How to: Asking random strangers for information

I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of requests for information in my time, almost always having to do with martial arts or writing, and for the most part I’m happy to help.  I’d be a little disappointed if all of my efforts as a writer led to echoing silence.  But sometimes I hit the delete key because the person asking is just clueless (or a jackass) and I don’t have the time or energy to respond.  Here are my suggestions for getting it right, whether you’re asking me or some other random stranger to give you advice or information:

  • Do your research.  Before you start asking live humans to take time out of their lives to deal with you, look it up.  Google is your friend.  There’s so much information online and in bookstores that practically every question you can ask has already been answered.  In other words, why are you emailing me to ask, “How does an aspiring writer break into print?” when there are approximately ninety thousand books, two million websites, four hundred thousand blogs and any number of print magazines dedicated to answering this very question. 
  • Then do more research.  So maybe you don’t want to know “How does an aspiring writer break into print?”  Maybe you want to know how I, personally, broke into print (or Suzanne Brockmann or John Lescroart or whomever).  I’ve written or talked about it in at least fifteen different places, and so has every other writer who has met with even a tiny modicum of success.  Remember, Google is your friend.  It’s not like writers are keeping secrets about this stuff and you have to beg them for the decoder ring.  The information is already out there. 
  • No one owes you anything – especially if you don’t already have a personal or business relationship already established.  I have a challenging and demanding job, challenging and demanding (yet wonderful) clients, a kid with lots of needs whom I love spending time with, friends I adore, missions I care about, personal and professional goals, demons and dreams.  You’re asking me to take time away from them and devote it to you, a random stranger who probably doesn’t even spell my name right.  And you know what?  99% of the time, as long as you’re not a jackass, I do respond to you.  But you’ll help your case a lot more if you mention you’ve read something I wrote or heard an interview with me.  You know why?  Because then you’re not a random stranger. 
  • Ask a specific question.  I’m probably going to respond to most “How does an aspiring writer break into print?” question with my standard, “Read the books on writing at your local library, then get back to me.”  Or I’ll direct you to some of the reams of writing I’ve already done on the subject.  So if you want an actual thought-out answer, ask me something new, or something to do with you.  Or at least something specific!  A recent example: a reader asked me what board-breaking I had to do for my black belt test.  This didn’t take long to answer and it sparked a very interesting email exchange with the reader.  We had a conversation.  She told me things about her experience and I told her things about mine and it was very satisfying.  If she’d asked, “What’s it like to train in martial arts?” I would have brushed her off.  I’ve written ten or fifteen books that cover that subject and it’s not something I can summarize in five sentences. 
  • Don’t ask for the universe.  A couple of specific questions are fine.  Ten or fifteen is more than anyone I know is willing to answer, including me. 
  • Common courtesy won’t kill you.  “Please” is nice.  So is “thank you for your time.” 
  • Find a way to make it useful for more than one person.  I’m more likely to spend time giving information it if will benefit more than one person.  If you plan to write a blog post, write an article for your school newspaper or share what you’ve learned with your writing group, I’m more inclined to help. (Tell me what you’re doing ahead of time, though). 
  • Mention any mitigating circumstances.  If you’re twelve years old, say so.  I’m nicer to kids than to grown adults.  Plus I watch my language better.