Back in April 2019 I wrote a post on ten things I wished I’d done sooner on my journey towards submitting my first illustrated picture book. Eight months later, here are ten more things I’ve learned that have helped me on my submission journey (and which I hope might help you, if you’re aiming to submit as an author illustrator)…
1 Be Prolific!
Rather than constantly obsessing about my first picture book story, I’ve learnt that it’s better to have several ideas in development at once. There are three advantages to this:
- agents and publishers in receipt of your first submission or pitch may want to know what other ideas and projects you have up your sleeve, so it’s good to be prepared
- some agents ask you to send more than one picture book text in their submission guidelines
- if you take a break from one text to work on another, you can then come back to the first one with ‘fresh eyes’ and hopefully be able to spot any flaws more easily
If you’re like me, you may have lots of ideas for picture books clamouring for attention, countered by lots of distractions that stop you developing them into fully-fledged stories. I think the answer for me was to develop a more regular writing habit.
At a workshop I attended recently, Jo Collins of The Golden Egg Academy advocated regular free writing (find a writing prompt for yourself then write freely about it for, say, five minutes, without any form of self-censorship) as a way of unleashing your creativity and getting into the habit of writing. If you enjoy writing for the 8-12 age group, another tip, from author and Writing Magazine contributor Amy Sparkes, is to submit features or stories to the children’s magazine Aquila (see https://www.aquila.co.uk/images/docs/Author_guidelines_2016.pdf).
I’m thinking of signing up for the annual online Storystorm challenge in the New Year, run by US-based children’s book author Tara Lazar – the challenge being to create 30 story ideas in 30 days (‘idea’ doesn’t have to mean a fully-fledged idea for a picture book – it can just be a great title or a funny name for a character, for example; also, there is no obligation to post your ideas). There will be daily blog posts by authors, illustrators, editors and other publishing professionals, and writers who complete the challenge are eligible for prizes. Participation is free (but Tara asks that in return you support her books in some way) and registration is in late December/early January (see https://taralazar.com/storystorm/ )
Another great source of tips for generating story ideas is this article by Natascha Biebow of Blue Elephant Story Shaping and Ellie Farmer, Commissioning Editor at Little Tiger Press from the SCBWI BI online magazine Words & Pictures: Harnessing Your Creativity: Ten Techniques to Springboard New Story Ideas (https://www.wordsandpics.org/2016/01/ask-picture-book-editor.html )
2 Get organised!
I used to note down ideas in random notebooks or on silly little scraps of paper which were in danger of getting mislaid. I also did most of my illustration and character design sketches on loose bits of paper, and when I worked on illustrations in Photoshop I had a rather haphazard filing system for all the versions I ended up with. So, I decided to be more organised in four ways:
- I started using the Trello app (https://trello.com/en – the basic package is free) to plan out and keep track of my ideas, projects, deadlines and next steps towards my goal of getting published. I think this will also make it easier for me to recycle ideas that haven’t yet found a home
- I established a sketchbook to keep all my sketches together. One piece of advice that came out of illustration workshops and one-to-one portfolio reviews this year was that art directors are always keen to see your sketchbook(s)
- I organised my workspace in a corner of the house where I don’t have to keep clearing things away, and established a more organised filing system on my computer for all my photoshop files
- I also started updating my writing CV each time I attend an event, do some training or achieve something. I haven’t come across many agents who ask for a writing CV in their submissions guidelines (the only one so far is Fraser Ross Associates), but it’s useful to have for my own purposes as an exact record of what I’ve done and when. I’ll be able to refer back to it when writing submission letters to agents who ask for details about my writing or illustration background
3 Keep entering competitions!
I mentioned entering competitions in my earlier post, but I think it’s important to highlight them again, especially as I’ve entered some more over the last eight months. Competitions are great even if you don’t win, because they provide you with a motivational deadline and the impetus to produce a new piece of writing or artwork, as well as the opportunity to practice working to a precise brief. If you do win, you have the added bonus of being able to mention your moment of glory in your submission covering letters. Here’s a list of competitions I’ve entered recently – have a look to see if there are any you haven’t come across:
As an author illustrator:
- In November 2019 I was a finalist in The Hook (like Dragons Den but for writers; see https://britishisles.scbwi.org/conference-2019/the-hook/) at the SCBWI British Isles Conference in Winchester. You can see my on-stage pitch on the ‘about’ page of this website. It was a fantastic opportunity and I’m very glad I plucked up the courage to enter!
As an illustrator:
- I’ve continued to enter the SCBWI Draw This! monthly prompt competition (https://www.scbwi.org/calling-all-illustrators-2/); no wins to date, but it has motivated me to produce a lot of new artwork for my portfolio
- I entered the SCBWI BI Conference 2019 Badge Design competition (see https://www.wordsandpics.org/2019/06/competitions-design-this-years.html); I was a runner-up and six of my designs were made into badges – it was fun seeing them on sale at the conference!
- I also entered the SCBWI BI Annual Advent Calendar Competition run by Paul Morton (Twitter: @paulhotfrog) – the deadline is usually at the end of November and the prompt word this year was ‘Solstice’. Twenty-five designs are selected from the entries and posted on the SCBWI BI Facebook page on each day of December, with the overall winner appearing on Christmas Day. My illustration appeared on 13th December.
- I submitted two pieces of art for the SCBWI Pictures at Play Biennial Exhibition (see https://britishisles.scbwi.org/events/pictures-at-play-biennial-juried-exhibition-2019/); I wasn’t successful but will try again in two years’ time!
- I’ve entered the Wraptious competition for the second time (see https://www.wraptious.com/collections/competition-page and my blog posts on this subject)
Some other competitions I’m considering entering in the future:
- The annual House of Illustration Book Illustration Competition – last year’s challenge was particularly good for children’s illustrators, as it involved producing artwork for Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones; this year’s challenge is to illustrate three poems by Imtiaz Dharker, Emily Dickinson and John Donne; deadline Friday 17th January 2020 (https://www.houseofillustration.org.uk/get_involved/the-book-illustration-competition-2020)
- The Stratford-Salariya Children’s Picture Book Prize for unpublished authors and/or illustrators – deadline Friday 31st January 2020 (https://www.salariya.com/article/stratford-salariya-picture-book-prize-2020)
- The annual Writing Magazine Picture Book Prize for unagented, unpublished picture book writers, run by children’s author Amy Sparkes and agent Julia Churchill in conjunction with Writing Magazine – the deadline is usually at the end of October each year (https://www.sparkey.org.uk/Books/picture-book-prize/)
- The SCBWI Narrative Art Award for three sequential images which tell a strong visual story; the images can be with or without text and must be appropriate for either a picture book or middle grade book – the deadline is usually in October each year (https://www.scbwi.org/scbwi-narrative-art-award/)
- SCBWI Art Spot and Bulletin Art Submissions – each issue of The Bulletin features a winning Art Spot illustration – submissions are accepted on an ongoing basis (https://www.scbwi.org/art-spot/)
- SCBWI Featured Illustrator – the Featured Illustrator’s art is highlighted prominently on the homepage of the SCBWI website and the SCBWI Illustrator Gallery landing page, as well as all SCBWI social media – to be considered you need to have an up-to-date Illustrator Gallery on the SCBWI website with at least 12 images, and your chances of being selected are increased if you participate in other SCBWI illustration contests (https://www.scbwi.org/featured-illustrator/)
Another useful list of illustration competitions can be found on the Picture Hooks website, here: https://www.picturehooks.org.uk/links/
Finally, I’d like to mention hashtag initiatives such as #inktober, #colour_collective, #AnimalAlphabets, #folktaleweek and #childhoodweek. These aren’t competitions, but are a great opportunity to showcase your work (apparently art directors often check them out), and, again, they provide an impetus and deadline to produce new work which could end up in your portfolio. Some of them are ongoing all year round, others (e.g. #inktober or #folktaleweek) occur once a year. They require a certain daily or weekly time commitment, but I’m hoping to give one or more of them a go at some point in the future.
4 Never stop learning! (from writing and illustration events)
There’s always something new to learn about story-writing and illustrating. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend some really inspiring workshops this year and each one has helped me to hone my craft as an author illustrator in a different way. I’m listing them here so that you can check out the ones you’re not aware of to see if they would be useful for you:
Workshops about story structure, ‘anatomy’ of a picture book and characterisation:
- Picture Book author Amy Sparkes’ workshops Introduction to Picture Books and Cracking Characterisation (see @AmySparkes on Twitter or website: www.sparkey.org.uk for future workshops)
- Children’s book author, editor and creator Natascha Biebow’s workshop at the SCBWI BI Conference 2019: Be Brave: Unravelling, Then Re-Knitting A Stronger Picture Book (see www.nataschabiebow.com and www.blueelephantstoryshaping.com ; also see https://britishisles.scbwi.org/conference-2019/ for information about the 2019 conference – details of next year’s conference are not yet available)
- Jo Collins’ workshop Introduction to Picture Books for the Golden Egg Academy (see @jocollinseditor on Twitter and website https://www.goldeneggacademy.co.uk/picture-book-programme/one-off-workshops/ for future workshops)
- It’s not strictly speaking a workshop, but I also attended the excellent SCBWI BI Picture Book Day and heard excellent panel discussions, presentations and demonstrations by Mo O’Hara, Natascha Biebow, Anita Loughrey, Rashmi Sirdeshpande, Penny Morris, Sarah McIntyre, Loretta Schauer, Zoe Tucker, Candy Gourlay, Smriti Halls and Chitra Soundar (see https://britishisles.scbwi.org/events/ for future SCBWI British Isles events)
- I’ve signed up for a Write Mentor Writing Weekend Workshop with Clare Helen Welsh in February 2020 (see https://write-mentor.com/writementor-writing-weekends-www/)
I’ve learned that it’s important to:
- make sure your story concept is strong enough and unique enough before you start writing
- analyse your story arc to make sure character(s) and problem are established by spread 3 at the latest, and the crisis happens on or around spread 9
- show don’t tell
- make every page turn count
- make sure you know who your main character is
- make sure the stakes are high enough for your character(s) so that the reader cares what happens to them
- find a ‘mentor text’ that you can analyse to help you write your own picture book, i.e. an existing, successful picture book that is similar to yours in some way
Workshops about illustration techniques, self-promotion & branding, ‘anatomy’ of a portfolio and what makes a good promotional postcard:
- SCBWI British Isles Illustration Masterclasses: Self-Promotion, Branding and Publishing Contracts with Derek Brazell of the Association of Illustrators; and Art Director’s Brief with Tiffany Leeson of Egmont (see https://britishisles.scbwi.org/forillustrator/ for future illustration masterclasses)
- SCBWI BI Conference 2019 break-out sessions for illustrators: First Impressions Panel for Illustrators with Art Director Strawberrie Donnelly of Scholastic, Arabella Stein of the Bright Agency and author illustrator Bridget Marzo giving valuable feedback on promotional images submitted by delegates; and The Art Directors Brief with Jude Evans, Art Director at Little Tiger Press, giving her tips on what a publisher looks for in a portfolio and how to make your illustrations stand out (see https://britishisles.scbwi.org/conference-2019/ for information about the 2019 conference – details of next year’s conference are not yet available)
- Domestika online courses for illustrators are reasonably priced (especially if you time it right – they often have offers / promotions) and in my experience very helpful. So far I’ve done Introduction to Illustration for Children and Illustration Techniques to Unlock your Creativity with Adolfo Serra; I am about to do Brushes and Pixels: Introduction to Digital Painting in Photoshop with Patricio Betteo
- I’ve signed up for a House of Illustration Masterclass: Illustrating People, with illustrator Sion Ap Tomas in March 2020 (see https://www.houseofillustration.org.uk/whats-on/current-future-events/masterclass-illustrating-people )
With regard to picture book illustrations and promo cards, I’ve learned that:
- the best images feature unique (rather than generic), relatable characters with child-appeal who interact or make eye contact with each other or the viewer and who seem to have a story behind them; the image should provide context for the characters and should elicit emotion in the viewer
- eye shape is really important and determines whether your characters have a trade / commercial / educational feel
- it’s best to take your time to explore your own art style, and only showcase style(s) in your portfolio that you really love using and want to end up being commissioned for
- sketchbooks are really important and art directors like to see them; they often see things they like in a sketchbook that don’t appear in the artist’s portfolio
- limited palette is usually more effective than using every colour in your paintbox!
5 Never stop learning! (from blogs and websites)
I’ve come across some really excellent blogs and author and/or illustrator websites packed full of tips, information and inspiration (great if attending events is difficult for any reason):
- The SCBWI British Isles online magazine Words & Pictures is a cornucopia of brilliant articles on every topic imaginable to do with writing and illustrating: https://www.wordsandpics.org/
- Picture book den is an independent group of professional children’s authors and illustrators who love to share their passion for picture books; their blog page is here: http://picturebookden.blogspot.com/ and includes blogs by Natascha Biebow, Juliet Clare Bell, Jane Clarke, Lynne Garner, Pippa Goodhart, Mini Grey, Garry Parsons, Lucy Rowland, Chitra Soundar, as well as guest blogs
- The Write Mentor blog has a wealth of excellent posts on all things to do with writing: https://write-mentor.com/blog/. They have also recently brought out an excellent magazine: https://write-mentor.com/product-category/magazine/
- Children’s book author, editor, coach and workshop leader Natascha Biebow has a comprehensive list of all her immensely helpful blog posts on the craft of writing picture books here: https://www.blueelephantstoryshaping.com/blogs-craft-tips-for-you/
- Children’s author, teacher and WriteMentor mentor Clare Helen Welsh has listed the excellent articles she has written here: https://clarehelenwelsh.com/expertise-and-articles/
- Writer and children’s author Jenny Moore’s wide-ranging (and very entertaining!) blog can be found here: https://jennifermoore.wordpress.com/ (there is a ‘writing’ category which includes some posts about picture book writing)
- Children’s author Michelle Robinson has gathered together all her great tips for writing on one page here: http://www.michellerobinson.co.uk/advice.html
- Children’s author and columnist for Writers’ Forum magazine Anita Loughrey’s excellent blog covers a wide range of topics: https://anitaloughrey.blog/ (there is a ‘writing 4 children’ category which includes some posts on picture books)
- Picture Hooks, an Edinburgh-based organisation that runs a mentoring programme to support emerging illustrators, has some great articles for illustrators here: https://www.picturehooks.org.uk/blog/
- Author illustrator Bridget Marzo has a wonderful searchable archive of her past blog posts here: http://bridgimage.blogspot.com/
- Fishink blog by Manchester-based textile designer, illustrator and photographer Craig has thought-provoking posts on all things visual: https://fishinkblog.com/ (you can search for ‘children’s illustration’ to narrow the focus)
- Also check out children’s author (and producer of the ‘Writing for Children’ pages for Writing Magazine) Amy Sparkes’ brilliant #WednesdayWritingTips for aspiring writers on Twitter (@AmySparkes)
- #ukpbchat and #scbwichat on Twitter on the first Thursday of each month are a useful source of information, giving you the opportunity to hear the views of industry experts and ask them questions yourself (or just lurk if you prefer!)
- https://www.littleparachutes.com/ is a very helpful website if you want to research what picture books are already out there about a specific issue or experience
6 Keep getting feedback!
Over the last eight months I’ve benefitted from many opportunities to get invaluable feedback on my writing and illustrations, all of them provided by the SCBWI (proving yet again how important it is to be a member!):
- I attended the SCBWI BI annual Portfolio Review Intensive (see https://britishisles.scbwi.org/events/portfolio-review-intensive/ ) in June and got feedback on my portfolio and a dummy picture book
- I booked a one-to-one portfolio review at the SCBWI BI Conference (https://britishisles.scbwi.org/conference-2019/) and got feedback on my portfolio and character design sketches
Picture book manuscript critiques:
- I signed up for the Friday Night Critique at the SCBWI BI conference (https://britishisles.scbwi.org/conference-2019/programme/); this was the first time I had taken part in any peer reviews – it was great fun, a good opportunity to meet fellow authors and illustrators, and a source of many useful pieces of feedback on my manuscript
- During The Hook at the SCBWI BI conference (https://britishisles.scbwi.org/conference-2019/the-hook/) I received feedback on my pitch, my concept and my illustrations from four agents
- I recently joined my local SCBWI picture book critique group and enjoyed getting to know other authors/illustrators from my area whilst receiving some extremely useful feedback on one of my stories. If you can’t get to meetings of a local critique group you might be able to find opportunities for online critique groups via the facebook page of your SCBWI region
Alongside critiques I also managed to get my computer to read my picture book texts aloud to me – a great way of finding out where it doesn’t flow so well! If you can’t get the technology to work you could ask a friend or family member.
Critiques are wonderful things, but sometimes you need to know when to stop tweaking your story and submit it – this article by Clare Helen Welsh at WriteMentor gives brilliant advice for deciding whether your story has reached its final version: https://write-mentor.com/2019/12/01/editing-how-do-you-know-when-a-story-is-finished-by-clare-helen-welsh/
7 Don’t forget the practicalities!
When I went to my first portfolio review in July 2019, I took an A3-sized portfolio with me. I noticed that many of the other illustrators there (all more experienced than I am) had A4-sized portfolios, which looked really neat and professional and were a lot easier to carry around and display.
So, I decided to invest in an A4 portfolio, and after much research I chose the Pampa Spiral Book Portfolio 21cm x 30cm Black with 20 Matt Sleeves as the best compromise between price and good looks. I took it to the SCBWI BI conference and was very happy with both its looks and portability!
As an illustrator, the other practicality I realised I needed to organise in plenty of time before attending events was the ordering of promotional postcards to give out to agents, publishers and art directors.
If you leave it too late you either have to do without promo cards or pay a fortune for express delivery options!
I’ve used Overnight Prints (www.overnightprints.co.uk) and Moo (https://www.moo.com/uk/) and was pleased with the results from both; Moo was a little more expensive, but very good quality, and if you can catch them when they are running a promotion I think the extra expense is probably worth it.
8 A great pitch is essential!
I found that signing up for speed pitching events was a great way of forcing me to focus on writing the pitches for my picture books and really discover what the heart of each story is. It’s useful to have a succinct and compelling hook and ‘elevator pitch’ (i.e. a pitch short enough to fit into the time it takes to go up in an elevator) up your sleeve, both for occasions when you might be able to talk directly to an agent or publisher and also for inclusion in your submission letter.
Pitching live to an agent or editor was nerve-racking the first time I did it, but I found that if I just treated it like a normal conversation about my book it seemed a lot less daunting. It definitely became easier the more I did it.
- I attended the annual SCBWI BI Agents’ Party in September (see https://britishisles.scbwi.org/events/agents-party-2019/)
- I signed up for the Speed Pitching Session at the SCBWI BI Conference (https://britishisles.scbwi.org/conference-2019/speed-pitching/)
- As already mentioned, I took part in The Hook at the SCBWI BI Conference (https://britishisles.scbwi.org/conference-2019/the-hook/) which is basically pitching your book on stage
9 Attend the SCBWI BI conference!
If you’ve managed to get this far through my post, you’ve probably gathered that I attended the SCBWI BI Conference this year for the first time (https://britishisles.scbwi.org/events/scbwi-bi-conference-2019/). It was a significant financial outlay, but I thought it was worth every single penny. So, if you can possibly afford to go (or apply for funding through one of the various scholarships available https://britishisles.scbwi.org/conference-2019/scholarship/ ), I would absolutely recommend it, not only for the excellence of the keynote presentations and workshops, in which industry experts share their knowledge and experience, but also for the opportunity to meet so many other authors and illustrators and for the sheer positivity and energy of the whole experience.
I’m not naturally an extrovert, but when I booked my place I decided to rapidly develop a ‘go for it!’ mentality, which basically meant signing up for everything I could, in order to make the most of the opportunities on offer. This required a bit of bravery, definitely took me well out of my comfort zone, and led to a really full on, exhausting weekend – but it was definitely worth it!
Everyone was so friendly, and newbies were well catered for with dedicated events to help you find your way around. The other great thing I found was that there seemed to be no feeling of division between published and pre-published/aspiring authors and illustrators. I learned so much and met so many great people over the two-and-a-half days, and came away feeling energised and ready to tackle my writing and illustration projects with renewed vigour!
10 Keep expanding your network!
One phrase I’ve often heard this year is ‘find your tribe’! The conference was an amazing opportunity to make connections with fellow writers and illustrators from my local area, the UK as a whole, and even internationally. It allowed me to grow my network of fellow authors and/or illustrators on Twitter and Instagram, as a source of information, expertise, support and friendship. I’ve also joined several writing and illustrating groups on Facebook, a social media platform I had never really used much before. As mentioned above, I joined a local SCBWI picture book critique group, and have made contact with some other local writers by attending a Write Hub event at my local literary festival.
Contact with other writers and illustrators, both pre-published and published, has helped me to stick to the final piece of advice I’ve heard again and again from everyone involved in this business:
DON’T GIVE UP! See ‘rejection’ as a chance for ‘reflection’ and KEEP GOING!
Here’s to the next eight months of the submission journey!
Love this, Claire! Such a useful, informative post. A big thank you for the blog shout out too!
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O-M-G. Thank you so much for creating this list, Claire. I will pour over your beautifully organized list more thoroughly when I finally catch my breath. I’m so impressed by your commitment to your craft. I’ve heard the same advice you have, but it seems to come down to the true challenge of implementation. There is such an abundance of opportunities out there for writer/illustrators and I applaud you for taking advantage of so many of them. I’m almost as deep into this journey as you are so if you ever want to swap dummies for fresh feedback, please let me know. Good luck with your next eight months, and I look forward to seeing your hard work in print someday soon!
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Thank you for reading and commenting so positively, Bonnie! You’re right, there is such an abundance of opportunities it’s a bit mind-boggling sometimes! I’d love to swap dummies with you at some point – we follow each other on Twitter so will message you. Good luck to you too with your writing and illustrating – loved looking at your portfolio on your website!
Claire what a fabulous post. I read this one and the earlier one. Thank you. So many tangible things – love the goals and deadlines. It really is important to getting things done! Love how hard you’re working. Well done! And then taking breaks and switching up for fresh eyes! Great reminders. Beautiful artwork! Congrats and all the best.
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Thank you very much, Rosanna. I loved your recent blog post too, that stemmed from Frances Gilbert’s webinar on humour – your post and the associated tweets have sparked such interesting discussions!