Sawyer’s First Law

If 2007 was the year I got serious about writing, then 2010 was the year when attitude and education caught up with intent. Think of it as the difference between declaring a major (2007) and doing your first internship in a Ph.D. program (2010). Up till this year, I did one book a year and a couple short stories, maybe a screenplay, plus a lot of sketches, articles, and reading (in additional to the normal load of producing).

This year, I’m on track to do 6 short stories, 1 novella, 3 novels, 1.5 nonfiction books, and 15 articles. Fully 1/9th of my lifetime’s word output has happened this year. And I also landed a collaboration deal for a nonfiction with one of the veterans in the business (you’ll hear more about this during Q1 of next year).

During the same time, I upped my education a lot. I’ve gotten my footing in what had previously been a bizarre and foreign business to my way of thinking, learned how to apply past lessons to the current domain, and taken several other business projects forward specifically because of the gaps this education has filled in.

One of the things that surprised me is the lesson I learned ten years ago at the beginning of my time in and around independent film is even more important in the writing business than the film business. I’m henceforth calling it Sawyer’s First Law of Apprenticeship:

When you want to learn something, look for the folks with the gray hair and the bad attitude. (Caveat: “Bad Attitude” doesn’t mean “asshole.” It means “cynical and difficult to impress, and don’t give a damn what you think about them.” This is important because it means they’ve been around the block and they have their shit together).

In an industry like publishing that’s in the throes of tectonic shifts wrought by technology, particularly for a child of the Internet age, it’s easy to assume that it’s the young lions who know the score.

And, for us Gen X-ers and Gen Y-ers, it’s a cultural cache to be insular: to be highly social among ourselves, and to not bother much with the older folks unless they’re the rare ones who are hip to the changing times.

But if you’ve ever hung around old soldiers, you know this one: When the rules change, the old soldiers who survive the change do so because they know why things work the way they do. And they are usually willing to talk to people who are willing to listen–and they are also willing to encourage people to only take the parts of their advice that suit them. In writing, there’s a group of writers who are adapting faster than *anyone* to the new world of ebooks and small presses and making new media pay rather than just making it work, and they’re all over 50 and each has more than 50 novels under their belts.

Over the last few years, I’ve been the beneficiary of a lot of wisdom from people with gray hair and bad attitudes, in a variety of businesses. Most of them, I kid you not, I met in bars or in line for movies, just chit-chatting with strangers who seemed interesting. Some of them I sought out at conventions and conferences. All of them have been a masters-level-or-better education on their own.

And I’ll still be learning for a lot of years. My current endeavor is listening to the Superstars Writing Seminar until my ears fall off. In another month, I’ll have them more or less memorized. And a month after that, I’ll have the lessons integrated into my business strategy. I highly recommend it for anyone in the first couple decades of a writing career (from “ooh, I want to do that” to “So I have a dozen books under my belt, now what?”).

Whatever your business is, your peers are people you need: support, friendship, innovative thinking, industry gossip, you’ll get a lot of it through them. Treasure them. Nurture those relationships. They are the people who you’ll be with as you conquer the world.

But to level up, you need three things: learning, discipline, and mindset.

Learning comes from the people who earned their gray hairs.
Discipline comes from seeing what people twenty or thirty years ahead of you can do in their sleep that you dare not even dream about yet, then trying to push to reach that level. Maybe you’ll find your limits, more likely you’ll push them, and that’s where growth comes from.
Mindset comes from listening to people who’ve been there before you. You learn very quickly how easy it is for a newbie (even a newbie with a resume) to worry about the wrong things, to be as diligent as possible and make dumb decisions, and to self-sabotage without ever realizing it.

Some of this stuff you can learn from books. The rest of it only comes from experience, and from talking with people who’ve had experiences.

Whatever your art, business, or career, maintain your networks. And keep an eye out for gray hairs and a bad attitude. When you find them, buy them a drink and ask them questions. You’ll be glad you did.

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4 Comments

  1. I think an important point that you haven’t made clear (enough) is that when the old soldiers are contradicting each other (as they are now) then you have to pick and choose and experiment to find out which is going to work for you.

  2. It’s true, and in an open field experimentation is always good. There are a few ways to distinguish between good and bad advice, though.

    First and foremost is good business sense: If you applied their advice to a different industry, would it be bad advice? Chances are, unless you have a VERY good reason to believe otherwise (i.e. a reason based on something with numbers attached, not on received wisdom or prejudice or “what everybody knows”), then it’s then bad advice in yours.

    Second, is it the kind of advice that’s contingent? If it’s something that depends on personality type, or eventual goals, etc. then it’s something you’re going to have to experiment with unless it’s obviously something that leads in a direction very different from the one you want to pursue.

    And, of course, with everyone, keep your skeptical head on. The wisdom of experience is fallible just like any other advice–its advantage is that it tends to be lower on bullshit, higher on insight, and more willing to share its reasoning. Think through the arguments behind the advice, and take what works.

    -Dan

  3. Jeremy from Winnipeg

    Ok this time I’m on a computer not an iPod hopefully better punctuation.

    I agree I find myself on a similar journey at 23 years old I’ve accumulated much more knowledge and wisdom, if not always well applied than most of my peers. Three things I’d stress out of what you said:

    First, you need to be unafraid to talk to strangers. With social media we’ve been a little too over empowered to ignore or even block ourselves from having a conversation. This seems to spill over into real life sometimes though in no way do I blame social media for shyness. But simply put if you can’t start a conversation in a line at a movie or coffee shop, what chance is there of you starting a spontaneous conversation with a more intimidating old timer with nothing to loose.

    Second, Don’t get hung up on mistakes. I stand by every mistake I make they are the only true currency in the experience market. Though the experience market don’t like wasted capital, and too many mistakes in too short a time especially if they similar ones make you an undesirable commodity.

    Also be a little guilt free I find for reason too numerous and too complicated to get into here that my peers do sometimes try too run a tally of my mistakes against me for their own purposes. Ignore it you’ve learned that lesson they haven’t, their loss not yours.

    Third, History where, why, and how your field and the people in it got to where they are now. if you know the history you know the trends and the cycles and you can better shape your future. However don’t let the history scare you either it’s a tool not a guidebook. There a numberless examples of people making decisions base on history and not better examinations of the present that have made people fail or look foolish, you don’t use a power tool without knowing where the danger spots are.

  4. Hi Dan,

    I bought Superstars of Writing seminar mp3s based on this post and I just wanted to say thank you as I am really enjoying them. There are certainly some big egos in the room but I am learning a lot so I guess they deserve to be that way! (I’m thinking more of the movie/ screenplay guys!)
    It has encouraged me also, and justifies my trip to New York next year for Thrillerfest so I can network in person with the right editors and authors.
    Thanks again for bringing this to my attention.
    Happy Holidays!
    Joanna

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