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Hi, I'm Sibo Makuza. I'm 17 years old (I know I'm young lol) and live in Zimbabwe. I wrote a YA sci-fi novel last year, and started submitting to agents. I got positive feedback, but nothing more than that. I knew then that my novel needed work. During my hunt for agents, I stumbled upon Jericho Writers, but couldn't afford to be a member. Till December 2019, there was an opportunity to apply for a free membership. I applied, I won it, I took it. 

I'm a fully fledged nerd that loves reading writing and sci-fi movies. If you've never heard of the Avengers, don't bother messaging me, haha (I'm joking). I'm currently editing my novel, and I'm thankful and lucky to be here.

My Forums
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Does anyone else just come onto Townhouse, go through a bunch of forums, and think alright that's my…
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  •  · HI SiboMost people on here (if they are anything like me) jump on and off when they are ether: 1. su…
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This is my third time posting here (wow). You'd think it'd be less nerve-racking, haha.My name is Si…
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  •  · Continuation (last part)root@Ophelia_Summer# man bunniesBUNNY (Browning Uther Neo-Nihilist Yokes) ap…
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If a book starts with a page of atmosphere, and world-building, I'm bored. I won't continue, and I w…
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  •  ·  I think it depends on the genre you are writing in. I read all manner of books. If it is a beautifu…
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Hi, I'm Sibo Makuza. I completed a novel last year, got rejections from agents, stumbled upon Jerich…
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If you could ask a literary agent one thing, what would you ask him/her? I've registered for the “I'…
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Hi guys, I'm Sibo Makuza. Been editing my novel and I'd highly appreciate feedback for the prologue.…
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  •  · Thank you guys all so much for the feedback!! I've taken into account everything you've said, I'll b…
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I have to change my profile now coz I'm 17 now 😂 

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Hey, how is everyone? Been gone for a while. Whilst trying to juggle the festival and my own novel, I decided to take a break from Townhouse. But I'm back! If you're reading this, how are you?! 

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Does anyone else just come onto Townhouse, go through a bunch of forums, and think alright that's my weekly visit done. 

Even though this is a community, I'm struggling to actually interact with people. I just see names and comments but I've been too scared to actually text anyone or say hi. 

So I'll say hi here.


*Conversation opener.

My favorite movie is Avengers and my favorite book is Deception Point by Dan Brown.

What are yours?

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This is my third time posting here (wow). You'd think it'd be less nerve-racking, haha.

My name is Sibo and I love three things.

1. Writing 

2. Reading.

3.  Watching sci-fi movies ( Warning: Don't bring up Marvel, I'll rant😂)

Four or five months ago, I posted a prologue that is now locked in a drawer somewhere (deleted) and I think a month ago (could be two) I posted the first 400 words of mh YA sci-fi novel, and it has been re-written.

Now, I'm posting the opening chapter. Call me crazy. If it gets beaten down to it's finest atoms— so be it, I love learning and improving as a writer, especially with my novel. I'm aware I still have a long, long way to go, and any feedback, opinion and critique is highly appreciated. Love you all!!

14 February 2018.


Spark didn’t know what to make of being on Earth. She was adopted and taken to planet Zardag a couple of days after being born. So— yes— Spark was an Earthling. The last thing she remembered about her sudden current return was saving three kids from her self-destructing spaceship. But now, she had no idea where she was. She would’ve believed you if you told her it was all a dream.

The room Spark was in contained little: blue curtains, a security camera, the bed Spark lay on, and a closed white door. Did Spark dare try to open it? No, nor was she going to unless the security camera combusted into flames. Nothing suggested she was in a hospital. But that must’ve been where she was. Where else could she be?

A white ant-sized creature walked into the room. It had a brown substance on top— possibly hair— and it stood on two legs. Because of distance, making it out in great detail was impossible for Spark . Also, she wasn’t in the mood to use her microscopic vision. Her powers were the reason she was in that mess.

 Suddenly, the creature stopped. Then, it left.  It’s arms and legs moved humanly, but it ran like the wind. 

What on Earth…? 

Outside her room, Spark heard hushed voices. It had to have been the doctors.

“Did you see her?”

 “Is she alive?”

  “She was awake.” 

  “Did she see you?” 

  “Not really, let’s go see her.”

  “Somebody else might see us.”

 “Who cares? I’m going.”

  “Me too.”

“Ugh fine, let’s go. But if we get caught, you are taking the blame, James.”

Spark closed her eyes, and pretended to go to sleep. She could see through her eyelids. Three teenagers, two boys and a girl, entered the room. Not doctors, but the kids Spark had tried to save. All three of them had brown hair and brown eyes, and the younger boy and girl looked the same age. Definitely siblings.

And totally opposite from me. Spark noted. She was tall and black, with chocolate brown, shoulder-length hair. Her eyes were phosphorescent green, in contrast to her gaze that made people feel she was apologizing for her presence.

 Stranger than Spark, was the older boy. He had huge arms and legs of hard rippling muscle, with an outright chest and broad shoulders. He was as muscular as a pro wrestler, but he was only a teenager. Sixteen or seventeen, Spark guessed. 

“We have to go…  if anyone finds us here… we’ll be in huge trouble.” the girl was saying.

“Will you shut up?” the younger boy snapped. “You’ll wake her up. And we found this girl, we have the right to see her.” 

“James, you saw what she did— she’s dangerous.” 

“I saw her saving our lives.” 

“And taking away others.”                                                          

  “Did you see her move that spaceship with her mind?” the older boy intervened, sensing an argument brewing.

 “No, we missed it.” the younger boy said sarcastically. 

Silence. Should Spark dare to speak?

  “Excuse me?” Spark asked, startling them. “Where am I?”

 The other three exchange nervous glances.

The older boy folded his arms. “London. Where are you from?”

  “Don’t let his muscles intimidate you.” the younger boy added. “He’s all fluff inside.”

Spark’s attention turned to the younger boy. He was about her age. His breathing was minimal, like someone holding their breath when anxious for something. Was he anxious for Spark’s response? His eyes flickered around the room occasionally. Was such alertness  in an Earthling normal? His face was a deep shade of red and his entire body shook. Not shivered, but shook. He stood in a shrunken position, as if he wanted to return to the womb.. With each second, he normalized. Like someone recovering from shock. But when he’d spoken… he sounded fine. So why did he look like someone who’d under gone a physical transformation? Had he been in a fight? He wasn’t disheveled. Wait, transformation… Brown hair… brown hair… Could he have been the white ant?!! 

 The young boy looked at Spark so intrigued she blushed deeply. 

 Spark realised she hadn’t given any response. She tried to play it cool like, “What muscles?” 

  “Oh, snap!” The twins said playfully whilst the older boy smiled. Phew.

    Spark sat up. She couldn’t remember where her spaceship had landed, but it hadn’t been London. “I’m from Earth, but I was raised on Zardag, a planet several solar systems away from here. How did I get to London?”


“We brought you back with us.” the older boy answered. “And for the record, it’s my weak arms that carried you.”

“I overheard Quinton talking to Emma. She suffered from severe brain damage,” the younger boy explained to the other two. “She might not remember the incident.”

If they were talking about Spark saving them, then yes, she remembered nearly dying for them, clearly. “I remember.” Spark said dryly. “The spaceship self-destructed. Did anyone get hurt?”

The girl answered. “Yes. There were a couple of scientists nearby. The blast hit them.”

Spark’s worst horrors came true. She had killed someone. Tears emerged at the corners of her eyes. 

“It’s okay, really.” The older boy said quickly. “Let’s face it, they weren’t that important—” His sister stared at him “— I mean —er— had you ever moved anything that big?” he asked Spark.


  “If you’re from Earth, how can you move things with your mind?” the girl asked.

“I don’t know.”

“And you have no idea how you got on that spaceship?”


“Do your parents know you’re here?”

“I don’t know.”

“Are your parents also from Earth?” The older boy asked.

“I’m adopted.”

There was a pause, then “If you came with that spaceship, why weren’t you on it when it landed?” the girl asked.

“I flew off.”

“Did you know it was going to self-destruct?”


“Why did it self-destruct?” the girl and the older boy asked almost at the same time.

“I don’t know.”

“You saved our lives. Thank you.” The younger boy said earnestly.

Spark stared at him.  She had killed people, and he was thanking her?! She remembered she’d nearly died herself. Why had they been there when the spaceship landed, anyway? Spark didn’t have the heart to ask. She simply murmured, “You’re welcome.”

“I’m James, this is my older brother Tom, and my twin sister Aya.”

 “I’m Spark.”

“Aya and I are 14, and Tom is 16. How old are you?”


Then, the door opened. A man entered. He pointed at the three kids. “Leave.”

 Everything from the man’s black suit and tie, to his resonating voice, radiated with confidence and power. His jet-black hair and sea-blue eyes made him more intimidating. Spark’s demeanor didn’t change. In some ways, the man was similar to her father.

However, James, Aya, and Tom dashed out quickly. 

“Hello.” the man said to Spark.

“Hello.” she responded.

“I’m Franklin, Head of the MI6, also known as the British Secret Service. And you are?”

Spark wasn’t surprised to hear who Franklin was, the man was almost a cliché. Black suite and tie with confidence and power— Spark would’ve been surprised if he’d been a farmer.

However, Spark’s heart thumped in her chest. She was the reason people died in the off-site facility. Had it belonged to MI6? 

“I’m Spark, the daughter of King Garvolus.”

“Hmm, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of King Garvolus.” Franklin said.

“He’s from Zardag. It’s a different planet.”

  “You’re not from Earth?”

“I am. I’m adopted.”

“How did your father adopt you?”

“My birth father was an astronaut. My father saw the spaceship my birth father was in, head for doom. My father couldn’t save anyone, so he came to Earth to at least warn Earthlings not to send anyone else in that direction. He found my birth father’s house, but found no one there, but me, plus a goodbye note from my mother. Then he took me.”

“How did he find your birth father’s house?”

“Technology.” Spark said simply. She knew Earthlings were less advanced.

“And what was this doom your birth father was heading in?”

Spark paused, she’d never asked. She saw asking questions as a sign of arrogance, and she didn’t believe she was better than anyone. “I never asked.” Spark mumbled.

Franklin’s eyes narrowed. “Okay. So, why are you back on Earth?”

“I don’t know.” She had gone to bed one night on Zardag, and woken up all alone on that spaceship. 

“Do you know how you arrived?” 


“And what happened after the spaceship arrived?”

Spark didn’t answer. What was she supposed to say? Other than, it blew up…

 “I heard you moved the spaceship with your mind. Is that true?” Franklin asked.


  “How, if you’re from Earth?”

Spark’s eyes fell down to her fingers. “I don’t know. There were several programmes on the spaceship with steps on how to do crazy skills and abilities. I don’t understand how I was able to do them. It’s like I’ve got a new power in me, and those programmes were just helping me control it.” She blinked back the tears threatening to cascade down her cheeks.

“Does that mean you have more than two abilities?” Franklin asked.

Spark nodded. 

“What do you have?”

“Super speed, super strength, telekinesis, pyrokinesis, microscopic vision, invisibility, flight power, and the ability to manipulate matter and non-matter.” Spark said counting her fingers.

“You have more abilities than all the three kids!” Franklin said astonished. 

Spark’s eyebrows shot up. “The kids have abilities?”

“Yes. A while before I became the Head of the MI6, I was a scientist. I did research on things like poison cures from different plant and animal DNA. I was young, wild, and knew too much for my own good. When I finished, I decided to work on something more adventurous. Genetic engineering. And now Tom, James, and Aya are the first ever genetically engineered humans. Nobody besides about four people in the MI6 know they exist. 

“Tom has superhuman strength. He can also produce claws, fangs and gills at his will. Aya can conduct electricity and turn invisible. James has superhuman speed, enhanced senses, enhanced agility, meaning he can climb walls and do spectacular flips, and he can shrink in size.”

Spark nodded mutely. Why did James have more abilities than the others? She wasn’t complaining— he seemed nice. 

“Do you want to ask something?”


“Spark, you can be free around me.” Franklin said. “I can tell you’re wondering something from what I said.”

“Er, well, I just wondered why James has more abilities than the others.” 

“Because he doesn’t have any fighting mechanisms. He can only run away really well.” Franklin replied.


Spark immediately warmed to James. She’d been the weakest person on Zardag, so she could relate. Plus James was handsome. 

Get that thought out of my mind. Spark scolded herself.

“Do you have any means of going back to Zardag?” Franklin asked.

Spark blinked. “No.”

“Okay. Do you know how to communicate with anyone from Zardag? Or anyone that can help you?”

Spark’s gaze fell. “No.”

“It’s okay. In the meantime, I was thinking you could work for me.”

 Spark looked up. “Work for you?” Spark’s heart raced. She didn’t even know how to cook.

“You’d be working with James, Tom, Aya, and their mission specialist Emma. I send them on missions that even the greatest of MI6 agents cannot complete. You’ll be joining them on these missions.”

Spark almost rolled her eyes at the offer. “I know who James Bond is— I’m nothing like him. On Zardag, the rich and the royal get access to Earth movies. I’m flattered by your offer, but no— I’m not a spy.”

“Then you leave me no choice. You are under arrest for the death of four research scientists, a MI6 Division 7 agent, two security guards, two security dogs, a receptionist, and a cleaner.” 

Spark bit her lip. “This job, when can I start?”

Spark wasn’t stupid. There was something Franklin wasn’t telling her. No reputable organisation would hire an unexperienced girl, especially one that didn’t even have an Earth birth certificate. On top of that, Spark was almost certain she hadn’t been brought to Earth to join the British spy service. 

What Spark didn’t know was, she was only going to be part of the MI6 for a few hours. Bigger things were waiting for her.

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If a book starts with a page of atmosphere, and world-building, I'm bored. I won't continue, and I won't buy that book. 

If a book starts with action, I'll get too confused, and I won't want to read more. If you're lucky, I'll read the reviews.

If a book starts with “Hi, I'm Percy Jackson.” I'm hooked.

“The Dursleys were proud to consider themselves normal” (I can't remember the exact words) I'm immediately hooked.

In other words, I want a book that opens with an introduction to character, because at the start, nothing else is going to hook me.

It doesn't necessarily have to be “hi, I'm so and so” but I should feel the character from that very first sentence.

Even such a sentence like, “Tom chewed his burger louder than a cow chewing cud.” is much preferred for me than “the clouds were stormy gray in the strange city of Tajmagal.”

Also, if the book starts with pages, and pages of character introduction, I'm bored.

If the book starts with a character introduction, then goes into action, the action must be simple.

If the character goes into battle, that might be too much.

If Percy Jackson vapourizes his math teacher at a school field trip, good.

If Harry Potter sets a boar constrictor loose, good.

Another alternative I like, and most preferred, is strangely, dialogue.

A character going into an interview is too cliche in my opinion, so not that one. At least not anymore.

But a lawyer going into a courtroom, and dealing with a court case, good.

A detective being informed of a major crime, good.

A protagonist being informed of anything, good. 

A protagonist hanging out with someone, then something intriguing happens, good.

In my opinion, it should go, character, dialogue, then action.

The action can start in Chapter Two, that's still fine. 

I'll give some examples. 

 Imagine a girl with superpowers. Someone tries to kill her, she fights them off with difficulty. (book starts with action)

A girl has superpowers. She lives on a strange planet called Waddo. (world-building, atmosphere, etc)

Or, a girl with superpowers. You learn her name is Y and how she got her superpowers, you may even feel a little sorry for her. She's informed someone is going to kill her, she doesn't believe it. (okay, she's stubborn and arrogant.) Someone does try to kill her, (now the since author informed the reader that someone is trying to kill her, they have to make it big to engage the reader, full-scale fighting) and Y fights them off with difficulty.

(character, dialogue, action)

(this example is longer, which I why I said the action may extend to Chapter 2)

Which opening would you prefer, I'm pretty sure you know which one I prefer?

Now, I know many of you may disagree with at least one thing I've said, I'm actually counting on it.

So, question.

To those that think my preferences are odd, or you just disagree with them, what openings do you prefer and how do they hook you? Which opening do you use in your novel? 

If you don't think my preferences are crazy, and you might be like me, i've got a question for you? When do you want the character introduction to end, and for the action/dialogue to begin

Do you want a page of introduction, or a paragraph. And which do you use in your novels?

PS: I will not be offended if you call me crazy, mental, or out of my mind, haha. My preferences are my preferences, and I'd love to hear yours.

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Hi, I'm Sibo Makuza. I completed a novel last year, got rejections from agents, stumbled upon Jericho Writers, and now editing my novel. I'd highly appreciate feedback on the first 400 words of my YA sci-fi novel. I know I still have a long way to go, but persistence is a key, so I won't give up! 

          14 February, 2018.

Nothing says ‘welcome back to Earth’ more than waking up, and having to figure out where you’re on your own.

The sounds of cars filled Spark’s ears. The lights were off. Spark moved her fingers, fumbling for a light switch. She felt nothing, but the familiar sensation of a bed sheet. 

Spark opened her eyes. She was in a room. Besides drawn blue curtains and a security camera, there was nothing in it. The room’s emptiness and plain white walls made Spark’s heart race. She remembered the two months she’d spent alone on the way to Earth.

From the sounds of cars honking, and people walking or talking in the distance, Spark could tell she was in a major Earth city. But she wasn’t sure which one.

Spark grabbed the sheet cover on top of her. Slowly, as her am shook in pain, she pulled it off. Spark mustered all the force in her, and sat up. Strong nausea hit her like the heat of a desert. A fiery pain burst through her head.  Spark clutched the handle bars on the side of her bed tightly. 

Spark pushed herself upwards. Her legs felt like water flowed through them. She fell back down. Spark decided to try a new tactic. She bum shuffled to the edge of the bed. Then, she hopped off it, and she was standing. 

Spark turned her body in the direction of the curtains. Barefooted, she started to walk. Her legs wobbled across till she finally arrived. Then, Spark peeked through the curtains. 

White people walked up and down the street holding either their phone, their coffee, or even both. Different types of cars zoomed by passing tall buildings with hundreds of glass windows. Spark ruled out New York, the buildings there were taller. From tens of floors above the ground, Spark watched people bustle about in long coats, and self-absorbed personalities. She ruled out Sydney.

 Spark stumbled backwards. She turned around to return to the bed. A white ant was on the ground. The very top of the ant was brown, and it stood on two legs. 

The ant turned, and ran. Spark watched it’s arms and legs move, it ran like a human. But it was fast like the wind. Spark dragged herself to the bed. The answer came to her just before she fell asleep.


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If you could ask a literary agent one thing, what would you ask him/her? 

I've registered for the “I'm an agent— Ask me anything!” live webinar, and I've written down a number of questions, but I'm struggling to put them in order of importance, in case I can only ask the one question.

So, if you could ask a literary agent one thing, what would you ask him/her?

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Hi guys, I'm Sibo Makuza. Been editing my novel and I'd highly appreciate feedback for the prologue. If you take the time to read this, thank you so much. 

And I appreciate honesty.  

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Hello everyone, my name is Sibo Makuza, and I'm 16 years old. I have written a novel (I don't feel obliged to reveal anything about it just yet) and I have received nothing but rejection from agents. 

Agents have told me things like "your book is imaginative and inventive, but it just isn't right for my list." I know nearly all writers have to go through this stage. But when you're a teenaged author, you feel alone. You read author success stories, and then realise they're 20 years older than you. Does this mean I have to wait 20 years till I'll get published? J.K Rowling wasn't a teenager when she published Harry Potter, Rick Riordan wasn't a teenager when he published Percy Jackson.

Despite my age, I'm very serious about writing.  I got a bursary membership into Jericho Writers (which I'm extremely grateful for) and I have completed the How-to-Write video course. Words cannot express how amazing it was, Harry Bingham's teachings totally revolutionized my book. But as a teenage author, sometimes I do feel lonely.  The ratio between teenage authors and adult authors is small. None of my friends are writers. So, if there any other teenage writers here on the Townhouse, I'd just like to let you know, you're not alone! And if anyone has any tips, on how to feel less lonely as a teenage writer, PLEASE TELL ME ABOUT THEM!

PS: I'm open to making adult writer friends too!

Of all the writing habits I have, one of the worst – the worst from good financial sense point of view – is that I like writing LONG books.

My first novel was a spine-breaking 180,000 words. Not one of my novels has ever been less than 110,000 words. The first “short story” I wrote was 8,000 words, which is to say miles too long to be an actual short story. Heck, even this email is likely to be far longer than any other email you get in your inbox today.

Ah well. There are some things you can’t fight, and my addiction to length is one of them.

But that also means that when it comes to short-form copy, I’m at a loss.

I’m not especially good at book blurbs, which want to be about 100-120 words (depending a bit on layouts and where you’re expecting them to appear.) Since titles need to be short and punchy, I’m not especially good at those either.

In a word: I’m pretty damn rubbish when it comes to coming up with titles … and this email is going to tell you how to write them.

Which means if you want to ignore the entire contents of what follows, on the basis that I obviously, obviously, obviously don’t know what I’m talking about, then I have to say that the evidence is very much in your favour.

That said, I think it’s clear enough what a title needs to do. It wants to:

  1. Be highly consistent with your genre
  2. Offer some intrigue – for example, launch a question in the mind of the reader
  3. Ideally, it’ll encapsulate “the promise of the premise” in a few very short words, distilling the essence of your idea down to its very purest form.

The genre-consistency is the most essential, and the easiest to achieve. It matters a lot now that so many books are being bought on Amazon, because book covers – at the title selection stage – are no more than thumbnails. A bit bigger than a phone icon, but really not much. So yes, the cover has to work hard and successfully in thumbnail form, but the title has more work to do now than it did before.

Genre consistency is therefore key. Your title has to say to your target readers, “this is the sort of book that readers like you like”. It has to invite the click through to your book page itself. That’s its task.

The intrigue is harder to do, but also kinda obvious. “Gone Girl” works because of the Go Girl / Gone Girl pun, and those double Gs, and the brevity. But it also works because it launches a question in the mind of the reader: Who is this girl and why has she gone? By contrast, “The Girl on the Train” feels a little flat to me. There are lots of women on lots of trains. There’s nothing particularly evocative or intriguing in the image. I don’t as it happens think that book was much good, but I don’t think the title stood out either. (I think the book sold well because of some pale resemblances between the excellent Gone Girl and its lacklustre sister. The trade, desperate for a follow-up hit to Gone Girl, pounced on whatever it had.)

The third element in a successful title – the “promise of the premise” one – is really hard to do. I’ve not often managed it, and I’ve probably had a slightly less successful career as a result.

So what works? Well, here are some examples of titles that do absolutely nail it:

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Brilliant! That title didn’t translate the rather dour and serious Swedish original (Man Som Hatar Kvinnor / Men Who Hate Women). Rather it took the brilliance of the central character and captured her in six words. She was a girl (vulnerable), and she had a tattoo (tough and subversive), and the tattoo was of a dragon (exotic and dangerous). That mixture of terms put the promise of the book’s premise right onto the front cover and propelled the book’s explosive success.

Incidentally, you’ll notice that the title also completely excludes mention of Mikael Blomkvist, who is as central to that first book as Salander is. But no one bought the book for Blomkvist and no one remembers the book for Blomkvist either. So the title cut him out, and did the right thing in doing so.

The Da Vinci Code

Brilliant. Dan Brown is fairly limited as a writer, but it was a stroke of genius to glue together the idea of ancient cultural artefacts with some kind of secret code. Stir those two things up with a bit of Holy Grail myth-making and the result (for his audience) was commercial dynamite.

And – boom! – that dynamite was right there in the title too. The Da Vinci part namechecks the world’s most famous artist. The Code part promises that there are secret codes to be unravelled.

Four words delivering the promise of the premise in full.

I let You Go

This was Clare Mackintosh’s breakout hit, about a mother whose young son was killed in a hit-and-run car accident. The promise of the premise is right there in four very short words … and given a first person twist, which just adds a extra bite to the hook in question. A brilliant bit of title-making.


So that’s what a title wants to do. A few last comments to finish off.

One, I think it’s fair to say that it’s quite rare a title alone does much to propel sale success.

Because there are a lot of books out there, and because everyone’s trying to do the same thing, there’s not much chance to be genuinely distinctive. My fifth Fiona Griffiths novel was called The Dead House, but there are at least three other books on Amazon with that title, or something very like it. That didn’t make my title bad, in fact – it did the promise of the premise thing just fine – but I certainly couldn’t say my title was so distinctive it did anything much for sales.

Two, if you’re going for trad publishing, it’s worth remembering that absolutely any title you have in mind at the moment is effectively provisional. If your publishers don’t like it, they’ll ask you to change it. And if they don’t like your title #2, they’ll ask you to come up with some others. In short, if, like me, you’re bad at titles, you just don’t need to worry too much (if you’re going the trad publishing route, that is.) There’s be plenty of opportunity to hone your choice well prior to publication.

Three, you don’t want to think about title in isolation. There should, ideally, be a kind of reverberation between your title and the cover. That reverberation should be oblique rather than direct. Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go had for its cover image a butterfly trapped against a window – a metaphorical reference to the anguish of the book’s premise. If instead it had shown a mother obviously distraught as a car struck her son, the cover – and title – would have seemed painfully clunky and ridiculous.

If you get a great cover image that doesn’t work with your chosen title, then change the title. If you have a superb title and your cover designer’s image is too directly an illustration of it, then change the image. That title/cover pairing is crucial to your sales success, so you can afford no half-measures in getting it right.

That’s all from me.

My kids are making elderflower cordial and singing as they do so. They are also wearing helmets for no reason that I can possibly understand.

Till soon


PS: Want to know what I think of your title? Then I’ll tell you. Just pop your title (plus short description of your book) in the comments below. I’ll tell you what I think.

Usually, on Thursday afternoon or so, I start pondering what I’m going to write about on Friday.

This week: no pondering. There’s only one thing I could possibly write about.

The biggest book-related newsflash this week – or this year – is that Barnes and Noble is changing ownership. The ins and outs are a little complex (and everything is not quite settled), but if all goes according to plan:

  • An investment firm, Elliott Advisers, is to buy Barnes and Noble, in a deal which values that business (including its debts) at about $700 million.
  • That sounds like a lot of money, but given that B&N’s sales are $3.6 billion, the pricing actually feels pretty cheap – reflecting the dismal state of B&N.
  • Elliott is also the 100% owner of Waterstones, the British equivalent of B&N. Both those chains are proper bookshops, appealing to proper book lovers. In that sense, the chains are distinct from the supermarkets, who just sell a lot of books but don’t care about them, or the British High Street & travel operator, WH Smith, which is as much a stationer and a newsagent as an actual book store.
  • Waterstones was rescued from impending financial disaster by CEO James Daunt. It was Daunt who negotiated the sale of the firm to Elliott.
  • Daunt will now act as CEO to both firms – B&N and Waterstones – and will divide his time between London and New York.

As it happens, Daunt also owns and runs his own mini-chain of high-end London bookstores. It was his experience at those stores which won him the position at Waterstones.

So, assuming that all goes according to plan, James Daunt will be the book world’s second most powerful human, after Jeff Bezos.

So what does that mean – for readers? For writers? For publishers? For anyone?


It’s a big and important move. James Daunt has a huge reputation in the UK and it’s probably deserved. His secret sauce for success? Quite simply this:

There is no secret sauce.

In the UK, Daunt simply took everything back to basics.

He turned bookselling into a proper career. (Albeit, inevitably, a badly paid one.) He retained staff who cared passionately about books and waved good-bye to the rest, perhaps a third of them. He cut costs. He made his stores prettier.

And, in a move so radical that it shook British publishing to its core, he let each store manager select their own inventory. So, yes of course, every store was expected to stock major bestsellers of the moment. But beyond that, what stores sold was guided by local passion and local knowledge. From a reader’s point of view, stores got better. There was more energy, more passion, more commitment.

But publishers, for a while, didn’t know what to do. In the past, publishing worked like this:

  1. Publishers paid Waterstones a big chunk of cash to get into a 3-for-2 front-of-store promotion. So Waterstones was actually retailing its shelf-space. It wasn’t really curating its own retail offering.
  2. Some of those 3-for-2s did really well, and became huge bestsellers.
  3. Others didn’t, and the volume of returns was enormous (often 20% of total stock.)
  4. Publishers pulped those returns, ditched those authors and just made money from their mega-successes

That was check-book publishing and check-book retail.

Daunt killed that, and terrified publishers. How could they market books if the key step wasn’t just throwing bundles of money at retailers? [and if you want a reminder of the different publishing options, you can get that here.]

Well, they solved that problem … kinda. But all they really did was turn their attentions (even more than before) to the supermarkets and other mass retailers. Waterstones’ local stores are great and feel like real bookshops … but they can’t build a bestseller as they did in the old days, because each store chooses its stock according to its own tastes.

Daunt’s path in the US is likely to follow the exact same route.

He’s commented that one of the issues he feels on entering a typical B&N store is quite simply “too many books.” Too much stock. Too little curation and guidance. Not enough knowledge from the booksellers. An atmosphere so flat, you could swap it for cigarette paper.

He’ll cut stock. Reduce staff, but retain the best and most passionate members. Eliminate central promotions. Get better terms from publishers. Sharply reduce stock returns.

Do the basics, but do them right.

The impacts, positive and negative?

The positive:

Elliott’s cash plus Daunt’s knowhow should save specialist physical book retail in the US. That’s massive. It’s the difference between a US publishing industry that operates much as it does now and one that would be almost wholly slave to Amazon. That also means that trad publishing is likely to survive in roughly its current shape and size, rather than being sidelined by the growth of digital-first publishers (notably self-pubbers and Amazon itself.)

The negative:

US publishers will have to learn the lessons already absorbed by the Brits. If B&N no longer operates national promotion systems as in the past, publishers can’t make a bestseller just by buying space. Yes, they’ll go on seeing what they can do on social media and all that stuff. But, as in the UK, they’ll be even more dependent on supermarkets. The make-or-break of a book will be not “Is this wonderful writing?” but “did we get enough retail space in enough supermarkets at a sufficiently attractive price?”

I know any number of authors where Book A did incredibly well, Book B did poorly … and Book B was better than Book A. The difference, in every case, was that the supermarkets backed A and not B, and there’s damn all a trad publisher can do once the supermarkets have said no.

Oh yes, and supermarkets don’t really give a damn about the quality of writing. They don’t know about the quality of the writing. They just buy on the basis of past sales (if you’re John Grisham) or a pretty cover (if you’re a debut.)

Of course, they’d say their selection is a damn sight more careful than that, and it probably is. But that’s still “careful by the standards of people who mostly sell tinned beans and dog food for a living.” That’s not the same thing as actually being careful.

That sounds like a fairly downbeat conclusion, but the Elliott-saves-B&N news is still a real big plus for anyone who loves traditional stores, print books and traditional publishing. It’s the single biggest win I can remember over the past few years.

What that win won’t do, however, is weaken the hold of supermarkets and Amazon over book retail. Those two forces are still huge. They’re still central.

And of course, talking about print books has its slightly quaint side. Me, I prefer print. I hardly ever read ebooks. I just spend enough time on screens as it is.

But print books constitute less than 30% of all adult fiction sales, and online print sales accounts for a big chunk of that 30%.

In other words, all those B&N stores up and down the US are still only attacking 23% or so of the total adult fiction market. However well Daunt does, that 23% figure isn’t about to change radically. (Or not in the direction he wants, anyway.)

But, just for now, to hell with realism. Let’s remember the magic of a beautiful bookstore.

Daunt does. Here are some comments of his from 2017:

“[there is a sense that] a book bought from a bookshop is a better book.... When a book comes through a letter box or when a book is bought in a supermarket, it's not vested with the authority and the excitement that comes from buying it in a bookshop. …Price is irrelevant if the customer likes the shop. The book is never an expensive item, [particularly for the many customers who] we know are quite happy to go into a café and spend dramatically more on a cup of coffee."

Quite right, buddy. Now go sell some books. The readers need you.

Till soon


I’ve been reading a terrific guest post on our blog by our Craig Taylor. (And actually, “guest post” doesn’t feel like quite the right term, if I’m honest. Craig’s a buddy, not a guest.)

The post is on how to write a scene and, in it, Craig asks:

If the theme of your work, say, is unrequited love, does your scene angle in to that theme? Does it demonstrate a circumstance or a feeling which is associated with unrequited love? Or does it demonstrate a circumstance or a feeling about requited love, so as to throw into relief the experience that one of your characters will have about unrequited love?”

And those are interesting questions, aren’t they?

I, for one, don’t write a book thinking that every scene I write has to “angle in” to my major theme. But what if that’s wrong? What if, in a well-constructed book, pretty much everything angles in to the one same issue? (Or, rather, cluster of issues, because a book that is rich thematically can never be too neatly categorised.)

And here’s another thought:

What if you don’t especially think about these things as you build your story? What if you do concentrate on good writing (nice prose, strong characters, a well-knitted plot), but don’t overthink the thematic stuff?

What happens then? Is the result strong? Or will it never reach the kind of thematic depth and congruence that Craig is hinting at?

Hey, ho. Interesting questions. So I thought I’d take a look at my own work and see what’s actually happened there.

So my last book, The Deepest Grave, has a cluster of themes that include:

  • Ancient history, specifically post-Roman Britain and the shade of Arthur
  • Treasure and fakery
  • Death (because this is a murder mystery, but it is also a book about Fiona Griffiths, whose attitudes to life and death are deep and complicated.)

But then, I only have to write those themes down on the page here – something I’ve never done before; I don’t plan my thematic stuff – and I realise this: that those themes absolutely and necessarily contain their opposites. So a book that is about fakery and death is also, essentially, a book about:

  • Authenticity
  • Life – or, more specifically in Fiona’s case, the whole knotty business of how to be a human; how to establish and maintain an identity in the face of her overawareness of death.

OK. So those, broadly, are my themes. Let’s now look at whether my various scenes tend to hammer away at those things, or not. Are themes something that appear via a few strong, bold story strokes? Or are they there, fractal-like, in every detail too?

And, just to repeat, those aren’t questions I consciously think about much as I write. Yes, a bit, sometimes, but I certainly don’t go through the disciplined thought process that Craig mentions in his post.

And blow me down, but what I find is that, yes, those themes infest the book. The book never long pulls away from them at all.

So, aside from a place and date stamp at the top of chapter 1, the first words in the book are these:

“Jon Breakell has just completed his chef d’oeuvre, his masterpiece. The Mona Lisa of office art. The masterpiece in question is a dinosaur made of bulldog clips, twisted biro innards and a line of erasers that Jon has carved into spikes.”

That’s a nod towards ancient history. It’s a nod towards authenticity (the Mona Lisa) and fakery (a dinosaur that is definitely not a real dinosaur.) It’s also, perhaps, a little nod towards death, because in a way the most famous thing about dinosaurs is that they’re extinct.

It goes on. The mini-scene that opens the book concludes with Fiona demolishing her friend’s dinosaur and the two of them bending down to clear up the mess. Fiona says, “that’s how we are—me, Jon, the bones of the fallen—when Dennis Jackson comes in.”

That phrase, the bones of the fallen, puts death explicitly on the page and in a way which alludes forward to the whole Arthurian battle theme that will emerge later.

That’s one example and – I swear, vow & promise – I didn’t plan those links out in my head prior to writing. I just wrote what felt natural for the book that was to come.

But the themes keep on coming. To use Craig’s word, all of the most glittering scenes and moments and images in the book keep on angling in to my little collection of themes.

There’s a big mid-book art heist and hostage drama. Is there a whiff of something ancient there? Something faked and something real? Of course. The heist is fake and real, both at the same time.

The crime that sits at the heart of the book has fakery at its core. But then Fiona start doubling up on the fakery – she’s faking a fake, in effect – but in the process, it turns out, she has created something authentic. And the authenticity of that thing plays a key role in the book’s final denouement.

Another example. Fiona’s father plays an important role in this book. He’s not a complicated or introspective man. He doesn’t battle, the way his daughter does, for a sense of identity.

But what happens in the book? This big, modern, uncomplicated man morphs, somehow, into something like a modern Arthur. That identity shift again plays a critical role in the final, decisive dramas. But it echoes around the book too. Here’s one example:

“Dad drives a silver Range Rover, the car Arthur would have chosen.

It hums as it drives, transfiguring the tarmac beneath its wheels into something finer, silvered, noble.

A wash of rain. Sunlight on a hill. Our slow paced Welsh roads.”

That’s playful, of course, and I had originally intended just to quote that first line, about the Range Rover. But when I opened up the text, I found the sentences that followed. That one about “transfiguring the tarmac” is about that process of transformation from something ordinary to something more like treasure, something noble.

And then even the bits that follow that – the wash of rain, the sunlight on the hill – don’t those things somehow attach to the “finer, silvered, noble” phrase we’ve just left? It’s as though the authenticity of the man driving the Range Rover transforms these ordinary things into something treasured. Something with the whisper of anciency and value.

I could go on, obviously, but this email would turn into a very, very long one if I did.

And look:

Yet again, I’ve got to the end of a long piece on writing without a real “how to” lesson to close it off.

Craig’s blog post says, among many other good things, that you should ask whether or not your scene angles in to your themes. But I don’t do that. Not consciously, not consistently. And – damn my eyes and boil my boots – I discover that the themes get in there anyway. Yoo-hoo, here we are.

Uninvited, but always welcome.

So the moral of all this is - ?

Well, I don’t know. I think that, yes, if you’re stuck with a scene, or if it’s just feeling a little awkward or wrong, then working through Craig’s list of scene-checks will sort you out 99% of the time. A conscious, almost mechanical, attention to those things will eliminate problems.

But if you’re not the conscious mechanic sort, then having a floaty awareness of the issues touched on in this email will probably work as well. If you maintain that rather unfocused awareness of your themes, you’ll find yourself naturally gravitating towards phrases and scenes and metaphors and moments that reliably support the structure you’re building.

And that works, I think. The final construction will have both coherence and a kind of unforced naturalness.

And for me, it’s one of the biggest pleasures of being an author. That looking back at a text and finding stuff in it that you never consciously put there.

Damn my eyes and boil my boots.

Till soon


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