It’s taken me a little while to digest everything that I have learned at the SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Fall Conference. This was my third regional conference and every year I learn so many new things about the children’s book industry, and every year it seems to be just what I need to know. This year was no different. Here are a few highlights of the day’s speakers:
The event kicked off with introductions of the speakers and volunteers by our Mid-Atlantic Coordinator, Ellen Braaf. Up first was a panel of literary agents featuring Natalie Lakosil (Bradford Literary Agency), Cari Lamba (Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency), Sara Landis (Sterling Lord Literistic), and Shadra Strickland (Painted Word). This was a Q&A style panel with questions submitted by members before the conference. Sarah Landis had this important advice, “Know your character. I will put a book down if you don’t know your character.” Shadra Strickland suggested writing your story from a different angle if one way isn’t quite working and she stressed, as well, the importance of getting to know your character and knowing your character’s motivation. Why are you telling this story? What do you want us to know? Another important statement was “every scene should be vital”. Natalie Lakosil has a blog called Adventures in Agent Land that could be a valuable resource.
After the panel, we broke out into morning sessions. I attended the Illustrators Session with Shadra Strickland, and moderated by Joan Waites. This was an incredibly helpful and relaxed environment where illustrators could ask very specific questions. Both Joan and Shadra shared some important tips. Shadra suggested staying up to date when drawing characters, especially children. What are they wearing and what are they doing? Would kids today do that or wear that? One important and specific thing that I learned as an artist/illustrator was what to send when presenting a book for consideration. It’s best to submit the manuscript and 2 – 3 pages (spreads) of finished art and to have the whole book in line form or sketch form as a dummy ready to show if asked. Another promo piece suggestion is a character sheet showing one character with many different expressions. Shadra also suggested making sure that you are illustrating for the correct age group. For example, younger kids are drawn to large simple pictures. Don’t be afraid to creatively tag your illustrations on social media to get the attention of art directors. And yes, postcards are still a great way to get the attention of publishers!
After a nice, filling lunch with lots of socializing and meeting fellow members, our key note speaker, Pat Cummings, gave an inspiring talk. Ms. Cummings is the author and/or illustrator of over 35 books and is a wealth of information. Her funny stories and anecdotes were perfect for us. Her speech was titled “9 Epiphanies: Lessons, Insights and Bumps in the Road…a Crib Sheet to Smooth Your Career Path”. One point that she made, that I loved, was “every story is fair game”. “You can find stories everywhere in everyday life. “The only limit is your imagination,” she told us.
The afternoon brought another break-out session. I attended the Picture Book Panel featuring Vashti Harrison, Jacqueline Jules, Ann Marie Stephens, and moderated by Lezlie Evans. The room was full and everyone listened intently to these three illustrators who shared amazing advice and tips. Ann Marie Stephens talked about pacing. “Kids are a great indicator of how a story is paced,” she advised. “Read out loud to yourself and to a kid. If a child is bored, then look at the pacing.”
A few other pieces of advice that I noted were:
- It’s a good idea to make emotional scenes closeup scenes to show facial expression
- Start with action
- Give the illustrator space to do their job and to add to the story, there’s no need to be overly descriptive in a picture book
- Make a picture book dummy
- Do your research before sending out a query
- When writing a query, be authentic and witty if that’s what you are, and follow direction if given
The day wrapped up with an editor’s panel featuring Kwame Alexander (Versify), Elise Howard (Algonquin), Rachael Stein (Sterling), Mekisha Telfer (Roaring Book Press), and was moderated by Mary Quattlebaum. This year was a little different, as a few brave SCBWI members submitted the first and last pages of their works-in-progress for the panel to give their “yes, no, or maybe” with follow-up explanations. The stories were read by actor and author, Holly Vagley, who made them incredibly enjoyable!
Another important part of the conference for me was the manuscript review. This is an additional option that costs a little extra but I find it highly useful. It’s an opportunity to hear specific feedback from an industry professional. This year I submitted a picture book that I’ve written and illustrated and that I’ve been seeking to get published. My reviewer was author and illustrator, Vashti Harrison. We sat down for a 15 minute review, and she gave me some wonderful feedback and suggestions on my book.
Overall, I highly recommend a regional SCBWI Conference (especially our Mid-Atlantic one!) if you’re interested in the children’s book community. It’s a valuable experience and well worth it.
My homework: Some things that I’ll be exploring over the next few months are Story Arc, Character Voice, and Picture Book Pacing. I’ll also be heading to the library to check books by authors and illustrators that I heard mentioned at the conference.