Wren through the roof – Writing Wk8 2021

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

This week has been epic in sales. I’m not ready to talk turkey (details) as I’m wholly aware all this could go away as swiftly as it sprang up. That’s happened before. I sold big, didn’t know why, and it just disappeared.

This hasn’t disappeared yet. Here’s some sense of what I’m looking at, with actual numbers removed:

It’s heart attack territory, really. Whenever I see the chart rising, I get a mega adrenaline spike. Worries that it’ll disappear, or that it’ll lead to a flood of negative reviews that throttle future sales, or somebody will figure out this shouldn’t be happening and squash me on Amazon.

Well, it hasn’t happened yet. I wonder if it will keep climbing, plateau and hold, or drop again? I wonder if Amazon will contribute some promotion juice to the mix via their auto-recommendation emails, that’ll raise it higher still?

I grabbed a couple of bestseller tags in Amazon and Canada. I’ve never had this happen before, without the boost provided by a Bookbub or similar promo stack. This is just Facebook ads.

And in writing?

Early in the week I worked on Wren 6 – added 2,000 words at the end, then did some redrafting of the early material to sew in the secondary perspective. I’m getting rid of all these now, showing them through Wren’s perspective, and it’s clearly working.

The latter half of the week I’ve been doing this for book 2. I weaved in DeVore’s heartstopping opening scene, now seen from Wren’s perspective. I add in some jokes. My goal with all these books now is:

MAKE THEM FUN

That’s it. I see now, with fresh eyes, how often Wren drones on about guilt and misery and the weight of all these decisions. There’s just no reason for this. It’s like me, the author, browbeating the reader for some reason. That, what, PTSD is very real, nobody can kill without suffering themselves, and blah blah boring.

Nobody wants to read that stuff, that makes them feel guilty. It’s supposed to be fun. So I’m stripping those weight-adding sentences wherever I find them. They pop right out with ease. None are pivotal, they’re all just dragging the story down.

Plucked! Also I wanna double check for swears. My goal now is to make these books as close to PG-13 as I can. There are horrors, but if I pull the camera way back, I think they’ll be more palatable.

What else?

I’m going to rework the paperbacks to match the ebooks, cover and text. I’m going to finish book 2 then set in on books 4-5. I’m also going to keep working on book 6. Still the goal can be 20,000 words by this time next week. Keep pushing that back ;).

Now I’m gonna go mow the lawn. It sorely needs it y’all.

Wren readthrough at 50%! – Writing Wk7 2021

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

I’ve been blah-blahing about the importance of readthrough for many months now – keep on editing Wren to try and get more people to enjoy book 1 enough to read book 2 and onward.

Well, maybe I have hit it. I’m wary to draw broader conclusions, but figures this month so far suggest the last edits to Saint Justice have doubled readthrough from 25% to 50%.

Strong news, if it holds true. This month I’ve sold:

  • Wren 1 – 119 copies
  • Wren 2 – 62, which is 52%
  • Wren 3 – 49, which is 41% from book 1, and 79% from book 2
  • Wren 4 – 39, which is 32% from book 1, and 79% from book 3
  • Wren 5 – 38, which is 31% from book 1, and 98% from book 4.

That 52% is excellent. It does drop off quite sharply, but each time I’m keeping at least four fifths of the readers. I just re-edited book 3, I’ll do book 2 more thoroughly at some point, and hopefully get those numbers up too.

From any angle, it’s excellent. Approximate readthrough value is about $6 – so when I sell 1 copy of book 1, I can expect $6 total income. Average cost of sales are coming in below that at the moment. Plus of course there’s KU reads.

KU readthrough is actually lower than sales right now, which is unusual – it’s usually higher. I’m thinking it might take time for the changes to register with new readers to the series.

Some of this is also due to strong conversion on my new FB ads, coupled with new Amazon blurb. It’s back to the Jack Reacher format, with a crime everyone can comprehend and have an opinion on:

They stole his truck. Big mistake.

CIA black-ops legend Christopher Wren pulls over on a Utah highway after three weeks on the road. An arbitrary decision he’s about to regret.

A biker gang attacks Wren, leaves him for dead and steals his truck. Now he’s going to get it back.

From a secret warehouse in the desert. Ringed with fences. Filled with human cages. As the body count mounts and a shocking national conspiracy unravels, one thing is for certain.

Justice will be done.

It’s working well right now. I’m spending conservatively on ads.

What else?

I’ve gone back to working on book 6 – now I’m blending the side-story into Wren’s view, and that took a little while. It’s at 11,000 words, and I’m ready to move forward. The foundation looks solid.

By this time next week, it’d be great to have 20,000 words. Ramp things up.

New Firestorm cover

Also, not to bury the lede, I got my new cover for Wren book 5, Firestorm, today. I love these. It strongly reflects the Capitol riot, but I wrote this scene before the riot happened, so who’s reflecting who?

I love it. Can’t wait to get book 6 more developed so I can get the next cover done.

Wren write to market!! – Writing Wk6 2021

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

I talked a lot about rewriting Wren recently – well buckle up cos here’s some more in that delicious vein!

WRITE TO MARKET

Chris Fox came up with that snappy term – WRITE TO MARKET. It is best summed up in a simple Venn diagram that I just made you’re welcome:

While being aware of this, I’m not a big doer of this, though I think I am trying. I definitely pick popular genres that people want to read – however when I go in I tend to lean more on what I want to write than what most people want to read.

Looking at what I did in Wren that doesn’t match what readers want in my chosen genre – vigilante/terrorism thriller:

  • Go heavy on third rail social issues as the core issues – race, child abuse, income inequality, etc… (would fit better in literary fiction)
  • Go heavy on the perspective/psychological makeup of the bad guy (would fit better in serial killer fiction)
  • Go heavy on guilt and the consequences of violent action on mental health (would fit better in literary fiction)
  • Open with a main injustice unrelated to the main character (would fit better in detective fiction – open with a murder)
  • Go heavy on cults (would fit better maybe nowhere – maybe literary or serial killer)
  • Go heavy on DOMESTIC TERRORISM (not a common thing in terrorism thrillers or anywhere – they’re usually focused overseas on jihadis)
  • Not have a woman and her son in need of protection (pretty common trope in vigilante justice)
  • Go heavy on violence, gore and torture (would fit better in horror or serial killer)
  • Go heavy on swearing (would fit better, hmm, serial killer?)
  • Open with the protagonist behaving as an antagonist (much more a literary device – real bad good guy)
  • Have the protag abuse drugs repeatedly (nobody much likes this – maybe serial killer)
  • Go heavy on social justice with a black protag (I’m not sure where this fits – my impression is most terrorism/vigilante readers are white folks in the US heartland, probably leaning conservative, so I’m off base)

That’s a lot! Looking over this list, I can see over the last year I have fixed many of them. Some things it seemed I couldn’t really change, though – primarily the focus on social issues and the domestic terrorism angle.

Change those and it’s totally a different book. Pretty much everything else I’ve softened or removed considerably. So I’m learning the market.

Why not serial killer?

One interesting issue I faced when I first started approaching this fix-up operation was whether to go lighter (terrorism/vigilante) or darker (serial killer). I went lighter.

If I’d gone serial killer, I could really have stayed as the book then was. Serial killer readers love gore, violence, darkness, getting inside the bad guy’s head. I wasn’t sure at all what call to make here – other than go with the book’s core thrust.

It’s not a serial killer story. Those are pretty clearly bounded, as far as I can see. One evil guy, killing individual victims. Not mass-scale terror and vigilanteism. I figure I’d probably get just as many bad reviews if I try to make this square peg book fit in that round hole.

Also – I didn’t set out to write a serial killer book. I don’t really read those books. Whereas I do read Jack Reacher, and I did watch 24 – and those are more more what I was inspired by. That’s the kind of story I want to tell, and the market I want to tap.

So – was it a mistake? Well, who can say 🙂 I could always re-launch the original version with all its violence, darkness and swearing under a really dark cover. That doesn’t appeal, though. I like where we’re at right now. Fast, clean, a couple of points of difference while the rest should be a smooth read.

Editing progress

Thus far I have rewritten Wren 1 and am currently working on 3, MAKE THEM PAY. I already took out all the Handel Quanse POV, and am thinking very little is lost, really… Now I’ll sharpen and speed various other sections and we’ll see if readthrough to book 4 goes up.

Wren FB group

The Wren FB group is progressing really nicely, with 39 members, and I’m kind of learning what posts get more responses. Photos and real human stuff seems to do the best. Separating things a little from always talking about Wren – which is maybe a kind of sales pitch in itself.

Selfies. Cat pics. Getting to know you chitchats. They are doing best so far, and are the most fun to engage in really. My chatty, newsy newsletter is getting some lovely responses – makes for some nice little email conversations.

EDIT

I was thinking last night (the night I wrote this post) about why, if all the tropes of my book were so close to serial killer, I hadn’t moved toward the darkness, kept it as it was, and branded it serial killer?

I already said above about the focus on single victims in serial killer fiction rather than terror attacks, but I was thinking that was probably surmountable. Then I hit on the best reason – my Wren books, unlike serial killer and unlike even vigilante justice – have huge special effects-laden action scenes. Really big stuff, large numbers of people, explosives, weaponry.

That’s not even close to either other genre. And those are facets I can’t change either. So, this is just to say that, although it has proved a lot of work to grade Wren for the terrorism genre, it’s the right choice. Big sales are a different matter – but as ever, I’m closer now than I ever was before.

Wren 1 rewrites: back behind the DM’s screen – Writing Wk5 2021

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

Well it has been heck of a week in rewrites. I already said everything I’d do to Wren 1 in the last post, in line with vicious comments I got from a Fiverr beta reader, and this week I did them, and was left feeling strangely bereft…

But do not shed a tear for me, Argentina. Stats are very early to come in on the effect of this new rewrite, really just a week since I put a half-finished new version of Wren 1 on Amazon, but it’s looking good so far, with readthrough up from 27% to 50% to book 2, and holding the same to book 3!!

If this is due to the greater readability of Wren 1, I call that a massive win. Time will tell – as it could also be due to some random foible of advertising or purchasing behavior.

If it is 50% or 50%+ though? Transformational. If I can continue selling book 1 at the same rate via ads, that 50% readthrough will not only double revenue – it should apply a 4x or higher multiple as more people read through the series. I’m dreaming big. It might make this whole endeavor far more viable.

But why bereft? (sad face)

Bereft at the loss of Wren 1 weight

This feeling hit at the end of redrafting the whole book. I hadn’t intended to redraft everything at all – only to suture parts where I’d taken out flashbacks and Mason.

But. Taking out Mason made me notice areas where, thanks to the Mason distraction, I’d skipped over parts in the Wren narrative. Maybe this is why some people called the story incoherent? More on this in a minute.

It also drew my attention to flow and line-by-line edits. I found my old tricks a few times – write something, write something else, write the same thing again. In these instances, I probably got excited with the imagery of a scene, or realized I’d skipped an important scene-setting detail, so just wrote at greater length.

In these instances I need to go back and synthesize so I only say it once, with clarity, then move on.

On this note, Su and I have been watching the K-Drama ‘Signal’. I really dislike this show’s style of repeating everything multiple times, always being dialled stupidly up to 11 (adults constantly taking arguments to semi-comical fisticuffs or taking grief to extreme, lingering wailing), showing the same narrative from different time periods via a profusion of flashbacks, and leaving out essential information the viewer should know.

I hate it. Maybe I do it. Flashbacks, check. High emotion, check. Repetition, check. Forcing the reader to construct the narrative somewhat themselves. Pretty much check. And this brings me full circle (again) to the first Story Craft post I wrote over 10 years ago, regarding the Dungeon Master’s screen.

The DM’s Screen

Here’s that original post – https://www.michaeljohngrist.com/2010/07/fictioner-1-the-dungeon-masters-screen-and-toast/

I was talking there about my epic fantasy with Sen – where the style I wanted to write in was various kind of ‘chunks’: here’s a world-building bit, here’s a character bit, here’s a dialogue bit, etc… Like the book of ideas a D&D Dungeon Master has. I wasn’t great at knitting these ideas together in a story. If anything, I resisted it.

It lets me see I am really not a natural storyteller. Terrible admission to make – but it’s not a new one to me. I thought I’d overcome it in recent years, and especially with Wren, but it seems not, because what purpose does Mason serve in Wren 1? What is the purpose of the flashbacks?

They are weight. They add body. They round out the world. They are, however, pretty much devoid of narrative drive. Mason’s story is the story of things happening to him, not of him as a character with agency. It’s not really a thread on its own because you couldn’t read it on its own – it’s just him suffering. Same with Wren’s flashbacks – they’re not propulsive on their own. They only worked when tethered to the main story.

And that weight clearly drags the main story down. It chops it up, makes it harder to swallow, forces readers to construct the meaning of these sections for themselves.

Tough going for the mass market, who want to be told a story. And who can blame them? Reading a thriller isn’t supposed to be such work.

Removing these scenes made me tune in to the main narrative more – how it should hum like a taut wire, not sag from decorations. As ever, there’s room to say things only once. Wren’s backstory should be there only so much as it’s relevant, and only in small doses. We can’t have huge dollops of it at once, disrupting the flow.

The book is now much shorter. 67,000 words, down from 100,000 when I first finished it. Short. But I think people will leave this book maybe wanting more. Previously, I offered such a rich banquet they didn’t need more. I’m quite full, thank you, they were saying. That’s enough for me.

I want to leave them sated but still hungry. I thought about offering the Mason side story as an extra – but do I really want people reading that extra? Quite likely it’ll still be stodgy. It’ll fill them up and get them thinking, hmm, actually I don’t need to read book 2 now. I’ve had enough.

NO, I say! No more stodge!

So…

I already ran a similar edit on book 2. Very briefly, though. Not line-by-line. We’ll see how readthrough looks. If 2 to 3 remains strong, I don’t need to dig in much. If it’s poor, I will. Most of all – I’m very curious what new readers will make of book 1 now, with all the weight taken off.

Will it work? Will they be left wanting more? It’s quite exciting.

Word count

Only negative, I’m afraid this week. Cutting words. I’ll get back to book 6 soon. Seems every time I do a rewrite, I need to take a little time to recover and adapt. That’s fine. Hopefully the latter books are taking on these lessons learned from editing the earlier books, as I go.

I have noticed some of that happening in the latter books. The side stories of suffering began to bleed into Wren’s narrative – often with him watching a video of what happened. I can pretty easily make this shift total – we’re entirely in Wren’s POV. We see the threat entirely from his eyes.

It cuts repetition clean away. Now the mystery remains – until Wren solves it. We the reader are none the wiser than Wren.

Facebook group?

The Facebook group’s doing pretty good – up to 26 members now. I’ll keep posting content, push it to my newsletter, and try and offer value to my most engaged readers. It’s fun, too.

Facebook ads

One further thing to note – yesterday FB lifted its limits on my ad spend, so now I’m also allowed to import my newsletter and make a lookalike audience from it. I did that yesterday and started serving dynamic ads for both the zombie books and Wren. Thus far, getting very cheap clicks. Too early to say if they’re profitable.

Again, time will tell ;).

Writing Wk3&4 2021 – FB limit & group, more Wren 1 rewrites, Wren 6 push

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

I missed a week! I will make up for it by posting a day early and doing a combo post – there’s some big things happening, so I’ll start off easy.

Wren 6 words for the last 2 weeks

Last blog I was talking about how to push through a slow-ish talky beginning to book 6. Now I’ve doubled down on that talky beginning, but I don’t think it’s slow.

Wren is broken at the start. He has to be, after the events ending book 5. We need him to get unbroken (heed the call to adventure) before we can dive in, so we have to unbreak him. How? Well, psychological manipulation, of course!

Early problems with writing this sequence involved:

  • Wren no fully grasping all the misery that’s been thrown at him, and only responding to it in part. Obviously, he’s going to be deepest affected by the deepest stuff – not just the immediate monster-of-the-week threat.
  • Wren recovering too fast. It has to be earned. He can’t just get over it without any push or payment.
  • Wren getting too weepy in the recovery. He can’t do this either. While crying is fine for men, Wren can’t do it because he has to be strong, and for him, that strength has to come from the inside. Certainly at the open of the book, anyway.
  • Picking the friendly-fire antagonist who pushes Wren to deal with his grief. I picked wrong a couple of times. I think I have it now.

So the sequence is set. I have 13,000 words. That may shrink, but we will see.

Facebook limit and new reader group

The last week in marketing was marked by my attempt to set up a Facebook Custom Audience based on my 2,000-strong newsletter list (for retargeting and making lookalike audiences – as recommended by Mark Dawson). I couldn’t do it without first making a Business Manager account, so I did that.

Unfortunate side effect of this was that my account got limited to a $50 a day spend, because it looks like a new account. That holds for 2 weeks. I’ll be able to import my newsletter after this 2 weeks also.

All fine. But the $50 a day limit really made me realize a couple of things:

  • Facebook is pretty much the only way I profitably sell books
  • I am therefore super reliant on Facebook – what if things changed and these ads were blocked/prices surged/some other unforeseen outcome that prevents me selling?
  • Ugh.
  • At the same time I listened to a 6 Figure Author odcast with Joe Solari who talked about marketing other than ads.

Marketing other than ads?

Essentially it’s about delivering more value to the customers you already have rather than chasing new customers (ads). This is done through content marketing – and hoping they love it enough to spread it to their friends for free.

Well – I’d been meaning to do this for ages – I set up my writer group on Facebook, and decided to go ahead and make a Wren fan page. Here it is:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/christopherwrenthrillers

I invited my ARC team and 11 members have come over to join – there’s been a little interaction, and I think it’s going to be a fun thing to build, run and contribute to. I’ve got lots of ideas for content. Having a more direct connection to readers is a great thing.

Further – I’m thinking to cross-post some of the best content from the FB group to this blog, maybe other social media. We’ll see if I bother to do that ;).

More Wren 1 rewrites

Another corollary of the FB ad limit is that I felt I had budget for boo improvement/promotion, but nowhere to spend it. I did my Amazon ads again but thye ever work, so quit.

What else?

I decided to revisit series readthrough. And it’s actually looking pretty bad. Easiest way is maybe looking at money – as that includes both ebooks sold and pages read through KU.

This month so far, book 1 sold $430. Book 2 sold $120. That’s 27% reading through, less than a third. Book 3 is $80, which is 20% readthrough.

Now, this is obviously bad. It is also a huge step up from a year ago, when I was getting a 15% readthrough. Improvements have worked. De-violencing, unkilling, unswearing, speeding up, they have all aided readthrough. That’s great.

But 27% is still not good enough. At 27% I am scraping a profit. Imagine if I had 60% readthrough – which is what many authors report. 80%. Wow. I’d be making ROI of 100% thanks to readthrough. I could crank up ad spend massively and see massive rewards.

So, yes. Book 1 is still a problem. Read through from book 2 to 3 is 75%, which I’d prefer to be closer to 90%, so that’s a problem too. There is room for improvement, and I have budget so…

I hired a couple of beta readers on Fiverr. About $150 total. Within 4 days, the first had replied, and it was a doozy. She went after the book, and Wren, hard. Really seemed to hate him. Said no man would want to be him, no woman want to sleep with him, a violence-spraying monster worse than the monsters he hunted.

OK ouch. She’s not done though. She says he’s a Designated Hero – which means the author wants him to be the hero, but the reader doesn’t see why. She said he’s a textbook case of Darkness-based Audience Apathy – which means things are so dark nobody cares. She says he’s the antagonist at the start, comes across as an asshole, but looking on the bright side, this means people can stop reading before they go any further.

lol. Crazy. Rudely harsh.

But, probably not wrong. People have always said the opening scene paints Wren as a bully. An antagonist. Yes, the guys he is going to fight are white supremacists, and bad dudes, but right in that moment they are doing nothing wrong. Wren antagonizes them. Picks a fight. Not because he’s righting some wrong, but because he’s miserable and is using them to make himself feel better.

Ugh. Right? Dark. And why does he feel dark? SPOILER – it’s because he had night terrors and beat up his own family. Gross. If we don’t believe in Wren – this might sound like the kind of excuse a Domestic violence guy wuld come up with. I was asleep. It was a night terror. I didn’t mean to do it.

It paints Wren as, at the minimum, dangerously irresponsible.

Compounding this, the beta reader said the story is told in a convoluted way. We open with Mason, when we should open with Wren. Throughout we get distracting Mason flashbacks. There are also Wren flashbacks these days – which I added in an effort to humanize him.

Double ugh. Triple punch. KO.

She says there is too much. Cults. Race war. His family. Mason. His father. Pick one or a couple max and pursue that. Very helpfully, she cited John Wick.

John Wick is miserable at the start, until some guy steals his car, or is it steals his dog? Anyway, sets off to get it back. Limited response, set right a smal injustice. But that small injustice keeps ballooning, so his response keeps ballooning. Wren should be the same. He shouldn’t be the antagonist.

I think about Jack Reacher. I read Midnight Line – in which he hunts a woman based on a hunch. He’s the antagonist, inserting himself in a case where there isn’t really an injustice. It plays badly. Thanks to his intervention, lots of people die and injustices happen that needn’t have.

Compare that to Killing Floor, the first Jack Reacher. He walks into a town and gets arrested and framed for a murder he didn’t commit. Instant injustice. We are on Reacher’s side. He must act to clear his name.

I need that with Wren. I also need people to feel he’s a normal human operating at the edge. Not a wildly dangerous monster.

To the rewrites

I took all this on board and thought hard. I went to bed thinking of it, dreamed all night about it, and woke up the next day thinking of it. No answers came. How to fix these issues – they felt too deeply buried in who Wren is.

If I straighten out the timeline and remove some of the darkness, then do I come up front and say Wren beat up his family via night terrors in chapter 1? Who would read on? It’s monstrous, and way too much horror/guilt to take on. Most of these books have a dead partner/wife/friend/family caused by terrorists or the CIA or some bad guy.

I wanted to subvert that. Maybe I was being didactic about mental health issues. You pump someone full of horror, it’s going to spill out. But readers don’t want to be lectured. They don’t want to be lashed with horror. they want a good guy who takes out bad guys. You can dirty that up some, but not so much.

Wren is too dirty. So if I want to straighten out his timeline, I have to change his backstory. Further, I have to make him not the antagonist. He can’t walk into a bar and pick a fight – making himself feel better at someone else’s expense.

Another big point after this is Mason. I can take him out pretty easily – I’ve done it before for a short trial. One thing this beta reader said that made me think taking him out is a good idea – is the scene where Mason shoots Wendy disgusted her. That is the point – but I don’t want to disgust people.

Take Mason out, that visceral scene is gone. We can reference it later and it will be there, but not visceral. The same goes for every book int he series. It is always these alternate POV scenes that are most horrifying. Openings of books 2 and 3 are particularly horrible.

I can cut them. Important details get repeated in Wren’s POV anyway. Maybe I lose nothing. The story gets cleaned up. One POV, like Reacher or John Wick. It makes me think my story currently is hanging with lots of heavy weights. Didactic stuff, dark stuff, complex mystery, overlaping timelines. There is an engine and a story, but they are bowed under the weight.

Take them off. One more thng she said, which I am as yet uncertain how to andle – is that the story moves too fast. To the MAX at all times. I don’t know. There are plenty of moments of reflection, I thought. I figure I fix all the above, and then look at this…

So.

How am I fixing Wren 1

First up – I want to say there’s no need to worry. The original Wren story will always be there. It won’t be lost. This is a remake, maybe. Here’s what I’ll do:

SPOILERS

  • Cut Mason’s POV. This’ll knock maybe 6,000 words off the story. OK.
  • Cut Wren’s flashbacks. This’ll straighten things out and knock off another 6k. Now we’re down to 60,000 words!
  • Open chapter 1 with Wren’s immediate backstory. I’ll embed it in present threat, like Baldacci’s Memory Man, so I think it can work. His backstory is now quite different. He quits the CIA. He goes home to see his family – but instead of happy times chased by violent night terrors, they are just gone. His wife learned he is CIA somehow. Fearing for her family with this incedibly violent guy who’s lied to her for years, she just goes. Maybe we hate her? Doesn’t matter. We aren’t hating Wren. This is, perhaps, an injustice done to him. Certainly not an injustice he has committed (though he lying is – no way around that).
  • So we need immediate threat that dovetails with the rest of the story. I resolve this with Wren sitting in his truck, staring at the desert. Not a biker bar. BUT – bikers come to him. Round on him on the side of the road. They’re going to lynch him. Steal his truck. Clear injustice. Not a million miles away from a common fear – getting carjacked on the highway.
  • We pick up with Wren heading to Eustace. Same as before. Now though, his forgiveness of Eustace must look better. Also – he’s not just chasing the Jeep. Some drawings from his kids were in the car. He wants them back. This has got to be stronger motivation – one people can get behind. Simple.
  • From there on, the story continues as before. Wren gets pulled into the bigger injustice and chases it around the country, thinking of his missing family still. What he’d do for them.

Well. This is by far the biggest change I’ve made yet to this book – as it involves fundamentally changing chapter 1. Previously I had altered it lots, but always tinkering with ways of keeping Wren going in the bar, but making him seem less antagonistic. Making the bikers worse.

Those ways didn’t work. Maybe this new version will.

So.

Once this is done, I’ll need to go through all the books to make them synchronized. Wren’s changed family backstory will play a role. I’ll remove all the alternate POVs. The horror will come down. The story will straighten out. I may keep a couple here or there – like the Pyramid flashbacks with the pit and Chrysogonus.

It’s tricky. I really like the alternate POVs. They dig into radical human psychology. But maybe that is the problem… I’ll try it. We’ll see. Kill your darlings, right?

Writing Wk2 2021 – Wren 3 new cover, Wren 1 rewrites, Wren 6 quagmire

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

It has not been a big week in writing fresh words!!

Wren 6 quagmire

I’ve been struggling a little with Wren book 6. I’ve got a talky, kind of slow beginning which I like to a point. It takes stock of where we were at the end of book 5, dealing with fallout, but maybe it is slow, there is little danger, and hmm.

I also have a more actiony beginning, which I also like, but it jumps past all the character work that seems pretty essential – Wren has to deal with the chaos at the end of book 5. If I just skip all that, it’ll feel extremely thin.

I like both beginnings. Maybe I will use both at some point or other. I could open with fast action, then kind of flashback to getting there. Or I could speed through the talkiness of the slow start, pump it up with bridging conflict, then jump to my action opener.

Not sure. So I either lost words down to 6,000, or am still at around 12,000. Tricky. Important. An ongoing series dealing with this difficult psychological operation is, uh, difficult. I wouldn’t have it any other way, though 😉

New Wren 3 cover

I am loving working with this new artist. I gave the concept for this cover, and he has produced exactly what I had envisaged. Amazing. Here it is:

Gorgeous. Love the blue light in the room matching the blue of the title. Love the snow. Just everything about it. It sits really nice alongside the first 2. Also allowed for the box set to be made:

Also fantastic. Very pro-looking – love the guy running on each spine.

Now book 4 is in the works!

Wren 1 – Saint Justice – rewrite

Most interesting to me right now (cos I just got done doing it) is the mini rewrite of Saint Justice I’ve done. I got the idea last night, fuelled by thinking about readthrough.

My readthrough is around 30%. Not wonderful. Upwards of 50% would be way better. I want loads of people anxious for the next book in the series. Champing at the bit. To get there, I gotta feed more people through to book 2. Once they’ve read book 2, I feel like they’re in.

So, what are the challenges of book 1 for readthrough? I already removed the swearing, the most extreme violence, the bleak feel, the dour hero (he’s funnier now), and that has certainly helped. Previously I’ve removed the multiple viewpoints, problems with the villain’s race, unkilled several characters and written out/combined several others to speed things up.

So what remains? Probably it is the opening, and the overweening emphasis on race, and the didactic feel.

I read back on the manuscript assessment I had done by a pro editor over a year ago, and see she suggested many of the above things that I ended up doing – some immediately, some more gradually. What remains to tackle is the focus on race.

Here’s the thing. The whole book is about race. I don’t need to hammer that issue over the head. I don’t need to mention often that Wren is half-black/brown. I don’t need to paint Midwest whites as rednecks. I shouldn’t do these things. I didn’t really want to do these things.

But I kind of did 🙁 . I saw that last night on re-reading the intro. Why is Wren going into the biker bar? Well, to pick a fight. It’s OK though, they’re racists…

But it’s not really OK, is it? It’s not enough. I thought about Jack Reacher. He’s alway going into biker bars, and we’re right there with him. How often does he go in just looking to pick a fight cos it’ll make him feel good?

Never.

So why would Wren do it? He wouldn’t.

This proved actually easy to remedy. He kind of is looking for a fight – but it’s more to see justice done. That’s his addiction. So we say the bikers are heavily suspected of kidnapping several hitchhikers. Now Wren’s going in to ask some questions.

When they react strongly to the questions, we know they’re bad dudes. They need to be taken out. I think it puts us more on Wren’s side. And it adds up when, later on, we see they’re not just kidnapping locally and on a small scale, but nationally on a massive scale.

It works. It also allows me to push race issues into the background. The bikers are not just deplorable because they’re passively racist, but because they’re actively committing heinous crimes. I think I’ll pull more readers along. Wren’s race is barely hinted at. It won’t be focused on again until late in the book, and then not massively.

This is better. This is what that editor told me. Avoid didacticism. I agree. The best story has its morals and values so embedded you don’t notice them. It’s not propaganda, it’s not beating you over the head. It’s subtle. Maybe you could ignore it if you prefer, and still enjoy the story.

Yes. This does the double duty of adding heat and stakes to the story right from the off. It’s got me reflecting further on Wren book 6. What are the immediate stakes, if Wren is just licking his wounds for a few chapters?

Difficult. How to thread that needle? Threat, but deal with the weight of changes. Maybe open with action and run a quick flashback. Maybe.

By next week

By next week I hope to clear this Wren 6 logjam and make some real progress, 20,000 words would be great.

Also get book cover 4 done. That’s on the artist, though.

Oh, one further bit of admin I did was update my first 3 audiobooks with the new covers, new titles, and corresponding new audio files. Good stuff. I don’t make much on audio. I hope these new covers shift the needle.

Writing Wk1 2021 – Wren’s world comes true, Pickfu, webclouds

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

The first week of 2021 proved itself the bully big brother to 2020 with an American coup attempt / insurrection at the Capitol in Washington DC. I’m not American (I’m half-American, but a full British national), but watching that awful event transpire live really knocked me for 6.

This kind of thing can happen. Really, the exact kind of thing I’ve spent 2+ years writing about and exploring in the Christopher Wren thrillers.

Trump’s followers as blind cult devotees. Trump as a doomsday cult leader. Social media spreading disinformation which leads to real world violence.

Wednesday evening I went to bed feeling almost sick with the concept of the Wren thrillers. Who would want to read this stuff now – now that it was actually happening? I felt sick with thinking about it.

All night I tossed and turned, in and out of dreams where my books blurred with the reality of the Capitol attack. Partly I was dreaming doubt – that my books were even going far enough. Fact had overtaken fiction. My books were redundant. They weren’t capturing the truth of the issue.

I woke up with some kind of clarity though, which hardened through the day. The Wren books are valuable. They dig into the extremist mindset. Qanon. Trump devotees. They try to open up that mindset so we can understand it, properly react to it, and help fix it.

This thought process resulted in this Facebook post early on Thursday morning:

Prior to writing this, I’d been really wrestling with the opening to book 6 of the Wren series. At this point we were pretty far along to boiling the frog. The people en masse are pretty close to their tipping point. But I had a kid as the lead foil who wasn’t yet a true believer. She was in for it the lulz – a troll, basically.

Then I looked again at these people in the Capitol riot. They were loving it. Trump was loving it. I read my FB post again. It’s all about loving it. These people are junkies for the lies Trump and Qanon pitch. At the start I expect they know that. But it’s fun.

Then they research. They impel each other to ‘Do your research’. That process is one of self-radicalization.

All my books explore this self-radicalization process. Book 6 will double down on that. Show the movement from troll to true believer. That’s the same as moving from being a casual drug-user to a full-blown addict. You’ll do anything to get your fix.

2021!!

So I did some writing.

Writing

Last week I was aiming for 10,000 words by now. I’m actually at 8,500, which is close, and I’ll get some more shortly. Time to ramp back up.

By this time next week, why not go big and expect 20,000? Could close out this book in a couple of months.

Marketing

In the last week my Facebook ads have become painfully ineffective. I think, at least. I turned on new ads using this book image:

I think it looks awesome. No one who clicks can be under any doubt that it’s a book. It got pretty good clicks, hundreds of them, but did not move the needle on sales.

This is strange and disconcerting. Always previously, even when my ads didn’t make profits or really pay, they pretty much always showed a response from ads. I sent clicks, sales went up. Not always enough to get out of the red, but the response was there.

In the last week? I don’t see the response. Sales are flat at almost zero. I do not get it. Could it really be the new cover? It’s a fantastic cover. Is it the building on fire – it reminds people of 9/11 too much? But then they’re clicking on the ad, which already has the fire baked in.

So what the hell?

I reached out to Amazon and asked them to check my page worked. They said it was working. I got a VPN to look at the US site myself – it looked fine.

So maybe it was the combo of this new cover with my earlier blurb? But how could I test that? Here’s what I did next – as posted on the Self-publishing Formula Facebook page:

The word cloud was a real revelation. I learned a lot.

My response was to stick with that blurb above, but take all the edges off:

  • Vicious doomsday group’ became ‘murderous family’. Still strong but less so.
  • ‘Dark skills of human manipulation’ became ‘dark set of skills’. Less info, more left to the imagination.
  • ‘A mass terror network’ became ‘a mass conspiracy
  • ‘Explosive thriller’ became ‘fast-paced thriller’.

Someone said do away with the bolding, so I have. Someone said they don’t like books in series, so I added a line about each book being a complete story.

I also just started up some new Amazon ads (just now) with a new/old approach. For some time I’ve been trying to make focused, targeted, high-bid Amazoin ads work. They haven’t. Now I’m going back to a more shotgun approach, with 700 keywords lifted from terrorism books in the top 100.

Low bids. Many key words. Hopefully I can pick up some crumbs this way. I can’t play at $1+ bids anyway, so no point pretending I can. Go lower and see if I can get a trickle of sales moving.

That’s all a lot, isn’t it?

Networking

We had our first London Indie Authors zoom meetup on Tuesday – and it went fantastically well. Honestly, I’m not sure why. In previous months, after co-organizer Jerome stepped down, I was almost on the edge of throwing in the towel.

Then I made the Facebook group. It has 35 members, and modest interaction, but it’s something that’s always there. It helps to say in the zoom group – ok, if you didn’t get your question answered, put it in the FB group and somebody will answer.

That feels way more like a community.

Also, we covered a great deal of ground in the zoom. I broke us into 4 groups – we had a guy from South Korea, a lady from America – so everyone could do some talking for 20 minutes. Then we covered topics in strict 5-minute pods.

Lots of great intel shared. I learned something – Jon-Jon shared the bklnk link, which tells you what categories your book is in. That got me thinking about making a word cloud, actually. Very productive indeed. Also very much on topic.

Yes. Let’s keep this going.

Covers

I’m due another cover tomorrow, for book 3. My designer also gave me a copy of book 1 without the building on fire -on the off-chance that is causing problems on the sales page. I’ll swap it in then out at some point to see if it alters sales conversion.

2020 Writing Roundup & 2021 Plans

MJG Writing, Yearly Writing Update Leave a Comment

I said it last year for the 2019 roundup and I’ll say it again here – this was the biggest year of my writing career so far, with 4 audiobooks out, ad spend up, pre-orders climbing, 2 new Wren releases and pretty regular income of $100-$200 a day.

3 major efforts defined the year:

  1. Getting Wren on genre

Much of 2020 was spent learning just what I’d written with Christopher Wren, learning to market it, and then getting over various major downers that threw the whole series into doubt.

I’ve said it countless times through the year in different ways (covers, blurbs, text), but in sum – I thought I’d written a Jack Reacher/Mark Dawson-like vigilante justice thriller series, when in fact I’d written a dark terrorism thriller.

There’s a big difference. I put on a Jack Reacher cover (last year), aped a Jack Reacher blurb, set the expectation as small town shenanigans, then marketed that. It led to countless bad reviews complaining about the violence and dark tone. So I acted, often circling back and acting again, fine-tuning, scrapping, re-starting:

  • New covers twice, for the whole series. That’s still happening now.
  • New blurbs repeatedly, moving darker, more terrorism, more violence.
  • Overhaul of all series books to grade down the more extreme violence, swearing and downer deaths, and make Wren a little lighter and more likeable.

Has it worked?

I can say with some certainty that it has:

  • Of the last 20 reviews for book 1 on Amazon 14 were 4/5 star and 10 were 5-star.
  • None of these reviews, whether positive or negative, mention the violence or unlikeability of Wren. A few people say they don’t get it – I think these were people turned off by the book’s politics, because I know it makes sense. That’s par for the course with a social justice warrior hero like Wren.
  • Readthrough to book 2 is up. Early in the year it was around 15%. Later in the year it’s 30%+. That’s far from great, but until I get some feedback I can use, I won’t make any further changes. I am finding readers who like it.
  • More people say they like Wren, would like to fight alongside him.

Moving forward, I have my best covers yet – really competitive with the top in the genre. I hope conversions will thus rise, making ad spend more effective.

So what were the downers?

Around mid-year I entered a slump, disappointed when I first discovered how poor that readthrough was (15%). Should I even continue writing Wren books if no one was reading them through? Why write book 5 or further if so few were even reading book 2?

This doubt swallowed me for a few months. I hashed out a whole other series with a similar, but way more likeable hero, and wrote 10,000 words getting it started. I re-worked Wren when I could figure things out – which was aided somewhat by getting 2 beta readers of 5iverr to assess Saint Justice.

Basically, they loved it. They had few improvements to offer.

I then went to get some more reviews from blog tour companies. One organizer in particular, Damp Pebbles, led to a flood of in-depth, incredible reviews, some dizzyingly so. These readers really engaged and really loved Wren.

So, whuh? Had I really whiffed the genre targeting so much?

All that gave me a big confidence boost. The books are good. I pushed on with book 5. Next up is 6, then 7, and we’ll see where things go from there.

On the whole, it’s been an incredible rollercoaster of a year in genre learning.

2. Audiobook production

Producing all 4 Wren books in audio took a huge amount of time (in proof-listening and editing) and money this year. I spent approx $2000 per book for my excellent narrator, so that’s an $8000 outlay – all just about covered by profits.

Without the audiobooks I would’ve made $8000 profit approx. That’s amazing. With them, I came out even – because for whatever reason, these audiobooks have not sold. Depressingly, book 4 has sold barely a handful of copies.

Ouch. What to learn from this?

The first lesson is to not make any more Wren audiobooks until I can sell the current ones. Along with the new ebook covers, I’ll get new audiobook covers too. Maybe this will help. I can’t really change the text though, as I did with the ebooks to make Wren more likeable. If you’re listening, you’re getting the much darker version.

Maybe that puts people off. They’re not listening through. I’m content to chalk this one up. Next time I consider audiobook, I’ll definitely wait longer to really finalize the most profitable version of the text.

I thought I’d waited long enough when I did these, but I guess not. Will new audiobook covers make a difference? It’ll just be a bonus going forward.

3. $100+ daily ad spend

I’m sold on the concept that you have to spend daily money to make money in fiction ebooks these days.

In the old days you could run one big promo list boost and coast it for weeks/months. Put your book on free was enough. These days the competition is far fiercer. If they’re spending, you have to spend too.

So I did. I’ve tried Facebook, Amazon and Bookbub ads for years, but rarely spending substantial sums per day. This year I cranked that up. For a few months I was dropping $100+ a day on Facebook ads, and making modest profits back. 10% returns and the like.

Not great, but you’d take a 10% return on a financial investment in a snap. Way better than putting it in a bank at 0.1% interest or less. Far from great, but not losing money.

In the process I went deep on Amazon ads. I tried Machete for managing thousands of keywords, and Prestozon for boiling that down to dozens, then on and off again. I figured out how to place my books precisely on competitors’ book pages, but all this was to no avail. I only lost money on Amazon ads.

Same with Bookbub ads.

Only Facebook has given me a consistent return. It’s where I spend all my budget, unless I’m experimenting with Amazon.

An interesting point about the big ad spend is that, while it’s incredibly nerve-wracking at first to consistently spend $100+ a day, as long as you’re making at least that much back, you get used to it. It’s fine, really. On days you lose out, though, it’s very uncomfortable.

2020 lessons

So here are my lessons in sum:

  • Genre is everything. Indies can’t sell literary or off-genre. They have to draft behind genre styles, tropes, covers and motifs trail-blazed by big publishers with big marketing budgets and movie deals. Your book has to fit or it’ll be tossed.
  • Audiobooks are a losing proposition (at least without the above lessons fully applied).
  • Facebook ads work. Amazon doesn’t.

2021 plans

My plans for 2021 are pretty simple, because I’m on a glidepath already and just need to ramp it up.

  • Write Wren book 6 and 7, then write book 1 of another thriller series and see where we are.
  • Market via Facebook.

That’s pretty much it. I may tinker with enlivening a Facebook fan page for Wren, but that seems like a lot of work for maybe not much reward (fan engagement). I’ll definitely keep experimenting with Amazon ads, but without much expectation. I’ll make box sets and apply for Bookbubs, but that’s all very standard stuff.

Ultimate goal is, as ever to make replacement money. After replacement money, I go 10x! Maybe I would write my learnings about genre into the non-fic book I started a year ago, back when I thought I’d hit on a gold mine (it evaporated).

All right. Let’s get on with it!

Wren 2 cover evolution – 2020 Writing Week 52/3

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

2020 is over!! I’ll write a proper 2020 roundup and 2021 plans post later, but first I need to close out the pressing business of the last 2 weeks.

No writing!!

It is has been a super slug-like 2 weeks off, and I have loved every minute of it. I actually watched little TV or movies, rather I spent my time playing Civilization 6 – a game I thought for years was empty and unfun. Now I am seeing some greater depth and competitiveness. Going for a culture victory is way more fun than either science or domnation.

But I won’t go on about that.

I have the new cover for Wren book 2! I continued with my same artist I found through 99 designs, who did the gorgeous cover for book 1 – https://www.michaeljohngrist.com/2020/12/wren-1-cover-evolution-2020-writing-week-51/

I had 2 concepts. One was a guy sky-diving, but this one proved pretty hard to make dynamic. Weird but true. Second concept was a farmhouse raid. Here it is:

I think it is fantastic and well in keeping with the first book. Here they are together:

Pretty gorgeous, right? Let’s take a look at the path to get here:

What a voyage. You can really see the movement from more amateur to expert. The left 2 covers were self-made. Far left was aping Jack Reacher covers – it looks quite a lot like his covers, a tiny guy hitch-hiking into some empty one-horse town.

It doesn’t represent the tone of the book at all. It only represents the opening scene. The book is a dark terrorism thriller, not a vigilante justice, so it shouldn’t look like Jack Reacher.

I began to figure that out gradually- the second cover increased the size of the guy, added a gun, went for more thrillery fonts. I think it’s better, but it’s still an empty, abandoned town, and the guy is facing nothing. It’s bright and kind of cheerful, when the tone of the book is far from that.

Cover 3 is just a copy of the one cover I had made for Saint Justice by Damonza. I had no idea how to make a second cover in that style, so just switched up the colors. It was on looking at all those books in a row (5 in the series all looking identical) that I realized I needed a new design.

The new one has the same color scheme – that wasn’t really planned, it’s just where the artist went to. I toyed with having the title as Blue Fairy in blue, but it looked weird. I’ll show you in a second. I actually tinkered with this cover for days, trying to figure out why it didn’t seem to fully work – this was after already buying it.

Have a look:

Here are 3 versions with slight variations. Maybe it makes no difference, but I agonized over them at length. I wanted the blue font to work, but it just doesn’t seem to. It looks slapped on and out of place, right?

So I had the left cover. But something about it seemed off too. No sun in the background, though I’m not sure if that was good or bad. At thumbnail size it looked kind of muddy and burnt out. The eye is sort of forced by a frame of black shadows into a glob of samey color in the middle.

I tinkered and tinkered, adjusting contrast, colors, enlarging or shrinking, until I hit on the far right. What’s the difference?

I took out some of the darkness. The top and bottom of the cover looked artificially darkened. It’s a common vignetting effect to focus the eye to the middle, but it kills leading lines and flow. Look at the book 1 cover and see that jagged white splash on the road leading the eye in. Fantastic.

So I lightened up the skies, and colorized them to make them a bit redder. Same for the underfoot grass. Top and bottom are now lighter and redder, allowing the eye to flow up or down. The trees either side are black and tunnel the vision. I think in this cover the running figures and the 3 figures in back pop more, because they’re the only things in full black.

This may be a valuable design lesson. You need very dark and very light, but you shouldn’t overuse either. Did I fix it? Did I make no difference? I imagine not a huge difference – less so because this is book 2, but I’m very happy with it (right now at least) and that counts for a lot.

Onward to book 3.

This week’s plans

I really need to get back in the writing saddle – same goal of 10,000 words by this time next week seems pretty reasonable. Hopefully cover 3 remade too.

Wren 1 cover evolution – 2020 Writing Week 51

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

Here at the edge of closing out 2020, it’s time for a retrospective on Wren book 1 covers. I just bought a new cover, and am kick-starting the process to get all 4 remaining books re-covered, and I’m extremely pleased.

Here’s the new cover, absolutely fitting, expertly made, and pretty eye-catching:

It’s gorgeous. It draws the eye. It looks totally pro and I believe can hold it’s own against competitors in the store – something my old covers couldn’t really claim.

It’s been a long road. I think Wren’s found a home.

Here’s where we’ve been over the past year plus change:

The top 3 were all self-made.

Top left was first, aping a Jack Reacher cover. It fails in comparison to Jack though, because JR covers have him usually rolling toward a dusty one-horse town. He’s the cowboy lawman come to clean up the corruption. Here Wren is just strolling, no sense of threat.

Top middle I try to add more sense of threat and move a little away from JR style. The guy has a gun and looks combative, the colors are darker and fonts stronger. There’s still nothing ahead of him though. Little sense of urgency. Who is he facing off with?

Top right was my effort to keep on addressing that. Burn out the sky, make it all red. It just doesn’t look good, though. I’m not a pro designer. He’s still just facing off with a sunset. I tried many times to use other images, but none looked any better than this.

Bottom left was the Damonza cover I requested. It looks like Stieg Larsson or Livia Lone – but it gives me no room to move to for the sequels. It doesn’t martch the genre. Those books it’s similar to are literary works put out by big publishers who can make thier own genre. I’m learning, as an indie I can’t make my own genre. I have to color within the lines.

Bottom middle is a second cover I bought from Damonza. Leaning back toward the genre-trope of a silhouette guy, but again the black and white style leaves me nowhere to go with subsequent covers. They’ll look dull. It looks grainy and too gritty. I feel it’s unattractive.

Bottom right is the latest. I think it’s the most pro. It takes the trope of a silhouette guy, but unlike many covers, it gives him something to run toward.

Words achieved this week

I wrote nothing this week – I was too absorbed with monitoring covers, handling my new FB communities (they are slow to grow), and of course my day job was really busy in the run-up to assignments coming due. I taught a lot of sessions and 1:1s.

For the next 2 weeks I may write a lot. I also may write nothing 🙂 I could focus on new covers coming in and getting ads working for this new cover. Also, it’s Christmas, so I may just chill the heck out.

Goal by next week

Week 52 of 2020! I hope by this time I have the new cover for book 2. The concept is cool. It kind of gives away the ending, but I’m not worried about that – movie trailers often show the best clips from the movie, and people don’t feel too bad about that when they see the actual movie. It should be cool.

Words-wise, maybe 10k would be good.

Ads-wise, running and in profit would be great, particularly on AMS where I am never successful.