Saturday, September 19, 2009

Chee Chee and Mia at the CYA

I was in the car at 7am; overnight bag, sleeping bag, pillow, foam mattress, writing materials and sundry all carefully stowed in the back. I was on my way to the CYA!

The highlight of the year in writing and illustrating for children is the Children’s and Young Adults’ Writers and Illustrators Conference held in conjunction with the Brisbane Writers Festival. It was at my first CYA conference three years ago that I fell in love with the industry and its people. Children’s writers and illustrators are a passionate, inclusive group who welcome and support new and emerging writers. Now in its fourth year the conference is a sell out success and draws award-winning speakers and workshop convenors from across Australia and internationally. Every year I am rewarded with rich learning and networking experiences and along the way I have made some treasured friends.

At 8.25am I slipped into a seat in the auditorium, looking forward to Jackie French’s key note speech. Our MC for the morning, Anita Bell, began by announcing the winners of the CYA writing and illustrating competition. I had entered in two categories, but did not expect a prize. When my name was called as the winner of 3rd prize in the Illustrated Picture Book and Graphic Novel category, tears began to sting my eyes. Somehow I fumbled my way to the front and accepted my award. Paul Collins of Ford Street Publishing had chosen my illustrated picture book ‘Chee Chee and Mia’ as the 3rd prize winner. WOO HOO!! That meant so much.

‘Chee Chee and Mia’ tells the story of a little girl’s love for her chicken Chee Chee (she can’t say chicken). Mia loves to hug Chee Chee, take her on the swing and push her around in the doll’s pram. But while Chee Chee tolerates all this attention, she is not all that pleased. The illustrations were worked in watercolour and coloured pencil.

My first workshop for the day was Jackie French’s master class. Her advice was hard hitting and to the point and her pearls of wisdom included:
“A good idea for a book is not enough; you need thousands of good ideas.”
“Quite good is never going to be good enough.”
“Be intellectually honest about your writing.”
“It takes longer for genius to be published than the very good.”

Together we brainstormed a story outline for ‘The Last Zoo’, set in Antarctica. Jackie had us smelling the ice and hearing the muttering of monkeys. She emphasised that each word must be specific and value laden and each character needs to be individual with their own characteristics and quirks.

Jackie believes ideas are more important than the quality of writing – you can always re-write. And writers need to be self-centred enough to spend time on themselves and their writing. This was good advice for me as self doubt and guilt are my two very good friends. But while I may doubt my writing, I seriously do enjoy re-writing.

A 15 minute pitch with Leonie Tyle of Woolshed Press (Random House) was the most rewarding experience of the day for me. I have taken on board her advice regarding my manuscript and in those few moments learned a great deal about some subtle aspects of ‘telling’ that still sneak their way into my writing.

In Meredith Costain’s ‘Constructing a Picture Book’ class she stressed that a good picture book must:
Resonate emotionally with the reader.
Have heart.
Tell an important story the reader can find meaning in.
Beg to be read over and over again.

This is very true of the favourite picture books I have in my collection. In groups of four we then brainstormed ideas for a story and amidst great laughter my group presented our version of ‘Grandma’s False Teeth’ to the audience.

Peter Carnavas’ master class ‘Illustrate a Picture Book’ took us inside the world of the professional illustrator. Peter led us sequentially step by step through the stages of illustration and story development, workshopping with us all the way:
Narrative structure and developing characters.
Finding the balance between words and pictures.
Developing a storyboard.

The session was valuable for the insight to Peter’s methods, for the hands on experience and the sharing of ideas with other illustrators in the room.

Among other things I learned a picture book is structured in three ‘Acts’ – a problem, a journey to solve the problem and a solution. Within Act 2 there is often a ‘blue page’ when all appears lost and the problem seems insurmountable. This week I have been re-working my picture book structures and have included where possible a ‘blue page’. Thanks Peter.

The CYA has been and gone. It was without a doubt the best one yet. Tina Clarke and Ally Howard have once again managed to seamlessly present the conference of the year. Their hard work and commitment is greatly appreciated and I thank them. I also thank the many friends who congratulated me on my award and who have supported me with their kind words. The life of a writer/illustrator is not a lonely one.