How to Ask for Things

by Cat Rambo,

I’ve talked about how to work with a mentor previously, so I wanted to follow-up on that by talking about something that overlaps a bit with that: asking for favors.

One thing that can really boost a writer in their early career is getting help from a more experienced writer. The fantasy and science fiction genre has a long and valued tradition of “paying things forward,” mentoring and assisting newer writers to pay back the way they themselves were helped when they first came onto the scene. In recent years, SFWA has formalized this with their own mentoring program, which is open to both members and non-members on both sides — you do not need to be a SFWA member to serve as a mentor or mentee. Over the course of the couple of years that it’s been in place, it’s become a flagship program for the organization.

That seems very fitting to me and well within the tradition. I benefited from the willingness to pay things forward in my time and among the folks that have been valued mentors are L. Timmel DuChamp, Andy Duncan, Vonda N. McIntyre, Elizabeth Moon, Michael Swanwick, Jeff VanderMeer, Sean Wallace, Sheila Williams, and Connie Willis. I’ve tried to do the same by many new writers, including participating in the SFWA mentoring program as well as serving as an informal mentor for a number of new writers and former students. As a teacher, I make my classes accessible to people who can’t otherwise afford them through Plunkett scholarships.

Accordingly, I join others telling new writers not to be afraid to draw on this tradition and ask for things. But I do have some tips for making those asks more successful.

Above all: be specific, and do as much of the work for the other person as you can. The reference letter where I have the URL to submit it, the applicant’s statement of purpose, and their notes of stuff I might want to hit are more likely to get written than the one where I have to ask or search online for the information.

Here are some other tips:

  • Think about the amount of time and work you are asking. If this person is a stranger, asking for more than a few minutes of work is something you may want to rethink. Remember that time is a precious commodity in today’s world and very few people have excess.
  • Some small connection helps. Tell the person what that connection is. Examples: “I saw your panel at last week’s convention,” “We worked together on program X,” “your friend Y suggested I talk to you.”
  • Be clear about what you’re asking for. Examples: “Please RT news of my latest book,” “please tell me the best conferences to go to if I want to network,” “please advise me on matter Y,” “Will you send me a reprint for my new anthology.”
  • Do not ask someone to do your work for you. If the answer to your question can be found with a simple Google search, you should be the one searching, not asking someone else to do it. I cannot say how many times I have been tempted to use letmegooglethatforyou.com in answering a question.
  • Do not ask people who do not know you for references.
  • The time for asking for blurbs starts when the book is actually scheduled to be published. It is not at the point before the book is written or when you are looking for an agent for the book. If you are self-publishing, you can do it once you start getting the book ready to publish.
  • If someone has read your work, knows you are looking for an agent, and has not volunteered to introduce you to their agent, there is probably a reason, which may have nothing to do with you. You can still approach that agent on your own. Never say someone is recommending you unless they actually are.
  • If you are male and asking a female for help, take a moment and think if you would ask this of their male counterpart. I say this because, in my experience, the people asking me to do their work for them are 90% male. I can think of at least a few requests where I’ve entertained myself by thinking, “What would Chuck Wendig say to this proposal?” before going on to construct a diplomatic no. There is pressure on women in today’s society to be “nice” in a way that is not asked of men, and sometimes people aren’t aware that saying such a “no” can be stressful, but it can — particularly when people keep pressing after that initial no.
  • Take “no” gracefully. Don’t write back saying how disappointed you are by their refusal, telling them what a great opportunity to work with you they are missing, or otherwise arguing why they really should do you this favor.
  • Take “yes” gracefully as well. Remember to say thank you, and make things as easy for them to do as possible. If you are asking them to tweet something, for example, supply a pre-composed tweet and image to use. If asking for a recommendation, make sure they have all the information that they need.
  • As for “Maybe”? Don’t treat it like a yes and get insistent about it. It’s okay to gently nudge the person once or twice, but if they don’t come through, don’t treat it like a betrayal or a failure on their party.

The only person responsible for educating you is yourself. Watch what other people do, rather than expecting them to guide you. Value feedback, even when given in an abrasive or discourteous manner, and remember that often such responses are more about the other person’s situation at the time than about you. When in doubt, remember: It’s okay to ask. It’s not okay to insist.

•••

A two-term President of SFWA, Cat Rambo’s most recent novel is Hearts of Tabat from Wordfire Press, while space opera You Sexy Thing appears in January 2021 from Tor Macmillan. Her novelette Carpe Glitter is a 2019 Nebula Award finalist in the Novelette category. Her 200+ publications include stories in Clarkesworld MagazineAsimov’s SF, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Check her website for links to her fiction and info on her online school, the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers, which features live and online classes from writers such as Ann Leckie, Seanan McGuire, and Fran Wilde.

5 Responses

  1. Laurel Anne Hill

    Living in California, I’m a member of California Writers Club. Specifically in the San Francisco Peninsula Branch. One of our mottos is “Writers Helping Writers.” Therefore I’m involved in pro bono community outreach to participate in programs to help local writers. This includes working with members of my own branch to make their stories publishable in our club’s “Fault Zone” anthology. I’m currently the Fault Zone editor. All this has given me a great deal of satisfaction and has helped other authors, just as other authors have helped me.

  2. Diane

    Excellent points, Cat. I can especially relate to the letters of rec suggestions. I know it feels weird, especially for women, to basically say, “Here are some of the great things you could say about me,” but it is soooo helpful to the one writing the letter.