… Until You See the Whites of their Eyes


I had a soccer game with a late kickoff this evening. I’m getting too old for playing soccer at 11pm on a school night. We ended with a tie, and were happy with that result since we faced a pretty strong club. But I’m going to be dying tomorrow because I have a really early, and long, day.

On the drive home, I thought how crucial timing can be in writing and publishing. One day, the editor might be in a bad mood, exhausted, worried about his root canal appointment later that afternoon and he rejects your manuscript. The next day, he might be feeling just fine with all the painkillers, and slightly delirious, he accepts your submission. Or, maybe you pitch an agent a nonfiction book about a cadre of Mt. Dew producers who target young people to create a legion of caffeine and sugar-addicted tweakers. One day, the agent thinks the idea is awful, the next day she sees a report on the morning news about the effects of caffeine and thinks your idea is groundbreaking.

It all comes down to timing.

Which leads me to William Prescott’s famous (possibly apocryphal) command during the Revolutionary War. “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” Prescott told his troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Imagine the anxiety and fear those troops felt as the British advanced. How much composure and determination was needed to keep from pulling the trigger too early? The American troops had to wait until the very last second to ensure their best chance for success. 

Sometimes you have to do the same thing with your writing and pitches.

Too often, we get so excited about an idea or a manuscript that we start carpet bombing editors and agents. I know people who normally produce pristine query letters, but in their excited haste, they sometimes send out pages littered with typos. I know other people who stuff envelopes with manuscripts fresh out of the printer. Maybe they ran spellcheck and glanced over it once, but that’s it. But we have to fight these urges, let our work rest, give it proper editing, and then calmly and cooly send it out.

Right now, I have a nonfiction idea that gives me goosebumps. I’m so thrilled and confident about this idea that I can barely contain myself. But there is a logical order of steps I need to pursue if I am to have the best chance at success. As much as I want to blast through all those steps and just get it out there, I have to make myself hold back. Let the dominoes fall in the apropriate order and calmly proceed.

While I’m referring back to old war phrases and cliches, let’s close with the now vulgar-sounding “I shot my wad.” Although the term has a completely different meaning today, the origins of the phrase actually date back to soldiers who, in the haste of battle, forgot to prep their muzzle loading rifles properly. They acted in haste, got their steps out of order, and wasted a shot. You don’t want to waste an opportunity with your writing because you shot your wad (of manuscript pages) too early. 

Think about that the next time you’re frantically typing query letters or stuffing an envelope with manuscript pages still smelling of that purple toner the teachers used in high school. Calm down, make sure the timing is right. Then make your move.

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