Tethered by Letters is a literary journal that publishes short stories, flash fiction, screen plays, first chapters, and more. In addition to sponsoring quarterly literary contests, the editors of Tethered by Letters give free professional edits to all members who submit to the journal. Learn more here.
SQF: Why did you start this magazine?
DMH: I published my first novel when I was eighteen, and I learned the hard way how difficult it is to penetrate the publishing industry without help. There’s a strange paradox where one needs an agent to publish work, but also needs published work to land an agent. I started this journal because I wanted a solution. By specializing in unsolicited manuscripts, our editors seek to help new and established writers strengthen their publishing platforms and gain the experience they need to thrive in this industry—plus, we love good literature. We love discovering it and nurturing it and sharing it with our readers.
SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a submission and why?
DMH: Three things? Well, that really narrows it down. I suppose the first thing I look for is voice. If you have a strong enough narrative, you can make even the most mundane plot seem riveting. I don’t care what person you write in, your story should invite the reader in, like the words themselves are alive. Voice, every time, will keep me reading.
Secondly, I look for meaning. No, I’m not saying I need you to strike me across the face with some children’s book moral. I want a story that purports something. Maybe it’s simple—Take chances, Life is meaningless, never trust the butler—perhaps piercing—America has a warped view of masculinity, hope can be found of the fringes of society, even zombies yearn for love—but it has to be there.
As my Senior Editor, the brilliant Joe Reinis, always says: “A story should never leave you thinking ‘and…?’ or ‘so…?’” When I read that last word, I want to feel conclusion, closure. If I’m really lucky, I want to feel a surge of emotion: anger, heartache, joy, hope. I need to know there was a point, and I want that point to stay with me long after I’m done reading.
Lastly, I look for stories with “teeth.” I want something that’s adventurous and courageous, that tackles subject matter and form in a way that makes me think: “damn, that author really went for it.” I love stories that play with style and narrative and nonlinear plotting. I love works that have unconventional characters and settings, the kind of story that opens my imagination up and thrust it further into the unknown. Writers have that power. There is no limit to what their pen (or typing fingers) can achieve. Show me that potential.
SQF: What common mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a submission?
DMH: As I stated above, we often get good stories that leave us wanting. These works have the bases covered: good voice, good characters, good plot…but at the end, we are left thinking “so what?”
Stories should have conclusions, meaning, even if that meaning is “there is no meaning.”
On the subject of style, we often get works where the writer is obviously very good at turning a phrase, but has yet to learn to pull back. Every line is saturated in metaphors. All the sentences are outrageously long. Description overshadows plot. Don’t do that. We love language—perhaps more than we should—but we’re in it for the stories. That’s what’s going to keep us reading. Language should be secondary. Plus, the force of a beautiful trope is lost if every sentence is the same.
SQF: Do you provide comments when you reject a submission?
DMH: We do more than just provide comments! We edit your entire submission. “That’s crazy!” you say. Yeah. It is…but we do it anyway. As a part of our nonprofit pledge, our professional team of editors gives detailed feedback on every work our members submit to our journal, completely free of charge.
“Why?” you ask. Because we’ve been there. Any author looking to make it in this industry is submitting works for publication. Even the most talented writer is sending story after story to literary journals and contests, and most of the time, all they get back is rejection letters (or no response at all). Often there are errors with the submissions (issues like the ones I talked about above), but the author doesn’t see them. In order to help our authors improve their work, we help them identify those issues. Furthermore, many of those stylistic and plotting problems are simple fixes, and once you learn to identify them, it can revolutionize the way you write. We want to be a part of that!
SQF: Based on your experience as an editor, what have you learned about writing?
DMH: Looking back, it’s actually a little shocking how much I’ve learned about writing from working as an editor. Of course I’ve identified issues with my style, voice, and plotting; however, the most important lesson I learned was having a balanced ego.
Everyone knows it takes an enormous amount of ego to write, to believe that you have something valuable to say. You need that. All writers do. You’re in an industry that will inundate you in rejection, where you need blind passion and faith just to survive. But at the same time, you have to be humble enough to improve. This is an incredibly difficult balance, one I didn’t learn until I was on the other side, trying to make a good writer great. We hear it all the time: “Well if you didn’t get it, it’s because you aren’t an astute enough reader. You just don’t understand my work. Well, I’m the writer so I know better. You’re just an editor.”
I cringe thinking of the days when I said these things about my own editor. True, there are times when the writer is right, but most of the time, we’d see that our editors are right if we weren’t so damn blind. Our work is our baby, and we can’t conceptualize a world in which it’s not perfect.
Editing at Tethered by Letter has taught me the importance of the reader. After all, the power of the written word lies in purporting meaning, in touching that person on the other end of the page. If I’m not connecting with that person, I’m not doing my job correctly…and my editor can help me achieve that. He or she is objective enough to see if I’m hitting my mark, and by trusting and listening to his or her advice, I can become a better artist.
It’s a hard lesson to learn, but it is absolutely essential.
SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?
I wish you’d ask about how you know that you should become a writer.
From my lectures at colleges and high schools to my friends and colleagues at TBL, I am asked this question often. New writers are constantly battling doubt. They want me to tell them if they should give up, if they have what it takes, if they’ll ever be able to make a living from their pen.
I’m going to be honest about this, and this honesty will likely feel like a punch in the gut. Statistically speaking, professional writing (where writing pays your bills) is less likely than becoming a movie star. It’s an outrageously competitive field that much of the time isn’t even merit based. I’ve known writers far more talented than I who have tried for years to break into the industry and failed. I’ve seen countless writing friends turn to a life as CPAs and real-estate brokers and coffee shop baristas because they couldn’t make the dream work.
The difference is passion.
Talent is important certainly, but at the end of the day, with enough passion and determination, you can always become more talented. Talent will not make you more passionate. And you need passion to survive.
Passion will get you through the hundreds of rejections, the endless slew of rewrites, your family’s phone calls asking when you are going to get a real job. You have to love it. Writing, literature, the power of stories. Those things have to mean so much to you you are able to push past all the pain. You have to believe in what you are writing. You have to be stubborn to the point of insanity.
This passion will get you through the big things (querying to agents, submit to literary journals), but more importantly, it will get you through the day-to-day things. Waking up early so you can write before work, fighting through writer’s block, finishing stories on time. Without this passion and determination, you’ll never make it.
So if you are asking yourself if you have what it takes, ask yourself honestly, if this is what you love. If you could live without it, if it’s just something you enjoy, and not your reason for living, then it’s not the career for you. If you can imagine a life without writing, that is the life you will have.
But if the written word is what gets you up in the morning, if it makes your voice tremble with excitement, then go for it. Hit it as hard as you possibly can. Give it 100% and then give it some more. Because doing what you love for a living is the most rewarding, petrifying, beautiful thing in the world.
And if you want some help, Tethered by Letters is here. We understand that insane passion, we love it, live for it, and we’ll be here to help you achieve your literary dreams as long as you are passionate enough to fight for it.
Thank you, D.M. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.
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