Beautiful Titan – my new novel


First of all, this novel is long overdue. I’m sorry. You should try being an author! It’s a slow and tricky business.

Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh on myself. My first novel Operation Red Jericho was published almost exactly ten years ago, so five novels in ten years is not too shameful.

I’m really proud of Beautiful Titan. I had the idea about five years ago, and the story has been through several incarnations since. I hope that if you download it, you’ll enjoy it as much as my other books. I have set up a standalone website where I talk about the story, and you can get the link to Amazon, or click on the image above. There is even a trailer, handcrafted by me, with CGI action sequences no less:


I did a majority of the writing in Switzerland over the winter of 2012-13, and it took about 6 months to complete. At the time, my wife and I were living in an apartment up a very steep hill (as you’d expect), in a village with a name like a Star Trek baddie (Klingnau). I have to say that not a huge amount happens in Klingnau apart from a very good wine festival in October, so it has very few distractions.

We weren’t near the mountains but on clear days in the spring and autumn we could see the Alps from our balcony. Alas, most of the time we couldn’t see the Alps. In fact, most of the time the most distracting landmark was the cooling tower of a nuclear power plant the Swiss have built as close to the German border as they could possibly get it!

(Here are some pics of Klingnau to set the scene)


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As with all freshly written books, you don’t know if they are any good. I appointed a very good editor, and his input sharpened the detail, but he agreed the plot was essentially there and functioning well. It was quite a departure in style from my earlier novels, so for the first time I sent the manuscript out to a wide selection of friends to be read and critiqued. I’ve never done this before. It was an anxious moment. However, the reaction was extremely encouraging so I thought it was worth publishing.

The book is for a slightly older age group than my previous books, and is for a YA 16+ readership.

Let me know what you think.

Joshua Mowll


Does your self-pub front cover look like a dog’s dinner, even though you paid for it? 12 possible reasons why.


You can tell the quality of a graphic designer by the fonts they use

The first question you’re probably asking is, as an author, what qualifies me to talk about front covers? What do I know? My answer is that I have a degree in graphic design and have been working in the business for 20 years.

An immediate caveat: I’m not looking for cover design work. This is not a pitch. I can do them, but as you can see from my portfolio: it’s not necessarily my thing. I do, however, have a professional opinion on them and I’ve seen some absolute shockers recently, hence the post.

OK, so here’s the problem: you’ve paid good money to have a book cover designed because you’ve heard that it’s a ‘must have’ when launching your eBook on Amazon, etc… But the cover isn’t working for you, no matter how many times you look at it. It simply doesn’t grab you, and somehow it doesn’t look as good as traditionally published front covers. So what’s the problem?

Here’s my checklist of what might have gone wrong (assuming you have paid a graphic designer to create the cover):

1. Ask yourself this: Has your designer simply downloaded a free font, slapped on a free stock image, tried out a few Photoshop filters on it, then finished it off with a massive lens flare?

Has your designer put any thought into it, or are they knocking out four or five similar covers a day? Does your cover look similar to thousands of others? Did you choose the right designer?

2. Has your designer or illustrator actually read your book?

If not, how exactly are they having any meaningful artistic ideas about your cover? Are they solely using your notes and direction for what you envision for the cover?

3. You are probably not a designer, so why are you giving out design tips?

If I was having keyhole surgery done on my knee I wouldn’t be offering my opinion to the surgeon, or making suggestions on how he could do his job better. I’d trust that he was a skilled expert with many years of experience and training under his belt and let him get on with it. Research lots of cover designers, find one you like, then let them do their job.

4. This sounds harsh, but I’m going to say it: Are you the real problem in the design process?

Have you interfered with the layout at every stage and gone against the ideas and suggestions of the designer you employed? Is that why the end result looks compromised?

Giving direction and notes on how you think the cover should look makes the designer’s life easier because they don’t have to read your 700-page epic, but in an ideal world the designer should be giving you ideas, not vice-versa.

5. You probably won’t get a good result out of a cheap online cover design company offering a quick delivery service.

You guessed it – the end result will most likely look cheap and quick. You pay for what you get.

6. Never use friends or family to create an illustration, or design a cover, unless they are a working illustrator or designer with a broad client base.

You might well think it would be a lovely idea if, say, your amateur artist cousin created you a lovely cover. Why risk it after all that hard work you’ve put in to create the novel? There are literally hundreds of thousands of excellent illustrators and designers out there, all quite reasonably priced, who will do a better job.

7. Colour/color palette

No lurid colours. The downfall of many covers are vicious, ill-considered palette. The smartest covers often have very limited palettes. Search color/colour theory online.

8. Less is more. In all things.

Do you have a large amount of clashing elements or ideas on your cover, or have you insisted on your name being ridiculously big?

9. Fonts:

There are surprisingly few good fonts; conversely, there are many, many thousands of dreadful ones. If you don’t know the difference, or can’t tell the difference, find a designer who can.

You can tell the quality of a graphic designer by the fonts they use. Make sure they choose typefaces from proper font foundries. These will cost more, but it is minor details like these that make all the difference. The temptation is to use a free face to cut down the costs. It’s free for a reason.

10. Fonts you should probably avoid having on your front cover:

  • Brush Script
  • Times New Roman
  • Papyrus
  • Arial
  • Comic Sans
  • Copperplate
  • Generic grunge fonts
  • Helvetica
  • Courier

 If you’re wondering why these fonts are not good choices, I urge you to reread point 3 above.

11. Typography:

Stretched type: No type should be stretched (horizontal or vertical scaled) in any direction. Ever. It is simply bad design. Fonts are beautiful things and should be treated with respect.

All fonts should be properly kerned; never trust a computer to do kerning, especially on something like a book title. If this is the first time you’ve heard about the dark art of kerning, then…

12. A good designer will cost you money, but the cover is your novel’s shopfront.

At the point of making a sale, the cover is clearly one of the key ingredients in your potential reader’s decision making process. If you believe in your story, have invested time and energy in creating a book, why skimp? The cover is the first point of contact with your reader. Don’t let a good book be ruined by a bad cover.


First novel, first chapter, first doubts: 10 strategies for starting your story.


If 2014 is the year you decided to write a novel and you’re already stuck on chapter one, here are my top ten ways to help you over the first hurdle:

1. Don’t start with chapter one, start by doing lots of planning. This might not feel like writing a book, but it is. This way you’ll know exactly what it is you’re trying to achieve in chapter one, rather than driving blindly into a snowstorm hoping to reach a destination. Writing the first chapter is a lot easier if you know what happens in the final chapters of your book.

2. For a first time novelist, it is easy to be put off by what you initially produce. In your imagination you had expected to see award-winning prose flowing from you as if a vast and untapped literary dam had just been breached. Maybe your first page is not that good. The self-doubt sets in. This is not a book you would buy, so why continue? Rest easy. It will feel very strange to see your first novel emerging on the page. Be encouraged that you are actually sitting down to write. The polishing can come in later drafts.

3. Writing your first novel is like being given a very powerful and complex motor vehicle to drive. The only way to learn to write is to write. Lots. Very much like driving, it will get better and it will get easier with experience. Don’t expect too much at first. It is more important to be making forward progress than editing and re-editing four sides of A4 until you get bored and decide writing probably isn’t for you. Keep draft one progressing at steady rate. Learn by making some mistakes.

4. A first draft is not a novel, it’s a testbed for ideas. Chapter one will go through several later drafts, so don’t put too much pressure on yourself.

5. In the later stages of the editing process, I’ve found chapter one often needs to be heavily rewritten to accommodate new themes, characters, plot lines and creative directions discovered during the first draft writing process. Don’t give up because you loathe your first  attempts at crafting the first chapter. You could be abandoning a perfectly viable story for no good reason.

6. First night nerves: If you are really having problems opening your book, why not start at chapter two and then going back to write chapter one towards the end of the first draft process. If you have done enough planning (see point 1 above) then you will know where the story should be by chapter two. Go from there and see what happens.

7. Don’t overload chapter one with exposition (history lessons and info dumps). Get on with the story. Engage the reader. Make something happen to your main character which will fundamentally alter their life. We don’t need to know where they grew up, or the history and political machinations of the 14th Orc War. We are more interested that your main character has just discovered they were adopted at birth, or that they’ve suddenly lost the ability to read people’s minds. You are sending your character on a journey. Chapter one is the jumping off point rather than a place to laboriously explain the world in which they live.

8.  If you are going to tell some extremely tall tale, such as your narrator does indeed have the ability to read minds, get this extraordinary character trait out in chapter one. The later you leave it, the less believable it will become. Your reader can relax, accept this as a reality within your story, and then not worry about it because it’s clearly going to be a fundamental building block for the rest of the book.

9. You have about 60 pages to captivate a reader. Spend them very wisely.

10. If you are still not making progress, then go back and do more planning. Chapter one should be a hurdle, not an impenetrable barrier. Work out what story you are trying to tell rather than working out how to write a good opening chapter: the story is more important and should control chapter one, not vice-versa.

Book 5 and 10 tips on writing novels

I’m back to writing. Back to book 5. Back to being a novelist rather than an illustrator! Just me, my imagination and a word processor. Excellent!

I did quite a considerable amount of work on the plot for book 5 last summer, but the extraordinary amount of illustration required for The Great Space Race swamped me, so it all feels fresh, exciting and new.

So there’s a lot of ground work already done. I also have some notes from my literary agent, Clare, who has an exceptionally good eye for knowing what’s working and what’s not. I tend to listen hard to what Clare has to say, because she will be trying to sell the book shortly. Clare, I should point out, was the first person to believe in the Guild Trilogy and thought it was worth trying to get published. That’s why I care very much what she thinks.

One of Clare’s suggestions was to move the story into the first person (as in –  ‘I did this, I did that’), an idea I’d toyed with because I’d had such fun writing the Space Race that way. The Guild Trilogy is, of course, written in the third person (as in – ‘he did this, she did that’).

Writing in the first person gives the whole script a very different and somehow more immediate feel. Lots of authors use the third person because it allows you to see different points of view from the various different characters. With the first person, you get a single point of view, so are very much on one person’s journey.

With the renewed energies of 2010, I have launched forth. I have a plot structure through to the end (very important), and have written the first 10,000 words. This week I’ve been working through it, cutting, sharpening, editing to get those first 30 pages working as hard as possible. And those first 30 pages are some of the most important.

So what am I actually doing when I’m writing a first draft? I get asked this quite a bit, so perhaps it is time for… a list!

Here are some of my own tips on writing adventure novels for children. These are hard won, but I hasten to add there are many, many different ways to write a book, so this can no way be described as definitive.

1 ) The target is 50,000 words, because that is the length publishers like for children’s fiction. It is unrealistic to think 100,000 words will be rolling off the presses, unless I change my name to J. K. Mowlling.

2 ) Every paragraph must have a purpose. Anything unnecessary to the plot will probably be cut by editors later, so there’s not much point spending time writing it in the first place.

3 ) Something fundamental should change for the characters in each chapter to turn the story (a discovery, an event, a piece of information revealed). The more twists and turns the better. This drives the story forward. If nothing much has happened in a chapter, what’s the point of it being there. Is it stuffed full of exposition (see tip 9 below)?

4 ) For each chapter I ask: ‘What’s at stake here?’

5 ) For each chapter I also ask: ‘Where’s the jeopardy?’

6 ) I try to keep my chapters short. 1,500 words is more than enough. 5,000 words is far, far too long.

7 ) Nothing is sacred. Just because I especially like a chapter or an idea, I don’t get hung up on it. If it starts to get in the way of the developing story, I cut it out (but save it somewhere on my computer just in case!) then let the new material breathe and grow.

8 ) I know that not all my ideas will make it to the final draft. With this mindset from the start, it makes editing and cutting much less painful.

9 ) Exposition (in other words backstory, history lessons explaining plot, aimless pages about the character’s upbringing etc…) tend to stop the story dead. Exposition is the enemy. It needs to be fed in very, very slowly. In the trilogy, I tended to relegate exposition to sidebars, footnotes, appendices, foldouts, and illustration where possible. Anywhere but in the story… unless essential.

10) It’s a bit of cliqué now, but I like write the sort of book I would have enjoyed when I was young.

The Great Space Race website goes live

CGI scene from the trailer

It is great to announce that The Great Space Race website is now live. At the moment it is aimed at the book trade, particularly the Frankfurt Book Fair, which is just about to start as I write this. Frankfurt is one of the biggest events in the publishing calender, so is really quite important. I hope it will help to sell the book around the world. Fingers crossed!

The exciting bit is that there is a trailer with a short interview and CGI (computer generated imagery) of key scenes, created by the hugely talented Simon Nankivell and Andrew Ballard at Postworks Media. This means you can watch a bunch of rockets blasting off and racing for the moon in full wide screen. Well done, chaps! Not sure I could have built all that in my Dad’s garden.

I should thank my brother for playing the drums – his 1960s classic Gretsch kit sounds, well, galactic.

There is also a PDF sampler to download, showing the layout and illustration. You’ll note there is a bit of a change in style from the trilogy.

Let me know what you think.

Operation Storm City research trip to Asia. Retro-blog 6: Crossing China (part 2)

Day 6. Aboard the train to Urumqi.

I sit on a small fold down seat in the corridor and drink in views of China for hour after hour. It is very cold outside and there is a light dusting of snow on the flat, featureless landscape. This gives the whole scene the appearance of a lightly dusted cake. We are near Diwopu. A low mist hangs in the air and cuts visibility to a half a mile or so. Every so often a line of telegraph poles disappears into the murk towards some impossibly remote outpost. This is Sinkiang, and it is a truly desperate place.

We pass 4 blokes, heavily wrapped, standing beside the line in the middle of nowhere. I assume they are railway workers. There seems to be no other reason for the to be there, but who knows?

The businesswoman has left overnight and we have another passenger. He is quite dapper – and quite possibly a doctor; he sets about taking the pulses of the old couple with casual ease. I feel like getting in line for a free medical. He tells a few jokes and soon has them laughing. Again there is the impenetrable language barrier so it’s all lost on me. Despite our apparent remoteness, the doc makes a couple of calls on his cell phone! I return to watching the hypnotic landscape outside, while listening to Fawlty Towers on my iPod – as strange a flavour combination as you can imagine.


The land is more hilly, but no less bleak as we skirt the Gobi desert. ‘Greensleeves’ and ‘Scarborough Fair’ play on the carriage PA, and, rather alarmingly for a journey that’s lasted so long already, the tune: ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’. Surely not? Surely we’re nearly there?

We pass Hami and the snow begins to clear. The mist lifts to reveal a landscape of muted tans, blues, and greys. The only movement to be seen is small dust devils twisting and spinning like desert djinns. We’re now in the vast wastelands of Western China and it is just as unremittingly empty as I’d imagined. There is no vegetation, and no hint (other than the railway) that mankind has ever made much of an impression here. This is the territory in which a huge chunk of Operation Storm City is set. Sinkiang is suddenly no longer a name I’ve written many times, but a very real and dangerous place just outside the thin glass of the carriage window.


I reach Urumqi (also known as Wulumqi depending on your map) in the evening. It’s a big, ugly Chinese city mainly built  of concrete. I give the old couple a postcard of London and say goodbye as best I can before climbing down onto the platform. We have reached  the geographic centre of Asia and the most landlocked city in the world. There are no signs in English as there had been at Shanghai station. I drift out on the jostling tide of my fellow passengers. Outside, I’m immediately surrounded by eager cab drivers who flock around me. I show one of them the picture of the hotel I want; he nods vigourously, pushes me into his tired looking minibus, then drives me there at top speed as if his life depended on it.

The hotel has a free room (thank goodness). I certainly need a bath and change of clothes. The building is designed in the bland international style, and towers up to about 30 stories high. It is very, very new. There’s oil in these parts, which naturally brings a certain level of luxury trailing in its wake. In my sparklingly room I find flowers floating in the lavatory bowl! This I take to be an artistic touch rather than a mistake. Either way it is a welcomed change of comfort levels from the squatter facilities on the train. From a Chinese town on rails to utter luxury in under 20 minutes. The contrast is almost too much.

I find the bar and order a cold beer. The bartender pours it slowly, just like the famous scene from the 1959 classic film: ‘Ice Cold in Alex’. I wonder idly how many railway sleepers I have travelled across on the 4077km (2,500 mile) journey of  the last two days. I wonder, too, about the old couple on the train. To spend that long with people you cannot speak to is so utterly frustrating. We crossed China together! They were my travelling companions on a great journey. We all suffered that terrible night of snoring  – and survived! What on earth were they doing in Shanghai? I expect they were wondering much the same about me  – What on earth is he doing going to Urumqi?

Operation Storm City research trip to Asia. Retro-blog 5: Crossing China

Day 5

Aboard the Shanghai-Urumqi train across China (see map below).

The aroma aboard is garlicky and a little fetid. The cabin is a four berth, soft  sleeper class, run by a grumpy female attendant. It’s all very clean, with a communal thermos of hot water, a small table beneath which is a heater, a pillow and duvet, and best of all – a pair of disposable slippers for each person! I’m directed to a bottom bunk on which a businessman is slouched, one leg up and arms crossed. He is a little overweight and has something of the Ricky Gervaise about him. My other two companions are an elderly couple. Somehow I struggle to communicate that I am from London. After that, conversation drops off to zilch.

Gervaise eventually takes an upper bunk. His talent is for snoring – at an Olympic standard. He sounds like a single cylinder steam engine, making it seem, for all the world, as if the train is being pulled along by him. The up-stroke sounds tortured, confined and difficult. Then a longish pause. Long enough for one to think perhaps he has died. The gasping down-stroke hisses as if steam were escaping. All night! Sleep is therefore elusive. I unearth my iPod for a soporific blast of Coldplay and lull myself to sleep.

Gervaise is woken at 6am by the carriage attendant. He alights at Zheng Zhou. The elderly couple look exhausted by last night’s row. I certainly am. A lovely calm has descends on the cabin as if someone had switched off loud music. The old man and I smile at each other in relief and there is a brief moment of connection. He nods. I nod and smile.

I look on my map of China to gauge progress, but it’s pitifully slow.


I have been gazing out of the window at the hypnotic Chinese agricultural landscape. It is very flat here near Xian. There are mounds in many of the fields which I take to be graves. The Christians have been through – I’ve seen two churches, their crosses proudly displayed. My great, great uncle, the Right Reverend Howard West Kilvinton Mowll was a Bishop in China during the 1920s, and I wonder idly if he’d ever visited.

We pass the desperate vista of people sifting through rubbish tips… everywhere there’s evidence of building, people, agriculture. The houses range from track side shacks to smart concrete buildings with satellite dishes.

We have a replacement for Gervaise. She is a business woman – all smart suit and briefcase. She has what I take to be her son with her, but there is no room for him. She is trying to arrange a move so they can be together, I think. I have the feeling that I, a solo European, am something of a surprise to her. The rearrangements are cut short by a drunk woman in a compartment at the end of the coach yelling.


It is cold now. I stretch out for a sleep, but the businesswoman is perched at the end of my bunk so this is difficult. Oh, for an upper bunk! My mind switches to the journey. I had been planning to jump off at Turpan (one stop before Urumqi), but I’m not sure I’m allowed. I’ve been issued with a berth card in exchange for my ticket, and I can see I could very easily  infringe the strict rules if I get off before my listed destination. This means I must plan for a night in Urumqi. I ponder the thought that I’ll still be aboard this train in 24hours time, and reach for Evelyn Waugh.

Late afternoon:

We are now in the mountains dusted with snow. The track follows a steep and dramatic gorge through which a red river flows. We pass through several tunnels and into a flat plateau surrounded by low mountains. This is the China of one’s imagination.

After Gan Gou, the architecture is suddenly more defensive as if we are reaching more dangerous territory. Houses have outer courtyards without windows, giving them the appearance of small forts. The roads are rough tracks. Everywhere terracing has cut and shaped the landscape of tan coloured earth. A bleak place without a scrap of green to be seen. The temperature is plummeting and we are heading deeper into China. Ahead is what has been described as China’s wild west – Sinkiang.