What is a Query Letter, anyway?

More internet difficulties. This should have been published over a week ago. Apologies. Sincerely and truly.

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The Query Letter. Three weeks ago, I didn’t know what a query letter was. I suppose I could have guessed at it – and most likely have been wrong – but I have come to find out that a query letter is the correct way to let editors know you have something you think they might like to publish. Unless, of course, you are a new writer – or at least new to submitting your work for possible publication – then the query letter becomes something else entirely. It becomes your soul: your hopes and dreams and not just a little of your ego and self-worth as a writer.

Perhaps as this blog nears its hundredth post, it might be worth mentioning that I enjoy writing. I always have. In fact, I can remember ‘publishing’ a book when I was in grade six: it was a long, rambling affair about two young boy detectives investigating something in Mexico , not unlike the Hardy Boys, I expect. Never mind that I barely knew where Mexico was or that my plot was no deeper than a Saharan riverbed. My teacher used it as a teachable moment to explore book publishing and we (or at least I because I don’t know if it was a class project or not) wrote out our manuscript all fancy-like, drew some accompanying pictures and bound our books, which amounted to stapling the pages to a construction paper cover. They were then put in the library for people to sign out. I’d like to say that my book flew off the shelves and so great was the demand that I had to not only make a second and third edition, but write sequel after sequel, too. But, I can’t.

I also wrote a column for the local paper when I was younger. Grade-four-young, I think. I don’t remember what it was about but I expect it had something to do with the goings on in the town from a kid’s perspective. It probably detailed the different shoes and kneecaps I saw at the local fair (because I’m in grade four. What else am I going to see?) There might have been an editorial-style piece on the going allowance rates among my age group and how I wasn’t making my fair share. I don’t know. All of this is to say that I like to write.

And now, here I am, some decades later, and I am still writing. I now know where Mexico is and I am tall enough to see over the booths at the fair so the expectation is that my writing has evolved, too. I think that anybody who has ever enjoyed a hobby or a pastime has wondered what it might be like to take the next step: beer-league hockey players dreaming of being signed to their favourite team; that straight-faced poker player imagining themselves shuffling cards with the high rollers in Vegas; or, that guy selling all the wind operated whirly-gigs on his front lawn hoping for a how-to television deal. I’m not much different. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to not only see my writing published – and I mean really published, not this blog stuff – but to be paid for it, too. I have never had the courage to do it, though, because who am I to think that my writing should grace the pages of a magazine or a book?

Recently, however, I have taken that step. The one that leaves you floating in mid-air for a while. Not the floating-on-a-cloud kind of floating, no, the sort of floating that you feel when you miscount the stairs or don’t see the hole in the sidewalk and though your foot should have made contact already, it hasn’t and when it will is now anyone’s guess. I bugged a friend of mine to talk to a friend of his who is a writer. He writes for outdoor magazines nation-wide so I thought he’d be a good place to start. It turns out he was. He gave me some great advice about how to go about approaching editors with my work, or even just ideas, and he suggested a few places I might like to look into so that I could hone my craft, so to speak. And that brings us to the query letter.

Luckily for me, I held off sending out my work until I had spoken with this writer. I was under the impression that you just looked up the mailing address of a magazine, folded up your work and dropped it in the post. (Include a self addressed stamped envelope if you want it back.) It turns out editors don’t like that. And given that they must receive dozens and dozens of envelopes from writers every day, I guess I can see why. Also, it turns out that they are worried about copyright and plagiarism: imagine sending in an article on a subject and that article sucks (my fear) but then, a few months later the same subject is covered by another writer coincidentally – looks kind of bad on the magazine’s end. The proper way to approach an editor is with a one-page letter describing the article or idea. That’s it. One page. On that one page, you should include your name and address, the editors name, magazine’s name and contact information, a salutation, an attention-grabbing sentence or two, an outline of your experience with the topic and with writing in general, a word count of the article (if the article is not written yet, then a proposed length), that you have supporting photographs for the article (if, in fact, you do), your ‘thank-you, look forward to hearing from you’ line and your name at the bottom. All of this is supposed to be confined to one page and it is supposed to grab the attention of the person to whom it’s addressed. If it doesn’t, then, well, it goes in the pile with the other ninety-nine percent.

It took me the better part of a week to write one page. I am nearing a thousand words on this post and it’s taken me about an hour and a half. It’s not that I’m a hunt-and-peck typist; I get up and wander around, let the dogs out, get a drink, let the dogs in, that sort of thing, and still, I’ve got a thousand words. With the query letter, however, it was another matter entirely. I had less than a page to convince the editor that my article is one that they should publish, so I had to choose my words carefully and wisely and if I didn’t – or couldn’t – then what kind of writer was I? And what business did I have writing them?
I waited until Monday to send in the letter. I emailed it and I haven’t heard back yet so I am not sure if that is because the editor is shuffling around stories in the next issue to make room for mine or if the letter I wrote is being passed around the office with a Post-it note on it that reads: “Worst. Query. Ever.” I tell myself that the editor is busy and I am reassured that response time for a letter like this is at least two weeks, usually three, sometimes four and if I haven’t heard back in five I ought to gently remind the editor that I had sent them something a while ago.

So, I hover in space, going neither up nor down until word comes from the magazine…

The Markstay Report

We have had some pretty sketchy internet service lately, so apologies for the delay in posting anything. Here is the post originally intended to be posted on Wednesday, 02 June.

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Hunter and I lay on the bedsheet she had dragged outside. She brought it and half a dozen pillows out, along with a change of pyjamas (just in case it rained) so that we could watch – wait for it – the bats fly out of our house. As we lay there, I thought to myself that I hadn’t posted an update for a while. Here is what you’ve missed, if you haven’t been around our place lately.

We spent all last weekend putting in our garden. I had already tilled it a few weeks ago, which did an excellent job of driving the weeds deeper into the soil so that when it came time to weed the thing, most of the weeds were long, white stems connected to a horizontal root. The grass rhizomes were ridiculously long but they were the easiest to pull out so that was not too bad. The plantain on the other hand, that historically important rope-making plant, was another matter entirely. I had not only chopped them up when tilling, I had driven all the tiny pieces underground so that they could sprout vegetatively into an embedded mat of sinewy roots. Even the dandelions were easier to pull than the plantain. If the plantain had just grown in proper rows, I probably would have left it for salad greens.

Jenn emptied the chicken coop of its shavings and spread them between the rows, partly as a means to control some of the weeds and partly to give bulk and nutrients to next year’s garden. I spent a good deal of time shoveling and spreading aged goat manure on the rows themselves to give nutrients to this year’s crop. If you are at all familiar with that modeling clay DAS Pronto, then you will know what we have to plant in. We need all the help we can get. This year, we have planted corn (which did well last year), a row of sunflowers, lots of tomatoes, cauliflower, cucumbers, broccoli (for Jenn), sugar snap peas, two varieties of bush beans and one climber, two seed packs of carrots, onions, sweet peppers, hot peppers and some herbs. All of this came in under $80 which is more than we ought to have paid, but we had to buy our tomato plants, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower and cukes already started because we didn’t start our own this year. Last year’s living room jungle was just a bit crazy and I haven’t built the greenhouse I’m supposed to build yet.

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The raised garden bed, full of peppers, basil and cilantro

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Part of the garden: romaine lettuce in the foreground, tomatoes in the middle ground and the chicken coop (left) and the goat barn (right) in the back ground.

Jenn also found time to make a bunch of flower pots, so our yard actually looks rather pleasant right now. I’ve even cut the grass. And that is another thing.

I have cut the grass more since we brought the goats here than ever before. It turns out that they are not really good grazers, preferring instead to eat the twigs off the apple trees, but they are incredible fertilizers. Never has our lawn been so green or lush. I’ve got the mower set as low as all the buried rocks will let me in the hopes that I cut it short and burn it, but it keeps coming back, no doubt maximizing the nutrients left behind by the goats. If you want your lawn kept cut short, don’t get a goat.

Jenn brought home five Indian Runner ducklings last week. I think she was hoping to find some at the auction, but we didn’t stay long enough to find out if there were any. So she went and bought some and brought them home under the guise of having ducklings for Hunter. We put them in the old turkey shed, which was a perfect location for them, as long as the door stayed shut. One night, the door was not shut and early in the morning I heard the frantic peeping of the ducks. When I went out to the shed, I found the partial bodies of four of them. The fifth one was missing. I went inside and told Jenn the bad news and, because Jenn had to go to work, I also got to tell Hunter. Hunter is a pretty stoic kid when it comes to animals dying. Afterall, she’s seen her share of animals either go off for slaughter or get buried in our field. But, when I told her about the ducklings she was extremely upset and it wasn’t until after she had stopped crying that I found out why. If you want your heart to break, watch your six year old tell you that the ducklings died because of her inaction. She told me, through new tears, that she had gone in to check the ducklings food and water and when she came out, she couldn’t find the pin we used to keep the door shut so she propped it shut with a stick instead of telling us. Anyway, it wasn’t long after this that we heard some feeble peeping in the bush behind our house. I went out to look for the lone duckling and couldn’t find it because as soon as I’d get near, it would clam up and if you’ve ever tried to find an animal that doesn’t want to be found in fairly thick undercover you know it’s no small task. I went in the house to get Hunter ready for school. We heard the peeping again and Hunter looked out the window to see the duckling in the grass beside the house. We went outside to catch it, which involved a fishing net and the wiles of a six year old. Safely back in a more secure environment, the little duckling ate, drank and fell asleep. That night I put out my traps to catch the predator. That was last night. This morning, I went out to see what, if anything, I had managed to catch and sure enough, there was a raccoon in the trap. The trap is now set again tonight in case there are any more thieving ‘coons out there.

Today I decided to take a sled dog and tie a rope to my waist so that we could go jogging together. It’s called canicross and is supposed to look like this: [photo credit here]

instead, I found that I have probably the only sled dog that will ‘heel’ when running.

And that’s what’s been going on around here.