Monday 10 October 2016

Q&A with Inbali Iserles: How to write a series about magical foxes

By Candy Gourlay


Last year my beautiful friend Inbali Iserles managed not only to work as a lawyer, but to have a baby, mind her dog, move house, keep a partner … and write her fantastic Foxcraft trilogy. Not just write. She also did the dreamy black and white illustrations that pepper the books (all illustrations below are by Inbali from the Foxcraft books). Inbali was born in Israel but grew up with coyotes, road runners, snakes and gila monsters in Arizona, which may account for why she’s written reams of books starring animal characters. Welcome to the Slushpile, Inbali. Have you anything to say to prevent our readers from slamming their laptops shut in a fit of jealous pique?

Lovely to join you here, Candy! Thank you for your kind words. I fear the reality is a little less impressive. For instance, I’ve actually written a book a year, rather than all three at once; the house is so messy that my dog’s furballs have their own furballs; there are still unpacked boxes in my study and no pictures on the walls (though I finally got round to getting bookcases put in – priorities, people!); and I’m a *smidge* late on my Foxcraft 3 edits.

I loved Arizona. Back in England, you were lucky to glimpse an occasional squirrel. In Tucson, my animal-lover heart could hardly believe the beautiful wild creatures on our doorstep.

Inbali is currently doing a blog tour to promote Foxcraft 2: The Elders. Congratulations, Inbali, the books look fantastic. I thought Slushpile denizens would be particularly fascinated with the process and craft of creating a trilogy. When this story first popped into your consciousness, did you see it as a single story or did you always see it in three parts?

At the time, I was living in central London and spotted foxes everywhere. I became intrigued by these creatures, at once common yet so mysterious. The fault-line between the familiar and the wild has always fascinated me.

As I developed the quest narrative that underpins the story – a young fox’s search for her family amid a backdrop of looming disaster for fox-kind – its epic nature soon became clear. Isla’s journey would begin on the dangerous streets of the Greylands (the city). It would take her beyond the grasp of the furless (humans) to the Wildlands (the sprawling woods and countryside) and ultimately to the Snowlands (the frozen realm of the snow wolves). These distinct locations lent themselves to a trilogy format, and so the series fell into place.

Can you take us through the process from conceptualization to pitching it to your agent to winning over a publisher. Slushpile readers will want to know what you think tipped the odds in your favour. How did your original idea have to evolve to become ‘market ready’?

For me, it always begins with a concept – with the germ of an idea, rather than (for instance) a character. In this case, that was the impulse to write from a fox’s viewpoint. Foxes have been cruelly represented in folklore and myth for hundreds, indeed thousands, of years. They are traditionally the villains of children’s books (anyone remember the Gingerbread Man?). And yet they are so magical – their true qualities as gentle, inquisitive members of the dog family make them arresting characters.

I had a sense of the epic quite early on – in the Darklands outside the Graylands, lands fall to ruin. A sinister force rises… Set against this, I was keen to write about the small fox trapped in a larger narrative. That fox began to emerge as I visited cubs at rescue centres and read about vulpine behaviour. Her name was Isla.

Locking down the plot wasn’t easy. I had a two hour meeting with my fantastic agent, Zoe King at the Blair Partnership, where we talked through the idea. I still wasn’t ready to pin it down. It wasn’t until I was on holiday in Greece a month or so later that my mind was clear enough to think things through. It was there that I developed the character of the Mage and the sinister roots of his plan. And so Foxcraft was born.

I wrote up the concept for the trilogy in a page and a half and sent it to Zoe. I’d already been warned that I’d probably need to write the first book before we could go to market. But much to my delight, Zoe was keen to approach publishers without delay. At her suggestion, I wrote the first three chapters of book one, which Zoe sent out with the concept and my foxy doodles. Due to the huge popularity of animal fantasy in the States, she contacted US as well as UK publishers.

We had some UK interest – a few requests to see more, a discussion about contracting a book at a time – but I had already plotted the story as a trilogy and was keen to proceed on that basis. Then Zoe contacted me with some amazing news: a US publisher had sent through an offer. Then, incredibly, there was another offer… and another… And… Suddenly, we were in an auction scenario.

The winner was Scholastic, who are publishing Foxcraft across their English language channels in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and of course the US.

What tipped the odds? It’s hard to say – but I would strongly urge any submission package to include:

• A short, punchy concept that is easy to visualise and sum up in a nutshell
• An original angle: reversing the traditional “bad guy” was a key feature of my story – giving a voice to an animal that rarely has one in children’s books
• No list clashes: it’s hard to over-emphasise this – no matter how strong your idea or how incredible your writing, if your book is about flying squirrels and the publisher already has a flying squirrel title, you won’t get an offer
• A dramatic opening chapter: this isn’t invariably necessary for all genres but it probably is for children’s fantasy/adventure
• A receptive audience*
* A good agent is incredibly valuable. She should be familiar not only with the appropriate publishing divisions but with the ideal people to contact. My principal Foxcraft editor at Scholastic is as big a fan of foxes as I am. He REALLY gets it. Okay, there’s a huge element of luck too, but it isn’t impossible to e.g. identify publishers and editors with a passion for animal fantasy. If you don’t have an agent, this is where research can really pay off.

But a TRILOGY! We often talk about three act structure here on the Slushpile. Are each book of the Foxcraft trilogy equivalent to an act? Have you planned it from start to finish? Is the first book the inciting event, the middle book, the crisis, and the third book, the climax?

How interesting! I have to admit that I’ve never had any creative writing training, so I don’t tend to think about these things, but I suspect I’ve internalised them from reading, TV and film. You’re right about the inciting event – it’s the disappearance of Isla’s family, which sets her quest in motion, and it happens at the end of chapter one.

There are added challenges with series writing. Each book must work in its own right – it must have its own momentum, its own challenges, its own climax. And yet it should also feed into the wider drama, snowballing towards the ultimate finale.
There are added challenges with series writing. Each book must work in its own right - its own momentum, its own challenges, its own climax.

If I ever attempt to write a trilogy, I would be afraid of losing track of some thread that will come back to bite me in the third book. Film directors have staff to keep track of continuity. How do you do it?

You’re right, this is a huge issue. I have something I’ve called the “Master Fox Doc,” which I share with my publishers. It has a full index of foxcraft magic, character lists with descriptions, foxy and wolfish terms and mini book summaries. That’s where I keep notes about cross-references and a table where future incidents should appear. This helps a great deal but I still need to think carefully about plot strands and how they develop.

What regularly addles my brain are reveals. In a story where suspense and twists are a feature, knowing what to hint at, and when, takes planning – and that’s even truer in a series. Although the genres are totally different, I aspire to the plotting genius of Agatha Christie’s whodunits: in hindsight, the truth should be almost obvious – the reader should have been capable of unravelling it – and yet they mustn’t have done so. If, looking back, the reader knows that they couldn’t have possibly guessed the outcome, that’s no good. I’d feel cheated under such circumstances. So the hints must be there for those with a fox’s careful gaze.

You are also the author of the well received The Tygrine Cat (it won the Calderdale Prize) and its sequel, The Tygrine Cat: On the Run. You are also one of the writers behind Erin Hunter, who authors the New York Times bestselling Survivors animal fantasy series. You’ve been sharpening tooth and claw in the art of penning animal fantasies for some time now. Can you share three epic writing tips to sustain our readers on their writing journeys?

TIP ONE Write about what excites you. A book is a long road, and publication can be longer still – if you don’t love the story, it’s going to be tough!

TIP TWO Expel your inner editor. Nothing can be more damaging to a fledgling story than aggressive criticism, be it yours or anyone else’s. When I find myself berating what I’ve written in the early stages, I picture myself grabbing my inner editor by the scruff and walking her out of the room. There she stays until I invite her back in. When the manuscript is ready, she’ll have an important job to do – timing is everything

TIP THREE Don’t second guess the market, but do make sure you’re treading on original ground… Let’s get real – there’s nothing new under the sun. But there are infinite interpretations, takes and dimensions to explore. A publisher won’t want to take a book that replicates another on their list, for fear of cannibalism.

I know you’re on a blog tour so despite the fact that I’ve suddenly a hundred more questions I’d love to ask you, I will let you go now. Thank you for joining us on the slushpile. Everyone, go out and buy the book.

It’s been a pleasure, Candy! Happy writing, people. And, as the Elders say, run fast, be safe, live free!

You can view the rest of the Foxcraft blog tour here:

Luna's Little Library

Fiction Fascination

A Daydreamer's Thoughts

Bart's Bookshelf

Bookish Outsider

Big Book Little Book

Library Girl and Book Boy

Inspiring Imarah

YA Yeah Yeah

Tales of Yesterday



  1. I absolutely LOVE these books - Isla is a gorgeous character in every way. Wonderful!

    1. I don't know how anyone can write series fiction with a baby. And a dog.

    2. Thanks so much, Kathryn! That is lovely to hear.

      Candy, the dog helps! He's my furry mascot. The baby less so, but chaos and distraction are inspiring in their own ways ;)

  2. please make more than 3 foxcraft books I love the series i may be a boy,but i love the series! (BTW) My gmail is,but it wont let my say that for who posted it


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