Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

"No" is a complete sentence

Mark Waid tells it like it is about client-talent relationships.
A writer friend sent me this link to Mark's blog this morning, and I think it's the kind of advice that every writer and artist should pay some heed to. It's actually aimed at freelances trying to break into comics, but I think it's equally valid for all self-employed creative jobs, and even as a reminder for established writers like me -- because this happens to us almost as often as it happens to new entrants. It's not just some awful apprenticeship rite of passage like being sent to find the golden rivet. You'll encounter it throughout your career. And it doesn't just apply to work for hire; you can get shafted in very similar ways with original fiction, too. Hell, it doesn't even confine itself to the entertainment industry. The bloke who paints my house tells me similar stories about subcontracting in the building trade. It's all about big businesses leaning on very small or one-man operations.

In brief, at some time in your career -- quite a few times, probably -- you'll be asked to do things you think are unreasonable, whether it's a creative issue or being asked to put in a lot of extra hours unpaid because someone had a last minute change of mind. (As Mark says, you should be paid.) It might not be your imagination or over-sensitivity: sometimes they are unreasonable. So you might need to say no, politely and firmly. And that's not always easy.

It's not arty-farty or precious to push back, or even to ask for your name to be taken off something that you can't live with. It's your name on the cover or the credits: you're the one who'll take the flak and the long-term reputational damage for it, not the anonymous backroom people. It's protecting your reputation with the customer, which is all you have to trade with. Really. That's it. Your good name with the people who buy your stuff is your sole asset as a freelance, and in this case the money comes from the buying public: it doesn't matter how much a publisher or studio loves you if the public don't buy your stuff. And if people don't buy your stuff, the company will fall out of love with you pretty damn fast anyway.

Remember, too, that if you get a rep for being "the good soldier," as Mark puts it, who'll always do exactly as asked, drop everything to dig the client out of a hole that wasn't of your making, and cheerfully clean the floor for free every time after the horse has passed, you're likely to end up being taken for granted rather than respected for your positivity. As my mother used to say: "Don't be too willing." (She also used to say: "You can shit on me once, but don't try to rub it in." Yes, she had a colourful turn of phrase, but that one's true as well.) There's a line between being can-do and being a door mat. And what gets rewarded gets done. There's plenty of sayings on that subject to choose from.

"No" is a complete sentence and it's worth saying it more often than you might realise. Would-be writers and artists desperate for a break might find it impossible to imagine that it's sometimes better to turn down a gig, but the evidence is all around you. And we live in an age where you have more alternative outlets for your work than ever before. Don't be an arsehole to the companies you work with, but don't let them treat you like one either.

Anyway, read it and learn. Mark speaks the truth. And the truest of all those true words is that the only person who'll look out for your future is you.