Writer | Artist

Posts from the SCBWI Category

After a year-and-ten-month hiatus spent with words, I limbered up my rusty fingers for Draw This, a new illustrator feature from SCBWI. The prompt word for June 2015 is “Bounce.” Of course, I settled on a jackalope.


He’s a little guy, about two inches long, on a background four inches across by four inches high. This collage was cut mostly from landscape textures found within John James Audubon prints and fastened with good, old-fashioned Elmer’s Glue.

Bounce, Life-Sized

Eventually, there will be an online gallery with all of the entries. For the time being, I’ve enjoyed seeing my fellow illustrators’ submissions on Twitter at #scbwidrawthis. Bounce by and have a look!


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!

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.

Here is a look at my promotional materials for the Kansas SCBWI Fall Conference!

The Business Card

Front of Business Card

Back of Business Card

Like Laura Zarrin, I chose to round the corners with a scrapbooking tool.

Pro Tip: You will get a hand cramp if you try to round more than 100 corners in one sitting. (Ouch.)

The Postcard

Front of Postcard


New Scanned back of postcard

Back of Postcard

For consistency, I featured the same character and paper patterns in both designs. The image from the front of the postcard (minus the web address) will also serve as the title page for my physical portfolio.

These materials were printed by Educational Publishers, a division of the company I work for in Manhattan, Kansas.

Four Awesomesauce Resources for Creating Business Cards and Postcards

A chef’s hat tip to Laura Zarrin, Molly Idle, and Alicia Padrón for generously sharing their recommendations and designs in the following blog posts: