Updated February 21, 2021
I don’t know why asking for help has been such a 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 New World winters and failing crops? Whatever the reason, I’ve spent far too many years being reluctant to ask for help, particularly with my writing career.
Thank goodness I finally realized the error of my ways. The truth is that most experts love to be helpful. And they particularly like to help writers. I don’t know why. They just do.
Here are four things for authors to keep in mind when asking for help.
Define exactly what help you want before approaching the person who has the expertise you seek
Experts in their field 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 read and evaluate your press release. If they say yes, email the press release in a Word or Google document that they can add comments to and email back. Make things easy for them.
Keep your request reasonable
Don’t ask for the stars; ask for a tiny slice of the moon. It’s the opposite of bargaining. Instead of starting high and coming down to a reasonable price, start low with a doable request. Inevitably, you’ll be pleasantly surprised when the person offers more help than you asked for.
Find the right person
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 14th century. I emailed an auction company in Vienna to ask for the name of the person in charge of medieval art whom I then emailed with specific questions. To my surprise, I received a phone call one morning from a charming man who systematically answered every one of them. He didn’t need to be so helpful–but he was!
Give them something in return
Most experts are pleased to help and expect nothing in return. However, everyone appreciates gratitude and perhaps payment even if they don’t ask for it. For help that amounts to no more than a few hours, send a handwritten thank-you card and then offer to do something for them that requires skills you possess 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 help with my jacket blurb. If the person provides significant help, such as reading drafts of your novel and providing you with expert advice, then offer to pay them. I offer an honorarium of $200-$500–particularly to academics–and most accept. The money has always been well spent.
And of course, always mention everyone who helped you on your writing journey in your acknowledgements.
Here are two of my favorite examples of how asking for help enabled me to finish and publish my debut novel 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 academic schedule to talk to a fledgling historical novelist. Why should she help me? Well, it turned out that not only did she help me, but she also became one of my biggest supporters. She listened to my plot ideas, corrected my historical misconceptions, offered advice about plausible scenes, and recommended research materials. She also read two drafts of the novel and became my official and paid historical advisor. She even provided me with contacts to set up three presentations about the novel to groups in the community.
Another example: I wanted to include “blurbs” from novelists who write 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 famous authors, and no clout. But what did I have to lose? I wrote a carefully worded email to six authors who all wrote historical fiction. All six had multiple novels published, several were bestsellers, and I’m sure that all of them were 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 because she was too busy. I ended up receiving marvelous cover blurbs from three of the four novelists, and the fourth would have contributed except that by the time she responded, the novel was already on its way to the printer.
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 in return.
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