Monday, July 5, 2010

Conference Round-Up: Picture Book Author & Illustrator Workshop

Let's extend a warm welcome to SCBWI member Alice Brock, who kindly offered to share her recent experience at the Not-for-Beginners Picture Book Workshop. On hand were picture book author Kelly Bennett and illustrator Terri Murphy, who helped attendees to explore picture book structure, flair, and more. If you have attended, or plan to attend a conference, please let us know. We'd love you to guest blog for us!
The Brazos Valley region of SCBWI held a Not-for-Beginners Picture Book Workshop in the historic LaSalle Hotel in downtown Bryan, Texas on the weekend of June 25, 2010. It was designed to teach picture book writers to hone and tighten their manuscripts and illustrations, thereby moving them closer to the goal of publication.

Kelly Bennett, picture book author (DANCE, Y’ALL, DANCE, NOT NORMAN: A GOLDFISH STORY, YOUR DADDY WAS JUST LIKE YOU,  DAD AND POP: AN ODE TO FATHERS & STEPFATHERS) and Terri Murphy, illustrator (DANCE, Y’ALL, DANCE, CLIMB INSIDE A POEM, illustrations for Spider and Cricket Magazines) inspired, led, pushed, pulled, and guided attendees through the process of developing a picture book from inspiration to publication.

After checking into the hotel on Friday afternoon, we collected about 5:00 in the meeting room. Liz Mertz, RA for BV-SCBWI, welcomed us and introduced Kelly and Terri. Kelly led us in some icebreaker activities that helped us relax and brought smiles to our faces.

Kelly and Terri then gave us a summary of their journeys through their publishing careers. I find it helpful to hear how others have struggled on their paths to success. It inspires me to keep working and keep trying. It helps me to understand this is a growing process, and the difficulties and setbacks I encounter along the way are experiences that strengthen my writing and me. When I finally reach my goal of publication, my success will be sweet as a result of what I have learned and how I have grown.

The evening ended with an art challenge presented to us in the form of a blank book. We were given various paper and materials and told to decorate the cover of the book. Our cover had to include the following five elements:

1. One thing that is you as a kid.
2. One thing you love.
3. One quote. (We could use one of our own or one they provided.)
4. One secret no one else knows.
5. One promise for the weekend.

Panic filled the room. Moans and groans and complaints of “I can’t do that! I’m not artistic!” were heard everywhere. Kelly and Terri were undaunted, however. They were not sympathetic. They laughed, helped, suggested, praised, and beautiful book covers began to emerge everywhere. We each presented our books to the group with smiles and pride, and told a little about the thought behind our designs.

We ended the evening with the beginning of an idea starter. Each evening before we closed, we added more to our idea. By the end of the workshop, we had thoughts and descriptions for a new picture book. More than that, we had a method for developing new ideas.

Saturday morning found us in the hotel dining room enjoying breakfast and eager to begin the new day. After a creative – wakeup – activity, Kelly gave us seven steps on how to structure a picture book story. We learned that every sentence in a picture book should either advance the plot or develop the character. The amazing and challenging thing I find about writing picture books is that you have to present so much concept in so few words.

Terri then walked us through how an illustrator takes your manuscript and expresses its strengths and enhances it with his or her own interpretations. We learned the process of how your story is broken down into scenes and how those scenes are expanded through the illustrations. We then took our manuscript and broke it down into a dummy. Separating our stories into scenes for illustrations was very enlightening. This activity helped us see the ratio between the amount of dialog and the amount of prose the illustrator needs to keep the action moving throughout the book. We learned that not only the illustrator, but the author as well, needs to think in scenes.

Saturday morning and again in the afternoon, we divided into four groups. One group met with Kelly and a second with Terri. During that time we critiqued the manuscripts and/or illustrations we had sent. Each person had an opportunity to discuss their own work and to give suggestions and comments about the other group members’ work. When we were not meeting with Kelly or Terri, we had an opportunity to meet informally with other attendees and discuss our concerns about picture books. I enjoyed meeting with the illustrators and looking at our craft from their perspective.

Saturday afternoon we followed Kelly through the Hero’s Journey. The structure of a picture book must include the following elements:

1. Hero
2. Problem
3. Problem solved
4. Who solves it
5. How does hero change
6. Theme
7. How can the hero be made stronger or more daring?

Each of us worked within this framework by taking a picture book and following the Hero’s Journey as the author had presented it.

On Sunday morning we focused on revision, what to look for as you revise, revise, and revise your story again. If you use descriptive words in a scene, analyze them to see if they are necessary to advance the story. Or are they describing what the illustrator can show? Every page and scene must inspire a new illustration.

The weekend was filled with new ideas, helpful hints, and encouragement. We learned to look at picture books from a new perspective. Writing and illustrating careers received a boost in the right direction as a result of time spent at the Not-for-Beginners Picture Book Workshop.
Alice Brock is a retired schoolteacher. She taught for 34 years, 28 of those in a second grade classroom in rural Texas. She lives with her husband of 35 years on a cattle ranch. She raised 2 beautiful children. She has been writing picture books for several years and as she looks back over that time, she can see considerable growth in her craft. She credits this growth mainly to the learning she has experienced through attendance in workshops.


  1. Sounds like a terrific experience! Taking risks and pushing ourselves is so important - thanks so much for sharing :)

  2. What a great summary! I like the first four things the attendees had to include in their cover. I'm sure it forced them all to really think.

  3. The conference sounds great. I think the longer workshops focusing more on craft would be so helpful. Hope they have a novel writing one in Michigan soon.

  4. Jemi, the push is a huge component of this whole writing thing for me, as well. I think that's what makes the conferences so worthwhile.

    Julie, that task to create the booklet does sound challenging! I would've been whining. :)

    Natalie, you're right. These multi-day workshops seem to help writers get so much insight.


  5. Thanks for sharing. I wish I could make it to a few of these this year, but I'll have to wait till next year.

  6. Hi Alice,
    Thanks so much for writing that all up for us. :) It was a wonderful, wonderful experience and I am so glad to have met you and to have shared that time with Kelly and Terri. They were very inspirational. :)

    Thanks for sharing ladies. :)

  7. Great summary, Alice. We had a blast, found new picture book friends, and if you're like me, considered it a vacation!


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