On Being a Mom and Reading Queries

July 6th, 2011 • Kate

My Little ManI’m going through my query inbox today, working to get it back down to manageable levels before I take a week off in Florida with the family, and I’m noticing something interesting — well, at least to me. I’ve been a mommy for just over 5 months now, and though I knew being responsible for someone else had changed me, I wasn’t aware of just how much until I recognized that the mere mention of a child’s death in a query or novel has me reaching to reject. It’s almost a gut reaction, an automatic trigger. I do my best to read on, to find what the author is attempting to say by using the death of a child to tell a story, but I have to admit, it’s difficult.

Now, I’m not saying that you can’t query me at all if a child dies in your novel, but I am more emotionally invested now in a character the moment you tell me his or her (young) age, and you better have an EXCELLENT reason to kill it off. Don’t hurt this young mom’s heart without cause!

Interestingly (again, maybe just to me), I’m also finding all sorts of movies more affecting. Pre-baby, I wept like a little girl at a certain scene in True Grit, when [Someone] had to [Something] to the horse. Post-baby, I tear up at the end of 50 First Dates, when Adam Sandler reintroduces Drew Barrymore to her daughter. The other day, I had to turn off Labyrinth when I kept yelling at the tv for Jennifer Connelly to just pick up her poor crying baby brother. So I know I’m emotional about the subject.

But I hadn’t figured on it affecting my work! I mean, I read Living Dead Girl, Tender Morsels, and Room right after Baby Beau was born! I practically sought out the worst books a new mom could read, without effect!

And yet… there it is. So what can you, the possibly querying writer with a novel that includes a child’s death, do about it? Well, I can’t advise you to research every agent for the possibility they might be an emotional new mom like me. But be aware that you’re using a hot-button topic, and maybe find a way to broach the subject in a careful, conscientious manner. Or hell, maybe avoid the topic altogether, at least in your query. If the agent is reading your novel and comes across that event, they may be already invested enough to read on — a connection that can be hard to make in a short query.

Fellow agents, moms, and readers — your thoughts?

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26 Responses to “On Being a Mom and Reading Queries”

  1. Alyssa Says:

    I hope for your sake this passes or you are going to miss out on some great manuscripts that deal with dark issues like death. This is your job: to find these stories. A medic may find themselves having to care for patients they really don't want to treat, but they do it because it is their job.

    Sorry I'm not the butt-kisser you may want on here, but you are being over sensitive. Do you really want your query box filled with hearts and flowers and butterflies and fairies?

  2. DaphneUn Says:

    Absolutely not, Alyssa, and I think I said that above. I specifically asked that if writers are going to include the death of a child (not all dark issues like death, as you say), that they make it worthwhile. That they do so for a reason, not just to be sensationalist.

  3. @dpeterfreund Says:

    Daph, I had the same reaction after my baby was born. All of a sudden, things i could watch or read with impunity started to REALLY bother me, since i put Q in that situation. I'm told it passes somewhat. Meanwhile, there's always Noel Streatfeild (Pam Bachorz bought me Skating Shoes after I confessed to her, 3 wks post-partum, that I couldn't finish Mockingjay).

  4. Claire Says:

    I think that just as writers evolve and write what interests them at certain points in their lives, so do agents. As a new mom, you should not have to "punish" yourself and read about dying children no matter how well written it might be. If it is truly a great story, then another agent will pick it up. Being true to yourself is as important as doing your job. You are a new mom. Enjoy your child and represent what you want to represent!

  5. Anonymous Says:

    As a reader, I have no problem reading about the death of a child. Hopefully there are agents a tad less squeamish out there to give those stories the light of day! This is the kind of subjective stuff that makes authors roll their eyes at traditional publishing.

  6. Kathy Says:

    Everyone in the process gets to pick and choose, so I don’t know why people automatically get their hackles up. I get to choose what I write. The agent gets to choose what she represents. The editor gets to choose what she acquires. And most importantly, the reader gets to choose what they buy and read. I actively avoid certain kinds of stories, so I’m not surprised an agent does as well.

    Write a great book and leave the dead child out of the query.

  7. Tammy Says:

    As a mom, I find myself tearing up at news articles regarding the death of or harm to a child. It is called empathy and it's actually pretty normal and an excellent sign of your humanity. Hang in there, it'll get better.

  8. Curtis Says:

    I think any of us with children can relate to that emotional response to a difficult subject. Great post–interesting insight into the uber-agent's mind.

  9. Buffy Andrews Says:

    I think your reactions are quite natural. As an agent, you've probably always had things you liked and things you didn't like. It's very hard for me to read a news story or watch a movie that deals with child abuse. And I would not write nor read a book that had to do with child abuse. That's my personal preference and what works for me. We each bring our own life experiences to the table and many of our choices reflect these experiences. Becoming a mother is life-changing and it's natural that some things that didn't bother you before might bother you now. That's the beauty of this wonderful world we live in. We all have different tastes and preferences.

  10. Suze Says:

    Wow! I've heard many agents say "no vampires" or "no fairies", so how is "no dead babies" any different? As a reader I wouldn't want to read about dead babies either… that's what free choice is all about. Rock on, Daphne Un πŸ™‚

  11. Shannon Says:

    First off, I'm mom to a13 you and a 11 yo. What you're going through is COMPLETELY normal. After my mom died, I couldn't watch sad stuff, for years. It's been over six years and I still have a list of off-limits movies – Fried Green Tomatoes, no *grabs a tissue *, Steel Magnolias, Schindler's List to name a few.

    Second, and this is just my opinion, but every fantastic book I've ever read, even murder mysteries, has a reason for a death – even a senseless death. A good writer will have something come from the death – might not be until the next book in the series, but something happens to *justify*, for lack of a better word, the death. Sometimes the death lightsa fire under the protagonist to take a side, or it could be as small as a protagonist seeing themselves more clearly.

    I think it's good that your mommy senses are telling you that there better be a reason for the death. Mommy sense are NEVER wrong. Just saying.

  12. Karson Says:

    I had my baby boy 9 weeks ago and I cannot watch any episodes of Criminal Minds or any other show that has murder. I keep thinking, "that was somebody's baby!" I used to watch these shows all the time! Same goes for my reading. I avoid anything where a child potentially gets hurt in any way. It makes me so emotional! I truly didn't expect motherhood to change me this much. But I love every crazy emotion I have because I also never thought I could love something as much as I love my baby boy!

  13. Catherine Ipcizade Says:

    I'm thinking baby killers aren't popular in any medium, be it television, real life, or books. If a writer is going to include the death of a child in a book, it better have some significant relevance to not obtain a rejection from any agent! I too am a mom. I'm also a writer and a creative writing teacher. You cannot become a mom without thinking differently about the world–that's just how it is. True, most YA readers are not going to be moms (although so many adults read YA now), so they will not have the same guttural reaction we will, but still…if it doesn't directly affect the plot of your story and the growth of your character, is it really necessary? Really?

    There are some authors that write about death (Lisa Schroeder books come to mind), but those books often deal with the deeper subject of moving on; they don't focus on the death but on the living.

    That's my two cents. And if it's an consolation, I can't watch a Disneyland parade without crying over the first time I brought my kids there (they're 7 and 10 now), can't watch sappy commercials, and definitely can't watch "real" tv that deals with child death. No way. Once a sappy mama, always a sappy mama…at least for this mama. πŸ™‚

    -Catherine Ipcizade

  14. Deserae Says:

    I guess this is going to be a two part comment, so bear with me…

    In the end, our personal bias, opinions, likes, and dislikes do dictate what we choose to read. Like Kathy said, we all have the choice with the things we decide to invest our time in. It's not your fault that you're wary when a dead child comes into a query because, obviously, you just aren't into that kind of thing right now.

  15. Deserae Says:

    Which really makes me want to address that at the core of this post, I think you were just trying to say that your taste has changed. That, if there's a book about a dead child that doesn't truly captivate you from the start, the author might be better suited querying someone else. And that's fine! One of the big rules about querying is submitting your piece to an agent that's right for your manuscript. Therefore, I strongly disagree with what Alyssa said about you being overly sensitive and potentially missing out on some great work… You aren't saying "no" to the author, you're just giving a more cautious look at his or her query for that manuscript. You've specified on your Submissions page that you're looking for light, quirky, funny stuff right now. You can't help that you're trying to give these writers hints and nudges about your current preferences.

  16. M.H. Says:

    I'm not criticizing Alyssa, but I am guessing she's not a mother.
    Becoming a mother changes every thing about you and how you look at absolutely everything – how could it not? I'm insanely sensitive to stories about bad things happening to kids. In my book club (10 moms most of us with kids under 5) we have a strict rule about not picking books where heinous things happen to kids.
    And yes, there are times when it's essential to the story, but there are also times it's clearly used for effect.
    Trust that mommy heart:)

  17. Alyssa Says:

    You guessed wrong. Mother of two; the youngest is three-years-old. Life changes a person, not just becoming a mother.

    And any story that has anything for just sensationalism is going to be a piss-poor story full stop.

  18. Adam Heine Says:

    Dude, the same thing happened to me after my first son was born! The same part in 50 First Dates hit me like a train, and there was a bit in the first Transformers where some soldier was calling his wife who had a baby son crying, and all I wanted to do was grab him through the screen and rock him until he was okay!

    I can tell you the emotions do calm down after a while, but I'm not sure they ever go away. You're pretty much changed for life πŸ™‚

  19. @RobinReads Says:

    As a middle school librarianAs a middle school librarian, I have had an increasingly difficult time reading certain types of books – specifically those where adults intentionally put children (even teenage ones) in harms way. I do still purchase the books for our collection (Hunger Games) and recommend them to everyone who might be interested, but I can't read them. The children understand, I think, after I explain to them that it is my job to keep them safe while they are at school, and the books are too upsetting.

    And I'm not even a Mom.

  20. Trish Says:

    Kate, I'm that way with books like Living Dead Girl and Stolen. I can handle violence, sex, bad language, etc., but point me at a book in which a teenage girl is abducted and my hot button is pushed. I suspect it's because I have a teenage daughter. And that when I was a new mom, it would have been a book with a dead baby.

    You might be missing out on a great book by rejecting books with dead babies, but would it be a book you'd feel comfortable devoting time championing?

  21. Lucy Curtis Says:

    Your son is so cute. He has the same pacifier as my son had! And yes, I am about a thousand times more sensitive to fictional kids in peril now that I have real live one. Then again, I was scared to go to the grocery store for the first few months because I had a hard time recovering and was convinced someone was going to abduct him in my weakened state. Specifically Nigerian terrorists. Don't know why. We're really really far from Nigeria. And, you know, not a political liability in any way. I felt a little better after my friend had a baby and texted me that she had developed an irrational fear of Nazis getting him.

    All that is to say, it's normal to be more sensitive to it now. And this has always been a subjective business anyway. It's hard to be an effective advocate for a work you don't really love.

  22. Kristi Helvig Says:

    I'm a mom to two young ones and can completely relate. I even had a hard time reading The Other Boleyn Girl during my first pregnancy because of all the miscarriages in the book. In my book club this month, several women (all moms) wouldn't read ROOM because of the subject matter. I encouraged them to finish it, because I'd already read it and knew it was a great book. They ended up loving it, but if it had ended differently, it would have been a very different story. Also, we all evolve as people, so you may find yourself drawn to different things now that you're a mom. It's not a bad thing. πŸ™‚

  23. Amy Sonnichsen Says:

    I laughed when you said you teared up at the end of 50 First Dates. I watched that a couple weeks ago, too, and teared up at that same part and my hubs thought I was crazy! I have a five-month-old, as well. Mommy hormones are not very kind, but I guess they give us the nurturing qualities necessary to be good moms. πŸ™‚


  24. @LianaBrooks Says:

    As a mom and reader I can say it never passed. I can't read books where children are killed or injured. I've put down novels and series midway through because the author thinks a death will up the conflict. Honestly, it usually makes me think less of the author.

  25. Erica Lucke Dean Says:

    Having a baby changes you…permanently. I don't even remember the person I was before having my children. I'm certain I was more well rested…less stressed. I suddenly worry about the most mundane things. I used to love horror movies, now I can't stomach them. I used to love to fly, now I'm afraid to do anything that might compromise my control of the situation and put my children in danger. My children are no longer babies, but I still worry. Yes, having a baby changes you. But in my eyes, it is for the better.

  26. Kiki Hamilton Says:

    Ah – welcome to being a Mom. You are forever-changed – in a good way. The concept of love takes on a whole new meaning. And I dare you to squash those protective instincts! Ha! I guess that's why it's good that publishing is subjective business – the stories you don't love, somebody else hopefully will. Everybody doesn't have to like the same thing. Yay for you.