We writers hear the word “No” a lot. Sure, sometimes it’s dressed up in fancy clothes, like “They decided to go in another direction” or “The position has been filled” or “I’m sorry, we’re all out of Venti cups”… but it’s always there. And, as writers, we’re expected to accept it. But we’re not often expected to say it. In fact, we’re expected to be agreeable almost to a fault. Say yes to everything: Yes to working on spec. Yes to unpaid revisions. Yes to even the most boneheaded of notes (while screaming inside our own heads that the note-giver wouldn’t know a good story if it bit them on the ass). Be “good in a room”. Pitch solutions, not problems. Chin up, try again, pay your dues. And most of the time, that’s all right. Better than all right — it’s necessary. The collaborative spirit, and being easy to work with, is essential for creating art by committee… or at least for not starting a brawl in the room. None of us really wants to have that on our rap sheet (or on the front page of Deadline). Choosing your battles is important. But what happens when you choose the road less travelled?
Note that I’m not advocating a Network– (or Newsroom-) style rant, nor any other bridge-incinerating behavior. What I’m talking about is checking in with yourself and being honest about what you want – what’s best for you as a person and as a professional.
I’ve been a professional script reader ever since I moved to LA, even during the years of Ye Olde Corporate Dayjob. Saying “No” isn’t just a right, it’s a responsibility. But passing on sub-par scripts and saying no to an opportunity are completely different things. We’re all looking for a break, no matter where we are in our careers, and it’s one of the peculiarities of this business that there’s no set path to get to where we’re going. And it’s tempting to say yes to everything in case it’s the one thing that will make the difference. But I believe there’s a place for a well-considered “No”, especially when choosing who to listen to. Consider the source: where is the person offering notes or advice coming from? Are they considering your priorities or their own? How similar are their priorities to yours? Can they speak with authority on whatever the subject at hand happens to be? When we’re just starting out, it’s easy to get bogged down in a thousand different contradictory messages, or to latch onto the first opportunity that comes our way, and it’s worth examining our short-term needs and long-term goals before jumping in with both feet or taking one person’s advice as gospel.
Not having a single clear-cut path to success can be terrifying, but it can also be liberating. We get to make our own way, and after all, aren’t our instincts – or, in terms of writing, our point of view or “voice” – what we hope to be hired for? This isn’t a one-size-fits-all industry, so choose your advisors and your battles wisely, and always remember that while being open and flexible is vital, you are the ultimate authority on your own work and your own career. You always have a choice, and sometimes it’s okay to say no. Like they say about the numerous passes most of us face… every no is just one step closer to yes.