Waiting for Brilliance by Maria Oka
At my first SCBWI conference, Frances Gilbert (Editor at Doubleday) said, in effect “If I were going to write a picture book, I would write and write until I believed I had an award winning picture book. Only then would I seek publication.”
Sitting in the back of the auditorium, clutching my recently finished (and very first) picture book manuscript, I listened quietly. I had worked hard on my cute story, writing and re-writing. My husband and sister had critiqued it. And I had even joined SCBWI. I decided to ignore her advice. I wasn’t trying to win any awards. I just wanted to get my little book published, and I was sure I could do it. What I didn’t realize at the time, was that in order to publish at all, cute wouldn’t cut it. I needed brilliant.
But I kept working on that little story, getting critiques, and submitting it on my brave days. It wasn’t until my very supportive, and very honest husband said, “Do you think that maybe you’re submitting a bit too early? What if you take the time to, you know, take classes, learn more about writing, and refine your craft?” I was crushed. I thought he didn’t believe in me. But in reality, he believed in a better me. And in time, I learned to believe in a better me too. Which is why, for the most part, I’m not submitting a whole lot right now. I will. But right now I’ve decided to WAIT. And if you feel like you’re not quite ready yet and you want to play the waiting game with me, I have some tips on how to WAIT:
1) Write –
First up: WRITE. Write as many stories, thoughts, ideas, poems and vignettes as your schedule, creativity, and confidence allow. Write funny things, write sad things, write things you care about, write things you don’t care about (so you can feel the difference…or maybe discover new things to care about). Write often. Sometimes you’ll need to be inspired to start writing, and sometimes you’ll need to start writing to be inspired. But one thing is certain. If you want to be a writer, you need to WRITE!
2) Absorb –
Second, ABSORB. Absorb every bit of beauty, every bit of wonder, every bit of laughter from the books that grab you. Pay attention to how you feel when you read a really great book, and then figure out how the author made you feel that way. Absorb ideas from your surroundings, your family, your pets, friends, neighbors, kids at the grocery store, school etc. And one day all of that absorbing will mash up into some pretty brilliant story seeds. ABSORB.
(Meet my daily inspiration) ----------------------------------------------------------->
3) Invest -
Third, INVEST. Invest time. Invest creativity. Invest little pieces of your soul into what you’re writing. Invest effort and energy into other blossoming writers (and they will invest in you). And sometimes, invest money. Classes and conferences can be an invaluable part of growing yourself as a writer. So INVEST.
<------------------------------- (Note: you might need more than $2)
4) Trust -
Finally, you have to TRUST. Trust that as you write, absorb, and invest, words will flow, stories will form, and you’ll be headed for brilliance. That same supportive, and very honest husband of mine recently told me that every manuscript I write is better than the last. I can feel it too. I love my current stories more than my first ones, and I’m sure that I will love my yet-to-be-written stories even more. When you have done your part, and your (thorough) research, start submitting. And then trust some more. Trust that (eventually) your stories will find their way into the hands of agents and editors who love them, so that they can find their way into the hands of children who will love them even more. TRUST.
(Your hard work will pay off! Like this girl's.) -------------------------------------->
And from what I hear from those on the other side, this process doesn’t end with your first book deal. The Writing, Absorbing, Investing, and Trusting can continue in an upward spiral, bringing with it new heights and greater depth.
I want to write the kind of books that beg to be pulled off a child’s bookshelf and held in her heart. The kind that not only become part of childhood, but that define it. The brilliant kind. I’m not there yet, but I hope to be one day. And when I get there, I think it will have been worth the wait.
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.
In blogateer Lori Mortensen’s November 12th blog, Say “Ahhh...” she wrote about that satisfying “Ahhhhh!” at the end of good picture books.
With Lori’s permission, I’d like to pair her thoughts on “ahhhhh” with mine on “awe.” Indeed, they’re “kissing cousins.” When you feel awe, you might even express “ahhhh.” Both have an important place in picture books, but awe has a more spiritual component. It’s rare to discover awe.
We usually have strong memories of those times we’ve felt true awe. It might have been when we looked on our newborn child or across the Grand Canyon at sunrise. One of my awe moments was in the Sierra Nevada mountains, above 10,000 feet. Alone in my tent at night, I opened the flap to look up at a surprising and stunning display. It made me laugh outloud. Stars tumbling over stars, more than I had ever seen before, dancing across the night sky.
Nature is what most often produces awe. So can mere humans ever hope to produce it in a picture book? Perhaps not the awe of a starry night or a Grand Canyon, but “little awes” are within our grasp. In all good books there’s an emotional arc and a plot arc. When those two grow together and resolve together, you have a very good chance of getting either an “ahh” or an awe moment.
Recently, in response to a manuscript I’m working on, my Cliffhangers writing group had a discussion about awe. We agreed that if I (and an awesome illustrator) can pull it off, the story I’m writing will inspire awe. The “ahh,” which I hope will be felt along the way, will transform into a shining, magical, organ-music-type awe at the end.
Both fiction and non-fiction provide opportunities for creating awe. Biographies do too. In Jennifer Berne’s amazing biography of Einstein On a Beam of Light, the first page reads, “Over 100 years ago as the stars swirled in the sky, as the Earth circled the sun, as the March winds blew through a little town by a river, a baby boy was born. His parents named him Albert.” This beginning was so beautiful, it stopped me for a moment. I guess you could say I was awestruck. The allusions to Einstein’s scientific discoveries live in the stars and the circling Earth.
I discovered You are Stardust at one of my favorite blogs. Though I’ve yet to read this book, I perused the description and gazed on a few of the book’s wondrous dioramas. The creators seem to have set out to inspire awe, a cosmic awe, that “instills that profound sense of connection with the natural world.” Here’s part of the beautiful text: “Your breath is alive with the promise of flowers. Each time you blow a kiss to the world, you spread pollen that might grow to be a new plant.”
What other “little awes” were out there? The Pomelo stories by Romanian born Ramona Badescu and illustrated by Benjamin Chaud have a sense of wonder about them and some readers might feel a spark of awe from time to time.
If I had to choose one of my own books that expressed a “little awe” it would be Heart of a Tiger, illustrated by Jamichael Henterly, specifically the last phrase. The phrase ends a story of desire, fear, and adventure, when Little Four becomes Bangali Shedr Ka Dil: “And all the animals agreed they were fair and honest names.
When you feel awe, you’re realizing the highest expression of something: nature, knowledge, friendship, discovery, or yourself. “Ahhhhh” connects us to our community of friends and family. Awe causes us to look outside of ourselves and our community for a moment. But when we step back in, we feel a deeper connection and we are changed.
I encourage you to start making a list of your awe moments in life. Not only will it make you feel connected and happy, it may lead you into writing an awe-filled story of your own.
I’d love for you to share picture books that give you a feeling of awe as well as moments of awe in your own life.
Marsha grew up on a Kansas farm and for decades created imaginative worlds and wacky characters in northern California. She’s now creating those worlds in southwest Florida, amidst building a new home and helping care for her energetic granddaughter. An award-winning picture book author, she has eleven traditional books, two digital apps, and an e-book to her credit. Represented by Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary, they recently sold six picture book and board book manuscripts to Neal Porter Books, Kate O'Sullivan of Houghton Mifflin, Random House UK, and Yolanda Scott of Charlesbridge.
Her Writing Wonderful Character-Driven Picture Books course has helped many published and aspiring writers to write stronger characters. You may read about her books, school visits, and life at www.marshadianearnold.com
It's also important to study other illustrators to see their styles, techniques, layouts, compositions, ideas, etc. Make a weekly trip to your local library AND book stores, as many libraries may not carry the most current releases. You can learn so much from what's already been done to be able to do something that hasn't been done yet.
You'll also see just HOW many different illustration styles and talent levels there are. As an Art teacher, I let all my students know - from preschool through college - anyone can learn how to draw. You just have to know how to look at things like an artist does - in shapes and lines. And remember that art is subjective - what one person likes another may not. So there is plenty of room in the art world - and illustration world - for lots of different styles. You just have to find the one that suits you best.
That's all for now - I'm looking forward to sharing more ideas and topics with you in future posts to come. Until next time, go out there and get started being a children's book illustrator. You won't regret it.
Angela Padron is a published illustrator of two books, including "The Hero in You" by Ellis Paul, as well as a Star Wars geek and chocolate chip cookie connoisseur. She also writes and illustrates her own picture books, board books, and chapter books. When she's not teaching, Angela works as a freelance writer and editor for educational publishers and spends weekends enjoying walks along the beach with her family. View her online portfolio at www.angelapadron.com. You can also "like" her facebook page, follow her on Twitter @angela_padron, and follow her own blog called "Show and Tell" with weekly posts about teaching, writing and illustrating books for children.
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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