Wren 5 middle edits – 2020 Writing Week 47

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This time last week I dreamed of finishing up Wren book 5 edits, but anticipated getting halfway, and that is exactly what has happened.

I’m currently sitting at chapter 27 in the edits – I probably could have done more but for whatever reason procrastinated instead. I think I’ll be done in a week.

It’s good, is my thinking so far. The engine looks tuned, and once that’s rolling in the background Wren gets to have some real fun.

Promotion

Today I have two decent-sized promotional pushes going on. The boxset of books 1-3, which has never had any kind of push before, is currently featured in a Bookbub boxset 99c deal. Cheap for 3 books!

Of course that is true. It’s one of those things, though. If I can hook people, they’ll read 4, and 5 which is almost out, and that’s pretty great. I’ve seen no drop off in people reading the zombie books either, which has been amazing.

No ads spent on Amo et al, but they continue to earn and partly sponsor Wren. In fact, the box set on Amazon US just ticked over to a 4.3 out of 5 star rating, which allows for the 4.5 star image to show at the top.

That’s wonderful. Not only because reviews have been ticking up for some time, which means people are really enjoying it, but also because that 4.5 star image makes the books look much more competitive against competitors.

I need that now for Wren. He is holding steady at 4.1 on the US store though. I’ve only had a single new review in since I changed the covers several weeks back – I’m hopeful those new covers bring in the ‘right’ readers and that results in higher ratings.

The other promo I’m doing today is book 1 is free and getting pushed on some medium-level newsletter lists. I hope this push could lead to more reviews that’ll pull the average up.

Stats so far?

200 boxsets sold at 99p. That’s $60 back. The promotion cost $242, but the day’s not over yet, and that doesn’t include Kindle page reads, so I’d expect to at least break evenn.

170 copies of book 1 given away for free. That should climb daily for the next few days. I’ll keep an eye on it, but not all that closely. I don’t expect miracles from this, just hope for a nice boost in the long climb up the mountain.

By this time next week?

By this time next week I should have finished Wren 5 edits and be in the final polish, ready to send to ARC readers. I swear, these books take longer with each one I write. Twists and engines and human psychology take time to figure out.

It has felt revelatory at times, writing them. I learn a lot.

In other news

I’ve been gaming a fair bit recently. It’s funny, I bought a Playstation years ago along with Witcher 3, The Last of Us and a couple other games, then hardly ever played. No special reason.

Now it’s an every evening thing. Maybe there aren’t enough TV and movies to draw my attention – which is odd to say, because there’s so much, but not much of it grabs me.

I like to feel when I’m watching something that I’m learning something, whether it’s directly learning from a documentary or indirectly about story structure or possible world scenarios.

Not many shows give me that kind of buzz these days. Probably that’s because I’m 40 – I know what I like, I know what feels new to me, and there’s less of it. That’s fine.

Games are filling the hole. The storytelling in The Last of Us 1 and 2 was excellent. The fighting is fun and challenging. Now I’m onto the Witcher 3, and really enjoying the vibe.

I used to play World of Warcraft a modest amount. I got to level 40 or something, until the main plot ran out. Witcher is scratching that same itch, of course with much improved graphics on 15 years ago. Lots of fun little stories.

What am I learning? Hmm, not sure. The central story doesn’t grab me at all, but the mini ones are fun. It may also just be fun to kill monsters and romp around the countryside and find lots of free loot. The world is beautiful. The lore of the world is deep and immersive. It does feel a fair bit like adventuring. Perhaps a core draw of an RPG like this is the leveling up.

This happened only slightly in The Last of Us. I played for the story. In Witcher I am playing for the mini stories, with each quest episode being it’s own fun and funny mini-episode, strung along a necklace of planning to level Geralt up.

That’s fun.

After I play games for maybe an hour or so, I read a book until bed. Currently I’m on The Hod King by Josiah Bancroft, which is wildly inventive and surprising. I can learn something here, for sure.

Wren 5 early edits – 2020 Writing Week 46

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This last week has been consumed with editing Wren 5 Firestorm. In the first half of the week I worked on the final few chapters which I’d blitzed out in a rush. I had been worried they wouldn’t be so hot, would need a lot of reworking, but they were pretty solid.

The latter half of the week I started from the beginning. This is the heavy draft, for the deepest ‘ironing’ out of plot wrinkles.

One thing I’m finding with all these books, I hit tangles around chapter 8. It’s the point where the opening fight is over, and I need to transition into the hunt.

I call it the engine and sometimes the ‘theory’ of the book. It’s the way that Wren figures out where to go next, and what to do, based on some evidence from the opening fight. My explanation/uncovering of this theory tends to balloon and become repetitive on first draft, because in the moment I’m figuring out what it is. I tend to restate the same thing multiple times, from multiple viewpoints.

On redraft I have to cut through the thicket of repeat explanations to say it one time, with clarity. It’s exhausting, but by the end it’ll no longer look complex or confusing. It’ll be clean and easy to understand.

This is the swan looking graceful on the surface, with its feet paddling crazily underwater.

Cover

I also decided to buy the alternate cover that was made for me by Damonza and put it on books 4, 5 and 6, at least for now. Ideally I’ll buy some cheaper pre-made covers for books 2, 3 and 6, so every book is unique. There won’t be a super common image, but they’ll all have the same font, and the same black and white image. It should cohere.

Here’s book 4 and 5.

Wren 4
Wren 5

Marketing

Facebook ad click costs continue to hold at 20c. Since I have them capped at this price, it means they’d not serving as much as I want them to. Instead of getting 300/400 clicks per day total, I’m getting about 100, with hardly any in the UK.

However, conversion remains solid on these few clicks, readthrough to book 2 seems to hold at 30%, which while not amazing is way better than 15% and allows for a profit – even as book 1 is only 99c.

I’ve got the 99c Bookbub coming up on the boxset books 1-3, the free promo on book 1, and Prime Reading at some point. All pretty exciting. Plus, since Facebook US and UK are not close to spending my budget, I loaded a few ads onto Australia and Canada today.

These markets were never profitable before. They probably won’t be now, but it’s good to try every now and then. It’s a new cover, after all. Going to these links also pointed out the unexpected – Saint Justice was #1 in Men’s Adventure Fiction on Amazon Canada this morning, which was pretty cool considering I’d done no Canada promo then.

By next week

By next week I’d love to have the whole of Firestorm edited and ready for ARC readers, but I’m not sure that’ll happen. It may take another two weeks – there’s a chapter or two yet to write, and more theory sections to smooth out, and they alwasy take the longest.

Hopefully I’ll be at the editing halfway mark by this time next week.

Finished Wren 5! – 2020 Writing Week 44 & 45

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing 2 Comments

After a hectic 2 weeks of writing, matched by the crazy American election going on in the background, Wren book 5 is done!

This one is political, no doubt. Presidential politics, inauguration, mass rallies in Washington – as I was putting the finishing words to the final chapter, Joe Biden was finaly eking out his lead in Pennsylvania.

The two felt absolutely entwined. I thought I might, coincidentally, finish the book on election day. I almost got there. Each day after I got a few thousands words a day, until Friday when it capped off, I logged back into CNN, Biden had the lead.

Kind of inspiring.

Firestorm

This is a crazy book. Deep on psychology. Pulling together threads I left open since book 1. Wren’s past. His father. His psychological make-up, and the make-up of the American people, and people in general – linked together with some wild cults and cult-like behavior, the usual vehicular madness, bone-crunching fight scenes, chases, flights, destruction, character development, trust, faith, loss and more…

It took a long time. My brain is wrung out. Every day in writing the endgame, though, I felt supercharged with purpose. If to no one else, this mattered immensely to me. For making sense of the world and what we see around us. For combating the negatives while raising up the positives. Trying to draw a middle line.

I have loved writing Wren for these reasons. That sounds like a swansong, but it most definitely is not. More are coming, and should be coming soon. As soon as edits are done with Firestorm and I get it out there (should be in a few weeks, def by end of Nov), I’ll move right along to book 6.

I’ve got to find out where this is going!

Marketing

The new book cover, along with new advertising techniques (link to series page being the primary difference), have about doubled read through so far.

My average read through across the past year from book 1 to book 2 was 16%. By August that was up to 20%. In September it was 28%, and in October it was 33%.

Excellent. Double what it has been. That read through mostly carries to book 3 and 4 also. With 5 coming out, that should be a boost to the whole catalog.

I’m psyched. The last week has been solid for sales, consistent approx 50% profit returns – even with Facebook cost per click prices held unusualy high due to election ad spending, and presumably people preoccupied with watching the news.

I’m doing good. It could evaporate at any minute, but let’s celebrate the now.

In specifics I have book 1 currently perma-low at 99c, and that is driving more sales of book 1. I have a free promo on book 1 coming up in late Nov, and coincidentally at the same time I have the box set books 1-3 one aCountdown deal that’ll be boosted by an International Bookbub!

Nice.

Add to that even further, book 1 has been added by Amazon to Prime Reading in the uk! I hope this’ll go up for December and carry through Christmas. I’ve never been in Prime Reading before, and hope it’ll lead to lots of new exposure, lots of new take-up on the series.

Another great reason to get book 5 out the door right now, and follow up hard with 6.

Last Mayor

In zombie news, I recently turned off my zombie box set ads, dropped the box to 99c for 9 books, and have not really seen a drop-off in page reads or buys. I’d expect this to tail off over time, but maybe it won’t. It could be the ads weren’t doing much but costing me money.

Either way, right now they’re making money without any ad cost, which means it’s all profit. Not huge amounts, but a great boost to whatever Wren is making.

Plans for this week

I need to dig into book 5 hard. A lot of it is solid – the ending probably needs grading, I’m sure it’s overwritten and too emotional right now, and there may need to be a couple chapters added to fully explore one issue, but basically it is all there.

So, get through half the book with edits by this time next week? Close it out to launch in time for the box set Bookbub push? That’d be best.

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

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

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.