Nevada SCBWI Mentor Program: An Illustrator's and Writer's Dream

I recently got back from the Nevada SCBWI Fallen Leaf conference - a dream weekend for children's writers and illustrators. For starters, this was the setting, a remote lake near South Lake Tahoe:

Fallen Leaf Lake, South Lake Tahoe

Photo courtesy of fellow illustrator Kary Lamb Lee

Organized by the Nevada SCBWI chapter, the first two days were open to anyone, and the last day kicked off the Nevada SCBWI Mentor Program. The program pairs ten well-known authors and illustrators with 2 to 3 writers or illustrators each. The 24 mentees come from all over the U.S. and the world (including, Canada, Australia and the Netherlands). We will work with our mentors remotely for six months and meet again in April 2014.

At the conference, we took part in two small critique groups. I signed up for a writing group and an illustration group. Faculty and the guest agent, Sarah Davies from The Greenhouse Literary Agency, gave talks. We had free time for hikes, sketching/writing, and chilling by the lake.

Some highlights:

The Illustration Program Was Amazing

My mentor is David Diaz (Caldecott winner and illustrator of over 35 books). The other illustrator mentors are E.B. Lewis (award winning illustrator with over 50 published books) and Jim Averbeck (picture book and middle grade author-illustrator). I learned so much from all of them.

  • Portfolio Critiques. In my illustration critique group, the mentors critiqued our portfolios, which was a great learning experience.  
David Diaz during the portfolio critique

What I learned from David Diaz:
  1. Every illustration must have AIR (Action, Interaction, and Reaction). 
  2. Decide whether your style is realistic or stylized, but don't fall in between.
  3. What does your world look like? Make sure your portfolio makes that world believable.
  4. "There's no place for dabblers and dilettantes here."
What I learned from E.B. Lewis:
  1. In a portfolio, use the Post-Rail-Rail-Post system (strongest piece first, other, other, strong piece, other, other, strong, etc.).
  2. "The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a world of the same intensity," quoting Alberto Giacometti
  3. "We're in the business of amazement."
  4. Take the time to learn your craft and look at great art.
  • Photoshop Demo. One afternoon, David shared some Photoshop tips and tricks:
  • Reference Photo Workshop. Later, E.B. taught us how to set up and shoot reference photos for illustrations:

  • Mentor Time. Throughout the weekend, David met with me and the two other illustrators he is mentoring, Sidne Teske and Heidi Woodward Sheffield (check out their websites; I am in awe of their work). I got detailed advice and direction on my illustrations and a plan forward for the next six months.
Heidi, David, Sidne & me

I Learned from Writer & Industry Heavyweights

Although I focus on illustration, I took the opportunity to soak in information about writing and publishing.

  • Critique Group. Middle grade author Susan Hart Lindquist led my writing critique group and gave some great advice: "Sometimes your ending is really the middle." Meaning, sometimes the most interesting part of the story comes after the expected ending.
  • Writing Tips. YA author Heather Petty talked about Focus, Structure, Voice, Arcs within Arcs, and Stakes. Her advice: refuse to take the easy way out and up the stakes for your characters. Or as she put it, "Set the tree on fire!" (The job of the writer is to put a character in a tree, set it on fire, and then get the character down). 
  • Faculty Discussion. At a Q&A session, a discussion on voice included these nuggets:
"Voice has to do with rhythm, word choice, attitude. Do not just develop your voice, but develop your ear."  Jim Averbeck
You need to do a lot of experimentation to develop your voice. You need a cultivated ear. Sarah Davies
"It's not the personality of the character, it's the personality of the prose." Suzanne Morgan Williams
Some of the faculty (l to r): Suzanne Morgan Williams, Susan Hart Lindquist, Sarah Davies, E.B. Lewis, David Diaz, Jim Averbeck, Elizabeth Law (receiving an art print she won from Heidi Sheffield), Jenny MacKay, Heather Petty

  • Inside Scoop. At an impromptu talk about agenting, Sarah Davies shared some war stories and told us she is looking for (1) middle grade stories with a classic voice like THREE TIMES LUCKY by Sheila Turnage or Kate DiCamillo books; (2) a sexy historical YA novel, ideally set in the French Revolution involving love across the classes; and (3) excellent, contemporary YA romances like THE STATISTICAL PROBABILITY OF LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT, by Jennifer E. Smith.

I Met an Awesome Group of Fellow Creatives

The best part of the conference was getting to know an amazing group of creative people in a small and beautiful setting. Lots of memorable meals, walks, and evening fireside chats (a highlight was a heated debate between former Egmont USA publisher Elizabeth Law and YA author Ellen Hopkins about the merits of TWILIGHT).

Many of the illustrators at the retreat; photo courtesy of Kary Lamb Lee

The Snow!

On the last morning, we woke to 4-6 inches of powdery snow. I caught some magical moments near dawn, and before we knew it, it was time to fly back to reality.

Snowfall at Fallen Leaf Lake
Snowfall at dawn at Fallen Leaf Lake

View of the lodge at the Stanford Sierra Conference Center

Last view of the lake

What's Next?

In a future post, I will go into more detail about my development as an illustrator under the mentor program. Maybe with some before and after shots of of my portfolio.

I can't wait to see what the next half year brings.

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  1. This brings back such sweet memories. Many of these folks are good friends now. What a terrific group and conference. So excited for these coming six months for you, too!

    1. Thanks, Joanna. So glad you got a chance to do this too.

  2. A wonderful post, Sylvia. Thanks for sharing so many tidbits, though they've left me even more intrigued! It looks like you had a marvelous time. Your head must still be spinning. Jealous, and looking forward to hearing/seeing about your development over the next mths!

    1. Thanks, Julie. I think you would love this program.

  3. Wow! What a wonderful learning opportunity! And so many things to think about. Just from the bit you've shared, I find myself really contemplating the advice about sometimes the end is really the middle. Are we rushing things in our efforts to keep things short (or be done)? Hmmm....

  4. Thanks for the excellent description. I just moved it from my tentative for next year to my definitely going to apply for next year list (couldn't squeeze it into this year's budget). The Nevada SCBWI retreat/mentor program is a fantastic opportunity.So much time surrounded by inspiration, both from the successful authors and illustrators, and the surroundings. Now, I'm really wishing I could have managed it.

    1. I'll be sure to post a notice of it next time the application opens up. They are doing it on an 18-month cycle, not annually. Definitely worth it!

  5. Thanks for sharing you experience with us and for the nuggets of info. I love Lake Tahoe and with fresh-fallen snow, even better.

  6. Great post but even greater pictures- lovely.

  7. Wonderful. Thanks so much for sharing with us. Sounds very productive & what a beautiful place!

  8. Looks like you had a once in a lifetime experience, Sylvia. What a fabulous setting to talk 'creative'! Thank you for sharing some of what you learned...great photos too! :0)

  9. What a wonderful post. I loved the insights, it must have been overwhelming and inspiring at times. At least that is what I felt when I read your post. So glad you had an amazing time!

  10. Sylvia, I had Goosebumps reading your blog this morning. The program sounds perfect. Enjoy!!

  11. This is such a wonderful opportunity for you, Sylvia! Yes, it'll be cool to see your before and after portfolio!

  12. Wonderful tips. Gorgeous pictures. Thanks so much for sharing.

  13. Thanks for sharing your conference highlights. I enjoyed your photos as well. I didn't realize the Nevada conference would be in S. Lake Tahoe. That is not too far from me; just a 4-5 hour drive. Looks like a nice, intimate conference.

    1. On my way home, I drove back to the Bay Area for an evening to see my parents and it was a 4 hour drive. You should definitely check it out next time.

  14. That's a lot of learning and a lot of beauty rolled into one conference. And it's just the beginning. Wow!

  15. What a wonderful experience! And these pics are GORGEOUS! Not being an illustrator, I'm intrigued by the whole process and REALLY looking forward to some before and after shots to see how you internalize everything you learned and will be learning. How exciting that you have another six months with the mentor! A golden opportunity - carpe diem!

  16. Syliva, I just saw your post on 12x12 regarding this mentorship program. Looks fantastic. Thanks for blogging about it. Will definitely look into it. Thank you!!


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