Another Word: On Saying No
When Clarkesworld asked for this essay, I said yes. I almost always say yes. It’s a longstanding habit, born of my hungriest days when I was making music full time. It led to some ridiculous itineraries, say Dallas, TX to Superior, WI in a day, because they were good gigs and they paid well, and what if I offered a different date and they changed their minds before the contracts were signed? I carried that into writing as well, throwing myself at every opportunity offered. I have been known to yes myself into total exhaustion and over-commitment.
It is with the wisdom of my years that I come to you saying there is value in saying no. Learning to say “no” or even a conditional yes can protect your time, your sanity, and even your brand, such as it is at the beginning of your career. Every single person in this field has other obligations and passions, whether those are jobs or hobbies or families. Those things are valuable and necessary to being a human in this world, but they all take time. Trying to cram in actual minutes to write—the physical act that allows us to call ourselves authors—can be tricky. All of the little things that make up a writing career but aren’t actual words-in-document can easily run away with the day.
Time isn’t the only thing in need of protection. When you’re new to the field, every invitation feels like a sign that you’ve made it. External validation can be hard to come by, so it’s easy to agree to do things that may not be beneficial in the long run. I think most of us learn too late that both “no” and “yes, if . . . ” are valid responses to an invitation.
Here are some things you can say no to:
Walking away from a sale sucks. Writing an email to negotiate a contract clause always makes my stomach lurch. I’m not a lawyer, but I can recognize a rights grab. How can a [magazine, publisher, anthology] that boasts such illustrious authors have a clause that awful in their contract? The simple answer is that those illustrious authors don’t all sign the same contract. They negotiate. You can negotiate too. And if it doesn’t work, you can walk away. If one editor saw potential in your story, another will too.
You’ve signed the contract! You’ve gotten the copy edits! And . . . you don’t agree with them. It’s easy to think of the editors as all-knowing experts, but you are the expert on your story. Listen, because they might actually be right. Then muster the courage to tell them if you think they’ve misinterpreted something, or if you really love a line the way it stands. If they want something that truly compromises your story, you can still say no.
Submission Calls and Anthology Invitations
See also: a call for submissions to a magazine or anthology that doesn’t pay, with exceptions for charity anthologies you believe in; an invitation to an anthology that doesn’t pay well; an invitation to an anthology with a hideous contract (see above); a brand-new magazine run by editors whose names you don’t recognize.
This may not be a personal invitation, but when you’re just starting out, every submission call feels like a beacon. A chance to get published! A built-in story prompt! My advice would be to save your stories for the projects that offer fair payment. Save your stories for the projects led by people with a track record in the field. Save your stories for projects and publishers and editors you believe in.
An anthology that is badly conceived or badly designed will sink like a stone. Worse yet, if there’s no reversion clause, it may tie up your story for years. If you write a story about an anthropomorphic paperclip for an anthology of pirate paperclip stories and they don’t take it, your story will be one of hundreds of anthropomorphic paperclip stories glutting the market for years afterward.
Getting invited onto programming for the first time can be an exciting step in your SF career. Then you get your list of panels and your heart drops. You’ve been put on a panel you know nothing about, or you’ve been put on six panels in a row, with no lunch break. You’re the only queer person on a panel about queer characters. You’re an author of color and you’ve only been given diversity panels. You’ve been asked to moderate a panel and recognize that one of the panelists is a known derailer, mansplainer, or rejecter of the panel’s central conceit. You read the panel description and your first thought is “Well, that’s going to be a disaster.”
It has taken me ages to learn this lesson, and in truth I’m not sure I’m done learning it, but it’s okay to push back. The people creating programming for a con don’t always know everyone they’re trying to program. They may have their own blind spots. You are allowed to say that they’ve given you too many panels, and suggest which one to take you off of. You are allowed to bow out of diversity panels; it’s not your responsibility to educate anybody. You are allowed to point out if a panelist is problematic on a given topic, or to suggest someone in that person’s place. You are allowed to suggest changes to a panel description or title. You are allowed to make your participation contingent upon changes, if you are prepared to walk away.
The Agent in Your Email
You look at the email. You look at it again. It’s from a real live agent, and they are writing to you. To you. No joke. Take a deep breath. Ask yourself: Is this somebody you want to work with? Are they with a reputable agency? Do they represent anybody you know? Were they on your list? Is there any evidence they are just spamming authors, or do they actually seem to know you or your work? Take time to do your homework. It’s great to feel wanted, but getting locked into a relationship with someone who does not have your interests at heart is worse than having no agent.
Blurbs and Reviews
This is an interesting one. Who doesn’t love free books? On the other hand, is this a book you want to read? Do you have time to read it? Will you feel any pressure to give it a positive review because it was sent to you for free? Will you feel bad giving it a bad review because the author is part of your community?
It’s okay to say no if you don’t have time. It’s okay to say no if you don’t think you’re the right reviewer for the book. Same goes for blurbs. Every review and blurb will take time from your fiction writing. Is it a book you’ll be glad you read? Do you have time to do it justice? Are you willing to lend your name to that project? They’re tough questions, especially when the person asking is a friend.
I am the last person in the world who should lecture anyone on this. I’m a member of SFWA’s Board of Directors. My brain still does the thing where it says, “WHAT? YOU REALLY WANT ME?”
Volunteering is wonderful and everyone should do it. It can teach you slush reading or con running or sound tech or any number of things. It gives you opportunities to give back to the community. Still, you won’t do anyone any favors if you’re stretched too thin. Pick a few things you really want to do, and make sure you protect your writing time.
It’s flattering to be asked to contribute a donor reward. Your name is big enough to be an incentive! You get to help make something happen! If the project is one you support, there is absolutely nothing wrong with donating something for the cause. That said, ask yourself again how much of your writing time it will take up, and offer a reward accordingly. For example, I know for myself that critiques take me a lot of time. I’m not a fast reader. For that reason, I tend not to offer critiques anymore. I’ve seen authors offer all kinds of incentives: critiques, signed books, drawings, dinners. Choose the reward that you can afford to give.
Critique-exchanges and Critique Groups
Time, time, time. I love giving and receiving critiques, and I think they make me a better writer. At one point, I had four different critique groups I was taking part in. I felt like all I was ever doing was reading works in progress. All the group members were wonderful writers and people I enjoyed spending time with, so it had nothing to do with them, but there’s a certain point where you’re no longer helping yourself. It’s okay to step back or take a breather. It’s also okay to prioritize critique partners who challenge you to be a better writer.
This is a tricky one. Science fiction is a small community full of smaller sub-communities. It exists in a strange blur of friend-colleagues, some of whom turn into real friends, blurring the lines further. It’s okay to refuse a friend request on Facebook if you only friend people you know. It’s okay to refuse requests for help from strangers. It’s okay to choose not to hang out with somebody who makes you uncomfortable.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, and I could probably write a whole essay on any one of the subheadings. The bottom line is that a career is built on both the things you do and the things you choose not to do. Like many things in life, you’ll get absolutely no credit for the invisible choices. Nobody will know which novels you didn’t blurb, or which anthologies almost included your story. Some choices will hurt, like when the aforementioned novel or anthology becomes a bestseller and you could have been part of it. Some choices may hurt other people.
Still, in order to make the choices that protect your time, your rights, and your sanity, I recommend learning how to use the word “no.”
I’m still practicing.
Sarah Pinsker is the author of the Nebula winning novelette, "Our Lady of the Open Road" and the Theodore Sturgeon Award winning novelette, "In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind." Her stories have appeared in Asimov's, Strange Horizons, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and Uncanny, among others, as well as numerous anthologies, and have been nominated for the Nebula, Hugo, Sturgeon, Locus, and Eugie Foster awards. Her first collection, Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea: Stories will be published by Small Beer Press in March 2019, followed by a novel, Song For A New Day, September 2019 from Ace/Berkley. She lives with her wife and dog in Baltimore, Maryland.