Thursday Afterword

February 25, 2017

My first science fiction novel is a reimagining of G.K. Chesterton’s famous thriller The Man Who Was Thursday. It is titled Thursday and comes out on March 9. It takes Chesterton’s amazing plot (featuring perhaps the greatest plot twist in the history of fiction) and layers it over a ravaged world where virtual reality is becoming reality.  In short, it’s a cyberpunk or VR thriller.

But it’s also more than that. One of the things I struggled with was that the Chesterton is a giant among religious writers, and I’m an atheist. I knew that working from his source material would pretty much guarantee that there were going to be religious overtones to the book no matter how much I changed it, but I didn’t want to be disrespectful in how those could be interpreted. So I asked my Christian friend and author Matt Mikalatos to read the book.

Matt liked it. He not only liked it, he loved the idea of an atheist taking on a giant like Chesterton. So I asked him to write the afterword for the book. I present it here for those who are fans of Chesterton and wonder what I have done to one of his greatest works.

Thursday: Afterword

By Matt Mikalatos

Jake Kerr and I have a running joke that we’re in a contest to convert each other. He’s Atheist and I’m Christian, and we’re both devout and committed about it. We tease each other and keep track of who is “winning” in our conversations.

A while back, Jake picked me up from a seminary where I was doing a series of lectures. We were headed to dinner (we both agree that dinner is something good), and while we were out he told me, “I’m writing an updated version of G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday.”

After a stunned silence I said, “Um. You do realize that Chesterton was a Christian, right?” Not just a Christian, but an evangelistic, brilliant, argumentative theologian activist. He wrote a book called Orthodoxy, widely considered in Christian circles to be a classic for use in defending Christianity. Chesterton was friends with (and fought publicly and loudly with) George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, the atheist newspaper editor Robert Blatchford, and H.G. Wells. Chesterton wasn’t just a Christian, he was an unapologetic Catholic who had every intention of convincing every human being on earth that they also should be unapologetic Catholics. He’s a beloved giant in the world of theology, and his fiction has a constant theological bent, whether it’s the Father Brown mysteries, or the story of an Atheist and a Christian trying to duel one another, or, yes, The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare.

Of course Jake knew all this. “Do you think that would be okay?” he asked me. Meaning, did I think it would be okay with the Christians, for an Atheist to do an adaptation of Chesterton’s work.

I’m not sure about the rest of Christendom, but I know this: G.K. Chesterton would have been thrilled.
Chesterton loved a good argument. The man’s eyes lit up at the thought. He grabbed his knives and his pistols and headed straight for the opponent. The idea of an atheist tearing one of his books apart and putting it back together in another time and another shape? Oh, he would have loved it.

The Man Who Was Thursday is the perfect book for a project like this. Much of the historical bite of the original has been lost to us in the modern day. Chesterton went after the anarchists, who at the time were feared and dangerous people. Today we think of them as the kids who put on black hoodies and break the windows at Starbucks. To bring back the verve and vigor Chesterton infused in his story is an exciting thought. Not only that, but Chesterton’s theological exploration in this book (and the reason he included A Nightmare in the title) is about the central critique of Christianity: If God is good and loving and powerful, then why is there evil in the world?

In fact, Chesterton is worrying at a specific bit of theological argument that often comes up between Atheists and Christians: the suggestion that, looking at the damaged and broken world we live in, there either is no God or God is a being of malevolent evil who desires humans to suffer.

What I love about Jake’s book, Thursday, is that it reads less like an adaptation and more like a continuing conversation. Jake has been so careful to respect Chesterton and his vision, and yet he brings his own thoughts, ideas, and insights to this new version. Like Chesterton’s original, this book is funny, deep, thoughtful, and well worth your time. Have fun. Think deeply. Join the conversation between Kerr and Chesterton. Jake is a generous and entertaining guide. You’ll enjoy his company.

In one of our recent arguments, Jake made two points I agreed with. One, he said that on Sunday mornings when I go to church, he gets to stay home and do whatever heathens do on Sunday mornings. I had to admit that sounded pretty good.
Two, he said the great thing about being an Atheist was that, if what I was saying about God was true, then that meant, “God loves me whether I believe in him or not.”

That’s absolutely right. And I think it’s precisely the sort of truth Chesterton was hinting at in The Man Who Was Thursday when Syme asks if Sunday has ever suffered… Sunday’s face fills the universe and his voice echoes back, “Can ye drink of the cup I drink of?” It’s a quote from Jesus, God in the flesh, come to suffer as a human being alongside us. It’s precisely the thing that Syme calls “impossible good news.”

That’s probably the key disagreement between me and Jake, Chesteron and Blatchford, Christians and Atheists. When confronted with the “impossible good news” one side emphasizes that the news is impossible, the other that the news is good.

Maybe it’s together that we come closest to the truth.

The Gamer Chronicles and Short Story Writing

July 23, 2016

Sam Peralta, the editorial director of the amazing Future Chronicles series of anthologies, has invited me to take part in The Gamer Chronicles, which is an anthology based on virtual reality and gaming. Think of Ernest Cline’s great book Ready, Player One. I’m writing a story about boy with a very different kind of dad.

One of the interesting things about writing this is that it is reminding me how difficult it often is to write short stories. I have the plot. I have the characters. I have the conflict and ending. But putting all those things together in a short narrative requires great care. I’ve already changed the story from present to past tense, and the opening scene to earlier in the protagonist’s life. So it’s a nice reminder to me that short stories are not simple things.

I do love writing short stories, though. There are a lot of ways to write a story, and finding the right one is one of my favorite things to do as I think about the story itself. It can be time-consuming, but it’s challenging and fun.

The Gamer Chronicles is slated for a release in September. More details coming soon right here.

Amazon and One Star Reviews

July 2, 2016

This morning I received my monthly Prime email outlining the free Kindle First books available for July. Kindle First is an extremely powerful program that allows Prime users to get a free book released by an Amazon imprint for free ahead of its scheduled release. Generally speaking, every single Kindle First book goes on to end up as a best-seller on Amazon. This morning, however, something caught my eye. A one star review on the book The Daughter of Union County by Francine Thomas Howard.  It was the only review so far posted on the book, and I am sure it will have a significant impact on that book’s future. I’d like to discuss that here and a wider view of one star reviews for readers.

First of all, every book receives a one star review, from The Bible to Shakespeare. So receiving a one star review is to be expected. I’ve received a number of them myself. I tend to glance at them, see if there is anything I can learn from them, and move on. However, and this is what brings us back to Ms. Howard. You see, all one star reviews are not created equal. One star reviews that occur early in a book’s life are much worse than those that occur later in the book’s life. Let me use The Daughter of Union County as an example.

Take a look at the book after you click on the link that is in an email that went out to every single Amazon Prime user. What is their first impression of Ms. Howard’s book going to be?

The Daughter of Union County

Well, there are a lot of nice things about this book’s presentation, from the cover to the blurb, but you just can’t get past that average rating of one star. It’s what caught my eye, and I guarantee you it caught a lot of people’s eyes. Would this affect people’s perception of the book? Well, look at the initial comments on the review:

The Daughter of Union County review comments

There are a couple of things of note here. One is that the reviewer didn’t finish the book. This generally is looked on poorly by the review community, but in this case the comments applaud the reviewer. In fact, the very top comment says this:

I expect folks who believe in the utter sanctity of finishing a book no matter how awful it is will jump me for the DNF. But honestly, you can tell a steak is rancid after a single bite, yes?

Another thing to notice is the general consensus of “Thank you for saving me time from reading this awful book.” That’s a huge indicator of the impact this review has had. People see the one star. Look at the review, and this book that they were initially interested in gets passed over. Again, one stars happen all the time, but this one star review was particularly devastating in that it is the first one, and it set a negative and, thus far, unopposed tone. So if this one star review happened in September, it would have possibly had an effect, but it wouldn’t have had nearly as big an impact as it is having now.

Now there will undoubtedly be a number of positive reviews that come in for this book, but there’s another element of this being the first review that will have long-lasting consequences: The number of people that have upvoted this review as helpful. At the time I’m writing this, that number is 247.

Screen Shot 2016-07-02 at 1.08.27 PM

What does that mean? Well, it means that for a very long time, perhaps always, this review will be at the top of the product listing on Amazon as the “most helpful” review. I assure you that the single worst thing that can happen to you on an Amazon product page is to have the most helpful top review be a one star. It will hurt this book for the rest of its life.

In summary, this single one star review most likely has had a huge negative impact on those browsing the book during its initial Amazon promotional push, and it will have a huge negative impact on the book in the long term because as a well-written and helpful review, it was voted up early into the “most helpful” review slot that will be difficult to overcome.

There are other areas where an early one star review can hurt a book. When applying to promotional sites like Bookbub that don’t require a minimum number of reviews, an early one star will eliminate them as a possibility until your average review increases significantly, which can take quite a while after a one star. Also, if you advertise your book in places like Amazon, where the average star rating is attached to the ad, a 1 star rating will have a huge impact on the effectiveness of your advertising.

Note that I am most decidedly not saying that this review was bad in any sense. In fact, I found it both well-written and helpful. In many ways, it is the kind of review you hope to see as you are browsing a product page.

Which brings me to the goals that reviewers have and their decision to leave one star reviews. I think one star reviews are important, and I would feel someone odd if my books didn’t receive them. Books that evoke both love and hate are the best kind of books in my opinion. They evoke passion. However, I sincerely don’t think that most reviewers want to destroy a book or materially hurt its opportunity to find an audience, even if that audience doesn’t include the reviewer. Perhaps I’m wrong, and perhaps reviewers want to hurt books that they don’t like, but as an author I hope that isn’t true. Helpful, yes. Destructive, no.

So I want to go back to what I said earlier about timing. A one star review can be not just helpful but damaging if it is one of the first two or three reviews. Perhaps I am out-of-bounds and perhaps I’m too idealistic, but I would humbly request reviewers that plan on posting a one star review to first allow one of two things to happen: Let time go on or let more reviews be posted.

In the first instance, you provide the book the opportunity to find its real audience. You, as one star reviewer, know that isn’t you. So allow the book to find those readers and reviewers who may like or even love it. If the book is released on the first, maybe plan on leaving your review on the fifteenth. If by then the book has no reviews, then you know that the audience hasn’t yet been found, and your review, while damaging, isn’t a major cause for the book’s poor start.

In the second instance, you wait until five or more reviews have been posted. Maybe they’re all five star ratings. Maybe they’re all one star ratings like yours. Maybe they’re a mixture. The important thing is that your purely negative view of the book, which may not be the majority view, hasn’t gotten in the way of that majority in discovering the book.

Finally, I will say this: Reviewers are critical and important to us writers. I would never tell a reviewer not to post a one star review. I’ve truly cherished some of my one star reviews for what they have taught me. So please review books, and review them honestly, including the moments when you feel you need to provide a one star review. However, also be aware of your power as a reviewer and the impact of that power on real people. In that sense, deciding on when to leave your review can be the difference between you sharing an opinion and destroying a book’s future.

The Danger of “Oh, that will be easy”

June 24, 2016

I’m working on Thursday, which is my re-imagining of Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, and it strikes me that my goal when I started–to write a swashbuckling thriller that basically just copies Chesterton and paints on a new setting and updates the prose–seemed quite simple. I was hoping to get the book done in a month. But I just can’t seem to do that. The setting kept changing, and the more I looked at updating the book, the more I realized how formidable the job would be.

It turns out I needed to not just update the prose, but I had to change scenes, delete scenes, add scenes, and rework the nature of some of the characters. However, the biggest challenge has been taking the old style of lots of philosophical exposition and turning it into in-scene action.

In short, this project turned from a fun and short side project into an involved and lengthy one. I’m quite proud of it. It very much captures the spirit of Chesterton’s original, while being a pretty engaging and fun cyberpunk thriller. I can’t wait to share it with you.

A New Look And More

June 23, 2016

J.kerr mug with glasses b+w_thumbnailAfter a lot of thought, I’ve decided to simplify my website and be more active with my blog. My blog will be mostly casual updates and thoughts on a variety of things, some of them related to my fiction and others not at all.

While I will definitely provide updates on the blog, I won’t be highlighting them as big news headlines or leaving announcements in a special box. My goal is to make this kind of a casual place to hang out, share some thoughts, and listen to your comments if you have any.

If you would like to have the latest news about my upcoming releases, including sneak previews of the next Tommy Black and Guildmaster Thief books, then I recommend you sign up for my newsletter (and get a free book in the process). I include plenty of unique things there that you won’t find here, including amusing stories, free gifts, and, as I noted, sneak previews.

Thanks for reading!


Updating The Man Who Was Thursday

February 1, 2016

As I noted in yesterday’s blog post, my current project is to re-imagine G.K. Chesterton’s extraordinary novel, The Man Who Was Thursday. I first read this book right after I graduated from college and completely fell in love with it. It’s a novel about detectives, anarchists, and secret societies. It has one of the all-time great plot twists, too.

Unfortunately, the writing in the book, as much as I love it, is somewhat dated. The background is also dated, as well. As I’ve thought about the book through the years I’ve kept thinking that a modern day version of the book would be so much fun to read, and as happens with writers, when you want to read something that hasn’t been written, you decide to just write it yourself.

So I’m writing The Man Who Was Thursday with a decidedly modern twist. I’ll be sticking as closely to the core plot as possible, but you can expect a lot of changes. Gabriel Syme is now Gabby Syme. The setting in early 1900s London is now a virtual world superimposed on the physical world. In fact, think of the book as The Man Who Was Thursday as seen through the prism of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.

I’m excited about the book. It’s one of the great pleasures as a writer that you get to write the books that you’ve always wanted to read. This is a good example.