Remember 1991? I do.
My soon to be 23 year-old son was still in diapers. I was a very young man in the military, though I’d already been serving for more than five years at the time.
And I was writing. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing mind you, but I knew it was something I had to do. I’d never tried something so ambitious as to write a novel – instead I tinkered with short stories with horrible titles like Gore Town. (I won’t be resurrecting this story any time soon, by the way. It’s just terrible.) As a young father, though, I wanted to write stories that I could tell my then nine-month-old son when he was old enough to understand what the hell I was talking about. So, in the fall of 1990, I sat down at my brother electric typewriter and penned a children’s story (picture book) that sort of fell out of my head and onto the page.
Written in verse, it’s a nonsense story about a hapless father who can’t cook if his life depended on it. The only problem is that he’s the world’s greatest chef in his mind. Its original title was “Cooking … with Dad!” later renamed “Rutabaga Swish” and after a few revisions, I decided that it didn’t suck on an epic scale. I even spent that Christmas wondering if I might actually try to get it published. But how the hell do you get a children’s story (or any story) published in those pre-Internet days, right? My first stop was the library. I talked with a very helpful librarian at the Village Square library in Calgary and she’d managed to have a few short stories published in a couple of anthologies. She told me the borrow The Canadian Writer’s Market and a handful of other books. I spent January 1991 reading up on the process of getting published which nowadays looks like ridiculously labour intensive process:
1) Type your manuscript on really damned good paper that publishers won’t immediately toss in the trash.
2) Type a query letter on the same damned good paper.
3) Insert query letter in a business envelope along with a self addressed stamped envelope for the publisher to write back telling you to either send more or burn your story because it’s just that bad.
4) Wait impatiently for up to a year to hear back.
That was it. Boom.
The waiting process can still be just as long but at least in 2013 you can use MS Word which makes writing a breeze. You can also email your query which saves on the cost of paper, stamps, envelopes and frustration.
I queried all over the place – anyone who published children’s stories in Canada received my query. After a long two years of querying, I received the loveliest rejection in the world from Coteau Books in Regina, Saskatchewan which I still have. It’s my most cherished possession as an author because it was written proof that I didn’t suck and that I might make a go of this whole writing gig. They’d rejected the story with a standard form letter but the following was hand-written at the bottom of the query letter:
“Cooking … with Dad! was being seriously considered by our readers until we changed our focus. It should go far.”
At any rate, that was some seriously cool validation in my then 25 year-old mind. It took nearly two decades until I actually got to hold a book I wrote in my hands. (Shade Fright – published by Snowbooks in 2010)
The moral of my story is quite simple: your path toward publication requires two things. Write all the time. Keep pressing on.
That’s really my best advice to anyone. It may take nearly two decades, it might not. But you just have to write and keep trying to get better. You must believe that being published will one day happen and you have to hone your craft. I’ll mark this little anniversary by posting that first children’s story below. I hope you get a kick out of it:
Cooking … with Dad!
By Sean Cummings
My name is Beth and I’m sick as heck, my Dad is home
He’s cooking supper, here! Tonight! I wonder what mom
It’s not that he can’t cook because my Dad is very
Every time he bakes a cake my mother calls it “art”.
He keeps peculiar recipes for foods too strange to eat,
Funny things, like garlic rings or pickled lobster feet.
Last summer we went picnicking out by Ramsey Creek,
Dad brought his home made spinach pie, YUCK! It
looked terrible to eat!
It was green like swampy crabgrass and it oozed
inside the crust,
Dad wanted everyone eat to it but that meal we
“My home-made spinach pie!” he chimed as he went to
take a bite,
Mom and I turned away, we couldn’t bear the sight.
“Slurp, munch… hey, phooey! Yuck!” Dad cried. I
guess it wasn’t good,
“That’s the last time I make spinach pie, the last
time anyone should!”
Last week he made a special meal called “Brussel
Dad tasted some, his face turned red and then I
heard him say…
“I need a glass of water.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked. Dad looked at me while
sipping on his drink.
He sighed, “Why don’t we take this awful stuff and
pour it down the sink?”
Last month he cooked a casserole called “Rutabaga
Plop! It made a sticky sound when it landed in my
Dad tried a mouthful, he wrinkled his nose… then his
eyes began to roll.
“This meal is bad, it’s terrible! We should bury it
in a hole!”
On Mother’s Day a breakfast feast for everyone to
Onion jam on whole wheat toast and banana pepper
Dad served it on a silver tray. Mom looked at him
“This breakfast looks quite ghoulish; I’m going back
Two weeks ago, a Sunday brunch of creamy turnip
Mashed potato crunch in a bowl, and radish curdle
Dad served the meal with crackers and hot napkins on
The smell was pretty bad that day; our dog ran off
Of course he also cooks…
Spicy lemon sausage rolls, peanut butter soup.
Roast broccoli in barley sauce, beet and kiwi goop.
French fried eggplant, zucchini quiche, macaroni
Marinated mushroom buns, bologna steaks and
He cooks and cooks and cooks and cooks! I wonder
when he’ll stop?
It’s not like everything he tries to make won’t
surely somehow flop.
Last Christmas it was sauerkraut-asparagus soufflé.
He topped it off with carrot glop and tuna fish
At Thanksgiving we had turkey taco and pineapple
There was steaming spicy head cheese salad, and
Cornish liver bake.
Hot pepperoni cookies, oyster soup surprise
Easy barbecued pumpkin seeds, unusual tarts and
Sweet potato goulash, bell pepper custard squares.
Parsnip relish, deviled beans and cheese, tangy
“Beth, it’s time for supper!”
“Oh no!” I take my seat, it’s time to eat. I turn
and face my plate.
“I’m glad to see you’re here,” Dad says, “I was
worried you’d be late.”
“Something smells good”, my mother says. Dad smiles
down at me.
“What exactly did you cook, what in heaven can it
Dad places a pot in front of me, then gently lifting
up the lid,
Steam billows out and fills the room. Dad giggles
like a kid.
He clutches a pair of tongs, reaches deep inside the
“Be careful now,” my mother says. The meal is piping
Then Dad pulls out what looks like…
A hot dog.
“No more alphabet buckwheat pancakes, no more bacon
and squash supreme.
No more backyard skillet stroganoff or wilted
“No more deep fried ice cream sandwiches or zesty
No more carrot cashew suppers that I whip up in a
“I’ve decided to cook hot dogs and that’s all if you
care to look.
I will boil or fry your hot dogs until the day I
learn to cook!”
Well, now we eat a lot of hot dogs.
Hot dogs, hot dogs, hot dogs … what are we to do?
It’s either wieners on a bun to eat or Dad’s awful