Saying No.

Neil Gaiman had a wonderful commencement speech that he has, awesomely, turned into posters and an illustrated book, so that he can get multiple streams of income from one set of words. That masterful exploration of IP licensing isn’t what I wanted to address, though.

I find it bitterly amusing that when I see “Make Good Art” quoted, the new-to-making-art-for-a-living people quoting it usually leave out almost all the business advice he was trying to impart under “things I wish I’d known when I was starting out.”

I laugh a little, in the painful way, because they’re really excited about the part that speaks to them… and ignore all the parts that would save them so much trouble and heartache if only they realized it’s *going* to speak to them if they keep ignoring it while making good art.

But I understand. When you’re starting out, it does feel like this:

“When you start off, you have to deal with the problems of failure. You need to be thick-skinned, to learn that not every project will survive. A freelance life, a life in the arts, is sometimes like putting messages in bottles, on a desert island, and hoping that someone will find one of your bottles and open it and read it, and put something in a bottle that will wash its way back to you: appreciation, or a commission, or money, or love. And you have to accept that you may put out a hundred things for every bottle that winds up coming back.”

He went on, though, to warn about the problems of success… and that’s what gets dropped out of a lot of the advice. He noted the problems of success are harder, in part because nobody warns you about them… and what do people do? Not listen to the warning, and drop it out of their quotes. They include:

“The point where you stop saying yes to everything, because now the bottles you threw in the ocean are all coming back, and have to learn to say no.”

Yesterday, Cedar mentioned her whiteboard system, so that she can see when her schedule is full and she’s getting dangerously close to overcommitting.

“I’m having fun, though. And with all of the organization, plus the new processes with Raconteur Press that are keeping all of us in the loop for deadlines, I’m not feeling overwhelmed and like I’ve forgotten something important. Which is the good part here, since I have a tendency to overcommit. Keeping it visual tells me when I’m approaching that point, so I can turn down proposed projects, regretfully, but it’s what I have to do to keep myself happy and productive. Saying no. So hard.”

This caught my eye, because on Friday, I was having a similar conversation with CV Walter, as we ditched our workload for the day and went to Seymour, TX to see more dinosaurs. (And dimetrodons, which are Not Dinosaurs. They’re older than dinosaurs! See Holly Simon’s book, I Came Before The Dinosaurs!)

On the way there, she mentioned she understands when people get the impression that she’s overcommitting, but there’s actually a fairly ruthless and pragmatic evaluation of each opportunity… and from the outside, people only see what she says Yes to, not all the times she’s said No.

I replied ruefully that there was a time in my life when I would have cheerfully maimed someone for an invite to an anthology… and now that I have one, and a bunch of open calls, I instead find myself looking at them, and saying up front, “Thank you, but I don’t have the time, ability, or energy.”

I still feel like I ought to grab the opportunity, even though I don’t have the ability to fulfill it. Years of scarcity ingrained this fear that if I don’t grab every opportunity, I’ll miss out. And that… that is when I remembered Neil Gaiman talking about all those bottles coming back, and having to learn to say No.

She reassured me that, as an editor of anthologies (under a different pen name), she deeply appreciated my up-front “no”, because it meant she didn’t have to spend mental time or energy watching for my submission.

That isn’t universal. Jim Curtis gives me that look when he feeds me, and it’s amazingly effective at making my muse behave and eventually cough up a story. I can’t make my muse behave, but he can? Man has skills!

Cedar, on the other hand, was patient and understanding when I said “no”, and then my muse came up with something… and kept going. Yes, eight months overdue and 40,000 words over length, Between Two Graves was supposed to be a short in the PTSD anthology Can’t Go Home Again.

(Don’t do that to your editor. I don’t know why she still puts up with me, much less did the cover art for it. I owe her so much chocolate.)

So, I have learned to say No. Sometimes. Not always. Like the rest of my life, it’s a work in progress.

Next challenge: learning to schedule in more things that refill the well, so I have more mental energy and creativity to say Yes. That is definitely a different topic for a different day.

10 thoughts on “Saying No.

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  1. There’s a lot of writerly advice drifting around out there (and some of it is very useful) but I find these career-sorts of overviews absolutely invaluable, because they refer to experiences we may not have dealt with yet rather than just craft advice, however helpful.

    I always appreciate the perspective they provide, like the one about how to view one’s internal judgments on one’s own work from Ira Glass (

  2. No chocolate owed! I love the novel you eventually wrote, and I’m delighted I had a small part in its genesis.

    We’ve talked before about this concept of saying No, and it’s a difficult one for me. I am wired to want to make people happy, so yes tends to be my default, and it’s not healthy for me. Learning how to say no, practicing it, and then learning how not to be guilty about it (that last is the hardest!) is going to take me more time.

    1. Hmm. That’s interesting. My first thought when you wrote “I am wired to want to make people happy” was that I’m not wired that way. I like to make people happy, but now that I think about it, I think I’m wired to try to avoid hurting people. What a thought.

  3. Right now, I’m definitely still at the “throw out bottles” stage of my career, sitting here hoping that someone, anyone, decides to throw one back. I don’t know that I would “cheerfully maim someone for an invite to an anthology,” but I might very well guiltily maim someone for that invite. The idea of having so many that you would have to say “no” to some of them seems almost an unimaginable dream.

    Yet even at this stage, I can’t toss a bottle to everyone who claims to want one. I’ve been trying to look for places to submit, and I think I’ve found 11 calls for stories that have their deadlines in the next four weeks (the end of March/beginning of April seems a popular submission time). Obviously, I can’t submit to all of them; I wouldn’t have been able to even if I’d started writing the second I heard about these.

    I’ve been thinking about how to prioritize. Publishers that give me a bad feeling even through their websites are out, but beyond that, how should I decide? Go for ones that pay well, on the grounds that I should maximize potential returns? Go for ones that don’t pay well, on the grounds that the competition will probably be easier? Right now, I’m just letting the muse decide; if she can come up with a story idea for a particular call, I write it up and send it in; if she doesn’t give me one, I don’t force it. But I’m wondering if that system is going to keep working as I (hopefully) scale up.

    1. Right now the market seems to be “write books to get some fans, then get in anthologies because you can bring in some sales with your fans and maybe other readers will try your books and . . .”

      But the first steps are the hardest and seem so tiny.

      I need to learn how to write short, so I can get into anthologies on purpose, not because I accidentally wrote short.

  4. As to saying “No”- There is an almost perverse reaction from my brain when I say NO to things. Said brain starts planning, plotting and hurrying me on things to clear time. I often seem to be carried along by a subconscious aim. Does no good to remonstrate “But, I said NO…”. I enjoyed reading this.

  5. Hey, sometimes you just need a ‘little’ push… WE know you can do it, even if you’re afraid to admit it/try it… 😉

  6. Each year that passes makes me not just older, but feel older. I’m tired and so I say “No” more often even though the bottles I toss out (so few and far between!) rarely come back with a request for more.

    But when I spread myself too thin, I collapse and get nothing done at all.
    Or when real life forces itself in, taking all my energy, I get nothing else done.

    It’s always a balancing act.

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