Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Delayed Gratification

Writing, as I'm sure we've all figured out, is a delayed-gratification kind of game. We write, we hope our readers will like it, but there's very little immediate feedback (unless you have a rocking critique group). And there's very little external validation.

Our goals are long-term, ones that take years of hard work and dedication before the pay-out. If there's a pay-out. But you can't write a best-selling novel in one draft (or at least, I can't), you can't become a household name and international sensation overnight (unless you're Stephanie Meyer), and you can't expect to see a real profit anywhere in the first decade.

Remember these pictures? The delayed gratification test? Eat one marshmellow now, or wait, and get two marshmellows later.

I read an interview with Damon Wayans Jr. and he talked about the difference in writing stand-up comedy and writing sit-coms. In stand-up, he said, you have instant feedback. The audience laughs or they don't laugh. You know if it's funny. You know if it resonates. Writing and acting in sit-coms, he had to not only write the script without any feedback, but film the scenes. He admitted to feeling a bit adrift without a live studio audience.

I'm going somewhere with this, I promise. Stick with me for a minute. I used to write fanfiction. Several of us on this blog got our start writing that way. I loved writing fanfction for all sorts of reasons, but the biggest was probably the instant feedback. Write the next chapter of my book, toss it online, and poof, my inbox was full of emails gushing and overflowing with praise (sure, there were also the negative reviews, the occasional one correcting my grammar, and the stray crazy threatening an axe -- but there were enough positive ones to give a girl an ego boost).

Writing original fiction, revising and revising and revising, querying, querying and querying . . . there's no outpouring of gushing emails in this process. There's no cheering section. I miss the cheering section. We all need it. We need the validation that we're on the right track, that we have something special, that we're not wasting time that could be better spent folding origami.


We can get some of that through critique partners, if we've found a good pairing or group. We can get it through contests (or be devastated by a harsh judge).  It's horribly tempting to seek that validation through the querying process. And because we're hungry for it (come on, admit it! If I can, you can :)), we often query or submit early. One of the pieces of writing advice I see over and over again is to wait until your manuscript is as perfect as you can possibly make it before you query your first agent. But how many of us really do that? I know I didn't. I was only half way through the first draft before I thought, "Oh I can send this one pitch." And then come the rationalizations: "Well, it'll take them two months to respond. I'll have it revised by then."

And that may not be a bad thing. Call stories are full of those eager, newbie mistakes. Few of them will stop a career in its tracks (like, say, telling a reviewer to f-off).

It's the marshmellow. It's the question this poor kid is struggling with: one marshmellow now, or two marshmellows later? The validation now? Or the blind faith that if we keep writing without the validation, we'll eventually emerge stronger for it?


It's hard to wait. It kills me to wait. I want to know if people like this story. I want to post it chapter-by-chapter online, and get flooded with gushing emails.

I want my marshmellow, dammit! I want a live studio audience that either cheers or boos, so I know exactly where I stand.Without it, I have to keep chugging forward on faith, and some days, it's easier to come by than others.

How about it pirates? How's your faith and confidence in your own skills? Are you hungry for validation? One marshmellow now or two later?


2nd Chance said...

The validation dance... Wow. Good question! The thing about once the book is out there is well...holding onto the little bits of instant gratification and making them do it. The one where the agent said she liked it but it wasn't for her counts as some. The one where the agent took it on counts as more. The one where the editor wanted it counts as a bit more. The one...and on and on... Because it's very true that the 'reader' validation is slow to come.

I got a few people who read the book and reached out to touch me on FB and that counted. The first review counted...the second review, which just went up

But if you don't believe in what you write, the truth is none of that will actually be enough. I think that is the big key. To realize that enough is a moving take what you get when you get it.

Marnee said...

Hal, this is a really good question.

I think with my first two MS's I was all about the instant gratification. Maybe, four years ago, I thought that it was less about me as a writer and more about that magical "it". You know, if I just find the "right" storyline, the right characters, that fresh idea that some editor is looking for then I'll be able to overcome any deficiencies in my writing craft or soft spots in my story on the fly.

I think that's a really slippery slope. A writer can just keep writing and writing, going forward without really revising (I mean not just for grammar) to understand their story/characters/process. There's a chance that one of their stories is going to snag attention from an agent or editor. But in the long run, I'm not sure if it's a sustainable model.

Pantser or plotter, it doesn't get us out of revisions and I think the faster we learn what makes our voice stronger than anyone else and recognize where our weaker spots are, the better off we are.

So, as to instant gratification- that urge to be premature in getting out there- I've definitely done that. I'm not planning on it this time though.

And Chance, I love this.
To realize that enough is a moving target…so take what you get when you get it

Hal said...

Chance, you're so right that what we need is a moving target. I think grabbing on to the small pieces you get, when you get them, is excellent advice.

And it's so true that at the end of the day, all the validation in the world isn't going to be enough if you don't believe in your own writing

p.s. - awesome review :)

Hal said...

Marn, I couldn't agree more. As much as I adored the gratification of fanfic, I never really revised anything. I read through it once to fix the grammar, and then moved on to the next project. And I'm finding more and more that the real depth of the story only comes out in the revising.

I'm definitely another one who was so eager to catch the eye of an agent that I submitted too early. Lesson learned, right? And hopefully with more revisions, it'll be stronger in the end.

Marnee said...

Great review is right, Maureen!

Marnee said...

Revision sucks though. The first draft is fun to write, I think. The new, the unexplored. The revision is like after you paint and you've looked at the room for a while and then you start to notice the imperfections, maybe that the color isn't quite right or that there's bleeding through in one corner, maybe you didn't cut in well enough around the trim. So you have to break out all the supplies again, put in all kinds of work (maybe even the same amount as the first coat) so that it smooths over all that you see wrong with it.

After the first initial coat, there's that thrill of "look at the color!" and "wow, what a difference!"

After the fixes, you're just able to look at it without being irritated and picking at the edges every time you walk by. Not nearly as fun.

Hal said...

Omg, Marn, that's the best analogy ever! And so true -- this is exactly why I hate painting. It's what happened to my dining room - I put up the first coat, realized that the walls were too cracked and potted, and had to start over resurfacing all the walls, only to paint it the same freaking color.

Marnee said...

I repainted a room three times because I didn't have the color quite right. Ugh. I love it when I get it right but boy when I get it wrong it just annoys the crap out of me until I fix it.

Donna said...

Chance, congrats on the review!

Donna said...

Great post, Hal. Like everything else in life, we all have different needs, so we make different choices. And thank goodness there ARE different things for us to choose, to suit our needs. Even better, the needs/choices thing changes as we change in life, so what worked once doesn't have to always be used if it isn't doing the job for us anymore.

I don't think anyone should feel bad about needing validation. It's easy to feel invisible sometimes when writing, or like you're part of such a vast crowd that you'll never get noticed. So if someone taps you on the shoulder -- whether it's a contest final, or a manuscript request -- it's wonderful to be singled out and told you're pretty. :)

The tricky part is actually ENJOYING that moment before starting to tell yourself how it doesn't matter--all those negative things that swoop in way too soon. :)

Hellion said...

So after my massage yesterday, I was home watching Oprah and Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York was on. (I like her, the Duchess, she makes mistakes, but she always seems genuine. That and she's still so in love with her ex-husband.) And Dr. Phil was talking with Sarah, doing the therapist thing, and he said she had an addiction. An addiction for approval. (Which I think is similar or the same as validation, yes?)

So as soon as Phil told Sarah that was her problem, I went, "OMG! That's me! I have this addiction!" Which raises my current list of addictions to, I don't know, a hundred?

I think writers are definitely the approval seeking kind of people. They may not realize it in their everyday personality, but when it comes to their writing, they have it in spades. You have to tie their hands to the chair to keep them from checking their email 100 times an hour to see if The Publisher has made an offer yet. Every rejection--while they say they don't take it personally--is yet another indication that you're not good enough.

Faith is a hard thing to keep. It flies in the face of every fact out there. And believing with your heart is almost always harder to keep going forever than believing what your stone-cold facts mind will point out.

Hellion said...

P.S. Can I just say: I hate painting?

Marnee said...

Ditto. I like to have painted. But painting bites.

Hal said...

Hey Donna - writing is solitary, isn't it? I don't think anyone should feel bad about needing validation - we all need that external encouragement and approval. Being able to bank the eagerness that need creates has always been my problem.

And when we are singled out, we all do the "Ahh, you think I'm pretty?" and blush :)

Hal said...

I'm slap-happy tired today, so please excuse any rambling that degrades into nonsense

Hal said...

And addiction to approval? Oh drat. That's totally me too. It bothers me if I know someone is upset with me, or worse, disappointed.

Faith is hard to keep up, because you're right, the stats are cold. I think that's part of what makes groups like ours so invaluable -- we can validate each other and short-circuit the cycle

Marnee said...

You're excused. Slap happy tired? You're a mommy. We don't need sleep. (Or so my kids always seem to tell me.

Donna said...

It's no wonder we're addicted to approval. It starts when we successfully navigate the potty chair, right? LOL It just goes on from there.

Hal said...


Bosun said...

I'm soooo not in a good mind space today. I've been trying to read the comments but I keep having to re-read because it's not penetrating. *sigh*

I'm the opposite of Marn, I guess. First off, Marn can NEVER come to my house. I paid a guy to paint the bottom floor of my house and it's HORRIFYINGLY BAD. I painted the upstairs, and it's only mildly better. I'm living with it until I have the energy/time/money to fix it. It's killing me, but I have no choice. Life goes on.

I've learned to enjoy the revisions. I'm getting better at it, which helps, and seeing what I've revised it into and how that's a thousand times better than what I started with makes me all kinds of happy. Gives me a boost and keeps me going.

I'm guessing the validation thing is different because I was in radio? There is no instant validation, but you also don't know when someone has rolled their eyes and turned the channel. You're talking for you, saying what's interesting to you or what makes you laugh and to hell with everyone else. That's what I'm programmed for.

However, the gratification of an agent and a contract would be really awesome. I know I'll get there, and I do get impatient, but I know I have work to do first.

Hellion said...

You’re talking for you, saying what’s interesting to you or what makes you laugh and to hell with everyone else. That’s what I’m programmed for.

See, this is cool. I so wish I was programmed for radio.

I was programmed in college to write my papers to please professors. I'd almost always get a B on the first paper, then I'd figure out what the professor wanted to hear--and then I'd write about that. Then I'd get A's.

You'd think this would translate to my other writing, but it so doesn't. *LOL*

Bosun said...

I've always been a stubborn bitch. As far back as I can remember, all papers were written for me. LOL! Though I give Sr. Eleanor all the credit in the world for making me write stuff over and over again during Freshman year so I would have the ability to do that and still get As.

Hellion said...


2nd Chance said...

If we all believed the 'good' voices in our head, we'd be content with the validation they offer. If only! But...then would anyone bother to publish for the public?

Well, other than for the money...

I always craved those As, Bo'sun!

Janga said...

I'm with Chance. If we didn't long for validation, we'd be content to write in our journals or to play Emily Dickinson and secret our chapters away from the eyes of others. The very fact that we write with an audience in mind signals our need for someone to agree that what we've written merits accolades.

But I think there is a bit of ED in me. My problem is not sending the ms. out too soon but rather letting go of it at all. That way I can imagine the validation and never fear being told that my progeny is ugly and ignorant and laughable.

Janga said...

Wonderful review, Chance! Great validation to know that a reader "got" you book.

Hellion said...

It took me 3 tries to realize ED meant Emily Dickinson. Those erectile dysfunction commercials must be working. Yeesh.

Release it into the wild, Janga!! Or just to me, I don't care.

2nd Chance said...

Sometimes the voices we pretend to hear are much kinder than those we fear to hear... ;-)

I suppose it's all a matter of balance. You want some inner validation to keep you writing on a day to day basis, you need the validation of hearing good things from friends and then further out to the professionals, then to strangers (readers.)

But I do think that even within rejection there is validation. When I heard from an agent who said she liked it and found it interesting, just not enough to represent it, that was a very good bit of validation. It's like when the boyfriend says I really like you but you deserve someone who loves you when it comes to a wedding... It's just true! I deserved someone who loved my book when it came to representation...

There's a real sense of validation when you know you deserve better...

Hal said...

Ter - that's awesome that you can see the progress with your revisions. I think that's part of my struggle, that it's harder to see the accomplishment. "I wrote 10 pages!" sounds way better than "I spent 3 hours revising one scene." lol.

I can see how a radio background would get you accustomed to working without the feedback. I never really thought about it before, but you really are flying blind, with no idea who's listening or how they're reacting. That has to be very good practice for solitary writing!

Hal said...

Janga - so true! I love the kind of praise I can come up with in my imagination.Whenever I get contest scores or some other feedback, and I always to this awkward "I want to look! No, I don't want to look! I want to look!" It takes a bit to build up the nerve :)

Marnee said...

“I wrote 10 pages!” sounds way better than “I spent 3 hours revising one scene.” lol.

I hate this problem!!!

SOooo true!

When DH asks me how writing's going, I'll say "I think I figured something out!"

"New pages?"

"Um... Less pages."