Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Notes from my first SCBWI conference

This past weekend I attended the annual fall conference of the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the Society of Children's Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). This was my first time attending this conference, and my
first time attending an conference in this field. While there was a stronger emphasis on the W part of SCBWI than the I part (my part) I didn't mind this too terribly, in the end. Learning about storytelling is obviously useful if I ever decide to write (which I might someday!) and at the very least it can help me build ideas for more narrative, action-oriented artwork, which I've know for a little while now is something I need to work on.

Here are some notes from the weekend, punctuated by some of my notebook doodles:

"Aha!" moments
  • Frances Gilbert, editor at the Doubleday imprint of Random House, in talking about story

    mining, mentioned a phrase that stuck with me: "childhood moments."  She also reminded us that when you write for children, "your customer is 5 years old and has to pee."  (I think her point was that you need a strong hook or something, but I really just wrote that down because it made me laugh.)
  • Draw from life, no matter your style, says art agent Christina Tugeau
  • Authors Mary Quattlebaum and Cynthia Lord both admitted to struggling initially with plot development / story arc. As someone who doesn't walk around with a spring in my step and a story in my heart, this is gratifying to hear. Woo!
  • Agent John Cusick of Greenhouse Literary on the best kind of picture book ending: "surprising, yet inevitable."
  • This one's not from anything anyone said this weekend, but just from being in the room, where (and this is where I try not to call my fellow conference-goers old and fail miserably) I was among the youngest there. And that's

    gratifying in the midst of a perfect storm of (1) turning a round number this year, (2) spending a lot of time wrapped up in the world of baseball, where phrases like "an old 29" and "way past his prime at 36" are not uncommon, and (3) living in a city where seemingly everyone is 24, runs marathons, has a masters degree, and makes six figures as a consultant.  It can be easy to feel time slipping away, to feel regrets about what I haven't yet accomplished.  But I'm pretty sure I'm doing just fine. 
"Duh" moments that were still worth hearing again, from multiple experts in the room 
  • Never stop reading! 
  • Conflict is essential in plot development. There's got to be a problem
  • In a well-crafted picture book, both the words and pictures should be essential to the storytelling. Neither should feel superfluous. Each should feel incomplete without the other.
"Oh, cool" moments
  • Agent Brooks Sherman of Fine Print Literary Management found his first picture book client via Twitter.
  • There's a trend in illustration right now toward simpler art, with minimal background, less details, subtle beauty.  This, I like!
  • Cynthia Lord passed around her Newbery Honor plaque and let us all touch it and make a wish. It was delightful.

Reading list

Children's books

Craft books 



  1. Elizabeth, you should have been to my first SCBWI meeting four years ago when I was still in my twenties. I felt like I was the youngest person in the room by 20 years! The statistics are much better now.

    They were talking about the Hero's Journey by Joseph Campbell, but might I recommend reading The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler instead? It's a lot easier to read and translate into real life writing.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation! I'll check it out. And what's this you say about meetings? Is there more to this SCBWI Mid-Atlantic thing than the annual conference?



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