The Slithering Child by Dexter Petley

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?

-The title.

-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:

Silent Silk

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.

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  • Julie-Ann Corrigan

    Ha! This REALLY made me laugh. So, so did. Thanks!

  • Harry

    I’m crap at titles. I’ve written eight books (plus a couple of How To thingies) and I think I only came up with the eventual title for my very first book (The Money Makers). Everything else was changed by my publishers.

    My forthcoming crime novel is a classic case in point. My agent hated my title (Battle Music) and said the book needed something on its front cover when we sent it out. ‘Your book is about talking to the dead,’ he said, ‘ so why don’t we call it that? Talking To The Dead. The publishers will change it, of course, but that’s fine. At least it gives us a way to refer to the book.’

    And it’s stuck. That’s what the book will be called. That’s what – deo volente – the TV series will be called. And you know what? I’m just starting to like it.

  • Whisks

    You’re so funny, Dexter.

    I feel that ‘Bad Backs’ lacks appeal, but then it didn’t do ‘White Teeth’ any harm. Or maybe it did when the Dentists’ Review Monthly were disappointed by the difficulty of teazing out precise instructions from 140,000 amorphous words about multi-culture.

    However, I think ‘The One with that Edith’ has a certain ring to it, out of the same campanology class as ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’.
    I’d buy it 🙂