Aiming Low

Recently, a discussion about short story markets broke out on a writers’ message board.  One poster said they were tired of seeing new writers submitting their stories to the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly.  The poster felt they should aim their sights lower.

I disagree with this statement wholeheartedly.  Writers, new and old, should aim as high as they can.  While I agree, a new writer stands little chance of having their story accepted by the New Yorker first time around, there still exists a chance and because there is that chance, they should send it.  What’s the worst that can happen?  A rejection slip.  So what?  Give it a go, I say. 

A writer does him or herself no favors by aiming low.  I speak from experience here.  I lacked my faith in my own work at the beginning.  I found the name magazines intimidating, so I didn’t send my stories there.  But one incident became my wakeup call.  I sold a story to a small press magazine and I received a small paycheck for my trouble–for which I was grateful.  To my surprise, the story picked up an honorable mention in Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror that year.  Then, at a convention, I was giving a reading of the story and a very renowned editor was in the crowd.  She’d worked with a number of big name writers, such as Stephen King and Peter Straub.  She’d been told to listen to me.  After I finished the story, the editor came up to me, introduced herself and asked for the story for their next anthology.  I had to admit that the story had already been printed, but mention that she could buy reprint rights.  She wanted first rights and the offer was withdrawn.  That reading and that story put me on their radar for next time, but it lost me a big opportunity.  I kicked myself for weeks for not sending the story to the best markets, but it taught me a lesson.  I submit to the top and work my way down, not the other way around. 

The tricky thing about writing is that it’s subjective.  There isn’t a right or wrong answer.  A story doesn’t work that way.  A story one person loves can leave another person cold.  I’m always amazed by the stories I sell immediately because I could have sworn the editors would like some other one more.  This makes it hard to judge which stories should go where, so the writer might as well start at the top.

If there’s a moral to this essay, it’s that aiming high shouldn’t just end at the magazine markets.  Aiming high should be every writer’s watchword for everything they do–whether it be searching for an agent, a publisher, a publicist or other facet of their writing career.  Writers shouldn’t settle for second best.  They may not hit the heights they’ve always aimed for, but they should at least try.  Because in the writing world, you just never know. 

Flying high (or at least trying to)
Simon Wood

9 thoughts on “Aiming Low

  1. Terri Molina

    Ironically I posted on my blog about submissions of short stories to online magazines. 🙂

    I agree with you though. Submitting to smaller presses or even online zines may be a way to get your foot in the door with a publishing credit, but you’re shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t aim higher. (ooh, sorry, did I mix my metaphors?)The rejections may be bruising to the ego, but hopefully you’re learning something in the process.

  2. Dave Zeltserman

    Well, you have to understand your market before submitting, and I don’t believe The New Yorker publishes lesser known writers (I read them monthly, specifically for their fiction). Simon, publishing your story in the small press got the attention of the editor and could end up paying off dividends in the future–so there was a positive benefit from it. Me, personally, I gave a story free to a web-zine that later made the short list for Penzler’s Best American Mystery Stories antho, and did get people’s attention. In my role of publishing Hardluck Stories, I know reviewers, agents and editors read Hardluck. I’ve also published authors’ first stories who I know had trouble previously getting their first works sold, and have since gone on to getting good book deals. With my latest issue of Hardluck–which authors contributed their stories freely, we now have an antho deal with Cemetery Dance, and it’s looking like we’re going to be able to pay these authors a pro-rate for their stories. Sometimes you hit the homerun right off the bat, but a lot of times its a lot of small baby steps. You helped yourself having your story published in that small press. Now that you’ve got that editor’s attention write a better story, and sell that one to her!!

  3. simon


    I agree knowing markets is very important. There is a lot of thinking along the lines of Asimov’s is a big magazine. they’ll love my historical romance story.

    But at the same time, I don’t believe that telling people they are not worthy, set your sights lower is the way to go.

    I understand your point too. All my credits have been through baby steps too. Making the reasoned decisions about where to send a story is key.

    My point wasn’t to slam small press, but to have some pride about what you write.

    Congrats on the CD sale, btw.


  4. Dave Zeltserman

    Simon, I think we’re mostly in agreement–although writers have to be realistic and understand their markets, there are certain markets–Playboy, Esquire, New Yorker, etc., that only publish well-known established writers, so a writer is wasting their time going after them. However, reasonably paying markets such as AHMM, EQMM, Asimov, and a number of anthologies, will read/buy stories from little-known writers. It comes down to understanding the market you’re both writing for and submitting to (I highly recommend picking a market, such as AHMM, reading past issues, then writing a story that you believe is right for them as opposed to writing a story, then trying to figure out what where to send it). I guess also the point I was trying to make is that seemingly small sales can have large payoffs (such as in your case getting the attention of an editor you want to sell to, or having a public reading). People have to value their sales beyond just the immediate money, but what the exposure can lead to, who is reading the publications, etc.

  5. simon

    I used The New Yorker and Atlantic as examples as that was what the person on the message baord used, but I take your point. Understanding markets is so important to success (and not just financial). This subject of the right story for the right market would make for an interesting blog next time around. My #1 recommendation to writers is to read the magazines they plan on submitting to. Because a writer can be wasting their time. But if you write something that fits Atlantic, I don’t see any harm in sending it–even if there is only a minute chance of success.

    My point about the editor wasn’t just lamenting the larger paycheck but the exposure a sale like that brought. I still have a dream list of people I want to work with (regardless of the pay rate) and I’ll keep banging on their door until they let me in. Exposure, like you mention, is an important factor as long as it’s warranted. Hard Luck and Plots With Guns (before its closure) have a lot of high profile readers and writers. There are a number of markets can’t back up their claims. But again we’re talking about understanding and knowing the marketplace.

    My point was I don’t like dream squashers. Cruel to be kind is one thing. Cruel to be cruel is another. 🙂

    All the best, Dave.


  6. Dave Zeltserman

    Simon, again we’re in agreement–people should shoot high, and as part of that educate themselves about the market they’re trying to get into. There have been a few times when I’ve gotten a story at Hardluck that I’d like to publish, but I think it would be a good fit for either EQMM or AHMM, and I’ll suggest to the writer that they try submitting it there. Usually, though, there’s not much overlap between Hardluck and those other markets.

  7. Chris Well

    Great post, Simon! I have been mulling over the need to be strategic with my short stories — I use up so much of my energy on the novel a year, I don’t have much left for short fiction. You certainly gave me some food for thought.

  8. Pari

    Hey, Simon,Great post.

    I wonder if that editor would have seen your story, or heard of you, if you hadn’t published many pieces in smaller magazines.

    I agree that you should aim as high as you can. That said, I think that the definition of “high” might be different for different folks.

    As I watch others in the publishing business, I’ve wondered again and again about my own career and that incredible urge to break into the NYC publishing market. It’s a good goal. But, just as important to me is to be treated well. Right now, with my Sasha series, UNM Press is very, very good to me.

    So, small doesn’t always = low aim.

    Ya know?


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