Alex Verus #1 – Fated

(This is part 1 of a 12-part series of author commentaries on the Alex Verus books.  The master post with links to all the parts is here.)

At the end of the last part of this series, we were up to late 2009, and I’d taken on the task of rewriting Fated.

Rewriting is hard work. Since I was changing the setting of Fated, the knock-on effects meant I had to change a lot of the story, which meant changing many of the scenes, which meant changing the characters. And in the course of that I noticed all kinds of things that I thought could have been done better, which made me want to change THOSE things too. The result was, at least to my eyes, a mess. It was sort of like taking apart an old car, throwing away half the bits, using what was left to build a new car, making a bunch of different parts to fill in all the gaps, and then putting a fresh coat of paint on the whole thing and hoping it’d work.

Amazingly, it did. It still surprises me that out of the thousands of reviews I’ve read of Fated, virtually no-one took issue with how bolted-together the whole thing was. They were far more likely to comment on the voice, or the characters, or how similar Alex was/wasn’t to Harry Dresden. Either I did a better job than I realised, or I’m just much pickier about this kind of thing than the average reader.

As an example of what I’m talking about: almost none of the major scenes in Fated were originally set in London. They were all in the setting’s fantasy otherworld. When I did the rewrite I took the events and the dialogue, deleted all the references to location, and plonked them down in arbitrarily chosen spots around London or the UK. Often this meant completely rewriting the scenes. But no-one complained – and in fact, when they did mention the new locations, it was to say that they liked them – so I guess it worked.

So if you ever find yourself wondering where those weirder, slightly jarring details in Fated came from . . . now you know.

About the only thing that didn’t change much in the rewrite was Alex himself. I’d always been quite happy with his personality and the way his divination worked, and so while I was rewriting everything else, Alex became the stable centre that everything else oriented around. Luna was another story. I’d struggled with her character in the first draft – I liked the idea of her curse, but her personality always felt a bit incomplete and empty. I ended up rewriting many of her scenes, trying different things and looking for something that worked. In the end what made the character click for me was realising that at the start of the novel, Luna was badly depressed. She was trying to put a brave face on it, but her curse was driving her to despair and by the events of Fated she was willing to take what were (by normal standards) insane risks because she felt she had nothing to lose. Luna in Fated is at her absolute lowest point and even at her worst moments in the later books, things are never as bad for her as they are at the start of the series. In any case, the rewrite improved her character a lot, and laid the foundations for what she would eventually turn into in book 3 onwards.

But when you’re dealing with that many moving parts, there are a lot of opportunities to make mistakes. And while I think I did a pretty good job with the rewrite, it wasn’t perfect.

On something like the third editing pass, I was reworking the final confrontation where Alex gets possessed by the mind mage Abithriax. I wanted some way to show at the end that Abithriax really was gone, and thought that it could work for Alex to have some very characteristic (and slightly annoying) thing he could say that would confirm to Luna that he was himself again. So I had Alex call her “good girl”, and then went back to previous chapters and had him do it a couple of times earlier, too, to establish the pattern (and to show Luna’s irritated reaction). I wasn’t all that satisfied with the line – it felt a bit clumsy – and if I’d had a fourth editing pass I probably would have taken it out again, but as it turned out three editing passes were enough to make my editors happy, and I was way too busy with my law work to go over the book yet again just for the sake of it. I sent off the manuscript and quickly forgot about it amongst the 1000s of other changes I’d made.

Until Fated came out in 2012. At which point I got reminded of it. Repeatedly.

I got SO MUCH hate for that line. If you go to Fated’s Goodreads page you can find literally hundreds of reviews bringing it up. The “nicer” ones just called it sexist and patronising. The less nice ones went into detail about the homicidal rage that they were feeling towards Alex, the book in general, and me for writing it, along with some comments about how I clearly hated women. I’d been around the Internet long enough to have some experience with how inflamed people could get about fiction, but this was the first time I’d been on the receiving end of it, and it took me aback. Still, I learned my lesson.

Aside from that, reviews were generally positive, with readers praising the concept of the divination magic in particular. The most common criticism was that there was too much info-dumping . . . however, the second most common criticism was that the reader didn’t feel that they understood how the setting worked and what was possible. At the time, I didn’t see how I could fix either of those issues without making the other one worse. Now that I’m more experienced I think I can see some ways, but it’s not an easy problem.

But back then, reviews were nothing but a far-off dream. I finished Fated’s rewrite in March 2010, sent it off to my agent, and went back to studying law.

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Alex Verus #0 – Prelude

(This is part 0 of a 12-part series of author commentaries on the Alex Verus books.  The master post with links to all the parts is here.)

In the late summer of 2009, I returned home to London. I’d just finished a six-month trip working as a schoolteacher in Anhui, China, and I was about to start a law conversion course that would end, after two years, with me qualifying as a UK solicitor. I wasn’t writing any novels, and I wasn’t planning to. I’d sent off my last book to my agent before going to China, had heard nothing back in response, and had more or less forgotten about it – by this point my career as an author was dead in the water, my only income was coming from my teaching work, and I was focused on making a career change. I’d decided somewhere around the end of 2008 that I should face facts and accept that I wasn’t going to make it as a writer. It was time to get a steady job so that I could support myself and my family.

At which point I got a call from my agent telling me that a senior editor called Darren Nash from Orbit had read my most recent book and would like to meet me.

The meeting with Darren Nash was friendly, though his feedback was mixed. Darren liked the divination magic of the main character and he liked Luna’s curse, but he didn’t think that setting the story half in London and half in a fantasy world worked very well. He suggested that I focus on just one world, rather than two – maybe consider rewriting Fated so as to make it an urban fantasy novel, instead?

At which point I should mention that Fated didn’t start off as an urban fantasy at all.

The origins of Fated go all the way back to the year 2000, and the second novel I ever wrote. It was a children’s fantasy; more specifically, a portal fantasy, one where the protagonists travelled to another world where they developed their magical powers. I wrote three other children’s books in the same setting over the 2000s, and they were mostly set in the same otherworld – a fantastic, wondrous place of natural beauty and magical creatures. So when I (for some reason) decided to make the jump to adult fantasy and wrote the first Alex Verus novel in 2008, that was the setting I used. Alex had his shop and his flat, but he spent most of his time travelling to and having adventures in this vast, magical, sparsely populated wilderness.

Darren Nash suggested that instead of splitting the focus of the book between two worlds, I should pick just one. Either make Alex originate from the fantasy world, and centre the story around that. Or have Alex grounded much more strongly in this world, and set the majority of the scenes in London instead. On the whole, he thought that the second option was better – he thought the Camden atmosphere was good, and the scenes in the Arcana Emporium were funny, and that I could do more with that, rather than making Alex’s shop an afterthought. This would make the book fit more into the “urban fantasy” subgenre, which was still relatively new and popular back in 2009.

I listened, thought about it, and decided that his points made sense. I’d rewrite the book.

There was, however, a catch. Darren, being the up-front type, explained to me that if I kept the book as it was, they wouldn’t publish it. However, even if I rewrote it along exactly the lines that we’d agreed, they STILL might not publish it. It was quite possible that I could do months of work rewriting the book to their specifications, and they’d just reject it all over again.

On the other hand, “we’ll reject your book if we don’t like it” wasn’t actually any different from the position I was in already. And I’d been impressed with Darren Nash – he seemed perceptive and intelligent. I decided to trust him.

So as I started my path towards becoming a lawyer, I took on an additional job. During the day I attended lectures and workshops at my college in Holborn, learning about contract law and criminal law and land and equities and trusts. And in the evenings, whenever my preparation for the next day was done and I had a spare couple of hours, I’d chip away at the task of rewriting Fated.

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Author Commentary on the Alex Verus Series

(Note: This is a master post that functions as an index.  For the links to the individual commentaries for each book, scroll to the bottom.)

As I’m writing this, it’s April 2021, and the Alex Verus series is slowly drawing to an end.  The final book in the series, Risen, is currently at its copy-edits stage, and will be published in eight months.  So with the endpoint of the series coming steadily nearer, I thought it might be fun to write a retrospective on the books.  

Originally I was going to do 1 blog post per “trilogy”, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised that I had more than enough to say to fill up 1 post per book, so that’s how I’m going to do it.  After all, each of these books represents something like 1 year of my life – a lot happened over each of them!

You can think of these posts as “author commentaries” or as a series of Author’s Notes.  They’ll contain background information on the book, titbits of information about how it was written or what I was intending, and my thoughts on the book in hindsight.  They’ll also include some context about what was happening in my life when I wrote it, since (especially for the first three) that actually had quite a big influence over how the series turned out.  

Since I put up 1 post a week on this blog and there are 12 books in the Alex Verus series, this is going to be a long project!  It’d take a minimum of 3 months even if I just wrote all of these posts back to back.  And I won’t be writing them back to back – there’ll be other posts mixed in about topics like Terra Invicta (the computer game I’m working on), Alex Verus short stories (which I’m still planning on doing), and the new series I’m writing notes for, plus the occasional Ask Luna.  So this is probably going to run for something like 6 months total, and by the time I get up to writing the commentary for Risen, I’m expecting Risen to be right on the verge of release.  So this’ll also work as a kind of recap leading up to book 12.  

SPOILER WARNING:  For obvious reasons, the author commentary for each book will contain spoilers for that book, for all earlier books in the series, and occasional spoilers for future books too.  Consider yourself warned!  

Well, with that out of the way, let’s get going!  The links below will be filled in as I write the posts.  The first will be a “prelude” to the series, explaining how the Alex Verus world came to exist as it did and why it got changed so drastically (it’ll make sense once you read it).  That’ll be released next week, on April 9th.  After that I’ll get going on the author commentaries for the books in the series, beginning with Fated.  

Author Commentary on Alex Verus #0 – Prelude
Author Commentary on Alex Verus #1 – Fated
Author Commentary on Alex Verus #2 – Cursed
Author Commentary on Alex Verus #3 – Taken
Author Commentary on Alex Verus #3.5 – Interlude
Author Commentary on Alex Verus #4 – Chosen
Author Commentary on Alex Verus #5 – Hidden
Author Commentary on Alex Verus #6 – Veiled
Author Commentary on Alex Verus #7 – Burned
Author Commentary on Alex Verus #8 – Bound
Author Commentary on Alex Verus #9 – Marked
Author Commentary on Alex Verus #10 – Fallen
Author Commentary on Alex Verus #11 – Forged
Author Commentary on Alex Verus #12 – Risen

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Ask Luna #176

Name: Kevin

1. Are there augmentation rituals for lack of a better term that can increase a mages abilities that doesn’t have to do with Harvesting? And if so are they worth the effort like would they make Caldera and Slate a match for Vihaela?

2. Are there factions on the Light Council that are nationalistic/pro British as it were? I couldn’t understand for the longest time how Isolationists would be a political force but then like in real life there have always been leave us alone types and usually it had to do with nationalism.

1. No clue, honestly. I’ve heard of augmentation rituals, but I don’t really know how they work. But the general rule for stuff like this is that you don’t get anything for free – if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

2. You’re asking the wrong person about this kind of stuff – I’d have trouble even telling you the names of all the factions, much less what they believe in. It’d be pretty weird if the factions weren’t “pro-British”, though. Why would you want to be a member of any faction that wasn’t pro-your-own-country?

Name: Andrew

Hello,

I was wondering how tracking spells work. Do they work differently depending on your magic type or is it kinda the same for everyone?

They’re different depending on magic type, but I think they’re all either living family (based off your biological signature) or universal (based off your magical signature).

Name: Andrew

Hello Luna,

So dragons can see the future and unlike diviners they can see past free will, right? So what happens if a dragon looks into its own future. Does it see every part of its life, unable to change any of it?

Okay, look, seriously. What goes through the heads of you guys when you’re asking stuff like this? Like, stop and think about it for a second. How would I know the answer to this? How would ANYONE know the answer to this?

It reminds me of how people used to keep on asking these endless questions about Richard or Morden. And they’d never be reasonable questions, they’d be ones like “Why did Richard do (random thing from seven years ago), do you think it’s because (random guess here)?” I started giving increasingly sarcastic answers along the lines of “go ask him” and eventually I think people noticed that it was getting on my nerves, but I’m not sure they ever figured out why.

Maybe I should try just making up answers. It’d be a lot easier and I’m not sure it’d make much difference.

Name: Andrew

Hi Luna,

Thank you for answering my question about hybrid mages:D

If magic is like a spectrum and mages are a small circle on that spectrum then what happens if their circle is in the center? If their circle was a little larger than average and they were in the exact center of the spectrum would that particular mage have a tiny bit of skill in every “element” of magic?

There is no circle. There is no actual giant magic spectrum where you can walk into the middle of it and pick a spot and get magic powers. It’s just a way of explaining it.

Name: Andrew

Hi Luna,

What’s your favorite Pokemon?

The one with four legs.

Name: Magnus

hi! How powerful can a mage or a magical creature get? what’s the limit?

Seven.

Posted in Ask Luna | 1 Comment

Risen Edits

After I’ve finished my first draft of a new novel, the next step in the publication process is first-round edits.  This is the stage where my editors get their first full look at the new book, and give me their editorial feedback on it.  For Alex Verus #12, Risen, these arrived a week or two ago.

Editorial feedback can mean a lot of things.  The sort that writers are scared of is the kind where your editor tells you that they loved the book and they think it’s perfect, they just have a few small suggestions . . . and then the “small suggestions” turn out to be something like “instead of making the main character a detective, we want you to make him a singing purple dinosaur.”  (This is an exaggeration, but not by much.  I’ve never been asked to change my main character’s species, but I have been asked to change things like their sex or the world the story takes place in.)

In the case of the Alex Verus series, the books that changed the most in the edits stage were book #1, Fated, and book #5, Hidden.  In both cases it took months of planning and rewriting.  Rewriting a book is very difficult, much harder than writing a new one from scratch, since everything you change has the potential to cause knock-on effects in the rest of the book and make other parts no longer work.  It’s sort of like trying to redesign a complicated machine after it’s already been built.  

Fortunately, as the Alex Verus series has progressed, this has happened less and less.  Book #10, Fallen, and Book #11, Forged, had very few editorial changes – in both cases my editors sent it back to me with the message “we’re not suggesting any big changes because we think this is really good already”.  

And thankfully, the trend’s continued with Risen.  From beginning to end, including responses and discussion, I’ve been able to do the first-round edits in barely over a week.  The edited manuscript was sent to my publishers on Wednesday.  I still have to do copy-edits, proofreading edits, and author questions, but if I had to guess, the version of Risen that I sent off two days ago is about 99% identical to the one that you guys are going to get your hands on when the book comes out this December.  

So in short:  everything’s going well!  Risen is on schedule to be published on December 2nd 2021 in the UK, and December 7th 2021 in the US.  

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Applications Closed

Thanks to everyone who applied in response to last Friday’s call for beta readers!  It’s been a week, and applications are now closed.  

When I wrote last week’s post, I had no idea how many applications I would get.  As it turned out, the answer was “a lot”, and I’ve spent a good part of the past week going through emails.  I was surprised by how many of the messages mentioned that they check this blog every week – when you write a blog it tends to feel as though the posts you write just disappear off into the ether, so it was really interesting to discover that there are lots of you out there who’ve been reading these posts every week for a year or more.  

Unfortunately, the downside of getting so many applications is that there was no possible way I could accept all of them – if I had, the beta reader group would have ballooned out to an impossibly bloated size.  So I’ve had to turn lots of people away.  The emails were sent out yesterday, which means that if you sent me an application between Friday and yesterday, and I haven’t replied to your email with a confirmation, then I’m afraid the answer is a no.  I know it’s disappointing, but there were simply too many.  I’ll keep people’s email addresses, and if spaces open up in future then I’ll go back to some of the ones who didn’t make it in the first time, but realistically, the group’s now more than big enough, so this probably isn’t going to happen any time soon.  Sorry.  🙁

Now that the beta reading episode’s over, next week’s post will be an update on the publication progress of Alex Verus #12, Risen.

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Beta Reading

Like a lot of authors, I have a beta reading group – a small group of people to whom I send my work in progress for discussion/feedback.  With the Alex Verus series completed, and a new series in the planning stage, I’m opening the group up to applications for a little while, starting today.

If you’ve ever done beta reading/feedback, you’ll have some idea of what it involves.  If you haven’t, one warning that I should probably put out in advance:  beta reading is actually work!  It doesn’t take a huge amount of hours in any given year, but it does require a fair amount of attention and effort while you’re doing it.  As for what you get in exchange . . . well, you get the satisfaction of being a part of a book’s creation process and knowing that your actions have made that book very slightly better.  For a certain type of person, that’s enough, but do take a moment to have a think about whether you ARE that sort of person before you apply.  

Another note:  the Alex Verus series is finished, and Book #12, Risen, is past the beta reading stage and has been sent off to my publishers.  This means that becoming a beta reader won’t get you early access to the next Alex Verus novel, because there are no more Alex Verus novels.  My main project over the next few years is going to be the new urban fantasy series I’m working on at the moment.  If you liked Alex Verus, I think there’s a good chance that you’ll like the new series too, but it’s not a guarantee.  

So if you’ve read this far and all that hasn’t put you off, go ahead and apply!  Write me an email at my Contact page here, put “Beta Reading” in the subject line, and include the following in your message:

  • Your name
  • A little about yourself – your background, personal and professional life, interests, favourite books and genres, etc.
  • How you found this blog post, and the Alex Verus books in general

I’ll try to respond to all the applications that are sent in, but I can’t guarantee that I’ll manage it, particularly since I have no idea how many I’m going to get.  In any case, it may take a while, so please be patient!

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Writing Update

A quick update this week covering the various things I’m working on.  

Risen

Alex Verus #12 is still with my publishers.  They’ve told me that I should be getting the first-round edits back around the end of the month, so probably not much longer to wait.  Release date is unchanged – it’ll be coming out December 2021.  

Short Stories

I’ve plotted out one Alex Verus short story, and done some thinking about templates and models for distribution, etc.  I’m leaning towards sticking with this website at the moment and just using a Paypal link or something, since on consideration I’m not sure that Patreon (or whatever) really adds enough that it’d be worth asking readers to sign up for an account there.  I haven’t started work on writing any stories, yet, because of my other projects (see below).

Terra Invicta

Normally once I’m done with an Alex Verus novel I get to work on the next one.  This time I’ve been spending my post-book lull a bit differently – I’ve been doing some for-contract writing on a computer strategy game called Terra Invicta.  I’ll write more about it in a future post – it’s been fun to work on a team for a change instead of doing everything on my own.  

New Book

. . . of course, writing books on my own is still my actual job.  New book is still in the planning stage, with 100+ pages of notes.  I’ve got a fairly good handle now on the world, story, and characters, but there are a lot of details to figure out before I’ll be comfortable starting.  Still, I’m a lot closer than I was two months ago.  Once I’m done with Risen’s first-round edits, I’ll start planning out a timescale.

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Arcana Emporium Artwork!

Something different for this week! 

An environment artist called Lucy Zini got in touch with me a while ago about a university project involving concept art of the Arcana Emporium, Alex’s shop in the Alex Verus series.  Here are some of the pieces she’s produced!

The first is a scene of the Emporium in the evening rain – this is pretty much how it would have looked in that rainy day in Book 5, Hidden.  Click on it for a bigger view!

It’s actually very close to how I imagined Alex’s shop.  The main difference is the climbing plant wrapping up the left side and above the door, which Alex probably isn’t enough of a gardener to maintain, but which definitely makes it look a lot nicer.

Next is one in the spring, which is the time of year when the series starts with Fated:

Definitely blends in a lot more.  You’d probably barely notice it among all the other weird shops unless you took a second look, which feels exactly right.

If you want to see more, go to Lucy Zini’s page here – she also has some variations of how she designed the shop front, and a collection of images for the kinds of things I described the shop as selling (crystal balls, daggers, herbs, etc).  Go take a look!

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Alex Verus – The Future (Short Fiction)

As promised two weeks ago, here’s some news about where I am with the Alex Verus series.

First things first:  the manuscript of the final Alex Verus novel, Risen, is still with my publishers.  I’m supposed to get the first-round edits back by around the end of February.  If all goes to plan, release date will be the end of this year, December 2nd 2021 in the UK, and December 7th 2021 in the US.  

The main topic of this post, though, is shorter fiction, ie short stories.  As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t have any plans to write any further Alex Verus novels, since Risen is going to tie up Alex’s story in a fairly final manner.  However, the Alex Verus setting is a big one, and there are many parts of it that didn’t get much attention.  A lot of this is due to the series being written in the first person.  Since the books are all from Alex’s point of view, you only see and hear what Alex does, meaning that some quite important events never get told because there’s no way for Alex to be there to see them.  For example, one of the more common questions I get from readers is some variation of “where did Richard go in those missing years” and my answer to them is always that they’ll never know, because the reader only sees what Alex sees and Richard has absolutely zero inclination to reveal his personal secrets to Alex, or to anyone else.  (The other reason you’re never going to know is that the full answer would be such a ridiculously long story that it’d be the length of a novel, if not several novels, which I don’t intend to write.)

There are other Alex Verus side stories, though, that are a lot more practical to tell – first meetings, background events, and day-in-the-life style accounts.  A lot of them are stories that I worked out as background material or to flesh out characters, but which never made it into the books because they didn’t fit in with the plot.  Some of the ones that I’ve sketched out are:  

  • Dark Academy:  A story about Morden and Vihaela running Richard’s adept training school in the shadow realm of Arcadia.  
  • First Encounters:  How Variam became Landis’s apprentice.
  • Timesight:  An episode from Sonder’s work as a Keeper auxiliary, involving Council politics and Caldera.
  • (Redacted):  A story following two major characters set after Risen (identities withheld so as to prevent spoilers).

I’ve got quite a few of these stories lined up, and I’d be interested in telling them.  There are, however, a couple of problems.  

The first problem is that I don’t know how much time writing short stories would take away from my main job, which is (and will continue to be) writing novels.  I think – in theory – I ought to be able to write the occasional story in between novels during the kinds of periods when I wouldn’t be getting any work done on the main book anyway.  However, I don’t know this for sure, and it’s possible that short stories would end up conflicting with my novel writing.  If that ever turns out to be the case, then the short stories are getting axed.  

The second problem is a much bigger one:  it’s really hard to make short fiction commercially viable.  Most successful short story writers, like Stephen King, are successful because they’re famous through having sold a truckload of non-short-story books already.  There are ways to try to sell individual short stories, but they require quite a lot of effort and marketing, and I’m very doubtful that it’s worth the amount of work it’d take, given that any time I’m spending on that is time I’m not spending on writing the next book.  

So what I’m leaning towards at the moment is a kind of experimental trial.  I’ll put up a handful of short stories online, either here or on a site like Patreon, make them freely available, and ask readers to pay what they think they’re worth.  Honour system, basically.  Then, depending on how they do, I’ll either keep writing more, or I won’t.  (If nothing else, it’ll be interesting to see what the answer to “what do readers think they’re worth” turns out to be.)  This’ll still require a bit of time and effort to set up, but less so than any kind of shop arrangement.

Anyway, this is still all in the theory-and-planning stage, so it won’t be happening especially soon.  Let me know in the comments what you think and if you have any suggestions.  

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