Monday, February 4, 2008

The name of the rose

I am preparing to send my novel manuscript to an agent. I have decided that the original title for my story does not really suit and have been thinking through another title that reflects the story and is evocative. I've noticed that many writers seem to like the paradoxical effect, often drawing on oxymorons in their title. My question is whether or not the title is a 'make or break' issue when an agent is considering a submission. I have read your comments regarding the synopsis and found that helpful. On one hand I don't want to agonise unnecessarily over the title but don't want to ruin my chances by overlooking this aspect of preparation. I found a title for my first novel that I loved and still love, so am probably approaching this task with high expectations!

Each agent and publisher has their own 'thing' that's important for them, but I don't think any of them would reject a submission based on the title, unless the author said, 'I ABSOLUTELY WILL NOT CHANGE THIS TITLE' (yes, probably in capital letters). Most authors are fairly flexible about their titles - particularly if a prospective publisher wants to change it and the author has not been published before - so agents and publishers won't assume a title is fixed unless they're told otherwise. Accordingly, the title won't really factor into a yes-or-no decision. Which is a roundabout way of saying: don't worry too much, just go with the title you like. And you can also say in your submission, if you wish, that you're not sure about the title and it may change. Anyone who rejects you simply because you haven't decided on a title is not really wanting to read submissions.

I'll let you in on a secret, though: there is something far more important than the title or the synopsis, and that is the first sentence of the manuscript. When someone like me is reading thousands of submissions a year, certain things become clear: a writer with a great first line and paragraph is likely to have a great manuscript, because they either have raw talent or they have crafted their text carefully or both. A dud first line usually always means a dud manuscript. So that lets you know how quickly we make up our minds about submissions, even if we do go on to read the rest of it. In the US there seem to be whole workshops on first lines and you don't really need one of those - you just need to be a reader, so you have lots of reference points.

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