Post by Cam Sato and Mari Boyle, Tokyo, Japan
On February 16, 2020, a great number of us, traveling from near and far, braved the drizzle and the threat of the novel coronavirus to attend SCBWI Japan KidLit Create Day 2020 at Yokohama International School. This year’s theme was Observation and Spontaneity: Growing Our Stories, and the presenters didn’t disappoint—a few of them had us joyously chuckling! Those other than Narisa Togo had prerecorded their sessions.
Our first speaker, Alyza Liu, Assistant Editor with Simon and Schuster, focused on how to craft a satisfying plot twist. Using the Game of Thrones television series, Alyza illustrated successful and less successful techniques. She also gave us practical tips, warning us not to withhold information or to create unearned plot twists, as these will lead to “reader anger.” Alyza also answered questions that attendees had submitted before the conference. These included advice on the representation of Asian identities in US kidlit, tips for translators, and predictions for upcoming trends. That last question garnered a simple response: “It’s best to avoid trends and write what you love or are passionate about.”
Following Alyza was agent Penny Moore of Aevitas Creative Management, who talked about the importance of a great first page. She reminded us that first pages are first impressions—they let readers know if they want to spend time with that story, or if it’s something they would rather avoid. Penny stressed that first pages need to have good voice. Penny commented on some first pages that attendees had (anonymously) submitted, highlighting what worked and what could be improved to achieve maximum impact.
After Penny’s session we divided into two groups.
Mari stayed in the main room with those who had paid in advance for distance critiques. After gathering in small groups of four or so, Holly Thompson, one of our Co-Regional Advisors, asked everyone to review their work first and consider the strengths and possible weaknesses of our manuscripts. Holly then counseled us not to focus on disappointing or negative comments in the distance critiques, and asked us to circle comments that were helpful, underline those we did not understand, and highlight any we wanted to share. When the critiques were handed out, there was a noticeable hush for a while, followed by discussion within the groups, sharing feelings about the comments we had received. Holly and Co-Regional Advisor Mariko Nagai were on hand to help participants unpack the feedback. Some people raised more general questions to the whole group, providing perspective and showing how to use the critique feedback to hone and grow our stories.
Cam went with the other attendees, who chose among three group activities designed to inspire creativity. The first group wrote or sketched to a set of prompts; the one that caught Cam’s eye was provided by Naomi Kojima, our Illustrator Coordinator: “I’m the only one who saw it happen. No one else noticed.” A story idea quickly came to Cam’s mind, and she jotted down a few lines before heading to the second group, which looked critically at some picture books to see how they had been constructed. Participants shared useful observations on the illustrations and the text length, among other things. The third group acted as a mini creative exchange, where participants shared current work and ideas and received feedback.
After a busy morning, we all gathered again to share lunch—an awesome Buddha Bowl, piece of fruit, and dessert catered by Dragon Dining. The lunch was not only packed with nutrition to keep us healthy, but it was also delicious.
The afternoon session began with a warm welcome for our live guest speaker, Narisa Togo, author/illustrator, who led us through her processes for creating remarkable fact-based nature stories. Narisa’s background in ecology means that she has spent a lot of time doing fieldwork. She consequently prefers sketching over days, weeks and months, capturing the environment and natural behavior of the animals, particularly birds, featured in her work. She told us that she purposely tries out different illustration techniques and attempts not to have each book look the same.
After viewing some of Narisa’s techniques, it was our turn to sketch the fauna and flora in a nearby park. The rain had stopped, and though at first, many of us—particularly the non-illustrators—wandered around not quite sure what to do, most people then found a quiet spot to sketch something or other. We shared our observations, and Narisa shared some of her first sketches of birds. They were often only a line or two. She encouraged us all to keep trying, “The more often you try, the better you learn their shape.”
Following the breath of fresh air, agent Christy Tugeau Ewers of the CAT Agency talked about maintaining the free-flowing, spontaneous feel of a sketch in a final illustration. Christy had spoken to several illustrators and an art director and asked their secrets. The biggest takeaways had been: draw a lot, draw quickly, don’t get bogged down in the details, and get others to look at your work. These comments mirrored the way Narisa works, sketching over and over quickly to get the free feeling flow of her lines.
Trisha de Guzman, an Associate Editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux for Young Readers, then gave us a glimpse into why editors acquire what they do. Trisha talked about how editors discover which picture books interest them as well as how they find manuscripts. Whilst submissions are still the main route, editors might also send requests directly to agents and authors. Revise-and-resubmits by authors, pitches at conferences, and Twitter pitch events are also ways that manuscripts can get seen. Trisha went on to describe the many stages of the acquisition process and pointed out that a manuscript could be rejected at any stage, though a rejection does not mean the story is bad; it is simply the result of a subjective process.
The final presentation of the day was by agent Charlotte Wenger of Prospect Agency. She spoke on how to craft a successful Twitter pitch. Twitter pitches are daylong, hashtag-based events that help authors to get their work in front of agents and editors. A couple of attendees at our event revealed that they had gotten their agents this way. The key is to keep the pitch short, 280 characters or less, since shorter pitches tend to have more punch. Make sure to introduce your character, the obstacle, and the context. Not only will the pitch help your story be discovered, but it may also help you mold your story or revisions.
For those who attended KidLit Create Day, many of the presenters will accept submissions. Make sure to check your handouts for details. Such a nice bonus!
We were glad to have braved the drizzle to attend this conference. The day was made brighter by seeing old friends and making new ones, as we learned how observation and spontaneity can help to grow our stories. Thank you to our SCBWI Japan regional team for putting on another outstanding event.
Mari Boyle is a writer and teacher. Cam M. Sato is a poet, author, illustrator, and editor.