Week 6 of Practical Meerkat is all about channeling your inner two-year-old, and relearning how to say no.
There is a tiny voice inside every writer’s head – fiction and nonfiction writers alike – that says “don’t ever say no. If you tell them you can’t, or turn down a project, you’ll never eat lunch on an expense account again.”
In most instances, this is good advice for a freelancer. Except when it’s not. There are, in my experience, five times you should absolutely say no.
1. If your editor is trying to set a deadline that you know you can’t make.
When an editor suggests delivery dates… remember that they are looking at THEIR schedule. You need to look at YOURS. And be realistic: if you don’t know exactly how long it will take you to finish writing a project, estimate on the long side. Turning it in early is far better than turning it in late/having to scramble for an extension. If their date isn’t one you can make: say no. Then offer your preferred schedule.
This is the time to make use of your agent. Hopefully s/he has a pretty good idea of what you’re capable of, and what your schedule looks like. And, also hopefully, s/he is comfortable saying “are you really sure you want to do that?”
[There is no truth to the rumor that my agent has “are you out of your mind?” recorded to play at-need for several of her clients. Okay, there may be some truth in it].
Saying no here can save you from a lot of pain, later.
2. If Production gives you a turnaround date you know you can’t manage.
Between finishing your final draft and publication there are many times where you will be handed material – a copyedit, cover copy, page proofs – and told “have it back by x date.” Generally, writers take a deep breath, say “okay!” cheerfully, and then have a nervous breakdown in a corner before hauling off and getting it done. But sometimes, there’s just not enough time. Some people can turn around page proofs in three days. Some people can knock off revisions in two weeks. Some can’t. And sometimes those who can, know they can’t this time – that’s the week of the family vacation, or dental surgery, or you’re in the grip of the Cold from Hell.
Odds are very good – in fact, I’d say odds are 9-1 in your favor – that the date they’ve given you has wiggle room (the difference between the due date and the drop-dead date was established by Production to keep actual disasters from happening.) If you say “No, I’m sorry, I can’t, I need x more days…” so long as “x” is a reasonable request, you’ll get it.
3. If you’re being asked to write something you’re utterly unenthusiastic about.
There are times you will be tempted to take on a project “for the money,” even though you’re not enthusiastic about the project itself. Unless that paycheck is all that stands between you and going hungry/being homeless, saying no may be the best thing you can do for your career. Otherwise, you’re not only locked into something that will make you unhappy, it might keep you from the project that you could get excited about. This is especially true if you’re working non-fiction, and projects are more time-sensitive.
This also applies to promotional appearances, or side gigs (lecturing, etc). If you enjoy doing it, do so. If you don’t… say no. It’s taking away from your writing time, and if you’re not enthusiastic, you’ll be not only off-schedule, but resentful. That benefits nobody.
4. If the money isn’t good enough, for the estimated time/energy required.
Sometimes, even if you think a project sounds interesting, the amount of work required outweighs the benefits, either in terms of money or career-building. You need to know what your time is worth, and hold to that. If you say no, they may come back with a better offer (this is called “negotiation” and it takes nerves and Tums to do it right. If you can hand it off to your agent and hide under the bed until they’re done, do so. Nobody will judge.)
Also, nobody except you (with input from your agent) can determine what your time is worth. Be ready to walk away, and never second-guess the decision.
5. If your gut tells you it’s a bad idea.
It’s not all about dollars and cents. Sometimes, there’s just something “off” about a project. Maybe it’s the idea, or the timing, or the people involved. Don’t dismiss that feeling, don’t tell yourself to “get over it.” Find out more about the project, the people, the history behind it. And if you still feel uncertain: say no. A toxic situation can derail you, writing-wise, for far longer than the duration of that particular project. It’s not worth it.
Next week: you won’t know what you’ve done until you’re done: Writing and the art of Zen Revision.
Laura Anne Gilman is a former editor with Penguin/Putnam, and the author of more than a dozen novels, most recently the urban fantasy PACK OF LIES, and WEIGHT OF STONE, Book 2 of the Nebula-nominated Vineart War trilogy. Her first collection, DRAGON VIRUS, will be published by Fairwood Press in Spring 2011. For more info check her website, her BookView Cafe bookshelf, or follow her on Twitter (@LAGilman) And yes, her nickname really is meerkat.