On SCBWI, Advice for Authors and Illustrators

“You should attend an SCBWI conference.” 

At some point in our journey as authors and illustrators, we hear this piece of advice. But what does it mean? How should we prepare for a conference? How do we engage the faculty? What can we realistically hope to gain? In this post, ten veteran faculty members and I share our tips on attending a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference.

SQUIBBY

There are quite a few conferences for authors, illustrators, and makers these days. We have CTN Expo, ICON, IlluXCon, Comic-Con, TCAF, AIGA, and SCBWI, to name a very few. Each conference could warrant its own blog post. For now, I’m going to focus on SCBWI. However, the points made in this post can apply across all types of conferences.

The Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators is an organization devoted to providing information and assistance to authors and illustrators of varying ages and experience levels. They have chapters seemingly everywhere—even Mongolia. Over the years, I’ve participated as a faculty member at many of their conferences—both large and small, physically and virtually—for chapters all over the US; as well as Canada and Europe. Chances are good that there’s a chapter near you.

Each chapter is run by a well-led, well-organized network of volunteers. Their dedication to the art and craft of children’s books is inspiring. They spend countless days making sure that attendees have the kind of conference experience that can literally start careers. Advisors and coordinators for each chapter tirelessly plan retreats, critique groups, intensives, workshops, and conferences with the sole purpose of helping one person: you.

THE ATTENDEE

If you think SCBWI is just a bunch of grandparents painting bunnies, you are sorely mistaken. Attendees at SCBWI conferences are comprised of authors and illustrators of every talent level at almost every point of a career. I’ve met retirees looking to rediscover their art, college grads hoping to be discovered, and everyone in between. I’ve seen binders with crayon drawings, and professional, eye-opening, stellar portfolios. These well-designed conferences benefit novices and professionals alike.

Reasons for attending a conference vary. You may need a bit of affirmation. You may want to workshop your manuscript or showcase your portfolio. You may want to focus on your dummy before sending it to publishers. You may simply want to hang out with fellow creatives. Of all the benefits of attending a conference, I think the greatest one is that it serves as proof that you are not alone. No matter what your need is, you have help.

Of course, it’s entirely up to you whether or not you think an SCBWI conference is right for you. It’s not for everyone. I want to be clear: it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. The conference organizers do everything they can to make the experience an enjoyable one. That said, the faculty members are tasked with reviewing your manuscripts and portfolios objectively. If you’re not ready for a professional critique, you will be in for a surprise. During portfolio reviews, I’ve had illustrators stare at me incredulously as I tell them that they need to focus on drawing fundamentals.

To help you prepare, let’s walk through the experience of attending a conference.

THE DECISION

It can be difficult to know if you’re ready to attend a conference. It’s a personal decision. There’s no definitive moment. I suppose a good clue would be if you finally feel ready to make a serious commitment to the craft. At the very least, bring that to a conference. I’m still a little surprised when I meet folks who think it’s easy to illustrate a children’s book, and that it’s little more than a hobby.

When you decide to make the financial and personal investment, here are a few basic questions you should ask yourself:

Why am I going?

What do I hope to gain?

Is my manuscript/portfolio presentable?

Am I emotionally prepared for a critical assessment of my skill level?

If the answer to any of the above questions is “I don’t know,” then more preparatory work is needed. This is where critique groups with your peers are so beneficial. A few of them may have already attended a conference, and they can share their experiences with you in an intimate, stress-free setting.

The common mistake made at this point is that writers and illustrators hide behind “I’m not ready.” I hear this all the time. It’s tempting to postpone one’s career. The mistakes have yet to be made. But conversely, none of the successes have happened either. It’s daunting, I know. But as the great Wayne White, designer on Pee-wee’s Playhouse and fine artist, said to me, “If you wait till you’re ‘ready,’ your career’s over.”

THE PREPARATIONS

One of the largest draws of a conference is the faculty. You will have direct, conversational access to some of the top publishers, agents, art directors, editors, authors, and illustrators in the field. In a weekend, you could have your manuscript read and evaluated by an acquiring editor; your portfolio assessed by an art director; your questions answered by an accomplished author; and your postcard kept by an agent. In few other moments in life do we find ourselves sitting at a table for two with some of the most influential players in a given industry.

You might be thinking “This all sounds good, but how should I prepare?” Here are my top five most common answers:

Increase your self-awareness. Knowing where we are in our career is a challenge. I struggle with it. How good we think we are is usually not aligned with how good we really are (on both sides of the spectrum). It’s hard to achieve that balance. But there are things we can do to help us get close: constant practice and experimentation, participating in critique groups, visiting the library or bookstore, reading. Also, ask yourself: does your work really stack up—in terms of quality—against what is published? Why? Why not?

Manage your expectations. There are quite a few success stories at SCBWI: an agent calls after seeing a piece of art on SCBWI INSIGHT; a bidding war occurs for your dummy after a portfolio showcase in New York; an editor offers you a picture-book deal almost on the spot; a discovery is made by a publisher, and you end up illustrating for a legendary writer. These are all true. For every story I know, there are hundreds (thousands?) that I don’t know. And yet, don’t expect it to happen to you. The point of the conference is to feel more confident, more connected, and more informed. That’s it. Expecting anything more than that is unrealistic.

Master yourself. There’s certainly a celebratory vibe at any conference. We’re all adults, so I’ll leave it to you to make your own decisions. That being said, a conference isn’t a giant party. There is still work to be done. Be mindful of that. You will kick yourself if you get so drunk that you vomit, rendering you terribly hungover the morning of your portfolio review (true story, though she managed to rally enough for the review). These mistakes are made and forgiven. I’m not saying don’t enjoy yourself. For many of us, a conference weekend can be a rare reprieve from a stressful life. All I’m saying is, know your limits. And drink lots of water.

Follow the rules. Have you heard about the writer who slid her manuscript under a bathroom stall to an editor? That (true) story is now infamous. I know it’s tempting to corner an editor or art director for a “quick look” at your work—especially when it looks like they’re free to chat. Don’t. There are folks who pay for the chance to have a manuscript or portfolio review. It’s not fair to them, or the organizers, or the faculty, if you ignore the rules. Plus, faculty members need a quick breather—a moment to collect our thoughts—before the next task. By all means, walk over to us and say hello. But don’t shove your work under our noses (or our stall).

Do some homework. Research the faculty members. What kinds of books do they publish? Read their biographies online. Read their interviews. Read their blogs. Sounds like a lot of work? Are you serious about your craft or not? Knowing a bit more about your faculty will help inform your questions for them. For example, my road to publishing is online in several different interviews. Don’t waste time asking me about it in person. Ask me something that will help you. And that leads me to . . .

Bonus answer number six: Celebrity worship. There’s a certain level of celebrity worship at these events. I don’t blame anyone. Goodness knows I’ve lost it a few times in the presence of a “name” (I’m still embarrassed about spontaneously hugging an illustrator in Los Angeles in 2013 when I discovered who they were). The key thing to remember is that the faculty are there for you. Not the other way around. So keep your questions focused on your work. Avoid questions that are little more than “I’m a huge fan. You’re great. Can you talk about yourself?”

One other thing: You will be on your feet quite a bit. And these conferences are usually cold. Bring comfortable shoes and a sweater.

THE EVENT

I’ve heard conferences described in myriad ways: “college-like,” “inspiring,” “mini vacation,” “overwhelming,” “life-changing,” “disappointing.” Everyone reacts to the event differently. As with anything, you get out of it what you put into it. Admittedly, my own experiences are limited. So I’ve asked ten veteran conference faculty members to share a few insights:

Arthur Levine, Publisher, Arthur A. Levine Books
Twitter: 
@AALBooks

What has your experience been as an SCBWI faculty member? Can you provide one success story?

I feel grateful for “success” in so many ways at SCBWI conferences. I first met this year’s Caldecott Medalist, Dan Santat, at a portfolio display, and from that published his first book, The Guild of Geniuses. I met Martha Brockenbrough at an SCBWI dinner, which started our delightful collaboration including the stunning The Game of Love and Death. I met the wonderful Mike Jung when he took a class I was teaching. I could go on . . .

Finish the thought: 

Attendees should . . . take the opportunity to get a better feel for the styles, tastes, and personalities of publishing professionals with whom they may someday want to work.

Attendees shouldn’t . . . feel pressured to pitch specific projects or feel they have to make some kind of dramatic impression in face-to-face interactions. It’s not an audition, and those pros are just as nervous and awkward as you are.

Dan Santat, author/illustrator and 2015 Caldecott Medalist
Twitter: 
@dsantat

What has your experience been as an SCBWI faculty member? Can you provide one success story?

As a faculty member I’ve had the opportunity to give illustration intensives that can be tools in helping artists become better designers as well as storytellers. I’ve been in panels, I’ve keynoted in states all across the country, and I’ve made long-lasting friendships. One time I met a first-time attendee in Orlando, Florida. The work of the attendee was rough but showed promise. I gave a few pieces of advice while also encouraging the person to try to enrich their knowledge outside of the SCBWI conference. Two years later, that person was published, and now I see his publications all over the place. 

Finish the thought: 

Attendees should . . . be open to all the advice they hear and be very, very patient.

Attendees shouldn’t . . . get frustrated or compare their struggles with the struggles of others. Everyone reaches the summit at their own pace.

Martha Brockenbrough, author (The Game of Love and Death, Devine Intervention, The Dinosaur Tooth Fairy)
Twitter: 
@mbrockenbrough

What has your experience been as an SCBWI faculty member? Can you provide one success story?

I’ve made my way onto the faculty after many years as a participant. My first efforts were as a blogger; I’m one of the members of SCBWI’s Team Blog, and we write short summaries of sessions we attend and provide tweets so people who aren’t there can follow along from home. Last year, I presented a standing-room-only session on building an effective public presence, and this year, I’ll be talking about jumpstarting your social-media presence. 

Over the many years I’ve been attending these conferences, my writing career has grown—and it’s grown in absolute harmony with the relationships I’ve developed with writers, illustrators, agents, editors, and more. To me, these relationships are at the heart of everything. I first got to know both my editor, Arthur Levine, and my agent, Sarah Davies, at SCBWI conferences. I have made many friendships with other writers (illustrators, too, even though I am not one). 

These relationships are vital for so many reasons. They inspire me. They show me what is possible. They remind me that frustration and struggle aren’t things to fear, but necessary parts of the process (the friction that sparks growth). 

In return, I give back as much as I can. This helps me refine my own understanding of what I do, and also makes this not just a career but a meaningful way to spend my life’s energy. To me, the definition of a successful conference is one where I’ve tended these relationships, built new ones, and contributed everything I have to the development of excellence in literature.

Finish the thought: 

Attendees should . . . not worry about getting their big break. Success doesn’t happen in a moment, but as a result of many, many moments spent thinking and working. Do the work. Good things will follow.

Attendees shouldn’t . . . fear they are not good enough. There is only one person like you in this world. You have stories to tell and art to create. Your job, no matter where you are, is to do that as well as you can knowing that the time you spend working is what matters most. You might have skills to develop to get your work to the next level, but that is true for everyone.

Kendra Levin, Executive Editor, Viking Children’s Books (and life coach for writers)
Twitter: 
@kendralevin

What has your experience been as an SCBWI faculty member? Can you provide one success story? 

Because I love teaching, the great success stories are less about signing up books (though that’s always exciting!) and more about seeing people’s work evolve, or their eyes light up when they have a revelation about the direction their manuscripts need to go. I’ve run workshops where attendees came up to me almost in tears afterward because of the surprising insights they had about their work, most often about their protagonists. In the last workshop I did, several of the participants discovered they had been missing key pieces of their characters’ motivations and personalities—and they were so thrilled to have discovered them. When I see a room full of writers busily scribbling, or when I get to read the fruits of their revisions and see how much better the work has gotten, that’s what I consider a great and inspiring success story.

 Finish the thought: 

Attendees should . . . take advantage of the wonderful opportunity to make connections—and I don’t mean with editors and agents. While it’s always useful to make a good impression on a publishing professional, the biggest resource at a conference is your fellow writers. They are a wealth of knowledge, experience, and companionship, and it’s important to make the most of the chance to get to know them! The connection you make with an editor or agent could help you, but the connections you make with your colleagues can become an inspiring and valuable part of your everyday life if you turn them into critique partners, groups, and friends.

Attendees shouldn’t . . . be intimidated by editors and agents! We’re just people who do a job, and we wouldn’t come to events if we didn’t enjoy connecting with writers. (Maybe I shouldn’t speak for the whole industry—but that’s certainly how I feel!)

Jen Rofé, Senior Agent, Andrea Brown Literary Agency
Twitter: 
@jenrofe

What has your experience been as an SCBWI faculty member? Can you provide one success story?

Having been a teacher in my previous career, I relish the opportunities to present at SCBWI conferences. I get to tap into my teacher side, except the audience is always there by choice, and they are willing and eager to learn.

I have many wonderful SCBWI success stories—including clients I’ve signed on. But my favorite success moments are when I see writers have their “aha” moments before me. It can feel magical!

Finish the thought: 

Attendees should . . . use conferences as an opportunity to (respectfully) connect with fellow writers, editors, and agents. Even a brief introduction can lead to insightful, meaningful, or just plain fun conversations, or they can simply help you feel connected to the community. To my surprise, I still often find that attendees, especially those newer to conferences, are relieved to realize that editors and agents are real people, which can alleviate anxieties. So, make the effort to at least say hi. 

Attendees shouldn’t . . . worry if they go home with feelings of doubt or defeat. There is often talk about feeling inspired and motivated by conferences, but there’s the other side, too. Conferences can be overwhelming—there is much to take in—and the overwhelm can lead to challenging feelings. Give yourself some time to process what you’ve learned and experienced. If you come away from a conference with even one helpful nugget, then consider it a success!

Jennifer Laughran, Senior Agent, Andrea Brown Literary Agency
Twitter: @literaticat 

What has your experience been as an SCBWI faculty member? Can you provide one success story? 

I love attending SCBWI conferences because the attendees are typically head and shoulders above other conferences in terms of quality of work and professionalism. Also, I love getting a chance to hang out with other faculty members. SCBWI is such a useful professional organization and their conferences are so well-run, I really can’t recommend them highly enough, particularly for authors and illustrators just starting out in the kids’ book business. 

I don’t know that I have a “success story” as such—I’ve never offered rep at a conference or anything like that. But I’ve certainly met dozens (or possibly hundreds!) of authors and other faculty members with whom I’ve continued a correspondence, either in my inbox or on social media, and I’m sure that long-term career benefits have come about because of these connections.

Finish the thought: 

Attendees should . . . understand that criticism of your work is not a personal attack. Listen and absorb . . . and give a critique a couple of days to marinate before you reject it out of hand. Use the opportunities you are given to meet faculty . . . but don’t stalk them into the bathroom. ;-) 

Attendees shouldn’t . . . expect some kind of magical overnight success just because of conference attendance. I think a lot of people truly expect to be told how wonderful they are, and to be presented with a contract immediately. In my experience, this never happens—the conference, or critique/pitch sessions during the conference, should not be viewed as an opportunity to sell, sell, sell your work, but rather as an opportunity to IMPROVE your work and learn about the industry.

Jim Hoover, Associate Art Director, Viking Children’s Books
Twitter: 
@JimHoover17

What has your experience been as an SCBWI faculty member? Can you provide one success story?

My experience as SCBWI faculty has been mainly positive (except for the time I had to learn Windows 8 in front of 250 people). I love the energy each region has consistently shown. There is a real hunger for learning, and passion for the craft. For faculty and attendees alike, there is no better opportunity in publishing. You will hang out with editors, authors, agents, illustrators, art directors, and the best and brightest in the business. All under one roof for a whole weekend. Make some friends! 

SCBWI is a wonderful resource with one thing in common: the love of children’s publishing. Success stories vary, but success in publishing is not like winning the lottery. When attendees get a publishing deal and “break through,” it’s not by chance or luck, it’s by hundreds of hours of hard work. It shows and we notice.

Finish the thought: 

Attendees should . . . be open to suggestion. Those that are certainly get the most out of their experience. Remember to take critique points with a grain of salt, as each faculty person will have a different take on your work and a wide spectrum of ideas on how to better your portfolio. Illustration takes patience, tenacity, and a thick skin. The most important thing you can do after a conference is clear your schedule for a few nights that week to work, and approach your work as practice. That mindset will ease up the pressure on yourself, and free you to just concentrate on the craft. Draw. Paint.

Each piece you create will make you more confident and at ease with your abilities. 

Attendees shouldn’t . . . Set their goal to get published. Instead, set the goal to make the best work possible. The first mind-set misses the mark and leads to frustration. The second, with tenacity and persistence, has a real chance of paying off. 

Pat Cummings, Author and Illustrator; SCBWI Board Member
Twitter: 
@PatCummingsBook 

What has your experience been as an SCBWI faculty member? Can you provide one success story?

Being on faculty is always rewarding. You get the opportunity to organize your thoughts about specific aspects of writing, illustrating, and publishing, and then pass along what you’ve learned. Hopefully, it actually speeds the path for others . . . or at least helps them avoid a few bumps in the road. No matter how long you’ve been in the business, getting to sit in while others present is always instructive too, so even the most seasoned faculty member can get a broader sense of the industry.

[Regarding] success stories, I know they’re plentiful. Dan Santat is one. Mike Curato. Debbie Ohi. Eliza Wheeler . . . lots of talented folks were “discovered” at the conferences.

Finish the thought: 

Attendees should . . . come prepared to learn. Come prepared to share info with others, not just absorb what’s presented. Should: edit and polish their work if they’re getting critiqued or plan to be in the portfolio show. Should: bring promo and business cards—networking is HUGE. And definitely, should wear sensible shoes.

Attendees shouldn’t . . . come expecting to hook the brass ring. It does happen. But this is really a learning/networking opportunity. It’s essential to observe conference etiquette: cornering faculty to show portfolios and manuscripts is extremely discouraged. Particularly in L.A., where one-on-one review sessions are offered, the amount of time and work the faculty commits has been prearranged, so intruding on their down time is a serious infraction. Also, attendees shouldn’t forget to fill out the comment forms they receive . . . The feedback gathered through them is really taken into consideration when formulating future events.

Meg Medina, Author, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your AssThe Girl Who Could Silence the Wind; Tía Isa Wants a Car; and Mango, Abuela, and Me
Twitter: 
@Meg_Medina

What has your experience been as an SCBWI faculty member? Can you provide one success story?

I have a soft spot for SCBWI, both my regional chapter and the national organization. It offers so much support and information to writers at the beginning of their careers, as well as a sense of community that endures over time. I love meeting the writers, the tireless volunteers, and—of course—the fellow faculty. I find that if I sit in on sessions, I always learn something new. My only warning is that it is easy to be worked very hard because you’ll have opportunities to critique, to sit on panels, to keynote, and/or to lead an intensive, some of which can last for a full day. You’ll also have social events, such as dinners or library events, etc. It can be overwhelming if you’re not careful. I have learned to respect what I can honestly take on without reaching exhaustion. I decline to do certain things. For example, I don’t particularly enjoy critiquing. 

I’ve been part of various SCBWI conferences, and each of those experiences has been wonderful in its own way. I feel that I probably made the most impact in Atlanta, where I led a daylong intensive. I chose to share the exercises that I use in my own life to connect with stories inside of myself. That’s such different work than teaching someone how to query, for example. It takes shared courage to go inside with a group of strangers. The writers in the room were so open and willing to take risks as they revisited their memories with me. Several very touching moments were shared when the participants wrote pieces based on long-forgotten “characters" and emotions. I’ve stayed in touch with a few of the writers I worked with, and hope they’ll continue to produce the courageous work they started. 

Finish the thought: 

Attendees should . . . be familiar with the work of the faculty so that you have some idea of their aesthetic and point of view. Also, come prepared to join in on conversations/discussions. This is a place and time to gather ideas and strength for your work as an artist. Put yourself out there. 

Attendees shouldn’t . . . ask faculty to evaluate your project on the spot—unless it is in a critique session. This is a bit awkward, and it forces the faculty to make a quick response rather than a thoughtful one. 

Claudia Pearson, SCBWI Regional Advisor, Southern Breeze Region (Georgia, Alabama, Florida Panhandle)
Twitter: 
@pearsoncrz 

What has your experience been as an SCBWI faculty member? Can you provide one success story?

As the RA, I am always busy trying to make sure that everything flows smoothly, but this often results in new friendships. People who are new to SCBWI and those who have never attended a conference often have questions and seem to appreciate individual attention. There is nothing like that flash of understanding when they realize they have found others who share their interests and passions.

 How do you define success? I would include those who have found kindred spirits, professional support, and encouragement as a kind of success for our organization. It isn’t just about pitching our work. It’s about developing your professional platform. Regional conferences are perhaps the best place to develop relationships with peers and with the gatekeepers who open the doors for the next step in our careers. Still, there is nothing like the thrill I get when I learn that some of those who have attended and had an opportunity to spend time getting to know an agent or an art director or editor have gone on to the next level, that they have been offered representation by an agent, or an illustration job by an editor or art director, or have been invited to submit their entire manuscript to a closed house.

Finish the thought: 

Attendees should . . . come for the camaraderie and the opportunity to learn and grow. Say hello to everyone; you never know who you will meet in the audience, or the lobby, or the elevator—it might be a new writing buddy or someone who knows someone who might help you improve your skills or enhance your opportunity to sell your work.

Attendees shouldn’t . . . come to a conference thinking they will make a sale. It’s about so much more than that, and it’s better than that.

THE AFTERMATH

The day after a conference is an interesting one. People are still saying their good-byes through social media; faculty members are wiped out; advisors and coordinators wrap up some paperwork (as they turn their focus to the next one!). There’s definitely a “last day of school” vibe. 

You may feel inspired, challenged, ready to put into practice what you’ve learned. But this is also a dangerous time. I call this time the “cliff.” We all fall off the cliff a little after conferences. It’s inevitable. We go back to real life, with bills and kids and responsibilities and routines that can keep us from advancing our career. So, after a conference, here are a few things you can (and should) do to keep the cliff drop to a minimum:

  • You won’t remember everything. Some percentage of information from the conference will be forgotten. Assuming you were taking notes (TAKE NOTES!), read them over. Process them. Rewrite and reorganize them.
  • A question that doesn’t get asked as often as it should is: “What books do you recommend?” Ask this question. Then read the books.
  • Share what you’ve learned. A great way to retain information is to share it with others. Meet with your fellow conference attendees physically or virtually to compare experiences, lessons, frustrations, etc. Do this as soon as possible after the conference.
  • Assuming you had a valuable experience, I recommend attending another conference. You’ll want as many opinions on your work as possible. Plus, you’ll be that much more prepared, that much more relaxed.

Conferences aren’t elixirs that will magically solve all our problems. They are a means to an end. Yes, some people have launched big careers from attending a conference. But they still have to work. They still have to improve. They still have to challenge themselves. 

There’s no formula to any of this. Some children’s book authors and illustrators attend conferences in the hope of hearing someone say to them: “If you do A [action], then B [success] will happen.” The truth is, no one can predict what will happen. But there’s a lot of information we do know. So we plan conferences. We attend conferences. We learn what we can. We share what we learn. And we move forward.


I’d like to thank Arthur Levine, Dan Santat, Martha Brockenbrough, Kendra Levin, Jen Rofé, Jennifer Laughran, Jim Hoover, Pat Cummings, Meg Medina, Claudia Pearson, and Laura Stiers for their time, generosity, and invaluable contributions to this article.

Feel free to add your SCBWI experiences in the comments section below. I look forward to reading them.