The first agency to ask for my manuscript sent the request as I was dropping off my oldest son, Jack, at a week-long science camp. He was sobbing, inconsolable, but as the buses pulled away, his dad and I smiled and waved like we were at a Christmas Parade. As my husband navigated the parking lot, I checked my email and saw that Massie McQuilkin wanted to read my book.
Holy shit!!! Roxane Gay’s agency? F— yeah!
But I didn’t linger in the glow of that first page request for long, because my heart was on that bus, and he was struggling.
Massie McQuilkin eventually passed.
The next agent to request my full manuscript emailed in June, while I was standing in line with my five- and nine-year-old for the Minion Mayhem ride at Universal Studios and—hot damn!—the agent was adopted, too (my memoir is about how the adoption of my son served as the catalyst for my search for my own birth mom). It felt like this agent might be The One. But I didn’t linger in the possibilities of the manuscript request, because we were in the brain-blasting loudness of Minion Mayhem, I didn’t want my kids to see me with my face in my phone, and plus, they needed to be sun-screened.
Mom writers are wired to succeed at writing (and querying) because we can multitask like no other. We can switch gears in an instant. A to-do list, you say? Done. Speaking of lists, there are plenty of “Ten Rules to Follow When Querying” articles out there, but let me tell you the rule you’ve gotta break if you want to find an agent:
DO NOT send your query letter in batches of five and then wait for those five agents to respond before sending any more.
I read this advice in multiple querying articles and it is B-A-N-A-N-A-S. Most agents will never respond to your query. My final querying stats were: 84 agents queried, 58 did not respond, 20 nos, 5 full manuscript requests, 1 yes.
Everyone said how awful querying was—so much rejection. But I didn’t see it that way. There was a lot of rejection, and it didn’t feel great but, as far as rejection goes, an “I’ll pass” received while in your pajamas, holding a mug of coffee, cushioned by the impersonal delivery mode of email? It wasn’t that bad. And the good news is, there are more than a thousand literary agents in the U.S. When you get a no, query the next agent on your list—query the next ten!
By July, I’d been querying for four months, had sent out 59 queries, and had some heady agent interest, but no offers. And then, on our family’s traditional end-of-summer camping trip, our son ended up in the emergency room, convulsing, experiencing a psychotic episode. It was the most terrifying forty-eight hours of my life. We had no idea what was wrong—it looked like schizophrenia to us and to the social worker, too. The fantastic psychiatrists at Rady hospital in San Diego informed me and my husband that extreme anxiety can manifest itself physically and diagnosed our son with anxiety and panic disorder. We were thrilled, ecstatic, that it was something we could manage—that the heart and mind of the eleven-year-old boy we fiercely loved were still his own.
But, my querying stopped there. Everything outside of mothering stopped there. And I threw myself a one-day pity party. My book would die. How had I ever had the audacity to think I’d write a book and put it out into the world? Jack would need to be homeschooled while he gained his confidence, and we figured out meds, and found the right psychiatrist. As anyone who’s been touched by mental illness can tell you, this stuff takes time. Medicine, therapists, and psychologists are often not the right fit at first touch. Experimenting with your child’s mental healthcare is both time and soul-consuming.
By October, our world was even-keeled again, routine. Jack was attending outside-the-home homeschool classes two days a week and loving them. His psychiatrist, therapist, and meds were all working well. And when he was at school, I found I had…time. I sent out 25 queries in October, bringing my total to 84.
Often during the querying process, I longed for whole days to query, and in fact, that’s what I’d asked for, and received, the previous Mother’s Day: A day alone. I sent out five queries before turning off my computer at five o’clock to join my family for dim sum.
One of those queries ended up being The One.
It had been query number 31 all along! I could’ve stopped querying in May! But I didn’t. Because mom writers write hard. We query hard. We mother hard. We don’t have time to obsess over agent responses or refresh our inboxes. There are groceries to be bought, meals to be prepared, therapy appointments to be kept, meds to be picked up, math homework to be done, and bedtime revelations of third-grade mean-girl issues to be workshopped.
One final shout of encouragement if you are on the querying journey
One of the things agents commonly said in their rejection letters was that literary tastes are subjective and that, “just because it wasn’t a good fit for me, doesn’t mean it won’t be a good fit for another agent.” I would mentally flip the bird when I read each version of that sentiment roll in. But, two days after I signed with my agent, another sent me an email with a (very lengthy) bulleted list of problems with my manuscript, closing with, “What are you going to do about it?”
I had already signed with my agent whom I adored, who loved my book, so the email from the other editor was, I mean, basically…thrilling. How often do you get to send a gracious (but secretly smug) email, saying, “Thank you for your feedback, but I’ve signed with someone else.”
But, dear mom writer, if my agent hadn’t already signed me and told me explicitly what she loved about my book, I would’ve been destroyed. I mean depressed-for-a-month, re-examining-my-entire-book-and-my-identity-as-a-writer, de-stroyed. But literary tastes are subjective—it’s true! The agent I signed with wondered if parts of my book were too edgy. The agent who wanted me to re-work my manuscript thought my book wasn’t edgy enough.
So, if you’re a mom writer still in the querying trenches, I want you to know: You’ve got this. Moms get shit done. We have to. You may have sent The Query Letter to The Agent months ago. But keep going, just in case. We want to hear your story.
Denise Massar is the author of Matched, a memoir of her obsessive search for a baby in the ultra-competitive world of domestic adoption. Denise also freelances, writing about motherhood, parenting kids with anxiety and ADHD, traveling with kids, divorce, starting over, and being a part of the ‘sandwich generation.’ Work With Denise.