The Phoney War

So, at last, it has happened. The ambition of every aspiring writer. You have a book deal.

Even if you’ve tried to be sensible, you’ve dreamed of this moment for almost as long as you’ve been writing. The moment when you will be transformed, in the single stroke of a pen, from just another wannabe to being a contender, a published author.

And when it happens, at first you won’t believe it. You’ll check your phone log, to confirm that you have not just had a particularly vivid hallucination. Yes, your agent did call you that morning. No, you are not going mad.

The first moments are joyful and intense. There will be tears, and there may also be shouting, swearing, gleeful hand rubbing, and perhaps bad dancing depending on the content of your character.

After you’re done dancing around the flat and calling everyone you know, there is the perhaps inevitable anticlimax. The days that follow can take on the character of the phoney war. The contracts haven’t even been signed yet. There is no more money in your bank account – not yet at least, and even when it comes, it’ll come in bits and pieces. You’re still going to the same job, assuming you haven’t quit it in a bridge burning act of foolishness.

Nothing has changed, and it won’t for a while. It takes a year for a book to come out, and though the metaphor is overused, perhaps this moment is like seeing the blue line on a pregnancy test. A life changing event that is all future and no present. For weeks and months, you’ll be waiting for your new life to start.

Nothing has changed, and yet everything has changed. The world is a different one to the one you were in a few hours before. The future remains uncertain, but it is a different breed of uncertainty to the one you’ve grown used to. Before, you wondered if you’d ever see your work in print, when and if and how it would come to pass, whether or not you were one of the many who would never make it, how long you’d be willing to try before giving it all up. Now you’ve had an upgrade in uncertainty – will the cover look horrible? Will it get a cutting review? Will it get any reviews? Will anyone even read it? But these are pleasurable things to worry about, especially if you keep your head and realise you are lucky to be worrying about them at all.

There is only one tangible change to your life in the present tense. It is small but pleasurable, and it is the warm, loving relief of those around you.

To your surprise, you realise they were holding their breath as much as you were, had almost as much at stake as you did. Because they could see how much you wanted it, and so they wanted it to. They knew the saddening and diminishing effect that failure would have on you, because they’d seen it before on the last thing you tried to write.

When you’re writing a book, it feels like the loneliest thing in the world. A long, difficult, entirely unsupported act of faith and madness. And yet as soon as it is taken on by a publisher, you realise just how many people you have depended on to help you write it. The tutor who told you ‘You’ve got it’, the friends who let you talk their ears off about your crazy little dream, the parents who supported you all the way through.

When you dream of that book deal, you dream of an instant and everlasting validation of your ambition, an advance that will buy you a house, the girl or boy of your dreams suddenly falling madly in love with you. These are things you do not get. What you do get instead is a sense of gratitude to all the people who you were leaning on without even realising it. And like any surprise gift, it is a feeling that is both unexpected, and quite wonderful.