How to say "no"

I mentioned yesterday that I got a 15k word commission this weekend. I didn't mention that I actually rejected a 10k word commission the week before. I don't frequently refuse to do a project, but this was something I can't do.

One of the interesting bits about commissioned writing is that you are given a seed to work with. It is soemthing that excited them, but you might find it disgusting or terrifying. You might also love it, but don't count on that. I once heard from a slush pile reader that they lost their faith in humanity by reading submissions. Commissions are like that, but not quite as soul-scarring since usually they have an idea of what you write.

The commission in question wasn't illegal or anything, it was just something I couldn't write. However, since it is a business, saying "no" can actually be a rather serious thing.

The first is how you reject a commission. Commissions are usually very personal. Sometimes, the "hero" is the person doing the commission. Sometimes, the characters of the story are people they know. The detailed plot they gave you? Might have been a dream of theirs since they were six. It is something they were willing to hand over a couple hundred bucks for you to write, which means they are that dedicated to gettting it written.

A response like this:

I can't write this, sorry.

Might be read as:

You are a sick, disgusted person. No sane person would ever consider taking a bath in Pepto Bismo and you are a horrible, horrible person to even consider that. Further more, I think you have rabies.

You have to be careful when someone bared their soul.

When I do decide to reject a commission, I start by setting it aside for a few hours for the emotions to run their course. You might not actually have them (I am probably one of the most open people you will ever encounter) but still walking away is good. When you come back, you want to have reasons (good reasons) of why you can't write the commission.

A good reason if you post clearly what you won't write. A great way of rejecting is being able to say:

On my commission page (here at http...), under item four, it states that I can't write stories with Pepto Bismo. Please understand, I am uncomfortable writing...

You might not realize you have a specific hang-up. That makes it a bit harder to reject without offending them, because there is no way this could go well.

I didn't realize that I had a deep seething hatred of Pepto Bismo until I read your commission request. I can't write it, seriously.

When I encountered this, I decided to do the commission anyways and promptly put it on my "I will not write list". Of course, what happened was that the commissioner asked for a second, then a third story in that topic. And you can't really reject them since they both know that you write the topic and, more importantly, know that you did a good job that they wanted more. Yeah... that happened to me. Four sequels later, I realized that you want to be careful about that.

Rejecting based on legal reasons are also fairly easy, though I've never had to do that.

Since I'm located in Sealand, it is a felony to write about Pepto Bismo outside of a #2 recycable container. Since I'm a law abiding citizen, I can't write this.

If you do reject, I found that it helps if I can direct them to someone who might be able to handle it.

... while I must respectfully decline, I would recommend either the Pepto Master (http...) or Bismo ( for this piece. Both would give it the respect it deserves.

Don't know other commisioned writers? Networking is great about that, but while there are thousands who draw pictures for a commission, I don't know many who write this way.

Regardless of the reasons you give with your rejection, there is one thing that important: be polite. Commissioned writing is a business (or paying hobby) and people talk. You piss off enough people, you won't get any more commissions. If you treat the entire topic with respect and compassion, they might come back with a different one that you can write.