On Sunday night I returned from my first big New York City conference. It was put on by the SCBWI, which stands for Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Over a decade ago, in my previous life as a Washingtonian living north of Seattle, I had attended a few of their west coast regional conferences, but this conference was bigger, better and lots more fun than any of those had been. First of all there were some really top-notch speakers, superstars of the Children's Book world - Paul Zelinsky, Jacqueline Woodson (who gave a wonderful talk), Kevin Hawkes (who led a fun workshop), Jim Benton who gave a very funny and entertaining presentation, and last but not least, the legendary Jane Yolen who ended the conference with an enlivening talk that had every writer and illustrator in the room excited about getting back to work.
During her speech, Ms. Yolen gave the audience her own personal 20 rules for writing, many of which can also be applied to illustrators. The first two were fairly elementary - get rid of the exclamation point and go easy on the adverbs. Some of her other rules included: have fun writing, have fun illustrating; some magic formulas - BIC (Butt in Chair), HOP (Heart on Page) and PNF (Passion Not Fashion); in writing, it's not the opening line itself that is so important but what the opening line portends for the rest of the story, the DNA for the book is carried in the opening line; exercise the writing muscle, exercise the illustration muscle by working EVERY day at your craft; be open to revisions: if you are asked to revise something and you go into those revisions with anger, you won't learn much from the process; don't ignore the landscape/setting of your work, be precise with your details, make your reader feel as if you've been there; read what you've written aloud (this is especially helpful if you're writing a picture book); if you feel blocked, get up and do something else for a while - go for a walk, eat a cookie, read a magazine, watch TV, if none of those things work, then go on to another project for a while; and finally, a rule that I found most helpful - realize that there are projects you will never complete. A few projects will turn bad, go septic along the way. When this happens, put them away, don't look at them for awhile, but keep them, in the future you might be able to transform them into something else.
While at the conference, I bought a lot of books, way too many, but who could resist when there was no sales tax charged, plus one received a discount for paying with cash? With the authors there to give me inspiration each day, it made me feel like I should show my gratitude by purchasing the results of their hard work. Maybe this was a resurfacing of Catholic guilt ("how can you not buy something from these people who have worked so hard for you?"), but, on the other hand, I didn't buy anything that I didn't really like. Here are a few of the things that I bought: "Show Way" a beautiful picture book by Jacqueline Woodson which is a generational story dealing with slavery and freedom quilts and the belief that there is always a road to a better place. This book deservedly won a Caldecott Honor award. "Library Lion," a sweet, funny and old-fashioned (in a good, nostalgic kind of way) picture book by Michele Knudsen and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes, a book that pays tribute to the joy of reading and in particular the importance of libraries. Of all of the books I've seen by Kevin Hawkes, I think this one contains my favorite of his illustrations. I also bought Paul Zelinsky's beautiful version of "Rumplestiltskin," which won him a Caldecott honor award. Mr. Zelinsky gave a wonderful opening talk that was not only laced with humor but gave us a glimpse at some of his working methods. I also bought an amazing book by Peter Sis titled "The Wall," about his early life in Czechoslovakia, growing up behind the iron curtain. This was another book that won a Caldecott honor award. Last but not least, I bought two books on writing - "You Can Write Children's Books," by Tracey E. Dils and "Illustrating Children's Picture Books," by Steven Withrow and Lesley Breen Withrow. From these last two titles, I'm hoping I'll gain some valuable insight and tips.
The conference was a great experience. And even though my portfolio didn't win a prize, I was proud of the work I brought along with me and for the first time in a long while, I felt like a grown-up and a professional who, with some hard work, might actually end up having a career yet.