My First Picture Book Retreat, What a Treat - Janey Robinson

Janey Robinson

My First Picture Book Retreat, What a Treat


Last month I joined the SCBWI Picture Book Retreat in rural Worcestershire to hone my writing skills and learn from a raft of writing and illustrating pros. It was my first writer’s retreat, or retreat of any kind in fact. I think, like many, my preconceptions of a retreat was full of negative connotations. Awkward meal times, bunking down with snoring strangers, barefoot hippy types who would surely try to convert you to something, stuff like that. But like most unfounded assumptions I was way off.

Mealtimes were delicious and a racket of chatter, always overrunning as conversations were reluctantly paused. We had separate rooms, phew. No new age conversions, only a collective hope that everyone else’s brilliance would rub off on each other by the end of the weekend. I’ll note that some of us, including me, spent time barefoot, the countryside demands that.

SCBWI Picture Book Retreat 2016 at Holland HouseOver the weekend we had workshops, talks, optional set projects, time to work on personal projects, critique sessions and an assigned mentor. David Lucas and Lynne Chapman led our workshops and we had some visitors from the publishing world to lead our talks. Here are the combined nuggets of advice learned from the publishing pro’s Kristina Coates, Art Director at Bloomsbury, and Ellie Parkin, Senior Editor at Scholastic, who came to visit us with their sprinkling of intel from the inside.

14 Nuggets of Know How

  1. Read as much as possible.
  2. Look at the world around you; how do children respond to the world, observe.
  3. Collect all your notes and sketches, don’t throw anything away.
  4. Push an idea, really experiment with it; throw a curveball at your story and allow your creativity to take free reign.
  5. Take a breather.
  6. Look at pacing; even if you can’t draw, try layouts to see how it works.
  7. Work on: synopsis, elevator pitch, being able to describe your story in one sentence.
  8. Ideally 500-700 word texts, shorter is better.
  9. Happy to work with writers that want to play on writing and illustration balance.
  10. A story that makes you curious, plays on the unknown and maybe something more unusual is an exciting one.
  11. With non-fiction, look out for any anniversaries on the horizon.
  12. On themes, the perennial favourites: pirates, dinosaurs, princesses, bears, rabbits, new siblings, dragons, starting school, new home, chocolate, “poops and parps”, pants, underwear, Easter, Christmas.
  13. Define your setting, character and message – these are the tools that sell your book, a good theme gives you a reason to pick up and buy a book. You want children to connect with it and parents to enjoy it.
  14. A repeated refrain is good and rhyme is still popular.

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