Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Gathering on the Grand: the SCBWI-MI Fall Conference

Below are three different takes from three different organizers of the Gathering on the Grand conference held September 15 and 16 in Grand Rapids:

From Co-Chair Jay Whistler:

Conferences are complicated. I’m sure that’s not a surprise to most of you. It’s all about details, both enormous and minute. But who wants to read about how we choose a venue, the dozens of conversations we hold about potential speakers, or the logistics of creating a schedule? Instead, here is a peek at phone transcripts and in-person exchanges between and among our conference co-chairs, Jay Whistler and David Stricklen, and some of the rest of the team, including Co-Regional Advisors Leslie Helakoski and Carrie Pearson, Illustrator Coordinator Ruth McNally Barshaw, Nick Adkins, Deb Gonzales, and Lisa Healy. Our thanks to every behind-the-scenes member of the team.


Leslie: Hey Jay, would you like to organize our Fall 2017 conference?
Me: Umm…
Carrie: It will be fun, I promise.
Me: Umm…
Leslie: [waves expensive chocolate under Jay’s nose]
Me: I'm at your command.


C&L: We got you another co-chair for the conference. And he’s already found the venue for us and a commitment from the keynote speaker!
Me: That’s great. Thank you!
C&L: Want to know who it is?
Me: Does he have a pulse?
C&L: It’s Dave Stricklen.
Me: Wahoo! [does small dance of joy while on the phone with L]
C&L: He has experience organizing security for presidential visits. You’ve organized SCBWI conferences before, so you should be a good team.


Dave: Jay, can you contact [potential speaker for conference] please?
Me: Consider it done.


Me: No luck. But I have another idea. [Mentions new potential speaker]
Dave: Let’s do it!

Me: So that was a bust. How about [super cool speaker idea]?
Dave: I’m working on [project that takes crazy amount of time even though it should be a simple one, through no fault of his own], so take it away.

The same week…

Dave: We lost the venue.
Me: I hate my life
Dave: Never fear. I got this. [Secures new venue within a couple days]

nine-and-a-half years AND 742,963,508 emails later…

Me: We did it! [Now-confirmed speaker] is on board!
Dave: Huzzah! Have I mentioned we need someone to do book sales?
Me: On it.
Dave: Have I mentioned we need another speaker?
Me: On it. [Above process repeated]

[Meanwhile, behind the scenes, C&L continue to wrangle budgetary issues, conference registration, hotel negotiations, and more; Deb Gonzales handles website, Facebook page, and Twitter. Nick Adkins changes “Gathering on the Grand” conference banner four hundred and thirteen times; Ruth continues to wrangle illustrator track and speaker; Lisa handles all travel arrangements.]


Dave: Jay, time to figure out the schedule.
Me: Well, we have an illustrator track, a novel track, and a picture book track. Piece of cake. [Twenty minutes later…] But we can’t have Speaker A present this session at the same time Speaker B is presenting this topic because…
Dave: [Thirty minutes later]…and that means that we can’t have an illustration session in this room because…
Me: [Fifteen minutes later]…Wait! We haven’t built in a time for the bookstore yet!
Dave: [Twelve hours later]…Remember that we need half an hour to break down the rooms and set them up again, so that won’t work.
Me: [Cobwebs growing over my hand, phone, and ear]…Is this?…I mean, did we just?...Dave, I think we did it! It’s a schedule!
Dave: Huzzah!
Me: Don’t get too excited. It’s going to change again the day before the conference. Guaranteed.

A couple weeks before the conferencE

Dave: Jay, I’m dying here.
Me: I told you to leave that pork on the grill a little longer.
Dave: No, not that. Although it does have to do with food.
Me: The menus?
Dave: Where’s the highest bridge in Grand Rapids? I’m going to jump off it now.
Me: No can do, pal. Because then I would have to do the menus.
Dave: Do you know how many vegetarians we have? How many vegans? How many gluten free? How many gluten-free vegetarians? Kosher? Allergic to soy or peanuts or dairy or eggs or seafood or even pineapple? I had to create a spreadsheet. Can we just serve gruel?
Me: Not gluten free.
Dave: [Whimpers softly into phone]


[Schedule changes—guaranteed]

Day One of conference

Dave: I’ve figured out where the snipers need to be positioned. I’ve got a few frogmen in the river, SWAT on point at all entrances and exits, and schematics of the sewers, just in case. And there’s a helipad on the roof.
Me: Dave, it’s a kidlit conference. Stand down.
Dave: Right, right. Old habits die hard. Sorry. 

Ten minutes later…

Me: Bookstore tables need to be moved because…[explanation of problem with current location]
Dave: Consider it done.

Twenty minutes later…

Me: I forgot my lanyard.
Carrie: I forgot my belt.
Leslie: I forgot folders. [Flurry of problem-solving mode ensues. Trip to local office supply store is undertaken]

An hour later…

Me: We’re out of nametag holders. [Flurry of problem-solving mode version 2 ensues. Trip to local office supply store version 2 is undertaken]

Just before dinner…

Me, Carrie, Leslie, Dave, Ruth: How do you work this stupid mic? [All fiddling with back of speaker unit. Frantic search for Charlie ensues]
Charlie: [Flips super-secret hidden switch. Shakes head. Whispers under breath] Amateurs.

Day Two of Conference

Dave: We need to change these two sessions because it doesn’t make sense that they are in these rooms. It’s a math thing.
Me: Okay, change away.

Twenty minutes later…

Dave: We can’t change these two sessions because it makes perfect sense that they are in these rooms. It’s a math thing.
Me: Okay, leave as is.

Later that day…

Me: People can pick up written critiques at the registration table later this afternoon. Also, we’re going to have the book signings over here at the tables where we’ll be having lunch.

Later that day…

[Event staff takes down tables after lunch without telling us]

Me: We’ll be having book signings at the registration table instead. And pick up your written critiques at this other place instead of the registration table.

[Conference is finally over, where a good time was had by all]

Leslie: I can’t find my keys. [Long search ensues, including retracing of steps over the river and through the woods, into the parking garage, through multiple event spaces, hotel rooms, suitcases, cars, curbs, and gutters. A locksmith is called to open Leslie’s car on Sunday morning. No keys. After being missing for almost 24 hours, the rascally missing keys are finally located. We won’t tell you where—you wouldn’t believe us even if we did.]

Entire Conference Crew: Job well done, everyone!

From Co-Chair Dave Stricklen:

At our SCBWI fall conference dinner, I mentioned that I have pondered why members of the  SCBWI seem to be so nice. I experienced this first hand working with our leaders and volunteers in planning this event. I have often tried to figure out what makes our large group so consistently considerate. 

My perception is that it is not true with any other division of the writing world. I mentioned that to write, and write well you must be introspective. If you are introspective, you are able to put yourself in other people’s shoes. If you are able to put yourself in other people’s shoes and see things through their eyes, you become empathetic. Empathy is the first step toward kindness.

 Gary Schmidt
gave his point of view on the subject during his amazing keynote and took it one step further. He said in so many words that this is a special group because we all write for children. In order to have a desire to write for children, you must have a kind heart. We are not the norm. We are not in it for ourselves. Basically, we must be unselfish and kind or we wouldn’t write for kids.

Are we both right? I wonder what other people in the SCBWI think. Are we really that nice? Yes, I’m sure there are a few exceptions, even in our group, but I do believe we are kinder than most. Why do you think that is? I'd love to hear your opinion on this. Feel free to leave any thoughts in the comments.

                                                            Photo of Gary Schmidt by Ed Spicer

From Illustrator Coordinator Ruth McNally Barshaw:

The Illustrator Track of our fall conference starred brilliant author-illustrator and Caldecott Honor Award recipient Denise Fleming, who helped us explore spontaneity with our art without sacrificing excellence in design and narrative.


                                            Contour drawing brought out some surprises. Jenni is a good sport

                                            (All sketches by Ruth McNally Barshaw)

We drew contour portraits – fascinating.

We discussed gutters and composition, color, and technique.
Denise assigned us a ripped-paper collage project to be done during the Illustrators Intensive. It was tricky for me. She gave us a list of objects and characters to include which I found limiting. 
I struggled to find a narrative worth exploring, and I struggled to find a compelling way to present it, and I struggled with the time allowed. 
When it was time to show our work, my piece was coherent and glued, which means the time limit forced me to think and work quickly. What a sense of accomplishment at the end!
I was particularly in awe of Kara Marsee’s art, a baby fox filling one side of the spread.

                         Denise wore a crown of LED lights on Saturday. She has lots of bright ideas. ;)                                             

On Saturday morning Denise was busy with portfolio reviews for many members. I heard from a few that her critiques were useful and thoughtful.
Denise spoke about illustration in the afternoon, reminding us that we MUST remember the child point of view.
She said she doesn’t put vignettes in her art because the kids in the back of the room can’t see them when the book’s being read to a class.
She talked about her art, why she tackles it the way she does, and she described her process.
We conference planners kept Denise very busy; she also talked about writing.
In that session Denise read to us excerpts of beautiful and evocative poetry for inspiration. She gave examples of different structures for stories and why she used them for certain books. 
She told us that sometimes we have to be hard on ourselves and cut the excuses and just WRITE.

Jay Whistler has been a member of SCBWI-MI since 2004. 
She was regional advisor for Switzerland briefly before returning to Michigan a few years ago. 
She has a BA in Written Communications, an MA in Technical Writing, and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. 
After Gathering on the Grand, she is convinced that writing a novel is easier than organizing a conference.

In a former life, David Stricklen was an airport police chief with 30 years experience in law enforcement. Now retired, David has written three YA fantasy adventure books in the Blackwater Series: Beneath and Beyond, Through The Eyes of The Beast and The Heart of The Swarm. 
His books are sought after for their fast moving and unpredictable style. David’s many school visits are filled with magic and creativity. David is the Grand Rapids area Shop Talk coordinator and an SCBWI-MI Adcom member.

Illustrator Coordinator Ruth McNally Barshaw wrote and illustrated the six books in the "Ellie McDoodle Diaries" series. She illustrated "Leopold the Lion", and is currently illustrating a mid-grade novel due out June 2018. She and her writer husband Charlie travel all over visitng schools and libraries.


Friday, October 20, 2017

A 5-Week Picture Book Writing Course, Lessons Learned by Kathy Steck

New and experienced writers often ask about quality workshops to improve their craft. SCBWI offers a variety of conferences, local Shop Talks, and webinars, but there are also a number of industry professionals (authors, agents, editors) who run their own workshops, in-person and online. These are not SCBWI endorsed classes, but our members have had some great experiences and benefited from these additional opportunities. Kathy Steck offered to share her experience with an online/interactive picture book class through The Children's Book Academy.

Here's Kathy:

I first stumbled into the world of children’s picture book writing when my daughter fell off the monkey bars, broke her arm, and needed surgery. After journaling to her since before she was born, I needed to write while sitting next to her hospital bed. Out came my heart onto the page. Everyone loved it. I wanted to get it published.

I had so much to learn.

I immersed myself in the world of SCBWI: joined local chapters, attended conferences, joined critique groups. I paid for critiques, read books, and learned whatever, wherever I could. But I still struggled to get published. I put my manuscripts away and worked on an adult novel. Until…

… I came across a 5-week course on Writing Children's Picture Books through the Children’s Book Academy with Mira Reisberg and Julia Maguire. I resurrected my most promising picture book manuscript and set out to finally get it right. Previously, PEE BEFORE YOU GO had failed to get an interested editor or agent. This class was my chance to finally flush out why, and understand what was and wasn’t working.

I started from the beginning, analyzing my story in light of the lessons.
  • Who is my character? 
  • What does she want? 
  • Where is the emotion? 

I submitted my pitch to the weekly webinars eager to get feedback. You’d be amazed how effective a critique of a 60-word synopsis can be, to not only focus your pitch, but to get to the heart of your story. What is my character’s journey?

I also benefitted from a one-on-one critique, which pointed out the biggest problem with my manuscript—making sure it was not didactic (preachy). I realized that that was what editors were seeing. Kids need to be their own heroes and solve their own problems.

I wrestled with the illustrator’s notes. Include them or not include them. Feedback from guest editors (from major publishing houses) indicated that they are okay if they describe action not included in the text. But don’t describe how a picture should be drawn (ie, a pink dress) unless it’s critical to the story. In my story, there are visual triggers that drive the protagonist to act. And illustrator’s notes are particularly helpful when the action contradicts the text.

Now that the class has come to its end (though it really hasn’t ended, thanks to bonus lessons, and follow-up materials, and the connection to the community of writers who participated in the class), I’m excited to start submitting. First, I get to submit my pitch to the panel of agents and editors from the course who have agreed to consider our stories.

But I won’t stop there. I will use the lessons on writing your query/cover letter and cast a wide net. And I will go forth with confidence after learning from one of the editors that just because one editor didn’t like the story for a certain reason, doesn’t mean all editors have the same problem with it. For example, an editor from a major publishing house in CA, didn’t like how my story took place in snow. It caused me to change course. But my critique editor said there are plenty of people who do live in snow regions that would still give the book a wide audience. So, now that I have a stronger, more focused story, I’m ready. Everyone please say a prayer or cross your fingers for me. And keep an eye out for my picture book, PEE BEFORE YOU GO.

P.S.  By the way, The Children’s Book Academy also has classes on Illustrating, Chapter Books, Middle Grade, and more.

Kathy Steck has been a member of SCBWI for more than fifteen years and is humbled by the generosity of this community. She’s continually inspired by her two strong-willed daughters (and strong-willed husband) who provide endless story ideas. 

Improve your craft:

Numerous options exist and we've covered some of them here on the Mitten blog before.
See Angie Kidd's review of Lisa Cron's book WIRED FOR STORY.

And Sondra Soderborg's experience learning about voice in a workshop with Patti Lee Gauch at the Highlights Foundation.

Patti will also be teaching an upcoming workshop with author Gary Schmidt:

Check out the classes offered at the Writing Barn, managed by award-winning author and VCFA alum Bethany Hegedus.

Do you have a book on craft or a class to recommend? Please let us know in the comments. Or we'd love to learn more about your experience through a blog post here on the Mitten. Submission guidelines are here.

And of course, there are so many opportunities through SCBWI and our MI Chapter. The SCBWI Annual Winter Conference in New York is February 2-4, 2018, and registration opens next week on October 24th. They're changing the format to feature intensive masterclass workshops and registration will be limited. Get ready! Registration info will be here on October 24th at 10am Pacific time.

Coming up on the Mitten Blog: Come back next Friday for a recap of our fall conference. The following week, Charlie Barshaw will interview one of our Michigan members for our quarterly Writer Spotlight feature. Who will it be? In November, we'll have social media and marketing tips, the making of a book trailer, another Michigan KidLit Advocate, and more. Stay tuned!

Friday, October 13, 2017

Featured Illustrator Lori Eslick


This questionnaire goes back to a popular parlor game in the early 1900s. Marcel Proust filled it out twice. Some of our questions were altered from the original to gain more insight into the hearts and minds of our illustrators. We hope you enjoy this way of getting to know everybody.

1. Your present state of mind?
HA! Good, as I am painting lots of plein air paintings, which are just a pure joy to work on. Plein air painting is a learning experience…but well (to tell you the truth) It’s a great way to warm up to doing my illustration work. I am included in a plein air art show with other juried artists who are painting plein air the Land Conservancies of West Michigan. The show benefits them as well.

2. What do you do best?
Paint without deadlines. And sometimes I paint best with a short deadline like while painting in the plein air, where you must paint fast, as the sun waits for no one.

3. Where would you like to live?
I love living where I do. Really. But if I could, it would be on Lake Michigan, but I cannot complain about my 6 mile commute to the Muskegon state park.

4. Your favorite color?
Cobalt blue, the color of the sky, often.

5. Three of your own illustrations:
All are personal paintings, and they tend to represent the 3 different types of styles of illustration that I do.

6. Your music?
Mostly classic rock. Sting, Stevie Wonder really get me to sing along, in the studio alone, of course as singing is not my ‘gift’.

7. Your biggest achievement?
My/our two kids. They are a wonder and huge inspiration to me. They both make me think of Max in Where the Wild Things Are, and this makes me smile.

8. Your biggest mistake?
Not taking more classes when I worked at Hallmark as they paid for tuition.

9. Your favorite children's book when you were a child?
Charlotte’s Web.

10. Your main character trait?
I just love art, and so my family and most of my friends know this about me, and I’m also known for being ever the artist…as I seem to always have my sketchbook with me (for instance). And as a character trait, I am pretty shy. But I’ve learned over the years to push myself beyond my comfort zone. This tendency to push myself has helped me to overcome many things such as shyness, to better achieve my goals.

11. What do you appreciate most in a friend?
A kind person and seems most often a good listener is a kind person. So I appreciate most in a friend, a great listener who is kind.

12. What mistakes are you most willing to forgive?
A wicked sense of humor. Not even sure if this is a mistake or the answer to question 11 (for me).

13. Your favorite children's book hero?
‘The Swamp’ in the James Marshall’s: “Miss Nelson is Missing”.

14. What moves you forward?
Practice painting moves me forward, such as plein air painting.

15. What holds you back?

16. Your dream of happiness?
Writing and illustrating my own children’s book stories. With art shows of plein air studies too. So both doing the best art that I can for children and to get to be the best I can be for children, therefore I continue to practice with fine art. Nailed it (the happiness question) !!!!

17. The painter/illustrator you admire most?
- Painters: Carol Peek, Dean Mitchell, artists/illustrators: Laurie Keller, Patti Gay, Rob Hatem (Rob’s blog: Lovemhatem) all very different artists and proud to call them all my friends.
To choose one painter/illustrator: whom I admire the most, it would be Wanda Gag (Millions of Cats).

18. What super power would you like to have?
Time travel power(s).

19. Your motto?
Two mottos, one for artists:
“Keep a sketchbook on you, draw as often as you can”
One for all of us: “a sense of humor comes in handy, almost always”

20. Your social media?
Linked in:

Lori painted two banners and they both deserve to be shown, here is the other one.