Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The #1 Amateur Mistake

By Steven Pressfield | Published: March 18, 2015

Woody Guthrie. Unless you are this gentleman, DO NOT knock on Bob Dylan's gate.

My friend Kate used to work for Bob Dylan. Kate told me that every morning the guard out front would find demo tapes from wannabe folk singers and aspiring rockers affixed to Bob’s gate.

I can understand this. I can visualize the solo dude with a Gibson twelve-string on his back, or the young hard-working band in their VW microbus. Maybe they drove all the way from the opposite coast. What a rush! To do the detective work, find out where Bob Dylan lives, then leave your stuff for him to listen to. Maybe he’ll like it! Maybe he’ll give us a call! Would that be all-time classic or what?

But what really happens to those demo tapes? Bob Dylan (and every other artist/writer/filmmaker at that level) pays thousands of dollars a month to a security service. The service’s top priority is to make sure that NOTHING unsolicited gets anywhere near Bob. Each morning the guard collects the demo tapes and throws them unopened into the trash.

Why does the security service do this? First, obviously, to protect Bob Dylan’s time and safety. But equally important, to shield him from a potential plagiarism suit.

Suppose Bob is working on an album right now and one musical theme in it is dum-de-de-DUM? This theme is Bob’s invention entirely. It came to him in a dream; he loves it; he’s been refining it in the studio for weeks.

Now suddenly, affixed to his front gate, is a tape that has a similar musical theme. When Bob’s new album comes out and the band who pinned that tape to Bob’s fence hears it, they may think, “Hey, Dylan ripped us off!”

That’s why Bob and every other serious professional has a lawyer or an assistant or a security service who can simply say, “Mr. Dylan NEVER sees anything sent to him or delivered to him without his permission. We throw it all away. That’s our job.”

The #1 Amateur Mistake is sending material (musical, literary, or otherwise) to a fellow writer/musician/artist without asking his or her permission first.

This happens to me. I get two or three a week. Someone will send me their novel as an attachment in an e-mail. (I haven’t gotten any demo tapes yet.) I am under orders from my attorney NEVER to open those attachments. I must delete them at once.

Now I try to respond politely to such e-mails because I know the sender is not acting out of malice. He or she is sending their stuff to me, at least partly, out of respect. They are “taking action,” “aggressively marketing themselves.” They are “reaching out.” In principle I applaud such aspirations.

But the person is also being clueless and rude and lazy and selfish. And he is marking himself utterly as an amateur.

#1 Rule of Professional Artistic Deportment: Never send material to anyone without asking his or her permission first. It’s rude. It’s lazy. It’s selfish. And it’s desperate.

And, most critical of all for the sender, it’s a manifestation of Resistance.

The first obligation of any individual aspiring to a career in any field is to do his due diligence. Educate yourself about the business side of your chosen vocation. Buy books. Read articles. Listen to podcasts. Find out how the business works. What are the protocols? How is business conducted?

When that garage band hangs their demo tape on Bob Dylan’s fence, they are demonstrating their ignorance of the music biz and they are proving their contempt (even if it’s completely unconscious) for all professional musicians (including Bob Dylan)—for the time those musicians have spent to master their craft, for the sacrifices they have endured over years and years, and for the demands upon those musicians’ time, not just professionally but personally as well.

If you want to send a tape or a screenplay or a novel, great. But ask first. Write and ask permission.

Do your due diligence. Find out how the business works. Comport yourself so that one day, when you actually do meet Bob Dylan, you are already a thoroughgoing pro. And don’t ask him for anything. Be so good that he asks you.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

24 Responses to “The #1 Amateur Mistake”

  1. Mary Doyle
    March 18, 2015 at 6:14 am

    Sending unsolicited work to an artist one does not know and expecting that person to take the time to read/listen strikes me as the height of chutzpah that well-deserves your label of “The #1 Amateur Mistake.” I never considered the potential legal pitfalls for the recipient though – thanks for the insight!

  2. March 18, 2015 at 6:35 am

    I call this “Business 101”, because writing to be published is as much (or more) a business as it is a craft or art form. Thanks for the great post, Steven.

  3. March 18, 2015 at 6:44 am

    This is so interesting!

    One career consultant I know — wildly successful, by the way — told me she won’t read any other career books for fear of accidental plagiarism.

    As a radio talk show host I get a lot of books from people who want to be guests on my show. I don’t read many of them, but I read enough to make me think that — as a writer, as well — I haven’t sprinkled my writing with enough disclaimers to cover this.

    I use my books as thank-you notes sometimes — whether the person I’m thanking is a programmer at a radio station, another writer, whatever. Here’s hoping that isn’t in bad form — but if so, that you’ll weigh in. Thanks!

    • Patti
      March 18, 2015 at 6:52 am

      This is actually the most innovative way to leave a calling card. This idea was recently suggested to me as a way to cultivate speaking engagements.

  4. Lee Poteet
    March 18, 2015 at 7:08 am

    Musicians are fortunate in a way that aspiring novelists are not. They can go out on the streets and play so that folks can hear their music and perhaps seek more. They can even post videos on YouTube and that has worked for some – say ‘Thank you’ Justin Bieber! But writers have to find an agent or a publisher to get their work into print which is much more difficult. Few will have a distinguished publisher take a wrapped manuscript which they had intended to mail to someone else from their hands at a breakfast table, promising to publish the book unread as John Farrar did to Madeline L’Engle. The book which had already suffered several rejections was a great success. But the rest of us are just going to have to keep mailing them out.

    • March 18, 2015 at 12:36 pm

      Lee, I’m a writer on Youtube! And you can stand and read in the streets too, like musicians. The sky is the limit to what you can do. I could hear resistance in your paragraph. Sending out manilla envelopes do sometimes work but a lot of it is getting out there and not being afraid. Going to writer’s conferences, etc.

      And never say “few” when it comes to books. There are millions in print with more each year. A virtual tidal wave of them. I once visited the country’s largest used book store. Miles and miles of published works. MILES! Yours can be one of them.

      • Brian
        March 18, 2015 at 7:14 pm

        Erika “Country’s Largest Used Book Store” … interested in knowing where it is.
        I frequent Powells in Portland, Oregon but though always pleased with their inventory and atmosphere I first was introduced to Foyles as a young lad and there is no comparison to the London Booksellers place.

  5. March 18, 2015 at 7:49 am

    Thanks for the reminder. also reminded me of a blog on reading scripts – I will not read your script

  6. March 18, 2015 at 8:43 am

    I did this once.

    Just once.

    Seth was immensely gracious and polite, and it was like being kicked in the ego by a mule. Not yer average lightweight mule, a big angry mule. With giraffe’s feet. Maybe it was a giraffe.

    This behavior falls under the “waiting to be picked” column, where I no longer post entries. I already picked myself, I just need to do the work.

  7. Brady Longmore
    March 18, 2015 at 10:35 am

    Makes me wonder what those writers are hoping for; that you’re going to love their novel, and run it straight off to your publisher?

  8. March 18, 2015 at 11:15 am

    Steve, is this why you didn’t send a thank you card for the giant golden Steve statue I left on your porch? I was hurt until I remembered you prefer chocolate. Giant chocolate statues plus my 700-thousand word fantasy novel. I will have it made!!

  9. March 18, 2015 at 11:21 am

    Steven,

    This post is so necessary. It should be part of every writer’s blog or class or forum. And you are not only right, but polite about it. Someone very young who doesn’t know better might be excused their ignorance, but not anyone who is serious about the craft. As you – and others – have said – there are no shortcuts.

    Thanks!

  10. Marvin Waschke
    March 18, 2015 at 2:15 pm

    My day job used to be serving on committees writing and editing international computing standards. We have the same problem– we can’t even accept comments on an unpublished standard without a signed statement that nothing in the comment is patented. If we didn’t have the signed statement, five years after the standard is published and used all over, some black hat could demand royalties from everyone who follows the standard.

    Same deal, different world.

  11. York
    March 18, 2015 at 6:56 pm

    This was great!

  12. March 18, 2015 at 9:30 pm

    I actually had no idea about this. Gladly, I never sent stuff without getting permission first. Thanks for bringing it up!

  13. March 18, 2015 at 10:51 pm

    Great post as usual,
    I remember having such thoughts when I was in school; “man, what if they saw my stuff and offered me a job” and the like. I am so glad that I never gave into the idea. Although I have yet to land the big spec sale or lucrative contract, I am proud to say that I have stayed true to my craft and solicit my work (with some moderate success) only through the appropriate channels.
    Thank you for sharing!
    Best, Jim

  14. walter
    March 20, 2015 at 2:04 am

    is any one interested in a online writers job, many available openings for people interested in assisting with short stories, movie scripts, articles news feeds, blog post and more .

    if you are curious click the link below
    http://89c399ei3amnak4kqhvaj20kcq.hop.clickbank.net/

  15. Vanessa
    March 20, 2015 at 9:31 pm

    Does this also apply to agents, publishers and editors, too? Many of these people don’t accept unsolicited material but how else does one get published? I don’t agree with many who suggest putting one’s stuff online and building an audience. Isn’t that putting oneself at risk for having their ideas stolen? [I’m a graphic novelist]

  16. March 21, 2015 at 12:30 pm

    I hear every word you say and sort of sigh. Have the lawyers really taken over the art world as well? I understand the idea around livelihood, and this is why most artist should actually and probably do have a day job. But can’t artsist also exist in the dream world of idealism? The work they do is part of a grander story they tell themselves.

  17. March 23, 2015 at 11:26 am

    Clearly, I am suffering from a bout of easily roused impatience and intolerance, but I feel the need to tap out a few thoughts on this posting. Consider them to be the result of some suitably road-worn credentials.

    So, if I understand this correctly – troubling an established artist without their permission runs the risk of being seen as rude, lazy, selfish and desperate. And it’s the #1 Amateur mistake? Of all the potential missteps a rookie in this widespread field of artistic endeavor can make, THIS is numero uno? I don’t know whether to feel relieved that the mistakes I made were comparatively inconsequential, or despondent in that all I had to do was send a song to Paul McCartney or a weighty tome to Christopher Hitchens and the rest of the voyage would have entailed taking my feet off the pedals and letting gravity have its way.

    Here’s another way to look at this.

    [ But first, I’m slightly confused – is this a fan club or a writer’s community? If it’s the former, my sincere apologies – none of what is to follow is directed at you. If it’s the latter? Hmmm.., such wholehearted agreement? With no challenge at any level? The industrial complex of “good point, sir” seems to be blurring the lines of what writers do best, contrary beasts that we are. Where’s the bloody-minded passion and disputation?

    Any writer of substance would leap at the chance to defend their point of view – preferably with a bottle of Jameson’s at hand – but they need a reaction of equal substance. Agreement is so boring. Slip out of the straightjacket and prod the beast – see if it wakes. I’m sure Mr. P. won’t mind. He seems a decent sort. You don’t have to be insulting, but you do have to write like your entire life force is at stake – ‘cause it is. In this case, you’ve just been shown a fence that serves no other purpose than to keep you corralled until you’re called. You should be more willing to drink your own bathwater than nod agreeably at such a singular reference to the plight of the non-professional.]

    Now, where was I?

    Even as I wholeheartedly disagree with the summation and find it to be the literary equivalent of, “get yer ball out ‘o my yard”, I find it ironic that those same admonishments (rude, lazy, selfish and desperate) were leveled at Rock ‘n Roll, Punk Rock and Hippies (read: Elvis, The Sex Pistols and Jimi Hendrix). Where would music be without them?

    I liked the scenario that was painted of a band driving coast-to-coast in order to throw a tape at an artist. Of course, the expectation of being held in a higher regard because of such an act is fraught with futility. But what a ride! Why would any band of brothers and sisters deny themselves this adventure? The sheer, visceral connection to an artistic calling is transmitted through every bump in the road – you’re not seeking fame, you’re bagging memories. It’s in every nasty truck stop and weird hillbilly encounter. It’s in the late night hook-ups and sunrises and flat tires and cheap motels. It’s in the bonds that can be created and crushed during a single arc of the moon. As long as you are in motion and you are writing what you see and feel, you are as relevant as Dylan ever was. And you are doing it unimpeded by all of those voices telling you to conform; to obey. You are actively debunking the myth that writing or singing or filmmaking or performing at any age is best served by following rules and directives and grids. At the end of the day, all you have is that which is uniquely you – go ahead and shout, it’s bedlam out there.

    Of course, you could stay home and grow a beard (you too, ladies), waiting patiently for the ‘artist’ to acquiesce and summon your wares.

    In the age of the Internet, ‘permission’ has become a buzzword; a catchphrase adopted by the marketing community and used in place of ‘professionals’ bothering to identify with their audience. It’s a widely held assumption that casting your net as wide as possible whilst exhibiting an appropriate sense of decorum will generate a positive response. Not true – and certainly not applicable to a struggling artist reaching out to an established one. At the level ‘permission’ becomes anywhere near applicable, it’s nothing more than a numbers game, and even then it’s more relevant to staving off diminishing returns rather than igniting new behavior.

    Mr. Pressfield writes: “When that garage band hangs their demo tape on Bob Dylan’s fence, they are demonstrating their ignorance of the music biz and they are proving their contempt (even if it’s completely unconscious) for all professional musicians (including Bob Dylan)—for the time those musicians have spent to master their craft, for the sacrifices they have endured over years and years, and for the demands upon those musicians’ time, not just professionally but personally as well.”

    Oh, man, there’s a book’s worth of material on the many wrongs with this directive, but I shall be brief and selective.

    “..ignorance of the music biz…”

    The music biz was built upon ignorance and today it’s dying on its back because of a lack of it. Blind ignorance puts you backstage or over the wall of a recording studio; insolence gets you noticed when your weed is the good stuff; arrogance allows you to plug in and play and be heard. And it is with no small amount of irony that the corporate, buttoned-up, media-obsessed mindset of today’s music biz would never allow for a talent such as Bob Dylan to emerge.

    More from Mr. P…,

    “…they are proving their contempt (even if it’s completely unconscious) for all professional musicians…”

    Contempt, you say? Unless you’re the balding 2nd trumpet in a cover band on a Carnival Cruise line, there is no code of ethics between musicians. The unsuccessful want success, and the successful wanna stay ‘dat way. If you think that “asking permission” is the alternative to slinging some stuff into the void, you are mistaken. The established artist doesn’t listen to unsolicited material for fear of plagiarism, they don’t listen out of fear, period – fear of being dethroned. The plagiarism slant is lawyer horseshit. Plagiarists have no problem with stealing successful works – look at George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’; know that Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells is nothing more than Bach’s ‘Toccata and Fugue’ played in reverse; hear Sting’s admission that ‘So Lonely’ was ripped directly from Bob Marley’s, ‘No Woman, No Cry’; and witness Pharell’s recent raping of Marvin Gaye’s craft with the hit, ‘Blurred Lines’. These songs represent a tiny sample of theft spanning fifty years. The music biz of today is only about the sure-thing, contempt for this institution should be welcomed with open arms.

    Consider for a moment that the Hendrix-wannabee standing outside the MSG stage door in the pouring rain is NOT wasting his time, because he/she is feeling the vibration of the walls and the sound of the crowd. Every fibre of their being will store that energy for when the time is right. You simply cannot bring that soul to a work of art – writing, music, photography, etc. – without feeling it first.

    Back to the ‘#1 Amateur mistake’ headline. Even if you are given to requiring a top ten of do’s and don’t(s), I urge you to refute the notion that taking the feelings of an established artist or ‘the biz’ into consideration has any significance whatsoever.

    The #1 mistake is not acting on your impulse with every ounce of creativity you can muster. Stop prioritizing the reward; stop looking for advice. The journey is what matters.

    Thanks for your time.

    Mark Warford

    • April 7, 2015 at 3:56 pm

      I like it Mark. Mr. P. is a man schooled in the military world view. He has chosen a special set of glasses of a particular color and has found his preference in success with that. His glasses are ground from the glass that worships competition, combat, and male hierarchies. That’s not a problem, as long as you understand that. There are useful things in that world. That he can describe the rules of that world is helpful, but not necessarily a description of the universe.

  18. nemo
    March 24, 2015 at 7:39 pm

    Steven,

    I have developed a theory – perhaps it’s no more than a rule of thumb – that anyone who quotes Dylan or Lennon is a clown. I came to this view after years of observing that people of a certain age cite Dylan or Lennon in support of all sorts of nonsense.

    Based on what I read in some of your books, I had thought that you are a fairly sensible man. But after visiting your website today and seeing a few references to Dylan, I’m beginning to change my opinion on that.

    I urge you to reflect on your bad habit of genuflecting to Dylan. He was is not some kind of messiah. He is just another opportunist who, by chance, stumbled on a way of making a fortune 50 years ago, by peddling pap to the feeble minded.

  19. March 31, 2015 at 7:33 am

    Generally I don’t learn article on blogs, however I would like to say that this write-up very forced
    me to take a look at and do it! Your writing taste has
    been surprised me. Thank you, very great article.

  20. April 1, 2015 at 8:12 pm

    I have given over 100 copies of “The War of Art” to various people through the years. It is a gem–and all the more a gem, because (as David Allen said, who recommended the book to me) it can be read in a couple of hours. In other words, it is a right sized gem, esp. for someone over 60, like me.

    So, I have gladly pushed this book like a hot diamond or a great drug and let’s just suppose I was to send my book “Emotional Elegance” (which has a preface by David Allen) to Mr. Pressfield as a further sign and thank you that I adore his book–then, up until now, I would have no idea that I am committing the #1 amateur mistake and insulting the professional craft of Mr. Pressfield. I would have thought I was just saying thank you in a profound way and hope that he might find something in my book of use–even if it just a sign of my gratitude. But no–in this hasty, judgmental, litigious world, I would be viewed as a pariah looking for a savior to get my book to #1 on Amazon. Sometimes a thank you is just a thank you.