Favours Release Day

(Edit:  Favours is now available in both .epub and .mobi formats.)

Well, it’s finally here!  Favours, the first ever Alex Verus novella, is available on this website as of today!

This is actually quite a big event for me – it’s my first ever step into self-publishing.   Up until now, everything I’ve ever published has been via a traditional publisher.  I’m still intending to keep doing that with my novels, but for short stories and novellas, self-publishing has its advantages.  One big one is speed – I finished editing Favours around two weeks ago, which if I was going the traditional route would have meant that the novella would have come out around June 2022 at the earliest, instead of now.  I’ve also had a lot more control over the whole production process, and it’s been kind of fascinating getting to handle all of the little details that usually get delegated to my publishers.

Of course, this does come with drawbacks.  To set up my website for online sales I’ve had to install and configure a ridiculous number of plugins and pieces of software, many of which have gone wrong in fantastically irritating ways.  I think I’ve ironed out all the bugs, but there’s always the chance that I missed one somewhere along the line.  If you run into any issues, send me an email via my Contact form (which I’ve also had to rebuild from scratch, and which I’m hoping is now finally working).

Speaking of which, you may have noticed that the site has been redesigned.  It’s still under construction, but the majority of the new content is now up.  If you run into any issues, let me know.

One final thing I should mention – somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that I could use this novella as a sort of test case for novellas and Alex Verus short fiction as a whole.  Basically, I’m using Favours as a way to gauge how much interest my readership has in this sort of thing.  If it sells well and gets some decent attention, I’ll take that as a sign that the whole idea of Alex Verus short stories/novellas is worth persisting with.  If it flops, well, I’ll take that as my audience’s way of telling me “stick to novels”.

Now, either way, my main job’s going to continue to be “novelist”.  Now that Favours is done, I’m planning to get to work on my new series:  I’m hoping to start the first book by next month and finish it by around the end of the year.  However, what I do after that is going to be influenced by how things go with Favours.  If Favours does well, there’s a good chance I’ll make a habit of alternating between novels in my main series that I publish the slower traditional way, and novellas/short stories that I can write and self-publish quickly.  Otherwise, I’ll just stick with my old routine of going straight from one novel into another.  We’ll have to see!

And I think that covers about everything.  Go to my Store page to find out more about the novella, and to purchase it in both .epub and .mobi format, or take a look around at the new site.  And for those of you who prefer a more official copy of your books, I’ll be publishing Favours on the Amazon Kindle store next week, on Friday, June 25th.

I hope you enjoy the story!

Additional note:  Since several people have mentioned that they’d prefer to use a Kindle, I’ve made a .mobi version of the file available in addition to the .epub.  You should now be able to download either or both versions from your ‘Sale Complete’ page, but let me know if you run into any problems.

Posted in News | 2 Comments

German Book Fair This Saturday

I’m still in the process of redesigning the website (hoping to have it done by the release of my new novella this Friday) but in the meantime, here’s a brief bit of news for my German readers!

As some of you might know, the Alex Verus books have been doing very well in their German translation – books 1-6 have already been translated and published, and books 7-12 should follow over the next few years.  As a result, I’ve been invited to a German digital book fair (Buchmesse Saar) which’ll be taking place this weekend.  I’ll have a one-hour slot this Saturday, June 19th, at 3.30 PM German time, which you can find here.  Mostly it’s just an opportunity for me to talk to and answer questions from my German readers, so hope to see some of you there!

Posted in Events, News | 4 Comments

Website Changes

Well, after many, many years, my website is finally getting an overhaul.  Its current version has been almost completely unchanged since 2012, and it’s been overdue for a spring cleaning and update for a long time, so that’s what I’m going to do!

The first thing I’ve done has been to move this site to a new and better hosting company (ie the people who own the servers that your computer is reading this post from right now).  By the time you read this, the move should have been completed.   Unfortunately, this has come with a bit of a transition period where the website was half on one server and half on another, so if you commented on the old version of the site, your comment will have been lost . . . sorry!  Things should be stable from now, though, and you guys should hopefully see better loading times from now on.  

Since I’m going to be selling things on this website from now on, I’m also getting around to putting in some security software, which should be done by the end of today.  You’ll know if it’s worked because the ‘Not Secure’ warning at the top of my website should stop displaying, which has been an irritation for a while.

Over the next week, I’ll also be redesigning the site in general.  The contents of the drop-down menus will be resorted, and I’m going to get rid of a bunch of old plugins and widgets that don’t work anymore.  I’m hoping to have it done by next Friday. 

And yes, the new novella is still on schedule to be released by then!  I’m aiming to release it on this site a week from today, on June 18th.

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New Alex Verus Novella: Release Date and Details

Now that I’m back in the country, here’s some more information about the Alex Verus story I mentioned a few weeks ago!

The story’s now written and edited.  Final length after changes and additions is a little over 20,000 words, which puts it in the low end of the ‘novella’ category (for comparison, a typical Alex Verus novel is between 90,000 and 100,000 words).  I finished up the last corrections and edits two days ago, and the manuscript’s ready for publication.  

Now, normally, me being finished with a manuscript would mean you’d get to read it in 9 months or so.  However, since I’m self-publishing this one rather than using a traditional publisher, I can put it out quite a bit faster.  My current plan is to release it in 2 weeks.  

So my planned release date is June 18th/June 25th.  I still need to sort out the cover, format the ebook, and set up the sales/administrative side, but I’m hoping two weeks will be long enough to handle that.

Novella Details

• Title:  Favours
• Length:  20,000 words
• Format:  Ebook
• Platform:  Amazon, and here
• Release Date (this website):  June 18th 2021
• Release Date (Amazon Kindle):  June 25th 2021
• Price:  $2.99


Favours is a side story set in the Alex Verus universe that takes place in between Alex Verus #6, Veiled, and Alex Verus #7, Burned.  

The story is not told from Alex’s point of view, and this is going to be the norm for any short stories/novellas that I do in the Alex Verus setting.  One of the drawbacks of the first-person perspective of the Alex Verus novels is that quite a lot of things get left out of the books because there’s no realistic way for Alex to witness them.  Also, much as I like Alex as a character, I’ve written twelve books from his point of view and I’m about ready for a change – I like the idea of getting to do something a bit different!

In this case, Favours is told from the perspective of Sonder.  Returning to London after his year-long assignment to Washington D.C., Sonder is called into Keeper HQ to work with Caldera on an investigation.  What at first looks likes a simple burglary quickly turns into something much more difficult and dangerous, forcing Sonder to choose where his loyalties lie.

Questions and Answers

Some answers to a few of the questions I’ve been asked so far:

Q. Will you release the story in hard copy format?
A. Not any time soon.  The economics of producing physical copies of short stories/novellas are pretty unfavourable, so the only way that would be likely to happen would be if I brought out a short story collection some day.

Q. Are you going to write more Alex Verus short stories after this one?
A. Depends how well this one does.  If it’s popular enough and gets enough interest, then probably.  If people’s reactions are more along the lines of ‘I didn’t like it’ or ‘I don’t want to read any stories that aren’t about Alex’, then probably not.  

Q. Can you make it available on Kobo/Apple Books/Nook/other distributor?  
A. In theory, yes, but setting up those kinds of accounts can take a fair bit of time and effort and I’m not sure it’s worth it.  Besides, if you’re reading this, that means you can access my website, which means you can just get it directly from here.  

Q. Can you write a story featuring [insert character’s name here]?.
A. Possibly.  I have story ideas for most of the secondary and tertiary characters in the Alex Verus series, but I’m not sure which ones I’ll get around to.

Q. Why is it $2.99?  
A. Amazon places steep financial penalties on authors who price their work even one cent below $2.99, whether on Amazon or anywhere else.  Since I’m selling this on Amazon as well as here on my website, that limits how I can price it.

Q. Are you going to focus more on novellas/short stories from now on?
A. No.  I’ve enjoyed working on this novella, and it’s been really interesting self-publishing it rather than going the trad-pub route – it’s given me a new perspective into how the industry works.  However, my main job is still ‘novelist’, and now that this story’s done, I’m planning to start work on my new series.  If I’m really lucky, I’ll finish the first book by the end of the year, though there’s a good chance it’ll overrun.  But either way, the new book is my priority now.  I’m not intending to write any more short stories until it’s finished.

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Alex Verus #4 – Chosen

(This is part 4 of a 12-part series of author commentaries on the Alex Verus books.  The master post with links to all the parts is here.)

With Chosen, I decided right from the beginning that I was going to move away from the episodic model. This was going to be a ‘series’ book rather than a stand-alone – it would be less self-contained than the previous three, which meant that I could build on the events of Fated, Cursed, and Taken to tell a larger story.

I also decided somewhere in early 2012 that Chosen was going to introduce the major antagonist for the Alex Verus series. I didn’t have to think very hard about who that antagonist would be. There had been a natural arch-enemy for Alex ever since Fated, and it was just a matter of deciding when to bring him in.

In setting Richard as the major antagonist for the Alex Verus series, I permanently diverged the series from the Dresden Files. Fated got (and still gets) loads of comparisons to Dresden due to the similarities between Alex and Harry’s backgrounds – both were apprenticed to dark mages as teenagers but rebelled against them. However, Harry Dresden’s backstory has him kill his old teacher and move on. There are consequences (such as the Doom of Damocles), but for the most part, a line gets drawn under the whole thing – the series is generally less focused on Harry’s past and more focused on external threats. Most of the Dresden books revolve around some kind of supernatural evil threatening innocent people, and Harry has to be the hero and save the day.

Alex’s story would be quite different. Since Richard is not only alive, but vastly more powerful than Alex, he casts much more of a shadow. Alex starts off the series completely outmatched by his old master, and it takes him a long time to work his way up to the point where he can meaningfully oppose him. Richard’s continued presence also has a less obvious, but more important effect – it forces Alex to struggle to define himself. Is he different from his old teacher? If so, how? This fit in with one of the major themes of the Alex Verus series, namely that the biggest threats don’t come from outside; they come from other humans and from ourselves.

So that gave me Chosen’s big theme. Next, I needed a more short-term problem for Alex to deal with. And as it turned out, I had an idea for that, too.

In my teens and twenties, I read a lot of books and comics and watched a lot of TV and movies. Over time, I noticed patterns – stock plots that would get used over and over again. One of these stock plots that every long-running series would use sooner or later was “protagonist did something bad in the past and now has to make amends”. The severity of the bad thing and how serious the amends were would vary, but the general pattern was the same. The story would set up a conflict where it seemed that the only two possible choices were “have the main character go unpunished for the bad thing” and “have the main character be seriously punished for the bad thing”. Then in the resolution, the story would take a third option. Maybe it would turn out that there was some misunderstanding, and the protagonist wasn’t really responsible for what happened after all. Or maybe the person looking for justice could be talked down or brought around somehow, whether by a show of repentance or by giving them some sort of affordable reparation. In either case, the problem would be ‘fixed’ and the series would move on.

But what if the problem couldn’t be fixed? What if there wasn’t a third option?

I thought that sounded interesting.

So I started planning. The natural way to fit this idea into the Alex Verus series was for Alex to have done something in his time as a Dark apprentice. Eventually the friends/family of the victim catch up with him, and want justice. And they’re right, he really did do what he was being accused of. Except their idea of justice is something he’s totally unwilling to accept – namely, executing him. What would he do?

I didn’t know. So I wrote the book to find out.

As it turned out, Alex’s answer ends up being: “yes, what I did was bad, and I’m willing to try to make amends for it, but I’m not willing to die for it. As far as I’m concerned my life’s worth more than your definition of justice, and if you come after me I’ll do whatever’s necessary to stop you.” It wasn’t a very traditionally ‘heroic’ answer, but it felt to me like a rather realistic perspective on the subject of historic wrongdoing that I didn’t see get articulated very much.

Next I needed a set of antagonists to be the vengeance-seekers, and so I designed Will and the Nightstalkers. Working out their powersets and origins felt rather like designing my own version of the Teen Titans or the X-Men. And somewhere along the way I had a rather dark thought. What if I designed this group as the magical version of a ‘teenage superhero team’, young and idealistic and confident and ethnically diverse, and gave them a backstory involving them going on adventures and fighting evil, convinced that they were the heroes of the story?

And then what if they then went after someone completely out of their league and all got horribly murdered?

For whatever reason, that struck me as hilarious. I don’t know what that says about my sense of humour.

Anyway, with that, I had all I needed. I worked on Chosen throughout the spring and summer of 2012 – I had less time pressure since I was done with my law course by then – and I finished the book at the end of September, sending it off to my publishers a few hours before the deadline.

Aside from the Nightstalkers, Chosen also changed Alex’s relationship with Rachel and Cinder. Cinder had straddled the line between ally and enemy in Fated and Cursed, but Chosen moved him firmly out of ‘enemy’ status. He wouldn’t become a formal ally until book #8, but from this point on he was never really in danger of going back into the enemy camp. Cinder had by this point become a very popular character with my readers, probably because of his honesty – his rough but honourable style came across as a lot more attractive than the behaviour of the Council. Rachel, on the other hand, was definitely an enemy, but Chosen would give Alex a reason why he couldn’t just get rid of her – he’d made a promise to Shireen.

That promise (spoiler alert) wouldn’t turn out well. I hadn’t planned that out at the time, I just thought it was an amusingly unfair problem to dump on Alex’s head. “You have to redeem an insane mass murderer who hates you. No, I don’t know how. Good luck!”

Finally, Chosen introduced a new character, Caldera. It made sense for Alex to have a point of contact in the Keepers, and I thought it’d be interesting to use her to show the Keeper point of view. I put a lot of effort into writing Caldera’s character, and I was fairly pleased with the results, but to begin with, readers seemed largely neutral about her – she received very little attention. This would change later on.

When Chosen was released at the end of the summer of 2013, it was as successful as I’d hoped and more. Its reviews were far better than those of the first three books, and the enthusiastic word-of-mouth publicity did a lot to build up my readership in those crucial early years. My sales were still microscopic compared to the big names, but I think this was the point at which readers started to see Alex Verus as something more than just a substitute for when they’d run out of Dresden Files. The enthusiasm would set high expectations for Alex Verus #5, Hidden.

Posted in Author Commentary | 2 Comments

Alex Verus #3.5 – Interlude

(This is part 3.5 of a 12-part series of author commentaries on the Alex Verus books.  The master post with links to all the parts is here.)

Alex Verus #4, Chosen, was the first big transition book for the series. There’s a very noticeable shift between books #1 to #3, and books #5 through #12, and it was in Chosen that the shift happened. To explain why, you need to understand what I was thinking back when I started writing Chosen in 2012.

2012 was Alex Verus’s make-or-break year. Books #1, #2, and #3 were all being released one after another, three months apart – Fated in March, Cursed in June, and Taken in September. This was a deliberate strategic decision that had been made by my editor Darren Nash all the way back in 2010. In an email to me and my agent, Darren explained that his preferred approach for this kind of book didn’t involve big advances and large early print runs. His reasoning was that the success of these kinds of books depended on readers becoming invested in the series and the characters, and you got that via word-of-mouth publicity, online buzz, and time. One way to help with that was momentum, which was why he’d asked me to write books #2 and #3 as quickly as possible, in order to put three out in a single year.

Now that I go back and re-read Darren’s email, it’s pretty impressive how good his predictions were. He specifically said that this approach was a long-term one, depending on ‘long tail’ sales, where you start with very modest numbers of readers and gradually grow them up. Eventually you get enough readers that when a new book came out, fans will buy it in a much more concentrated time frame, and that’s how authors like Jim Butcher and Charlaine Harris can hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list with book #15 in a series. My sales numbers are nowhere close to those two, but I’ve reached the point where I do show up on bestseller lists from time to time, and it’s by exactly the process Darren explained back in 2010. Darren Nash has been gone from Orbit for many years now, but he deserves some of the credit for Alex Verus’s success.

But back in 2012, the question wasn’t whether the Alex Verus series would be a bestseller, but whether it’d be continued at all. It’s hard to remember this now, but in the years leading up to 2012, urban fantasy was all the rage. The Twilight movies had brought urban fantasy, YA fantasy, and paranormal romance into the spotlight, and all of a sudden everyone wanted to get in on the action. Not a month went by that some new author didn’t launch a book series with some witch/shapeshifter/vampire/faerie protagonist running around some US city dealing with vampires/weres/magicians/fae and investigating, killing, or having sex with them (usually all three). You could close your eyes and chuck a dart at a map of the USA, and wherever it landed, the nearest city would be the base of operations for some Plucky New Urban Fantasy Lead (First In A New Series!) By 2012, new urban fantasy series were common as celebrity marriages.

They lasted about as long as celebrity marriages, too. The Internet and the convention circuit were packed with new urban fantasy authors desperately struggling to stand out from the crowd and make a name for themselves, and most failed, for the simple reason that people only buy so many books a year. Of those books, only a small fraction are urban fantasy, and out of that fraction, most of the sales go to the big names – Jim Butcher, Patricia Briggs, Ilona Andrews, Charlaine Harris, Laurel K. Hamilton, etc. The new urban fantasy authors were fighting over a fraction of a fraction of the market, and there just wasn’t enough room for more than a handful of them. The result was as depressing as it was predictable. Each new series would be launched with a lot of fanfare, gain some temporary recognition, then its author would have the soul-crushing experience of watching the series that they’d worked so hard on slowly sink without a trace. Back in 2012, in my debut author year, I went to some events and conventions and was introduced to quite a few other urban fantasy writers. Now that I look back on it 9 years later, most have disappeared. The ones who haven’t – the ones who are still writing and publishing today – are pretty much all ones who were already successful before I met them. The “new arrivals” are almost all gone.

(Note: I’m writing all this with the benefit of hindsight. At the time, I knew very little about the market and had no idea how hard a task I’d set myself by trying to make it as an urban fantasy author. If I had, I might have had second thoughts.)

So when Fated came out in 2012, it had a steep hill to climb.

Still, Fated did have a few things going for it. It had gotten an endorsement from Jim Butcher – this was a big deal, as he was probably the biggest name in the genre and didn’t endorse books often. Fated, Cursed, and Taken had all received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, which is the number one magazine in the industry. And possibly because of this, pre-order sales had been decent.

As a result, when my agent got in touch with Orbit in March 2012 to discuss more Alex Verus books, Orbit were willing to listen. They held off for a couple of months to see how Fated would do, but by May 2012 the sales of Fated (while still low) were good enough by new-series standards that Orbit agreed to offer me a new contract. However, this time it was for two books, not three.

The Alex Verus series had gotten a life extension, but I didn’t know how long for.

All of this affected my mindset going into book #4. Rightly or wrongly, I felt that this was going to be the “proving book”. Books #1 through #3 had earned me a bit of leeway, and I needed to use it to show that I could do something interesting enough to make my readers stick around. It was with all this in mind that I sat down in May 2012 to start writing what would eventually become Chosen.

Posted in Author Commentary | 5 Comments

A Not-So-Short Story

The Alex Verus short story that I’ve been working on is done! 

However, it turns out I underestimated how long it was going to be.  The unedited version is 17,500 words long, which is less ‘short story’ and more on the borderline between ‘novelette’ and ‘novella’ – it’s about 20% the length of a full Alex Verus novel, which is quite a lot more than I was expecting.  It was more work than I was planning on, but I’m glad I did it – it was interesting to write Alex Verus’s world from the viewpoint of someone else.  

Now that the story’s done, I’m deciding what to do with it.  I’m probably going to make it available online, but I haven’t decided exactly where – at the moment the main options I’m considering are Kindle, Patreon, and my own website right here.  It needs a bit of editing and formatting first, so it’ll take a little while regardless.  This first story is probably going to function as a sort of testing-the-waters experiment – depending on what sort of response it gets, I’ll decide whether to write more.

In the meantime, I’ve got a couple more author commentaries written and ready to go.  I’m going to be out of the country for a couple of weeks, but I’ve put both pieces on this blog and set them to auto-publish, so they should come out automatically over the next two Fridays.  The first is an ‘interlude’ piece looking at the release of Alex Verus #1, #2, and #3 in 2012, and the second is the commentary on Alex Verus #4, Chosen.  Hopefully they’ll come out on schedule, but if not, I’ll fix it when I get back!

Posted in News | 15 Comments

Alex Verus #3 – Taken

(This is part 3 of a 12-part series of author commentaries on the Alex Verus books.  The master post with links to all the parts is here.)

Taken was the last Alex Verus novel that was a pre-Alex-Verus novel, in that it was the last one written before Fated came out. I started it in the spring of 2011, and finished around the beginning of January 2012, a few months before Fated’s release. (I’d hoped to finish earlier, but I had my final law exams in the summer of 2011 and had to put Taken on hold for a few months.) At the time, I still had no expectations of becoming a full-time author. My writing hadn’t earned me a living wage for the past 12 years, and I didn’t really believe that was going to change. As far as I was concerned, law was my career; writing was a side job.

As I got ready to start writing Taken, though, the first signs were showing that it might become something more. Around early 2011 my agent secured a contract with Penguin USA, and it was agreed that the books would be published in the US and Canada as well, on the same schedule as the UK ones. All of a sudden I was getting twice the money (and more than twice the potential readership) for the same amount of work. It didn’t make me any more successful – I’d yet to sell a single book – but it did reduce the amount of pressure I felt.

Partly as a result of this, I wrote Taken quite differently from Cursed. Cursed had been very fast-paced and action-packed, whereas for Taken, I dialled things back a bit. With Cursed, I’d tried to write an Alex Verus story that was an action thriller. In Taken, I went for a theme that was more of a cross between “mystery” and “supernatural horror”. As it turned out, “supernatural horror” fit the Alex Verus setting quite well.

The change in theme made Taken a slower book than Cursed, but that had its upsides. Since the plot wasn’t rushing so quickly from one battle to another, there was time to have some longer conversations and let the characters develop a bit. Luna got to settle into her new role as Alex’s apprentice, and I started to show more parts of mage society. There were fewer fights, but I tried to make the fights that did happen tenser and more interesting, especially the hide-and-seek between Alex and the assassins in the flats in Archway, and the motorway chase in the Jaguar. I thought the whole book worked better as a result, and apparently my readers agree, since Taken is rated slightly but significantly higher than Cursed on every review site I’ve found.

Taken, like Cursed, was written to an episodic model. The episodic model was how I’d imagined the Alex Verus series at the beginning, and how I’d sold it to my publishers – the idea was that characters would change and develop, but each book would be a clearly separate story, and so readers could skip books or jump in later in the series without missing much. It was the same model used by the early books of the Dresden Files, along with most TV shows. Without intending it, though, I was already drifting away from the episodic model, and Taken was probably the last Alex Verus book that followed it one hundred percent. The villain in Cursed is Belthas, and the villain in Taken is Vitus Aubuchon, but by the time you get to Chosen and Hidden the villains start to be more numerous and complicated and the conflicts don’t get neatly tied up at the end of the book anymore.

Taken was also the book where I introduced Anne and Variam (technically Anne makes her first appearance at the end of Cursed, but it’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it). When planning out Taken I decided I wanted some apprentice mages for Luna to interact with, and so I went back to a pair of old children’s fantasy novels that I’d written in 2007-2008. The first book had three main human characters: an air mage called John, a fire mage called Variam, and a light/shadow mage called Caitlin. (Anne joined them in the sequel.) For reasons that made sense to me at the time, I dropped John and Caitlin, kept Anne and Variam, and modified their backstories to have them show up in the apprentice programme at about the same time as Luna. At the time I had no idea how important they’d become – they were an experiment that I was prepared to keep or abandon, depending how things went.

By the end of Taken, most of the core elements of the Alex Verus series were in place. We had the central group of five – Alex, Luna, Anne, Variam, and Sonder – plus Arachne as a mentor figure. The main concepts of the world (magic types, the Council, Dark mages, shadow realms, imbued items/focuses/one-shots, and so on) had all been developed. From this point on, the series would focus less on establishing the world, and more on telling stories with what was there already. Future books would keep adding to the setting, but those additions tended to be smaller and more incremental.

Of course, back then, I had no way of knowing that there WOULD be any future books.

The contract I signed with Orbit in 2010, and the contract I signed with Penguin in 2011, had been for three novels: Alex Verus #1, Alex Verus #2, and Alex Verus #3. There was no guarantee there’d be an Alex Verus #4. My publishers seemed to like the series, but publishers don’t decide whether to keep or abandon a series based on how much they like it. They make that decision based on a very simple calculation: does it make a profit or a loss? Publishing a book costs money: you have to pay an advance to the author, pay the salaries of all the people who work on the book throughout its production cycle, and finally pay to mass-produce the book itself. Publishers add up that number, then they look at the book’s sales to see how much money the book’s made, and they add up that number as well. Then they look to see which number’s bigger.

It’s not always that simple. Sometimes publishers will keep on a prestigious but low-selling author for publicity reasons, and often with new authors publishers will take the attitude of “we’ll spend a little bit of money now in the hope that it’ll pay off down the line”. But ultimately publishing is a business and there are very sharp limits as to how much of a loss business owners will tolerate. If that loss gets too big, you’re out.

With Taken written, edited, and sent off, I’d done all I could. The success of the Alex Verus series was now out of my hands. Its sales in 2012 would determine whether it would live or die.

Posted in Author Commentary | 3 Comments

Spring Update

It’s been a while, so here’s an update on what’s going on with Alex Verus and my writing in general.  

The copy-edits for Alex Verus #12, Risen, have been finished and the manuscript’s back with my publishers.  I’m more or less finished with the book at this point – it’ll get one last look-over when I see it in proof form, and that’s it.  Everything’s on schedule and Risen’s going to be coming out eight months from now as planned.

I’ve also finished up my work for the computer game I was writing for, Terra Invicta.  It’s currently being tested in a closed beta and isn’t available to the public, but I’ll let you guys know once it gets made available on general release.  

I spent a lot of the first three months of this year writing notes and doing planning and world-building for my new series, but at the moment that’s winding down.  I’ve reached the point where I’ve done pretty much all the preparation that I need, and the only thing to do is to start.  In fact, I’d been planning to start at the beginning of May, but I was divided as to whether to start on the new book, or whether to write an Alex Verus short story that I’ve had in mind for a few weeks now.  

In the end I picked the short story, and that’s what I’m working on right now.  What swayed me in the end was the fact that I’ve just come off writing a 12-book series – it made sense to me to experiment a bit and try a few different things before I plunge into a new multi-year project.  I know that once I start writing the new book I’ll be concentrating on it too much to write anything else, so if I don’t do this story now it’ll probably never get done.

I haven’t figured out exactly what I’ll do with the story once it’s finished – I could shop it around to my publishers, but they’d probably take ages to decide what to do with it.  I’m more inclined to make it available online, and I’ve got a couple of ideas about how to do that, but it’ll take a bit of setup to make it work.  I’ll give you more info once I have it.

And that’s about all the news for now!  Next week we’re going back to the author commentaries, with Alex Verus #3, Taken.  

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Alex Verus #2 – Cursed

(This is part 2 of a 12-part series of author commentaries on the Alex Verus books.  The master post with links to all the parts is here.)

I emailed off my rewritten version of Fated in March 2010. The initial response was silence. After two or three months, though, I started to get encouraging signals, and on June 2nd 2010 I checked my email to find a message from my agent saying “How many books do you envisage and can you write book 2 in 6 months?”

I didn’t know much about the writing business back then, but instinct told me that this was the sort of question that had very definite correct and incorrect answers. So I wrote back saying “lots!” and “yes!”.

And very soon I had a contract. Fated and two sequel novels would be published in 2012 at three-month intervals, with the hope of building enough of a readership that Orbit could keep on bringing out more books afterwards. All I had to do was write two more books by the end of 2011, and make them good enough to sell.

So I got to work on what would eventually become Cursed.

The result of all this was that Cursed was written under heavier time pressure than any book I’d done before, and any I’ve done since. Nowadays, when I start a new book, my approach is “take your time and do it right”. With Cursed, I dived straight in and made it up as I went along. I didn’t even start off with a real plot, and whenever I didn’t know what to do next I put in an action scene instead. Which is why poor Alex gets caught up in no less than four assassination attempts before the book’s even half done, and I just kept ramping it up from there. Killer golems, military hardware, a giant dragon, big explosions, infantry battles, magical combat, wish-granting artefacts . . . I wanted to make the book exciting and so I threw in everything and the kitchen sink.

Underneath all the action, though, were some more serious themes. The core of Cursed (as the title hints) isn’t the fighting, it’s Alex’s relationship with Luna. One of the problems I’d had in Fated – and the biggest reason I’d had so much trouble writing Luna’s character – was that I’d never really defined exactly what that relationship was. Was Luna Alex’s friend, who’d accompany him on adventures but who was otherwise independent? Was she Alex’s love interest and maybe-eventually-girlfriend? Or was she his apprentice and student? In Fated I’d left open the possibilities of all three, but by Cursed it was becoming clear that that just wasn’t working. I needed a clear answer.

In the end I got that answer by a method that was messy, but felt right. I gave the characters free rein and let them develop naturally to see how they’d handle it. Unsurprisingly, the answer was “badly”. Luna promptly got a new love interest, Alex got jealous and tried to push Luna to be more diligent about her apprentice duties, Luna rebelled and asked why she needed to be a dutiful apprentice when the monkey’s paw was so much faster . . . and so on.

The whole sequence of events made me realise what should have been obvious from the beginning. Luna COULDN’T be all three things at once. Luna couldn’t be a friend and equal partner to Alex because the power and experience differential between them was too great. And she couldn’t be both his girlfriend and his apprentice because, well, romantic relationships between teachers and students are frowned upon for very good reasons. The only two paths that made sense to me were (a) Luna striking out on her own, and (b) Luna becoming Alex’s apprentice for real and accepting his authority in a relationship that was very clearly established as a non-sexual one.

I picked (b), and it worked perfectly. The friction between Alex and Luna vanished and they settled into a comfortable relationship that would last for the rest of the series. Oddly enough, they ended up developing a much stronger friendship along the way. I think that Luna and (especially) Alex are the kinds of people who need boundaries, but aren’t very good about setting them. The nebulous nature of Alex and Luna’s relationship in Fated and early Cursed was bad for them both – the master-apprentice relationship, with its clear rules about what each can expect from the other, suits them much better.

This was also the book which established Cinder as one of the dark-horse favourites among my readers, which was quite impressive given how little page time he had. He’d continue to be one of the most popular recurring characters for the rest of the series.

The last thing about Cursed that stuck in my mind is to do with reader reactions.

I was quite active on the internet around 2012. I did various bits of book publicity and visited a lot of blogs and forums, and something that I saw come up a lot in book discussions was the topic of rape and sexual assault, and how much a lot of readers didn’t like them being included in stories. There was a lot of discussion about how overused it was for such a serious topic, and how it frequently destroyed readers’ enjoyment of a story, particularly when it wasn’t the focus of a book. Everyone seemed to agree that one of the main characters having something like this happen to her was massively important – it should be accompanied by trigger warnings and the trauma and recovery should be a major focus of the story. It didn’t matter if the scene was written as violent – tricking/compelling someone into sex was just as bad. Basically, any kind of nonconsensual sex was A Very Big Deal and should be handled extremely carefully. I took note of this, and moved on.

It was only years later that it occurred to me that I’d written exactly that as happening to Alex in Cursed.

And not a single person had mentioned it.

When I say “not a single person”, I’m not exaggerating. Quite a few readers made negative comments about Meredith being a seducer, but it was the fact that she was a female seducer that they had a problem with. The actual act of her magically mind-controlling people into sleeping with her? Didn’t register at all. I tried bringing it up a couple of times to people that I knew had strong opinions about the prevalence of rape/sexual assault in fiction, and both times the response was along the lines of “huh, yeah, never noticed that”.

Now, I knew why Alex hadn’t been particularly traumatised by the experience. Alex has gone through a ton of abuse in his backstory and as a result, even as early as book 2, he is (by normal standards) ridiculously mentally resilient. Having someone magically influence him into sex not only doesn’t make the list of the 10 worst things that have ever happened to him, it wouldn’t even break the top 100. But that didn’t explain the lack of attention it got from readers.

I’d like to say it’s strange how that whole thing went under the radar . . . but the truth is, I know EXACTLY why it went under the radar, and that knowledge bothered me for quite some time. Eventually I got over it and accepted it, but it was a definite learning experience that changed my outlook on the world.

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