You Had Me at Hell, No:A Writer's Guide to Boundaries

In a desperate bid to avoid work the other day, I was reading an article on 10 Things You Shouldn't Do in Job Interviews when I noticed that the number one warning was not to smile too much.

After thinking about it, I agree that excessive smiling can convey the image of neediness, subservience, and desperation. Just as single folks most often run from members of the opposite sex who come off as neurotically eager for approval and a quick commitment, prospective agents, editors, and others in the business of writing can be turned off by an author whose bargaining position is on her knees.

I'm not advocating behaving like a diva (believe me), but neither should you play the doormat by caving to every demand, no matter how outrageous (beat me! whip me! make me write bad checks!) or putting on the please-sir-may-I-have-some-more face when you're negotiating contracts or other terms of business. Because you are a business, bringing a product to the table that others need and want, and if you don't start by believing in yourself and what you have to offer (or at least pretending you do), you can't realistically expect anyone else to buy into your dreams.

Along with excessive smiling and giving in, too many compliments can also work against you. It's bad enough to act like the suck-up every school kid hated, but when you go overboard in this area, you may be perceived as insincere and, worse yet, manipulative. While everyone appreciates being thanked and the sparing use of sincere and relevant compliments is quite appropriate, gushing makes you look weak and submissive.

Back when I was just getting started and facing a lot of failure and rejection, I sometimes found it tough to project the confidence I needed. I managed by reminding myself that the successful businessmen and women I've met never:

1. apologize for taking up the time of someone to whom they're presenting what they believe to be a mutually beneficial opportunity.
2. constantly worry their approaches my be misconstrued or laughed at.
3. allow a customer or client's yes or no to impact their sense of self-worth.
4. endlessly obsess about the reasons for a turn-down.
4. imagine that refusing a sub-basement offer is The End.

If handled professionally and pleasantly, saying no (though probably not "Hell, no) can be a real boon for your career, especially if you state your reasoning and/or come back with an appropriate counter-offer. Rather than causing the person offering to slam down the phone (or delete your e-mail or what have you), you may often find that a refusal sets you on the path to a negotiation that will bring you much, much more.

At the very least, it will earn you a bit of respect, both from others (in many cases) and yourself and may help ensure that you won't become the go-to author for ridiculous offers and unreasonable demands.

So is my list missing anything? What else should writers remember to be perceived as businesslike?


Vicky said…
Great post. You asked what else writers need to remember. I posted a blog on the Business Savvy writer last week. Here's the link:

Jo Anne said…
Excellent subject, Colleen. We all have unique talents, resources, assets, and tools that are of value. If we discount them, the fault is ours.

I own a bookkeeping service. Twenty-five years ago, I had an unpleasant phone conversation with a client who treated my work with disregard and argued about the cost of a reasonable invoice for my time. Because he thought to intimidate me, he screamed and cursed. I hung up on jerk.

When discussing the situation with a CPA friend of mine, he taught me a new concept – he taught me that I could fire a client. As a woman with only a high school education starting up a business, I was afraid of losing clients; therefore, the concept was foreign to me. Wasn’t I working for them? Sure, my friend said. He also said I was too good at what I did to sell my services to someone who did not respect them (or me). Throughout the years I used that bit of wisdom to develop a quality client base.

About the same time, I was recommended to an elderly lady from an old-school Texas family. The accountant who had serviced her for years had retired – and it was a difficult change for her. The family wanted to make sure I could make her comfortable. The first time we met, she wanted to visit. Coming from a hungry, “time-is-money” place, I tried to hustle the meeting along to get the information I needed to go to work. She let me know that it was important to trust the folks with whom we do business, and to do that we had to know something about each other. She was 82. And I took care of her business until she was 94 and didn’t recognize me anymore (Alzheimer’s).

These two lessons, coming to me at the right time in my young business, have helped make my bookkeeping service career not only more successful, but also much more pleasant. So I’ll add these to your list.

· Feel you must work with someone who doesn’t value and respect you or what you do.
· Be afraid to be yourself, show yourself, and know others with whom you have a close business association. It enhances mutual trust.

Life is too short. You know me, Colleen – I am responsible and hardworking. But by God, if it’s not fun, I just won’t play. :-)
Terri said…
I don't have anything to add, just wanted to say great post and love the title!
Great additions to the list, Jo Anne. Thanks so much for sharing.

Thanks, Vicky, for sharing a link to your post. I highly recommend it!

Appreciate the kind words, Terri. Happy you stopped by!
Joni Rodgers said…
Amen. And what Jo Anne said.

I think we also have to be really thoughtful about doing anything for "exposure" or "on spec" (two nice ways of saying "unpaid.") I believe in the tangible intangibles of any deal, but I can't get groceries, gas or my kids' college tuition on spec. Those opportunities should be subjected to a brutally realistic cost/benefit analysis.
Christie Craig said…
Love the advice, guys!

I have found that I have to listen to my inner voice. I think one of the hardest things in this business is to learn to follow your instinct. Yes, you always make decisions based on knowledge, but a lot of knowledge goes into your instinct as it forms and grows over the years.

I have stood up for myself against people who considered it my job to just to listen and take their advice. Amazingly, my instincts didn't let me down, and now I have this person's respect.

Great post.
Thanks for the comments, Joni and Christie. You both make great points.

And Christie, I agree that when you do set limits (especially w/ a difficult person), the other guy will often quit pushing so hard. Whereas when you give in to unreasonable demands, the other guy will often push harder just to see what it takes to get you to say no.

But then, we have teenagers. We should know this! :)
Teri Thackston said…
Great post, Colleen, and I agree with everything you said. And Jo Anne--the lesson about being able to fire a client is so true.
P.J. Mellor said…
Great post, Colleen. I think as authors, we often struggle so long and hard to get where we are that we're so patheticly grateful we sometimes agree to almost anything. It's the Sally Field "You like me, you really like me!" syndrome. Bottom line, it's a business--time to pull up your big girl panties and treat it as such. I'm trying! PJM
Linda Warren said…
I agree with everyone - a great post. This writing business is brutal and, for me, it's not easy to maintian a strong level of confidence. I always think about about what someone told me before I sold - Believe in yourself. Believe in your work and everything else will fall into place. Even when the rejections came, I held on to that.

Now if I can remember not to smile too much. Or giggle!!
I'm a big-time smiler, too, Linda, so it's probably best that I conduct most business via phone or e-mail!

Yes, Pam, I couldn't help but think of poor Sally Field as I wrote this post. She may never live that moment down!
TJ Bennett said…
Great blog, Colleen.

One thing I can add from my varied business background is something an executive once told me: "Dress for the job you want, not the job you have." In my current line of work, I see this as a metaphor: Respect and believe in yourself. See yourself where you want to be, and then proceed accordingly. Appear the way you want to be perceived (successful, confident writer) and others will perceive you that way, too. As a result, you will attract those things that make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Donna Maloy said…
Colleen, Jo Anne, Vicky and all -- simply terrific points. Another really important one is to never burn a bridge you may have to cross again. There is a polite and business-like way to say no to someone. Use it. You never know when that someone (like an editor!) will change houses and show up in your life again.
Boy, is that ever true, Donna! How you end a business relationship - or treat someone you don't believe can do you any good - says a lot about you as a person. People want to work with those who can be trusted to behave professionally. Users and tantrum-throwers need not apply!

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