Friday, November 20, 2009

The Kindest Word in the English Language

I've often heard my father say, "sometimes the kindest word in the English language is No." He has been both an editor and a writer, and I think his views on this point come from the latter perspective. When you have sent a manuscript or a pitch to a publisher, what you want to hear, of course, is Yes. But failing that, a quick No is a lot more helpful, and merciful, than a long, agonizing silence.

When I was a junior editor, I wanted to impress agents with my keen editorial brain, so I would sometimes take an hour or more to craft a rejection letter that showed my incisive understanding of the flaws of the manuscript I was sending back. It wasn't that easy to find an hour or two with everything else I had to do, so sometimes it would take me a few weeks actually to compose my brilliant decline. Now that I have been at the game longer, I've realized that a brief, even brusque "no thanks" sent in a day or two is generally more welcome to an agent or author than an extended critique that arrives weeks later. I still sometimes hold onto submissions longer than I should, either because I'm genuinely on the fence or because I've got the bad old feeling that I need to explain why I'm saying no. But I try to err on the side of promptness rather than well-meaning delay.

If editors need to say no more promptly, writers need to learn to say no, period. Nothing is worse for a writer's productivity than, well, all the things he or she does beside writing. Going to conferences, reading other people's galleys to blurb them, doing a book review--these are all worthwhile activities, and if you do enough of them, your own book will never get written.  Another memory of my days as a junior editor: I was publishing a novel I was crazy about and I knew a famous literary novelist would be a perfect reader for it. I composed a fervent, personal blurb request and sent it to her with a bound proof. I soon received a letter back from her that read something like this (I'm quoting from memory):
Dear Mr. Ginna,
Here is a partial list of things I am responsible for at this moment: one dog, three cats, a parakeet, two book reviews, three magazine articles, and one novel. Much as I would like to read what you have sent me I cannot possibly take it on at this time.
Yours very truly,
(the famous novelist)
Needless to say I was disappointed and a little miffed; I was even more miffed a couple of months later when I found a colleague of mine had received the same letter, with her name typed in where mine had been. The famous novelist was cranking out form letters in reply to our heartfelt entreaties!

By the time I got to be a grizzled senior editor, I felt differently about these form letters. I had realized that most people who got my begging letters didn't bother to write back at all, so the prompt form letter was comparatively courteous. And having worked with many more authors, I had seen how many of them got nibbled to death by well-intentioned requests and projects, and were months or years late on their commitments, because they were too nice to say No. It is not a coincidence that the famous novelist has written more than two dozen books in the two decades since our exchange.

The problem is not confined to the literary world. I recently came across the printed postcard that Francis Crick, who became a world celebrity for his role in deciphering the structure of DNA, used to fend off the stream of requests that came his way.

Sometimes saying No is a kindness to yourself, too.


Anonymous said...

Glad I strolled through past posts to find this one. It's December and I'm pondering New Year resolutions. I'd made a list. Now I see that what should be at the top of that list or possibly be the list complete is simply: Say No!

Thanks Peter.

Peter Ginna said...

I would not like to be known, like the admissions committee chairman of a venerable New York Club, as "The Abominable No Man." I believe in saying Yes to things--but saying yes to everything does no one a service. In some sense, of course, the job of an editor is knowing which things to say yes and which to say no to.