Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Ventura/Santa Barbara Writers Day -- A Conference Groupie's Lucky Day

I was one of the spotlight speakers at the Ventura/Santa Barbara SCBWI Writers Day, so rather than doing Cats on Wednesday I decided I would post my speech. When I wrote it I hoped to encourage others who are having a long journey to publication. After I spoke several writers told me they had related to my story and were encouraged, as well. So here it is:

At the time I moved to Hollywood from Texas as a child, we thought the movie business was glamorous. One of my Texas cousins visiting us was more than a little serious in her desire to be “discovered” by a movie producer. We all knew the old lore about starlets being discovered at Schwab’s drugstore and becoming famous movie stars.

It occurred recently to me that the big SCBWI Conference every year is to aspiring children’s book writers and illustrators a bit like Schwab’s was to those starlets—the brass ring, the chance to be discovered, and whatever that might mean in the publishing world. It’s a chance to be a J.K. Rowling, instead of Lana Turner or Angelina Jolie.

I was fortunate in my family who were always supportive of my intention to be an artist, like my mother, and to write books.

My oldest sister taught me to read before I started school. She shared her favorite books and poetry and they became my favorites too.

The three of us enthusiastically wrote plays and acted in them, and wrote and illustrated various editions of a family newspaper that was full of gossipy news. Then we decided to jointly write a science fiction novel and though we abandoned it rather quickly it had a rollicking start with us each collaborating on our ideas.

I belonged to a creative writing club at the library and the librarian who started the club was a published children’s author. She was my first mentor.

My life has always been involved with art. My first art teacher was my mother who was a talented successful artist as well as a wonderful mother and role model. We moved to California for her career and because my sister wanted to go to Art Center.

I grew up and went to Art Center and became an illustrator, graphic designer and painter and eventually decided it was time to follow my early dream of writing and illustrating children’s books.

While studying with Uri Shulevitz in New York State I first found out about SCBW (they hadn’t added the “I” yet) – back here in California. At my first summer conference I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. It was where all my questions were answered---I had found my people!

After years of attending the conferences I still find them enjoyable. I continue to learn something new at each one. After that first conference I continued writing, editing and having my work critiqued. I wanted my work to be truly ready, so I didn’t submit any of my manuscripts.

But then my mother had a stroke and other health problems and I chose to be her caregiver. I wrote and painted as I could and continued to attend conferences. I was beginning to feel I had become a Conference 'groupie' because I had been attending for such a long time.

Still I didn’t submit my work, because I felt if I sold a manuscript my situation would make it too difficult to follow through with the project.

I won a Los Angeles Writers Day picture book contest with the manuscript that would later become my first book, though it would be years before it would be submitted.

Years earlier I had seen – and never forgotten – a PBS documentary called “Anonymous was a Woman”. It was about the many unknown women folk artists of 18th and 19th century America whose work was rarely credited or lauded. The film inspired me to write my book about a fictional young girl painter in 1830’s America who pursues her dreams of being an artist and finds a way to sign her name to her work, when everyone says she shouldn’t.

Growing up I rarely heard of women artists – women as accomplished as the famous male artists. Times have changed, and today there are plenty of books on women’s accomplishments, but I still think it’s good to encourage girls – and boys – to have a strong sense of self-worth.

After I lost my mother, it took me a while to recover.

And then my lucky day happened. It was at the 2008 summer conference that my dummy and sample illustrations for Signed, Abiah Rose came to the attention of Abigail Samoun of Tricycle Press.

It had happened!—Just like Lana Turner at Schwab’s Drugstore! I was discovered! Only for me it was at a Portfolio Display in Century City. By then I had lost my starlet good looks after waiting so many years to be a glamorous overnight sensation but the dream of all of us conference groupie starlets had happened to me!

My book Signed Abiah Rose was released in June. Booklist gave it a starred review and named it to their Top 10 List of Historical Titles for Youth.

I am lucky, even though luck for all of us usually involves what my heroine Abiah Rose has, and I have tried to have—determination, belief in yourself, patience and hard work.

If there is someone here today who feels they’ve been wanting for a long time to be published and is getting discouraged, maybe knowing of my long road to publication will be helpful.

And while I wasn’t trying to give a message with Signed Abiah Rose -- I wanted to tell an entertaining story – I hope children will be encouraged by it to follow their dreams.

Of course, having one book isn’t stardom. All those qualities it took to get published have to continue and to grow. I intend to keep being a conference groupie and hopefully to have many more lucky days.


  1. What an inspiring story, Diane. Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. Thanks, Joan! It was an honor to be asked to speak -- and it was a great Writers Day to be part of!

  3. So glad I got to read your moving personal story, as I wasn't there to hear your presentation.