Why maybe you shouldn’t start at the top

It’s the mantra amongst short story writers: when you submit a story, start at the top. Send your submission to the highest-paying, best respected market and work down from there.

Personally, I’ve never done this until recently, and I don’t think it’s something I would advise everyone to do, certainly not if you’ve never or rarely sold a story to a paying market. Sure, it could well be that your work is so awesome that a pro-level magazine will buy it immediately, but more likely (much more likely) it isn’t. So by starting at the top, you set yourself up for a lot, and I mean a LOT, of rejection. To give any indication, I made 169 submissions last year, most to pro venues, and not even 10% of those ended up in sales. To be honest, there were some very good sales, but had I done this a few years ago, I would have collapsed in dejection and poor confidence.

One of the strange things about Twitter is that you become a voyeur into other people’s moods. Since almost everyone I follow is a writer, I’m seeing writers slide into rejection-depression almost every day. Not everyone easily climbs out of this. Not everyone has the stomach to shrug off 130 rejections, especially when you’re not selling anything. Because that will happen when you start at the top.

But you never know. They might like it.

No. They won’t. When you’ve just started writing, and haven’t sold much, your writing is probably mediocre at best. You may have some original ideas, or you may be good at writing about your characters’ emotions, but you probably need more practice to write a pro-level story.

But you may just be a natural talent!

Sure, that may just be true. However, what do you have to lose if you submit a story to a low-pay magazine, they buy it immediately, then you submit a story to a semipro magazine, they buy it immediately, too? OK, in that case, you are obviously a talent. You have just ‘lost’ two stories you *may* just have been able to sell elsewhere, but…

Words are cheap. If you can sell a story that easily, you’ll be able to produce more words just as easily. It’s unlikely that those stories were the best thing you ever wrote anyway.

Most likely, though, you may get an acceptance or two at the low-pay level, but will often take much longer to consistently sell to semipro magazines. A lot of them, including ASIM, are quite hard to get into.

Words are cheap, but the writer’s confidence isn’t.

If you’ve never sold a story, start submitting at a lower level, until you find those markets where you have a reasonable chance of getting accepted. Then submit at a higher level. Sure, try pro level magazines every now and then, but only send your very, very best stories.

Don’t be a princess. You just need to develop a thicker skin!

Sorry, but for a great number of people, it does not work like that. After a while, when you get ‘used to’ rejection, you may no longer display any princessy behaviour and wail all over your blog each time you get a rejection, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t feel anything about your inability to sell anything in the darkest hours of the night. Staying positive matters, a lot. It matters to your health, your work output and to the people around you. With a few small sales under your belt, you will feel better about your writing. A stressed and dejected writer most likely doesn’t produce great fiction. A stressed and dejected writer is a pain-in-the-you-know-where to his or her family.

If constant rejection makes you stressed and depressed, find another way of achieving your goal. Start at the bottom, or somewhere in the middle, and sell your way up into respected venues.

Just don’t forget to keep challenging yourself.


17 comments on “Why maybe you shouldn’t start at the top

  1. Very good advice. I’ve written a few novels and am just starting to write short stories. I will be sure not to start at the top when submitting them. By the way, any advice on where to submit short fiction stories? I don’t know where to go to get this information.

    Also, I agree with you that saying, “You just need to develop a thicker skin!” doesn’t make is happen. It is something that I will probably work on the rest of my life.

    • Duotrope.com is the best site for finding markets. It’s free, but when you enjoy and use it, please donate a few $$$ to keep them going (btw – I don’t have any connection with Duotrope. I don’t even know who runs it)

  2. Very good advice.

    If I could add some advice, it would be that just because you make one amazing sale, doesn’t mean you are suddenly going to be selling only to the pros from then on. You’ll still be producing stories that range from ‘wow’ to ‘meh’.

    Don’t automatically assume that one or two successes means you are hot property (sadly!).

    Great post Patty.

    • That is very true. I also think that the most generous writers will continue to submit across the board at magazines they wish to support as well as ones that pay well.

    • I also think that as you grow more experienced, you get a certain amount of feel for which stories may sell where. Even the well-seasoned pros write stories at different levels. Some stories will be ‘wow’, but a fair few may be ‘cute’ or ‘funny’. Only the first you would send to a pro magazine. It’d be silly to claim that every story you wrote from then on is great.

  3. Pingback: Tweets that mention Why maybe you shouldn’t start at the top « Must Use Bigger Elephants -- Topsy.com

    • Maybe you should 😉 It’s much easier to sell short fiction than novels. I suppose the SFF short story market has always been comparatively healthy, but I feel that e-publishing and mobile phones have made a difference, and are going to make more of a difference still. Short fiction is making a comeback.
      Duotrope is where you find short fiction markets.

  4. Great write-up Patty, though I wonder who gives the advice to aim so high and work down? I’ve always shot for publications at my level or slightly above of I want a challenge. Going over the top just sets you up for disappointments, as you say. Anyway, thanks again 🙂

  5. Makes a lot of sense, but for me, a rejection from a pro magazine makes me think, “Oh, there’s a lot of competition here.” A rejection from a low-status market sends me into a “I’m not even good enough for them?” funk.

    • I suppose that is a risk, but I think that key is to find an editor who likes your work. The other advantage of smaller magazines to the beginning writer is that they will often give feedback.

  6. Great advice, and well explained. A lot of people would be appalled at this sort of idea, but for beginners I think it’s pretty much a good outlook to have.

    Between August and December, I sold three stories at 1 cent/word to three different anthologies by the same editor, and it’s improved my confidence immensely — in a healthy way (I remain my harshest critic, which I believe is a requisite for good writing).

    Still, the perceived ease of those successes (after only six months of submitting my work, I’d made a semi-pro sale…something I really wasn’t expecting, I must admit) has made me reevaluate my goals. So now I’m aiming a tad higher: semi-pro and pro markets like ASIM, Ideomancer, Apex, Strange Horizons, M-Brane, etc. Places that carry that other form of pay: readership.

    I’d like to take my journey one tier at a time, so that by the time I’ve broken into the pro markets, my writing will reflect that — and I can be proud of my stories.

    • Strange Horizons is a pro market. Christopher at MBrane has yet to reject anything I’ve sent him. I’ve found Ideomancer impossible to get into (I just don’t write what they like. Heck, I don’t like a lot of what they publish, so that’s probably a good indication I shouldn’t submit there except maybe for oddball stories). I like Abyss & Apex, but they usually sit on my work for six months or more, which I know means they like it, but puts them down my priority list, which means they get my stories after a lot of other people have already seen them.
      Where I’ll send a story first depends on the story.
      At ASIM, we get a heck of a lot of submissions (check Duotrope). It’s true that we publish about 8-10 stories per issue, and need a fair number of stories. Our tastes are varied, but after watching various editors at work, I think some patterns of our dislikes are: anything with cliches or established tropes, stories that have a strong religious bent, devil-and-demon stories (I have no idea why we get that many), or stories that require the reader to be American to understand them.

      • This is my experience with Ideomancer and Abyss & Apex too, particularly A&A. The response times actually have a lot to do with where I start submitting–I do start at the top, but only with the fast-response pro markets like Fantasy, BCS, and Clarkesworld. They’ll reject me, but they’ll do it quickly.

  7. First time posting — you’ve got a great blog!

    Having suffered through the “start at the top” process myself, I can’t tell you how refreshing and practical I found your advice to be. Thanks!

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