Trial and ERROR by Maria Oka
Recently my days have been consumed by watching my third-born stumble her way through the world. Literally. She just started walking last month. She rotates between a slow Frankenstein march and the rushing, tumbling, falling, goose-egg-producing kind of travel.
My writing is like that.
Sometimes I plod carefully; picking my way through books, classes and blog posts in a slow, steady march. I am almost afraid to put more than a few words onto the page at a time, because I want them to be perfect. Each. Step. Perfect. This kind of writing moves me. Slowly.
Other times I rush ahead, scribbling without abandon, characters and plot lines jumping off the page. I feel so fantastic that I send a first draft off to my critique group. And then comes the goose-egg. The fatal flaw. The ‘something’ in my story that doesn’t quite work. And I have a choice. I could throw the draft away. Or I could cry for a minute, pick myself up, and try again. The “goose-egg” becomes a catalyst to move my story, and myself, forward.
I’ve learned that both styles of writing serve their purpose. The goose-egg kind of writing is great for first drafts. I need to get the words out of my soul without over-analyzing each one. Then, once they are out, I can slowly and carefully revise: digging deeper into my characters and figuring out how to balance plot lines with page turns and problems with solutions. It has been hard for me to realize that I need both types of writing in my life when what I really want is to confidently stroll my way through my stories. But with each painstaking trial, and especially with each painful error, I learn. Maybe one day I’ll master that stroll, but even if I don’t, I’m going to keep writing anyway.
This post was written by Maria Oka, a mother of three very busy girls whose reading and writing spans from books for the very young to older picture books. Besides being interested in rollicking laugh-aloud books with her girls, Maria is also interested in children's books with a spiritual element. She reads, writes, and tries to juggle dinnertime, school schedules, and doing the dishes one-handed in Southern California, where she lives with her husband and munchkins.
Some writers can write through anything – surgeries, illness, death. It’s their way of coping and expressing their feelings. I’ve never been one of those writers. Even if I’m just having a bad hair day, my writing usually comes to a halt.
But I do have a blog to write. So, I’m making an exception. Besides, I suspect that if I ever need to write a miserable book, perhaps one similar to Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, that my recent experience of three days in ICR and 6 in hospital could play a role.
When one of the fourteen doctors who saw me asked, “How did you ever get scarlet fever? It’s a children’s disease,” I didn’t miss a beat. “It makes perfect sense,” I responded, “I write books for children.”
Later, I recalled that scarlet fever provided plot twists, helped with character development, and allowed epiphanies, caring, tragedies, and triumphs to be expressed in some classic children’s literature.
The reader can often guess when a story was written or set by the illnesses found in the text. Scarlet fever is most often thought of as a disease of the 1800’s or the early 20th century. Indeed, in the mid-1800’s it was one of the most fatal infectious diseases among children. Strange that something so deadly has such romantic sounding names: scarlet fever or scarlatina.
All-of-a-Kind Family was published in 1951, but took readers back to the 1910s, before World War I. The story of five young sisters covers trials from missing library books to scarlet fever. In those days there weren’t antibiotics, like the ones they pumped into me, and the children were placed in quarantine for weeks.
One of the most beloved children’s books of all time, The Velveteen Rabbit, also features a main character with scarlet fever. After the boy recovers, the doctor orders, “Why, it's a mass of scarlet fever germs! Burn it at once.” Poor Velveteen Rabbit. Fortunately, the toy rabbit was left in a sack in the garden and not burned straight away. He's found by a fairy who turns him into a real rabbit, because he truly is “real.”
Then there was sweet Beth March from Little Women who contracted scarlet fever during her caring for the Hummels, a poor German immigrant family. Although Beth recovers from the illness, she grows weaker and weaker and eventually dies. Sadly, scarlet fever can lead to many complications, including rheumatic fever, infection, and liver and kidney damage. The novel expresses Beth’s character of goodness and provides a tragedy for the story. Her death also changes Jo, who resolves to care more for others.
In the fifth book of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, By The Shores of Silver Lake, set in 1879, the whole family comes down with scarlet fever. And even American Girl’s independent and spunky Kit Kittredge could not escape the disease. In Kit Uses Her Head, both Kit and her best friends Ruthie and Stirling had scarlet fever.
One of my friends shared that her father had scarlet fever as a child and was kept in isolation for six weeks. The solitude for him was both a traumatizing time as well as enriching. It would certainly allow for introspection.
Some of the scarlet fever stories have sad endings, others happier. My own story has me recovering with the help of some healing springs water. On our way back to Florida from North Carolina, I coerced my husband into taking a detour to Blackville, South Carolina, where God’s Acre Healing Springs is found. The area reminded me of what the spring in Tuck Everlasting may have looked like.
And so again, my life is intertwined with children’s literature, as in truth, all our lives are. Write well, write wisely, dear writers.
Finding Your Illustrator Voice
For a children’s book illustrator, having a strong portfolio is essential. Most art directors, agents, and editors will tell you that they like to see illustrators develop one signature style. This way, when they have a story to be illustrated, they think about what illustration style would best suit the text. Then they can narrow down their choices to just the illustrators who create art in that style.
For example, Eric Carle and Leo Lionni are well-known for their painted paper collages. Chris Van Allsburg and David Wiesner are known for their realistic, almost surrealist illustrations. David Diaz has more of a bold, fine art style with black lines. Lois Ehlert uses flat shapes and bold colors for her simple illustrations. And Raul Colón uses his signature scratch lines in his soft colored pencil work. Can you identify each of the artist's work below? Take the little quiz here!
However, developing a signature style doesn’t happen overnight for everyone. It can take time to discover what medium you like to work in, how you want to draw your characters, and what color scheme or “look” to your illustrations best suits you.
Instead of using the term signature style, though, I prefer “signature voice.” The reason is because an illustrator can use different mediums and drawing techniques but still carry some similar quality or aspect across any medium or style. A children’s book illustrator could have one drawing style for educational work, one for mass market books, and one for trade publishing. But the illustrator should use some similarities across the styles – whether it’s the way the artist draws the characters’ eyes, or the textures used, or similar sketchy lines, etc. – in order to have that voice that people will also be able to recognize.
So how can you find your voice? Well, I’m still developing my own. But maybe Adam Levine can help me.
Oh, wait. That’s a different Voice.
Here’s some advice regarding finding your voice that I’ve heard and read about, Even though these talk more about illustrating, writers can also apply this mentality to finding their voice with their writing:
- Sketch a lot! Designate a certain amount of time each day to draw
- Work on consistency when drawing characters in a sequence
- Learn and practice the basics – study anatomy of people and animals, study and learn about perspective, color theory and lighting/value
- Study other people’s illustrations and see what styles and mediums you’re drawn to (no pun intended J). Practice making art like some of your favorite illustrators – try the mediums and methods they use. Then see if you can find your own way of working in a similar way that can become eventually develop into your own style.
- Find something that you can add or use in your illustrations that you can carry over to other illustrations, even if you use a different medium.
- Be patient – keep experimenting and persevering, and someday something will click.
If you’re really bold, try a different medium or technique that not many people are using in illustrations. This could help you stand out among other artists. And someday soon you could get that call or email that says “I think you’d be the perfect fit to illustrate our book.”
Meet the Friday Blogonauts
First Fridays will feature Bryan Patrick Avery, published writer , man of mystery, and professional magician among other things.
Second Fridays will feature awesome multi-award winning author Marsha Diane Arnold who will be writing about character-driven and/or nature-based books and/or anything she likes :)
Third Fridays will feature independent Aladdin/Simon & Shuster editor Emma Sector who has helped bring many books into the world.
Fourth Fridays will feature the great Christine Taylor-Butler who has published over 70 award-winning fiction and non-fiction and nonfiction books including the acclaimed new middle grade series - The Lost Tribes.
Fifth Fridays will feature the fabulous Carl Angel award-winning multi-published Illustrator and graphic designer.
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