Corinna Luyken submitted manuscripts and book dummies to publishers for 16 years! But it wasn’t until she was inspired by a series of mistakes that she created what would become her #firstpicturebook. Today she talks to us about perfection, progress, and the process of making THE BOOK OF MISTAKES—“a striking debut picture book" (Kirkus Reviews
, starred review) that “lifts to the level of the sublime the idea of putting one’s slip-ups in perspective” (The Wall Street Journal
).Q. Was THE BOOK OF MISTAKES the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. I wrote quite a few manuscripts before The Book of Mistakes! I also made 4 or 5 fully illustrated book dummies. But the first manuscript I ever submitted to publishers (back in 2001) was called Sore Feet. It was the story of a small shoe shop and it’s owner, Cornelius O’Leary. I received a few personal rejection letters for that story, which kept me going for years!Q. What inspired THE BOOK OF MISTAKES?
A. It started with a series of mistakes. For years I drew with pens because I liked the fluid feel of ink on paper. I liked how, with pen, a line can take on a life of it’s own. But often that life would lead to shapes and marks I hadn’t intended and could not erase. Because I loved to draw - and loved to draw with ink - I learned to deal with those accidents. If I messed up something in a face, I’d add glasses. If I didn’t like the way I’d drawn a hand, I might add gloves. And somewhere along the way I learned to enjoy how each mistake forced me to find a new way of looking at the world. And I began to wonder if celebrating mistakes was something that could be taught.
In my years working as both a teaching assistant and artist in residence in elementary schools, I started to notice a pattern. In every class there would be one or two kids who, within minutes of starting to draw, were raising their hand asking for another piece of paper. They didn’t like what they were seeing. They wanted to start over. They wanted to make it perfect. It became my job to help them see the possibility in that mistake, to see how they could keep going and transform their drawing or painting into something that they still might love.
This all came home for me when my daughter was four years old. At that age she loved everything she drew. She didn’t see mistakes, only pattern and line and color and texture. And she LOVED to draw. Then one day, while drawing, she burst into tears and threw her paper on the ground. She had made a mistake. She couldn’t fix it.
And it broke my heart.
Not yet, I remember thinking. Not her. Not already. Not now.
So I wrote this book. For her. For them. For me. For anyone who has ever made a mistake.Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. The title came before anything else. Originally, I was thinking of something along the lines of The BIG Book of Miskakes, which was a phrase that I wrote down in my notebook a few years before the rest of the story came along.Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. The thing that made me laugh out loud, when I was writing the story, was the frog-cat-cow. Which I still love. And of course the tree! I drew the tree seven or eight times to get it just right (in part because it crosses the gutter twice) and I never got tired of redrawing it. Both of those were in the first draft. But I also love the spread where you see the silhouette of the forest, and just the topmost hint of the girl’s glasses. That page turn makes kids gasp when I read it in classrooms. One or two kids will see it first, and let out an audible “oh!” and then suddenly all the kids are looking to see what they saw, and then there will be a chorus of oohs and ahs and kids saying “It’s her! I see the girl!” It’s so fun! Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person?
A. The first half of the book came to me, all at once. And that was just the way it arrived! The second half was another matter, and took an entire year to sort out.Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing THE BOOK OF MISTAKES?
A. I had a pretty good sense of the first half of the book. Which, at the time, I thought would be the entire book. I knew I wanted to include real mistakes that I make when I draw… so that first part was pretty easy. Originally, the story ended with the giant tree. And a line about how she wasn’t a mistake but was meant to be. But when I sent it along to (my now agent) Steven Malk, he felt like the ending could be stronger. It took me almost a year to find another way to end the story. It wasn’t easy, and I experimented a lot. And so I started to experiment with big splashes of ink. After that, it all came together pretty quickly, and the book doubled in size!Q. Did you write the story first, then illustrate it? Or did the images appear before the words?
A. With this story, the words and pictures came simultaneously.Q. Did THE BOOK OF MISTAKES receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A It didn’t. I have received many rejection letters—I’d been sending out manuscripts and book dummies for almost 16 years. But when I wrote The Book of Mistakes I knew it was better than anything else I’d written. So I sent it to Steve Malk, an agent at Writers House, with fingers crossed. And fortunately, he loved it (except for the ending). But it was still an entire year of revising the story before I came up with the ending as it is now. At that point he signed me on as a client and we sent the book out. It ended up going to auction, with five publishers interested in it. That part all happened very quickly, between Thanksgiving and Christmas. So it was seventeen years of very slow progress and then a few weeks where everything came together very quickly!Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on THE BOOK OF MISTAKES.
A. I was over the moon! My husband and I both were. We jumped up and down a LOT. It was a pretty incredible time.
But then, pretty quickly, I realized there was still a lot of work to do! Which is a good thing, because in the end it is our relationship with the creative process (not the excitement of finding an agent and having a manuscript published) that will feed the next project, and the next…Q. How long did THE BOOK OF MISTAKES take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. It was very close to finished when we submitted it, but I did have to ink up some of the final scenes and redraw the tree, and then assemble some of the bits and pieces in photoshop. All of that back and forth with the publisher took another year. Q. Was there a part that you really loved but had to edit out? Or did you think of something later that you wanted to add?
A. Yes! There was a part in the original story that had to go. A boy, with extra wide fingers.
I still love him. But early on, Steve said something about how I was starting to repeat myself with that character and line. And as soon as he said that, I realized he was right, it had to go.Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. It takes patience and persistence, nothing in this industry moves quickly. (They call it the hurry up and wait industry for a reason.) But if you really love what you’re doing, if you’re passionate about making books for kids, you will persist. And your art will get better because of that. I have a favorite quote from Ira Glass that are worth repeating here:“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, and I really wish somebody had told this to me.
All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years that you're making stuff, what you're making isn't so good. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.
And the thing that I would say to you, with all of my heart, is this—most everybody I know who does interesting, creative work went through a phase—they went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or if you are still in this phase, you've got to know it's normal. And the most important thing you can do—is do a lot of work. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will catch up and close that gap. And the work you're making will be as good as your ambitions.
I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It takes a while. It’s gonna take you awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. And you've just got to fight your way through that— okay?” —Ira Glass Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise or marketing tip that you can share?
A. As far as writing or illustrating exercises, I would just recommend this Chuck Close quote! Which I have found to be absolutely true and incredibly helpful. So much so, that I’ve quoted in a few other interviews, but I think it bears repeating over and over (and over) again:“The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who'll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you're sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that's almost never the case.” Q. What are you working on now?
A. I just finished illustrating a book called Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have A Horse, written by debut author Marcy Campbell, which is coming out August 14, 2018 from Dial Books. It is essentially a story about compassion and kindness. And seeing the world a bit differently. (The publishers description is: “Adrian Simcox tells anyone who will listen that he has a horse--the best and most beautiful horse anywhere. But Chloe does NOT believe him. Adrian Simcox lives in a tiny house. Where would he keep a horse? He has holes in his shoes. How would he pay for a horse? The more Adrian talks about his horse, the angrier Chloe gets. But when she calls him out at school and even complains about him to her mom, Chloe doesn't get the vindication she craves. She gets something far more important.”)
So now I am working on two new projects—one is my next book as author/illustrator. It is called my heart, my heart and is a meditation on/celebration of the heart. The art for that one is all monoprint printmaking and pencil, so it will look quite different from The Book of Mistakes!
I am also illustrating a middle grade novel by Carolyn Crimi, called Weird Little Robots, which will be released from Candlewick in the spring of 2019.Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
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