Ask for Help—And Don’t Be Surprised When You Get More Than you Bargained For

I don’t know why asking for help has been such a personal challenge for me. Perhaps some pioneer gene buried deep inside my psyche cautions me to stand alone against the wilderness. No, that can’t be right. My pioneering ancestors must have known the value of asking for help; otherwise, how could they have coped with punishing New World winters and failing crops? Whatever the reason, I have spent far too many years being reluctant to ask for help, particularly when it came to my writing career.

HelpThank goodness I finally realized the error of my ways. The truth is that people really do love to be helpful. When you ask for help, you make yourself vulnerable, but at the same time, you give another person an opportunity to be helpful. This picture, posted on a Facebook page, proves it!

The vast majority of humans love to be helpful. We just do.

In the past few months as I’ve embarked upon my publishing journey with The Towers of Tuscany, I’ve become quite adept at asking for help. I’ve also come up with a few guidelines that I’ve found useful in ensuring great results.

Here are four things to keep in mind when asking for help:

  1. Know exactly what you want before you approach someone.

People are busy and appreciate a specific request that they can satisfy easily. For example, don’t ask a PR expert for “help with my marketing.” Instead, ask them to take a quick look at your press release. If they say yes, email the press release in a Word document that they can add comments to and email back.

  1. Keep your request reasonable.

Don’t ask for the stars; ask for a tiny slice of the moon. People often offer much more than you ask, but not if you ask too much to begin with. It’s the opposite of bargaining. Instead of starting high and coming down to a reasonable price, you start low with a doable request and are pleasantly surprised when you are offered more help than you asked for.

 3. Find the right person.

People don’t like to be asked to do something that they are not capable of doing. Take the time to find the person who can deliver the help you need. For example, I needed to know the value of a small painted panel by an unknown artist from the fourteenth century. I sent an email to an auction company in Europe asking for the name of the person in charge of medieval art. I received the name of the correct person who I then emailed with a set of specific questions. To my surprise, I received a long distance phone call one morning from a charming man who systematically answered each of my questions. He didn’t have to be so helpful–but he was!

  1. Give them something in return.

Most people are pleased to help and do not expect anything in return. You thank them of course, preferably with a handwritten card, and then, if at all possible, you offer to do something for them—something that requires skills that you have and they do not. For example, I love working with Excel and so I set up an invoicing system for a friend in exchange for her “beta reading” my novel.

I’ll share two of my favourite examples of how asking for help enabled me to finish and publish The Towers of Tuscany.

With great trepidation, I approached an expert in medieval art at a local university. I couldn’t imagine her taking the time from her busy, important, academic schedule to help out a fledgling historical novelist.  Why should she help me? Well, it turned out that not only did she help me, she has become one of my biggest supporters. She listened to my plot ideas, corrected my misconceptions, offered advice about plausible scenes, and recommended research materials. She also read the novel twice and became my official and paid historical advisor. She even provided me with contacts to set up three presentations about my novel.

Here’s another example. I wanted to include “blurbs” from novelists writing in my genre on the cover of The Towers of Tuscany. As an independently published author at the time, I had no big publisher to help me get in touch with appropriate novelists and certainly no clout. But what did I have to lose? I wrote a carefully worded email to six novelists who all write in my genre. All six had multiple novels published, several were best sellers, and I’m very sure that all of them were extremely busy. My query included the first chapter of my novel so the authors could determine quickly if I was worth reviewing. I was stunned when five out of the six novelists responded. Of these five, only one declined. I ended up receiving marvelous cover blurbs from three of the four novelists, and the fourth one probably would have contributed except that by the time she responded I already had three!

So don’t be afraid to ask for help in the course of your life journey–as a writer or anything else. If you are confident and humble, specific and grateful, people will go out of their way to help you. And best of all, you will then have an opportunity to help them back.

Here’s a post to copy to the Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, or Google+:

Good advice for authors: Ask for Help! http://wp.me/p1sSsN-qn

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Categories: The Writing Life

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