Writers aren’t fond of the word no. It comes from a career that is built around rejection – we spend so much time getting told “no” by editors and agents that it just because natural to start saying yes to things for the sake of hearing the word.
And while there are some phrases where this habitual yes can have all sorts of benefits, there are at least three times when aspiring writers really need to learn how to utilize the word No for their own benefit.
NO…I’M NOT AVAILABLE FOR THAT PROJECT
When you’re starting out, the thought of saying no to a project seems untenable. You’re spending so much time wanting to be published, sending your work out to slush piles and getting back form responses, that the thought of someone contacting you and offering you a writing gig is vaguely dreamlike. And when you do start publishing and the invitations to write for this anthology or that project come through, you say yes without thinking, eager to be part of the working writer fraternity.
This is perfectly natural at the early stages of your career, but eventually you hit a point where you have to start saying no. It may be because you’ve got too much work on your plate already, or because the pay rate isn’t quite up to the standards you need it to be at (personally, I’m disinclined to write for free and always have been, even when I started out).
Either way, you need to fight your natural instinct and say no to the project. Then you need to fight your natural instinct toward regret and panic, in which your subconscious spends hours telling you what an idiot you are for saying no and stores the information to torture you with at a later date (usually, during a slow period when you do have time for such things and there’s no money on the horizon).
One of the most useful weapons in every writers arsenal should be Monica Valentinelli’s Sample Emails for Turing Down New Projects. It’s a great primer on turning down an opportunity while maintaining the possibility of working with the person in question, particularly if they’re willing to resolve your primary reason for saying no. I suggest reading it, bookmarking it, and referring to it often.
NO…I CAN’T AFFORD TO DO THAT RIGHT NOW
Writing is, generally speaking, not a steady income. Writing income generally comes through in smaller (and, occasionally, larger) chunks that arrive haphazardly and without reason. It’s one of the reasons I’m only a part-time writer – my day-job keeps my alive, my writing supplies the extra income I throw at my mortgage to ensure that I’m not still paying the damn thing off when I turn seventy.
In any case, one of the talents writers really need to learn is living within a damn budget.
Further, they need to get good at making the saving throw against the shiny thing and saying no to shit that will cost them money, particularly when they don’t have the cash to spare. And there are all sorts of shiny things writers convince themselves they really want: new technology, new books, trips out to see other writers and hang with peeps doing cool stuff. Hell, on a bad week, even a McDonald’s cheeseburger can look like an extravagance.
The temptation is always there to think “well, I’ve got a cheque coming, I can overspend a little this week,” but the truth is that the cheque never really arrives when you think it will, and you never really catch up as soon as you start borrowing from the money that hasn’t yet arrived. Sure, you can come up with reasons its a good idea; writers make up good motivations for characters all the time, so if you can convince a reader of something you can sure as hell convince yourself of a reason you really, really want to believe.
Resist that urge. Set aside the shiny thing when you can’t afford it. Don’t be afraid to say no, I’m outside my budget right now. Such is the life of a freelancer.
NO…THAT ISN’T A GOOD FIT FOR MY LONG-TERM STRATEGY
Most writers don’t plan ahead terribly well. Even if they’ve got a long-term strategy that they’re following, they’re willing to set it aside just ’cause a new opportunity presents itself. And the world is full of new opportunities for writers: the internet alone has brought us multiple forms of crowdfunding, a self-publishing boom, and new publication models through traditional houses.
Knee-jerk rejection of these new opportunities is bad; so is the eager attempt to embrace them all, simply because they’re there. Experimenting with them…well, it depends on what you’re actually doing. Most scientists use “experiment” to suggest a series of exercises that are undertaken to examine the validity of a hypothesis and generate data; I’m all about that. Unfortunately, most writers use “experiment” as their word for “dipping my toe into a new opportunity without a plan, hoping that it’ll pay out like a slot machine at the end.”
You only have so much time and energy per week, which means you inevitably come to a point where you need to figure out how you want to spend your time and what’s going to get you closer to your long-term goal.
Letting yourself get distracted by new opportunities that aren’t in keeping with your long-term strategy isn’t the most effective use of your time. Sometimes you just have to look at the shiny new mode and say, well, that’s interesting, but right now it’s not the best fit for getting me where I want to go.
Keep in mind, also, that new is relative. For some writers, it may be Patreon or Kickstarter; for others, figuring out how to maintain a blog while still serving long-term writing goals is a challenge (hell, for me, maintaining a blog while still serving long-term writing goals is a challenge, but I can justify the time spent here because I know where it fits and what I want to get out of blogging within the next few years).