The last writing principle: persistence

Steven Barnes
6 min readApr 10, 2019


(Whew! Finally through to the end. Again, this is transcribed and lightly edited from a recent lecture on building a writing career with a single sentence a day)


What I’m teaching you is boiled down from what dozens of successful writers have said about what they actually did to get published. There are other paths of course, but this one works, and is a legitimate interpretation of their actions.

  1. Write at least one sentence every day
  2. Write 1–4 Short stories a month
  3. Finish, polish, and submit
  4. Once submitted, don’t rewrite except to editorial request
  5. Read 10X what you write
  6. Repeat this process 100 times.

Okay, so those five, and the last step is, repeat this process 100 times. When I was just breaking into the industry, I wrote and wrote and wrote and got nowhere. And I was getting so discouraged. And I just felt like I’d been the biggest fool in the world, and my mom was right, I was destroying my … my dad had been a backup singer for Nat King Cole, and his career had failed, and it had destroyed their marriage and she was terrified that was going to happen to me.

Steve: So, I wanted to give myself all the chance I needed to … Yeah, I was in the studio when they recorded the backups for Rambling Rose. And every time I hear it on the radio, I imagine I can hear my dad’s voice. It is certainly possible that I got my urge for artistic expression right there. Anyway, I realized that there was a point at which it would make sense for me to give up, if I really couldn’t make it.

For almost twenty years, I was the only black male science fiction writer in the world, the only one working. So I had plenty of reason to think that there was no way I could make it. But I also knew that this was the thing I wanted more than anything else in the world.

So in researching, I came to the opinion that the average writer submitted about thirty stories before they published. I decided to triple that number and say “I will write and submit 100 stories before I even ask myself the question, can I do this or not? I will give myself room to fail, over and over and over again. Until I hit 100 stories, I don’t even have the right to ask the question, should I quit”

And you know what happened? I made it to number 23. None of my students have made it past number 27, not one of them. And that’s the promise I make to you.

Right down to my last atom of being, I believe that anyone who can actually follow these instructions can publish. And even more importantly, it not only works in all genres, and non-fiction (articles for stories) but you can apply the principle to ANYTHING you want to accomplish.

  1. A Sentence A day. There will be an equivalent “minimum threshold” amount of work in anything: learning two foreign words a day, doing one yoga pose, running one lap, meditating for five minutes. SOMETHING.
  2. Finish 1–4 Stories a month. Find the ideal “staying speed” for your discipline and set that as your goal. Attending 3 classes a week does it in martial arts.
  3. Polish and Submit. This is where you take a chance, engage with risk. Put yourself on the line in some way, absorbing small fears to build your resistance to large ones. Connect with people more knowledgeable than you, and absorb their wisdom.
  4. Don’t rewrite except to editorial request. STOP SOME NEGATIVE HABIT. Identify the habits stopping you, and ask who you would have to be to behave differently.
  5. Read 10X what you write. Research ENDLESSLY. Become an expert in your chosen field. Get into the top 20% of your field — they are ALWAYS employed. You don’t have to be the best. But committing to be in the top 20% gives you a goal achievable with dogged persistence and constant modeling of excellence.
  6. Repeat 100X. Keep going until you master your discipline. And that means absorbing your basics at the level of “unconscious competence” and then committing to your path for a lifetime. If you aren’t willing to make that commitment…I sincerely hope that you’ll find something that DOES engage you so deeply. That is where the “juice” of life comes from. Be juicy.

Allow me to give you a definition of “Mastery” that can help sweep away the misconceptions. It doesn’t mean being “the best”. Or “perfect”.

It DOES mean “to perfect” however. Mastery is a verb, not a noun. It is a vector, not a position. And once you have learned the basics of your craft, and you have committed to that craft for a lifetime, you are on the road to mastery as much as anyone else who has ever lived on this planet, even if they are horizons away from you. There’s just the path. That’s all there is. And what I invite you, is to be masters, is to just do that for yourselves. That is the pattern. The path. And it awaits you, and rewards those whose hearts are aligned with its values.


Student: All right, so, can I do this on top of the novel that I’m already working on?

Steve: Of course you can.

Student: Perfect.

Steve: Absolutely. Like I said, you’re a grown woman. You take what is useful, discard the rest. If you’re going to do this, so you’ve got this novel you’re working on, and you also write a short story a month. Keep it at one page short story. And you’re absolutely, in the groove. Okay, who else?

Student: How many kinds of science fiction are there?

Steve: I mean, there’s … infinite, as many as you choose to look at. Science fiction is just, it is a subset of fantasy, in one sense, all fiction is fantasy because it didn’t happen that way. . I mean, so are most news reports, but science fiction as a form of fantasy only has to be internally consistent. Whereas science fiction has to be both internally and externally consistent, usually to some aspect of the phenomenological universe. Just engineering or chemistry or biology or something, and it’s anchored in there. Whereas with fantasy, well…Nobody asks Harry Potter to justify the magic.

But that doesn’t make fantasy easy. You have to get your details right, so that the fantastic feels mundane. So you start in the Muggle world, and then you move into the Harry Potter universe. You don’t start in the Harry Potter universe. Stephen King is the best I’ve ever seen at this. You start with things that feel very mundane and ordinary, and by the end of the book, it’s monsters and dragons and the bowels of hell. But so there are infinite aspects that you could go into for science fiction, many, many, many different kinds. The most important thing is, what are the stories you want to tell? It’s like, slap the label on it later.

Student: Where can you submit your stories?

Steve: Where’d you read them? Your market research is right there, man. Yeah, so if you’re reading 10 stories a day, reading 10 times as much as you write, and that’s about a story a day, then what magazines, websites, books, collections, whatever, just, it’s all built in. All you have to do is follow these six steps and you’ll get there. Seriously. You can adapt this to anything else that you’re doing. It doesn’t interfere with anything else that you’re doing.

Student: I only write humor science fiction and fantasy, and I’m not sure why I’m afraid to write serious stuff.

Steve: Why should you bother? Did Terry Pratchett? What, stick with the humor if you want to.

Student: Sheckley did it.

Steve: Yeah, Robert Sheckley mostly wrote humor. And Sheckley was a good friend. I miss Bob. I’ve been really blessed in terms of the people I’ve had a chance to actually know, in the field. I’m not on their league, but it’s okay, because I don’t invest as much of myself, like Octavia Butler, fantastic writer. I’m nowhere near as good as Octavia, nor should I be, because I have not invested as much of myself in being a writer as she invested of herself. She deserved to be as good as she was. If I was as good as she was, it would almost wouldn’t be fair, because there are other things that matter just as much to me, the martial arts and the family stuff. Octavia probably put more of herself into art than any sane person I’ve known. She was close to that edge, but she wasn’t off of it. She was fine. But she invested all of herself there. Any other comments, questions or requests? No? Well then have a great conference, thank you so much guys.

Write with Passion!

Steven Barnes



Steven Barnes

Steven Barnes is a NY Times bestselling author, ecstatic husband and father, and holder of black belts in three martial arts.