SCBWI ACT: Poetry, Pictures, & Polishing

Thank you Cate Whittle for the write up below.


Canberra put on its best attempt at chilly autumn weather for the gathering of hardy illustrators and writers coming along for the workshop style afternoon of Poetry, Pictures, & Polishing on the last Saturday afternoon of March, and the air conditioning at ALIA House decided to join in by getting stuck on ‘cold’!

Resilient to the last, with wraps and cardies pulled tight around our shoulders, we persevered to enjoy three spectacular sessions presented by our talented workshop leaders, who all had so much to share.

We also took the opportunity to say a sad farewell to James Redden from Harry Hartog Booksellers who is moving on and will no longer be joining us to support our gatherings with his friendly countenance and tableful of treasures to buy. James has been to every event and even entertained us enormously last year when he went up against Jack Heath (once bookseller at Dymocks and now full time writer) in the Battle of the Booksellers.

All of us send our very best wishes to James for his future endeavours, and secretly hope that he has a book or two in him and will come along and join us in the group!

Harry Laing ‘broke the ice’ in his indomitable style with poetry, performing a number of pieces and inspiring us to have a go. Whilst some of us took a while to ‘warm up’, others dived right in and penned some fabulous poems based around made up mythical creatures, something annoying, interesting titles (like The Whale who Wanted to Live on Land), focusing on consonants (for some super powered alliteration), and verb poems  – where the only words we could use were, yes, verbs!


Harry also shared his expertise and knowledge about rhythm and rhyme, flow and repetition, and how sound is such an important element of poetry. As always, Harry’s enthusiasm set the rhythm of the session and caught us all up in the flow.

We also got to preview Harry’s new book, Moon Fish, which is a delight of poetry supported by pictures from a whole raft of amazing illustrators.

After a brief pause to take on food and warming beverages, and for our now iconic photograph, we returned to warm our brains and learn more amazing tips and tricks from our next two amazing presenters.


Fabulous illustrator, Danielle McDonald, was next up, sharing her experience and knowledge in character design through her work in graphic design and creating illustrations for  picture books and the well known ‘chapter book’ series, Ella Diaries, Ella & Olivia, Olivia’s Secret Scribbles, and Tracey Lacy. The focus was on on moving beyond what our characters look like, to the age of characters and how they express their personalities so that the reader can engage with them.

Danielle had lots of amazing techniques to share, from placement and size of the eyes, to body proportions and the choice of medium. For instance, the illustrations for Ella’s Diary were designed to reflect the way a child of Ella’s age might draw. It was interesting, too, to see the evolution of Tracey from the Tracey Lacy books, from first concepts to the final characterisation.

There were a few secret tips to squirrel away, too, like:

  • using the same eyes for all the drawings of a character

  • avoiding symmetry

  • doing the work to learn how to do those tricky bits (like hands!),

  • use tracing to help with consistency

and so many other cool things that I am still trawling through my scrawled notes to find them all.

In finishing off, Danielle reminded us all to embrace where we are now, do the work, and have fun and experiment!

Our last session was with dynamic picture book author, Shelly Unwin, whose task it was to educate us in how to polish our picture book texts for publication.


This begins with knowing where to start our stories, and making our characters relatable and their story question really clear.  From here it is important to focus on voice and language, and to ask ourselves whether our words sing through whimsical, imaginative language. A big tip with this was also to get the worst reader you know to read it back to you to check your rhythm is foolproof and that your pacing is spot on. Some things to think about are:

  • remembering to show, don’t tell,

  • use active sentences,

  • keep point of view consistent,

and be concise – you have fewer than 500 words to play with!

A big question is always knowing when your work is ready for publication, and Shelly suggested lots of ways to practise through competitions or working with a critique group or an editor before your start to seek publication. Choosing whether to go straight to publishers or trying to find an agent is another step in the process, and it is important to check how you want to approach this. You will have to have new or different work to offer an agent if you have already approached publishers, as they will need something to work with.

Again, Shelly had so much to share that it’s impossible to include in a blog post, but her biggest tip is to get your professional author photo done sooner rather than later.


We’re not getting any younger!

In the meantime, participate in conferences and courses, join organisations, subscribe to magazines, follow podcasts, and keep on writing!

All in all, it was a fabulous afternoon with so much fantastic advice from everyone!  Enough to warm the cockles of your heart.

Thanks to the SCBWI ACT team for putting on this event — Shaye Wardrop, Grace Bryant, Cate Whittle and Nicole Godwin.