Making it easy to help you, part III: accepting help gracefully

Before I launch back into the absorbing topic of how to NOT to make yourself appear difficult for an agent to help, I want to pass along an announcement from the fine folks who run the Faulkner/Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. For those of you who write novels or creative nonfiction essays, the Faulkner is well worth looking into: it has a good track record for its winners landing agents, and it’s one of the few literary contests to include both a novel-in-progress category and a teen writers category.

Apparently, though, they’ve been experiencing some website problems. Take a gander:

“The Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society, Inc. is once again sponsoring its
William Faulkner – William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. Guidelines can be found on our website.

Because we failed to correct a mistake on the website, there has been considerable confusion about the postmark deadline for the competition this year. Originally, we announced the deadline as April 1, 2007. However, the guidelines also say, “…entries postmarked after May 1 will not be accepted.”
Because of our mistake, we are officially changing the postmark deadline to
May 1, 2007.

We look forward to receiving your entries.

We hasten to say that you need not wait until May 1 to mail your entries!

Sorry for the confusion.”

Now, I call that quite decent, don’t you? Admitting their mistake, and clearing it up in a way that’s beneficial to all of us. Well done, Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society!

Unfortunately, as I’ve been discussing for the past few days, this kind of open-handed friendliness to aspiring writers is rare; in approaching most contests, as well as most agencies and presses, this is most emphatically not the norm. It is usually in the writer’s best interest, then, to assume that contest readers will be uncharitable, agents will be in a rush, and editors will want to be wowed by the end of line 2.

Or, to put it another way: make it as easy as humanly possible for people in the industry to help you.

Again, this seems self-evident in theory, but it’s not often put into practice. Especially in the cases I was discussing at the end of last week, where, from the established authors’ perspectives, the writers requesting help might almost have been working overtime to make it difficult to help them.

That, my friends, is not the best way to get someone to help you. Minimizing the effort required to do you a good turn is.

(Hey, you didn’t think that I was talking at such length about the blandishment of established authors because I was advising you never to try it at all, did you? Heck, no — when you do it, I want you to SUCCEED.)

Putting a little advance thought not only into how to ask for help gracefully, but how to render it as simple as possible for your designated helper to give you a leg up. Here are a couple of ways that writers often fumble the approach.

Misguided approach 1: Pablo has approached established writer Pauline a sensible way: he read her work first, was able to give her a sensible, well thought-out compliment on her latest book, and established a cordial relationship before asking for any favors at all. Eventually, Pauline asks to read some of Pablo’s work, and, enthused, sends him an e-mail saying that she is willing to recommend him to her agent, Percy.

“That’s marvelous,” Pablo writes back immediately. “Send Percy the manuscript I gave you, and let me know what he says.”

He is astonished never to hear from Pauline again. Nor, to his shock, does he ever hear from Percy at all.

Okay, what did Pablo do wrong — or, to put it another way, what did he do to render Pauline unlikely to follow through, and Percy unlikely to see his work at all?

Pablo violated the golden rule: he made it difficult to help him. To be precise, he assumed that because Pauline was willing to help him at all, she would automatically be eager to put in a great deal of leg work on his behalf, too. Suddenly finding herself expected to do a massive favor when she had offered to do a smallish one, Pauline froze and backed off.

Why? Well, what Pauline was offering Pablo was actually a great big helping hand: a personal recommendation to her agent, something few previously unpublished writers ever get. In her mind, this would entail Pablo’s beginning his query letter to Percy with, “Pauline recommended that I contact you about my book…”

That’s it. It may not sound like an immense favor, but as it would place Pablo’s work in a different pile than every other query that came into Percy’s agency, it could potentially have made an enormous difference to Pablo’s querying success. If Pauline felt very enthusiastic indeed, she might have called or e-mailed Percy, to let him know that Pablo’s work was coming.

But that would be the absolute limit to what an established writer like Pauline would do for a new acquaintance. She could potentially OFFER to do more, but realistically, Pablo should have accepted this much with gratitude and, taking the initiative to promote his own work, followed through himself.

Instead — and herein lay his biggest mistake — he misunderstood what Pauline was offering. Brushing aside the actual offer in a way that inadvertently came across as dismissive, he pushed 100% of the follow-up responsibility onto Pauline, essentially expecting her to be his agent, pitching his work to her agent.

Think about this from Pauline’s point of view: why on earth would she do this? Even if Pablo is a brilliant writer, the utmost personal benefit she could possibly derive from the transaction is the glow of having done a good deed and Pablo’s gratitude. But if Pablo begins the process by appearing ungrateful, why should she lift single well-manicured finger to help him at all, much less put herself on the line to promote his work?

At one level, it’s hard to have too much sympathy for Pablo, isn’t it? He botched an opportunity for which many another aspiring writer would gladly have given his pinkie toes. On the other hand, from a writer’s point of view, he really made only one small slip, and that inadvertent.

While we could debate from now until Doomsday whether the punishment fit the crime here, the overall message is clear: when you want someone to do you a favor, your best strategy is to minimize, not maximize, the amount of effort your patron will need to invest to assist you. Don’t simply assume it’s understood — ask questions about how you can make it easier to help you.

When in doubt, you can always fall back on the most basic, most welcome question of all: “What can I do to make this easier for you?”

That’s a bit counter-intuitive, I know: ostensibly, this process is about others helping you, not you helping others. But trust me on this one: the easier you make it to help you, the more likely you are to receive help. Pablo’s response to Pauline’s offer should have been all about her, not him: “That’s fabulous, Pauline; thank you so much. What do you want me to do?”

Adopting that attitude toward helping hands, I promise you, will make you more welcome in virtually any industry gathering. Why? Because it will make you a better addition to the professional writers’ community.

More on this theme follows tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

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