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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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.