Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

2015 Annual Austin SCBWI Conference Highlights

Author Jennifer Nielsen delivers her keynote

Author Jennifer Nielsen delivers her keynote. Photo: Sam Bond Photography

The 2015 Austin SCBWI Annual Conference was a great opportunity to meet new artists and reconnect with old friends, learn, grow, and be encouraged. The conference grew 36% from last year, a testament to the ongoing support and dedication of the Austin SCBWI team and all the authors and illustrators who rely on the conference to make connections and get inspired.

The day began with a keynote from Jennifer Nielsen who shared “What Publishers Won’t Tell You.” After giving details on everything from how royalties are paid to publisher’s expectations for an author’s marketing plan, she shared her most important point: the best thing you can do for your career is write the next book.

Attendees then had the option of choosing one of four breakout sessions:

* picture book collaborations from an agent’s perspective with agent Victoria Wells Arms of Wells Arms Literary

* using the hero’s journey to craft story with agent Aubrey Poole of Sourcebooks

* publishing contracts with Authors Guild attorney and author Stevie Fitzgerald

* a panel on author/illustrator collaboration including author Chris Barton and illustrators Don Tate and Tom Lichtenheld

Publishing panel

The publishing panel with (l. to r.) editors Aubrey Poole and Andrea Welch, agents Victoria Wells Arms and Jill Grinberg, and art director Kristine Brogno. Photo: Sam Bond Photography

Before lunch, attendees gathered in the ballroom again to hear from a panel of experts including agents Victoria Wells Arms and Jill Grinberg, editors Andrea Welch and Aubrey Poole, and art director Kristine Brogno. We learned what they fall in love with (quirky character, humor, fresh writing and voice), and one thing they wished authors and illustrators knew (use fewer illustrator notes in manuscripts, they’re all looking for the next big thing, and rhyme is okay if it’s good).

During lunch, Austin SCBWI PAL members were honored as their pictures and their book covers flashed across the screens. After lunch, the young writer winners of the Betty X. Davis Young Writers of Merit Award were announced. Long-time SCBWI member Betty X. Davis once again gave out the awards, and since she turns 100 in November, the chapter surprised her with an early cake. (The Betty X. Davis award gives $500 scholarship to young writers. Click here if you would like to donate to the award's fund.)

After lunch, attendees were treated with a humorous keynote on the “Top Ten Tips for Picture Book Creators” from author/illustrator Tom Lichtenheld. He introduced the idea that artists should think “inside the box,” the box being the constraints within which the story is told. Other tips included surprising the reader, collaborating with other artists, and the idea that half a brain sometimes works better than the whole. Tom explained he gets some of his best ideas while half of his brain is otherwise occupied, allowing his subconscious mind to work.

Betty X. Davis (c.) honors the winners of the Young Writers of Merit Award.

Betty X. Davis (c.) honors the winners of the Young Writers of Merit Award. Photo: Sam Bond Photography

Then it was time for more breakout sessions. The first four included:

* a diversity panel featuring Cynthia Leitich Smith as moderator for Jessica Lee Anderson, Bethany Hegedus, Don Tate, Emma Virjan, and Jo Whittemore

* hearing what makes a picture book work with editor Andrea Welch

* a guide to social media by author Cory Putnam Oakes

* how illustrators can break the rules with agent Victoria Wells Arms

The second set of breakout sessions included:

* writing non-fiction with author Chris Barton

* ten essential picture book elements with editor Andrea Welch, a follow-up to her first breakout session on what makes a picture book work

* how an editor acquires a manuscript with editor Aubrey Poole

* an art director’s thoughts on the play of text and image with Kristine Brogno

After a full day, it was time for a cookie break before the First Impressions Panel, where our faculty commented on the first five sentences of a manuscript or single illustration, which had been previously submitted. Narrated by the charming C. S. Jennings, brave participants learned what works and what doesn’t to catch an agent, editor, or art director’s eye.

Portfolio Showcase winners

Judges Tom Lichtenheld (2nd. from l.) and Kristine Brogno (2nd. from r.) with the Portfolio Showcase winner Misha Blaise (l.) and honor winners. Photo: Sam Bond Photography

As the day closed, winners for the Meredith Davis Volunteer of the Year Award, Portfolio Showcase, finalists for the Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentor Award, and the Emerging Voice Illustrator Mentorship finalists were announced. The honorees are:

Meredith Davis Volunteer of the Year: Iris Diamond

Portfolio Showcase Honors: Ashley Mims and Priscilla Boatwright; Winner: Misha Blaise

Emerging Voice Illustrator Mentorship winner: Eya Floyd

Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentor Award finalists: Gale Albright, Katie Brown, Sue Cleveland, Jeff Crosby, Heather Helene, Rebekah Junkermeier, Karen Lemens, Rebekah Manley, Meg Moring, Carmen Oliver and Sarah Propeck. 2015 mentor Brian Yansky chose Katie Brown as the winner.

As Jennifer Nielsen said at the beginning of the conference and these awards demonstrated, Austin is one of the best places in the country for emerging writers and illustrators to connect and find encouragement from experts in their field.

Silent auction winners gathered their prizes, writers and illustrators had their books signed, and the Typewriter Rodeo wrote poems on the spot. Bursts of inspiration were a fitting finish to a day dedicated to creativity and the pursuit of excellence, and we weren’t done.

On Sunday two intensives were offered, one track for illustrators and one for writers. Each intensive lasted two hours. In the morning, writers heard from author Jennifer Nielsen about how to untangle the tangled “plot webs” we create for ourselves. She talked about the common problems in creating story and gave time for attendees to work on their own manuscripts as they experimented with log lines, character motivations, endings and scenes. Meanwhile, the illustrators heard from Tom Lichtenheld and then had the opportunity to have their work evaluated as they learned from each other’s critiques.

Illustrator mentorship

Eya Floyd, winner of the new Emerging Voice Illustrator Mentorship, with 2015 mentor Don Tate. Photo: Sam Bond Photography

After lunch, participants in each track had two more hours of intense learning from the experts. Writers heard from agent Jill Grinberg, who used her experiences with her own clients to explore character and common manuscript pitfalls, along with how she collaborated with them to come up with solutions that sold. Illustrators heard from Kristine Brogno who gave feedback on final pieces created per an assignment given before the conference. Kristine also provided valuable notes all illustrators can apply to their work.

On both days participants who registered beforehand had the chance to receive feedback from the agents, editors, art director or published authors and illustrators on submitted work. Whether artists received personal feedback or just attended the sessions, all walked away with notebooks full of advice and inspiration that will shape their work. Our hope is that new relationships were forged, old ones were renewed, and all participants were encouraged as they continue on their creative journeys.

View all more photographs from the conference at the Sam Bond Photography Facebook page. And check out this video of Day 1 by Ariane Felix and Day 2.

See you next year!

2015 Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentor Award finalists

2015 Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentor Award finalists with Cynthia (c.). Photo: Sam Bond Photography

Further kudos from some conference attendees:

"The organization, the faculty, the details, everything was spot-on. I truly think it was one of the best conferences Austin has ever seen, and an impressive number of attendees shared the same sentiment." -Donna Janell Bowman

"When Jennifer Nielsen was singing praises about SCBWI Austin, I couldn't have agreed with her more. Don't know how I got so lucky to have landed in such a great community, but it's awesome! This was my first conference to attend both days and it was fantastic." -Christina Soontornvat

"As a critiquer, my one-on-ones were of a higher quality than ever before. The out of town faculty was impressed with the quality of material they saw from our writer's and illustrators–and it has everything to do with the community and how supportive it is." -Bethany Hegedus