Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Saying no

Writers who seek a readership wider than their own circle of family and friends usually go through the rejection mill, one way or another. In traditional publishing, the first hurdle is finding an agent and/or publisher, and the writer usually hears a lot of "no" before getting to "yes." During the long drought when yesses are scarce, the writer becomes conditioned to pursue every opportunity. During this stage, it's usually other people who say no; the writer doesn't get to say no to much.

Therefore, when offers and opportunities start coming, the writer says yes. And yes, and yes again. The writer's been seeking these very chances for so long that the word "no" may not even come up as an option.

But there really are choices.

Sometimes writers kick themselves for turning down an agent that they didn't quite click with, or an offer that didn't sit well, or a promotional opportunity that would conflict with family obligations / writing time / simple emotional needs. They are especially likely to second-guess themselves if the next opportunity is a long time in coming. It takes practice to learn to pronounce the word "no," and courage to use it. In every writer lurks that fear: What if I turn down something that turns out to have been the brass ring? What if this was my big break, and I missed it?

But we all have our limits. And I believe that saying no when we need to, and listening to the gut, ultimately won't lead us astray. In fact, it can help us avoid trouble.

I once heard Laurie Halse Anderson speak at a writers' conference about what she called "the power of no." She long ago became successful enough that she can't possibly say yes to every request for her time and attention, even if she wanted to. At the time I heard her give this speech, I was still in the opportunities-are-scarce-and-I-have-my-eyes-out-for-every-one stage, and I found it hard to believe I would ever need to use her advice. Yet I've seen writer after writer reach this point. It doesn't just happen to bestselling, household-name authors. There comes a point where it's impossible to say yes to everything. And even when only one opportunity is on the table, that still doesn't require the writer to say yes. If it doesn't feel right, it's okay to say no.

It's okay not to do everything, not to try everything. It's okay to leave some stones unturned. Nobody can do it all, so it's more important to do what's best for ourselves.


  1. Oh, do I relate to this post. Saying no is so hard, but I'm beginning to understand that it's absolutely necessary.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Any time, Lee! We can remind each other. :-)