This week we’re celebrating author-illustrator and Sub It Club member Nilah Magruder. Her debut picture book HOW TO FIND A FOX hits shelves today! *cue wild applause*
Nilah is sharing her journey to publication right here on the blog. It’s a long one (as most publishing journeys are.) Today we have part one: The Story, The Dummy, and The Query. Here’s Nilah:
In 2014, I wrote a small story about a girl and a fox. Today—right this very minute—that small story is on bookstore shelves all across the United States. HOW TO FIND A FOX was the first book I made a dummy for and queried, and as luck would have it, it landed me my first agent. It’s about determination, patience, and what surprises can unfold when you least expect them. In very many ways, the story of HOW TO FIND A FOX reflects the journey of writing and submitting it!
Some of you, like me, might be working on your first picture book or your first submission, and every step is new, exciting, and scary. I’d like to share with you my journey in bringing HOW TO FIND A FOX to life.
Before HOW TO FIND A FOX became a book, it was just an idea. An idea I was pulling my hair out over because it just. Wasn’t. Working. I had the mental image of a story about a girl in the forest, exploring nature with her camera, and a playful fox that follows without her ever noticing. But something about it was just… very boring. I got some critique from fellow writers and they suggested changing the perspective to second person; a bold choice, since second person is an uncommon storytelling format. But I went with it, hoping the change would get me out of my own head.
It didn’t. So I shelved the story. I couldn’t make it work.
But it was still in the back of my mind, months later. I’d moved on to other manuscripts, but one day I was reading a blog interview with an agent. He was talking about what he looked for in picture books, and one of the points he made was to have conflict.
It suddenly hit me. That’s what my manuscript had been missing. I’d gotten so caught up in the exploration part of the narrative, of the girl learning about nature, that I’d left out the conflict. So I went back to basics. What was the main thread of the story?
It was all about the girl and the fox. She wants to take a photo, and he wants to play. There was the story.
I took another crack at it, and this time I struck gold. The story was much more entertaining. I was already getting ideas for the imagery. And with the international SCBWI Summer Conference in Los Angeles coming up, I was excited by the prospect of having a picture book dummy for the portfolio showcase.
Once I was satisfied with the text, I moved on to thinking about the art. Using the text as a guide, I drew thumbnails of the main beats of the story. Sometimes I came up with ideas that took the story in a new direction, so I tweaked the text a bit to match. It was an organic process, working on the words and the images simultaneously to find the right balance.
I kept the process of designing the characters and the world organic as well. To tell you the truth, I had no idea what look I wanted to go for! Some artists work in one dominant style. My background is in animation, and over the years I’ve become adept at copying styles. I like to develop a style that’s appropriate for each project. I knew for this book that I wanted something playful, but simple.
Characterization is my favorite part of drawing. The fox has no mouth, and his expression remains relatively flat, but his eyes and ears are big. Meanwhile, the girl has small eyes and a small mouth. For both, their personalities and moods are expressed with their entire bodies.
Showing the dummy in the portfolio showcase at the SCBWI Summer Conference was my goal, and I had not thought too far past that. It was a great chance to see how people reacted to a story they’d never read before and get feedback. I hadn’t expected the excitement of my friends upon reading the dummy. They suggested some clever tweaks to the art, and after that, I realized: this is ready to submit.
Well, that was a scary thought.
I’d jotted down a few agents I was interested in submitting to, but I hadn’t really made a long query list. I had long ago decided that I would pursue finding an agent before approaching editors. I buckled down and started researching. All the while I was thinking, “Am I really ready? Is there anything I’ve missed? Maybe I should wait…”
But I decided to bite the bullet. That August, I began sending out queries.
Responses were slow. I got a few rejections, but mostly radio silence. Strangely, I was glad. Silence meant I didn’t have to do anything. It was kind of like I hadn’t submitted anything at all! I could let the book fade to the back of my mind and worry about more pressing things; work, life, other projects. But each new rejection brought me back to the query. It was still early, I told myself. It takes MONTHS for some agents to reply, and my few meager rejections were a good sign, in a way.
And then in October, I got a reply from an agent that was more than just a couple canned lines. She liked the story! She liked the interactive element! She wondered if I had any more manuscripts I could send! Why, indeed I did, and I sent them along.
By November I was getting stir-crazy. My inbox was void of new agent e-mails. It wasn’t a very long book, only 300 words, what was taking so long?? Granted, I hadn’t submitted very widely… but in truth, my list was fairly short. I hadn’t yet found other agents that appeared to represent author-illustrators that might be interested in my book. So I took to the streets.
By streets, I mean Twitter. #pitmad, a Twitter pitch party was coming up in December. I’d never done it before; I’d never had a book to pitch before! But I had a book now and I thought, why not? I was already on submission, so I might as well. I crafted a pitch, picked a page from the dummy to attach, and on the day of the party, I tweeted my pitches. I tweeted all day, through the eight hour-long event. I signal boosted other authors’ tweets and feverishly checked the faves on mine. They were mostly shows of appreciation from friends and strangers. No agents. The day wore on, and I kept tweeting.
In the last hour of the party, I got yet another fave, yet another show of appreciation. But this time, when I checked the profile, I saw the word I’d been waiting for: Agent. This was a literary agent. And she’d faved my pitch! She wanted me to query her!
And I did, once I stopped hyperventilating.
What a cliffhanger! You want to know more, right?! Be sure to check back in on Thursday (or you can subscribe to the blog in the righthand sidebar). We’ll have part 2 with The Call, The Submission, and The Deal.
In the meantime add HOW TO FIND A FOX to your Goodreads. See some of the inside full color pages at the Macmillan Publisher’s website where you can also order the book. Of course, it’s also available on Amazon and Indiebound.