Kansas SCBWI Conference

I went to the Kansas SCBWI conference two weekends ago.  Very cool.  Lots of fun. Met a lot of people, most of whose names I can’t remember now without referring to my notes.

Not that I wasn’t paying attention, but that’s just how bad I am with people’s names.  I couldn’t remember Mike Jung’s name for most of the day and he was the first keynote speaker.  Plus, I talked with him several times throughout the day and drew a couple of pictures of him!  And I still couldn’t remember the man’s name.  Ugh.  I kept thinking his name was Dave for some reason.  And I kept having to correct myself in my head that Melanie Hope Greenberg’s first name wasn’t Marie.  Yeah, I suck at names.  The only name I had no trouble with was Arthur Levine.

Anyway, back on subject.  I’m pretty much just going to dump my notes out here.  Pardon me if they’re a bit disjointed.

Friday I met with Melanie Hope Greenberg, who was very cool.  She’s an author/illustrator from New York City.  Mostly an illustrator.  I spent a lot of time with her because she did the portfolio review on Friday and two of the more illustrator-specific presentations and one about marketing.  She has a very stereotypical Brooklyn sort of manner which I found jarring at first, but once I got used to it, she was actually very nice.

On Friday, she and Stephen T. Johnson (also an illustrator) both reviewed my portfolio.  Here are a few things of note that I learned or was reminded of:

  • Put one image in each “spread” in your portfolio.  So, one image in the right-hand sleeve and none in the left-hand sleeve.  I suppose if you have a two-page spread, that would be different.  But generally.
  • Don’t mix black and white images and color images.  Put one towards the front of the portfolio and one toward the back.
  • Don’t mix styles.  If you have a, say, a comic book style and a realistic style, arrange them as two groups in the portfolio.
  • For children’s art portfolios, only use images meant for that market.  Usually this means only images with kids and animals.  Not pictures with only grown-ups.
  • Only your best work.
  • A self-published children’s picture book which has sold 2,000 copies is not impressive enough to include in your portfolio.  Now, if it were 10,000 sales, then that might be different.  Or if the illustrations in the book currently represent your best work.  But 2,000 sales of a book with comparatively lower quality illustrations than your current stuff?  Not portfolio material.
  • Pick 10 to 15 of your best images.
  • Some Art Directors open the portfolio to a random page and, if they don’t like that image, reject the entire portfolio.  So make sure every single piece can stand on it’s own to represent your work.  If it can’t, don’t include it.
  • You can have more than one portfolio.  One for children’s art, one for editorial art, etc.  Know your market.
  • Don’t include tear sheets unless they are relevant to that market.  For example, in a portfolio aimed at the children’s market, don’t include tear sheets from the SCBWI Bulletin.

I just finished reorganizing my online portfolios with these points in mind and I think they work much better now.  I’m glad I had them look at it.  I think this is the first year I actually have enough professional-quality work to be able to show my stuff around with confidence.

On Saturday I forgot my camera, which I meant to bring because I knew I’d be posting this blog post eventually.  I really like to have at least a few visual aides in anything I post.  Especially long things like this.  So, I was annoyed with myself for forgetting.  But, then I thought, am I an illustrator or am I an illustrator?   So I just drew pictures of the speakers instead.  It worked pretty well for Mike Jung, Arthur Levine, and Melanie Hope Greenberg.  I was too far back when Jay Asher was speaking, though.  The drawings of him just looked like a generic balding guy.  Not very flattering, so I won’t be using those.

Anyway, the first speech was by Mike Jung, as I said before.  He’s a debut author with the book Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities.  It was all about the process he went though to get his book published.  He made extensive use of social media, particularly his blog, to network himself into the beginning writers’ communities.  It was really entertaining and led into a second presentation with both him and Arthur Levine.  

Arthur A. Levine Books is his publisher and the two are good friends in addition to their editor/author relationship.  There was singing, there were props, it was great.  Basically it went through how Mr. Jung ended up getting published and what the relationship was between him and his publisher.  Things from my notes about that presentation:  

  • Don’t be adversarial towards Agents and Editors.  They aren’t the gatekeeper trying to crush your dreams.  They are people you want to work with.
  • Rejection letters are learning experiences.
  • Use “the tribe” of people in the publishing industry, newbies and professionals both.  They will tend to help you out.

I appreciated that they mentioned the illustrators for his book as well, since I’m more of an illustrator than an author.  

Then came the elective sessions.  I wasn’t really very excited about any of the four possibilities for the first session.  There were two that I considered.  One was with Susan Hawk titled “What an Agent Can Do for You”.  I almost went to that one, but I’d been to an agent presentation last year.  Instead I just got notes from someone about that one at lunchtime.  Three important URLs from that session:  agentquery.com, aaronline.org, and pred-ed.com.  Unfortunately, all of those are very author-centric.  I would like to know where to find a directory of artist representatives, not literary agents.  I mean, other than the obvious spots like the SCBWI Market Survey and Artist’s and Graphic Designer’s Market.  Also there was also a note about Verla Kay’s Blueboard which looks like a chat room for authors and illustrators.  I haven’t looked around that just yet, but it looks promising.

I decided, instead, to go with Melanie Hope Greenberg’s “Thumbs Up!  Plump Up Your Platform and Maximize Your Marketing”.  I think this was the least useful of Ms. Greenberg’s 3 presentations.  Not that she didn’t give good information, but because it was mostly stuff I already knew.

She talked about how to use various social networking tools to your advantage, focusing mostly on Facebook, though the advice applies to most social networks.

  • Keep your personal FB posts completely separate from your professional FB posts.  She recommended having two entirely separate FB accounts.  One that’s personal and one that’s professional.  I do something similar, except I have one personal FB account (no, I won’t friend you) and one professional FB fan page (yes, please “like” me there).
  • Stay on message.  Don’t post memes, pictures of your food, pets, causes, etc. to your professional FB page.  It just looks unprofessional.  Save that for your personal FB page.
  • Categorize your FB friends list so you have, for example, separate groups for librarians, teachers, booksellers, book professionals, parents, etc.  That way you can tailor which posts go to which friends.
  • Actually, they’re not friends.  They’re colleagues.  Treat them as such.

With all social media, limit it to half an hour to 2 hours a day or else it will suck away all your time.

Try to create multiple revenue streams so you’re not only relying on just your book income, because that lasts a year and a half and then it’s out of print.

Contacts, contacts, contacts.  Add people to your mailing list, your friend’s list, your twitter list, etc.  Be polite.  But get contact info whenever you get a chance.  These are who you market to.

Keep records of everything so you can remember what you said to who, what you sent to who, etc.  This is particularly important for me since I’m so horrible about remembering names.  I’ll completely forget what I’ve done before if I don’t write it down.

Get a subscription to Publisher’s Weekly and keep track of which editors and art directors are where, whose accepting manuscripts, etc.  Yes, more records.

Boy this seems like a lot of work.  She hires interns from the local art schools to help.  She lives in NYC.  There’s no shortage of art students.

On Promotions:

  • Promote YOU, not everyone else who’s following you or liking you.
    (She’s a lot less into “the tribe” idea than Mike Jung is.  She’s been in the industry longer and is more jaded, I think.  Not that her view isn’t valid, just different.  I suspect the truth is somewhere in the middle.  The tribe is good and works for some people, not so well for others.)
  • Contests, Raffles, and Giveaways are good promotions.
  • Press releases, particularly in your local media.
  • She’s hearing that annuals are less useful than they used to be.  Which is actually good, since they are expensive.
  • Your target markets are:  Librarians, teachers, booksellers, book professionals, and parents.
  • Types of social networks you should use:  Personal email lists, Website, Blog, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, pInterest.
  • If you send out an email to a whole mailing list, put that list in a BCC, not a CC and include a privacy statement.  Also, a link to how the receiver can remove themselves from your mailing list.  (Don’t get insulted when someone wants off your list!)
  • Only post things if there’s something in it for you.  This is a marketing tool.  Not funtime on the internet.
  • Be polite.
  • Acknowledge most comments with a like or a small “thank you” comment.
  • When asking someone to join one of your lists, always remember to introduce yourself with a small note explaining who you are because most times they won’t know.

The next presentation, “Tapestry:  The Multi-layered Picture Book Process Made Visible”, also by Ms. Greenberg, was about the layers of a story.  She used a lot of examples from her own books to illustrate the ideas.

A note about her artistic style:  She called her art style primitive.  They’re colorful and happy and have a folk-art quality to them. She’s self-taught and works in gouache exclusively.  She uses a copy machine and actual cutting and pasting to perfect her draft sketches.  I can do all the same things with Photoshop, of course, but she still does it by hand.  I looked at some finished, printed samples (her books and her promo postcards) and they looked digital, not hand-painted.  But she doesn’t seem to like the idea of working digitally.  Probably a learning curve thing.

So, the layers of a story:

Backdrop / Theme
Example:  Coming out of my shell, Electricity, Democracy, Community, Nature

Can chart as spreads w/ a couple word summary of each spread.  She calls it a map.

She does three spreads on a page.  Can include stage directions, book text, and the thumbnail sketches.  Let the sketches be loose.

Will lead to dummies.

Art:  Characters
Sketch out  each character w/ any important details noted.  If you’re not working digitally, make sure to note down the color formulas in case you need to come back later.  If you’re working digitally, you might make notes of any special brushes, patterns, of other special techniques you used.

Art:  Colors and Contrasts
Figure out what sort of colors you want throughout the books. Also, keep track of if the characters show up on the background color that you choose.

Narrative Arc
Figure out how the story moves through the narrative.  Bring it back to the beginning usually.

Extra Added Attractions
Hmm… I didn’t write down that one…

There was a question and answer time.  From the best of my memory and my notes, these where the questions (or the ones interesting enough to me to write down).  Paraphrased:

Question:  We’ve heard a lot about authors working with agents.  How does the agent relationship work with an illustrator?

Answer:  Agents shelter you a bit.  Which can be good and bad.  Her agent got her a lot of the books she did.  Later, once she had connections on her own, she was able to got those deals herself.  Certainly early on it works better to have an agent.  It’s a lot of work to do it all herself and she kind of wishes she had an agent now.

Question:  What are the challenges of working as an illustrator when you’re self-taught?

Answer:  She fell into it.  She used to do greeting cards.  She did the national stationery show.  She found greeting card companies that would publish her.  She got some recurring jobs with Scholastics w/o an agent, just by taking her portfolio to them (among other publishers).  She’s done spot illustrations for magazines, also without an agent.  What the editors and agents want to see is if you can meet a deadline and follow directions.  Her past work convinced them of that.

The next session was about Storyboarding, also with Melanie Hope Greenberg.  It was called, “Inside and Outside the Box:  How to Self-Edit Your Manuscript and Illustrations”.

Question:  How should we do a dummy?

Brief Answer:  She suggests a full dummy w/ b&w sketches and 1 or 2 full color images.

Picture books printed in increments of 8 pages.  32 pages is normal for a picture book.

Create a chart of all the spreads on one page for the storyboard.

Books usually start on the page 4 and 5 spread.  Evens on the left, odds on the right.  Occasionally a book will start the story on an earlier page, but that’s standard.

First start with the author’s words on the manuscript.  Look at stage directions and the way the pages are spaced out, if they give them.

Pop Words (action words) – They give the illustrator something to paint.  What’s going on in the scene?  Circle these.

Slash marks (Page flips) – Transition from scene to scene.  Mark these.

Look at your storyboard map.  That’s a chart with all the spreads shown, so you can begin to organize what will go on each spread.  Write down the essence of each scene (the pop words) on this map.

And thumbnail sketches.

Pay attention to the pacing.  Pacing is:

Narrative Arc – Freytag’s Pyramid

Momentum – rhythm, pauses, repetition

Page turns – slash marks

Layout – pop words

Now, create the dummy

She recommends this easy method.  Fold 8 pieces of paper, fold them in half and put them together.  Staple in the middle.  Put your sketches on this.

For the author:  Authors are writing for the illustrator, so think about the layout even if you aren’t going to illustrate it.  You can even make a text-only dummy with stage directions for the illustrator.

Formatting note:  Remember to leave 3/4 in. or an inch of space between the edge of the page and the text so it’s not too crowded and won’t get cut off.  Also make sure, wherever your text is, that there’s a spot for it to go where it will show up against the background easily and not block important elements of the image.  Don’t put any important text or images elements too close to the edge or gutter.

Multi-layered picture books:  Try to include multiple levels to the story and the pictures to add interest.

8.5 by 11 in. is a very basic size for a book.  Sometimes it might be better for the story to have a tall book (a book about skyscrapers, for example) or a long book (a book about trains, for example).  Remember this when deciding on the size and shape to use.

Sometimes the title page is just a copy of one of the pages within the book (great for the artist because they don’t have to do more work) and sometimes it’s a whole new spread just for the that page.  It varies from book to book.

The last presentation was by Jay Asher, author of 13 Reasons Why.  His presentation was also excellent, but the topic was basically the same as Mike Jung’s earlier in the day:  how an author got published.  He went through many of the same steps Mr. Jung did, though I think he talked more about in-person networking than online networking.  It was an inspiring story that encouraged aspiring authors to keep trying and not to give up.  Nothing about illustrators at all that I recall, but I suppose the theme translates to illustrators too.  I think I would have found a speech by Stephen T. Johnson more interesting.  It would have been a better balance for the group, which is supposed to be about both authors and illustrators.

Then we all stood around for an hour mingling and eating snacks before everyone headed home.  I had a great time.  Even showed my portfolio to Arthur Levine who said my work might work for chapter books.

Some of the guests live in New York City, or at least that area.  My thoughts are with them.  I haven’t heard how they weathered the storm, but I wish them the best.


9 thoughts on “Kansas SCBWI Conference

  1. John Hare says:

    No I wasn’t able to attend this year unfortunately. From an illustrator POV, how do you think it compared to last years?

    • Karen B. Jones says:

      Well, both this year and last year had more author-focused stuff than illustrator-focused. But that is to be expected since the authors out-number the illustrators by rather a lot.

      Both keynote speeches and the one with Mike Jung and Arthur Levine were aimed at authors, not illustrators. And there was an hour gap between the last of the three elective sessions and the last keynote. That hour had all the editors and agents reviewing first pages submitted by authors. That was nice, I suppose, but of little interest to an illustrator. From an illustrator’s perspective, it was an empty slot in the day.

      That block of time would have been perfect to fit a session with Stephen T. Johnson. Or possibly him and Melanie Hope Greenberg. It could have been a free-form question-and-answer format or a formal presentation. Either one would have been interesting. I mean, why was Stephen T. Johnson even there? He didn’t do any presentations. He just did first passes Friday and signed books at the end of all the sessions on Saturday. They should have either used him in that empty block of time or instead of one of Melanie Hope Greenberg’s sessions.

      Or instead of Jay Asher. Jay Asher’s presentation was fine, but it was the same story as Mike Jung’s. The details were different, but both told encouraging stories about authors making the journey from unpublished wanna-bes to successful, published authors. They were both even juvenile fiction authors. I’m not saying either presentation was in any way lacking. Just that they were redundant.

      Could we have had an author/illustrator giving one of those speeches instead? Or even a straight-up illustrator? At the very least, have one of them at least be a picture book author and talk about their relationship with their illustrator!

      Heck, if the conference couldn’t afford more presentations from our illustrator guests, it could have at least organized something like last year where we all illustrated a spread from one book and then critiqued each other. The illustrator guests could have participated too, if they were willing.

      Hey, an idea. If this attempt to get everyone to make a storyboard in our illustrator group meeting works, maybe the dummies that result could be shown at the next conference? Just an idea.

      I didn’t attend the “What an Agent can do for You” session, but I talked to an author about it later. She said that they really didn’t talk about artist reps at all, but that may have been because all the illustrators were off in another session with Melanie Hope Greenberg. Personally, I have found it difficult to find information on Artist Reps. Even the SCBWI Market Survey hardly has any. It’s like they throw in a handful just to claim that they have them. I’d like to see an actual artist rep, not just a literary agent who will also work with illustrators, at a session.

      I enjoyed the sessions with Melanie Hope Greenberg, but it ended up like I just spent the entire day listening to her. I would have appreciated another perspective.

      Gosh, this comment is pretty negative, isn’t it? I really did have a good time and the convention. It’s just that I see a lot of things that they could have done better. I thought the first passes thing was wonderful and Melanie Hope Greenberg obviously had lots of experience to share!

      But your question was how it compared to last year. I think it was pretty equivalent. It had some really good bits and some bits that could have been improved. It’s certainly good enough for me to pay my membership and registration fee to do it again next year. 🙂

    • Karen B. Jones says:


      I usually don’t do life-drawing because people won’t stay still long enough for me. It’s kinda hard to draw someone who won’t stand still. But a presentation like this is almost as good as a posing model. They aren’t still, but they keep returning to the same positions over and over and I have a whole hour to capture the pose.

      Melanie Hope Greenberg had great messy hair to draw. That was really fun.

      I wish I’d thought to bring drawing paper, but all I had was a legal pad, as you can see with the first drawing. Melanie’s was actually drawn on the computer during her presentation. I had both MS Word and Photoshop open. So, I’d type my notes when she said something note-worthy and the rest of the time I was drawing her directly in Photoshop.

      As I told Mike Jung, doodling is supposed to help you pay attention, I think I was the only one doodling during his presentation. So, that means I was paying the MOST attention. 😉 It still didn’t help me remember his name, but that’s a separate issue. Maybe I should doodle people’s names. That might help me with my name-memory issue. *shrug*

      I’m hoping my artists group will start doing drawing from models in some of our meetings. I would like some life-drawing practice. I’m pretty rusty at it.

  2. Karen B. Jones says:

    I got an email from Melanie Hope Greenberg. Among other things, she said, “My flight home was smooth and I had no seat mate!! Yay! But the second I landed in NYC Sandy mode was already in effect. I got all my subways home and food from the supermarket before everything shut down. I was cozy and out of harms ways but the city is really hurting. So sad. ” So, she made it through the storm okay, which is nice to hear. 🙂

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