Last 20k words of Wren 5! – 2020 Writing Week 43

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The main news this week has been fresh words laid down on Firestorm – and they’ve been very revelatory for me. Last week closed out at 56,000, and this week closed at 64,000. That’s 8,000, which may not sound impressive, but it really felt like a lot.

We covered a couple of major steps forward that I had to wind up to, and which even now need a fair bit of work. Deep backstory coming into play in beautiful, unexpected ways. I love it when things that I only fuzzily envisaged years ago click into place as if they’d been machine-tooled.

Well, not quite yet – but it’ll look that way once I set to the pieces with a file 😉

Promo

Not a lot else going on, really. I’ve been working on my FB ads as ever. For most of the week I was running at something like a $50 daily profit, which is obviously great. In the last couple days the cost per click has nearly doubled, which is probably a combo of me running through all the cheap buyers and the US election forcing up click bids.

I’ll ride it out.

TV

I watched The Trial of the Chicago 7, which was fascinating and very well crafted, Borat 2 which was hilarious and thought-provoking, a few episodes of Dave on the BBc which is also hilarious, and Su and I are watching Sugar Rush Extra Sweet, which does the job of entertaining us through lunch time.

Next week

The goal for next week is to hit at least 70,000 words, and close out everything but the approach to the end. The week after I’d hope to finish up at 80,000 or thereabouts.

Wren words, renaming, promo & autumn clean – 2020 Writing Week 42

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This has been a good week for getting back on the writing horse – averaging around 2,000 words a day, taking the count up to 56,000. That’s about 10,000 for the week, which is great.

Words

A lot of big stuff. Deep backstory that has underpinned the whole series, kind of the ‘mythology’ if you will, coming to the fore. It’s exciting for me. For a long time I’ve known the Apex had an incredible hold over his followers.

I hadn’t broken out how. Now I’m doing that. It’s pretty cool how tech is playing into it. I’m psyched to get this book out there.

Renaming

I know, I just renamed!! I had titles like Monsters, Reparation, and Ghost War, which I switched to No Mercy, Make Them Pay and False Flag. Now I am switching them again!

Why?

Because I feel the new cover, vibe and genre home allows it. I got a comment on an ad from someone saying – “Don’t mention Jack Reacher in your comparisons – it puts off people who don’t like Jack Reacher!”

Touche. It was turning on JR fans – but my series is way darker, subversive and political than Jack Reacher. It’s hurting me to make those comparisons. It’s hurting me to have that JR cover.

Well, the cover has changed, the blurb has changed, and so can the titles. Here they are in pictorial form:

Of course book 5 remains named Firestorm. It looks a bit cheap to have the same image on all covers, but I’m not worried about that right now. If people like book 1, I don’t think the repetition on book 2 is going to put them off.

Book 2 was never called Blue Fairy before. I tried it on the old cover style and it looked kind of silly. Here I feel it looks menacing. It’s a much better fit. It’s the name of the enemy, tagged at the end of book 1. It’s a natural movement over.

Book 4, this was my original title, and the one I liked best. It didn’t fit well on the old cover style. Here I think it looks great.

Promo

I just heard a neat FB ad trick about where to send your traffic – David Gaughran says send people to the series page on Amazon, primarily because there are no ads for other books at all on that page.

That’s great. Like a splash page. So I have now done that. I also applied for a Bookbub 99c for book 1 and got rejected, like I have been every time. This could be for 2 main reasons – 1. Because the last (first) time I did a Bookbub for book 1 it was at free, and they don’t feature a book a 2nd time at a higher price. 2. I’m in KU.

Well, I was in KU last time too. I’ve resisted going free again because when I did the first free run, the most negative 2 reviews got dozens of upvotes on that day on both US and UK sites. Clearly vindictive. I still have one of those at the top of the Us reviews. Ugh.

But, whatever. I applied again just now for a freebie. David Gaughran talked about a powerful Freebooksy series page promo which I’ll try out. Book 1 free, book 2 99c, try and get the funnel flowing.

The cover and blurb are dark now. the signaling is accurate. Whatever genre that is, I’m hitting it. To boot – no author comps on the book page anymore. I feel they were more likely to be turning people off than turning them on. If I say Lisbeth Salander, I’ll turn off curious JR readers. If I say Jack Reacher, I’ll turn off anyone looking for something darker.

So nothing. Let them discover for themselves. If they like the blurb, they’ll like the book.

What else?

Not much else going on. Did some ‘spring’ cleaning today to make the dining room feel more like a cofee shop. Basically de-cluttered. This work can continue tomorrow – loads of stuff to take to the dump, it seems. Emptying out 5-year-old stuff from the attic to make room for new old stuff we’re not sure if we want. I mean, just throw it away, right?

I still have all my old diaries, dating back 22 years. I wrote them for maybe 8 years on and off. Made a lot of effort, keepingthem like scrapbooks, filled with old travel stuff, photos, letters. Toss them? I sometimes think about going back and re-reading them, reflect on human nature and such, but I already reflected when I wrote them, so I defer. Seems a little too navel-gazing. Maybe the executors of my future author library will find some use for them 😉

But lots of other stuff can go. For some reason I shipped all my old Business English textbooks over from Japan with me, and they’ve been mildewing nicely in the attic. Absolutely no need for them now. Probably more savings in similar areas.

Lots of old board games and books to take to the charity shop. Su and I are also thinking to cut giving each other Xmas stuff, or at least cut the novelty junk that ends up cluttering the place. I’ve bought her a number of silly books on cats that are fit for a cursory scan then head to the charity shop. I like trimmer, more minimal looking house. Everything in its right place.

Autumn cleaning!!

New Saint Justice cover!! – 2020 Writing Week 41

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I’ve been mummering on about the genre of Saint Justice and my Christopher Wren series for bleeding ages, so finally the time has come for me to announce the new, please-to-God-be-right cover. Feast your eyes:

What do you think?

I did a lot of testing to get here. I shared it alongside another, more standard vigilante thriller cover that the excellent designers at Damonza produced (for $500), with a range of different audiences:

  • My ARC team – they came up pretty much split on this and another
  • My writer’s marketing group – they preferred this one
  • FB ads via the Experiments tab, marketed to thriller readers – they clicked on this image for 13c in droves, cheaper than the current cover at 18c and the alt cover at 16c.

So this is the one! It definitely signals dark. It looks closer to a Stieg Larsson or Barry Eisler thriller than the old Jack Reacher male romance audience I was attracting before (who didn’t like the darkness).

I can already report it’s appealing to a different audience. Here’s the old cover:

This one received an even split of men/women clicking via FB ads, approx 18c per click, almost entirely 65+ readers.

The new one is getting far more men, approx 13c per click, with an even breakdown of 45+ readers, including a handful of younger. This looks positive to me. I don’t about the lack of women, but the broader range of ages seems to bode well. Younger folks like an edgier tale, is my thinking.

The previous cover was getting a sad 20% readthrough to book 2. The whole goal here is that this cover will bring the right readers who then want to read more dark adventures in book 2. Kind of exciting, feels like a second launch.

Tasks yet to do

  • Remake all subsequent covers – possibly change titles. I’m liking ‘Blue Fairy’ for book 2 now. With the new cover design, I think it’ll come off spooky, as it should. Old cover style, I thought it’d just look silly.
  • Get another promo round in
  • Test the Amazon blurb – the old Jack Reacher blurb may not pair best with this cover – I may go with a darker version

What else?

I’m up to 42,000 on Wren book 5. Just finished a sweet little self-contained flashback story. More insight into the Apex. Good fun and horror. Will push on and work on it this weekend.

Japan Writer’s conference is this weekend. I’ll surely attend a couple of sessions.

Investigating thrillers – the male romance – 2020 Writing Week 39

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Along the way in my recent investigation of the thriller genre (reading Baldacci’s Memory Man, Gregg Hurwitz’s Orphan X, Mark Dawson’s The Cleaner), I first called these books ‘cosy thrillers’. Now I’m refining that to ‘male romances’.

What does that mean? Well, they’re fantasies for men, just like romances are fantasies for women. What does a romance do?

Romance – a lady gets a good man, happily ever after

Male romance (thriller) – a man protects a single mother and her son from bad men, has sex with her and moves on

I suppose these are evolutionarily-based human directives. The genetic human female directive is to grab a man and keep him to provide for and protect her and her kid. The genetic male directive is to dominate rivals and spread his genes as widely as possible.

And that’s it. On some level it’s the fantasy all our selfish genes are telling us to do, and fulfilling it causes dopamine spikes from the brain. These books are like a drug that gives us our fix.

Now, this kind of thriller/male romance doesn’t seem to hold great attraction for me. That said, I respect Shane, enjoyed Logan, and probably plenty of other similarly themed stories. But it’s not my go-to archetypal plot.

What’s the archetype I like? The thriller that really turned me on to thrillers was 24 the TV show. I guess in that Jack Bauer is going to rescue his wife/daughter, but what interested me most was the terrorists. What drove them?

That’s the haunting mystery that ended both season 1 and season 2. It reflected the reality of 9/11 in a very real way. Why do they hate us? Everyone was asking that back then. Wondering that. 24 seemed to suggest it might have answers. I cared about that much more than rescuing Kim/Terry.

Draw a straight line from that to Wren. Neither his wife nor his child are at stake in any of the books. He doesn’t have sex with any vulnerable single mothers. He doesn’t bond with/protect anybody’s son. He just goes after the terrorists, and we get to delve deeply into why they do what they do.

That’s what fascinates me. In that sense, I’m not a great fit for the male romance side of the thriller.

Other famous male romances:

Jack Reacher is the most obvious one. He rolls into a town, gets wronged, and helps/shags a single mom before roaming on. Every time, pretty much. Except maybe my favorite Reacher novel, Make Me, where he goes into a small town where people are arriving and disappearing.

That one really inspired the darknet shenanigans of Wren. It also has the tropes of single women to shag and vulnerable children to be protected, but the core was the darknet operation of the bad guys – it really fascinated me. Why were they doing what they were doing? The answer is a super dark and fascinating take on human nature.

Jason Bourne has a female companion throughout, at least in the movies, I think. He protects/shags her probably.

Shane is the archetype. He protects both the woman and her weak husband, while becoming a role model for the son. No shagging here… Did Clint Eastwood shag the ladies in his Westerns? Not sure. Maybe he wasn’t even a role model to any sons. He just dominated the bad guys then left town.

So?

Beyond being simply very interesting for me to think about, this genre distinction really helps me understand what the thriller genre is and what reader expectations are. Perhaps I should add shagging single moms and protecting their kids to my stories. It’s an easy thing to add. I won’t add that with Wren, but in another series, maybe…

I’ve got another series idea. Who knows if it will pan out or hold my interest, but the scale will be smaller than Wren. Big issues will be smaller, and while motivations of the bad guy will still be interesting, they’ll be more normal. The hero can shag/rescue/protect the single woman. Protect the son. Hit those cosy male romance notes.

Wren can be my more literary ‘hard’ thriller. This other (or some other series) can be my ‘cosier’ thriller. We shall see.

Full steam ahead – 2020 Writing Week 38

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Aaaaand, I am back into writing.

Hoo-fucking-rah, am I right?

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

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

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

Will I write this or Wren? Or both?

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

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

Marketing

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

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

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

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

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

So! New cover!!

Soul Jacker

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

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

Another literary vs. Genre reflection?

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

Of course there are outliers. Harry Potter.

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

Not true. The Martian. WOOL.

OK, not many, then.

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

More literary/genre musings – 2020 Writing Week 37.5

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genre however is more like a guided tour.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adventure vs. Guided Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I write literary?? – 2020 Writing Week 37

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Maybe I write literary books.

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

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

Here are 6 features of literay fiction according to Wikipedia:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Unlike genre fiction plot is not the central concern.

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

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

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

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

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

So, literary then?

So, literary.

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

I am not THAT. I really dislike that.

But genre literary?

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

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

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

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

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

So I write literary genre books.

This may explain many things.

Why Wren 1 sells but Wren 2 doesn’t.

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

It’s my fault.

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

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

Why Mr. Ruin doesn’t sell.

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

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

Why Sen book 2 doesn’t sell.

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

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

And the zombie books?

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

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

What is genre, anyway?

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

TL;DR, what’s the takeaway?

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

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

Interesting. Could be expensive. We’ll see.

More Chris Wren noodling – 2020 Writing Week 35

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

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

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

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

Here’s the Facebook ad I started:

Pretty good.

Here’s the new blurb:

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

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

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

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

Now he’s going to get it back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why people read Vigilante Justice books

Because they want to read about justice being done.

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

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

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

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

Then the actual story. Am I delivering?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New plan

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

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

Justice done.

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

Is this it?

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

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

Christopher Wren crossroads – 2020 Writing Week 34

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

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

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

BUT

What if this is the wrong direction?

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

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

WHY?

Hmm. Good question.

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

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

The Wren books are R rating.

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

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

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

So I felt down facing that.

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

So.

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

What would this shift to Serial Killer require:

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

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

Rush of Wren critiques – 2020 Writing Week 33

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing 1 Comment

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

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

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

I didn’t get it.

Well, now I’ve had more feedback.

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

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

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

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

OMG. I hate that movie.

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

Ugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I also google how to make a character likeable:

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

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