A key moment can occur in a writer’s career when he or she starts turning down opportunities.
You read that right: turning them down. Saying ‘No’ to an opportunity to get published.
Most writers try to emulate the success they see in other writers. When submission opportunities arise, for instance, they say yes to anyone willing to pay and yes to anyone not paying simply because they feel that they need the money and, if not money, a chance at more exposure.
What can be difficult to understand is that saying yes can kill them off as writers.
This is very counter-intuitive, isn’t it?
By accepting any and all work, writers can become highly generic (lacking imagination or individuality; predictable and unoriginal).
In the beginning of their careers, writers are often in a constant state of panic. Where are their next submission opportunities going to coming from? When will they come? Will they get enough acceptances? Pumping out story after story is a constant treadmill of work — and the higher proportion of these stories will probably be rejected, making the effort to continue much harder.
Often only when a writer finds a niche—and starts turning away opportunities —does he or she truly begin to thrive. The more these writers say no to those outside of their specific expertise, the more opportunities arise within that niche. And these are not just any opportunities, but ideal chances not only to get work published but to get paid for it too. When a writer finds out exactly what he or she does best, so apparently does the world.
When I arrived back in England 26 years ago (after a corresponding 26 years away in Australia) I was approached by various institutions and agencies wanting to employ me. Sometimes I would get home and find up to 16 messages on my answering machine from people wanting to recruit me (yes, this was in the days of the answering machine with its little recorded messages and bleeping noises). I would sift through these each day and try to formulate a response that wouldn’t offend, but which would keep my options open. The truth was that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, where I wanted to end up working, or what my purpose was.
It took me a while to work it out, but a couple of years later, when I had resolved what it was that I actually ‘stood for’ or wanted to accomplish, the messages on the machine vanished. I hadn’t broadcast my decision; no one knew that I was even thinking about these things — the answering machine was suddenly empty, overnight.
And I had productive, purposeful work every day which I loved and which led me eventually to the even better position I am in today.
I hadn’t even had to say ‘No’ to anyone, except in my head: but effectively I had turned away all the distractions and was able to concentrate on the ‘motherlode’ of purposeful projects which came to underpin Clarendon House and its many facets.
Essentially, I learned that an opportunity today outside of your niche is worth less than a opportunity tomorrow from an ideal source. The opportunity you receive today is only what it is — a little bit of exposure or an even smaller bit of cash. But when you’re working on something that fits into your own deepest purposes, you receive the additional reward of freeing yourself up to find new work that will help you build and strengthen your writing career into the valuable, productive and meaningful activity you want it to be.
It’s a kind of magic: once you discover what it is that you love doing and can do well, it seems to beget more work of that kind. Whereas if you are going ‘cap in hand’ looking for projects that you don’t enjoy, or that fall outside your area of skill or specialty, you will tend to feel drained, apathetic and frustrated even when you get acceptances or exposure.
Spending time working on the wrong things is reason enough to seek out instead the right things to focus on. You want ideal publication opportunities that help you to build your reputation in your genre or genres; you want to be working with editors, publishers and readers who love your stuff and recommend you to others; you want to be developing your skills, growing nuanced fiction that becomes lasting literature. This will mean you get faster, stronger, better at what you do — which includes more confidence when turning away work that doesn’t fit you.
That means, in the end, more income. But primarily, more satisfaction, more inner contentment.
When you work outside your specialty, all you are doing is making money or receiving exposure. That's fine, of course -- but you’re not growing upwards, just outwards. Furthermore, you might be undermining your future development. A paying opportunity to publish may seem better than no opportunity — but it means that your valuable time might be being redirected away from more appropriate work. Better, greater projects are missing out.
But what if that leaves you with nothing at all?
Counter-intuitive assertion coming up: having nothing published is preferable to having material published outside your niche or niches because that can actually stifle your growth as a meaningful artist.
Terrifying, isn't it? How do you say no to an opportunity when you need the exposure? How do you say no when you are easily capable of producing what is requested?
It’s not easy; it can feel wrong. And of course it's entirely up to you. But taking the weak opportunity today can prolong the struggle to become a recognised name. Courage is needed; self-confidence and a sense of the worth of one’s own work is required. But saying ‘No’ at the right time can be the beginning of greatness.