Game Theory in Writing Part 1: Goals vs. Milestones

written by David Steffen

This is the first of a short series of articles about applying Game Theory to writing. Game Theory is the study of strategic decision making, a field of study made most famous by mathematician John Nash (which the movie A Beautiful Mind was based on). I won’t be getting into the math of Game Theory, but I thought it might be interesting to discuss some applications of strategic decision making in the writing/submitting/publishing process because I’m both a writing geek and a programming geek. A discussion mixing the two topics lights up all kinds of synapses in the geek centers of my brain.

So, for this installment I’m going to talk about the importance of differentiating between goals and milestones. What does this have to do with game theory? Well, much of the focus of game theory is based around “gamifying” ordinary activities by defining scoring rules and ways to determine your level of success in the game, and thus defining ways to look at a scenario that will encourage the outcome you want. By choosing carefully how you determine your own level of success you can exert some control over what behaviors you encourage. Choosing well can generate energy and momentum to drive you to bigger and better things. Choosing poorly can leave you disheartened and weary.

But what are goals and what are milestones?

Goals are things you can accomplish which you have complete control over (or at least as complete control over as you have over anything). In writing, some goals might be:

  • to write every day
  • to finish writing a novel in 2015
  • to write 5000 words a week
  • to never trunk a story
  • to write every other story in a character unlike yourself in some major way
  • to submit to pro-paying markets only

Milestones are things which would laudable and worthy of celebration, but which are not under your direct control.

  • to sell a story for the first time
  • to become eligible to be a member of SFWA
  • to sell a story to Asimov’s
  • to be nominated for a Hugo
  • to get a positive review from Lois Tilton

In some ways goals and milestones are very similar. You can fail or you can succeed to reach goals or milestones, and they are both kinds of ways to measure success. Both are things worthy of celebration if met. So what’s the point in differentiating between them. The primary difference is in how you can best react to NOT meeting them.

Because goals are entirely under your control, you can react however you want to not meeting them. Maybe the goals were too ambitious for your lifestyle or skills–that doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t have pursued them, and there certainly can be things outside of your control that may have blocked you (personal illness, death in the family, change in career, eviction, etc). If you don’t meet them, maybe they still helped you reach higher than you otherwise would have, or maybe you need to aim lower to avoid discouragement. However the goals motivate you, run with it. I find that setting goals of daily butt-in-chair time combined with goals that maintain a quick turnaround of a story to another market after rejection have served me well to keep rejection from getting me down and to make sure I sit down and actually produce. (I’ll talk more about setting good motivating submission goals in a later article)

Because milestones are not under your control, you shouldn’t beat yourself up over it. You can write an amazing story and Asimov’s might reject it for any number of reasons. You can’t control how people react to your stories, and if you beat yourself up for it, that’s a quick route to discouragement and disheartening funk. If you’ve chosen your goals wisely, they will be setting you on a path to try to reach your milestones and that will let you exert your control as best you can, but at the end of the day those milestones still depend on other people and you shouldn’t beat yourself up for what other people do. Milestones are things to be celebrated, and you can even set up structured ways to celebrate them, such as the Bingo Card that Christie Yant uses, but it’s important to remember that they’re still out of your control.


Published by

David Steffen

David Steffen is an editor, publisher, and writer. If you like what he does you can visit the Support page or buy him a coffee! He is probably best known for being co-founder and administrator of The Submission Grinder, a donation-supported tool to help writers track their submissions and find publishers for their work . David is also the editor-in-chief here at Diabolical Plots. He is also the editor and publisher of The Long List Anthology: More Stories From the Hugo Award Nomination List series. David also (sometimes) writes fiction, and you can follow on BlueSky for updates on cross-stitch projects and occasionally other things.

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