Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Step Away From The Marshmallow. And The SEND Button.

On Monday, we watched a little video. Weren't those kids cute? Most of them were doing everything they possibly could to resist eating the oh-so-tempting marshmallow (except that little redhead who was like, "yeah, lady, blah blah OY! MARSHMALLOW! GET INTO MAH BELLEH!"). My personal favorite was the kid who puckered up and kissed it.

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.


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.
In the comments, please help your fellow writers by offering up your best strategies for delaying gratification!

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?"


  1. This post = GOLD. PURE GOLD!!! I told my hubby we should put a marshmallow in front of our toddler, but then he reminded me of how fussy he is (the kid who didn't want to try easter eggs, remember?), and I realised the marshmallow could sit there for years. :D

    I must say that I distract myself by checking Twitter every two minutes. Seriously. As you know, I'm busting to query, but I know I have a whoooooole mountain of edits to get through, then more edits after you, the lovely JD, and Tracy have critiqued it some more. I just keep reminding myself that I risk losing my chance with a dream agent if my MS isn't as great as it can be.

    So I'd better get back to it. Thanks for the entertainment this week! That video had me giggling on and off for hours! :D

  2. Writing something new. It feels like a broken record to say it, but every time someone complains about the waiting, I say, "Start something new." It always pays off. Even if you get an agent, you're going to be in for some waiting. Sometimes a lot of waiting. Sometimes so much waiting that your agent will call you up and say, "Okay, this one's not gonna sell. What else you got?"

    Then, won't it be nice to have something else in the hopper?

    Even at square one, when you're sending queries, you can be working on something new. What if an agent loves your writing, but *that* book just isn't for them? What if they say, "Do you have any other projects you're working on?"

    At the very least, it's something new to work on.

    You know, while you wait for that second marshmallow.

    Great post series!

  3. I'm still laughing at this post. My strategy is pretty simple - I only hit send when the ms has cleared my own checklist, the checklist of my co-author and been given the green light by beta testers. It's hard to know for sure that you're doing it at the right time though. . . I think there's always some degree of second guessing. Starting a new project often helps too - at least so I don't eat the first marshmallow prematurely:)

  4. This is a fantastic post and reminder! I am totally the marshmellow eater. I think the thing that helps me most is pre-ordering a pile of books to read while my ms marinates.

  5. Great post - I love it. And very true!

  6. Awesome post as always, Sarah. And I love your comparisons of the different types of queriers with the different kids.

    I've almost finished with my current revisions (which includes CP feedback) but I plan to take a week to catch up on my reading (oh, who am I kidding, I need five months to catch up), beta read, and clean the house before I read through my ms again (Hmmm. this is beginning to sound more like several weeks). After that, it's off to the first round of beta readers.

    Wow, if only I had done that with one of my projects a year ago. It went through the round of revisions with my former crit group, then I sent it out . . . and landed rejection after rejection on the requested material. I'm WAY smarter now. Now you have to pry the query and sample pages out of my hand. :D

  7. I think sending wips out to one last beta reader really helps. And then not looking at your wip until the beta comes back. Then I'm forced to wait that extra bit of time.

  8. Bwahaha!! I had been wondering how long they made those poor children wait. You know I'm totally going to do this Emily when I get home tonight, right? I'm going to test the child! YAY! After I get some marshmallows.

    Great way to put them together. I'm totally the "tester". But I quickly turn into something else that I won't discuss, because it's bad. I need more distractions, so I'm afraid I can't suggest any.

    Actually, that's not true. My distractions can come from my blog post today--living life (like before you wrote)! Try that. ;-)


  9. ohman! part of what helps me wait is the knowledge that i don't have a product ready to query yet (my marshmallow is still cooking- do they cook marshmallows??) but, i think that working on other projects will be a big distraction, critting for others is not only a great distraction but it teaches you so much, then there are hobbies, and reading and wikipedia and reruns of glee... lots to keep distracted with. i don't really understand the concept of being bored. but... the desire to send it off! i'm sure that will be strong... but the fear of rejection and people thinking i suck- that's strong too!

  10. Um, I've waited to query for 16 months. Is that long enough? *dying to have marshmallow* ;)

  11. Fascinating about the correlation between marshmallow patience and test scores. My daughter would've been able to do it. My son, I'm not so sure. That said, he's had good-excellent test scores.

    Ah, editing and querying patience. I must admit, I haven't always exercised it. But I'm getting better.

  12. Delayed gratification? Someone ask Sting about Tantra.

    But seriously, marshmallows are the bomb...except that they're not exactly vegetarian. But at least they make vegetarian marshmallows (sans gelatin). Now if they can just make Peeps vegetarian, I'll be set for life once again.

    Although I love me some sweets, I have a tremendous amount of willpower. And the promise of 2 marshmallows would have stopped me back then. No real advice, though. Willpower takes time to accumulate and master. Patience and time.

  13. 15 minutes in the original experiment?! That's torture. At least this time it was (if memory serves) a mere three minutes. Still an eternity for a small child.

    My delaying tactic? FEAR.

    I'm a "small-batcher" whose initial small batch was summarily dismissed without comment.

    I retooled. I rewrote. My critique group has reread my endlessly rewritten first three chapters to the point of insanity. They are currently begging for marshmallows.

    As for me, I'm so fearful that you'd need to tie me to a chair and forcefeed me that marshmallow before I hit send.

  14. GET INTO MAH BELLAH FTW! She knew what she wanted.

    Now I'll read the rest.

  15. Such a great post. I had never heard of the marshmallow experiment until now--fascinating stuff. So, delaying gratification...I suppose my strategy is to think of the pressure that comes with that gratification. When I get antsy because I want an editor to love my book, I remember that if I get to the next stage, I'll be faced with criticism as well. So that forces me to sit back and prepare for the bad as well as the pristine white marshmallow. :P

  16. Great post! I've heard of the marshmallow experiment before, but never thought about comparing it to querying. THAT is creative. ;)

  17. Okay, so this is the confession of a man who ate the marshmallow, but somehow managed to hang on to a shred of dignity, and learned a great deal from it.

    My advice (and this is after I sent out over 50 queries for a debut novel that was essentially still a first draft, and WAY too long) is spend your time paying it forward.

    For one thing, helping other writers learn from your mistakes is a nice thing to do. It helps people get closer to reaching their own dreams, and what goes around comes around.

    But, more importantly, there is no better way to learn about your own craft, and improve it. My blog is about query letters, mostly. How did I get good at them? Well honestly, first, by sucking at them. There aren't many better ways to get good at something than by being bad at it at first. Second? By critiquing every query that came my way. It's much easier to spot what needs to be changed in someone else's work than in your own, but once you get good at THAT, you can apply your new perspective to yourself. Sometimes.

    So if you're waiting for revision notes or if you're on submission, take that time to pay it forward. Beta read for other writes. Critique entire novels, if you have time. Lend a hand with everything you can, the person who will benefit most is you.

  18. This is fantastic and SO TRUE. It can be hard to wait, but I agree that we need to keep ourselves busy with other things while we work on whipping our project into shape. Start another project. Delve into a separate hobby that you've neglected for a while. Encourage other writers. Blog. Go to the zoo with your family. Learn to play an instrument.

  19. This is awesome! And I'm with Brigid! Start something new! Other ideas: Read top novels in your favorite genre and id something that made them great. Compare it to your own work. Can you improve? OR, Beta read for someone else.

  20. Love it, great post! And I know what you mean about opening up a ms that has been left and finding a problem every...single...time. Unfortunately, I think many of us have to learn this lesson the hard way. Perhaps some of us never learn it and then there are those who learn it too well and their work is never perfect enough to ever send out again! I'm definitely getting better at fighting the temptation of the marshmellow, until, of course, a cup of hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps is added to the table (aka a request from an agent/editor).

  21. This post is FABULOUS! I loved it!! AND I'm going to go back and watch the marshmallow video :D

    How to distract yourself from hitting the send button? Be a perfectionist like me! LOL!
    Seriously, I tend to OVER work my ms and NEVER send out those queries. I was worried for a while that I was being too protective over my work, until I re-re-reread it and, behold, it wasn't finished and really did have a long way to go with it.

    Keep you eye on the prize but remember that the only way to get there is by hard work and dedication not only to the true story you need to tell, but also to all the people who will be reading your story and seeking the truth that is to be found in it.


  22. Fabulous post! I try go to my "Ideas" folder when I'm looking for a distraction.

    But the marshmallow looks so good...

  23. Omg I could watch this video over and over just to see that kid stuff both marshmallows into his mouth! Too cute!

    Honestly, what made me wait to query was just the fear that the book wasn't ready yet. Nearly four years passed between the time I completed my first draft to when I sent my first query. It was SO difficult at times, but then I thought: "Well, either I wait now and take the time to revise, or I send a book that's not ready, and still wait (but get a bunch of rejections)." Then the logical, not-crazed-by-marshmallow-cravings part of me said: "Well, when you put it that way..."


  24. I think I both fondle and pick the marshmallows. Out of context, my previous sentence is so freaking weird.
    I loved this post!

  25. This makes so much sense. Yet I need to hear it as I approach the end of a revision and will undoubtedly be anxious to start querying. Step away from the email. Step away from the manuscript.


  26. I definitely fondle the marshmallow. That sounds so gross! The kids I tutored this year would've eaten the marshmallow as soon as the person turned around...le sigh. Let's hope this experiment doesn't show their aptitude at testing.

  27. you make an excellent point. I'm often tempted to send off my work too soon. I have a wonderful hubby who tells me to wait :)

  28. I loved loved loved this post. I fondle, pick, smell, nudge, and maybe even lick the marshmallow...I've also eaten the marshmallow before the grownups left the room and paid the price. Thanks for the post!

  29. I thought that was such a cute video, and as for how I handle the marshmallow? I think it's hormone related. Some times of the month, I eat the whole thing immediately. Other times, I can walk away and forget it.

    Right now, I'm in the second stage. Monday, first... LOSING IT! Good stuff, Sarah~

  30. Great post! As it happens, I have a plan with this book. So matter how passionate I am, I am not touching queries until at LEAST September. And I'm not touching edits until June. That way, I'm not fooling myself into thinking that premature querying might be a good idea. :-)

  31. That was a great analogy. I'm the one who ate little pieces off of the marshmellow. I've realized my query needs work and am improving it. As for the book-I finished in Nov and only just this week started reading it again. So far, only minor changes. Yeahh.

  32. I go for small pieces, but only after I've had several people look at the MS and marinated it too. (I'm noticing 6 months is my magic time frame.) Batch testing helps me because I refocus on what works, but - damn - I want to wait for the extra marshmallow!

  33. Okay I admit it. I have a hard time delaying gratification. That said, I (as luck would have it) have an agent who kind of does that for me. :D Don't throw pie yet. I also take it very seriously, and strive to do my best by all means at my disposal. Emotionally, it's hard to wait. But realistically? I know it's part of the process and I'd rather do it right and succeed, so I deal with those feelings and do what's right.

    My best advice? To start something new. That always distracts me.

  34. Wow! I try to teach my children delayed gratification but it never sticks. Maybe I can tell them it's for their future.

  35. This is a super post! If I were to give my five year old a marshmallow and tell him to wait, he'd have no problem-he's about the pickiest eater alive. My three year old wouldn't have time to blink before stuffing it in his mouth. Then, he's say he wanted another mushroom. :0) christy (currently blogging and tweeting to put off finishing my plot hole filling and final edits before querying.)

  36. Brilliant. The marshmallow analogy works very well, although our motivation for sending queries isn't quite like the anticipated pleasure of eating a marshmallow. It's more like we just want to get it the hell off the plate. But, yes. I've eaten that marshmallow way too many times.