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Patience Is More Than A Virtue

Several decades ago, a series of studies were done, known as the Stanford marshmallow experiment. Here it is in a nutshell: Young children are presented with a treat (such as a marshmallow) and told they can eat it now, or if they wait fifteen minutes for the tester to return, they can have two. Some children waited the full time. Some didn’t wait at all. Some tried to wait, but gave in and ate the marshmallow before time was up.

Over the following years, the kids who were able to delay gratification were more successful in a variety of life measures. Self-control puts us on better footing in society.

More recently, a follow-up study at the University of Rochester played with the variables a bit. Half of the children experienced the tester breaking a promise before the marshmallow experiment began. The other half experienced the tester keeping a promise. No surprise which group was able to wait longer during the experiment.

To me, this has implications for all aspects of our lives, including writing and publishing.

As far as I can tell, the most successful authors—on both sides of the traditional/self-publishing aisle—practice not only persistence, but patience. (And I consider “success” not only straight-up dollars, but also quality of product, strength of work, and longevity of career.) As both a reader and a writer, signs of impatience strike me as red flags. Some examples:

– A slapdash cover (or better, one with a stolen image) on a self-published book because “it’s what inside that matters.”

– Lack of editing because “the story is good, and who cares about grammar or craft if it’s a good story?”

– A query put up for critique, only to see that the writer self-published the book within the past few weeks.

– Queries sent out, only to have the writer self-publish before several agents even have a chance to respond.

– Querying every agent who lists that genre, without further research, and signing with a “schmagent” just because they offered.

– Submitting to every publisher who doesn’t require an agent (sometimes while querying agents simultaneously), and signing with any who offers.

I’m sure there are others.

Seriously, what’s the hurry? If you choose to go the traditional route, it’s a long process. Learn to love waiting, because you’ll do a lot of it. There will be times you have to rush—quick turnaround on copyedits, maybe—but the patience will serve you well.

If you’re still looking for an agent, it’s worth it to take your time and do your research, improving the odds that you’ll land with the right agent. In my case, taking my time and not giving in to the urge to bail and self-publish also ensured that my writing improved. Now it’s to a point where I’m fairly comfortable with the idea of it going out into the world. (It’s fine to switch tracks from querying agents to self-publishing. Just do it thoughtfully, not as an emotional act of desperation.)

If you’re self-publishing, have the self-control to take your time and do it well. Just because it’s easy to throw a first-draft out there doesn’t mean you should. If part of your motivation is that traditional publishing takes too long, that’s okay. Even taking your time, you can likely get it done well more quickly than a big publishing house.

There’s something to be learned from that second study, too, and the effect of whether the kids believed the promise would be delivered. We’re grown-ups. Don’t give in to excuses like “But this self-published book is crap and made a million dollars” or “But this Big Publisher book is crap and they made it a movie.” We shouldn’t be worrying so much about the promises of the market or the industry to make sure “the cream rises.”

We should worry about whether we can keep the promise to ourselves that we’ll BE the cream.

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One Response to “Patience Is More Than A Virtue”

  1. ECW says:

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful post! It is impeccably timed with what I am personally going through at the moment.

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