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30 Thousand Feet

The Writer's Playbook

When I was in my twenties, I once found myself at 30,000 feet sitting in a luxurious seat of a 4-person Learjet bound from New York to Milwaukee. Across, and facing me, sat a person in a suit and tie who was in charge of security. To his left was a gentleman named Rod Thorn, an executive with the National Basketball Association and former GM of the Chicago Bulls. And across from him, seated next to me, was none other than the long-time commissioner of the NBA, David Stern. 

David Stern will always be remembered as a giant in the sports industry. His tenure lasted thirty years, from 1984-2014. He’s been regarded as one of the very best ever to serve as commissioner of a pro sports league. His visionary mind and leadership skills lifted the NBA from “that fourth league” to the powerhouse it has become today. In writing terms…on a par with the mystery thriller greats.

Needless to say, for a young Midwesterner who had never been to New York City before accepting a job at the league office in mid-town Manhattan, and then striving to learn how to adapt and get my feet under me, that moment was surreal. The trip started with a phone call from Commissioner Stern’s assistant simply telling me that “David would like you to attend a game in Milwaukee with him next Wednesday night.” Private airport, chartered jet, and four of us in total making the trip. There and back just for the game. Gulp!

David asked me for a few reasons. One, he was cognizant of my background being a native Milwaukeean and the previous four years working for the Milwaukee Bucks. He wanted to acknowledge that and welcome me to the league office with this gracious trip offer. It was his way of saying “welcome aboard” and allowing me to on-board in a very unique and opportunistic way. Second, I know now he did it not only to see what sort of person I was, but to allow me an unbelievable few hours of access to him and to parlay that into career advancement. 

In retrospect, I failed, or at least got a D- grade. I was so nervous about making a misstep, that I was blind to the moment in front of me. I spent most of the evening answering his questions when he engaged, but I never asked him even one. Those four hours were more pensive than anything I’d ever experienced, and I wasn’t smart enough to figure out in real time the opportunity that lay in front of me. Had I positioned myself correctly, my career in sports would’ve been super-charged. I eventually made it to a VP position years later, but it took a lot longer than if I had simply let go my fear, and leveraged that moment. David never said anything negative to me, being the professional that he was, but he opened a door and all I had to do was walk through it. I guess the best way to say it is that I blinked. The simple glare of an internationally known sports executive giving me unfettered access on a small, private trip was a light so bright that I blinked instead of embraced. I came to this understanding years later, but too late to fix my error. 

One significant learning from this life experience of mine is that it can be applied to young/new writers. You’re going to have a 30,000 foot moment, even if it’s one minute long in an elevator at a writing conference on your way down to breakfast when that well-known author you never thought you’d meet, jumps on two floors later. Or maybe just a random meeting that came your way.

I’ve found that one of the most treasured aspects of being an author is that the writing community, generally as a whole, is a network of individuals who support each other and are willing to lend advice or guidance when asked. Learn to leverage the already organic helpful nature of your fellow authors (seek them out through any number of means – social, events, clubs, workshops), and be prepared to meet and genuinely connect with the many authors that are over-the-top successful. And when you cross paths with a David Stern, and you will, equip yourself with the inner confidence to engage. A few other thoughts:

  • Have your proverbial “elevator pitch” down to a tee, customized to a publisher, agent, and to a well-known author. The successful author you meet is an influencer, either for a blurb on your next book, or a connection that can open doors. Grab the moment and try to establish a relationship.
  • If you’re going to an event (book signing, conference, workshop, etc.), and you know so-and-so successful author is going to be in attendance and perhaps even a featured guest, dive into their background. Learn as much about them as you can so when you do have the 30,000 foot moment, you can comment or ask a question about them that is connected to who they are as a person. It can be as simple as where they’re from and something about that city or state that you can use to begin relevant communication. That alone will increase the odds of their engagement with you. As an author, I find it refreshing to have a conversation with someone I don’t know who wants to talk about something other than one of my books or characters. 
  • Check yourself when the moment hits. Recognize it. Drop your fears, be confident, and don’t hesitate to ask a question to begin the conversation.

In the words of David Stern, “Follow your dreams and make the most of every experience.” And another of his quotes on a related note – “You will ultimately be defined by the sum total of your responses to circumstances, situations and events that you probably couldn’t anticipate and indeed probably couldn’t even imagine. So just keep your eyes on the course and be ready to move in different directions depending upon the crises and opportunities with which you are faced.”

Writing a great story is hard; marketing it is perhaps harder. You’re going to meet a David Stern, if you haven’t already. Are you primed? Are you ready to professionally and politely capitalize on that moment?