You’ll recall how much I enjoyed reading Zen Cho’s debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown. (If you missed my review, click here) So I’m extremely pleased to host this illuminating and thoughtful post reflecting on that story’s origins and her experiences as a newly published writer.
My year of saying no
In 2015 I became super obsessed with the BBC miniseries Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. This wasn’t terribly surprising – I love the book and have reread it several times, and the series had everything I like: men and women in pretty period outfits, magic, humour, and even a touch of the numinous. It wasn’t a perfect adaptation, but an adaptation that’s sort of almost there but not quite is perfect for inducing fannish obsessiveness.
What was new and surprising was that, for the first time, I started identifying with Jonathan Strange. Jonathan Strange is nothing like me. He’s a fictional rich white dude who would be dead now if he was ever alive. I’m a real middle-class Chinese Malaysian woman who’s only spent time in 1800s England in her imagination. He’s the Second Greatest Magician of the Age. I’m a lawyer who moonlights as a moderately obscure fantasy writer.
I’m also fundamentally not as much of a douche (I love the character, but it’s gotta be said). I take no credit for this. It is because I was socialised as a woman and was therefore taught things like listening skills and how to feel guilty for taking up space in the world.
But there was one big thing I had in common with Jonathan Strange. We had both figured out what we’d been put on earth to do, and we were doing it. The vocations we had each chosen were potentially of great value and importance to society as a whole — magic in Jonathan Strange’s case; writing in mine — but we were mainly doing it for selfish reasons rather than to benefit anyone else. Nevertheless our work felt like a great and serious charge, and what this charge required of us was a determined selfishness.
In 2015 my first novel came out. It was a bit like getting married: it meant that something that had been private suddenly became very public, and people treated me differently about something I’d been working away quietly at for years. And it also meant that people started wanting stuff from me. They wanted me to answer questions, write blog posts, submit to anthologies, show up to events, blurb books, critique manuscripts ….
It’s nice to be wanted, of course, and it was a refreshing novelty. As with most writers, rejection is the backing track of my life, so it was nice for once to hear “please will you?” instead of “no, thank you”. But it meant I had more demands on my time than ever before, when I had less time than ever before.
I had to learn to say no. Which was hard, because women aren’t encouraged to say no, and they especially aren’t encouraged to refuse to help other people. We’re supposed to be nurturing. Fortunately, I am pretty bad at being nurturing, but even so I struggled.
A lot of the requests I get are for nice things, things that support diversity in SFF and publishing, which is something I both care about and benefit from. How could I refuse when it was for such a good cause?
But I realised that if I was not ferociously protective of my time — if I didn’t play that role of The Rude Genius — I would soon find it sucked up in mostly uncompensated labour, in things that weren’t writing my own stories.
I don’t, in fact, have a room of my own. I have a sofa and an inbox full of requests for publishing advice that the querier could Google for themselves. So I’m learning to patrol the boundaries of the uncluttered space I need for writing — and for living, because I don’t owe anyone time and attention even if I’m not rushing to meet a deadline.
I’m still not as good at saying no as I should be, but I’ve already been accused of being grand for the appalling crime of not answering emails. I wonder whether the same accusation would be lobbed at me if I was a white man. We expect men, especially white men, to be rude geniuses. But it seems we feel entitled to the time and energy of women, especially Asian women.
You’ll point out I’m not a genius, which is true, but then I’m also not that rude. I say yes far more often than I say no. There’s still that fear, whenever I turn something down, that I should make the most of any attention I’m getting now, because people will stop asking eventually.
But you know what? I have never, not once, regretted saying no. And even if people stop asking and go away, it’s not like they’ll take the stories with them. Writing is mine – and it would be foolish to let a general sense of obligation to the world at large chip away at it. Jonathan Strange would definitely say something sardonic about that.