SCBWI CONFERENCE 2019 Notes from Newbie-land

Conference newbies Chrissy Sturt, Vicki Minchin and Saira Tariq report on their life-changing experiences at SCBWI-BI's Conference 2019.

Chrissy Sturt

I know how ‘SCBWI’ is pronounced. This is new for me. Before conference I’d never heard the word spoken before. Is it, sca-b-wi? Or do people sound out the letters, rapid fire - S.C.B.W.I.? Will I get them in the right order? Just the thought made me feel dyslexic. Anyway, it’s Scoobie. As in Scooby-Doo. I know now that Scoobies are My People. I’m writing this with a pen. Not a keyboard in sight. It is so odd holding a pen, but Piers Torday looked into my eyes and told me to try it. Also, I can start a sentence with ‘and’. And! Just trying it out. And, and – and up yours, English teacher! I knew this aged 9. Now I’ve heard it at conference, it’s official.

Chrissy Sturt (left) and friend Layla Oates. (Picture credit: Chrissy Sturt.)

My friend Layla made me go. ‘It’s too much money,’ I said. ‘But it’s your profession,’ she argued. I tried that on my husband. ‘It’s my profession,’ I told him, trying to sound like Layla. He scowled, then harrumphed. I took that as a yes. Note these short punchy sentences, another thing I learnt.

As the date loomed, Layla became concerned I might keep her attached to me like a conjoined twin. But from the get-go everyone was so friendly that I soon happily cut my friend free. 'Go do illustratory things,' I called out after her. Here we are (pictured above), before we separated.

I was worried there might be an apartheid between The Published and The Unpublished. But no. The only divide was between First Lunch and Second Lunch sittings. Other than that, we were all equals (only some are more equal than others – such as Piers).

I was worried there might be an apartheid between The Published and The Unpublished. But no. The only divide was between First Lunch and Second Lunch sittings

At the Friday Night Critique I learned we were to stay mute whilst others gave feedback. What?! My stomach clenched. Instead of defending my precious newborn, I was to sit back and let the vultures come. There was more of that the next day in my longed for 1-to-1 with an Actual Real Life Agent. It’s OK. My ridiculous baby needs chunks torn out of it – critique is red in tooth and claw, and the corpse I’m left with – from that, good things will come. This is the new, enlightened, post-conference Chrissy. Quite a change!

There was excellent coffee. There was tasty food. I went to a party dressed as a horse. Real people held up their real books. I want that so badly, but it might take years. And that’s OK, because there are many other (immensely talented) people on the same journey. Thanks to conference, I’ve met them! I’m out of step with the rest of the world – I’m not one for spas, yoga retreats or music festivals. But to hear People of the Pen speak powerfully about the art of writing and drawing – that’s my kind of luxury break.

Chrissy with Amy Tilston (centre) and Cate Holness. (Picture credit: Chrissy Sturt.)

I made new friends. I spoke on stage about my book (see header image). People clapped me! Then Piers told me one of the things I read out was ‘powerful’ and that felt like receiving an A* from God.

Vicki Minchin

As a two-month-old member of SCBWI, and six months into my writing journey, I was nervous that I’d tried to walk before I could crawl when I booked to attend this year’s conference. It’s fair to say I was full of trepidation and excitement by the time November rolled around.

The Friday Night Critique workshop was my first experience of face-to-face critique and a baptism of fire. Receiving such detailed feedback and constructive criticism from strangers was daunting and I left feeling equally deflated and inspired. Luckily, on Saturday morning any niggling nerves were put to rest at the registration table. The volunteers were friendly, welcoming and encouraging, and buoyed by the camaraderie and cake (an excellent title for a YA novel), I embraced my first full day at the conference.

Friendly faces at registration: Frances Hutt (left) and co-chair Georgina Lippiett.
(Picture credit: Vicki Minchin.)

The proceedings kicked off with Geraldine McCaughrean’s engaging keynote speech, and I marvelled at her impressive bibliography and experience. That afternoon, I watched with wonder as Mini Grey delivered the second keynote session with boundless energy, humour and a sprinkle of magic.

Keynote Mini Grey sprinkles her magic. (Picture credit: Vicki Minchin.)

I met with an agent who gave honest, frank and brutal feedback on two of my picture book manuscripts. The feedback was a hard pill to swallow, but one that will ultimately make me a better writer. I speed-pitched another manuscript to an agent and an editor in some of the scariest eight minutes of my life, and received welcome and encouraging feedback. The Hook, the ‘Dragons' Den’ section of the conference, not only delivered some wonderful pitches but also helped to showcase the variety and talent of conference delegates. Live drawing and live soldiers? What a way to end the first day!

Magic happens when you turn the page — Mini Grey

On Sunday the conference continued with great energy and momentum, and I was consistently impressed by the variety of workshops and speeches in the packed programme. By Sunday night, I was exhausted, had writer’s cramp and headed home happy and inspired. The takeaway for me was that writing/ illustrating are the small parts of the process. Editing, marketing, querying, standing out, being persistent — these are the hoops we ALL have to jump through, no matter where you are on your journey.

Saira Tariq

I dusted off my trusty old travel bag and, with that, the news of winning the scholarship started to become a reality. As I arrived at the train station in Manchester Piccadilly, I felt both excitement and anxiety in equal measures. And so began my adventure.

Arrive at the hotel in one piece — Check!
Locate venue for Friday night critiquing group — Check!
Arrive on time at venue — Check!
Cause for anxiety, none — Check!
Have an anxiety attack because you may have an anxiety attack — Check!

Upon arrival at the university for the critiquing session, I decided to have a small panic attack about the possibility of having an actual panic attack. Fortunately, the group of writers and illustrators present didn’t identify the impostor amongst them, and I was greeted by warm, friendly people.

Saturday morning, and I wondered what on earth I was stressing over the night before. Soni Speight, who had been my main point of contact via email up to this point, was the SCBWI ethos encapsulated, as was everyone else I met. Warm, friendly and so encouraging and supportive. The keynote speech was delivered by Geraldine McCaughrean. So, imagine my surprise when this talented, well-established award-winning author of over 170 books blurted out that she often felt like an impostor amongst fellow writers at such gatherings.

Jude Evans delivers The Art Directors Brief session.
(Picture credit: Saira Tariq.)

The welcoming remarks and speeches were followed by the First Impressions Panel for illustrators. To be a party to a panel consisting of the likes of Art Director Strawberrie Donnelly, Arabella Stein of the Bright Agency and illustrator Bridget Marzo was both surreal and a real honour. After a social lunch gathering, and yet another opportunity to meet other talented professionals, I found my way to my 1-to-1 with Arabella Stein. Nervous at the prospect of having my worked reviewed by Arabella, I sat before her feeling the impostor syndrome overcome me once more.

Conference-goers at the mass book launch. (Picture credit: Saira Tariq.)

She gave me great feedback and was so encouraging I left feeling energised and motivated. After the fun festivities of Saturday night’s book launch party, Sunday got off to a serious start with the chance to hit the abundant workshops on offer. The opportunity to listen to Jude Evans impart her knowledge from an art director’s perspective was not to be missed. The session gave me insight into how to look at my work objectively.

Saira Tariq (right) with delegates Will Hamilton-Davies and Anjali Bhatara.
(Picture credit: Will Hamilton-Davies.)

My personal struggles in recent times have been difficult. However, I don’t view them as negative experiences, I draw what positives I can from them and put them into my creative process. So, with that said, I am truly humbled and overwhelmed that what I have achieved in the brief moment I have been an illustrator has lead me to win the Bright Agency scholarship and afforded me the opportunity to attend the conference. I have been made to feel part of the SCBWI family. In short, I am an impostor no more.

*Header image by Vicki Minchin: Chrissy Sturt pitches at The Hook with some soldier buddies. 


Chrissy Sturt (see pic above) is a freelance journalist. After nearly 20 years with the BBC she broke free to concentrate on her writing. She lives in Hampshire with two children, two cats, two horses, one bad lab and a long suffering husband.

Vicki Minchin has been scribbling silly stories for a long time. After a varied career across television, aromatherapy and the charity sectors, Vicki found herself in her most challenging role to date; that of a stay-at-home mum. Inspired by the impressive number of books her kids have devoured over the past seven years, Vicki now writes picture books. Soon, Vicki will find the perfect agent who will in turn help to find the perfect publisher. Until then, Vicki is working at honing her craft, learning as much as possible and working through her enjoyable but debilitating notebook addiction.
Twitter: @Vicks80

Saira Tariq's background is in Biological Sciences; however, she has always been creative. A change in personal circumstances led her down a rabbit hole and into the world of children’s book illustrations. In her brief period as an illustrator, she has gained some recognition within the art community having had some of her pieces exhibited by the Koestler Trust, gained highly commended awards, and produced a book cover for Fons Vitae. She is currently working on illustrations for a picture book project.


Fran Price is Events Editor for Words & Pictures, the online magazine for SCBWI-BI. Contact her at

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