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

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

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

Wren 6 words for the last 2 weeks

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

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

Early problems with writing this sequence involved:

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

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

Facebook limit and new reader group

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

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

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

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

Marketing other than ads?

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

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


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

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

More Wren 1 rewrites

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

What else?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lol. Crazy. Rudely harsh.

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

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

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

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

Double ugh. Triple punch. KO.

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

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

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

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

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

To the rewrites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


How am I fixing Wren 1

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

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

Wren 6 quagmire

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

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

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

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

New Wren 3 cover

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

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

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

Now book 4 is in the works!

Wren 1 – Saint Justice – rewrite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


So why would Wren do it? He wouldn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

By next week

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

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

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

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

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


So I did some writing.


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

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


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

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

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

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

So what the hell?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s all a lot, isn’t it?


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

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

That feels way more like a community.

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

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

Yes. Let’s keep this going.


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

2020 Writing Roundup & 2021 Plans

MJG Writing, Yearly Writing Update Leave a Comment

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

3 major efforts defined the year:

  1. Getting Wren on genre

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

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

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

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

Has it worked?

I can say with some certainty that it has:

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

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

So what were the downers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Audiobook production

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

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

Ouch. What to learn from this?

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

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

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

3. $100+ daily ad spend

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

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

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

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

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

Same with Bookbub ads.

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

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

2020 lessons

So here are my lessons in sum:

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

2021 plans

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

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

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

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

All right. Let’s get on with it!

Wren 2 cover evolution – 2020 Writing Week 52/3

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

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

No writing!!

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

But I won’t go on about that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a look:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onward to book 3.

This week’s plans

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

Wren 1 cover evolution – 2020 Writing Week 51

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

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

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

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

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

The top 3 were all self-made.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words achieved this week

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

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

Goal by next week

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

Words-wise, maybe 10k would be good.

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

Wren 6, community & 99designs – 2020 Writing Week 50

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This week was busy but movement very stop-start – got a handful of words written on Wren 6, expanded the London Indie Authors meetup group, and had second thoughts about my brand new Wren 1 cover.

Wren 6 words

This time last week I had 2,000 words on Wren 6. Somehow, I have only bumped that up to 4,000 since. That includes the prolog, which may or may not be great, and chapter 2.

I got carried away with Internet tinkering instead – as per the next two items:

London Indie Authors FB group

2 weeks ago the co-organizer of the LIA Meetup group let me know he was going to step down, leaving me as sole organizer.

It set me off thinking what the group was for, what I wanted to get from it, etc… I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to continue running it. I’d started out aiming to share fellowship with other author-marketers, share and learn marketing skills, network, have fun, and so on.

It has delivered that. There are frustrations attached to the more succesful group members tending to drift off and stop attending over time – how to keep them hooked?

I decided to double down and make a bid to offer greater value and even more fellowship, by opening up a Facebook group. I’ve never run one before, but it’s pretty intuitive so far. I came up with a repeating system of daily posts where everyone can post their weekly progress, like word count, sales, recent strategies.

I sent an email to all 550 members of the Meetup group. So far 30 members have crossed over. This is probably a pretty fair representation of how many actual active members we had.

Posts have gone over well so far. I check it quite a lot, hoping to suck value out of the members, make it a valuable place to check into. The first lesson of community building came to mind as I was doing this, and of course it’s obvious – somebody has to be there.

Obvious. The community starter has to post and post and nurture more engagement or other people won’t bother. So I’ll keep doing daily posts and try to get it to grow organically. If it grows organically, I feel the most skilled/adept will post too, and that brings value, and that value will keep them coming as other people on their level also post.

Small fries can be heard. Big fish can be respected. Everybody gets something – in a way that doesn’t always carry over to real world meetings.

Also, it’s limited to London. So it may never be huge. But there are plenty of huge FB groups.

I will now apply this lesson to trying to make a fan group for my thrillers. Can I get that going? No idea. Are there enough fans keen enough to keep coming back and, ideally, actually originate comments and posts amongst themselves? We shall see.

Further, today I made another FB group for the local park where we do volnteering work. Busy!! Here’s a photo of the dead hedge we made out of chopped brambles:

99 Designs

I just got a new cover made for Wren book 1. Why do it again?

Why indeed. I started seeing my book in Amazon ad carousels alongside competitors. It doesn’t really look like any of them. I looked at the top 100 vigialnte justice. Again, it doesn’t look like any of them.

Worse, I only made one cover, but I have 5 books in the series now. I want them to be branded. So do I pay a ton more to have 4 more covers made in the same style as the one I just had made, which don’t look anything like others in the genre, and generally don’t look that exciting?

They’re black and white with colorful text. Swap that slightly, it’ll look dull.


So was it a mistake? Why did I ask for this cover?

I wanted something like Stieg Larsson and Barry Eisler. That’s what I got. But those books are not selling big on Amazon. They’re not in the charts. and it’s really just those 2. It’s not a major trope/motif. It’s not an automatic pick-up.

So I want something gorgeous that will be an automatic pickup. Not the Jack Reacher style, though, because my book is not that. My book is more like Mission Impossible. Heavy branding was done to make that series famous. A lone guy with a high-tech team stops wacky terror plots with incredible stunts.

That’s Wren. So that’s the cover I need. OK. Pay up!!! I will share when I have the cover settled.

Phew that is it – busy but not big steps forward kind of week.

Also lots at work. Kind of pushing for some community building in a new way there too. Interesting…


My ads have been super flat all week. Hardly delivering. Amazon ads I got my book high in the carousel for both Stieg Larsson and Barry Eisler, and still I wasn’t getting impressions or clicks or sales.

That pretty much fuelled the revelations above. Having that kind of cover was effective on those pages, but those books are not in the charts, not getting a lot of page views, and are therefore kind of pointless for me to hinge my marketing strategy on.

Good thing about very low ad serve means I know I’m in daily profit. Of course revenue is down, but profit margin way up. Kind of a reset before next cover, and also to ride out mass advertising spend that is Christmas.


I competely forgot to mention upcoming launch of Wren 5! It was scheduled for last Monday, but I waited to get more ARC feedback, and now it’ll launch next Tuesday. It has 100 pre-orders, so I wanted to deliver the best product right out of the box.

100 pre-orders is a record for me.

Next week

By next week I hope to have my new Wren cover, and be starting fast on covers for books 2-4 so they all sync up. Wren 5 will launch. The LIA group will be a week old – I want more members, and some big-timers posting.

As for wordcount on Wren 6, I’d love to get to 10,000.

Onto Wren 6! – 2020 Writing Week 49

MJG Weekly Writing Update, Writing Leave a Comment

Lots of movement on writing and marketing, with Wren 5 capped and sent to ARC readers, work on Wren 6 beginning, and some exciting new marketing opportunities in play.

Wren 5 – Firestorm

I polished up Wren 5 early in the week, ended up adding a new capstone as the final chapter, then sent it off to ARC readers right away. I’ve yet to hear back, but it’s only been 2 days.

My goal is to launch on Monday 7th Dec. I’ve already had 97 pre-orders, which is a record for me. It has been available to pre-order for 6 months, so that’s spread out, but I’m very pleased with it.

Lots of little jobs between now and then:

  • Make the paperback version
  • Decide when/if I’m pursuing the audiobook version
  • Make a new page for it on my website
  • Update all website pages with the new covers

That’s a day’s work, probably. I need to get it done this weekend, so it’s doable.

Wren 6 – working title – Enemy of the People

With Firestorm done, I had a hunger to move directly onto book 6. I know the thrust of it. I know at least one big twist. I don’t yet know the engine, but I’m loving the emotional place Wren is in.

I’ve written the first chapter. It’s actually pretty fascinating how this and the previous book have shaken out. With both of them, I feel/felt like it was just too soon to jump straight in with another killing, another ticking clock. I had to do some character work first, maybe. I needed to let Wren and co breathe.

I didn’t quite get it at first, but now I see why. Both book 4 and book 5 kind of end right after a major event. There are no epilogues in those books that deal with the ramifications of those major events. They’re not exactly cliff-hangers, because all plot threads are dealt with in the book, but they definitely should leave the reader wanting more.

I have to deal with that first, before racing onto a new threat.

So book 5 opens with a kind of recap/refresh on the major event at the end of book 4. Book 6 is going the same way, and it makes great sense. Always in a story, when a major event happens that shakes everything, you need to take time to unpack what it means.

Without that time, the story will become overwhelming, feel thin, feel rushed, and just not be any fun. It won’t feel like a journey, it’ll feel oppressive and also boring. Events have to mean something or just having more of them pile up will mean nothing.

So I’m glad I see that objectively now as well as kind of intuitively. It gives me faith in both book 5 and book 6. Honestly, I’m very excited for book 6. I can’t wait to dig into the weird psychological stuff going on.

Deadline for this book? I’d love to write it faster than 5. In 3 months would be excellent. End of Feb. Get book 7 done by June. We shall see.


This week was the London Indie Authors meetup, which I still run – I talked at some length about Amazon ads, and the new approach I am trialling to bids and targeting.

Essentially, previously I was targeting a wide array of authors and books, making little effort to track if I was appearing on those product page ad carousels, and generally losing money on auto ads.

This time I am trying to laser-target specific comp books, like LT Vargus, Barry Eisler, LT Ryan, Joe Konrath etc… I make my bid, then I actually go look at their page to see if my ad is showing on the first rack of the carousel.

No, it hasn’t been. I dig in and discover my ‘down-only’ ads were probably throttling me at a much lower bid, so I switch to ‘fixed bids’. I start appearing on the carousel, but not well-placed. So I increase my bids. I increase them really high, and start appearing on first pages.

That’s it. It’s pretty cool to be able to sort of manipulate the Amazon system this way. I am bidding way over recommended bid prices, but I am appearing on first pages. I’d hope that leads to conversions, which amazon will like, and allow me to bid less to hold the same position. We’ll see. I can’t keep going with 90p bids for one click, unless every one of those converts to a sale.

In other news, Saint Justice is now in Prime Reading in the uk! This was selected by Amazon. It continues to the end of March. Anyone in Amazon Prime can read it for free. I hope they’ll push it, and I’ll get a lot of follow-on reads (paid) to books 2-5.

To Do list

By this time next week I’ll have launched Firestorm, so all the above tasks on paperbacks and such need to be completed.

I’d like to make headway on book 6. There’ll be a good bit of story-breaking required, so I don’t expect much. 5,000 words would be good, and heading into the main inciting incident. Stretch goal of 10,000. I’m at 2,000 now.

Christmas is coming!

I put up the tree. The lights are blinking in the window. Very pretty.

Only 3 writing weeks left in 2020!

Wren 5 final edits – 2020 Writing Week 48

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Well well well, last week I said I’d be done with latter edits on Wren 5 Firestorm by Friday, and that is almost exactly what happened.

On Friday I finished first draft editing up to the ante-penultimate chapter, leaving only 2 to go which I polished off on Saturday.

Today I am beginning the final polish. Thus far I covered 7 chapters out of 50, but the beginning is always the slowest to polish – the most wrinkles need to be ironed out, dead trails removed, a few hints added in.

Through the middle should be fast, the end pretty fast, then it’s just a grammar/spell check and put it into the hands of the ARC team to beta-read. Maybe launch in 10 days?


My Facebook click prices have gone through the roof in recent weeks. at first I didn’t know why this was – the election was over, s surely ad spends should return to normal?

Of course not. there was the buildup to Black Friday – which now more than ever has seen companies pouring their ad budget into online. I’m priced out. This’ll probably continue until Christmas is over – so I’m throttling Facebook ads and looking again at Amazon ads.

I never have had success with Amazon. It’s far more about direct competition with fellow authors than Facebook. Facebook you pop up in someone’s feed, and maybe there are no other books to click on there. You’re considered on your own merit until they get to Amazon.

Once you’re on Amazon, it’s all about pilfering the readers from another author. Your book ad appears on their page! You have to look better than anyone else. Your cover. Your price. Your title. Your star reviews.

It’s damn hard.

I’ve taken many approaches to Amazon ads. Massive 1000 keyword ads. Super focused Prestozon style systems, where you’re constantly shifting the best keywords up a tiered pyramid of spend.

Today I’m going uber-simple. 1 ad, 1 author. I try to target only indie authors of dark thrillers. No Jack Reacher. No major published works. Just indies doing well.

I rather think I’ll just get no impressions. There’s no special reason this should be the case, but it’s the kind of thing that has happened before. It’d be great if I see some movement. My bids look competitive. My book has fair rank and decent star ratings. It looks good against rival books, I think.

It is extremely competitive out there, though. Big success authors are talking in Facebook groups about how Amazon ads don’t work for them anymore. I doubt I can succeed where someone with thousands of 5-star reviews is failing.

Give it another go, though.

By next week

I should be fully done with Firestorm by Friday – with the book in the hands of ARC readers. Maybe I’ll even have some early feedback, which would be fun.

These books take so long to write! There’s essentially one engine in the book, all about how cults work, but it’s explored in several ways on several different scales. I guess breaking all that out took a heck of a lot of thinking.

I have the plan for book 6! Roughly anyway. I know the engine. I’ll get that started before year’s end.

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.


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.