Friday, 9 September 2011

What's in the Box?

The manuscript sits in a blue plastic file box on the desk in front of me, biding its time. Can a stack of paper brood? It feels like it might be doing just that, coiled with tension and waiting to spring out and take over my life again. I stroke the box, but crucially, I don't open it. Pandora will have to wait for my agent's feedback.

It's been there for a month and a half, and I think this is the longest I've managed to leave a viable book alone. I'm sure some of you have books you've benched for ten years, but for me, six weeks is a significant period. I'm a serial monogamist when it comes to fiction - I like to have an intense and continuous relationship with a manuscript before I move onto the next one. Even writing the first chapter of a new book for my critique group makes me feel like I'm being unfaithful.

So what will I find when I open the box? Will it be the masterpiece I always wanted it to be, or a clichéd mess? Is it still The One? I hope that this time away from it will give me the perspective to judge, although in truth I already have a half-page list of things I want to fix in the next edit. But still I restrain myself from starting them, letting the book lie fallow.

Waiting on a manuscript is a kind of sweet agony, rich with promise and fear. I find it hard to let go of the process and focus on something else, so those hopeful doubts and doubtful hopes are always with me, swirling in the back of my head. A few years ago, I coined a term for the process of waiting for an agent's verdict on a book - Schrödinger's Manuscript (after the famous quantum theory). Like the cat in the box, my manuscript is in an uncertain state, simultaneously alive and dead. Will it be a bestseller or just a pile of recycling? At the moment it is both and neither.

I remember hearing Philip Pullman talk about the fact that, right now, somebody is writing the next literary sensation and no-one knows it's coming. He was revelling in the idea, excited by what might be just over the horizon. His sentiments had a whiff of idealism too, envisioning a meritocracy where the strongest book would win and there was little or no barrier to entry for a writer. In the real world, I think there's a bit more to it than that, but it's true that there's nothing publishing likes better than a sudden success that comes out of nowhere.

So is that me? Will I be schmoozing with Pullman in the green room at some literary festival in a couple of years' time? Or writing yet another book that I hope will be my breakout novel?

I'd love to tell you, but to do that, I'd have to look in the box.



  1. Oh, look in the box already!

    Seriously though, well done for keeping your hands off it for six weeks. I can hardly manage 10 days. And good luck for when you open up and take a peek.

  2. It's hard to let go, isn't it? Wishing you luck when you open the box (or it opens for you).

  3. I'm feeling your tension from here! (And nothing wrong with being a serial monogamist)