Know what “No” Really Means

“Nobody knows anything.”

– William Goldman, Oscar-winning screenwriter and novelist


You are a writer.  Which means you will hear the word “no.” 

Frequently.  Cruelly.  Usually without explanation.  Often without reason.

They will tell you no.  And it will suck.

You may not hear anything at all.  When that happens… it means no.

You are left to interpret the word “no.”  To assign meaning.  And this is the great abyss of writing.  It has a slippery slope at its precipice.  Once you fall into it, everything gets harder.  You become part of the problem.  The bottom of the pit is littered with the dreams of genuinely talented writers who heard and believed the word “no.”

But here’s the thing.  When it comes to writing, “no” doesn’t mean “no” at all.

It means, “I don’t know.”

Even if they tell you what’s behind their “no,” they still don’t know.  The wise writer listens, filters, applies, and moves on.

“I don’t know” is truer than “no.”  It means more to you than “no.”

No is a lie.  I don’t know is the absolute, take-it-to-the-bank truth.

And that, dear writer friends, it what sustains us when the abyss calls our name.

Martha’s Story

A friend of mine named Martha had a great concept for a provocative thriller, one that challenged religious paradigms and personalized our own response to the question of belief. 

Great theme.  Wonderful drama.  High tension suspense.  I loved it.  Martha loved it.

Her critique group didn’t love it.  No matter how Martha spun it for them – it was just a concept at this point – they wouldn’t gift her with an endorsement. 

They said no.

They didn’t get it.  They couldn’t see it.  And they wouldn’t be swayed by Martha’s enthusiasm for it.

And so they said no

Martha wrote it anyway.  Thus avoiding the abyss.

They still said no.  They didn’t get.  They couldn’t see it.  And they weren’t swayed by Martha’s execution of it.

But what they said really meant was this: they didn’t know.  Either at the pitch stage, or the manuscript stage.  They just didn’t know.

Martha recently pitched this story to a handful of agents at a writing conference.  None of them said no.  What they did say was: send us more.

Here’s the irony.  The agents don’t know, either.  The publishers they submit your work to won’t know

Nobody knows anything.

Which is why, in this context, “no” means nothing other than I don’t know

Because if what you’re writing is solid, if it meets the criteria for solid story architecture and dramatic resonance leading to thematic impact, someone along the path will say something other than “no.”

Getting them to do that is your job.  Recognizing it when they see it is their job.  And both jobs are as imprecise and subjective as any work on the planet.

You’re working to find that one person who counts who says something other than no.

Larry’s Story

Bef0re I sold my first novel I was a struggling screenwriter.  I’d had an agent for nine years, and we’d had a couple of options and some success in the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship competition, which hatches the occasional produced script (14 of them, in fact, like Mike Rich’s Finding Forrester, and, less frequently, a handful of viable careers… especially Mike Rich’s).

I wanted to turn one of my scripts into a novel.  My agent said no.

I started it anyway.  My agent said no again.

I finished the adaptation.  My agent said “hmmm.”  Totally forgot that she’d said no, but that’s fine, this isn’t about that.

She submitted the draft to four publishers.   Three said no.

One said yes.

That publisher (Penguin-Putnam) threw some national advertising at it and propelled Darkness Bound onto the USA Today bestseller list for three weeks.  A couple of hundred thousand copies and an open door for more novels going forward. 

All leading toward a website called Storyfix and the book that it would become.

No meant I don’t know.

Even the publisher who said yes didn’t know.  That’s the game we’re stuck with, this isn’t a sport in which an object either goes into the goal or it doesn’t.

Yes means: I think I know

They’re not always right.  But that’s the best we’ll get.  Because once we hear yes, we’re pretty much done.  What comes next has almost nothing to do with us.

We’ve reached the goal.  The ball (or puck, your call) went into the net (or out of the park) this time.

Nobody knows anything when it comes to deciding which book is good, which will find a market, and which won’t.  William Goldman said it first, and he’s right. 

At least, at the level at which this game is played.  Some manuscripts scream “amateur” so loudly you might as well stamp it on your cover page.  That’s what this site is all about – avoiding that particular abyss.

Once your story and your execution is at a certain level… nobody knows.

And most of the time, because it’s their business, they say “no” instead of “I don’t know.”  Saying “I don’t know” is career suicide for agents and editors.  And so they say “no” instead.

Even when they think they know, they are often wrong. 

Three of the editors who rejected Darkness Bound were wrong.  One — the one who published it — wasn’t wrong.

Harry Potter was rejected nine times.  The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected 104 times.  Stephen King’s Carrie was rejected 30 times.  Frank Herbert’s Dune was rejected 23 times.  Gone With the Wind was rejected 38 times.  Jonathan Livingston Seagull was rejected 18 times.  Watership Down was rejected 38 times.  M*A*S*H was rejected 17 times. 

Chicken Soup for the Soul, which inspired dozens of spin-offs and more money than the White House spends on Air Force One catering, was rejected 140 times.

Those authors didn’t let no stop them. 

They understood that “no” means “I don’t know.”

But they knew.  In their heart.  In the deepest crevice of their gray matter.  These authors knew.

“Know” translates to “believe.”

The Only Way to Know

Notice how most of the books mentioned above were risky, freshly-minted concepts.  A school for magic.  A society of rabbits.  Philosophical seagulls.  Shenanigans in a military field hospital.  Thinly masked pop psychology masquerading as commerical fiction.

Our stories are always delivered on two levels, from within two realms: the conceptual and the executional.  (Don’t look that last word up, I take great liberties here… but you get my drift.)

The first can seduce you.  The second will never betray you.

If your belief in your story – if knowing – is based on the appeal of your idea, and little else, then you will hear “no” until you wake up and smell the embalming fluid.

What begets belief most is an understanding and practice of craft, of storytelling principles and criteria.

Your heart will tell you if the soul of your story is a winner.  But it’s your mind that knows.  Because this is where craft resides.  In your inner story architect, your inner fiction engineer.

The heart and the mind can yield a product that exceeds the sum of the parts.  Make sure you employ both in your storytelling.

Will craft guarantee success?  No.

Ah, there it is again.

But in this context, no doesn’t mean I don’t know.  Because nothing guarantees anything in this business, unless your name is already on the A-list.

But it – craft – is your only shot.  That much is certain.

Craft is what turns no into I don’t know when you hear it.  Once spoken, they are speaking the truth: they really don’t know.

But you do know.  The author is always the first to know.  This is what keeps them from slipping into that dark abyss.

It is craft that allows you to know.  And knowing is the imperative magic bullet of getting published.

Don’t submit your work until you know.

Learn more about story architecture here and here

My new book on the subject comes out February from Writers Digest Books, see more about it here.



Filed under turning pro, Uncategorized

13 Responses to Know what “No” Really Means

  1. Yes, no means ‘I don’t know’, in many, many fields.

    My son’s attempts to get into a representative football (soccer) side is met with more ‘no’ than any 15 yo deserves (except from the opposite sex, natch), but his persistence will get him through. I’ll have to show him this.

    Thanks for another great tip…


  2. This was one of your very best posts ever. I’m a nationally published novelist, and I’m still having to remind myself that NO ONE KNOWS.

    Loved it! Thanks a bunch.

    My new blog, CarrTalk, is on my website!

  3. Sandra

    A wonderful, encouraging post, Larry! I’ll be re-reading this one often. 🙂


  4. Martha Miller

    WOW! Just the pep talk I needed after all those no’s–although some of the no’s are now turning into, “I’m not sure but . . .let me take a look at 50 pages.”
    Thanks, as always Larry, for your steadfast belief in my story.

  5. Ditto to the above!! Thanks, Larry. This was just what I needed to hear.

  6. Mike Lawrence

    Wow, who knew? I have submitted one short story in my entire life (which came back “no”) and never tried again because, well, lots of reasons. Come to find out, 1 ain’t enough.

    IP: Struggles to write actual story. Get’s “no”. New Quest: get yes. FPP=mailbox. MP=mailbox in rain. SPP=crawling through snow to get to mailbox. (arc complete)

    How does it end?

    I don’t know.

  7. How right (Yes) can you be? You and the universe would endure forever.

    How wrong (No) can you be? You and the universe would dead and unknowing.

    Too many of us operate on the binary yes/no. That’s for computers (which have chips which are often tri-state with an unknown value between on and off).

    Does a prospective spouse say yes on your proposal? How often do engagements break up? Does that same prospect say no and later comes back with a yes? Same situation. Then how long do most marriages endure? The entire process is, “I don’t _know_.”

    Suppose you are going the traditional agent/publisher route. Your forte is hard-core SciFi like Pournelle/Niven and your agent knows only Romance publishers. A “no” there is more on the line of, “You’re a dunderhead.” rather than “I don’t know.”

    We all complain of the crap which gets published. Lots of “I don’t know” there. Most of us also know of publications (pbooks or ebooks) which, in our minds, are spectacular. Why aren’t these automatically best-sellers? I don’t know.

    The closer we get to the absolute Yes or No, the more difficult (time, money and energy) it becomes. This is known as diminishing returns and is probably logarithmic.

    What we as authors can do is to put a lot of work into pushing our “success” towards the Yes side. That means a lot of attention on the Six Core Competencies (What we do) and a lot of creativity (How we do it). That does _not_ mean we spend 10 years polishing and revising, either. Diminishing returns set in really quickly.

    There’s a lot of turmoil in our current publishing environment. Even the major pbook publishers are looking at how able a prospective author is at doing his own promotion. If you’re self-publishing, all the business end is in your hands.

    It is not a case of “do everything you can” to make it successful; your work will still end up as an “I don’t _know_.” We can and must put in a decent effort both in the production and marketing of our work.

    My parents raised my brother and me. When we went off to college and got on our own, they said, “We did what we could. We’ll support your decisions and stand behind you.”

    Put in your work in the most efficient (time and energy spent) and effective (perhaps final product of a best-seller) ways you can; there’s a balance between us. Push the “I don’t know” towards the Yes side, let your child go and get onto raising the next one. Besides, there’s no reason you can’t be raising another child at the same time.

    Especially today, even if your first child didn’t make it, you can always self-publish. If you’ve done a decent job on a later child, even your first child might be somewhat successful.

  8. Larry,

    You have taken that very personal — and devastating — “no” and turned it into something much more business like and impersonal. Not to mention hopeful.

    This could be one of the most useful and inspirational passages on the writing life I’ve ever read.


  9. @Bruce – hoo-yah, brother.

    @Mike – good news is, we get to write our own ending. A little zen, I grant you, but we should cling to that belief.

    Thanks to all for the nice feedback on this one. L.

  10. Like so many others today, I needed to hear this. Not that I haven’t heard it before, but you always have a way of saying things that strikes something in my psyche. Thanks for the encouragement.

  11. Thanks for this, Larry! I’m taking this lesson and applying it to my ‘real world’ job search (as opposed to my ‘unreal world’ of writing at home because I was laid off this April).

    So far I’ve applied to about 20 postings, most of them for the public library. Today, for the first time in two months, I received my first ‘no.’ In writing (as opposed to that itchy vague void of sending stuff into the ether and never hearing again).

    Since I haven’t yet matched the rejections of Watership Down, I will keep plodding (as opposed to sprinting, getting a stitch in my side and collapsing on the beach like a whale waiting to be pushed back into the ocean by kind hippies).

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  12. Loved this and as a writer and speaker, I have heard NO, this is very heartening and empowering. Thank you. Shared on FB, but Twitter link broken 🙁 and that is my fave platform beyond a live stage.

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