The original mashmallow experiment was conducted by Walter Mischel and colleagues at Stanford University in 1972. Preschoolers were seated at a table in a small room and given a marshmallow. They were told that if they waited to eat the marshmallow until an adult returned, they could have two marshmallows. You know how long these four-year-olds had to sit there? Fifteen minutes. That's a loooooong time for a small child.
Some of them ate the marshmallow instantly. Some lasted a few minutes. Some held out for the entire time. The ones who did better effectively distracted themselves, focusing on something else, or, at minimum, NOT focusing on the potential deliciousness of the marshmallow in front of them.
Ten years later, Mischel followed up with a number of kids from the original study (there's a fascinating New Yorker article about it here). It turned out that the length of time a kid was able to keep from eating the marshmallow was related to social and academic competence. The kids who were able to delay gratification also had higher SAT scores and fewer behavior problems.
Yeah. One marshmallow and fifteen minutes predicted the kids' test scores over ten years later.
Now, I likened the whole experimental situation to the query process. I could also liken it to the revision process (because that's my current delay-of-gratification challenge). Really, this can apply to writers at any stage of the game. When we've written something we're really excited about, it's hard for many of us to keep from hitting the send button (including on follow-up nudges). The marshmallow is the pleasure that comes from dreams and hopes of getting a positive response. We want it NOW.
I confess to being one of these people. Sometimes I get so passionate and excited about stuff I've written that it's hard for me to see the flaws.
UNTIL I LET IT SIT.
When I step back and really leave something alone (which is, admittedly, hard for me to do), I ALWAYS find something wrong with it when I open it up again. Every. Single. Time. I'm often amazed I didn't spot particular things before--especially because I am rather obsessive about editing and consider myself pretty hardcore about grammar and punctuation. It never fails, though. Letting things sit helps me make things better. Waiting for feedback helps me make things better.
Hitting the send button prematurely? Doesn't help me make things better.
Or, at least, not without some costs (the most obvious being flat-out rejection).
You've all heard this advice from more credible sources than me. Agents. Editors. Published authors. Veteran writers. So have I. But there was something about that marshmallow video that really brought it home for me. When the possible reward is so great, why would I want to settle for an immediate--but much smaller--reward?
No reason ... except the temporary thrill of sending something off. It's not nearly good as knowing I've given my beloved story every chance to succeed.
What can we learn from the marshmallow experiment? Follow-up studies showed that delaying gratification is mainly about controlling thoughts and attention.
Focusing on the "hot" feelings and thoughts about the potential reward makes it MUCH harder to delay gratification. Effectively distracting yourself from the hot stuff and finding other ways to think about it (and other things to do) helps you hold out. For you querying writers, that means:
IF you focus on how awesome it's going to feel when that agent falls in love with your manuscript and heaps sticky mounds of delicious praise upon it before offering up her first born just for the chance to rep you and sell your future guaranteed-best-seller ... it's going to be hard to hold back.
IF you focus on what you KNOW you need to do to get there, send your project off for feedback, do some beta-reading for others (just one example of focusing your attention elsewhere), revise a bit, close the file, whine to your CPs, brainstorm ideas for your next project, remind yourself that taking your time will be worth it, revise and edit, eat some pizza, cruise the forums/Twitter/blogosphere for advice and support, offer some support and advice of your own, send your project off for final feedback, write your query, remind yourself that the agents will still be there when you're ready to roll, pay attention to query feedback and think about whether the criticism applies to the entire story (this is SO often true), comb through the project to find the tiniest of typos, ET CETERA ... unfortunately, even then, there's no guarantee of success.
But your probability of ending up with two marshmallows will greatly increase.
OK, so. What do you think? I say:
- Kids who fondled the marshmallow = Folks who are dying to hit "send" but vet their queries at the forums
- Kids who picked tiny bits off the marshmallow = Folks who send out those "test queries"
- Kids who took bites out of the marshmallow but put it back on the plate = Folks who send out a batch or two of queries before realizing they have more work to do
- Kids who ate it before the experimenter left the room = Folks whose books will most likely sleep with the fishes. Fishes who live in trunks.
- Kids who, despite craving that marshmallow so bad it caused them to do funny hand-waving dances, held out until the bitter end = IF YOU DON'T KNOW BY NOW, I CAN'T HELP YOU.
I'll go first. In order to focus your attention on something other than sticky mounds of agent-praise, go check out Laura's Sisterhood of the Traveling Blog post for the month of May, wherein she answers the question, "What do you do when you lose your writing mojo?"