It’s The Great Pumpkin! Uh, Story

I’ve been neglecting my blog lately. I’ve written a few things for it, but with the world on fire, they didn’t seem particularly important at the time. But today I want to talk about querying and giant pumpkins.

My son is really into pumpkins. He’s been into them since he was a kid and saw his first pumpkin patch. When he found out he could actually grow them, he was ecstatic. I should have realized we were going to have a giant at some point when cucumber beetles, vine borers, squash bugs, inadequate rainfall, and the backbreaking labor of dealing with clay soil did not deter him.

Last year, he grew his first Atlantic Giant. Now, we’re not completely insane yet. We haven’t yet mortgaged the house for a single seed of a champion pumpkin. But after pouring over every library resource, watching videos from very old farmers in Mississippi who know what they are talking about when they talk vine borers, he charged into this year with great enthusiasm and dedication.

And what do you know? We’ve got a giant out there in the garden. Oh, it’s only about fifty pounds right now. But you can actually watch this thing grow from day to day. It gets fed ritual offerings of fertilizer. We’ve been out in masks, hunting the stores for the specific micronutrient mix it needs for optimal growth.  He cut up his own baby blanket (yes, I let him!) to make covers to protect his pumpkins from the sun so they would continue to grow. I fully expect him to sing them to sleep soon.

Every day is a new chance for disaster. He came in terrified one morning. One of the fruits had a side split. We almost panicked. We made a mad rush to the literature to see if we could save it. A week and a half of sterile bandage changes later, it looks like it’s going to make it. It set back it’s growth, and it will never hit the size it should have. Its chance is gone. But he learned a lot.

Oh, and as of last night, he’s officially having pumpkin nightmares.

So, what do giant pumpkins have to do with querying? Aside from the nightmares.

Well, growing a giant pumpkin is stressful. Anyone who has grown squash in the southern US knows pumpkins are hard. Our summer daylight hours aren’t good for producing big pumpkins. The pests are out of this world, and we often have two generations of them to battle. Late frosts mean starting early can come back to haunt you. It rains all spring. It roasts all summer. It’s almost the worst place in the world to grow winter squash. No one expects anything to come out of it, and there are a lot of naysayers to remind you every day that nothing will come of it.

It’s so much work. The learning curve is steep. There’s a lot of luck involved in success, sure. But what’s really important? Knowing what the soil needs. Knowing what the vine needs. Burying that vine for protection. Cutting off female flowers that don’t have the right stem orientation. Training the vines. Pruning the vines. Fertilizing. Watering, watering, more watering.

That takes dedication. The pumpkin takes up my son’s whole day. He’s out there first thing in the morning to inspect. He’s out there in the middle of the day to water if needed. He’s out there every afternoon with a jar of soapy water, catching bugs. He’s out there every evening, inspecting leaves, checking blossom ends, checking stems, carefully moving the pumpkin a little every day so it won’t grow over its own vine.

It takes courage. EVERYTHING could go wrong with one split. It almost did. We saved that fruit. But it is no longer on track to achieve its potential. That’s it. No fair for it this year. That means we have one more chance to make it big with the largest of the crop, and I don’t know if the backup variety is going to make in time. We’ve got extras, but it takes that one fruit to really grow to make a year worthwhile.

That sounds a lot like querying a manuscript to me. Many writers start out from a position of writing for fun. Then, they get it in their heads that they could actually publish something. They grow a good story, but not a great one. But they keep learning. They don’t let their background get in the way of what they want in life. They go for it, knowing the odds aren’t good.

But they learn. They study the craft. Better than that, they study the shelves. They read what’s being published. They work on perfecting their vision—not writing what’s already on the shelves, but writing to the shelf. What they want to read. What they want to bring to the reader. They pay attention to markets, not because they are afraid, but because they want to succeed in that climate.

They do something writerly every day. That’s not always writing. They may be reading. They may be studying craft. They may be providing critiques or Beta reads as they cultivate good feedback partners for their work.

Even when things seem hopeless, they send queries. They feel bad when they have to shelve a project. They patch up a story, but like with that stunted pumpkin, they can accept that not every story is going to be a champion. They love it anyway. It taught them so much. And whatever happens, they keep going. They know the best story they have to offer may not be enough.

But that’s okay.

The querying writer and the giant pumpkin grower both know—there’s always next year.


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