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…

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9 Responses

  1. That a big step – good for you for taking it! Good luck – I think you’re a fantastic writer and your stories are definitely on par with published magazine columnists. I hope it works out!

    • Thanks Barbara. It’s nice to hear feedback. Especially positive feedback. I hope it works out, too. Now that I have one letter sent, the others won’t be so hard to write, I think. Sort of like the journey of a thousand miles starting with the first step.

  2. Evan, you write a great story. How have things been lately? I have a game farm listed for sale on Lake Nipissing. Thought it would be a great budiness for you and Jenn. The present owners have been doing it for 37 years and are set to retire. Really believe in it. They export into the US market. Birds are raised and processed on the farm. Some 2.2 million annually. Well respected and recognized name.
    Will we get together this summer? What is your schedule like.Are you coming this way? Anything events happening in Sudbury that we might attend?
    Hope to hear from you soon.

    • Hi there,

      Things have been pretty good. No internet makes updates (and emailing) difficult, but we’ll survive. I hope Jenn doesn’t read this – I don’t think we need to be raising 2 million-plus birds. I sure hope to get together this summer. I will make sure to email you as soon as the ‘net is back up and running.

  3. Good luck Evan. You’re a very good (and funny!) writer. Sometimes I laugh until I almost cry at the re-telling of stuff that you guys get up to. I’m sure you’ll get a positive response.

  4. Hi Evan, Don’t be intimidated by editors. And for magazines don’t waste time with query letters. Some (usually a sales pitch for writing classes) will tell you to get the editors name right or your done.Editors change all the time,just send your story with a short note. “Dear Editor ,Please consider my story for publication.” ect.
    Start with magazines and keep something in the mail all the time. Rejections are not only great for starting the wood stove but also (mostly) offer advise on what they are looking for.I sold my first article about wasps to Canadian Gardener for 300 bucks, another about the red wing black bird to Birds and Bloom for 300 American bucks which at the time was almost $400. I sold some for a book of stamps and others for free copies. A story of me on a tractor moving a table to Harrow smith for a solid cherry photo album.I sent a poem to mushing mag. long before I was into dogs and got the nicest rejection note ever. I did sell the poem to a small magazine Tickeled by Thunder for a honorable mention and $5 in stamps.(still makes me a professional writer) The trick, take the rejections as a learning tool and keep something in the mail. A writer writes then rewrites then mails the damn thing, forget about it and move on. Re-write your rejections and mail again. Oh, and in your letter tell the editor you don’t need the story back and that its a single submission.(keep a copy)Your writing is good,entertaining and informative.The competition is tough but so are you. Keep at it, its your duty. P/s Mouse and Taiga are doing great and we just love em. See ya, Jack

  5. Evan, I forgot something very important. Always send a S.A.S.E. along with your story. It can get expensive in stamps (International stamps if going outside Canada.)Don’t think about making a living at it for now, although that may happen,just strive for seeing your story in print and getting paid for it. It’s a great feeling for us crazy writers.Really gets you going when you sell one.Writers digest on line is a good source for markets as is the magazine. Jack

    • Thanks, Jack. Your advice is great and appreciated. I plan on keeping Canada Post and the internet clogged with my submissions.

      I’m glad to hear things with Mouse and Taiga are going well. Looking forward to seeing you on the trails this winter.

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