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1. Facing up with the SCBWI Conference

Last weekend was the annual SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) conference in Winchester, which was as ever educating and inspiring.

Sunrise over Winchester on the first morning of the SCBWI Conference

I've volunteered with SCBWI for very many years now, initially when I was in Japan, and, since my return to the UK, with the British Isles chapter. Apart from supporting Anne-Marie Perks on the illustrator's committee I co-run our network in East Anglia with writer Helen Moss, and edit the Friday (illustration themed) page of our web-journal Words & Pictures. As the Conference is such a key part of the SCBWI calendar I wish I could go every year, but picture book deadlines and other concerns have often intervened. As a volunteer I try to attend once every other year at least, though I'm not directly involved in organising the Conference itself (I may be raising my hand next year though!).

One of the highlights of the weekend - and there were many - was receiving a small prize in recognition for volunteering, I was greatly surprised and absolutely delighted - thank you SCBWI!!



There are full reports of the Conference on Words & Pictures, so these are just my thoughts. This year I was there to help out, but also on a personal level with the hope of reviving interest in my own picture book ideas. All my children's book work over recent years has been commissioned texts for publishers in the US and Japan, written by others. These titles have been sometimes complex projects that completely absorbed my attention, just looking at the past three years -  Stone Giant - Michelangelo's David and How He Came to Be (written by Jane Sutcliffe), Crinkle, Crackle, Crack - It's Spring (written by Marion Dane Bauer) Will's Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk (also by Jane Sutcliffe) Yozora o Miage-yo (written by Yuriko Matsuoka) and,  forthcoming from Holiday House in 2017,  Magic For Sale (written by Carrie Clickard). 

All of these books have been wonderful projects, fine texts by marvelously talented writers, but concentrating on these has meant I've neglected my own stories, which remain as rough idea notes and little more, I've not submitted dummies to publishers for a very long time. However right now I'm working on black and white ink drawings for novels, so taking a break from commissioned picture books, this slight breather is encouraging me to once more look over my story concepts and ideas.

I've lived in the UK for almost nine years now since leaving Japan and returning to these shores after 21 years away. After an initial enthusiasm for UK publishing I focused on my Japanese and American connections, hence most of my work still comes from overseas, it's about time I really tackled British publishing head on and started submitting!

Will's Words on sale through P & G Wells bookshop at the Conference

So, was the Conference as inspiring as I'd hoped? Absolutely! The activities for illustrators were as hoped brilliant, from the fringe event sketchcrawl around Winchester, which really got the creative cells buzzing, to the illustration keynote from Leigh Hodgkinson, and really excellent Pulse events - a hands-on picture book workshop from Viv Schwarz, and thorough session on promotion from Paul Strickland. Plus the sheer energy of seeing all my old friends, new faces, discussion, companionship - it was terrific.

Industry Picture Book Panel talk, with Miranda Baker (Nosy Crow) seen here with the book, David McDougall (Walker), Caroline Walsh (agent) and Polly Whybrow (Bloomsbury)
Some of the costumes at the Mass Book Launch (photo: George Kirk)
Hard at work during Viv Schwarz's workshop
Leigh Hodgkinson artwork
The Marvellous Paul Strickland

But what about my plan to get writing? In addition to the illustrator activities two key-note presentations particularly inspired me, one from author David Almond (who I've known since he spoke to our Tokyo SCBWI group many years ago) and another from Sarah Davies of the Greenhouse Literary Agency. Both these had me squirming in my seat, their passion for the story really shook me up, I've got to write, I've got to write!!!

David Almond (photo: Candy Gourlay)
This isn't the first time I've been to an SCBWI conference and been inspired to write, but with no major picture book projects on now I've no excuse NOT to write now, to actually do something about it.

My problem is that I regard myself as a professional illustrator, with years of experience and a back catalogue of over 50 published children's books illustrated, and the confidence that brings. I've struggled with creative writing though, it's not my natural form of expression, I don't feel I'm a comfortable picture book writer, my pictures already tell stories, but expanding them to create a binding narrative is a struggle. When I write I'd rather do it without thinking of images, then come back to illustrate it with my 'artist' hat on. I wonder if I'd feel a little more comfortable writing longer fiction than picture books. Because I don't feel my words are as professional as my drawings, I've not much confidence when it comes to submitting to publishers. Also I don't take story rejection well, my one attempt at writing a novel when I was 16 was shelved after two publisher rejections (it really was not very good though!), previous dummies sent to publishers have also been shelved rather than worked on and improved.

Although I've had stories published in Japanese through children's publishers in Tokyo, I've not been published as a writer in the West, only as an illustrator. This really has to change!

Anyway, the Conference really helped me feel a bit more focused on this, I've a lot to thank SCBWI for, not only the award, but the companionship and encouragement. Maybe this time I will get writing again, it really is about time! As a US editor once told me, "if you want to make a mark you have to produce your own stories, it's no good sharing your royalties and glory, your books should all be yours".  Indeed!

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2. Winchester Conference


Last weekend I was invited to run a workshop at the British Isles SCBWI Conference at the University of Winchester. This was the second year for the event but only the first time I'd been able to attend. It was also the first time to see the British Isles membership together, though I recognised several faces from other events such as Bologna or the Society of Authors CWIG Conference last year.

As I write, the web promo is still viewable on the SCBWI British Isles Website. Other guests included writers Meg Rosoff, Cliff McNish and Fiona Dunbar, and illustrators Paula Metcalf and Gillian McClure. Philip "Beardy" Ardagh entertained on Saturday evening with a humorous after-dinner speech.

My own workshop session was on illustration portfolios, "Learn the secrets of building a better portfolio and showing it effectively" - a repeat of an event I first ran in Tokyo earlier this year. I think most of the attendees were able to learn something from the talk.

I was mightily impressed by the Conference. The organisers had packed two days with speeches and breakout sessions, portfolio reviews and competitions, everything seemed to be very thoroughly arranged. Also I felt as if I was really connecting to the membership in this country, it was really great to be with so many creative people in one place, although I'm a professional illustrator I find these events especially inspire me to develop myself as an author. Since returning to the UK I've not made much progress with book dummies and other self-penned projects, the conference has definitely helped to restore energy and focus! Many thanks particularly to Candy, Margaret, Anne-Marie, Paolo and Natascha for all their hard work.

Sadly I didn't take any photos, but Paul Morton has posted a number here

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