There was a BEFORE, before there was an AFTER. This is how the story was made. After fleeing abuse in 2013, I returned to my creative passions, so I applied to Hollins University. My daughters and I our first roadtrip to Roanoke, VA in 2014.
In 2016, what is now called THE ROAD TO AFTER began as a picture book in my ENG562 class, taught by Professor Hillary Homzie, but as I read the poems to my professor and classmates, they encouraged me to continue with the piece. It soon became clear that this story needed to be something more. I thought it was a picture book, because I only wrote picture books, but as the content grew, I knew this world needed to be a novel. It was daunting, but I accepted the challenge.
This early art didn’t make it into the book. But it helped me express what I needed to say. It helped me think on paper.
It was dark, gritty, full of fear and emotion, but also full of hope and possibility, in my mind at least. I saw black and white rough-edged art along with green. The color of spring. As I created more drawings, more words came, and as more words came more art followed. Pictures and words work simultaneously for me.
I wrote and wrote and polished what I had. I called it “WE HAVE TO GO, NOW”. That working title would get me through the first several drafts.
Cece Bell, author/illustrator of EL DEAFO, among many other amazing books, was the writer in residence at Hollins University that summer, and she provided keen feedback on my first pages.
She also informed me that I was writing in verse. I was so used to writing that way for picture books that I didn’t realize once you reached middle grade, it was a novel in verse. I was so new, so eager. Cece pointed me in the direction of Jackie Woodson’s work, specifically BROWN GIRL DREAMING. I fell in love with novels in verse.
To have ended up with the same editor as the book that made me fall in love with novels in verse is serendipitous.
At the end of the semester before heading home to Maine, I had the honor of presenting my first pages at the Francelia Butler Conference at Hollins.
The summer semester at Hollins ended. This story was growing inside of me. I went home and read a lot, starting with BROWN GIRL DREAMING, and then I kept going. These are just a few of the many novels in verse I read before diving in to fully draft my own.
Then I wrote a lot. (I also had good company.)
In the month of Feb 2017, I wrote 1000+ words a day and drafted the first draft. My first ever draft of any novel, ever. It was a mess, but it was a draft. It was out of my heart and onto the page. It was over 30k words, and it was also too close to reality to be a work of fiction. I knew I would need to remedy that, but for now, it sat.
The next summer, in 2017, I hired Candice Ransom to edit my novel and she helped me take what was about seven parts and reign it in to become five. She helped me make sense of those 30k words and we trimmed it down so I would have something to submit to an agent. That was major for me because this was the first draft of any novel I had ever written, and it was a hot mess.
Hollins was a lush landscape that helped us flourish and grow.
In 2018, I attended NESCBWI and met Wendi Gu who was with Janklow & Nesbit Associates at the time. I submitted a picture book and she asked me what else I had. The next Monday (I said I was eager) I sent her several other picture books and this novel. She read it on the train, and I signed with Wendi that spring. We took this book on several rounds of revision. I created different drawings for it. It went on submission but didn’t sell in the first round. We revised again. And again. It went on sub again.
In April of 2019, shortly after the second round of submissions, this book, then called WE HAVE TO GO NOW, won the Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award. I was so honored.
I was also working on my MFA thesis with Hollins.
Around that same time, multiple offers from editors came through. I had phone calls and chose Nancy. I could tell from talking with her that this book would be the best it could be, that it would stay close to my vision, while serving young readers best. That spring, I signed my contract with Nancy Paulsen Books.
Celebrating at dinner, the waitress spilled an entire glass of white wine on me. I told Nancy and she said that was a good sign.
Then the PW announcement went live!!!
At NESCBWI19, the weekend after the Publisher’s Weekly announcement, I was able to celebrate in person with my kidlit friends. This was the conference where I met John Schu for the first time. He was so kind to congratulate me on this book. I remember turning around because I thought he was talking to someone else! We realized that we would debut in the same year, too!
Later that May I earned my MFA in Children’s Literature and Illustration from Hollins University.
My local creative community offers something called PechaKucha Talks and I submitted to present the journey of selling this book. These PK Talks are held all over the world. If your area has them, I highly suggest presenting! It’s 20 slides in 20 seconds. So much fun! At the end of the show as folks approached me to chat, one man caught me off guard. I will never forget the moment.
He told me he was one of the jurors at the criminal trial where I had testified against the person who abused me for a decade. He said he was so glad we were okay. There were tears in his eyes. I knew he was saying so much more than the words that found their way to me that night.
In the summer of 2020, edits with Nancy began. We went through about 25 more rounds of revision, not counting the small changes on one page maybe, or copy edits, or the times where an entirely new poem was added. This book was being sculpted and the streetlights were slowly dimming so the stars could shine.
In the winter of 2021, I found myself querying agents again, but not for long. I was overjoyed to sign with Paige Terlip of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. I had several picture books, and a second novel underway that she was able to consider before offering representation. I was also still working on edits for THE ROAD TO AFTER.
In summer of 2021, I began the interior art for THE ROAD TO AFTER as well as the cover, and we were still polishing the final edits. I created the artwork with a technique I learned from Brian Lies: graphite dust on vellum.
I embellished with Blackwing pencils for darker values than the dust could offer. Tools like a chamois cloth, kneaded eraser, and tiny, clickable Tombow erasers came in handy.
Many wonder why a traditionally published book takes this long, but it’s truly that. It takes this long to make.
What’s next? If you need me, I’ll be over here enjoying the launch of THE ROAD TO AFTER, and enjoying talking to young readers. This summer I’ll also be working on several picture books in different stages, gardening, birding, raising monarchs, nature journaling, painting, making patterns. My second novel is on submission, and I hope the future brings good news. For now, though, I hope you reach out with any thoughts about THE ROAD TO AFTER because I would love to hear them.