I recently changed the title of the novel I am currently writing from ‘The Mathematics of History’, to ‘Watching Sparks Fly – the consequences of my mother’s affair with the man in the metal boot’. Dreadfully long title, but you have to capture the attention of any would be agent, and let’s face it, a title can be changed. Getting anyone to read your full manuscript these days is a difficult task.
I understand that each agent is looking at a slush pile of around 5000 submissions a year. They are reading the first 50 pages (3 chapters) of perhaps 25 of those, and eventually requesting to see the full manuscript of possibly a handful, of which 2 or 3 will see publication. You need to have a lot of nerve and persistence, and much blind faith in your abilities, to succeed with odds like that against you. It goes without saying that your manuscript must be as good as you can get it, but is that good enough? How many rewrites are going to make it good enough? How many misspelled words, or grammatical errors, are too many in the first few pages before the reader cries ‘too much’, and grumpily tosses your submission aside?
Perhaps I am being a little unfair on the agent here. Perhaps those first few pages are beautifully written, truly indicative of the rest of the novel. Perhaps you have put a big smile on the agent’s face, lent that warm glow inside which they get when reading great prose, made their week with it, and yet it in their heart of hearts they know it is not a manuscript they can sell to the publishers? In other words, it is not commercial. It may well be a manuscript they could have sold years ago, but not in today’s climate. Which makes me wonder how many great writers of the past would not find publication today. It used to be said that a great manuscript will always eventually find a home, but I really do not think that is true anymore.
In an interview in the Paris Review (1956) William Faulkner said,
‘There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow theory. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity.’
It is probable that Will Faulkner, Nobel prize winner, would never have found publication in the day of the creative writing course. It is true that many of today’s successful writers are products of the ‘writing schools’ but I submit that most of them, more than likely, would have found success had they attended the course or not. More likely that like William Faulkner they have supreme confidence in their abilities to tell a good tale in their own ways, and keep it commercial. Whatever that might mean!