A Guest Blog from Dexter Petley. Dexter is the acclaimed author of a number of novels: a literary noir whodunnit, Little Nineveh (Polygon 1995), Joyride (Fourth Estate, 1999), and White Lies (Fourth Estate 2003). White Lies was shortlisted for the Dazed & Confused Most Promising Writer award.
A letter came. Your manuscript is ready for collection. I’d sent it to an agent crying out for collectable manuscripts of literary intention. One of the grandees who never got it wrong. Despondent isn’t the word; I thought I’d cracked it this time. Obviously they were going to organise a surprise party when I stepped into their Kensington office.
It was 2.30 in 1986. The door was open. A woman was standing beside a bookshelf. She was wearing a white chunky knit and a tarten skirt. The shelves heaved with books. The walls were covered with portraits of 20th c writers. It was like a scene from a Georgian memoir.
-I’ve come for my manuscript, I said.
-What’s it called?
I gave her the title. She handed it over so quickly it was like she’d set light to a dishcloth.
-Sorry, she said, we don’t do science fiction.
-I don’t write science fiction, I said.
-Sorry, she said again. Everyone’s at lunch.
The title leading to this case of mistaken identity was And Think How it will be in Paradise. The agent in question was Tessa Sayle, whose line “everyone’s at lunch” was better science fiction than mine. It seems extreme to reject a novel unread on the title alone, but it does illustrate the dangers of expectation for the writer. If only I’d recognised her at the time, I might have argued my point, had a bit of star wars. My title actually matched the text; it’s a quote from a poem by Christina Rossetti (the well known 19th century steam punk pre-Raphaelite). But clearly it held no such resonance for an experienced agent. More down to earth a novel you cannot get, but I did change the title. I should also have changed my habit of using clever quotes.
It seems to me titles get the least attention of all. Alongside names of characters perhaps. We’re in a less rigid age than back then, the age of ironic titles when unless your manuscript is called Murder in Paradise we don’t really know what it’s about. In other words, anything goes; so why are titles often so dull and anaemic? A title must reflect the novel, ironic or not. If you have written a good book, don’t say to yourself oh I’m crap at titles thinking an agent or editor will come up with one. Get in first or you’ll regret it. Working title, untitled novel this is the kiss of death.
Here’s a tale. Two tales actually. And Think How it will be in Paradise quickly became The Silence of the Heart. This is 1990 now. It copped me my first ever agent. I’m not saying it’s a great title, but this was then, you know, the Victorian era, Around the World in Eighty Days. Everyone loved the manuscript, everyone loved the title. I got called in, met my first ever publishers. There was talk behind my back between the grown-ups and we all looked set. Then some film came out called The Silence of The Lambs. As the title collapsed, so did the negotiations. It was like I’d commited plaguarism. It was the excuse someone, somewhere needed to order the silence of the titles. My agent thereafter referred to it as “that book with Edith”. And just in case I made further problems, she referred to my next manuscript, which I called The Heart of Winter, as “that one with the bad backs in it”.
She soon became “that agent who never sold my book”. When the The Heart of Winter was finally accepted in 1993, I left England for good. Job done, the country no longer needs you. One winter afternoon a year later, I waited in a tiny French post office for a fax. The book cover was coming. This is probably the greatest moment in a writer’s career – the actual cover of your first novel. It’s make or break in the path of your respect for publishing. Fifteen francs it cost me to for the public distress. The cover was a Volvo advert with Love Hearts stamped across it. I phoned my editor in a panic.
-What’s Love Hearts?
-But there are no Love Hearts in the book. Why choose that?
-I just thought it was a good title, she said.
-But that’s from the other book, “the one with that Edith”.
A title, we must conclude, should stick. If there are bad backs in it then better call it Bad Backs till you get it sorted. If Edith’s in it, well, there’s always Ernie: the Random Book Title Generator. I had a go just now. The first ten came up thus:
The Silken Ring
Emerald of Wave
The Stone’s Birth
The Stones of the Names
Windows in the Body
Light in the Flight
The Elves of the Weeping
The Slithering Child
The Silent Birth
You can see where it’s going. Another ten clicks and we would be at The Silence of the Heart.