Posted by: susandilldetwiler | October 22, 2014

Picture Book Foibles

writing mouse

It is a myth that picture books are the easiest children’s books to write. According to Aaron Shepard’s award-winning book, The Business of Writing For Children, “picture books may be the hardest — because they demand conciseness, simplicity, and a visual sense.” He points out it is also true that competition is greater than for the other children’s publishing genres, because more people try to write picture books.

Ann Whitford Paul in her wonderful book Writing Picture Books, A Hands-On Guide From Story Creation to Publication, states in the prologue that revision — shaping your draft into a publishable manuscript — is the fun part of writing a picture book, and is what separates an amateur from a professional. She confesses that she thought her first stories were so fabulous that an editor would call her with an offer as soon as they were read; when months later her submissions returned with form rejection letters, she convinced herself that these editors didn’t know what they were missing. She goes on to list all the mistakes she made in her first story attempts, and then explains in detail how writers can learn to understand how to be their own best critic, to recognize the things they should look for when revising.

So what are a few things that should be avoided in picture book writing?

- Stories that teach lessons

- Characters with cutesy names

- Action from the parent’s point-of-view, not the child’s

- Protagonists who never misbehave

- Plots contrived with an adult conveniently turning up to solve the problem

- Using rhyme, in most cases

- Premise instead of plot

- Description of elements that can be illustrated instead

Some of these you’ve probably heard before, but they bear repeating because if you’re like me, each one is a trap you can easily fall into.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this list, and also any foibles you’d like to add!

Posted by: Susan Mannix | October 19, 2014

It’s About Time

Good morning…2AM, dark-of-the-night morning. Hey, if I can’t sleep, I might as well write. And I do owe you all a blog post. This one has been formulating in my mind for the last few days as I went from one chore to another – laundry, barn, grocery store, vet’s office, making appointments, etc. The other thing that I’ve been mentally carting around town with me is my current WIP.

When the heck am I going to get some writing done? And how the heck do other writers do it?


I can imagine that most of you are nodding your heads and saying “I hear ya’.” It’s no secret that very few writers live in a solitary vacuum, able to devote uniterrupted hours of time to their craft. Yet, there are many busy with jobs, families and community who are highly productive writers as well.

Author Sarah Sullivan, one of the faculty members at our last conference, said that while she worked as an attorney, she would write every night from 12am – 2am. Not just on an insomniac-riddled one, but every night! That’s some serious time management and dedication.

The blog Daring to Live Fully posted “57 Tips for Writers, from Writers.” In it the author spoke about John Grisham and his approach to productivity. “He goes on to say that at first you have to treat writing as a hobby; you write a page a day in your spare time. Grisham explains that he created spare time to write, although he had a full time job. He adds that he always tells young aspiring writers that if they’re not writing a page a day, then nothing is going to happen. But if they make sure to write a page a day it becomes a habit, and before long they have a lot of pages piled up.”

A page a day. I can do that.

I poked around the internet futher and came across some more pearls of writing wisdom:

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” -E.B. White


Ouch. I think he’s speaking to me. Who am I to ignore the advice of the man who wrote the book that lives with me to this day from my childhood?

“Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.” – Henry Miller

Oh, Henry…you plagued me in school, but there is no denying the soundness of your advice!

“For me, writing time has always been precious, something I wait for and am eager for and make the best use of.” – Barbara Kingsolver (prolific author and mother)

Each of them and others I didn’t quote had specific times that they wrote, but that wasn’t what stood out. We all have different schedules and responsibilities, so trying to match someone else’s is unrealistic. What inspired me was their determination and drive. Their willingness  to make time, no matter how many people and things pulled on them. That’s what makes a productive writer and often a published one.

So, now it’s your turn. How do you do it? What’s your routine that buoys your determination and what is your best time of day to write? Share your secrets in the comments below.

I really could use your advice.

Posted by: Susan Mannix | October 15, 2014

It’s that time of the year!

Happy rainy Wednesday everyone! We’ve got a cold front knocking on our door and it’s bringing plenty of wind and rain into our area. The leaves are changing and pumpkins and mums abound. Yup, it’s definitely Autumn!

Unknown(gratuitous fall scene courtesy of

For writers, the other big sign of the season is National Novel Writing Month. If you’ve never heard of it, NaNoWriMo is “a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing. On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30. Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought fleetingly about writing a novel.” That’s it in a nutshell…a very large, ambitious, caffeine-infused one!

For those of you who may think that NaNoWriMo is no more than just a writing exercise on steroids, think again. Check out the article “14 Published Novels Written During NaNoWriMo” over at the website Mental Floss. And there weren’t just fourteen – others are revealed in the comments section.

So, who’s in? I’m sure many of you have already started outlines and character sketches, while others have jotted down only a few notes. If you’re even just thinking of doing NaNoWriMo, let us know in the comments and also tell us if you’ve mapped out a plan, are winging it, or somewhere in between.

Happy Creating!!!!

Posted by: susandilldetwiler | October 3, 2014

Illustrators: What’s Your Style?

A nagging question I’ve had over the years regards illustration style and whether one’s portfolio should contain works in a single style or a variety of styles in order to show artistic range and flexibility. Perhaps you’ve used different techniques and mediums for illustrations depending on the assignment or the kind of story; if you create delicate, soft watercolor paintings, but also love to use ink in a bold black and white style, wouldn’t an art director want to know that you have those abilities, that you are fluent in more than one language, so to speak? I ask this question of art directors, editors, agents, and published illustrators whenever I have the opportunity, and here are a few of the answers I have received.

Kirsten Hall

At our September conference, I asked Kirsten Hall, owner of boutique kid lit agency Catbird Agency the style question and she said if you have one strong style you should stick to it, but if you can do more than one style really well, there is no reason not to show that to people you hope will hire you. She added a caveat however: it is difficult to be objective about one’s own artwork, and that’s where feedback from an agent or publisher can be critical.


Last March I also posed this question to our guest speaker Giuseppe Castellano, Art Director at Penguin Group USA. He suggested dividing the portfolio into sections if we want to show different styles. He said there wasn’t anything wrong with showing variety as long as the artwork was strong.


Uri Shulevitz, in his wonderful book Writing With Pictures, How To Write And Illustrate Picture Books, in the chapter on style says “The best way to attain a personal style is by doing all you can to make your pictures communicate clearly.” He goes on to say under the heading Advice to the Beginner: “Don’t limit yourself to a single personal style. Using a style consistently throughout a book makes sense, but consistency becomes a straitjacket when an artist tries to force very different books into the same stylistic mold.”

Paul O. Zelinsky

One of my heroes is Caldecott-winning author/illustrator Paul O. Zelinsky, who was a guest speaker at our March 2013 conference; over his very distinguished and prolific career he has employed different illustration styles, with great success.

Zelinsky books

So. It seems that showing multiple styles is okay, if they are all GOOD, right? However, one thing is sure: we are in a very competitive field, and if your objective is to be noticed you will probably want to create a brand for yourself, and that might mean showing the one style you do best.

Posted by: Laura Bowers | September 25, 2014

This Weekend’s Baltimore Book Festival

main_logoWho’s going to this year’s Baltimore Book Festival? This year, it’s going to be held at the Inner Harbor due to the restoration of the historic Washington Monument in Mount Vernon. As much as I love the historic area, I always look forward to any chance to be at the Inner Harbor!

* Warning: Parking will be extra crazy on Sunday since there’s a 1:00 Ravens game!

If you’re going and would like to show support for our regional members who will be appearing at this year’s festival, here’s their information:


Our regional illustrator coordinator, Susan Detwiler, will be selling hardcover copies of Fine Life for a Country Mouse on Saturday, September 27th from 1-5 p.m. at the McDonogh booth, near the Science Center. (Click here for more information.)


Jeri Smith-Ready, author of This Side of Salvation and other young adult novels, will be speaking in the Simon & Schuster Children’s Author panel on Sunday, September 28th at 3:00 p.m. at the Literary Salon. (Click here for event details.)

I scanned the schedule for The Authors’ Tent–a marketplace of local and regional authors signing and selling their books–and saw a couple of familiar names from our region:

Authors’ Tent at Bicentennial Plaza

Liz Dejesus, Friday and Sunday; First Frost, Glass Frost, The Jackets, Night Gypsy

Kathy MacMillan, Friday: Little Hands and Big Hands: Children and Adults Signing Together

Katrina Moore, Sunday: So Long, Gnop-Jiye

The full list can be found here.

My apologies to those I might have missed. If you’re also signing books this weekend, please leave your date and location in the comments and I’ll add it to this post!

Hope those who this weekend have a great time!

Posted by: susandilldetwiler | September 24, 2014

A Bonanza for Picture Book Creators

I hope you didn’t miss the conference On the Road to Sparkling Children’s Literature last weekend; it was quite a wonderful event! And if, like me, your focus is on picture books — writing or illustrating or both — the offerings from our visiting faculty were extremely valuable. Here’s a little taste:

Emma Ledbetter, Associate Editor, Atheneum BFYR, an imprint of Simon & Schuster
Lights, Camera, Picture Book!

Emma’s talk was delightfully stimulating and gave us insights into the workings of a successful picture book. She compared the best ones to a cinematic experience, and went on to explain how creating a picture book is also like a puzzle, that the pieces can be rearranged to improve the pacing. She used examples to show how pacing is key; that if the flow is right it can have a musical quality, a rhythm, and creates the atmosphere of the book. I found her example books to be VERY helpful and inspiring. Her warm, buoyant personality and bright passion for the picture book as an art form stood out as special; she was very accessible and down-to-earth.

Hug Machine by Scott Campbell

Hug Machine by Scott Campbell

I Don't Like Koala by Sean Ferrell, illustrated by Charles Santoso

I Don’t Like Koala by Sean Ferrell, illustrated by Charles Santoso

Ella Kennen, Agent, Corvisiero Literary Agency
Make It Soar! Writing Books for the Young Child

I found Ella to be a wonderful, inspiring speaker, and quite fun. I loved the way she reinforced her talk with graphics and the use of key words to help us remember the main elements of the presentation (theme+character+context=story, for example). She gave us some great advice about the nuts-and-bolts of a good story, such as her declaration that we should be MEAN to our main character, because that’s what creates conflict, which is necessary for plot, and that the story arc can be a roller coaster shape. Ella Kennen is also the blog manager at Rate Your Story. Check it out!

Kirsten Hall, Founder, Catbird Agency
How to Make a Picture Book — and Sell It!!

Kirsten is very enthusiastic about creating and promoting picture books, and she electrified the authors and illustrators in the room with her presentation. The boutique kid lit agency she founded is really hot — if you read Publishers Weekly Children’s Bookshelf you’ll see her name nearly every week — and her ideas about book development and ways to get your picture book noticed are brilliant. Plus, she loves humor and is extremely easy to talk to. Kirsten gave us concrete, workable suggestions for ways to make our books stand out and sell, such as the Pitch Sheet. The examples of books she’s helped create and place with publishers were terrific. There is also a completely upbeat way about her approach which encouraged us all. In fact, several members of the audience had a turn to stand in front and pitch their book dummies, and then Kirsten and the rest of us engaged in a rousing group critique/advice session; quite a bit of talent was in the room! There was spontaneous applause.

The Jacket by Kirsten Hall, illustrated by Dasha Tolstikova

The Jacket by Kirsten Hall, illustrated by Dasha Tolstikova

Jumping Penguins by Marije Tolman

Jumping Penguins by Marije Tolman

As always, I came home from the conference a bit tired but completely pumped and ready to work on my next picture book!

Posted by: Susan Mannix | September 19, 2014

Pre-Conference Wrap-Up

Good morning! We are on the eve of our fabulous conference On the Road to Sparkling Children’s Literature.


Are you psyched? I hope so, or I’ll have to bring back my good friends, Hans and Franz.

If you haven’t seen Laura’s post from yesterday with tips and links to preparing for the conference, hurry over there and give it a read. And remember to follow us on Twitter at #SparklingLit.

Anyone coming Friday night and/or are staying on Saturday night: If you are interested in meeting and socializing with other conference attendees, the Hilton Garden Inn has a lovely bar/grill area that will be open later than usual! There is also a nice sofa area by a fireplace as well as a large conference table in the lobby. I’ll be leaving some SCBWI stickers at the check-in] desk for those who would like to identify themselves.

Okay, so we covered all our bases, except one…how to get there! The conference will be held at the Claggett Conference Center, 3035 Buckeystown Pike,  Buckeystown, Maryland. You can find directions here.  For those of you staying at the  Hilton, go here for a map and directions.

Have fun this weekend! Soak it all in, folks, and learn. Enjoy and support each other!

Happy conferencing!












It’s heeeerrrrrreeeee!


Go here for information on the Saturday faculty and sessions and here for that day’s schedule. If you’re attending on Sunday, head over to our website for details and then prepare any materials or writing samples for your particular intensive.

Laura’s blog post on perfecting your book pitch is a must read and on the subject of pitches, read my writing challenge from way back when What’s Your Pitch?. Larissa’s advice for pre-conference polishing is a gem, as well as a workshop for those of you looking to survive your first critique. It also gives some timeless conference tips.

So, get excited and get ready! For our first-timers – relax, have fun and take it all in. I promise you’ll leave energized, inspired and assured that, yes, you are where you belong! We’re all looking forward to meeting you, as well as seeing old friends.

Wow. I seriously can’t believe the  “On the Road to Sparkling Children’s Literature” is THIS SATURDAY. Anyone else shocked at how quickly this month is going? Hands? Hands?

Photo: Anankkml,

Photo: Anankkml,

If you’re not feeling prepared, never fear, here’s some conference tips for you to read:

Susan Mannix also did a bang-up job of recapping links to all our posted interviews with conference speakers and presenters in Tuesday’s post. Go here if you missed it!

If you’re attending David Teague’s Collaboration, Inspiration, and the Sound of your Own Voice intensive on Sunday like I am, (can’t wait!!) then be sure to bring one copy of an excerpt from a work in progress—an entire scene, ideally, in the range of three to five pages long, capable of standing on its own.

Also, for those of you who are coming in on Friday night and/or are staying on Saturday night: If you are interested in meeting and socializing with other conference attendees, the Hilton has a lovely bar/grill area that will be open later than usual! There is also a nice sofa area by a fireplace as well as a large conference table in the lobby. I’ll be leaving some SCBWI stickers at the check-in desk for those who would like to identify themselves. Don’t be shy–some of my best writing buddies are ones I’ve met at conference!

And finally, we have several Twitter volunteers who will be tweeting throughout the conference.

Once I find out what hashtag will be used, I’ll be sure to have Susan Mannix announce it on tomorrow’s post.

ETA: Jennifer just let me know that the hashtag they’re be using is #SparklingLit. Thanks, Jennifer!

Okay, that’s about it! If you have any questions or concerns, please post it in the comments below. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find someone who does! We’re looking forward to seeing you this weekend and I hope everyone has a great conference!

Happy writing and drawing. :)

Posted by: Susan Mannix | September 16, 2014

Conference Interview Round Up

T-minus 4 days until our conference “On the Road to Sparkling Children’s Literature” !!! Are you excited about our amazing speakers coming to  the Claggett Conference Center in Buckeystown, MD? Just to be sure, I am here to pump you up!


No, Hans and Franz will not be appearing (now wouldn’t that be a hoot?), but our faculty totally has them beat. We had a number of terrific interviews here at ATEB when many of them checked into the Cyber Cafe for a chat. Check out the links below to reread them:

Reiko Davis

Kirsten Hall

Ariane Szu-Tu

Emma Ledbetter

Calista Brill

Miranda Paul

Sarah Sullivan

John Micklos

Marc Tyler Nobleman

David Teague

Grab a cup of your favorite beverage, put you feet up and enjoy these interviews. I’ll be back later in the week for a pre-conference wrap up.

Happy writing and illustrating!!


Posted by: Shelley Koon | September 12, 2014

Chatting with Agent Emma Ledbetter

Registration is now closed and we’re in the home stretch for this year’s fall conference, On the Road to Sparkling Children’s Literature! Sooooooo Excited!

One of the best reasons to get excited about conference are the fantastic presentations by agents, editors and authors and, lucky us, we happen to be chatting today with one of our presenters!.

Emma Ledbetter, Associate Editor for Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, will be presenting Lights, Camera, Picture Book!  Emma’s background includes internships at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, Nickelodeon, and Nick Jr., and a B.A. in Art History from Yale University (with a focus on the art of Little Golden Books). Emma works on a variety of children’s books, with a particular passion for picture books of all stripes and voice-driven middle grade novels.
In her talk for picture book writers, she’ll explore how to work on your manuscript with the full vision of your final book in mind—from the technical details of a book’s format and layout, to pacing and the page turn, to thinking beyond your text to the art and design of the book—all important factors which contribute to the cinematic experience of reading a picture book and keeping young readers engaged from start to finish. Please bring a story that you’re working on and some extra paper with you, as well—if there’s time, we’ll work on “pacing out” your own book dummies. Read More…

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