to the strike location, still uses a drone fleet of driverless cars remotely controlled by Hellion, still has enlisted for him a ragtag group of wannabe commandos from the Foundation, none of whom have had any real training, and one of whom is there literally as a joke, because he’s a copier machine salesman. The tone of this whole long section is off. It’s kind of played for laughs, but just stretches on and on. When Wren and his driverless car brigade attacks the Anti-Ca compound, it has the feel of slapstick comedy. Like a bunch of clown cars with guys surfing on top of them shooting madly. Like a dumb video game. I always thought that was fun, but now I see it’s gonna turn people off who were taking the threat seriously. You can’t go in so half-cocked and expect us to care.
  • So, I changed everything here. No passing out, for starters. Wren has to go earn the Anti-Ca location with more investigative steps. This gives Sally Rogers a proper intro, along with the SEAL team she’s brought with her. Now Wren goes with the SEAL team and they do a proper raid with real vehicles. It’s serious, not silly.
  • In the previous cut, after the raid Wren spends like 8 chapters dealing with Foundation BS. They are mad at him for being immoral and stage an intervention. It’s all PVE boring stuff. Don’t they see the country is in the grips of a major terrorist incident, but still they think it’s time for an intervention? There’s also a second interrogation of the same target Wren already interrogated once, which is boring. The whole thing is kind of silly. Now it’s all gone. Wren ends up in hospital right alongside Sally Rogers, but with the next step waiting to be taken.


  • After gutting the PVE core of the book, I was down to probably 50,000 words. Very short, with big leaps of logic between set piece action scenes. I had to stitch it all back together somehow, and that involved more investigative scenes. First up, Wren, Rogers and Gruber go to Vegas, where they interrogate a playboy about his role in funding Anti-Ca – after being led here by the SAMs in San Quentin. After the Anti-Ca compound, there’s a big search for the arena, with another document-level pattern search by Wren, weeding out the person behind the Reparations. This fills her out massively, and leads us into her hugely improved motive and a whole different endgame:


  • Originally, Yumiko Harkness committed suicide in front of Wren in the arena, not for her own purposes, but to serve the Apex. He likes that kind of thing, and wanted to shock Wren. It makes her own motivation a joke and focuses us on the Apex again. Now that’s all changed – at best, she took the Apex’s money to fund her revenge, which is now personal and visceral and multi-pronged. Now there’s a new endgame, at the same house where her father committed suicide, strongly connected to Handel Quanse, where the billionaires will die in a whole new way. It’s cool and grew right out of Yumiko’s core motivation. To get the location, Wren has to interrogate Yumiko, while doing more document analysis, while she hangs from a winch in a Black Hawk 10,000 feet high. Then after the final deaths, there’s a kicker which twists everything around one more time. Her true goal.
  • After all that, we revisit Yumiko to ask about the Apex. She’s little help, but Wren races off to hunt any track he can. This makes sense. Rather than going to his family. He’s then arrested by Rogers in the midst of that hunt, setting us up for book 4.

It’s a whole different story from about a third of the way in. I think it’s much better. It actually puts us way more viscerally into Wren’s childhood trauma, and resolves an extra issue I’d had in the back of my mind for a long time, and both shoves the Apex into the background while making the hunt for him more pressing by the end. Nobody surrenders or gives up. There is no hacker magic or PVE left. It all feels taut and humming with tension to me.

Let’s hope the readers agree and readthrough climbs.

Oh, there’s one other factor I came up with in the last few days that probably really helps improve readthrough. It’s the issue of friendship. Always Wren was a loner, above everyone, using people as pawns or sacrificial lambs. But other books in the genre have their heroes have lots of old friends, tough guys who are equals, who have banter and good times together. It makes readers want to be with them.

I didn’t consciously add this in to the rewrites, as I hadn’t thought of it, but it did just happen naturally to some extent. Maybe not in book 1 so much, but in book 2 Wren gets along better with Sally Rogers, with more banter time. In book 3 he has more with her, some good ‘equal’ time with Gruber, and works great with a SEAL guy called Miller. They’re not exactly friends, but they work well together and have some fun doing it. I think it’s another step in the right direction. I’ll def add this more consciously in the future.

Saint Justice rework 2023

Mike GristEditing, Story Craft, Writing Leave a Comment

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I sometimes go back to earlier, already-published works and rework them. Reworking the early Wren books to be more in line with the genre and reader expectation was what led to my sales breakthrough in 2021. I’ve talked about all the things I changed several times here, here, here and probably other places too.

In summary, I:

  • hugely reduced violence and gore
  • brought Wren’s emotions far more under his own control
  • cut all secondary perspectives to focus more on Wren
  • cut large chunks of world building, backstory chapters and Foundation info to focus on flow
  • cut all heavy swearing, recreational drug use and alcoholism
  • reduced or removed all political, cultural and religious didacticism
  • added new, more exciting and immediate opening chapters
  • made all threats personal

I did lots more things too, including new covers, titles and blurbs, not all of which I remember. All these changes transformed the uptake of book 1 as well as the readthrough to book 2. Pre-2021, readthrough to book 2 was around 10-20%. To latter books it was even lower, like a couple of percentage points.

Those got better after the changes, but they were still not high enough.

Writing is not a competition with other authors, but over the past couple of years it’s become very plain that my readthrough is a fair bit lower than similar authors to me, in my genre. Those authors report that they get at least 50% readthrough to book 2, as some drop-off is inevitable, but after that they maintain 90-100% of their readers through the series.

These numbers are easy to confirm in a general way. If I look at where Saint Justice is in the Amazon charts, I can compare with the first books of similar-selling authors around me. I then scroll down to where book 2, No Mercy, is in the charts. To find it, I have to go past numerous sequels for numerous other authors, all of whose book 1s are selling comparably to me. Then to find my book 3, 4 or later in the series?

They’re not on those charts, while other authors’ whole series’ are. For some reason, I’m bleeding readers. I could surely be retaining so many more, and funneling them to the latter books which I’m really proud of.

Here’s my rough readthrough rates for this year:

  • 1-2: 37%
  • 1-3: 30%
  • 1-4: 16%
  • 1-5: 14%
  • 1-6: 14%
  • 1-7: 18%
  • 1-8: 16%
  • 1-9: 19%

Laid out like this, the numbers are abysmal. They’re definitely better than my pre-2021 numbers, where I was hitting a few percent for latter books, and it’s good that after book 4 I mostly retain everyone, but it’s still terrible. 1-2 should be 50%+. Every book after that should be at the very least 40%+. To achieve those numbers, I’d need to at least double my readthrough.

So, how?

That’s the question. One I’ve spent the last few weeks/months attempting to answer, by making changes backwards across the series, culminating in a hefty rework of Wren 1, Saint Justice. I think I’m making these books better. I think this is an incredible learning experience for me as a storyteller, finally seeing all the mistakes I was making that I couldn’t see before.

Only time, the audience and my readthrough rates will be the judge.

So, here’s what I’ve done:

  • Removed all cliffhanger endings. This was a big one, and took lots of time and thought, particularly for the transition from book 5-6, which is the biggest, most literal cliffhanger in the series, with Wren left in peril and book 6 picking up in the middle. That’s now gone. Book 5 ends. Book 6 starts a new, though obviously related, story. It’s the same for each book. Going through this process made me remember comments I’d received numerous times, that the Apex storyline was dragging on too long. I think that’s because I ended every book on an unfinished note, with reference to the Apex. It was basically the same cliffhanger again and again. ‘Don’t relax, Wren, the Apex is still out there!’ Now the Apex storyline is pushed further back. Wren has his life. He gets almost total closure at the end of each book. Now more than ever, the books all standalone, which very much brings them into line with every other thriller series I see out there. Nobody is doing long sequential series. I still have that, but it’s in the background more. This also puts paid to a feeling I always used to have when finishing a book, which meant I never felt Wren was really ‘ready’ for the next book – because he’d had no rest. No notes of happiness. Now he does. It’s even allowed me to pay off an early romance that was only ever hinted at, as well as give Wren some closer connection with his family earlier. Because of this, he’ll come to each new story fresh.
  • Made things more realistic. Over the years, the biggest hammer of criticism readers have hit Wren with has been the realism issue. They say it’s not realistic, and I didn’t know what they meant. Gradually, though, by thinking about it, trying to engage with such readers as much as I can, hiring editors and beta readers again and again, I think I get it. Everything I put in my books is probably ‘possible’ to some degree, much like the stunts in Mission Impossible are technically possible. They are, however, sometimes wildly implausible. This is what the readers mean, I think, by ‘realistic’. They want Wren to follow more of the same rules you and I follow. So, I’ve been working on fixing this in the following ways:
  • 1- Remove as much hacker magic as possible. I didn’t realize I was doing this at the time, but upon reflection I recognize it now – I often had Wren need to know something secret, ask his hackers to find it, and they did. Hey presto. Sometimes he’d just say ‘find me a location to strike’ and they would. No work involved, just an answer via hacker magic. Of course he also uses his hackers as seasoned battle operators (though they’ve only ever played computer games), has them hack things rapidly that would probably take weeks to do, has them hack and control fleets of self-driving cars within hours, and has them crunch magicky excel sheets of mega data to provide him with suspects. Some books are more guilty of this than others, in particular Make Them Pay (they came up with the compound to target wholly on their own, while Wren was unconscious) and False Flag (they make an algorithm to parse all traffic data in LA, combined with witness statements, to track an invisible vehicle for the rest of the book). In order to remove these magic tricks that advanced the plot, I had to replace them with something:
  • 2- Add more realistic investigative threads. I did this pretty much any time I removed hacker magic, or Wren stumbling upon a clue by some accidental means. This had to happen pretty substantially in False Flag, which was largely driven by hacker magic. Wren had his hackers do that magic excel sheet thing to track Stephen Gruber then to track the Ghost, but even to me at the time that felt tenuous. I added in a bunch of chapters that saw Wren hitting the street and knocking on doors, ‘glamoring’ people or compelling them where necessary to get the intel he needed. It’s a great sequence now, much more believable I think, and relies on Wren using his skills and putting in the work rather than outsourcing it to magic. This also happens in Make Them Pay and Saint Justice too.
  • 3- Take out/play down the wildest stunts. I love stunts and I love Wren going big, but the readers don’t. I guess Mission Impossible-level action doesn’t play so great in book form. If it can’t look amazing on screen, then maybe it just reads silly. Accordingly, I’ve reduced some of the wilder scenes. One that stood out to me in particular was in False Flag, where Wren jumped a Monster Truck over a dam with flags whipping in the wind, into a hail of bullets that largely get blocked by a huge swarm of drones – all put together within minutes. I guess it is kind of silly, though it’s also cool. Now it’s gone. Wren’s chase up the LA River still happens, but focuses on more realistic stunts. Another example is the fleet of self-driving cars in Make Them Pay that Hellion uses to storm a compound (she does the same thing with the Anaximanderian compound in a later book) – I kept the core of that, but reduced it right down. Maybe one or two cars.
  • 4- Downgrade the Foundation. I love the Foundation, and I loved that Wren can just call on them. But people don’t get it. Some said, very specifically and helpfully, that Wren should get help from just one source, either the CIA or the Foundation. And as I re-read the books, I found myself agreeing. With the Foundation as it is, Wren is massively overpowered. It’s not realistic. Even to maintain the Foundation is pretty unrealistic. He claims to watch all 100 members all the time, to check if they’re keeping to their coin level, but when? He has a full-time undercover role with the CIA and a family. Coin meetings with that many people alone would take days, let alone the research to have something meaningful to say to them. So – I’ve downgraded the Foundation to make it more realistic. They are far less of a paramilitary force now. What they can offer is expertise and connections. I did this in Saint Justice – where Wren relies on Cheryl blackmailing a cop to get him CCTV footage he needs. There are now no Henry and Abdul and no Alli. Their contribution was overkill and unnecessary.
  • Reduce stodge that slows down the story. I think there’s probably lots of this in my writing generally, especially when I’m spinning my wheels and not sure where the story should go. A story should be pretty fast, though. I don’t know how some authors get away with not fast stories. I can’t get away with digressing at all, it seems. Or maybe my digressions are the wrong kind of digressions? Who knows? Here are some ways:
  • 1- Remove PVE and make it PVP. These are terms from MMORPG games – Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games like Warcraft. In Warcraft you can choose a PVE world, or Player Versus Environment, or PVP, Player Versus Player. PVE means you follow the game story, but it’s flat and not dynamic. You spend a lot of time ‘grinding’ out repetitive quests for XP and loot. PVP, however is dynamic, fast and pits you against a real live person. I think about this distinction when I end up writing scenes that don’t have any real sense of threat and provide no tonal change. A big example comes in Saint Justice, where Wren makes a huge effort (calling THREE Foundation members into service, risking their lives and liberty undergoing illegal actions) because he wants to steal all the Vikings bikes before he goes to hit the warehouse. I always loved this idea of Wren stealing the bikes, so I worked it in there, but it really makes no sense. At this point he’s seen the warehouse and knows what they’re doing. Going after the bikes is PVE – pointless grinding. To be properly focused and PVP, he should go straight for his objective, the warehouse. This happens also with the first investigative lead he undertook in Make Them Pay, where he went after Lars Mecklaren on his NameCheck campus. I had that in there because I was mad at social media, but it’s ultimately pretty pointless. Wren makes a huge effort to get to Lars, then basically tells him to stop doing it, then asks Hellion to find him a target and drops unconscious. It’s PVE. So, I altered all that to make Lars more PVP. Wren must have a goal and gain meaningful intel to progress his search, otherwise it’s pointless.
  • 2- Reduce non-dialog sections. This is similar to the PVE issue above, but occurred to me later, as raised by Su. She has been reading the new rework of Saint Justice, and saying it’s cleaner and clearer than ever before. Before, she had found herself getting bogged down from the beginning, not knowing what was happening or what Wren was doing. That good reading experience continued until she reached the warehouse-Price PD-warehouse section of the book. In reworking this part, I’d already thought it was quite repetitive, and had reduced it. But still, it spans about 8 chapters early in the book, during which Wren is doing things he’s already done once before, where there is no meaningful direct dialog (other than a phone call – not bad, and text messages – not great), and also no real hints given or moving forward of that plot. In particular, there was a 4 or 5 chapter run where Wren speaks to no one, just searches the warehouse (again), thinks about his past, explains human trafficking, has a freakout and takes drugs, before finally getting the clue to Chicago. I can see more clearly that much of this needs to go. A good rule of thumb may be that there can’t be too many non-dialog chapters in my books – certainly not more than one in a row. It’s dull, foggy, wholly PVE, and lends itself to noodly navel-gazing. Wren’s gotta engage with people in the world, either standing in his way or giving him clues to accelerate him to someone who will stand in his way. That’s the spine of story. All these non-dialog scenes and PVE scenes are like fat laid on that skeleton. Trim them off, and suddenly the story can move. I feel it as I strip them. Add on to that, this morning I got another 1-star review complaining that Saint Justice is ‘difficult to follow’. Maybe this is why. It’s all gotta go.
  • 3- Remove transit chapters. This is perhaps another PVE instance, where I would think that because the drive to somewhere is long, the story should fill some of that time a little bit. Probably it shouldn’t. Probably it should just whip to the next event. But instead, I’ve often filled these transit times with more noodly self-reflection, or taking a chance to check up on how various spinning plates are getting along, or indulge in a flashback, or grumble about Wren’s severe injuries. But all of those are pretty boring. Checking up on spinning plates becomes less and less necessary the more I trim out of the stories, because it becomes obvious not much has happened since the last event. The catching up is really just pushing ahead. What happens next? I remember upon writing these chapters, I’d kind of relax, because they’re easy. Writing a thousand words of reflection and emotional baggage is easy. It’s moving things forward that’s hard, and that’s what the readers want. I need to delete all these transit chapters
  • Be less mysterious about Wren’s past. I had approached the series with the aim of gradually unspooling Wren’s past book by book, but I think now that that just pisses people off. It makes Wren unknowable and unrelatable – another common complaint. I’ve been reading in the genre more than ever, and most books tell you everything you need to know about the main character very early on. These are not psychological thrillers like Girl on the Train with an unreliable narrator. People want to know their hero and then see them go out with whatever emotional baggage they have, and still kick ass. So I give a little more on Wren’s background, a lot earlier. I don’t conceal it. And this, in particular in Saint Justice, gave me the new feeling that Wren was actually pretty broken and needed help. I’ve wanted that feeling for him before, but never actually felt it myself. I felt responsible for him, and wanted him to get happy. I hope readers feel that closeness.
  • Wren is even more in control. I had done a wave of this before, but left in some instances where Wren has mini breakdowns as a major plot reversal. But this is kind of PVE thinking. It’s not very exciting for the main character to have a kind of panic attack and almost commit suicide in the middle of a hunt, or be so stressed out they won’t answer the phone even when the news might be essential, or take drugs and render yourself useless. Now those things don’t happen. Wren is way more unflappable. Emotions hit him and affect him but he doesn’t ever lose it. That’s the whole point of him – he’s in command of himself. No more drugs, no more freakouts.
  • Make Wren more likable. This is similar to above, but I find it comes hard. People have said in reviews before that Wren is a hard man to like. They like Reacher, Puller, other heroes, but not Wren. I think this stems from the primary backstory I gave Wren, and how I wanted him to be long-term affected and damaged by both his childhood in the cult and his time in special ops. It makes him cold, afraid of human connection, unable to always be nice and nurturing, the way he should be. But it’s also an unappealing characteristic. As readers, we want a tough guy who can handle the horrors of the world and, to some extent, shield us from them. Like a father figure. But Wren wasn’t doing that. If anything, he was spraying pain out every day, in every way. In an early scene in Saint Justice, he buys kidnap gear from a kid in a roadside store, then confesses that he’s been attacked by bikers and going to find one of them. He even makes the kid complicit by asking him to get him a taxi to the biker’s house. It’s weird and kind of cruel, also selfish. Wren shouldn’t do things like that, so I switched it. He lies and says he had a hiking accident, no big deal. He smiles. That’s better. Now I need to apply that everywhere.
  • Increase the role of women. This was something I’d had in the back of my mind for some time, particularly with a view to Saint Justice. Every book after that features Sally Rogers, who is a strong female character. Later on you’ve got Hellion and Clara Baxter too. But in book 1, two women who were featured, Cheryl and Sinclair, were presented primarily in terms of their physical attributes. Cheryl is a burlesque dancer and Sinclair tries to interrogate Wren using her sexuality. Not great to do this twice with the only two named female characters. So I reduced the description, gave Cheryl more to do (an essential role!), and flipped one major character from male to female – Dr. Grayson Ferat became Dr. Greylah Ferat. It’s an easy change, not impactful in any way, but just gives women more of an important/authoritative role.
  • Reduced overall length. Generally, all the changes above meant cutting length. Often these were whole chapters, or repetitive sections. The books were all 80k+ words, now they’re mostly all around 70k. They should read way faster and cleaner for this.
  • Add back in some alternate perspectives. I removed all these, but on reflection decided to add some back in. A book in this genre generally needs to open with a crime. If I follow that ‘rule’, while also following the rule about Wren as the only POV, then every book has to open with Wren in dire threat. But that’s exhausting and hard. Probably it’s unbelievable. Threat to Wren, after a few books, is not too scary. We know he’ll be OK. So threaten someone else. Maybe they’ll live. Maybe they’ll die. Either way, it’ll be a crime to kick off the story. For example, War of Choice opened with a flashforward of Wren in Ukraine battling Russians – because I had nothing else from his perspective. But it’s not good – it only works by making us curious about what he was doing there, which is not as strong an emotion as outrage at a crime. A way better opening is to have the POV of Wren’s hackers, and watch them get abducted. We like the hackers, but we don’t know if they’ll survive. So now the whole book is taut with the question of whether they’ll survive. Likewise, book 6 Enemy of the People used to open with Wren escaping Washington – a direct continuation of the cliffhanger in book 5. Now it doesn’t, now it opens with the threat specific to that book, as a woman burns herself alive.
  • Remove/reduce colorful metaphors. I’ve always enjoyed language, and love to have fun, bright, colorful imagery. One time, Wren hit a compound so hard it crumbled like a wet Graham cracker. Another time a compound split open like an edamame bean. To my eye, those are fun metaphors. but to some readers they were ridiculous. They took them out of the moment. To some extent, it’s me, the author, being clever-clever with an offbeat comparison, when I should just say something straight and clear. The compound crumbled. The compound split. I changed these.
  • Cool the overwriting. I’ve done this before with this series, grading the ‘intensity’ of my writing so it’s not always got to be absolutely amazing and every fight doesn’t have to be the hugest, coolest, most violent. I see this with a lot of ‘massive uppercuts’ and detailed descriptions of how much force a punch would deliver. I remember thinking these were very cool when I wrote them. I probably still write about ‘massive’ uppercuts now. But I imagine a lot of them is exhausting to read. It’s kind of telling not showing. I’m ‘telling’ the audience, wow, be impressed by this punch, rather than just letting them be impressed by the punch.

Those are some of the biggest alterations I’ve made. I’ve probably done lots of other things too, like feeding Wren more often and letting him rest more, fleshing out main bad guys like the Ghost and the Alpha more, reducing the epilogue-level narrative summaries of what happened next, and so on. Maybe I’ll write about those later. †

In the next day or two I’ll finish this rework of Saint Justice and all 9 books should be more in line with each other, and hopefully with reader expectation. Just one question remains.

Will the readthrough increase?

If it does, that’ll be hugely gratifying. I learned and I got better. It’ll also give me something to apply as I go forward and write later books – as well as more motivation to do so. If I’m carrying 50% of all readers through to books 10, 11, 12 etc, I’ll be even more keen to write them.

If it doesn’t, then I’ll keep looking for the reason. New reviews may offer some new solutions. But I won’t do that exclusively – it’ll take time to reflect on this and think about what I’m missing. I’ll get on with new books, never fear.

We shall see. Watch this space for a report back.

New Wren series blurb & analysis!!

Mike GristMarketing, Writing Leave a Comment

On Amazon as authors we’re afforded a series page for our books – for years I’ve been sending my FB ad clicks to the series page for Wren, and on that page I had a series blurb that was identical to the blurb for book 1 – https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07TFBG5XD

‘They stole his truck. Big mistake yadda yadda…’

In the earliest days of March 2021, this new blurb combined with new covers, new opening chapters and altered body text, led people to one-click buy the whole series (then about 4 books long). That led to a lovely influx of sudden cash, as if I’d just released 4 books at once.

Ever since, I’ve left the ads going to the series page, and the series page has had that truck blurb, and the ads had that truck blurb too, and book one had the truck blurb, and that was all any casual observer could know about the series.

Well. As ever, I’m experimenting, and after talking with the movie guys, and thinking about the arc of the first 7 books in the series, something shook loose and combined with the general advice to keep your product marketing copy fresh – and I came up with a new angle to use in my marketing.

I’ve already pretty much exhausted the FB audience and the truck blurb is wrung dry. I had the idea to focus the ad blurb, and then the series page, around his father. Here’s what I came up with:

His father tried to kill him. Now he’s coming to try again…

When he was only 12 years old, Chris Wren’s father slaughtered their family and left him for dead – but Wren survived.

That’s a mistake his father now aims to correct.

But Wren’s not a little boy anymore – he’s a black-ops legend for the CIA, infamous for putting evil men like his father into the ground. He won”t be easy to kill.

Yet his father never did anything ‘easy’. His attacks have grown in line with his madness, propelling Wren, the past and all of America toward a terrifying storm.

Wren failed to save his family when he was a little boy. Can he save his wife, kids and the America he loves now that he’s a man?

The sins of the father will be visited upon the son…

Normally blurbs and ad copy are really hard to write – but this one just kind of flowed. As a series blurb, it covers books 1-7 perfectly. And does it work?

Well, I started some new ads on FB yesterday using this as the ad copy, plus some fresh-ish images I’ve had in my back pocket and rolled out once or twice before. Now, the previous truck ads were down to 3.6% (US) and 2.6% (UK) clickthrough, getting clicks for 16p and 19p respectively, with a frequency of 2.7 and 3.6 – pretty high repetition to the same scrollers.

The new ad, which was dynamic and had other options focusing on Wren’s CIA training, pretty much immediately kicked into gear, immediately favoring the father blurb, and is currently getting 7% (US) and 3.2% (UK) clickthrough, substantially more and almost double in the US, with clicks at 9p and 13p, again almost half in the US, and obviously a frequency of around 1.

It’s early days, but this bodes very well – paired with sales of the series being 30% up yesterday, even though the ad spend was only £40 total, well down from previous numbers around £70.

Pretty exciting stuff. One other fascinating demographic shift is along gender lines – the previous truck blurb was appealing primarily to male readers, something like a 70/30% split in favor of men. Perhaps that makes sense – men like trucks and stories about men fighting for their trucks. The new ad however splits (so far) 70/30% in favor of women!!

I hadn’t expected that. It’s about sons and fathers, and briefly mentions a wife and kids, but I suppose women relate to family dynamics more than men, and more than they care about trucks. If this bears out, it could be big second lease of life for the Wren books, bringing in women who were turned off by the truck focus in previous iterations.

Maybe I should change the book 1 blurb too, to take that into account more. Move it away from the truck, which is a very minor part of the story anyway, and make it more about white-knighting and his kids and such…

This raises another thought I’ve had, which is to split the series after book 7 – since that’s largely the father arc – and essentially start a new series at book 8. There’s an easy way to do this – books 1-7 are all focused on his father and domestic terror threats, so they can be the CHRIS WREN DOMESTIC THRILLERS. Books 8 onwards are all international and deal with global terror threats – this wasn’t exactly on purpose at first, but it shakes out nicely and would be easy to continue, so this series can be the CHRIS WREN INTERNATIONAL THRILLERS.

The goal would be to have 2 series, readable in either order, offering two entry points to the series. It risks confusing readers a little, as they won’t know where to start, but it could be a whole other lease of life and draw a clear line under the father storyline. It’ll be easy to try. I’ll report back.

Realism in the Chris Wren books

Mike GristMarketing, Writing Leave a Comment

Anyone who reads this blog knows I take on board reader feedback and use it to improve my writing. I have no qualms about changing books that have already been published, and have written about this plenty before – I changed the Wren series in many ways both small and large: taking out political elements, removing swearing, reducing the graphic horror, removing the time spent in the heads of creepy people, speeding up slow sections and adding more descriptive parts at times.

I’ve done all that. The Wren books started to sell because I did it – but for a long time there’s been one comment that I just couldn’t grasp – one that recurs constantly: the books are not realistic.


Well, on occasion someone would point out something specific – like Wren couldn’t be shot in the thigh and walk at all, or Wren couldn’t survive a ‘hail of bullets’ without a scratch – so I would change those, without really being able to expand the lesson outward to the broader point.

Now, maybe, I get it.

When people say the books are unrealistic, I always thought, ‘well, everything in the books is possible. It could happen. So how is that unrealistic?’

Now I’m thinking that what they mean when they say unrealistic is not that its impossible, but that it’s improbable. And that I can work with.

Are the Wren books improbable? Massively so, on multiple occasions. They are big action movie-style stories. But that begs the question, does big action-movie style spectacle work in a novel? Maybe it doesn’t, at least not in quite the same way. In the John Wick movies, there are long sections of balletic fighting. Would that work in print the same waty? Probably not.

I’m happy to adapt. If it strengthens the story, I want to.

So recently I’ve been reviewing all the Wren books with a new barometer – plausibility. I still want some big set pieces. I still want the big action – but perhaps I can reduce those big moments, and build up to them more, and thereby earn more suspension of disbelief from my readers due to a greater sense of realism throughout.

In particular, this lesson came home to me when watching the new Luther movie, The Fallen Sun. Luther was always an inspiration for Wren – it takes Black Mirror style tech issues and clashes them with a murder mystery/detective angle, in much the same way Wren does for 24-style terrorist attacks.

In Luther: The Fallen Sun, there’s multiple things that really stretch belief to breaking point, with two in particular:

  • Luther, played by the big strong actor Idris Elba, finds himself getting his butt kicked multiole times by the loser old guy played by dimunitive actor Andy Serkis. It just does not compute. It looks silly and utterly implausible.
  • Luther engineers a prison break for himself by first orchestrating a prison riot. This requires the cooperation of both prisoners and guards, all of whom are risking their lives and livelihoods just to break him out, just so he can chase Andy Serkis. There is no explanation offered for why anyone would go to these extreme lengths for such a modest reason. They wouldn’t.

Seeing these factors really made me think. It is, of course, possible that Elba could be beaten by Serkis, and that he ciould orchestrate a prison break in this way, but it’s wildly implausible and improbable. Watching that happen really took me out of the story, because it was silly.

I really don’t want Wren to seem silly like that. I don’t want to lose people for the same reason, because I believe the core of the books is really strong. So, I am working to make the whole series more realistic. There will still be plenty of wild action, but I’ll build to it.

Could this transform the performance of the books, just like previous changes has done? I believe it will. It’ll be fascinating to find out if it does. Wish me luck! 🙂

2023 Writing Plans!!

Mike GristMarketing, Writing Leave a Comment

The last two years have been transformational in my author career. For the first time I actually made decent money from my books – after learning some important lessons about writing to market and giving the audience more of what they want.

Both years I comfortably earned ‘replacement’ money – enough to trade out my job and go full time as an author. I held back, since my job’s pretty good about allowing me time to write anyway, and because I expected it was better to save and get some runway.

Boy, am I glad I did. In this last year we moved house, and ended up not only maxing our mortgage capacity, but also spent a substantial amount more on refurbishing everything. We really hadn’t intended to spend all our savings on DIY, nor did we mean to do so much all in one mad rush:

  • opening up the kitchen-diner with installation of 3 beams
  • new French doors and new bifold doors
  • plastering and painting every room
  • rewire, replumb and whole new kitchen
  • whole new conservatory, new tiled floor
  • new appliances, new furniture
  • new bathroom

It’s been wild – and was expedited hugely by the unexpected but joyful news that Su was expecting! Our little baby boy has now been born, and we managed to get everything done just in time for his arrival.

So, what of writing?

My goal is to make substantially more than replacement money this year. It’s the only way to ‘escape’ the black hole of wanting to keep my job while also writing on the side. That full-time salary is to tempting. But if the writing jumps tot he next tier, it’s possible – and there are signs that can happen.

Girl Zero, the new spin-off series from Chris Wren, has had a phenomenal launch. Pre-orders for book 2, Zero Day, are at the highest I’ve ever had. I have the audiobook in production now with the highly talented and well-known narrator Brittany Pressley (she also narrates David Baldacci books!). I was approached by Podium audio production because they wanted the rights, but I figured I’m better off continuing to produce and market it myself.

There are other irons in the fire this year too – including potential movie/TV talks. Super exciting, also super preliminary. Cross your fingers for me 🙂

In terms of writing, I think (we’ll see) I can write:

  • Wren book 10 – Hammer of God
  • Girl Zero book 2 – Zero Day
  • and start a second spin-off series, featuring a beloved character from the Wren-verse.

It’s very exciting. All at the same time as raising my little son.

Oh, I also started a new bodyweight exercise regimen, which has in a couple of weeks of daily 10-20 min exercise sculpted my frame like no 2-3 times a week gym habit ever has before. Here’s the routine:

  • 50 fast clap pushups
  • 50 fast jump squats
  • 10 one-arm pushups on each side
  • 20 one-leg squats on each side

The burn from this workout is incredible. One set is plenty. I like it fast and every day. I have now ordered a weighted vest which goes up to 30kg, so I can up the difficulty without spending more time. I’d love to get a pull-up bar and some dip bars as well, but we’ll see – they’re pretty bulky, and much of the house is spoken for now :D.

That’s my news. Here’s to a breakthrough 2023!!

Alt covers for Saint Justice

Mike GristMarketing, Writing 5 Comments

I’ve been reading and analyzing a lot of thrillers recently – mostly Michael Connelly but also Jeffery Deaver, and that includes looking at their covers. Here’s a few:

Granted, this selection is limited, but reasonably representative. Let’s compare to the Saint Justice cover:

Let’s break down a quick analysis by area.

Author name & Title – The other books all have the author name first, mostly at the top and above the title, taking up approx a quarter to a third of the cover. They largely seem to use the same font for the title. Saint Justice by contrast has the title first, different fonts, and author name take up maybe one sixth of the cover. Hmmm…

Contrast/legibility – It’s hard to read text against a complex background. You don’t want a lot of detail behind your text. The other books follow this rule nicely – they either have block color or misty skies behind their text. Saint Justice has some misty sky, and some blurry blacktop, but it also has those buildings either side, chopping through the words, and the smoke rising up. This doubtless makes it harder to read. There’s also more overall contrast in the other books. there’s dark and then there’s light. Saint Justice is a bit fuzzy.


I spent some time making alternate covers. It’s quite likely none of these is an improvement, but it’s been an interesting exercise. I come to the conclusion that the cover image, as in, the little guy running, is perhaps less important than the text atop it. He’s a signal to genre and quality. The rest should be big and bold, as per the genre.

What do you think?

Same but darker

Title on one line

Title on two lines

Don’t Write from the Heart

Mike GristMarketing, Writing 1 Comment

‘Write from the heart.’

This may be one of the most misguided pieces of advice out there for authors. It’s everywhere, and I believe it’s wrong.

Let me qualify that – it’s wrong to do it more than once, if what you’re looking to do is sell books (unless that first time is an epic success, which it won’t be).

Writing from the heart is a lottery ticket with incredibly long odds. There is a near-infinitesimal chance that a book born from the virgin writer’s heart is going to sell. It’s like walking into a university and saying your first research paper will revolutionize particle physics, or like walking onto a basketball court and expecting to dunk on LeBron James.

It’s not going to happen. You may have thought a lot about particles. You may have watched a lot of NBA. But you’re nothing yet, not until you get your particle physics PhD or work your way up on the courts.

But we all want to win the lottery. We want to believe that the perfect book resides in our heart, and if we can just write it out, it’ll soar.

Most likely it won’t. Just like you won’t win the lottery.

And if it does soar? Then you won the lottery. It’s amazing. We hear about this happening all the time – because it’s the better story than the truth, and people want to read about the fantasy. The truth is that most authors barely sell a handful of copies of their books.

We all dream of winning the lottery, but you can’t plan on it. Play that game once, for sure, by writing one book purely from the heart. Maybe your heart has the winning lottery ticket. Get that book out. See if it flies.

Most likely it won’t. And that’s OK. It’s far from over. It’s time to roll up your sleeves. Start working toward your PhD, hit the courts. For us writers, that means moving toward the reader.

Move out of your heart. Writing from the heart is an act of invitation. You’re inviting the reader into your heart, 100% on your terms. You want them to come all the way over to you, validate you, and we all know how wonderful that’s going to feel.

But, again, it will only happen for an infinitesimally small number of us.

Far better is you quit inviting and start going out to meet. Build a bridge from your heart to the reader’s. This means you validating them, by figuring out what they want and giving it to them. This goes for your cover, your title, your blurb and your book’s body text itself. It covers genre, sub-genre, tropes, motifs, themes, settings, plot, character.

It’s everything.

You go to them. They come to you. It’s beautiful, because they get their expectations met and validated. You get someone on the road to your heart, engaged in an act of true communication. They give. You give. Everybody gets.

Do this well, and often enough, and you can win the lottery of book sales through hard work. Not luck. Not random chance. Like a particle physicist. Like an NBA baller. Like a bestseller.

All the time I see people in FB groups asking why their books don’t sell. I’ve been there. With some of my books, I’m still there. So I can recognize a fellow traveler of that road, influenced by this terrible advice.

Write from the heart once? It’s a sensible gamble. You really may have what it takes to dunk on LeBron the first time. But again and again, to the same poor result? That’s the definition of madness.

We see it in covers that don’t draw in the right kind of readers. Blurbs that don’t match expectation. Books themselves that are off-genre, left unwanted on the shelf. And many writers have dozens of these books. Still they keep on writing more, because they’re writers, and they think that writing from the heart is the right thing to do, when all they’re doing is chasing bad bets.

It’s cruel.

Why don’t we retire the advice to write from the heart? An infinitesimal number of us are going to win the book-from-the-heart lottery. All the rest need to quit buying lottery tickets and start listening to our readers.

Don’t insist the reader comes to your heart. Build a bridge and meet them halfway.


2021 Writing Review, 2022 Plans

Mike GristWriting, Yearly Writing Update Leave a Comment

It’s been a huge year in my writing career, ever since March when the Wren thrillers took off in a way I could only dream of.

I set out into 2021 with a few clear goals:

  • Write 2 Wren thrillers and 1 book in a new series
  • Make replacement money from my writing
  • Get all the Wren books into audiobook format

I hit almost all 3 of those. I got the 2 Wren thrillers done and launched, I made replacement money, and I got 4 audiobooks made. Let’s get into it:

2 Wren thrillers

As the year began, I was wavering a little on how far I was going to take the Wren books. The Production Department (me writing) was doing its job, but the Marketing Department (me running ads) wasn’t having the success to make the Production feel worth it.

I thought I’d close out the arc with Wren’s father, and see how I felt. The series could cap at 6 or 7 books, and I’d move onto a new series.

Then March happened. I wrote all-new opening chapters for book 1, and changed the text throughout, and got a new blurb and new covers for the whole series, and overnight everything flipped. I’ve detailed this at length elsewhere, but the impact these changes had have been foundational.

That month I made enough to call myself a 6-figure author, if that amount continued.

Replacement money

In the following months, as I ramped up my Facebook ad spend to dizzy heights (that threatened my cashflow solvency), the amount I was making increased too. That lasted for a whopping five months.

It was incredible. Then in September it stopped, and sales and profits basically halved. There’s a few potential reasons for this, including the various things both Apple and Facebook did that made ads less effective and profitable, but the core issue was this:

  • I exhausted the audience on Facebook.

Facebook was the primary source of all my sales. For those 6 months since March, I was getting excellent response rates on Facebook, because the audience of thriller readers hadn’t seen my books before. My costs per click were cheap, because first-time viewers of an ad click way more than second or third or fourth-time viewers.

Gradually, though, I burned through the audience. You’d think an audience of approx 7 million people couldn’t be easily burned through, but it was probably never actually 7 million. Facebook say that, and that includes everyone who checks into Facebook once a month or some such, as well as everyone in the 18-45 demographic who aren’t even getting shown my ads.

So maybe it’s a couple of million, max. This was borne out, because Australia was the first market to tap out and start getting more expensive, followed by the UK, then the US. From small to large, they got exhausted. My Frequency count rose (how many times each viewer had seen any given ad) to 4 or 5 (very high). My first-time viewing percentage dropped to 10-20%. My cumulative % of the audience reached was getting up to 70% – which is basically 100%, considering the remaining 30% probably check into Facebook once a month.

So, September the ads stopped working as well.

I eked it out for as long as I could by producing new ads, new ad images, trying videos, trying different audiences – but ultimately the best audience i the best audience, and the best ads remain the early ads.

After this, I wasn’t so sure what to do. I figured there was probably a daily maximum spend in each market I could budget, where there’d still be that trickle of new people daily. So I dropped my spend hugely, to try ad find the sweet spot. At the same time, I cast around for a new source of sales.

Amazon ads were the most obvious source, but I’d never cracked them before.

Amazon ads

Looking over my past Amazon ads, I noticed that the best source of actual sales came from ads came from top of search placement, rather than on product pages. So I prioritized the Amazon spend to that placement. It was immediately profitable, but it didn’t scale up at all. I couldn’t get more than a few sales a day, even if I was offering a large budget with $1-2 click bids.

Then I had a chat with my thriller friend Stephen Taylor, and he suggested just go in with big bids across the board, go for product pages, and winnow from there. I figured why not? So for the last month or so I’ve bene doing just that, and the result?

Sales are climbing back up again. Page reads are rising to numbers like they haven’t since the Facebook heyday in the summer. Yesterday I spent $120 on Amazon ads in the US, and that was profitable. £30 in the UK, and also profitable. Also, now that Christmas is over, Facebook ads have dropped back to a sensible click level. I may not be able to go BIG with the series again, like I did this year – but any new and future books I release can1 do so, because they’ll all be new.

2022 Plans

The obvious lesson from all this is that, while the early books in the series are far from played out or burned out, they are on facebook, and at some point they’ll hit that point on Amazon too. I’m figuring out the slow-burn max I can spend on Facebook, and I’ll figure that out for Amazon too.

The other arrow in the quiver is new releases and a new series.

I would love to massively increase production. I think I’m capable of it. Now the major Wren arc is closed out, he’s free to take on stories that require fewer trailing threads to be developed. I want to make each of his books more standalone, even as they all will push his story forward. It would. be amazing to write 3 Wren books this year, numbers 8, 9 and 10.

On launch, I’ll push each individual book hard on Facebook. Let the existing readers know there’s a new book out, while also making another bid to suck new readers into the series as a whole.

Also, it’d be great to get out 2 books in another series – the one I’ve had on the back burner for a while.

AND, get one more book out as a series starter. This one I have nothing on yet, just some ideas I’m kicking around. Ideally, they can all interact and create a Wren literary universe. Art some point, they can team up like the Avengers, to make a blockbuster.

So, more books. More ads.