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.


On Unqualifying for SFWA

written by David Steffen

Note: It has been pointed out to me that because I have qualified and joined SFWA previously, I don’t need to qualify again regardless of rule changes. As a result, I could technically join again any time I wish. For me personally it’s more the principle of the thing–becoming eligible for SFWA was a long-term milestone as I started writing, and so being able to join by being grandfathered in doesn’t feel like actually meeting that milestone anymore. Also, regardless of whether I can technically join or not and regardless of whether one agrees with my qualms about being grandfathered in, the 10,000 word minimum affects anyone who hadn’t met the previous guidelines for full membership before the deadline and is still a change that I consider very problematic in both its strategic implications of keeping out writers who excel at the shortest form and practical effects of reducing potential membership for no clear reason.

For a lot of science fiction and fantasy writers trying to lay their claim to fame, becoming eligible to be a member of SFWA is a major milestone to mark their progress, and I was no exception. At the time, to get the full Active membership you had to make 3 story sales paid at least five cents per word and which totalled more than a certain dollar amount (I forget what the exact total was, a few hundred dollars I think) and where each individual sale was worth at least $50. I reached that goal and became eligible with the acceptance of “Marley and Cratchit” to Escape Pod, adding to my prior sales of “Turning Back the Clock” to Bull Spec and “The Infinite Onion” to AE. So, I reached that goal and there was much rejoicing (by me at least). I was able to join, and could go to the SFWA suite at Worldcon 2012 which was a great place to be.

This year SFWA changed their criteria, to up the professional rate to six cents per word, and also to add a minimum word count of your qualifying stories to 10,000 words.

I generally approve of the upping of the professional rate–it needs to go up periodically to have some relation to inflation, and I think that’s really overdue. Yes, it makes it more difficult for magazines to meet the criteria, but this list of markets is a large part of why SF/F has generally higher standards than some other kinds of short story markets.

I don’t approve, though, of the 10,000 word limit. Presumably there was a specific reason–but what is that reason? It seems to me that this is a strategy specifically designed to keep flash fiction from counting toward membership. I don’t know if this is another one of those conversations where some older members of the organization think that SFWA membership should be kept only to those who have writing as their only job. Could you do that? Sure. But the organization would be small and much more irrelevant, and would explicitly exclude a whole ton of award winning authors like Ken Liu who have day jobs. Who does that benefit exactly?

So, who does this benefit,changing the rules so that flash fiction is less important? I’m not the only writer whose most sales are flash fiction. Is it because the people prompting the rule change don’t understand the form? I’ll grant you, you can’t have a full complicated plot in a flash story like you can in a longer story, but flash fiction has its own appeal that other kinds of fiction can’t do well. Anecdotally, I’ve heard speculation that this is to keep some well-paying drabble (100 word story) sales from getting you to membership, but if you can sell a drabble for $50 you are my hero and I want to pick your brain. I haven’t seen any public statements about why SFWA’s organizers thought this was a worthwhile change.

As a result of this change, I no longer qualify for SFWA membership. I have 4 individual sales, but they only add up to 9180 words. So I’d need to make at least one sale of 920 words which makes at least $50. This frustrates me, for me and other flash writers like me to be excluded for no explained reason when we meet the other criteria.

I will note as well that the rules on the SFWA website say “Three paid sales of different works of fiction (such as three separate short stories) totaling a minimum of 10,000 words to Qualifying Professional Markets”. Note that it says “three” not “three or more. Which, if that’s what was actually meant, would limit flash sales even more, because getting 10 professional 1000-word story sales wouldn’t count to get the 10,000 if you can only pick 3 of them to count. I’ve been told by members of SFWA that the actual bylaws say “three or more”, which is a relief because then I’d have even further to go–then I would only be able to count 3 of those sales to count 8200 words and I’ve just have to sell longer stories. One story of 2800 words or 2 stories that total 4100 words between them. The trouble with the website being wrong is that it’s the source that newbie writers are going to use to determine whether they should apply or not–so even though the bylaws are the source, this is the public side of it. Hopefully they’ll get the website updated soon.

And I hope that they repeal the 10,000 word minimum. At the very least, I’d like to hear why they think flash fiction isn’t valuable to the SF community, or what other strategy they might have behind this change–I don’t think such a thing would make me happy, exactly, but then we could have a discussion about the topic at the core of this rather than just complaining about the symptom.

In the meantime, I guess there’s nothing to do for it but to consider “Requalifying for SFWA” as a new milestone to reach. Onward and upward!