David Steffen. His Diabolical Plots & Submission Grinder

David Steffen. His Diabolical Plots & Submission Grinder

By Angelique Fawns


The Submission Grinder is THE source for finding open markets in the speculative short story world, and Diabolical Plots is one of the most desired magazines to score a sale.


David Steffen had a hand in creating and running both.


Diabolical Plots has been around since 2008 and is one of the highest-paying pro markets at ten cents a word. I’ve never made a sale there (yet) but I never miss a chance to submit, including hitting the window that was open for two weeks in July and closed on the 31st


The Submission Grinder is a tool that not only finds markets but also tracks submissions for writers and analyses response times. It’s free to sign up, and a rather large addiction for many writers I know. 


I sat down with David to learn more about his projects and viewpoints on the industry.

AF: How did Diabolical Plots start?

DS: I started writing speculative fiction in about 2007.  I was reading all the advice I could find on what to do as a writer and many people were saying that it was vital to have a web presence of some kind.  At the time I wasn’t really on any social media and the thought of devoting a page to talking about myself or my life (which is how I pictured blogs at the time) was not appealing to me, but I found the blog TalkToYouniverse by the author Juliette Wade who devoted her blog to talking about writing craft, so she was very present as the writer of the articles but without needing to talk about herself directly all the time.  


I decided to start a blog where I could talk about other people, in the forms of reviewing books or interviewing authors, or talking about different aspects of writing craft.  That was the start of Diabolical Plots, in 2008 as a writing blog.  For the next seven years that’s what it was, until 2015, after The Submission Grinder had been running for a couple years and people were choosing to donate financially to that and we had enough extra that we wanted to try to give a go at publishing original fiction.  We kept publishing the nonfiction for a while, though that has tapered off to focus almost entirely on the original fiction.  When we were publishing a lot of nonfiction we had several regular contributors who did an extraordinary amount of work reviewing and interviewing things.


AF: If you could give advice for success selling to your magazine, what would it be? (Aside from what’s listed in your submission guidelines.)

DS:  I mean, the nature of guidelines is that we try to list everything we think writers should know in them, otherwise they have failed as guidelines, you know?  I hesitate to be too prescriptive in answering such questions because if I say “I would like more dark stories” then maybe I’ll get an overwhelming number of only dark stories, you know?  Sending something I didn’t know I wanted is probably more likely than something I’ll say I want.  


Instead, I would like to encourage writers to follow whatever weird trails their heart takes them down, even if they don’t think the result will be marketable.  Some of the best fiction happens when a writer decides to stop pursuing a vague concept of “marketability” and decides to start writing whatever stuff they would love to write and would love to read (which is also really marketability but is not what people tend to think of as marketability).  I think this can be hard to do, because there’s some vulnerability in showing your weird colors to other people.


AF: One genre you ask for is “weird fiction.” Can you help us understand what you mean by that? What would you like to see more of?

DS: I find discussing genre boundaries fun if the concepts are held loosely rather than as strict boundaries.  Strictly defined genres are destructive, because they tend to put fences through areas where the most playful and interesting (IMO) fiction might exist if not for those boundaries.  Is a particular story science fiction or is it fantasy? It’s fun to talk about, but deep down, does it matter?  I enjoy the concepts of such categorizations in the same way that I enjoy arguing about whether a hot dog is a sandwich.  I will argue about my reasons, and I love when someone else has different reasons that conflict, but at the end of the day it doesn’t change what I’m going to eat.  


But, with all that in mind, weird fiction to me is by its nature hard to strictly categorize because it tends to be things that push boundaries or cross boundaries, that make it impossible to strictly categorize on a bookshelf by genre.  I love a story that shows me a sense of wonder in my jaded editor brain, that says YES, THIS IS WHAT I’M LOOKING FOR when I never could have thought to ask for this specific thing.  Everything Everywhere All At Once is a great example of that in movie form.  Or the Diabolical Plots story “Beneath the Crust” by Phil Dyer, which has an armed expedition into a parallel universe made of infinitely malleable matter that always takes the form of baked goods and responds to thoughts, so the expedition brings along expert “foodies” who use their obsession with food to force the universe into forms that are useful to them.  Who could have predicted that?  It’s silly, but it’s played straight.  It’s familiar, an adventure story exploring unknown territory, but it’s such a strange setting for it.  And all of that makes for something special.


AF: Do you have a day job apart from your writing and publishing? Can you tell us about it?

DS:  Yes!  Running a small press is not, in my case, a mortgage-paying pursuit, so I do have a dayjob.  I am a software engineer mostly focusing on web development these days.  I do apply these skills directly to my publishing work as well, as I maintain and enhance The Submission Grinder as well as the homebrew submission system used by Diabolical Plots.  I’m fortunate to have a career doing something I really enjoy.  There’s nothing quite like the flow state you get into when you have some uninterrupted time to work on a program and you stop seeing the letters of the code in front of you and instead you’re visualizing the abstract concepts that you’re manipulating like a spatial reasoning problem. And it’s very satisfying to spend a little bit of time writing a feature that will make people’s day a little easier.


AF: You are also a writer. Can you tell us about your genre, successes, and future projects?

DS: While I do still consider myself a fiction writer, I haven’t finished writing any fiction in years—life has just gotten very busy with family stuff, and I find that editing and managing The Submission Grinder takes up so much of my spare time that I just haven’t found the time to write much.  There were a few years where I was selling stories with some regularity.  


Such as:
“Marley and Cratchit”, a secret history of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which was produced in audio by Cast of Wonders with the exact voice actor I had pictured reading it while I wrote it, Ian Stuart.
“My Wife is a Bear in the Morning”, a flash fiction story in Cast of Wonders, an epistolary story written as a note to an apartment building owner after an incident with a resident who is literally a bear in the morning.
“Cake, and Its Implications” (which the site seems to be down but would be happy to share the file as podcasts are creative commons), a flash fiction story in Toasted Cake, wherein a software developer hardcodes an axiom into an android “everyone loves cake” as a joke, which has unintended consequences.


Future projects?  Hm, Speaking of Juliette Wade I am trying to figure out how to write a piece I have in mind inspired by her stories of establishing communication with alien species—not the actual translation of individual words, but the difficulty of understanding the worldview that could shape an alien species’ view of pretty much everything.  I don’t know if I’ll ever finish it because it is ambitious, especially as I am rusty from lack of practice.


AF: With Submission Grinder you have a unique understanding of the market. What trends are you observing? Any predictions for the future?

DS:  The major trend at the moment is the response to generative AI programs, especially since we added a search field to allow writers to filter based on this.  While there have been a few short fiction publishers who have leaned into it, as a whole I have seen many more say they don’t want AI-assisted works, which is reassuring about the future of short fiction, in my opinion.  I am a software developer, and I am certainly not broadly anti-technology, but I do think there is good reason to resist letting generative AI destroy people’s livelihoods while providing nothing to replace them.  Someone called me a Luddite on the topic, and that is accurate as the term is often misused these days to mean “technophobic” when really it was a movement opposing technology replacing people’s jobs and driving them to poverty.  I hope that generative AI will go the way of pogs and NFTs, the sooner the better.


AF: Have you figured out how to make money with short fiction? Where do you see the most profit potential?

DS:  Not really!  I think most people who can live off short fiction are self-publishers who have managed to produce enough good work fast enough in an interesting enough niche to get a dedicated audience.  It’s not easy, though, and I haven’t done it myself.  


AF: What is really exciting you in the speculative fiction field currently?

DS:  As publications have become more and more online it has lowered the obstacles for people to start new publications.  This is a double-edged sword in some ways because there are a lot of flash-in-the-pan publications that close before their first issue, but it does mean that people who may have less financial means are more able to launch a publication (such as members of marginalized groups).  I think this has led to greater diversity in small press publishing staff.  It wasn’t that long ago that an online-only publication would be looked upon as “lesser”, but I don’t think there are many people who hold that opinion at all anymore.


AF: What are your plans for Diabolical Plots and Submission Grinder in the future?

DS:  Ooh, that’s a big question.  I always have plans for how to tweak each of them, to build upon the successes they’ve had so far.  I don’t plan to have any big paradigm shifts simply because what we are doing seems to be working so I don’t want to shift paths too drastically.  For Submission Grinder, I’ve got a long list of features I’d like to implement when I have time—such as nonfiction listings, new search filters, more self-serve fields that publications can fill in themselves if they so desire.  For Diabolical Plots, some ideas for community events, but I don’t want to say more until plans form in case they change drastically from current ideas or if they don’t form at all.

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