A Newly Drafted Manuscript Is Like Schrödinger’s Cat

Have I confused anyone yet? If you’re a fan of “The Big Bang Theory,” you might remember Sheldon using Erwin Schrödinger’s thought experiment when both Penny and Leonard, wondering if they should follow through on a date, asked him for advice. (We’ll just skip over the fact that Sheldon would be one of the last people I’d ask for relationship advice….) Schrocat In short, “Schrödinger’s Cat” refers to a cat that’s been sealed in a box with a vial of poison. Also in the box are a radioactive material and a monitor. The vial of poison is set up to shatter when a single radioactive particle decays and is recorded by the monitor. According to Schrödinger, as long as the box remains sealed, the cat is both alive AND dead at the same time. It’s only by opening the box that the cat is either alive OR dead. We’ll leave the physics discussion here and not get into the complexities of quantum mechanics, which was the real focus of the thought experiment. (As if I could discuss them intelligently!)

So what the heck does this have to do with a newly drafted manuscript?

Well, the rough draft of the story has been set down. (The cat’s in the box with the necessary paraphernalia.) But is the story good or not? (That is, alive or dead?) Choose your definition of good (exquisite writing, commercial potential, whatever). It doesn’t matter what your definition is; any will do. But the writer is too close to the story to give an objective answer. Complicating the picture even more, our views will range from “This is great!” on Monday morning to “This is garbage!” by lunch time. We need outside opinions. (Someone to open the box.) Objective opinions. Only by having others read the story will we know if our definition of good is alive—or dead.

Does this mean …

Yes. My initial draft is done. Death Out of Time has been torn apart and rewritten. Once again, it’s a rough draft. And I need to know whether I’ve written a better story this time. The manuscript is about to be sent off to several alpha readers. I say alpha readers rather than beta readers because they will be the first people beyond me to read this rough draft. I’m looking for “big picture” critiques at this stage. Do the characters and story lines hold promise for a good, entertaining novel? I hope, of course, the answer is “Yes, the cat’s alive. Now take the poor thing out of the box for Pete’s sake!” “Time” will tell…. And if I find the cat is dead, well there is something else…. You see, once the manuscript is sent off, I’ll put it out of mind for a bit. That “something else” is another character tugging at my sleeve, looking for some attention. She’s been patient for a long time. But I have a sneaking suspicion she wants to challenge me big time with this story…. As if rebuilding a novel wasn’t challenging enough! Hard to believe we’re heading into mid-May already! How is your year shaping up so far?

49 thoughts on “A Newly Drafted Manuscript Is Like Schrödinger’s Cat

    • Ha! I know that feeling, too. 🙂 And I’ve had too many stretches when the manuscript languished. But those periods seem to be a required part of writing, don’t they? I think the trick is learning to keep them as short as possible—not that I’ve yet figured out that trick.

      Thanks for joining the conversation!

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  1. Well, I love this analogy, and it really explains what you’re looking for in your readers. I also admire your bravery in turning to others for answers, knowing you may have a dead cat in the box, but certainly hoping for the opposite! It’s a really intelligent way to go about it, instead of toiling over the problems in isolation. We’ve had a beautiful spring so far in these parts, as I’m sure you know from your mom, but the weather gods like to keep you guessing around here. Today won’t make it out of the 50s, with 20mph winds. Brrr.

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    • I’ve never been part of a “real world” writer’s group—just too much moving and, of course, my personality isn’t designed for such a thing. I have one friend who read the first versions of my early work, but she’s just so busy now that I don’t feel I can ask her to take the time. That’s one of the great things about blogging—I’ve met some wonderful fellow writers, and it’s great to be able to exchange stories and ideas with them. If any cat of mine survives to be published, it will be in large part to the help of those readers like you. 🙂

      50s—brrr indeed! Tomorrow is supposed to be our cool day, but even that will be near 70!

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  2. Way to go, JM. Hopefully your “cat” makes it through unscathed (though made better, faster, stronger, through the feedback)! Time certainly is flying for me as well. I don’t know where it goes, but I’m still here, so that has to be a good thing. 🙂

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    • I’ve reached that point where I don’t know if I’ve written something decent or not. I suspect you and all other writers know exactly what I mean there. 😉 So we’ll see what happens when those alphas open the box. And whether I’ve developed a thick enough skin as Carrie notes in her comment below. Dealing with critiques is never easy, but I dusted myself off after the last round. I can do it again, right?

      With Angus growing every day, I’ll bet the time is flying for you! He’ll be running around the house before you know it! Just think of it as great exercise for you and your wife. 🙂

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  3. Congrats on reaching this stage! To me, finishing the first draft is the toughest part. The revision goes more smoothly. Maybe that’s because I’m a big outliner; I’m not sure if pantsers feel the same. Regardless, good luck with the alpha reads. May your skin be thick and your desire for honest feedback trump human nature’s tendency toward bruised feelings. 😉

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    • Thanks, Carrie! There’s still some missing bits, but I’ve banged my head against the wall for too long. I need that input from others to help me find a path to those scenes—as well as to give me an idea if I’m on a good track or not. I did some real outlining for this version, so I hope, like you, that I’ll find the revisions go more smoothly.

      I didn’t give up after the critiques on the earlier version of the story. Well, I thought I was consigning it to the bottom drawer, but I started work on another story. Then the ideas for a rebuild began coming a few months later. If this rebuild isn’t right, I’ll just switch full time to that other story—after consoling myself with a few rounds of chocolate. 😉

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    • I really hope you are right about the cat! 🙂 I’m at that stage where I have absolutely no idea if the rebuild is any good or not, so I need those alphas. If the cat is dead, I have another story to turn to—after, as I just mentioned to Carrie, a few rounds of chocolate. 😉 But in all honesty, I hope to be juggling two stories. 🙂

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    • I do feel good about the effort. Even if the novel doesn’t go anywhere, hey, I actually wrote one, right? Not many people can say that. And there’s another one going that might be “the one” if “the one” isn’t Death Out of Time. But I keep reminding myself that the best reason to keep writing is because I enjoy doing it—not because I want to be published.

      Still—it would be nice if the cat is alive!

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  4. Good for you JM — a finished first draft! Yay! Love the cat analogy, though I have to admit the concept of being alive and dead at the same time is a hard one to wrap my brain around. On the other hand, it’s exactly the kind of mystery that physics and cats (otherworldly creatures that they are) have in common. Best of luck with your alpha read — I am sure the cat is alive. If you’re in doubt, to paraphrase Chandler’s Law, “bring in a man with a mouse.”

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    • You and me both when it comes to the cat being alive AND dead. 🙂 I was good in math, which is supposed to go hand in hand with physics, but the two never seemed to meet up in my brain! But yes—if any animal could pull that off in our macroscopic world, it would be the cat without a doubt. 🙂

      I’d love to do a follow-up post called “The Cat Is Alive.” But if that’s not in the cards, then after a suitable mourning period with some Belgian chocolate, I’ll devote myself to that partially drafted manuscript. After all, my brain is slowly learning that the real enjoyment and satisfaction are in the writing itself—not in that arbitrary measure of “success” known as publishing. 😉

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  5. Wow, this was a heavy post early in the morning. 😉 All I can think of is how many poor cats suffered at the hands of Schrodinger? As far as your novel, you have done what a lot of writers can’t do — rewrite an entire manuscript. That takes a lot of chops, not to mention time. I have no doubt when I open the box, I’ll be yelling, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”

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    • Ha! I suspect the cats were purely of a hypothetical nature, although I now wonder what had him place a cat in the box instead of a dog or another animal. 🙂

      I would love for you to channel Young Frankenstein upon finishing your read. 🙂 I’ve been overly optimistic about my past first drafts, though, and I feel far more reserved about this one. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much time with various versions—and now I’m at a total loss as to how good a job I did ( or didn’t do) on the rebuild!

      But that is exactly where alpha readers are so vital. Far better to have good objective comments on this rough draft before spending time on polishing areas that might need to go!

      So we’ll see where this one goes. It does help that I’m returning to an unfinished manuscript that isn’t a rebuild. I’m hoping the lessons I’ve learned so far will be well-applied to this story. 🙂

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  6. Great comparison. (I’ve always wondered how to get a cat into a box and get the top on without passing out from loss of blood…scientists have probably perfected this…or have combat-type gloves, chest plates, helmets…. I think cats are secretly tutored in this before released into the world or humans….)
    Whew. Off to other eyes. (and they must find it intriguing to see a story morph and grow…”it’s alive!”..even if a toddler. It’s up off the ground)
    YEA you!

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    • I think the only way to get the cat in the box is for said cat to be completely hypothetical. What “real world” cat would get in that box at the behest of a mere human? 😉

      We’ll see what happens with this rough draft. One reader saw the earlier versions of the story. The other three have not. They’ve only seen what I’ve said on the blog, and that hasn’t been much. After being too optimistic about my previous first drafts, I’m much more cautious in my expectations this time around. Frankly, I reached the point where I have no idea if it’s promising or not. So—enter the alphas.

      I hope, of course, it’s alive. But if not, there’s the next manuscript, which is finally getting some time in the sun. And some good Belgian chocolate if needed for a period of mourning. 🙂

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  7. Congratulations JM, I’m so glad you’ve finished! Great analogy, there’s always that anticipation when you wonder if something is any good, but I’m sure it will be. And another character tugging your sleeve, sounds like this year is going well for you 🙂

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    • Thanks, Andrea. I’m at that point with the manuscript where I really don’t know how good or bad it is. And after banging my head against the wall for a while and running in circles, I realized it was time to have some preliminary readers look at it. I was hoping to have a fully completed draft done, but it just wasn’t happening. So these alpha reads should help me figure out if the story is worth pursuing or if I should devote myself to the newer one. I hope that one will go well. I’m approaching it with much more planning that I did the previous two stories!

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    • I think stepping back really did help. Unfortunately, March’s events knocked me out of the rhythm I had gotten into, and the settling in process hasn’t helped. But I’m hoping to work into a new routine again before long. And we’ll see what I can do with this other story while I wait for comments on Death Out of Time!

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  8. Congratulations on getting the draft completed! I hope the answer is that the cat is alive.
    Is it Meghan Bode tugging at your sleeve with a story?

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    • Thanks, Scott. I think I’ve written a stronger story by removing parts that were confusing or distracting to too many readers. We’ll see if the alphas agree and then go from there. If the rebuild makes it to another round, I’ll bring in a few more readers then for a thorough go-through. In the meantime, it’s good to have another story to work on!

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  9. Well done, JM! I am sure your alpha readers will return a positive verdict. And in the unlikely event the cat is dead, well there is always another kitten to nurture. But just finishing an entire manuscript is a huge accomplishment and your writing will be even better for your next venture. I am jealous!

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    • Thanks, Helga! I really want the cat to be alive, but I’m also trying to prepare for the worst. As you say, just finishing a manuscript is an accomplishment in itself. While there are more books published than ever, the fact remains that writers are a very small fraction of the human population. We’ll see if my mistakes and lessons learned from the first two manuscripts will lead to a solid third. To paraphrase Anne Lamott, “Word by word….” 🙂

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    • Thanks, you two! I have a ways to go to catch up with you, but it’s a good feeling to have drafted a novel. Whether or not the story sees publication, that’s something most people can’t say! 🙂

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  10. Congratulations on completing your draft. That is wonderful. I did the same to the book I’ve just published. I wasn’t happy with it and neither were a few people who read. I put it aside for a few years and then reworked it. Sometimes you have to step away from the current WIP and work on other different pieces.
    Wishing you all the best JM 😀

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    • Thanks, Luciana! I hope it won’t take a few more years with this story, but I won’t put it out there if I don’t think it’s right or good enough. 🙂 It does feel good to have another story to work on while I set this one on the back burner and await the rest of the alpha comments. Who knows? Maybe the new book will take charge for a while. And that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. )

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  11. I hope to finish in the next few days, I’m about half way through, really enjoying it so far, I won’t say more on here for obvious reasons, but just wanted to give you an interim positive nod and assurance that the cat is alive and purring!

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    • Well, with taking me this long to reply, I already know you’ve finished it! And, as you know, I greatly appreciate the comments. There’s certainly work to do, but it’s good to know there’s a solid foundation to work with. 🙂 Once all the comments come in, we’ll see if the newest WIP will let me go back to Madeleine et al. any time soon! 😉

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    • That they can! And I’m curious if the characters from the new manuscript will let me work on this one once all the alpha comments are in. They may just want to keep control for a while….

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  12. JM, I’m a week away from sending Six Train’s sequel to beta readers. So I feel you on this post. Half the time I think this is pretty brilliant, then I think is any of this working. I’m starting to third guess myself. Which means I have to get it out of my hands soon. I need perspective. I need betas to tell me what is and isn’t working and what is and isn’t on the page. Hugs and congrats on getting yours off to alphas!

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    • Thanks, Kourtney! And I am one happy reader to hear that Six Train 2 is heading out to betas! 🙂 It’s normal for a writer’s personal view on a manuscript to seesaw. But when the “flips” come too often, it’s definitely time for a time-out and objective eyes on the story. Having those trusted readers is invaluable. Even if their comments do trigger a “wine-and-chocolate reflex” when they come in! 😉

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      • Me too. It was painful coming off of a polished TGWIG to a first draft of Six Train’s sequel. I found myself chanting “it’s just a first draft” for weeks because I was so stressed over how bad it felt in comparison. Yes. I can’t wait to take a week to knock out marketing work and then start on drafting TGWIG’s sequel. Oh yes. I know I’ll be very unhappy when the responses come in in August. But I just remind myself, I can fix it. That’s my second favorite chant. 🙂

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  13. Yay!!! Congrats, doll! Such an achievement. It’s always good to step away after this important phase. Feedback will be great for you so early on in the process too. Can’t wait to read this one day!

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    • Thanks, Britt! I’m hoping you’ll get the chance to read it one day! Early indications are promising, but we’ll see what happens when all the results are in. 🙂 It’s good to be outlining the elements of the next manuscript while I wait!

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