Hello fabulous writing friends! Thank you for hopping on over to Tuesday from the Trenches! I am thrilled to be officially kicking off this series! If you missed last week, you can read about my own story traversing the query trenches HERE.
And now, we'll jump right in to our interview this week with the amazing Valerie Bolling!
Thank you so much for joining us today, Valerie! My goal with Tuesday from the Trenches is to help authors in the query trenches to see that there is no “one size fits all” on the path to representation and to encourage them to keep trudging through. I've loved our chat, and I'm so glad to be sharing your story!
Please share your query stats with us (as far as you know/remember):
Time Spent in the Query Trenches: One year for a book to be acquired for publication (June 2017 – June 2018); three years to connect with the right agent (June 2017 – June 2020)
Number of Agents and Editors Queried: Fifty before getting published; 150 before finding the right agent
NOTE: I did receive an agent offer after 102 queries but turned it down.
Number of Requests for Additional Work/Full Manuscript: Two
Number of Twitter Pitch “Likes”: I don’t know the exact count, but I had great success with Twitter pitches (at least six or seven of my manuscripts received “likes”), which is why I highly recommend them. LET’S DANCE! was discovered in a Twitter pitch, and I received another offer of publication via a pitch.
Number of Agent and Editor Offers Before Selecting an Agent: Four
Agent and Agency Selected: James McGowan, BookEnds Literary Agency
That's all so great, Valerie! I love your persistence and determination to not just find any agent, but to find the right agent. I know they say that the wrong agent is worse than no agent at all, so good for you to take the time to find the perfect fit!
What was your method for organizing queries?
I’m a linear person, so I just kept a list that included the name of the agent or editor and the publisher; the title of the manuscript, the query date, and the date that a response was received – if a response was received.
Sounds like a great method. I did something very similar. Love that organization!
What kept you going through the query trenches?
Once my mind is made up to do something, Kailei, it’s on! I push myself harder than anyone else can. I also enjoy writing – particularly the laborious art of revision. In addition, knowing the competitiveness of this industry has helped me remain focused and committed. I didn’t expect to get published quickly; I knew it could be a long process. For anyone who wants to be published, you can’t give up! You’ve got to keep writing and keep querying – that’s the only chance you have of making your dream a reality.
I love that, Valerie! That determination is really the key in the writing world. And to really love what you're doing makes such a huge difference. I think that passion also comes through in your writing.
The support of my faithful writing partner, Lindsey Aduskevich, has also been an integral part and motivating aspect of my journey. I use the term “writing partner,” not critique partner, because Lindsey and I share everything related to writing. Yes, we read each other’s manuscripts and offer critique, but we share writing ideas before we even write, attend conferences together, boost each other on social media, and offer constant encouragement to each other.
That's huge! I love my writing partners as well, and I'm truly going to start calling them that instead of critique partners. What a great idea!
You had an amazing perseverance and dedication. How did you handle rejections?
I expected rejections because I know that’s how the industry works. I just kept writing and kept querying. There were times when I took breaks from querying but only because I chose to focus on revising manuscripts or researching agents to refine and refresh my query list.
Sounds like you had a great perspective! Did any of the rejections sting more than others?
Yes, Kailei, there were some rejections that stung more than others. After LET’S DANCE!, when other manuscripts didn’t receive interest by agents or editors, that was crushing for me and contributed to a feeling of impostor syndrome. At times, I believed that if a publisher didn’t like any of my other manuscripts, maybe I just got lucky, maybe I wasn’t a legitimate author. At another time, one of my manuscripts passed through various levels of a small press. Throughout the process, they kept me updated as they moved my story forward. Finally, I was told that as much as they loved my story and wanted to publish it, they had recently made an offer on a story similar to mine, so they couldn’t accept mine. This was definitely discouraging ... but I continued to forge ahead.
Good for you! I know it can be so hard to not take it personally when those rejections come, but essential to remember that this industry really is so subjective. Just like that press loving your work, but the timing being off.
Did you have any “close calls” that felt like they would be “the one?”
I had two experiences when I came close to finding an agent. The first was when an agent was interested in LET’S DANCE!. She asked that I send her two more manuscripts, but when I did, she said that she foresaw a “harder sell” with those, so she ultimately passed.
Another time an agent offered me representation after I sent her a manuscript as a result of her “like” in a Twitter pitch. I was initially excited, but since there was no ask for additional manuscripts, and the offer was made in an email with the option to schedule a phone call, I had concerns. After researching the agency, I decided to decline the offer.
I bet that was a hard choice to make, but good for you for knowing what you were looking for and for waiting to find the right agent, rather than just any agent.
Where did you find agents to query/how did you decide who to query?
I considered all agents who represented picture books, but I wasn’t necessarily strategic when I first started querying. Later, I became quite selective about who I queried. In fall of 2019, Lindsey and I pulled together a number of lists of agents from SCBWI and from Heather Ayris Burnell, and we created a Google Doc where we divided up the list, did our research, and compiled our findings. Our list represented almost 90 agencies. We wrote notes about each one as well as each of their agents, including information from Twitter, their manuscript wish lists, websites, and interviews as well as what we recalled from conferences and agent panels we’d attended. When our list was complete, I chose to query 21 agents in November and December 2019. In 2020, I queried only four more agents before receiving and accepting James’ offer.
Wow, that's incredible! That sounds like an amazing list, and that you really did your research. I love all of this work and the way you really honed in on who you were interested in working with.
How did you ultimately connect with your agent? Did you cold query? Participate in a twitter pitch event? Or connect in some other way?
On June 1, I reached out to James, via DM on Twitter, in response to his offer to answer questions from Black writers in support of #BVM. I asked if he’d be willing to provide specific feedback about a manuscript I’d sent him in December that wasn’t a fit for him. I was surprised when James promptly responded with, “Thanks so much for getting back in touch with me. Your name has been on my radar recently, since we share a publisher (and even an editor) ... I'd love to reconsider and see more.” I sent James the manuscript for which I’d requested feedback as well as two others.
I was shocked when I received an email the next morning in which James said, “I still absolutely love your writing,” and he described the writing in one of my manuscripts as “utterly beautiful.” I was beaming, but the sentence that floored me the most was, “I would love the opportunity to speak with you about these manuscripts and possible representation if you’re interested?”
WHAT? How was that possible? I had simply reached out to James to get feedback on one manuscript that I knew didn’t interest him. In no way was I expecting an offer of representation. I was totally caught off guard!
Oh my goodness! That's absolutely amazing!! I'm so glad that you took advantage of James's offer to reach out in support of #BVM and for the amazing response!! That's seriously so thrilling!
Can you tell us a little about publishing LET’S DANCE! and any thoughts on if publication helped you to sign with James?
I wrote the first draft in May 2017 and continued to revise the book throughout the year. I sent my first query on Jan. 1, 2018. I continued to submit queries during the year and participated in two Twitter pitches in June. I received a “like” in #PitMad that was turned down when I sent the manuscript, and I received another “like” later in the month during #PBPitch from to Jes Negrón at Boyds Mills & Kane. When I sent the manuscript to her on June 18, she emailed me two weeks later on July 2, requesting to have a conversation. During that phone call, I learned that Jes was interested in acquiring the story!
In my case, being published led to me connecting with James because we’d both worked with Jes (James’ book, GOOD NIGHT, OPPY, is scheduled for release in fall 2021). As I shared in my previous response, James had said I’d been on his radar and was happy when I reached out to him for the second time.
That's wonderful! And by the way, I love LET'S DANCE! and my girls both love it as well. It's amazing how well you tell the story of dance throughout the world in so little words. And then the extra information in the back just rounds it out so nicely.
It sounds like an amazing experience to hear back from James so quickly after you sent him your manuscripts. Can you tell us about “The Call” with him?
James and I talked so freely during “The Call,” which occurred two days after that email. He shares my passion for picture books, and we are well-matched in values and energy. He’s open, honest, professional, and personable. He has a pleasant sense of humor, too.
What also impressed me about James is that he was true to his word. He’d said during our conversation that the next morning he would send me a contract to look over and would connect me with two of his clients. The contract was in my inbox when I logged onto email in the morning as were emails from his clients.
During our chat, James offered feedback on the three manuscripts I’d sent him. The next day I revised one of the manuscripts, based on his feedback, and a critique partner said that it was my best revision yet.
Finally, I’m a person who’s organized, task-oriented, and responds quickly when people reach out to me. Though I realize that not everyone shares these characteristics, my preference is that my agent possesses these traits ... and, thankfully, James does.
James is definitely the right agent for me, Kailei, and I am extremely grateful!
It sounds like you are a great match! I am so glad that you connected. James sounds like a great agent. And I adore BookEnds and all they do for the writing community!
If you could give querying authors a piece of advice, what would that be?
Short response: Keep querying!
Longer response: Take advantage of all opportunities. Get active in the writing community: become a member of SCBWI; sign up for 12 X 12 with Julie Hedlund; join groups on Facebook. Participate in Twitter pitches. Enter contests. Attend conferences and Agent/Editor Days. Register for webinars. Make sure you’re in a critique group, so that you receive feedback (and motivation) to continue to improve your writing.
Yes, the ultimate goal is to connect with an agent, the right agent. However, you don’t have to limit yourself to querying agents. You can submit directly to certain editors and to publishing houses that accept unsolicited manuscripts and to small presses ... which is what I did. After all, LET’S DANCE! was discovered in a Twitter pitch by an editor. I had no agent at the time.
I wish the best for all of the authors – published and pre-published. Tell your stories; children need to hear them, connect with them, and love them!
That is wonderful advice, Valerie! You have been amazing and I'm so that that we were able to connect and share your story from the Query Trenches. Before we let you go, where can we connect with you online?
Thank you, Valerie! This has been a blast and I wish you all the best on your submission journey! I can't wait to see all the stories that you bring into the world!
About Valerie Bolling
Valerie Bolling has been an educator for over 25 years and a writer since age 4. She is a graduate of Tufts University and Columbia University, Teachers College and currently works as an Instructional Coach.
Her nieces inspired her to write picture books. Her desire is for children of all backgrounds to see themselves in her stories and feel valued and heard. Let’s Dance! is her debut book.
Ms. Bolling and her husband live in Connecticut and enjoy traveling, hiking, reading, theater, and dancing.
About Kailei Pew
Kailei Pew is a wife, mother, and picture book author represented by the amazing Emily Forney of Bookends Literary.
She is an active member of SCBWI, a 2019 Write Mentor Mentee, and a finalist in Susanna Leonard Hill's 2019 Holiday Writing Contest. She loves writing picture books that help kids see they can do anything they set their minds to.
Kailei can't wait to get her stories into your hands.