Top Tips for the SCBWI Conference Newbie of 2016

By Candy Gourlay

Are you a newbie SCBWI about to attend your first conference? Terrified? Nervous? Hopeful? All of the above? Here's a nostalgic and instructional review of how you can make the conference a turning point for your career, as it was for mine.


KEYNOTE: Geraldine McCaughrean, before she won the Carnegie for White Darkness but after she'd won it for A Pack of Lies, as well as the Guardian, the Whitbread and the Blue Peter.
  • Pre-cooked all family meals for the weekend but overfed children on the Friday just in case.  
  • Annoyed husband by commentating on how he changed the toddler's nappy. 
  • Bought a new outfit because all my clothes were the colour of or literally covered with the vomit of asthmatic children. 
  • Fully illustrated my picture book text, formatted it as a book and printed it out, ready to whip out in case anyone asked to see it. Each page was marked "In commercial confidence" to make sure nobody stole my ideas, on the advice of an acquaintance whose expertise was in ... er ... administration.
  • At the time, Google was yet undiscovered, so I tried to search for information about the speakers and the conference via Ask Jeeves and Yahoo search engines. There was no information. Nobody was on the internet yet. Except me.
  • I had already experienced several rejections.

  • The conference booking form required us to indicate whether we were 'Published' or 'Unpublished'. This sounded like a good way to open conversations with strangers. "So," I decided I would say. "Are you published or unpublished?"
  • Reminded myself that before the tyranny of small children, I had been a professional, a journalist! So I urged myself: "Pretend you are a journalist again, Candy. Overcome shyness by treating every person you meet as a celebrity interview." I reviewed my CV in case I forgot any achievements I could mention to strangers. 
  • I decided to carry ALL my manuscripts in a (newly purchased) briefcase at all times. In case an editor smiled at me. 

... and how did it go?

It was everything I thought it would be. Terrifying. Nerve-wracking. Inspiring.

Hearing an author speak for the first time (yes, ever, ever!) filled me with stardust. I bought every single book by Geraldine McCaughrean at the bookshop. I was struck by how quietly spoken, young and normal the editors on the Industry Panel were. Because writing has always been my job, I don't normally enjoy writing workshops but lo and behold, I found myself scribbling away furiously ... and when volunteers were asked to read their work aloud, my hand shot up, totally on its own volition.

And did I show my naively-labelled "in commercial confidence" manuscripts to people? You betcha! "And what are you working on now?" someone would say. "Here," I'd say, producing my amateurishly illustrated stapled booklets. "Would you like to read it?"

It was a learning experience. The conference just gets better every year but I look back at that particular conference with fondness. I learned a lot about the industry beyond my own desire to write. I also learned that there were a LOT of people out there who wanted to get published. And I learned that it was fun to hang out with them.

I learned a lot about the industry and I learned something about myself

I also learned something about myself. I learned that I really wanted to be serious about the whole darn business of getting published. And I learned that I had a long hard slog ahead.

My dear SCBWI Newbie, I'm sure your newbie experience will be a lot more sophisticated than mine was back in the dark ages. But for what it's worth, here are some tips for the Conference Newbie of 2016:


My first SCBWI conference happened before the era of social media but in 2016, you may well have 'met' SCBWI members via the Facebook group or on Twitter. Not all of us post current profile pictures (ahem!). Even if you've chatted and commented many times, do not assume that you will be instantly recognisable. Wear it. Make sure it's visible to the naked eye.

When Philip Ardagh appeared at the conference in 2009, we knitted his name badge, as per instructions. Photo: Candy Gourlay


It is a kindness (especially to forgetful people like me) to introduce yourself, adding not just a name but a little nugget of information that might make it easy for people to identify you later. "Hi, I'm X, I write scary YA" or "Hi, I'm Y I'm an illustrator. Mostly cats."

When I was a newbie, I was afraid to introduce myself as an author. Why? Because I didn't think I deserved it until I was published. Well, remember that EVERYBODY at the conference is either an author, an illustrator or both. It's okay to identify yourself as what you do. We are all attending the conference because we share a passion for children's books.


The Conference offers so many opportunities for promotion. There's always a board where you can pin up postcards and business cards. There are chances to meet editors and publishers face to face. A competition that might just get you a publishing deal. Lots of chances for illustrators to show off their work. A party where you can rub shoulders with a whole spectrum of industry gatekeepers - from school librarians to agents.

And this year, our book launch is open to not just traditionally published members but indie members who have reached 1k in sales and alternatively published members such as charity books. Not just that, for the first time, the conference bookseller will be selling the books of published AND self published members. Hurrah!

For the first time, the conference bookseller will be selling the books of published AND self published members.

Mass book launch, 2012. 
Photo: Candy Gourlay

Which means you can all relax. There's no need to try to sell your book to every person you meet. Don't be a sales machine. Be human. Be that nice author who just loves funny books. Or that illustrator geeking out over the new Macbook Pro. Or that indie member groaning about access to retail.

Be that person we can all identify with, that person who shares the pain and joy of this world that we adore.


Friendships don't happen instantly. But I can guarantee that this is a conference where many great friendships begin.

If you're super shy, there's a Newbie Registration session at 8.45 in the morning on Saturday where the conference team will be available to meet and greet and answer any questions. If you're adventurous, there are a lot of free fringe events run by volunteers on Friday. A great way to break the ice! Check the Programme for details!

Friends are the part I love the most about the conference. Where else can you spend time with people who truly share what you love? Our conference is special because there is a genuine feeling of community, of family. I attend every year because it's a chance to get together with friends from all corners of the British Isles. And when I finally got a publication deal, I was so proud and pleased to be part of the conference as a published author! (If you've got a minute, here's a video by George Kirk where I talk about that special SCBWI familyness in my speech accepting the Crystal Kite Award in 2014)

If you're at the conference with friends, don't be too self contained. Make sure you keep an empty chair always available at your table. You wouldn't want to miss a chance to meet a future BFF.

Say hello, even if you think people are too famous or important to talk to you. Nobody is too famous or important to be nice at our conference.


They're human too! If you happen to find yourself sitting next to one, be your best normal self. Be nice and normal even though you may be hyperventilating. Try not to drool or perspire on the agent. If the opportunity comes to pitch, be witty, be cool, be measured. Please don't try to trap them in the bathroom. We want them to WANT to be at our conference!

Here's the best video on pitching to unsuspecting agents (aka the Elevator Pitch) I've ever watched:


Business cards? Sure, or always have a pen to scribble your email address down.

What to wear? Be yourself. Apart from the famous Saturday night party. In which case, come as your favourite book character. In 2014, the conference fell on Halloween and we thought, why not dress up? Turns out children's book writers and illustrators LOVE dressing up. So last year everyone came as pirates in honour of our keynote Jonny Duddle's pirate books. This year, our theme is character. So come as a character.

Photos: Candy Gourlay and George Kirk

Meals? If you're raring to socialise, you can sign up for an optional Friday night meal with all the earlybirds (there are a LOT of early birds). The conference provides coffee in the mornings, and all midday meals. The Saturday night party is finger foods only so make time for nourishment before the party if you're the hungry type. The conference ends with CAKE, Sunday afternoon.

Energy? I have to admit, it is full on. The conference team is trying to set up a quiet room where people can retreat to relax. If you are the type who needs a break, read the programme and makes sure to programme yourself breaks here and there. Expect to fall asleep on the train home.

Gear? Illustrators, there's gonna be some sketching. Check out the Sketch Crawl (and the Scrawl crawl) on Friday afternoon. Writers, bring whatever you need to take notes. Yes, to photography. Taking videos? Make sure you have permission to film or record a talk or a workshop. Some speakers mind, some don't. Very important to ask, especially at workshops because a lot of speakers (I'm one of them)  hope to use the same material at other gigs.

Strategy? Some folks come to the conference to top up their knowledge. These guys go for the craft and the information sessions. Others are in full networking mode. These guys talk and party and sign up for 1-1s. Personally, I go to be shaken into creativity. So even though I'm a novelist I always attend an illustration event or two. There are breakouts and opportunities for everyone - published people, illustrator, self published, picture book writer, novelist. You'll have to read the conference website carefully to make up your mind. When you arrive, you will receive a pack that will tell you whether you got into the breakout you applied for. The rooms and times will be posted on the wall.

Pubs? An important question! Winchester has plenty of lovely pubs. Late night carousers though will find that the pubs tend to close early. The bar at the Mercure Hotel stays open the latest and after the party on Saturday, people tend to pile over for some unlimited socialising.

What else? Keep informed by subscribing to the conference countdown newsletter which will remind you of deadlines and feed you bonus material about the speakers and events at the conference. Click here to subscribe.

Do visit the Conference website for more information. The conference team spent ages getting the  Frequently Asked Questions right!


This is the best advice I can give a newbie SCBWI about the conference. In narrative structure, the story begins when characters walk through the door of no return. This means: characters must move from their ordinary world into the world of adventure.

This is what the conference is enabling us to do. Walk through the door of no return, from our ordinary worlds to the wonderful world of writing and illustrating for children. Together.

Celebrating 2015's crop of SCBWI books. 
Photo: George Kirk

CANDY GOURLAY @candygourlay designed the conference website and co-developed the Pulse track for published members with Mo O'Hara (My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish). This is her fifth or maybe sixth or perhaps seventh year of volunteering to help with the conference. She was twice winner of the Crystal Kite Prize for Europe for her debut Tall Story and her second book, Shine, which was also nominated for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize in 2014. She blogs on Notes from the Slushpile - a team blog on writing for children's writers – and on her author blog,


  1. Thanks Candy, I shall be a conference newbie this year and enjoyed reading your blog post. Thank you for all the advice, it sounds like an amazing event and I can't wait for November. Dawn.
    PS - I did laugh at your description of your very first conference! :)

  2. Lol - I loved this, Candy! Thanks so much for the practical advice and experience sharing. Looking forward to my first conference in Nov.!

  3. Candy this is fab - I'm really nervous! And your idea to staple pages together... is that good for non-illos like me?

  4. Thanks, Candy. You've quelled my pre-Conference nerves. Loads of useful tips. :)


We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.