September 18th, 2017

If You Don’t Ask, The Answer is Always No

Aimie K. Runyan

It’s true, the vast majority of us writers are introverts. Interactions with strangers are uncomfortable at best… and when you have to ask for a favor? Fuggedaboudit. But the truth is that writers must also advocate for themselves in various ways if they want to succeed both artistically and commercially.

We can’t all hide away in our little utopian writing sanctuaries click-clacking away at the book of our hearts all day, every day. It would be bliss, but none of us—not even the big dogs—get away with this delicious reclusive lifestyle all the time.

We have to ask people for things, and it’s scary.

One thing we have to ask for frequently is knowledge. For nearly every book on the planet, be it an epic biography of the entire Plantagenet family or a dystopian Sci-Fi set in the distant future on Xerse, the homeworld of the Zarnak, you have to do at least a small measure of research. Sometimes a lot. Not all answers are going to be available online, or even *gasp* at your nearest major research library. You may need to experience what it feels like to be squeezed into an Elizabethan-era corset (much different from a Victorian one, I can assure you) or fly in a real honest-to-goodness fighter plane. Maybe, like me, you have to track down the personal diaries of a historical figure and hope they’re available through some sort of archive.

All of these things, unless you happen to have the money and experience to buy and fly your own jet, require you to ask people for things. Maybe reaching out to a theater troupe for a tutorial may not be daunting for you. Maybe you can find pilots who sell “flight experience” packages. That’s not a scary ask at all.

But when you find yourself having to ask a top mind in your field for assistance in finding how to access some key document or information, all the while hoping your project doesn’t infringe on their turf, it’s another ballgame. A bungled e-mail request could lead to a missed opportunity at a really important connection. It’s right to take these requests seriously. But the worst thing you can do for your writing career is not ask.

I had to do this very thing recently—and guess what? The person in question responded with the warmth and grace befitting a professional. I may not end up with the information I’m after, but at least I’ve made a connection that could prove very useful in the future.

We also have to ask our peers for help in various ways. We all know that in this day and age, all writers must work the sales angle as well as wield the pen. It’s easy to be intimidated by successful authors, bloggers, and other people in the field, but many are happy to lend a hand.

Don’t be afraid to ask that big-shot writer in your genre to do some cross-promotion with you. Don’t be afraid to ask some big wig blogger to read an ARC of your book in exchange for a review. You can convince yourself how unlikely they are to have time to read your work, but yours may be just the book they’re looking for.

For those of you in the traditionally published world, we have to learn to ask things of our editors and publicists. You may want them to put you up for a specific promotional opportunity, front table bookstore positioning, or more books on a contract. Those are only the tiniest sampling of the things you have to advocate for.

It’s hard. You know the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but you don’t to squeak so loudly they just decide to trade in the whole dang car. The nice thing here, is that many of these things may go through your agent if you have one. She will likely have a better idea of how much squeak power you have than you do. But again? You have to start by asking your agent to go to bat for you.

Will your publisher put you up for those key advertising opportunities? You won’t know unless you ask. And repeat after me: no is never the end of the world. And yes, my gentle wordsmith, a truth you need to get comfortable with is that noes will happen. But so long as you keep your requests reasonable, people are apt to respect you for trying. And you may learn some valuable things in the process.

Case in point. I asked one of my literary heroes for a blurb on my first book. Hero, as in, “one of the people I attribute as the reason I became a writer”-level hero. I got a lovely personalized “there is no way on earth I have time to read your book, but it sounds great. Good luck kiddo” less than 24 hours later. She was far more gracious and eloquent than that, but you get the idea.

It was an important lesson to me in several ways: I learned I had the courage to ask for the things I want, which is a huge first step toward success in anything. I learned that while “no” is never the answer we want to hear, it isn’t fatal (at least, you know, in most things publishing-related).

Perhaps most importantly, I learned from that lovely e-mail how vital it is to say no tactfully when the tables are turned. I’ve published two books and have another two coming down the chute in ’18. It’s fair to say, I get more requests for my time than I could possibly honor while maintaining my career, family, and the thin shard of my sanity I have left. (My husband keeps it safe in his wallet so I don’t lose it.) I endeavor to pay it forward as much as I possibly can, but even if someone asks for the ridiculous or impossible, I respond with grace. Yes, I’m kind even to the sweet, clueless writer newbie who begs me (usually while in an adjacent bathroom stall at a conference) to beta read a full manuscript on a moment’s notice. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, you can tell people to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.

So go forth and ask. Stop thinking of all the reasons someone will refuse your request—there will always be reasons to say no. If you don’t take a chance and put yourself out there, that no is guaranteed like death and taxes. Only in movies will opportunities come hunting for you.

But do remember, time and resources are valuable. If someone is kind enough to offer their time to critique your book, help with research, or share their expertise, be effusive with your thanks. Most experts in a field will be happy to share their knowledge with someone so keenly interested, but don’t take that for granted. At least offer to compensate them for their time in whatever way feels appropriate.

And when the time comes that your fellow scribblers ask you for a service, don’t forget that you are part of the writing community. Part of that privilege and responsibility is helping others up the ladder with you. There’s room for plenty of us at the top.

Your turn! What was the scariest thing you’ve had to ask for in the writing world, and how did it turn out?

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About Aimie

Aimie K. Runyan is a historian and author who writes to celebrate history’s unsung heroines. She is the author of two previous historical novels: Promised to the Crown and Duty to the Crown. She is active as an educator and a speaker in the writing community and beyond. She lives in Colorado with her wonderful husband and two (usually) adorable children. To learn more about Aimie and her work, please visit www.aimiekrunyan.com.

30 comments to If You Don’t Ask, The Answer is Always No

  • Aimie, You nailed it for me, with blurbs/endorsements. I know how I feel when I get one (I don’t do them anymore, unless my agent, or an editor requests one), and I hate to foist that angst onto another author. But…. we need them! And I feel guilty asking, when I won’t pay it forward…

    UGH!

  • If I don’t hear back from an agent or editor, I move on. I’m not a nudger. It seems pointless to push. But I’m hedging toward following up with an agent who requested more work five weeks ago. And I am repeating after you, “No is never the end of the world.”

  • Oh my gosh, Aimie. I absolutely love the Churchill quote.

    . . .Winston Churchill, you can tell people to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.

    I need that tattooed on my wrist. I aspire to that form of diplomacy. 🙂

  • Orly Konig Lopez

    Yes, to everything you said! I’m awful at asking for help. Hate it, hate it, HATE IT!!!! But I’ve learned that sometimes I have to ask. And every time I do, I’m newly impressed with the generosity of people (not everyone, but more than I imagined).

    I also hate saying no but I’ve learned that sometimes I have to. I don’t ask for anything I’m not willing to give back.

    No is not the end of the world … not when someone says it to you, and not when you have to say it to someone else.

    Great post!, Aimie!

  • carrienichols

    Great article! As a soon to be traditionally published author, I’ve had to speak up twice and it was scary both times. My agent and I had agreed upon a certain number of author copies of the book in the initial agreement, but a much lower number was listed in the actual contract. It seems silly but I debated whether to just let it go. I decided to speak up and my agent said “good catch” and they corrected it. I had to speak up again when I realized my editor had sent the wrong version of my ms to the copy editor. I’m learning to speak up for myself, but it’s not always easy even when someone else has made the mistake.

  • ellajoyolsen

    Love this! Your humor shines through, “My husband keeps my sanity in his wallet so I won’t lose it.” Haha!

  • jillhannahanderson

    I am promptly going home and asking my husband to put my dental-floss-thin sanity in his wallet for safe-keeping. I’ve been wondering where to store that last remaining 2%!

    This is a fantastic blog and one every writer can relate to. I’ve heard “no” several times and try to follow it up with a hopeful “yes” on my next request for whatever it is (books in a store, review, blurb, etc.) I try to give back to the writing community but never feel like I’m doing enough. But I sure appreciate the heck out of the community – I’d be lost without fellow writers!

  • Holly Robinson

    Wow! Great post. It’s such a good reminder to us all that you can’t move forward if you let fear keep you hanging around on the sidelines…my scariest times in publishing have always had to do with having to ask other writers for blurbs, except when I had to tell my agent of many years that I was moving on to another agent –that wasn’t just scary, it was heartbreaking, because I knew I was causing him pain. Yet, sometimes even writers and artists have to put their business clothes on and get ‘er done. I get through these scary things by reminding myself that I am the best advocate my books will ever have, and I can’t let them down.

  • It’s so hard – but you’re so right, it is necessary. Even if they say no, we’ve exercised our assertiveness muscles. 🙂

  • I needed this today! I’m at the point in my book where I need to cultivate some police contacts for procedural questions and character/story flavour.

    I’m very nervous about it, even though I’ve interviewed dozens of people in my job as a copywriter.

    Thanks for the push to suck it up. ; )

  • Excellently stated! There is so much we all have to offer, but, we must not forget about our sanity, and who we are within the writing community or our communities. I stop myself many times, from asking too much of authors, such as yourself, whom I adore! I firmly believe those are interested in sharing their knowledge, will, via methods such as this. Thank you!

    • It’s true–we have to learn our boundaries. We don’t have bosses keeping tabs on what we do, and it’s up to us to carve a life from the mountainous to-do lists we face. And there’s no harm in asking for a more detailed explanation on a topic you read in a blog, for sure, but it’s always wise to see what an author has produced online before seeking out advice. 🙂 The less time we spend advising, the more time we have for words!

  • Fae Rowen

    As someone who learned very early that asking for help was the worse kind of weakness, I am always amazed how my “asks” are received now. Thanks for this reminder, Aimie. This is one of those life lessons for me.

  • Great post! I had to ask early on, and two veterinarians invited me into the OR to observe operations. Everyone I’ve asked for knowledge has been amazingly gracious and forthcoming. But it’s still hard to ask.

  • Sherry Ficklin

    This is SO TRUE! It can be intimidating to ask, but I’ve never run into anyone who was upset by being asked for help. A few didn’t have either the time or knowledge to help, but they were always gracious. And it’s something we have a responsibility to pay forward when people come to us as well!

  • […] Sooner or later we all need help, but too often we hesitate to ask for it. Aimie K. Runyan makes a good point — and not just for writers — if you don’t ask, the answer is always no. […]

  • This is so great. Asking people for just about anything that I think might put them out is a problem for me (I’d probably die of thirst in a desert rather than ask someone to share their spot at the oasis). It’s definitely something I have to work on.

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