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?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I also google how to make a character likeable:

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

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

Writing Retreat wk 1 – 2020 Writing Week 32

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

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

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

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

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

Holiday 🙂

Back to writing Wren 5 – 2020 Writing Week 31

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

This one is on the US store:

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

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

Here’s the UK review:

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

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

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

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

lol – you can’t please everyone…

Couple of tinkers I made:

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

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

New words on book 5

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

By next week

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 4 – now.

So here’s what I’ve done:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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I have written no new words this week ahahahaha!

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

Reworking the Chris Wren series

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

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

Part 3 – now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proof-listening to book 4

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

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

And sales?

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

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

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

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

And next week?

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

More ways to fix the Chris Wren series – 2020 Writing Week 29.5

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Last Thursday I wrote up the results of my fan questionnaire on the Chris Wren series – read that here. In summary, I had 62 responses, the majority were about reducing the price, with a handful of others saying the topic of Monsters book 2 was a big problem, some comments about Wren being unlikeable, and several comments about the book not being engaging.


I’ve thought about it all. Su’s been reading book 1. I’ve reflected. Then on Saturday I bit the bullet and bought the k-lytics report on the vigilante justice genre. It was only $40, but I had no idea if it’d be worth it.

I think it was. Here’s what I learned:

  • There’s about $800 million at stake in the top 2,000 odd titles per month. Obviously, we fellow authors are in competition with each other for this money. There used to be prominent authors saying we are not in competition with each other. We clearly are. I can see the competitors right there in the top 100. I it seems am currently ranking around 150 in the genre. A good goal would be top 20.
  • Books in the genre often use justice, blood, wolf, vigilante and other tough words in their titles. Similarly, in their blurbs. A lot of vengeance, revenge, avenging, and such. Valuable.
  • Perhaps most important of all was the breakdown of crimes that needed avenging. Far and away the most sold ‘crime’ was murder. Nothing came close. I realized my blurb for book 1 doesn’t even mention this. It talks about human trafficking, organized crime – crimes that are barely 1% of the market. I’m hawking something only a minority wants.

I also had some strong feedback on Su on the choppiness of early Saint Justice chapters. I agree. I started thinking about big changes. Here they are:


First up was titles. Only Saint Justice remains the same.

  • Book 2 Monsters, banal and perhaps genre-confusing, has now become No Mercy.
  • Book 3, Reparation, is now Make Them Pay.
  • Book 4, the vague and not very vigilante-sounding Ghost War, is not False Flag.

Are these better? 2 and 3 must be. 4 may not make much difference. Now they really signal vigilante. They are exciting titles, I feel, rather than interesting/intriguing ones. Always my major issue.

I rewrite the blurbs. I won’t go into this too much. Basically, I foreground murder, background the trafficking/kidnapping.

In-cult POVs

This is the biggest one.

Su has said it. My manuscript assessor a year ago said it. The character Charles DeVore, the wannabe child abuser whose POV we nauseatingly share in book 2, should be removed completely.

I couldn’t imagine removing him. He is grotesque, but surely I need that thrilling opening scene to hook readers to the book? If I remove him, don’t I lose all the fascinating insight into what it’s like to self-radicalize? And if I do cut him, do I also cut all the insight POVs from all the other books?

I can answer the second question of those easily. While DeVore’s opening sequence is gripping and intense, it also has put people off. I only hear from the one’s who stick with it. But I think he’s driving people away.

My biggest concern is trimming all the POVs from the other books. It feels massive. Isn’t that the charm point? Those sections are some of the ones I worked hardest on!

Anyway. I just decided – give it a go. Take DeVore out. He can’t disappear wholly, but his POV chapters can go. We won’t be in his head.

I did it. It didn’t take that long. I had to add in a few bits in Wren’s POV, to fill in the gaps he left. But probably it actually makes things tighter and tauter. We’re really in the dark with Wren. We don’t have any escape from his hunt.

It’s already out there – the version that’s for sale. I can’t think of any reason to put DeVore back in… A lot of the ‘thrills’ of his opening scene get recapped and replayed later anyway for Wren. So, maybe no need at all.

So what about the other books’ POVs?

I like things to be uniform. Doing this for DeVore makes me look at the others. Book 3 I can imagine will be a benefit. The opening scene of the billionnaire getting torn apart is gruesome. There’s a big difference between us seeing this happen live, and having it be reported afterward.

I think people can handle a crime scene a lot better than actual live cruelty. It goes the same for latter scenes, which are often all half witnessed by Wren anyway. Again, we lose the richness of their POV interiority, but we do gain excitement from only seeing things from Wren’s POV. Book 4 likewise.

But book 1? The Mason opening is not gory or horrific. People like Mason a lot. But then there isn’t any Mason for 20 chapters, at which point he is just treated really poorly. His chapters have become shorter over time anyway, as there used to be a lot of nonsense racist theory poured on his head, which I took out because it was – like DeVore – nauseating.

Another issue since I added the Wren flashbacks – in response to several people saying Wren left them cold, he felt inhuman – is that we currently have Mason, then Wren, then a Wren flashback. 3 jumps right at the start of a book is pretty disengaging.

A final issue with Mason – his kidnapping happened almost a year earlier. That might annoy people, when they realize it. It is a tricky bit of writing.

So cut Mason? Only give the reader Wren to focus on.

Then this sends me off in another direction. Without the hook of Mason, Wren has to carry all the narrative weight. And this helps point out weaknesses in the flow. People have mentioned how bitty the early parts are. Wren meets Eustace for a chat, then Jay Durant, then Henry and Abdul, then Demeter, then Alli, and they all play a bit role.

It seems exhausting. In Jay Durant’s case, he just brings a semi. Demeter gives some background on the sheriffs. Why do we have to meet them all?

It’s because I was building out the world. Also because I was having Wren stumble a bit blindly – his focus was on breaking the Vikings more than anything. But why was he doing that? No reason.

He needs to be trying to get his truck back. So why dick around at the bar at all? Why not just assault the warehouse straight out? It doesn’t exactly jive, now.

So cancel it all? Unintroduce those characters – but I need Henry, Abdul and Alli for later. So…


And if removing Mason reveals this to me, then it’s not like this wasn’t always a problem. It always was. People say engaging is a problem. It takes 15-20 chapters before Wren is singularly focused on hunting for Mason.

So, yeah.

The thing is, I can spend a day doing this, then if I feel bad and don’t like it, I’ve only lost time. I can go right back to the original. Part of me thinks I probably won’t, though. Whatever the case, the book doesn’t get good enough readthrough for it to be properly profitable. So I have to make changes whether I like it or not.


The one big problem this brings forward is the issue of hooking the reader. All these prolog POVs bought me a little time to introduce Wren. Now I don’t have that luxury. We have to get into it fast. Well. OK.

Why people don’t read through the Chris Wren series – 2020 Writing Week 29

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Over a year ago I ran a revelatory questionnaire to my newsletter list, trying to figure out why people weren’t reading through the whole 9-book Last Mayor zombie series.

I had something like 3% readthrough from book 1 to book 9. Abysmal. The results were fascinating (see them here) so I decided to replicate the experience for Christopher Wren.


My goal with my writing is to make money. Of course I want enormously to tell stories, improve my craft, reach other people, and have an influence on hearts and minds, if possible. But ultimately, my ability to do all of that comes down to money.

I want to be a full-time writer. To do that, I need to sell more books.

These days my ad and income report is a rollercoaster – sometimes it’s looking like I’ve hit on it, I’m almost at a daily replacement income level, then other days I’m making zero or even a loss on ad spending.

A clear part of this problem is the cost of acquiring readers in the hyper-competitive thriller market. I read one (successful!) guy say it costs him $8 to get a reader of his book 1 in series. I’m getting something like 1 in 10 conversion, each ad click costs around 20c, so my cost of acquisition is around $2. That’s basically breakeven.

Where the other guy is successful is in readthrough. With some 16 books, and readers going from 1 to 16 in high numbers, he will quickly convert that $8 cost of acquisition to substantial profit.

Christopher Wren doesn’t have great readthrough. Here are my numbers of sales for the last 90 days:

That’s a 14% readthrough from book 1 to 2. Awful. So I’m paying at least $2 to acquire, but that’s mostly where it ends. From 1 to 3 it’s 10%. Even from 2 to 3 I’m at 70%. I’d rather that figure be up at 90%, but whatever, maybe 70% is not so bad. 3 to 4 is goood, but 4 just came out, so the figures are skewed.

14% is too low. I’d be happy with 40%+. Higher obviously is better.

What about Kindle Unlimited page reads?

These are lifetime figures. It equals 1550 full reads of book 1, 580 full reads of book 2, 300 full reads of book 3, and 4 is just getting started.

Ugh, right? It’s a 37% readthrough from 1 to 2, 20% from 1 to 3, 50% from 2 to 3. Better than bought copies, but Kindle Unlimited readers are famously more likely to read through. From 1 to 2 should be 70%+.

Clearly there is something wrong with book 1, either the text or the marketing. It has fair reviews, 4.1 out of 5 on Amazon. Nor is this new to me. I’ve been making lots of changes to the books, primarily book 1, including:

  • Massively reduce violence and gore
  • Give Wren more jokes, lighten mood

I think these changes are responsible for improving reviews. I was 4.0 out of 5, now it’s 4.1. A small step, but one in the right direction. The goal is to hit 4.3 and have what looks like the 4.5 rounded-up star rating on Amazon.

But I’m not seeing the improvement in sales or KU readthrough. So, just like I did with the Last Mayor books, I asked my readers.


I put together a newsletter – just as before – that linked to a simple google form questionnaire with 3 questions.

  • Which book did you drop off on?
  • Why?
  • How would you fix it so you didn’t drop off?

I incentivized response with a $25 Amazon token. I wasn’t sure what I’d get. Last time I had an unexpected 100+ responses. This time, most of a week later, I’ve had 61.

Here are the results:

Which book did you drop off on?

So, of the readers on my newsletter list, 40% dropped off on book 1. It’s a fairly even 20% and 15% for books 2 and 3, then the people on book 4 didn’t drop off – they finished out what’s available.

It’s important to remember where this newsletter list came from. Many will have signed up as part of a free book promotion. They’re kind of cold leads. A few hundred signed up from a back of the book sign up call, making them warm leads and proper fans.

So. Let’s dig in.

Why did you drop off?

Lots of answers here. I’ll categorize and describe, then talk about what I can do.

  1. Cost and Corona – Here’s where I get hit by having many sign-ups who came in off free books, as well as the impact of coronavirus. 11 people out of 61 said the books cost too much, or the pandemic had flattened their spend (whiule other authors were giving away a lot of free books). For the record books 1-3 are $2.99, book 4 is $3.99. The boxset 1-3 is $7.99, so you could get all 4 current books for $11.98. That seems pretty fair to me. I expect these readers would like the books to be free.
  2. Waiting on the next book – I include this as a positive – 19 responses were people telling me they were just waiting for the next book. One said I should write faster 🙂 This was connected to a slight complaint that it was hard to remember what happened in the previous books – maybe there should be a summary at the start of each book?
  3. Not engaging – 5 respondents said the books were not engaging enough, one way or another. Unfortunately, none of them said more than a single line. Not engaging. How to fix? Make it more engaging. OK…
  4. Wrong genre – 2 people said it was the wrong genre for them. This is down to my marketing. With the violence trimmed and some humor added in, I think I’m tackking closer tothe genre the book cover and blurb suggest. Future reviews will tell.
  5. Violence – 4 people said the violence was too intense, and another 2 said the themes were too intense (child abuse in book 2). I’ve been working on both of these already, so there’s a good chance these readers didn’t read the new versions. I have to hope the new versions are better. I’ve definitely already squashed every specific mention of violence I’ve received. Likewise, there are no (and never were) and scenes of actual child abuse. Further to that, children are barely even mentioned in book 2 – it’s an ill-defined concept lurking in the background. This may still be too much for some…
  6. Fantastical – 3 people said the books, and book 2 in particular, were too unbelievable. Wren was a superhero. I’ll need to look at book 2 again to check this out. He does crash into a building, stagger through a fire, lose an enormous amount of blood, survive smoke inhalation, then cap things with a skydive and mass slaughter. Maybe I can tone it down a little, make it more realistic.
  7. Technical – One person said book 2 was too technical. There are a few little info dumps throughout the book, about darknets and hacking tactics and such.
  8. Dislike Wren – 4 people said they disliked (even hated) Wren. He’s arrogant and humorless. His politics are off. I’m reading between the lines a little, but I suppose the ‘constant urgency’ I imbued him and his actions with, as well as his ‘my way or the highway, right now!’ attitude is off-putting. I’ve heard this on book 1 before. Wren seems like a bully, even when dealing with white supremacists. That’s quite a feat. I have changed that recently – make the supremacists badder, make Wren more a victim. We’ll see if that makes him more likeable as new readers come in.
  9. Repetitive – 2 people said they wanted to move on from dealing with the Apex as a looming background character. One compared it to Harry Potter, saying voldemort was always there, but other things were going on too. I’d argue it’s the same setup for Wren, but no point arguing.
  10. Lack of cliff-hanger – 1 person interestingly said that the lack of a cliff-hanger in book 1 may be hurting my readthrough. I wanted each book to standalone, so every major thread is closed off at the end of book 1, though there are some loops left vaguely open – like the Apex. This person suggested they should be more obvious and compelling.
  11. Monsters title – 1 person suggested that book 2, titled Monsters, was an off-putting title. Made them think it was fantasy or SF. They suggested using a different title.
  12. Slow start – 1 person said book 1 spends too long introducing side characters – many of whom we don’t see again. It slows things down – they want to get to the real plot.

So, that was quite a haul. I’d expected more complaints about the violence. The dislike Wren took me by surprise. The cliff-hanger and book 2 title were single-person comments, but I think they could be easy switches that make a big difference.

How to fix it

As mentioned at the top, I’ve done a lot already to reduce the violence, make things more believable and soften Wren’s image – that’s in all the books, but primarily in book 1. Here’s what I cna do further:

  1. Cost and Corona – I’m not sure there’s much I can do here. If I reduce book 1 to 99c, which I have done several times, it weirdly doesn’t increase sales much for the same amount of ads. I think the buying readers aren’t that price sensitive. The other option is to go free, but then I end up with free readers who want book 2, 3, 4 for free as well. No point for me to do that… So, no real action here.
  2. Waiting on the next book – Write faster! I may be on schedule to hit my September goal for book 5.
  3. Not engaging – This is too vague for me to do much with. Maybe the are readers of the wrong genre. I can let them go. Most reviews say the pace is very fast – if anything, too much intensity may be the problem.
  4. Wrong genre – I think I’m getting on the right side of this issue now. The text of the books is lighter and less horrible. The concpets are still tough, but hardly anyone mentions that.
  5. Violence – This is an ongoing battle for me. I think book 1 is well softened now. Book 2 could probably just some attention, and book 3. Book 4 is already quite soft, everyone says so. I also altered the blurb for book 2, so there is no off-putting mention of ‘abusers’. They’re in the story of course, but their abuse is a crime we never see and rarely think about.
  6. Fantastical – I need to look at books 2 and 3 again and grade the superhero level of activity. Often it is silly things, like a single number, very easy to fix. Like I said – “Wren had done 3 base jumps before,” and then he pulls off an amazing skydive. Easy to say, “Wren was a pro skydiver, with many dozens of jumps undfer his belt.” Done. I just need to recognize these instances.
  7. Technical – I can probably massage book 2 in particular a bit better, to smoothe out info dumps. Not a major issue right now, though.
  8. Dislike Wren – This is a biggie – and a reason people wouldn’t want to read through. I think book 1 Wren is now pretty warm and fuzzy. Not a bully. Maybe I can give him a cute hobby? Book 2 I need to soften him up, and 3 probably too. People need to like him. This is tough. I spotted one instance in book 2 just the other day. Wren almost dies of smoke inhalation. Rogers comes in and saves him. He doesn’t even say thank you!! What a dick. I changed it, added a little banter. I’m thinking things like that.
  9. Repetitive – I’m addressing the Apex head on in book 5. His story will close out in a book or two.
  10. Lack of cliff-hanger – What a great suggestion – I did the same thing for Last Mayor book 1, and am sure it helped. So I shifted the end of Wren 1, made it feel a little more urgently focused on Wren’s hunt for the Apex, and his desire to get his family back. The loops are wide open.
  11. Monsters title – Only one person said this, but I’d never been confident of this title. It is odd. I deicded to change it – won’t match the audiobook, but that’s OK. Now it is called Pinocchios. Better? Worse? Certainly is more characterful than Monsters.
  12. Slow start – I’ll take a look at book 1 and see if I can trim anyone. Maybe Jay? They have a nice interaction. But also a nice interaction with Henry and Abdul, and then later Alli, all after the nice interaction with Eustace. It’s a lot.


In conclusion, I didn’t get any really strong concensus areas, like I’d thought I might. It happened very clearly for the zombie books. The most key issues are to reduce the violence and make Wren more likeable.

I have no problem with either. I can make him a little more funny, more friendly, more decent with ease. It’s fun to write him having fun. Building relationships. I need to do more for book 2 and 3.

Mostly now, I want to push more readers through book 1 and see if they continue on. Have the changes I made already helped? Time should tell.

Wren book 5 progress and goals

To cap things off, a quick check-in on Wren book 5. I did the calculations previously, figured I needed to hit 10k a week for every week going forward to publish by end of September.

That meant 25,000 words by today. Well, I spent much of this week working and re-working what I had, figuring out the shape this thing had to take. Ultimately, it looks like it’s going the same way book 4 went towards the end – Wren handles one thread, while empowering nad monitoring another team as they break off.

It feels like the right thing. This series is definitely about him learning to trust, hand over autonomy to those in his Foundation. It also makes things that much more action-packed, with several threads progressing at once. Not to worry, I don’t do this by splitting the point of view, but rather by having Wren check in regularly with the other team, or have him go with them virtually.

It’s a challenge, but fun. So, I hit 19,000 words. 6k short of the goal, but whatever. I’m looking at a pretty straightforward run now, I should think at least until the midpoint, and even from there. The story is broken out.

So, by this time next week, 30,000 words would be great, 35,000 even better. Halfway!

Nothing week – 2020 Writing Week 28

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

It’s been kind of a nothing week in the writing/marketing department – I got several thousand fresh words, but mostly was moving things around and re-editing old stuff.

This happens throughout writing these books, really – I hit a point where writing forward just doesn’t feel right. I’m not sure why, but I know the answer is to go back and find the point where things start to feel wrong.

Finding that point is trial and error really. I only know I’ve found it when I’m ready to move forward.

Did I find it now?

I think so. Essentially, upon discovery of the crime that starts the book, Wren basically infers everything about the Apex’s plan, and info-dumps it all on the page. It’s too much. He’s smart, but he can’t know all this. I have to spin this out as more clues come in.

I’m still working on the delivery of it, but I’m ready to move on. So let’s say I hit 15,000 words and the rest of the time was spent debugging.


Oh man, I’m sick of ads. One minute I think I’ve got them figured out, then I get some more face punches that assure me otherwise. Money comes in but it’s inconsistent. The competition out there is crazy.

I don’t have the answer for it. I switched off my pixels and went back to regular ads. I’m getting a return on the Wren books generally, but not enough to scale up. Like a 20% return or less. So I’d need to spend $500 daily to make $100 profit – which is crazy. I can live with a 50% return – spend $200 to make a $100 profit. That’s my daily goal right now.

Wren can’t deliver that. So I try lowering prices, raising them again, changing target audiences, moving budgets around. My current idea is to run lots of little cost ads to a range of audiences, and try to scoop up lots of cheap clicks. Cheaper clicks means more profit.

We’ll see.

It’s disheartening, but the only way is forward.

I also picked up Prestozon, an amazon ad managing software tool that costs $50 a month. I’m on a free first month. It manages bids, zeroes out non-performing targets, and isolates search terms. I’ve had it a week, and it’s only losing money so far. Again, we’ll see.

Next week

Time pressure starts to feel a bit more real on Wren 5. If I mean to have this published by end of September, so written by mid-September, I’ve got like 8 weeks. About 10k a week now will be required to hit that. 2k a weekday. Doable, if I don’t get snagged up.

So 25k words by this time next week. As ever, 50% return on ad spend remains the marketing goal. Spend $200, make $100 profit. Wish me luck!

Ads revamp, Wren 5 & Pixel success – 2020 Writing Week 27

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

It’s been an ad-focused week, after last week’s trials and tribulations to get Facebook Pixel conversion Optimization ads (hella mouthful!) to work.

Now they’re working. But are they working?

And let’s check in with word count on Wren 5 – Firestorm. I’d hoped to hit 15,000, and looks like I hit 12,000. That’s not too shabby. I almost certainly could have hit more, but I’ve been slacking. We’re through the initial intro action, and into the turn to the main rush.

Wren 5 progress

My target release date for Firestorm will be end of September. That’s 3 months. then book 6 by end of December – 3 months apiece. How’m I looking for wordcount, then?

It’s week 27 now. I’ve got until say week 39. That’s 12 weeks. Say 8 of those weeks for writing, 4 for revisions and launch prep. If I get 10k a week, I’m golden. I’m basically on schedule. That’s maybe 1,300 words a day.


So far in this 12k we’ve had 1 big death, 1 big fight, 1 big psychological ‘crack’ and some fun back and forth.

Facebook Pixel

So I set up my Facebook Pixels – they link to squeeze pages on this site, and optimize for anyone clicking through AFTER they’ve seen the price.

These webstie conversions are proving pretty expensive to get – around 80c. Each one is not a guaranteed sale by any means, but so far they’re looking good.

Yesterday in the US I had 60 raw clicks at 27c per click, which resulted in 18 clickthroughs on my site for 85c. How many of those became sales? No way to know precisely, but in total I had 15 sales/full readthroughs in the US yesterday.

Not all of those will be from the ad, so knock it down to 10 maybe. 10 out of 18 website conversions seems good. Hmm. Each sale then costs me $1.60. I make $1.90 on each sale. So that’s a profit of 30c.

Not perfect. But pretty good. I anticipate those 85c website conversions coming down in price too as Facebook’s algorithms finetune my target.

Comparing to previous figures, the conversion is way up. I had 60 raw clicks lead to 18 sales, basiclaly 1 in 3. I was getting between 1 in 7 and 1 in 12 before. Profit per click and such get involved too, but generally, if I can scale up 1 in 3 conversion, in profit, yeah.

I also made a few other ad changes:

  • I put the Amazon and Kindle logo right on the ad image. I know everyone sees the image. They may not read the text, but they do see the image. No point people clickng if they’re not an amazon ebook reader. So qualify them up front.
  • In the headline, which is the next thing they’re likely to see, I add that it’s a thriller, it’s an ebook, it’s $2.99 and it’s free in Kindle Unlimited. Again, no point FB makes any effort to optimize for clickers who aren’t into amazon, ebooks, thrillers, or who aren’t willing to pay.

We’ll see how this works out. I did this for my zombies as well as Wren. Here are those ads:

Click price will probably go up, but if conversion and profits per click also go up, yeah. Efficiency is key. Margins are razor tight.

Saint Justice notes

I had a couple of useful notes on Saint Justice. I haven’t had too many complaints about lack of realism recently, but a positive review mentioned a few:

  • Wren would struggle to do much with cracked ribs – I get this, but I’ve had cracked ribs and could do a fair bit. True, I did slow down. So I change cracked to bruised. Easily done.
  • Wren has a gunshot in his thigh, gets treatment, but then does action hero stuff. So I scale this down further. He does everything hobbling or limping after that. Seems reasonable to me.
  • The burning building at the end is a little oversold. It’s true, if the stariwell was black with smoke, nobody would make it out. So I just scale this down a little. That’s what firedoors are for, anyway, to prevent spread of air/smoke.

In other news, my narrator Nick Cracknell has started on the audio for book 4, Ghost War, and he’s already 2 hours in! I need to catch up with my proof listening.

Crushing genre discoveries & Pixel frustration – 2020 Writing Week 26

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

Last week was a painful climb-down of sales dropping away, after the previous week of getting great sales rates on the Christopher Wren books.

The outcome was that my conversion dropped from 1 in 10 to 1 in 20 or lower – which is a clear difference betwen profit and loss.

Painful. A rollercoaster. What the hell happened?

Crushing genre/marketing discoveries

Maybe it was last Wednesday that sales of the Wren books started to peter off. As far as I could tell, I hadn’t changed anything. I’d added a stronger female component to all blurbs over a week ago, and that had seemed to be responsible for the uptick in sales.

The exact same thing happened with the zombie books. I added mention of Amo dating Lara, and sales swiftly dropped off. This book that had been my profit bulwark for months was suddenly losing money!

I was stunned. Could the addition of a hint of romance be responsible for this downturn? I thought I’d finally mastered genre by adding the tiniest bit in. Was I wrong?

I dug in.

It seemed the tailing off with Wren was connected to a new ad I’d started running on Facebook, across both the US and UK. It was hardly any different from the previous ads – if anything it leaned closer toward appealing to women, with talk of Mason and his sweetheart.

It got great clicks, like the others. But it didn’t convert? I dug deeper still, and found that this particular ad was getting clicked mostly by men. That seemed odd. I had been getting majority female clicks before this. This new ad flipped that, and stole all the clicks from previous ads.

So they clicked, went to the sales page, where the blurb was exactly the same as in the ad, then didn’t buy. The female-tailored sales page blurb was putting them off? Bu then why had they clicked the ad at all?

I acted fast – and changed my ad targeting to focus only on women. Sorted, right?

Wrong. Conversions dropped further. Whaaat?

This was a slump. I didn’t understand it at all. How could I be riding so high one minute then lose it all thanks to the actual blurb that had been doing so well until then?

Here are the conclusions I came to:

  • Mentioning any kind of romance in a thriller or zombie blurb is a no-no. Now I reflect on it, this makes perfect sense. The Reacher blurbs I was inspired by didn’t mention romance. They mentioned strong women, but no hint of romance. So, clearly, genre trumps gender. Thriller and zombie readers want thrills and zombies. They do NOT want the slightest hint of romance. They probably like a strong character of their gender mentioned, but it’s not necessary.
  • People don’t read the Facebook ad copy too much. There’s no other reason people would click more on a romance-tinged ad then click away so completely when they hit the sales page. On the sales page they actually read the blurb. On the ad they don’t. What they’re responding to are the image and the ad headline, maybe.

These were some big learnings. Here’s my response:

  • Take out all hint of romance. Go back to the old blurbs. Pretty much immeditely , conversion returns to what it was before. Go back to targeting men and women. Dang.
  • There’s a problem with targeting via Facebook for clicks. I’m sending a lot of people to Amazon who then read the blurb for the first time. So I’m asking Facebook to get people to respond primarily to the image, not to the text at all. There seemed to be a way around that, partially at least, through the use of a Facebook Pixel.

Facebook Pixel woes

Fucking Facebook Pixel.

I’ve known about it for ages. It’s basically tracking code you put on your website, to log everyone that passes through. In concert with Facebook ads, you can get Facebook to optimize not just for clicks (get the most clicks on the ad for the cheapest price), but instead optimize for website conversions.

It basically extends facebook’s all-seeing eye to your website. They follow along with each clicker off the ad to see what they do on your website.

Now, I don’t sell books on my website, so I can’t show true conversions to Facebook. What I can do is make a ‘squeeze’ page that is a sales page for my book with only one link leading out – to Amazon. People are forced to read the blurb, engage properly with the book here, then click through to Amazon if they want more.

Now Facebook will optimize my ads for people who click through after actually reading the blurb. People who only like the cover but then don’t like the blurb will get ignored. Facebook will try to stop sending me those people.

Will it work? Well, it should. My conversions should become better and cheaper.

Getting this setup though took hours upon hours. I don’t hve the proper coding skills to make the Pixel ‘fire’ properly, so I spent ages trying to craft workarounds via plugins. In the end it proved to be a plugin that was blocking me. I switched it off – now my Pixel is firing happily.

It’ll take some time for Facebook to learn who my audience is. But then they should be on auto. I can build bigger audiences, because Facebook will know better who to target in those audiences. Clicks overall should get cheaper. Conversion should go up.

We’ll see.

I feel good I set it up, probably in large because I finally mastered the Pixel. Also because I’m back in profit. Thank heavens.

Writing news

I’d planned to hit 12,000 words on wren 4. I hit 6k instead, but wrote another 10k on a non-fiction project. We’ll see if I keep pursuing that. It’s ratehr dependent on ongoing success of my marketing endeavors. If I have mastered genre, I can write the book. If I haven’t, I should not.

By the end of this week it’d be good to hit 15k on Wren 4.