In light of the upcoming conference, postcards are a great way to promote your illustrations! It’s simple, just send out a small sample of your work to any ol’ publisher and they’ll certainly be interested in you!
Just kidding… I wish it was that easy.
There are a few things about postcards that any illustrator new to the children’s book world needs to know, things that I wish I knew before I went and spent money on sets of wasted postcards… I really should’ve done more research.
The thing about postcards, the creative side:
THE POSTCARD SHOULD HAVE ONLY WHAT YOU WANT TO ILLUSTRATE ON IT. This seems pretty obvious so maybe I’ll back up and ask…
WHAT DO YOU LIKE TO ILLUSTRATE? If you don’t know exactly what you want to illustrate I would hold off on making a postcard for now. Why would you send something to a publisher if you can’t repeat or don’t want to make more of what you sent them? So…
FIGURE OUT WHAT YOU LOVE TO CREATE BEFORE PROMOTING YOURSELF. I’m harping on this because I personally did not know what I wanted to draw or who I was as an artist. I still struggle with this sometimes. For some illustrators, they know their style and they can repeat it and those are the lucky ones.
MAKE SEVERAL DRAFTS BEFORE COMMITTING. Design matters just as much as the image itself. You might have the PERFECT image that represents your work but it doesn’t fit in postcard size because of the image being too detailed or it doesn’t really work with font, then that might not be your image.
While we are on fonts, CHOOSE THE RIGHT FONT FOR YOUR BRAND. You don’t want to have a font like Papyrus for a children’s book illustrator promo card, I mean unless it somehow matches a quirky pirate and you really like illustrating pirates.
THINK ABOUT THE FRONT AND THE BACK. Okay so you might be able to get away with the image not being font friendly so you now need to worry about that information looking professional on the back. Oh, and while your back there, make the information memorable by adding some quirky image that works with the front image. The best postcards I’ve see are the ones that continue their little story on the back with something unexpected. Note that it might be a good idea to make it clear your images CAN work with type if you are illustrating for children’s books.
The thing about postcards, the business side:
RESEARCH THE PEOPLE YOU’RE SENDING THESE THINGS TO. You can’t just send a card with sea animals on it to, I dunno, Shen’s Books, an imprint of Lee and Low Books which focuses on multicultural stories only. You might be able to send those cute sea critters to Boyds Mills Press though, depending on the style. Go look!
MAKE THE POSTCARD STAND OUT. I added this part in the business section because standing out amongst other illustrators is a good business tactic. It’s a combination of an eye-catching image, great design, and good story telling. That publisher will have postcards everywhere and it’s the same for conferences too. The last conference I went to I came home with half a bag full of postcards.
COMPARE WITH BUSINESS CARDS. Do you have a business card with a completely different style than the one on your postcard? That might actually be a problem. Sending mixed messages there…
SENDING HOLDAY CARDS MIGHT BE THE WAY TO GO. I haven’t done this yet, I’ll admit it. But I can see how constantly sending out cards to different places and keeping up with the times/season might be actually a good way to get attention. Now I’m not saying to like bombard one publisher with a bunch of your postcards constantly. That would probably get you BAD attention. Having designs for holidays every year would even be nice for family and friends too, just get people interested in looking at YOUR work.
AND LAST, GET CONNECTED WITH YOUR ILLUSTRATOR COMMUNITY. Okay I just like to add this with every post because it is important to be around other illustrators and see how they solve illustrator problems…CRITIQUE GROUPS!!!
I’m NOT a published illustrator but I’m learning. Everything I just mentioned is based off of the mistakes that I’ve made, some research I’ve done, and things I’ve noticed from successful illustrators.
For kicks and giggles, here are some of my failed postcard designs…
Sure, Princess Penelope Pineapple loves her closet full of tiaras and dazzling dresses but she has things to do! She can’t be bothered with beauty when planting her beats. Her lab coat suits her just fine for science fairs and she likes to unwind with comfy old jeans, the patched-up kind. And princesses certainly can’t save the day with frilly frills that get in the way! Guthrie and Oppenheim’s rhyming picture book for ages 4 to 8, along with Eva Bryne’s sparkling illustrations, says that girls can be fashionable and functional.
Unfortunately this concept is pretty outdated.
There are plenty of other “girl power” picture books out there. Ada Twist Scientist and Rosie Revere Engineer by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts are just two books that immediately come to mind.Here you can find more girl empowering picture books and with just a quick google search you’ll find even more.
Guthrie and Oppenheim’s book is NOT recommended and here is why with the good/bad list:
Bad. Obviously a little behind the times. I shouldn’t have to say more…except maybe if it was a book about how boys can wear dresses it would be better.
Bad. Everything in the book is layered with PINK, a popular gendered color, not to mention Penelope’s brother is in BLUE, another popular gendered color.
Bad. The illustrations fall short due to the bad anatomy. Here are some examples…
Bad. The main character’s alliteration name makes me cringe, probably makes Ann Whitford Paul, the author of Writing Picture Books: A Hands-On Guide from Story Creation to Publication, cringe as well.
Only alittle bad… Rhyming is only so-so.
Good. I like the styles of clothes in the book.
If your child likes sparkly glitter and fashionable clothes, then maybe Guthrie and Oppenheim’s work is for them. However I do not feel that this is an accurate “activistic” book that I think the authors are trying to go for. I didn’t buy Princesses Wears Pants personally, it was a gag gift.
And last, here is just a short list of picture books of mine and that I recommend over Princesses Wear pants:
Ada Twist Scientist and Rosie Revere Engineer by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts.
Seeds of Change by Jen Johnson, illustrated by Sonia Sadler
Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen
Ruby’s Wish by Shirin Yim, illustrated by Sophie Blackwell
I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddelley
Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai, illustrated by Kerascoet
Having multiple styles in a portfolio is a blessing and a curse.
Sure this can indicate that you are versatile with medium/material and yeah this also means that you can illustrate different genres too and that’s fun.
However most publishers/agents/whoever you are showing your portfolio to doesn’t want to see too many styles. They want to know what they’re paying for. Consistency and an organized portfolio is the key to multiple styles.
Consistency in multiple styles? What I mean is make sure you can pop out that particular style anytime. Eliza Wheeler had a similar problem but she ended up owning those styles with a beautiful, prize winning portfolio awhile back.
Here are a few styles that I’ll have in my portfolio:
They are each pretty different huh? The first piece is digital and I tend to work obsessively over details when I work digitally. The middle is watercolor with photo reference, with some composition and color changes, of my cat. The next one is in watercolor as well however it’s more from imagination. I tend to want LESS with watercolor.
Even with my black and white I can still see that I apply a similar “paint” texture. And my shapes and drawing stays the same.
Ultimately I think it’s how you place each style next to each other that will make all the difference. Tell a story with your pieces. Use one piece to progress to another. Or if you are working to illustrate multiple genres split the styles completely in a creative way, that’s what one of my critique members did.
Just for laughs, here is one of my “older” styles…
Yeah, I’ll be having that in a separate portfolio haha.
If you have social anxiety like I do, a conference can feel like a nerve wracking nightmare of *gulp* meeting people.
You gotta do it though.
What’s best is to be prepared with a list of tiny reminders for you while you’re there:
ACTUALLY TALK TO THE OTHER WRITERS AND ILLUSTRATORS. I know. This is obvious. What to talk about? Ask them about their work! Are they published? Are they new to the business? Have they been at it for awhile? Do they like pizza? Whatever. Just talk to them. Most likely they’ll ask you about your work in return. You might even make a friend. I made two friends last year, better than none the first year.
Ask to see what the others are working on. This is mostly for the illustrators though as most illustrators will show you their sketchbooks and be pretty open. I’ve noticed that other writers are less open about sharing because they are wary of people stealing their work, which is reasonable.
Actually follow up on the all the business cards and postcards that will be everywhere. I’m certainly guilty of coming home with a bag of the things and not looking up even one writer or illustrator.
Participate at panels! This is a difficult one as my first response is, “SHARE MY WORK OH GOD NO IT’S TERRIBLE.” You might learn something by participating. I certainly did. I learned that I can make a decent cover letter so now I have one for my manuscript ValenTINA.
Research the speakers! This is mainly for your notes and possible future submissions. Luckily the MD/DE/WV has their “Coffee and Conversation” bit on their blog that interviews the guest speakers.
If someone says something you don’t like about your work, just smile and nod! I haven’t encountered this yet but I have received looks that had said, “this girl is kidding right?” Don’t bother defending your work. If you know it could do with a fixing up and practice, just do that next time you get that pencil on paper. Also, don’t be too hard on yourself because that’s just one person’s opinion.
I’ve been the “loner at the party” before. It’s alright. Most people at conferences have been going for a while or they are with their critique groups so it’s easier for them to socialize. Many have never even been to a conference! You won’t get to know your community if you don’t go and talk to your fellow illustrators and writers.
Time to have my work scrutinized and criticized until I feel like crying.
Just kidding! Portfolio critiques are extremely helpful if you know what to look for amongst the sometimes harsh reality check. And past mistakes can mean future successes… and sometimes realizing further mistakes you never knew existed.
Amongst the things to do and look for in a critique:
Wait, hold up, GET A CRITIQUE GROUP. Do it… okay now we can move on to the professional critiques…
If a problem is repeatedly mentioned. Everyone is going to have their own opinions, but if a similar opinion reoccurs it’s time to take advice. For example, I had two critiques last year. Both of the illustrators were quite different and gave me almost vastly different advice EXCEPT for two things, practice my line work and practice drawing. That’s what I did. I think my art is better for it too.
If some advice REALLY doesn’t sit with you, listen but go with your gut. I know, this also seems pretty obvious, but I have to remind myself that the person critiquing me doesn’t know me or my work inside and out. They just met me! Therefore I’ll take all advice with a grain of salt. For example, last year both critiques told me to stop writing and focus on illustrating. I obviously didn’t take that advice because to draw I must write and to write I must draw. I DID however take down the claim that I’m an aspiring author/illustrator on all social media to erase further criticisms of this claim lol.
BE AS PROFESSIONAL AS POSSIBLE. Meaning…dress nicely, act nicely, have a clean presentation. It sounds silly and shouldn’t your work speak for itself? No. Someone is always a better artist than you are, so it’s time to not just rely on that. My first ever critique told me to throw my whole portfolio away because it looked bad. I took that advice, threw everything away and got a new portfolio. I had several compliments on my portfolio presentation. I also dressed a bit better than last time and actually had conversations with the illustrators. The whole experience went better than the first.
LOOK AT THE WORK OF THE OTHER ILLUSTRATOR. Seriously, get to know your critique, even if it’s just a quick google search. Half of the reason why I think I got such a bad critique the first time is because E.B. Lewis is a fantastic drawer/water colorist and he looked at my work like a child drew it. If you’re into color, try to get a critique from someone who does color. If you like digital, go for a digital artist that doesn’t have a prejudice against it. If you are a mixed media artist, then go for mixed media. Sometimes it’s good to have someone who does completely different art from you, but you might not get the advice you want from them. Fair warning.
Don’t cry. Don’t do it. DO. NOT. CRY. Unless you are by yourself in the shower.
And last, just be happy that you have the nerve to show your work. If you’re someone like me who is very self critical and thinks you’ll never be good enough, this is an important thing to remember. At the end of the critique, no matter how good or bad, at least you got that far and now you can get better.
It’s difficult to present your work in confidence, but it must be done. There are tons of resources from the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) online about how to build a portfolio. Just takes some time and research.
Every now and then I have to remind myself of all the ways that I can be creatively productive throughout the day, even when I have to have a day job.
Now I don’t mind my day job at all. It’s just… when I have several manuscripts, book dummies, illustration prompts, commissions, and blog posts to make, spending 40 + hours a week at a job that has nothing to do with any of this can seem like a complete waste of time.
IT’S NOT A WASTE OF TIME. I NEED MONEY ;_;
But there are also small ways to be creative with a piece of paper (or paper towel or tissue or cardboard piece or…) and a writing utensil.
Things I can do:
Write random ideas down on anything. Good sentences, concepts, character ideas. I got most of my PiBoIdMo and STORYSTORM ideas at my various day jobs.
Write whole first draft manuscripts.I wrote two manuscripts this year during lunch and one during a slow day. They were horrible but most first drafts are.
Draw quick thumbnail compositions without much thought. Actually I do better with first drafts and ideas when I work on something else. That’s why illustrating and writing go hand in hand for me.
List blog ideas/begin writing blog posts. This is actually harder to do than manuscripts.
Play out stories in my head while walking around. I do a lot of moving at work. They say that creativity works when you aren’t actively trying to be creative or something like that, this article says so.
Things I shouldn’t do at the day job:
Edit manuscript. Writing firsts drafts is fine, editing them is not. I don’t know about anyone else, but I have to read my manuscripts out loud and that can get awkward.
Act out manuscript. I mean anyone could do this but…
Don’t get too invested. The whole point of creative thinking while doing other things is to not concentrate so hard. Hard concentration most likely leads to doubt and frustration and it’s incredibly difficult to get ideas with these two demons showing their ugly faces. This is why day jobs can be useful.
Some days I just do my job because it gets pretty busy being Quality Control. This is why I need this reminder of the little things I can do to continue this journey to one day illustrating and writing children’s books.
I’m ending with the beginning. The Keynote Speaker Bruce Coville was fantastic despite the microphone issues. And besides, I don’t REALLY think he needed a microphone anyway as his presence, his CHARACTER, filled the room and got the audience’s attention immediately.
Speaking of character, that was the topic he chose to open the conference with. Character is ultimately what keeps the readers and listeners coming back for more. Even if you’ve read all the blogs with all the tips on how to make a good story, even if the concept is intriguing or the art phenomenal, a good main character is the key ingredient to the children’s book creation.
Below I will section off the notes in bullet points. Anything quoted is directly from him, or my attempt to quote the fabulous things this man says haha.
Take that character you love and give them trouble:
Make a “scary” story. “What is a scary story? A scary story is when a character you love is in trouble.”
“A perfect ending has both a surprise and the inevitable. It’s not a coincidence.”
Coincidence can be used to get them into trouble, NOT OUT OF TROUBLE.
Make the audience HA (laugh), WAH (sorrow, relief, personal connection) and YIP! (GASP! The “scary” situation.)
Make your character face a tough choice.
Throw in what the character doesn’t want.
Make the character “need” as the need drives the action.
Character MUST solve the problem.
Coville said something similar to “A great story is well told.”
Female type of storytelling is the beauty of language and character.
Male type of storytelling is the action and energy, the tension.
A story needs BOTH types to become a great story.
Character IS plot.
Every payoff must be a set up, every set up must have a pay off.
Tell the stories clear to get the attention it needs.
Fold a piece of paper into 6 sections, or 12 sections if you’re writing for an older audience.
Write 1-6/1-12 in the boxes.
Write most potent memories in grades 1-6/1-12.
Write opposite point of view/varying different point of views.
He said something like this, “The right story at the right moment is like an arrow to the heart” and that sentence itself sent an arrow to my heart.
And that’s it! That’s all the notes I’m typing up on this blog. I hope they were even a little helpful to whoever reads this post.