written by David Steffen

One of the most important traits to lasting as a writer is persistence even in the face of long odds. I’m nothing if not persistent–I’ve sent more than 1500 submissions since I started submitting 6 and a half years ago.

Thinking back on my childhood, there may have been some early signs that I was (perhaps unreasonably) persistent. One particular story happened in 1991 with the release of Super NES game The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. I’d grown up playing the first two Zelda games on my brother’s NES. I had my own SNES and I was very eager to try out the game. But when the game was released, I didn’t have $50 on account of being an unemployed child. I had my eye on the game at the Lewis Drug down the street, and I was scrounging for pocket change in the couch, doing odd jobs for family, and so on. While I was saving up, I was worried the game would go out of stock and never come back in, so every single night 10-year old me would call Lewis Drug and ask them if they still had the game on their shelves. Somehow I was genuinely surprised when, after the first night or two, they didn’t actually go check before they told me they have it. It never occurred to me that I was most certainly the only one calling every day to ask about an item I didnt’ buy. Eventually I did come up with the cash to buy the game. And I’m pretty sure that when I came into the store the clerk asked me if I was the kid who called every day… before I counted out $50 of pocket change onto the counter.

Defining Goal Themes vs Goals

written by David Steffen

This post is in part based on ideas picked from the brain of my good friend Rachael K. Jones–credit where credit’s due!

I’ve talked in previous posts about the difference between goals and milestones. But on the subject of goals, I thought it’s worth breaking that down further into what I’m going to call goal themes vs goals.


Goal Themes

By goal themes I generally mean things which describe ideals you want to support in the whole of your long-term career in writing. Rachael’s list of goal themes are something like this, and I think most of these can apply to most people with maybe some alterations:

1. Improve my craft

2. Try things outside my comfort zone

3. Move toward positive change

4. Honor the people who’ve helped me

5. Look for chances to pay it forward

Note again that these are all related to goals, not milestones, because they are things within your control. You can do all of these things without it depending on the actions of other people. There’s a focus on improving craft, but not on sales or writing income, because those latter things require an editor to actually choose to buy your story. But the idea is that by improving your craft you’ll be setting yourself up to make more sales, and so on.

And the paying it forward and making positive change are great because they don’t just focus on personal success but in applying yourself to make the world a better place in some way (which you might be able to be more effective at if you have more personal success, mind you).

Your list of goal themes is something I’d expect not to change too much from year to year, because these are large scale pursuits that aim at general ideals.



Goals are specific aims that you are working on right now, and are best if they relate to one of your goal themes (because that’s how you pursue those ideals). Note that although some of the goals here are from Rachael, I also added in some others as examples of how you might pursue the goal theme.

1. Improve my craft
–exchanging story critiques
–workshops with your favorite authors
–writing more words

2. Try things outside my comfort zone
–public speaking
–guest hosting of podcasts

3. Agitate for positive change within my profession
–working with Women Destroy SF
–Supporting diversity with donations to diversity-supporting publications, volunteering

4. Honor the people who’ve helped me
–writing stories in honor people
–jam or other personal goods for your friends

5. Look for chances to pay it forward
–sharing info with new writers
–introducing people
–read, share, and celebrate stories you think are awesome by friends and new writers


Game Theory in Writing Part 3: Why Money Should Always Flow to the Writer

written by David Steffen

This is the second article in a series considering the applications of game theory on writing. Game Theory is the study of strategic decision making. I won’t get into the mathematics of it, just high level concepts. The first article in the series discussed differentiating between goals and milestones. The second article in the series discussed ways for writers to keep score on their submissions that will encourage them to reach their goals.

An oft-quoted phrase in writing circles is known as “Yog’s Law”: Money always flows to the writer. I don’t really care for the name, since it’s not a law in either the legal sense or the scientific sense, but it’s an important guideline to keep in mind to help new writers avoid vanity publishers and publications that charge fees for submission.

What does it mean?

When I hear “Money always flows to the writer” out of context in the company of people who are not writers, I always wonder what those writers think. Do they picture the writer as Scrooge McDuck swimming in a vault full of money they never spend? Do they picture the writer’s landlord demanding rent to which the writer will reply “Money always flows to the writer” and slam the door in the landlord’s face?

Obviously writers spend money on goods and services as anyone else does. Yog’s Law refers only to interactions in pursuit of publication. That is, a writer shouldn’t pay submission fees. A writer shouldn’t pay publication fees. The writer is providing value in the form of their writing, and the writer should be paid for that writing.

Note that there are cases that seem to fit this description that aren’t really a problem–especially in self-publishing where the writer may pay for an artist to make cover art or a copyeditor to help them proofread. That’s because in the case of self-publishing the writer herself is also wearing the publisher hat and so the traditional roles are shifted.


So, why, from a Game Theory perspective, does the money need to flow to the writer? One of the important things I’ve learned from Game Theory is that a system or “game” is that the rules of a game should be designed so that the desired behavior results from everyone acting in their own selfish best interest. If the system is set up in any other way, then you have a conflict of interest that’s going to set the writer in conflict with the publisher rather than putting them together on the same team.

In a traditional sale to a magazine, the publisher will pay the author a one-time fee for publication rights and then the publisher will distribute the magazine either charging for readers to read the issue or taking donations and providing the content for free to recover the costs of paying for the story and other expenses, (and ideally will turn a profit on the deal to sustain the magazine). In this case, both the editor and writer have the same goals from the transaction–to get the story ready for publication as quickly as possible, to get it packaged up in an issue, and getting in front of as many readers as possible.

In traditional book publishing, similar idea, but on a larger scale and with royalties.

But let’s consider a vanity publisher which charges editing fees of the author. It’s in the publisher’s best financial interest to drag that editing process out as long as possible–if you’re determined, you can always find something to fiddle with, but that’s not a publisher you want to work with, sucking away your money in an endless stream of nitpicks that the editor never has an incentive to end. The editor doesn’t have an incentive to get the book in a publishable format in a timely fashion because edits are where the money is at.

Consider next a vanity publisher that charges publication fees. It’s in the publisher’s best financial interest to rush everything to publication, regardless of quality, and to not bother supporting it in any kind of marketing or any other fashion in the future. The revenue stream maximizes by maximizing the number of titles that are published in such a low quality format that probably no one but the author’s family is going to buy. Although this publisher will naturally tend to get stories to publication, they are making money regardless of the quality of the publication and so do not have an incentive to help the writer make the product as good as possible.

Consider a magazine that charges submission fees. The author, in that case, is paying a fee (often on the order of $3 but sometimes higher on the range of $20) to, in all likelihood, get a form rejection. Guess how much effort it takes to send a form rejection? If the system is set up efficiently, probably one or two clicks. The magazine maximizes their revenue stream from that by not bothering to read the slushpile at all, publishing stories they solicit directly and just rejecting the rest.

Note that in these cases, I’m not saying that all publishers who adopt these practices are scammers, or that they have the result I suggest. But with those flawed plans in place, there will be constant pressure toward practices that are directly detrimental to the writer, and a writer would do best to avoid them entirely.


Game Theory in Writing Part 2: Gamifying Your Submission Process

written by David Steffen

This is the second article in a series considering the applications of game theory on writing. Game Theory is the study of strategic decision making. I won’t get into the mathematics of it, just high level concepts. The first article in the series discussed differentiating between goals and milestones.

Much of focus of Game Theory centers around “gamifying” everyday decisions, giving them a goal and a way to keep score to determine how well you’re meeting that goal. One thing that writers can struggle with is keeping stories in circulation–you can’t sell stories if you don’t submit them–so for this article I’ll be considering ways to keep score that encourage the behavior you want.

The Wrong Behavior

Some rules that seem entirely sensible can actually encourage the wrong behavior (“wrong” as in contradictory to the behaviors you want to pursue). For instance, I know some people who use acceptance percentage. Sounds good, right? A newbie starts with 0%. You might imagine that a big name might have, I don’t know, above 50% (I’m not saying that’s actually a reasonable number, but one might imagine it is).

But consider the consequences. When you’re a saleless newbie, no problem. If the fraction is 0/1 or 0/2 or 0/100, it all comes out to 0% acceptance. But someday you get a sale, let’s say it’s your 100th resolved submission. Calloo! Callay! You have raised your acceptance ratio to 1%. Wonderful news!

But what happens next? You want to keep submitting other stories, right? So you can sell more, get your stories to more people, crack all your favorite magazines, right? But… you think to yourself, what if that submission gets rejected? Then my acceptance ratio would be 1/101. What if the next 99 are rejections too? That would bring your acceptance ratio to 0.5% and you’re now half as successful as you had been. So, maybe you’ll just wait until you see a submission opportunity that you’re certain you can nail with no risk.

Look what your scoring system has gotten you. Now you’re reluctant to take risks. You can’t sell without submitting–never up, never in. You can’t get those big sales without submitting to markets that have very low odds. Avoiding risks will ensure stagnation of your progress.

The Right Behavior

So what should you pick for gauging your progress then? Total # of acceptances (rather than acceptance ratio). Total number of professional-paying sales. You can pick something that fits your values, but just consider what behavior it will encourage before you really stick to it.

To encourage me to submit I have found Dean Wesley Smith’s submission scoring system to be extremely valuable in motivating me to keep stories in submission. It’s pretty simple. For every short story you have submitted right now, you get 1 point. For every novel you have an excerpt out for, you get 3 points. For every complete novel manuscript submitted right now, you get 8 points. Submitting the same story to multiple venues simultaneously does not get you more points. When you get an acceptance or rejection, you lose the points associated with that submission.

The great thing about the system is that it encourages you to not mope when you get a rejection–if you find a new market to submit that story to, then you can keep the score up. And it encourages you to write more stories–your maximum score is the number of stories you’ve written. I intend to incorporate automatic scorekeeping using this system into The Submission Grinder at some point, because I believe in it.

So, writers out there, do you have any score or statistic that you follow to help motivate you in your submitting? Your writing?

Two new anthologies open for submissions

I caught wind of two new anthologies that look promising.

The Way of the Wizard, edited by J. J. Adams, will be an anthology full of stories about wizards. JJA has put together some neat anthologies in the past and this one looks to be just as interesting.

Match-that-Artwork Contest is an interesting contest. Submissions should be based on one of the supplied pieces of artwork. There are hundreds of images to choose from so there is no reason you shouldn’t be able to find something original to write. Submissions will be judged not only on the quality of the piece but also how well it matches the artwork.

Check the links for pay and submission guidelines.

Great writing websites…

<This has previously been printed on my personal blog:>

As an aspiring writer I find the internet to be an extremely valuable tool as well as a colossal drain on my writing time. There are fantastic resources available to new writers that quite frankly I would not have survived without. On the other hand, even these great resources can be an excuse not to write. I’ve listed the links to each website or tool that I have used in my short journey as a writer. I hope you find them useful but I caution you to only use what you need at the moment.

No matter how much you read about writing, nothing can replace the value of putting words to the page and nothing you read on the internet will improve your writing more than simply practicing the craft of writing. So use these resources but use them when you can’t be writing.


Writer blogs are a dime a dozen and the quality and experience ranges from the unknown aspirant right up to the prolific professional. There is something to take from each of the blogs I have listed. Gain inspiration from the unknown pups and gain motivation from the old dogs.

Dean Wesley Smith is a prolific writer who has written and edited dozens of novels. He also has donated an inordinate amount of his time and efforts to shepherding new writers along the path to success.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch is another great writer who has given a great deal back to the aspirant community. She blogs about her own writing along with tips on writing and marketing. In particular, check out here Freelancer’s Survival Guide posts.

David Farland is another outstanding author. His Runelord books are one of my favorite epic fantasy series of all time. His blog is mostly fan service but he offers a great semi-daily email with writing and marketing tips for new writers call the Kick in the Pants. Check it out!

Diabolical Plots is a great website by an aspirant writer who is just started to poke his head through the professionally published ceiling. David Steffen has writing advice and tips as well as movie reviews and interviews of major players in the genre fiction industry.

Brad R. Torgersen is another aspirant who I believe is on the verge of making the jump to pro writer. His blog details his journey, successes and failures, as he strives to make that elusive first sale.

Marketing Tools

Ask any long time pro and they will tell you that writing the stories is only half the fight to becoming a great writer. Some might say it isn’t even half. You also must know how to get your stories/novels in front of the right person so it can be purchased. There are a few online tools that are extremely valuable for any writer who is about to send out their manuscript. is another useful site for finding markets. There is a lot of additional content here as well that might be useful as you begin to learn your craft. Careful though, it’s easy to get lost in this one.


For many of us there simply isn’t a good local writers group to find peers who can help you on your way. Starting a writers group can be a tough task and will likely only serve to suck even more life from your personal writing time. Not to mention the fact that these small groups are often looked down upon by pros as more of a hindrance than a springboard to success. So we turn online to large writers groups that hopefully don’t suffer from too much drama.

Hatrack River Writers Workshop was started by Orson Scott Card but he is not directly affiliated with the group. You will never see him on the board, at least I haven’t. Instead it is run by the mysterious Shy who must be obeyed. Some know her has Kathleen Dalton Woodbury. This is a great bunch of aspiring writers who will welcome you with open arms. Participation isn’t directly monitored so you can come and go as you please. But like anything worth doing, you will only get out what you put in.

Whoever started Online Writers Workshop must not have had much imagination left the day they came up with the name for this website but what they did have was the forethought to put together a good set of rules to make an online writers workshop hum. OWW is a great workshop for new writers. There are strict participation requirements but they should be easy to manage for any serious writer.

Critters Workshop is an entirely automated writer’s workshop. Every week the system mails out a new set of stories to all of the members and they are then critiqued and posted to the site. Like OWW there are participation requirements but also like OWW they should be no problem for anyone who is truly interested in improving their prose.

There is no doubt hundreds of good writing websites out there and I’m sure I have left out several of the best. Please feel free to add your suggestions via the comments.

When is a Writer a Writer?

This was inspired by a Facebook post where someone said “not everyone who calls themselves a writer is a writer”.

When is a writer a writer?
To write: to form (as words) by inscribing the characters or symbols on a surface.
So whoever puts symbols surfaces is a writer? No. Writing does not make you a writer, or anyone who is literate would be a writer. A person would become a writer when they pay with a check or write a grocery list. That’s writing, not Writing.

When most people speak of a writer, they are speaking of someone who has written something in particular, especially a book. But does one become a writer simply by writing a book? I’ve written a book. Does that make me a writer? It’s sitting in submission at a publisher at the moment. I’ve written more than a dozen short stories, does that make me a writer if none of them are published? What about a writer who’s been too afraid to show his work to any other person? Are they still a writer, or does their fear of rejection take away that title?

Does someone have to like your writing to make you a writer? What if you’ve shown your writing to some people, but none of them have enjoyed it in the slightest. Must we seek a seal of approval to call ourselves writers, or should this writer declare his title regardless if anyone cares for his work?

Are you a writer once published? Most people would agree that people who make their primary income from writing are writers. But what if you’ve published a single short story? What if you’ve been published only at semi-pro markets? Token markets paying a half cent a word? No pay at all? Does that make you any less of a writer? Many of history’s greatest artists were not appreciate in their time, does that mean they only became artists post-mortem? Until then they were just losers with paintbrushes, and somehow became artists as a side effect of decomposition?

When the subject comes up, I tend to call myself an “aspiring writer”. Not because I really think there’s much difference, but because that one word avoids the inevitable and awkward follow-up question: Where can I see your work? But once I publish a short story, is that the time to call myself a writer or do I need a longer bibliography? Perhaps there should be stages of writership, novice, apprentice, journeyman, master, grand master. I could try using these as my writing career develops, but unless these terms go into wide usage, people will just think me a weirdo. Which is fine, I am a weirdo and proud of it, but the terms don’t provide clarity if no one knows what they mean.

Once a writer, always a writer? What if I won a short story contest in grade school and never write again? Does that mean I can always carry the title? If people ask, I can show them the story collection with the byline “David Steffen, age 7”. Does that entitle me to call myself a writer? What of J.D. Salinger, who has not published an original work since 1965? Most people would call him a writer because his wild success of “Catcher in the Rye”, but what if the book had been less successful? What if it had been a single short story? Would he still be considered a writer today?

Many similar questions apply to painters. Monkeys can manipulate paints on a canvas, but does that mean that monkeys are artists? I suspect that painters would be insulted by the idea–no lower species could be capable of art. Yet I’ve seen some abstract art that looks remarkably similar to monkeys fingerpainting. Does that mean that that artist is not an artist because a monkey could do the same?

Revision Methods

An open question for everyone: what method do you use for revisions before you decide something is ready to be submitted?

1. Rough Draft. Write the first draft as fast as it will come out. Details may not be consistent between beginning and end, some of the scenes may not flow correctly into one another, some major continuity errors might exist, as well as grammar and spelling errors. I try not to edit too much at this stage, as it makes the whole process take many times longer. But this draft has an attempt at a beginning, an attempt at an end, and some series of (perhaps disjoint) scenes that lead to the end.
2. Continuity Revision. Read through everything, looking for inconsistencies. Cut unnecessary scenes and resolved conflicting information. Make sure the scenes make sense in the order that they’re in there and that the action moves logically from beginning to end. When this draft is done, I have a story that makes sense, but is maybe not very easy to read.
3. Flow Revision. I read through again, looking for ways to improve the flow of the story. This includes adding beats to dialog to adjust pacing, adding some scene descriptions, trying to convey the emotions the character is feeling in each section, and looking for awkward sentences. Try to get the minute details of the beginning and end just right.
4. Recital Revision. I read it outloud (or at least under my breath). No matter how hard I work on the earlier revisions, I always catch errors here. This makes it much much easier to find awkward sentences, subtle grammar errors, and minor mistakes.
5. Give to First Readers. I give it to a few people whose critiquing opinions I trust. Exactly who I give it to depends on who I’ve been interacting more with lately, who I’ve read stories for (I prefer to trade rather than one-sided critiques) etc… I read the critiques as they roll in and mark comments into the draft document so they’re easy to look at later.
6. Post-Reader Revision. I carefully consider all the comments that my First Readers make. I never use all of them, but I’ll think very hard about which ones I agree with, and will make the changes as I think are necessary.
7. Post-Reader Recital Revision. Another outloud read to catch any mistakes I may have added.
8. Send it out!
9. If I get a form rejection, I go back to step 8.
10. If I get a personal rejection with some ideas why they didn’t accept it I go back to step 6.

Lately my rate of completing new stories has been very low. My current work in progress (a retelling of the Wizard of Oz) has taken a long, long time, much longer than I’m used to. I’ve been working on it for nearly 3 weeks, and I’m now about halfway through stage 2. Stage 1 took most of that time, partly because it was just a really long story, and partly because I’ve been very busy with the end of the semester approaching.