Writer | Artist

Posts from the Conferences and Retreats Category

I’m back home after an amazing four days at John Wayne’s Waterfront Resort on Sequim (pronounced “skwim”) Bay, Washington. Organized by west-coast agents Mandy Hubbard, Kristin Vincent, and Bree Ogden, Camp D4EO was attended by a dozen writers and Mandy’s New Zealand assistant Claire.

The week was ripe for reflection and professional growth. We wrote outside among the calls of gulls and scent of salty ocean air. We dove into contract clauses, how to work with librarians and booksellers, and spaces for success in domestic and foreign markets. We pow-wowed about current projects and plans for our careers.

We set aside our laptops and explored. We hiked sloping woodland trails and walked marina docks. We fed bread to bison, yaks, reindeer, and elk. We lifted tide-washed rocks and uncovered scuttling crabs. We tasted sea beans fresh-plucked from the shore.

We feasted on chili, burgers, seafood, French pastries, Tim Tams, jícama, and American and Kiwi s’mores. We drank our weight in coffee, wine, beer, and Diet Coke.

And we told stories. About our books and publication journeys, our hometowns and our travels, our first loves and forever loves, our trials and our triumphs.

We became friends.

Thank you Mandy, Kristin, and Bree for bringing us all together for this retreat. Sequim Bay will forever be the setting of this writer’s heart.

Here are some of my favorite pictures from the trip.

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Last weekend I drove down to Oklahoma City for the SCBWI Oklahoma Spring Conference.

This one-day conference was jam-packed and incredibly well organized. We kept on schedule (thanks to their RA Anna Myers!) and, apart from breaks, stayed in the same room. That meant once you settled in for the morning session, you didn’t have to worry about navigating an unfamiliar building or finding seats until lunchtime. As a directionally-challenged introvert, I felt this format made the experience less stressful and facilitated a focus on the sessions.

Here are some excerpts from my notes.

Tricia Lawrence, Agent, Erin Murphy Literary Agency

Tricia focused on discovering what’s lurking in a character’s unconscious. She walked us through an exercise inspired by Brandilyn Collins where we:

  1. Chose a cliché character (e.g., the heartless popular girl, the chosen one, the fantasy character who is shocked by his or her universe, etc.);
  2. Turned the cliché inside out; then
  3. Personalized the character.

“Level B”—turning the cliché inside out—is where most writers stop. But that final level is the most important one. That is where you ask your character a series of questions to find the “so what” of your story. If you listen to your character, you will uncover his or her pain points. Tricia said, “The author has to know what’s at the ‘bottom’—even in happy books!”

You must ask these questions before you send your manuscript to an agent or editor. As she noted, “Not all of this information will end up on the page, but it will color what is.”

Colleen AF Venable, Art and Design Director, First Second Books

The graphic novel form has always been mysterious to me, so Colleen’s “Graphic Novels 101” session was illuminating. She began by defining a graphic novel (“anything in book format with a spine; a long-form comic; visual storytelling using sequential images.”), then explored an illustrated history of graphic novels, reasons for creating graphic novels (for instance, 8 of the 10 most circulated books at the New York Public Library are comics or hybrids), and the seven steps for creating graphic novels.

She emphasized you don’t have to be an artist to make a graphic novel. You can collaborate!

Tucked into our conference folder was an incredible handout containing a Reading List for Aspiring Creators, a Graphic Novel Best of the Best checklist—divided by age group—AND a list of Publishers with Great Kids Graphic Novel Lists.

Andrew Harwell, Editor, HarperCollins Children’s Books

Andrew spoke about family dynamics in middle-grade and young adult books. He chose this topic because he found he is drawn to books with strong central families.

He explained that authors can use family dynamics to serve various purposes in middle-grade and young adult books, including creating empathy and sympathy for a character, creating a support network (to keep the pace going when a plot turn is devastating), and creating conflict.

The quicker you can have a character interact with others, the better because it’s revealing. In these scenes, you see a lot of different sides to a character.

Andrew said he appreciates parent characters who “feel three-dimensional”—where you can see how they influence the main characters. After all, parents’ knowledge informs kid’s knowledge.

Melissa Manlove, Editor, Chronicle Books

In Melissa’s “First Pages Like a Pro” workshop, we studied the qualities of first pages (e.g., anticipation/tension, cadence, humor, word choice, structure, etc.) by close-reading openings to eight different picture books. These picture books included OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW, CARNIVORES, ON A BEAM OF LIGHT, and the forthcoming SWAN.

Some points Melissa made:

  • Be aware of metaphors. Make sure they’re consistent.
  • For “goodnight books” (e.g., GOODNIGHT, GOODNIGHT CONSTRUCTION SITE, ALL THE WORLD) structure and predictability is important.
  • Predictability is the opposite of humor and tension.
  • On inspiration: “Lightning doesn’t strike the person sitting in a field in the sun. It strikes the person habitually cranking the generator.” (Everyone in the audience liked that quote a lot.)

Kristin Vincent, Associate Agent at D4EO Literary Agency

Kristin led a GIF-dotted presentation on “Keeping it Fresh: Writing About What You Don’t Know, Things You Can’t See, and What Doesn’t Even Exist.” She said “fresh” is often defined similarly to “voice”—agents and editors don’t know what it is, but they know it when they see it. She typically thinks of “fresh” ideas as ideas she hasn’t thought of or a treatment she hasn’t seen yet.

She provided a number of suggestions for writing something that feels fresh. One suggestion was to put a new spin on an old tale. An author can accomplish this by applying a new setting (see CINDER), swapping genders (see SCARLET), or using a great voice.

Voice is created when you know your character well enough that you can let go of your ego and use them as a vessel to tell the story. You don’t get in the way. She noted that voice should tell her everything from setting to the ages of the character to genre and tone, time period and class—without the narrator or character outright telling her these things.

Liza Kaplan, Editor, Philomel Books

In the final session of the day, Liza spoke about how to use drama and tension to create the “flashlight-under-covers reading” that you want.

Stakes are what a character stands to win or lose, the motivating factors. The higher and more demanding your stakes, the more you draw a reader in. If you receive feedback that your novel doesn’t feel immediate or urgent—or that it isn’t making an agent or editor feel—that means the stakes are not high enough.

How do you create a book readers want to clutch to their chest?

  • Make a reader care. Your character must be messy and honest—whose stakes are huge.
  • Reach them on an emotional level. Serve up characters struggling with something profoundly human and universal. The reader can relate regardless of plot and setting.

Liza recommended having an emotional hook (what the reader needs to know) in addition to the intellectual hook (what the reader wants to know) as this doubles the opportunity for storytelling. These hooks should be identifiable in the first 1/5th of a novel.

“Adolescence is a time of heightened emotionality,” she said. “Readers come to novels seeking answers to questions they might not even have yet.”

Conference Highlights

Each attendee was assigned a table at lunch with a faculty member or well published author or illustrator. I had the pleasure of sitting with Hannah E. Harrison, author and illustrator of EXTRAORDINARY JANE, and a group of other writers and illustrators. Hannah answered questions about being a picture book author/illustrator and shared her publishing journey with us.

Of course, the BEST part of the trip was meeting my agent for the first time.


On Sunday morning, Kristin and I chatted over breakfast about projects, pets, awkwardness, and the conference. It was a real treat!


For me, a great conference is marked by note-taking hand cramps, new ideas, clearer understandings, and brain weariness. I have to say the Oklahoma SCBWI Spring 2014 Conference was the best regional conference I have ever attended.

THANK YOU to the incredible faculty and conference organizers for a thought-provoking and inspiring weekend.

We’re finally home after an incredible week in Los Angeles. I’ll save the vacation part of our trip for another post, but here are some thoughts and pictures from the 42nd Annual SCBWI Summer Conference.

First! Some photographs of the snazziness that is the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza.









While I was at the conference, Aaron was hard at work on his novel. Here’s how he spent the weekend.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANo amount of research or planning can prepare a first-time attendee for the magnitude of this conference. Reading “1,200 attendees” on a screen is an entirely different thing than walking into a ballroom filled with 1,200 people.

To quote Giuseppe Castellano, “Damn!”

Fortunately, I had a conference buddy. I was lucky enough to meet Alvina Kwong, a fellow writer and illustrator, on the way to our orientation session.


Orientation is also where we met the talented Andy Musser! Here we are at the Black and White Gala on Saturday night.

L.A. Trip 2013 036

Later Friday morning we met Lisa Woods and found Suzanne Del Rizzo, a longtime Twitter pal.



With friends, the crowd felt a little less scary, the faculty a little less intimidating.

Most of my conference prep was devoted to creating and assembling my portfolio for the Portfolio Showcase. On Saturday afternoon, I carefully unpacked it from its case, took a deep breath, and handed it to the organizers. Here, too, the real-life version of the Showcase turned out to be much bigger and louder and more crowded than I imagined.


After a couple of rows, we realized we wouldn’t see all of the portfolios in an hour, so we began searching for familiar names. We were puzzled because we couldn’t find Lisa’s or Andy’s portfolios anywhere. Then 6:30 rolled around and we found out why: Andy won a mentorship and Lisa won a Portfolio Honor Award!


Perhaps the sweetest treat of the weekend was meeting my online critique partner Kathy Ellen Davis for the first time. Here we are with Singe Singe, social media expert and sock monkey extraordinaire.


It turns out I’ve been mispronouncing Singe Singe’s name all these years. It’s not “Sing Sing” like the prison. The “i” has more of an “au” sound, and the “g” is soft like in orange. It took three full days for me to pronounce his name right, which is a little embarrassing. I think I need a pronunciation guide.

And because KE says you should always take a silly photo . . .


While I don’t have a picture, I also met several members of the #kidlitart crew. It was such fun to finally chat in person and party with them at the Black and White Gala. That group can DANCE!

Oh, I also met Henry Winkler (a.k.a. The Fonz) at the Autograph Party. No big deal.


Okay, so it was sort of a big deal.

Between the rises of the inspirational keynotes and the falls of doubt, the weekend felt a bit like riding Revenge of the Mummy at Universal Studios. A week later I’m still processing conference-related emotions and ideas. I am so thankful to Aaron for believing in my dreams and to the SCBWI organizers for putting together this incredible event.

Next time: Sightseeing!

Last Saturday I attended the Reading Reptile’s 17th Annual DNA LitFest featuring (in order of appearance) Hervé Tullet, Peter Brown, Jack Gantos, Laura Amy Schlitz, Jon Klassen, and Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket).

There is nothing quite like listening to six creative minds share their upbringings and doubts and quirks and processes in an auditorium filled with teachers, librarians, booksellers, writers, and illustrators who love children’s books just as much as you do.

I had a ridiculously good time and took a ridiculous amount of notes. To share all would result in a ridiculously long blog post. So here are six DNA LitFest quotes—one from each presenter—that resonated with me.

Hervé Tullet

Hervé Tullet’s presentation was very visual and audience-oriented. He used a spread from one of his books (I can’t recall which one—please share in the comments if you know!) to explain his creative process. I did my best to recreate it below.

Herve's Creative Process

There are days when I stare at an empty page or a line of text or a half-finished illustration and I cannot, for the life of me, figure out where to go next. It’s so easy to get swept away in doubts and feelings of ineptitude when you’re thinking in terms of an entire project. But it really comes down to finding an idea.

Peter Brown

“You cannot get the eyes wrong in a picture book. If you get the eyes wrong, you will have a problem.”

This advice sounds so simple but it is SO true. When Mr. Brown worked on CREEPY CARROTS, he drew the faces separate from the bodies so that he could re-do them until they were right. The next time I work on a collage, I’ll feel a bit better about spending an hour and a half cutting out eyeballs.

Jack Gantos

“You need a physical and emotional ending to your story.”

To have one or the other is not enough. Mr. Gantos used CORDUROY by Don Freeman as a successful example as the bear finds both a button and a home. On the other hand, he considered A POCKET FOR CORDUROY less successful because it lacks that emotional ending.

Laura Amy Schlitz

“A page of badly written prose looks the same as a page of beautifully written prose.  [ . . . ] Somewhere in our mind there must be some kind of meter that determines if it’s good or not. Writers exist within their own mind; their torture chamber.”

Ms. Schlitz spoke in depth about how the six and a half years spent writing SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS “almost killed her.” But she had a feeling that there was “something good” in her manuscript, so she chose to “carry on” until she finished. That book went on to win a 2013 Newbery honor.

Jon Klassen

Jon Klassen had a “tortuous” time writing I WANT MY HAT BACK. Then he had the idea of doing the text all in dialogue—with the dialogue in different colors—so he wouldn’t need to say anything else. After that, he was able to write the whole book in about fifteen minutes. His reasoning (and perhaps my favorite quote from the day): “If it’s a bad book, it’s not my fault; these guys are idiots.”

I love that Mr. Klassen made his characters responsible for the outcome of their book. But more importantly, he found a way to make his art style and his storytelling work for his unique book.

Daniel Handler

“You never love a book the way you loved a book when you were ten. And you never hate a book the way you hated a book when you were ten.”

A valuable reminder of why we must put everything we are and everything we have into the books we make for kids. When Mr. Handler was ten, he threw bad books at his walls. He craved books where a lesson was not presented to him; where he could figure out what the events meant for himself. He also wanted to read books where “the tumble of life is acknowledged rather than denied and overcome or overlooked.”

I am indebted to these authors and illustrators for an incredible day (and for signing all those books!), and to Pete, Debbie, and the rest of the Reading Reptile family for orchestrating this event. THANK YOU!

Would you like to see something neat?

That’s my illustration on the Kansas SCBWI Fall 2012 Conference name tag! It was a wonderful surprise to find my art featured this way.

In related news, I posted some notes from the conference sessions on the Illustrators for Kids blog. Come on by!

Here are my take-aways from the weekend:

  • Always remember that anything you post online can be read by anybody, including your future colleagues. Be honest and professional, and consider how your words could be interpreted by others.
  • Do not expect other authors or illustrators to reciprocate if you write a review of their book, send them a compliment, or retweet something they post. Think about it as contributing to the kid lit culture.
  • Be open to revision. The goal is to work with other publishing professionals. View publication as a collaborative process that relies on feedback from critique partners, agents, and editors.
  • Don’t be afraid to explore other writing avenues. You don’t have to limit yourself to one genre or age group.
  • Seek to include multiple layers of meaning when creating picture books.
  • Don’t give up! Rejection is an opportunity to evaluate your manuscript and/or portfolio, reflect on your path to publication, and try something new.