My Life

Rewards and Incentives…

When I left BioWare, several years ago, I thought my time best spent pursuing a writing career and so most of my “deliverables” were writing related. Each year end I planned what projects I wanted to work on over the course of the next year.

For the most part I exceeded my productivity goals. I wrote dozens of stories and several novels.

But I did not hit my milestones however.

Time and again I failed to sell the number of stories I needed to. After winning a place in the Writers of the Future Contest I became even more aggressive with the milestones I wanted to achieve but after the contest I failed to sell any other stories to “professional” level magazines (professional refers to pay-rate and, generally, visibility, of the publication).

So, what’s my point? Well, first, a digression into game design.


Very few (any?) games survive without an incentive-reward structure. The player needs to be accumulating something (whether it be points or a collection of fantastic story moments or cool guns). The player needs a reaction to the actions they undertake — even if that reaction is a horrific death (for their controlled character, not the player). They need interaction and reward and incentives to continue playing.

Games that lack such (or provide poor incentives) tend not to thrive. The player might as well be randomly pounding keys on their keyboard or clicking mouse buttons aimlessly. There has to be some feedback.

So… 2014

During my time working for BioWare I had constant feedback (albeit occasionally of the unpleasant sort) and I always had interesting tasks to tackle and problems to solve. Since leaving I’ve been working for a long time without feedback/incentives/rewards. (I do sell the occasional story but in general the reward aspect has been sparse.)

Last year the lack of any major success started to really gnaw at me (I mean, seriously, I left BioWare in 2009! According to the “plan” I should have sold a novel or three.) For 2014 I needed a course adjustment. I looked at what I had worked on and realized that my Lazy Designer game design books were selling “ok” (and I’m being generous here) and sales of those books were about the only consistent encouragement I was receiving.

I thought the wisest course of action was to finish the final two Lazy Designer books and, when complete, put money into advertising the entire series and try my hand at direct selling, offering some “bonus” material to encourage readers to buy directly from me. I hoped this would work towards building a stronger community, as opposed to resting all my hopes on selling through Amazon.

I also decided to only plan half a year. In June of 2014, I would reevaluate, not only the remainder of 2014, but my future.

June 2014

Yeah, it’s June. Here’s a snapshot of where I’m at with things.

  • Lazy Designer Game Design Books. I don’t really like writing this, but at this point, this appears to have been a failure. My sales are less now — with all books complete — than last year. In May I had the lowest sales I’ve had in a very long time (though it picked up some for June).
    • It almost feels like the series is too large… I’m wondering if that has started to deter potential purchasers who cringe at thinking they need to buy all five volumes and do not realize they work well as standalone volumes.
    • Direct sell has been even more of a failure, especially when the few months I spent writing the bonus content are considered.
  • Fiction Writing. My reduction in fiction output the past year has created a fairly obvious result. I don’t have much of an inventory of “sold” stories — only two remain to be published. I do have a couple of stories still out for consideration at various markets, but at this point last year I had over thirty.
    • This year I stopped writing 1000 words a day, for the first time since leaving BioWare. The effect of this is rather noticeable… it takes me longer to get up and running with new work.
    • On the positive, I did make it through the initial rounds in a couple open calls for novel submissions, but in all cases, the novels were ultimately rejected.

The Danger of False Incentives

I’m fairly dedicated to the working-for-myself thing and so I’ve been clutching at straws, looking for every possible “incentive” I can find. I’ve certainly fallen into a trap at times, pursuing likes/retweets and other social media goodness instead of actually writing; effectively scrambling for any interaction/incentive in the hopes that it might grow my audience. I’m not sure if all that time has been well spent.

I also spend too much time (especially with my novels) following what’s going on with the various publishers and querying and dealing with all the missing manuscripts/e-mails and other stuff that plague traditional publishing.

So… what next?

I don’t know. June is not over yet :)

What I do know is that I’ve spent the budget I set aside to fund my work-from-home. Now, don’t panic, I’m not about to launch a Kickstarter asking for money or anything; my time at BioWare was well rewarded and I could continue self-funding my writing for a while. I’m just not sure if, given the lack of rewards, my sanity will handle it.

Anyways, here are my thoughts on the matter. Be warned, these are rambles. Obviously I am in the midst of some major decision making! And these are (obviously) not mutually exclusive.

A Day Job

For a person like me, who thrives on completing projects and having others interact with, said projects, the lack of success has been… un-fun. At this point I’m seriously considering heading back into the (non-gaming related) workforce. There’s a lot to be said for a constant paycheck (re: incentive) and interaction with other humans.

Improving My Writing

If I am to continue with writing I need to make huge strides towards improving the quality of what I write to sell work more consistently. The biggest failure, on my part, has been that I haven’t branched out enough and built a network of readers/writers to review my work before I submit it. I haven’t been a member of any writing group for over a decade (my last involvement being fairly negative, but that’s another story). I have certainly read many how-to books and review a multitude of writing blogs regularly, but I think I’ve hampered myself by not being more involved with a strong writing group.

Traditional Publishing

I have had some amazing experiences working with certain publications and editors and I value those experiences tremendously. I have also had many negative experiences. Mostly I’m going to chalk this up to my work not resonating with editors, but the number of lost manuscripts and replies over the past few years is staggering. Keeping track of the time spent here, is also sobering. It might not seem like much, but many times I’ve had work sit for months, years, at times and when I query I’m asked to resubmit and the work is “lost” again and again. Frankly, I don’t have the patience for it.

The number of markets I submit to has shrunk drastically — basically those that I’ve previously sold to and a handful of others that have always been timely and competent. Sadly, many of my worst experiences have involved publishers of novels. Given that I would like to actually sell a novel, trimming this list, would be foolish.

Self Publishing

Other than my non-fiction books and story reprints (i.e., stories that had previously appeared in a magazine) I have not self published my work. I have toyed with the idea of publishing my existing long form fiction but have always hesitated here. I’m not entirely sure why, partly, I guess, I have been working towards more traditional publishing for such a long time that I do feel the lack of interest in my work points towards a problem with my writing that self publishing won’t magically fix.

Other Thoughts

I am torn about walking away from writing completely. Last year I plotted a novel that (at the time) I was super excited about. But other commitments (i.e., the Lazy Designer books) kept me from tackling it at the time. Now, I’m not entirely sure if I will pick it up again. I have also recently begun plotting a series for middle-grade readers (i.e., my kids).

Game Development

Regular readers will know that I have dipped my toes into creating my own games using Unity. To this point I have only released simplistic prototypes intended for my kids and these have been beyond amateurish.

I have been working on some other stuff that I have not talked about.

I am tempted to take a concept I have been prototyping and just move it to completion and release it as a free game. However, even a tiny game will take considerable time to complete without any reasonable expectation of a reward. But I am thinking about it. I also have a much larger game that I worked on over the winter that I’m more excited about, but its fairly niche and has several years of development in it before it would be finished (i.e., several more years without any chance of feedback/interaction).

In Conclusion

At this point I think I’ll be reducing my online presence for the foreseeable future. I have been very inconsistent with this blog anyways and I expect my posting rate will decrease further.

If there’s enough interest (i.e., subscribers) I will continue to work on the newsletter (I’m preparing the first issue of that now).

Anyways, enjoy your summer!

Former lead designer at BioWare (Dragon Age: Origins, Neverwinter Nights). Creator of Raiders of the Serpent Sea.


  • Laurie Tom

    Hey Brent,

    *waves* I don’t think a writing group is for everyone, but if you find a good one, they’re nice. The group I’m in now mostly consists of new writers, but even though they don’t have a lot of experience, they’re good listeners. Oftentimes they can’t explain the craft reasons for why something doesn’t work, but they can tell me where they got confused, and how enthusiastic they are to talk about the story afterwards tells me how interested they were in it.

    The first time they couldn’t stop talking about a story I knew I had a winner. :)

    I’m a little curious where you’re subbing that you’re losing so many manuscripts. Almost all the pro short fiction markets (and even some semi-pro) are now using some form of automated submission tracking. In the past three years I’ve only had one market that never responded, and that’s because it ended up folding.

    I’m not sure I’d trust a manuscript to a publisher’s slush pile anymore. Once I get my current WIP polished up I’m going to query a bunch of agents instead. Unlike publisher’s slush, you can query multiple agents at once.

    There one more thought I have, and I’m sharing it because you’re a fellow WotF 26er. When I won, my writing was not consistently good. Everything I had sold up until that point was semi-pro, and while I still enjoy those stories, I can see why they were semi-pro. I had to kick my work up another notch to continue selling at the pro level. Winning didn’t mean I was ready. It meant I reached the starting line.

    But it took me a couple years to realize that.

    The thing I ask myself when writing now is: “What is the heart of this story?” Because I know if I can’t find the heart then the story will be dead on arrival no matter what cool ideas I have. The heart is why the reader should care.

    I haven’t broken out of the gates as fast as Tom, Brad, or Jason, but I’ve made two pro sales so far this year, and when I look at my WotF winning story I no longer say “This is the best thing I’ve ever written.”

    Hopefully you’ll figure out where the stumbling block is in your own writing process as well. Good luck!


  • Brent Knowles

    Hi Laurie!

    Thanks for the great comment and advice. I hope all is going well with you. And congrats on the sales!

    Over the past couple years I have started taking more time with the few stories I do write — I think in the past I’ve rushed things. This means I do end up killing some of the stories now before I’ve finished writing them. I’m focusing more on the stories that resonate with me.

    In regards to submission woes, most of my annoyance has been with novel slush. I have had a number of short story disappearances though, including with pro markets — a new slush reader mishandling the story and losing it or a slush reader leaving unexpectedly. I was also plagued with missing responses from every market using Clarke’s submission system — my email service is very aggressive with catching spam before it ever arrives to me so it was gobbling up the replies without my knowing (it turns out those automated messages had a slight mistake in their headers that was technically an error but most mail servers were more forgiving than mine).

    I have tried the agent route as well, but with little luck so far (though they have mostly been timely and professional with their replies). Basically all of my novels have been rejected by all the open-call pro publishers and the agents on my short list.

    Regardless of my long-term decisions career-wise, I suspect I’ll continue writing a novel every year or so, and trying my luck… we’ll see :)

    Again, thanks for the advice and encouragement! Much appreciated. Enjoy your summer!

    – Brent

  • Laurie Tom

    You’re welcome, and thanks! :) As long as you enjoy writing, there’s no reason to hang up your hat.

  • Jeremy J Szal

    Hey Brent,

    (Remember me? The guy from Robot and Raygun?)

    Don’t give up, man! It’s hard for all of us, and even if you get 99 rejections for a story, the 1 acceptance is worth it. I’m sure you know this as much as I do.
    And don’t you dare self-publish! You’re not worthy of sliding down to that level. You’ll get picked up one day; you just have to believe it. And I hope I will, too…

    Jeremy Szal

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