SCBWI ACT's Level Up Conference Wrap Up

With thanks to Cate Whittle for her words!

What an amazing experience! The SCBWI ACT inaugural Level Up Conference was definitely the place to be on Saturday, 9th September, with so much energy and excitement coming from presenters and attendees alike. It all seemed to come together well with over 50 writers and illustrators attending, and brilliant presentations by Clare Hallifax, Isobelle Carmody, Tania McCartney, Irma Gold, Tony Flowers, and (of course) our own Susanne Gervay. Add to that a selection of brave and brilliant pitches orchestrated by Tracey Hawkins, with Clare, Susanne, and the amazing Stephanie Owen Reeder offering their advice, lots of clever questions for our panel with Isobelle, Stephanie and Susanne, and all the new connections made, not to mention the amazing Rap-Up by poet, Harry Laing. The day was truly electric – a great experience for our first ever conference!

Our lovely Level Up attendees!

Our lovely Level Up attendees!

Publishing Insights

Our first keynote speaker was the brilliant and generous Clare Hallifax, from Omnibus Scholastic, who shared her insights on the publishing industry. One or two (okay, five or six) gems of wisdom to think about include:

  • write from the heart and soul
  • keep the audience in mind
  • read aloud and act out scenes to find the rhythm and voice of our story
  • write, edit, read... then wait!
  • make our words universal and warm – no-one wants to snuggle up at the end of the day with a lecture, and
  • to write for children, write as a child

Clare also urged us to read constantly and think about what makes good stories work. In the meantime, she promised to keep the creators safe from the numbers people, so we can focus on the creative!

Stephanie Owen Reeder, Clare Hallifax, Isobelle Carmody, Susanne Gervay

Stephanie Owen Reeder, Clare Hallifax, Isobelle Carmody, Susanne Gervay

In It for the Long Haul

Listening to Isobelle Carmody as she shared her writing journey was truly inspirational, from early writing as an escape, to using her editor’s office when working the late shift as a journalist to write her stories and accidentally getting caught out, and on to that first acceptance and the success she has enjoyed. 

What she really wanted to share with us, though, was her message about taking ownership of our careers. Isobelle spoke with energy and frankness:

  • make sure that your first book is what you want to have represent you in the future
  • have conversations about what you think you are worth
  •   be aware of your rights and consider keeping your subsidiary rights separate from your print rights
  • finish the book, send it off, move on, and
  • maintain your personal relationships with publishers

Picture Book Craft

Tania McCartney had so much to share about creating picture books (if you ever have the chance to attend one of her talks, do it). In an action packed fifty minutes, we whizzed through what’s popular with kids and what’s popular with publishers and where these intersect. We considered themes that are overdone and being unique but thinking globally, whilst remembering to be subtle with messages. There was information about age appropriateness and formats for picture books, and how to develop content and characters (not forgetting non-fiction), and (really, really important) SHOW don’t tell!  Then there was balance and white space and movement and emotion... and how the ending is everything! Phew! Tania left everyone buzzing and eager to get on with crafting picture books.

It’s a Collaboration

If you have ever wondered about the dark art of editing then Irma Gold is the person to enlighten you, as we all found out as she took us through the whys and wherefores of working with an editor:

  • let go of your ego – the editor’s goal is the same as yours
  • be open to new ideas
  • take some time to gain perspective, then work through objectively
  • ask if there is anything you don’t feel clear about
  • be professional and polite, and always meet your deadlines
  • be patient – it can be a long process to publish a book
  • say thank you – editors tend to get very little credit.


Pitch Session

What can I say, other than to congratulate the brave writers who stood up in front of a packed room to deliver their pitches with enthusiasm and aplomb? Tracey Hawkins did a wonderful job of orchestrating the session, while Clare Hallifax, Stephanie Owen Reeder, and Susanne Gervay delivered on the spot responses with consideration and honesty. Exciting!

Illustrating for Different Ages

Tony Flowers entertained us as he talked about his career as an illustrator and collaborating with other creators. Providing examples of how his artwork has evolved over the years and how he approaches illustration for different audiences, he made it easy to see how we need to keep the audience in mind. Tony also reminded us to research and make sure that our work is authentic, using an example of discovering how ninjas really dressed rather than conforming to the popular belief that they only ever ran around in totally black clothing. Apparently some of them could be quite colourful! 

Tony Flowers!

Tony Flowers!

Breaking Through to Publication

A topic close to the hearts of all of us, Susanne Gervay in her typically generous way spoke about how to make your story great through:

  • practising your craft
  • reading
  • sharing your work and ideas with others in SCBWI,
  • taking the opportunity to have manuscript and portfolio critiques and being brave
  • Remembering that publishing houses change all the time so research their list and what they are doing.

Let’s Create

A special panel with Isobelle Carmody, Susanne Gervay and Stephanie Owen Reeder explored creativity and writing and thinking styles:

let your ideas settle before you start the writing phase. Be mad and brave – again and again

to be a writer you need to be driven and passionate

It will never be perfect, so don’t edit forever

never send anything the day you think it’s finished

know your (creative) strengths

balance works better in the long term (routine) as you can look after yourself and your life

sharing experiences as creators is uplifting because it allows us to appreciate each other and to value the creative journey

a creative life is interesting, fun and driven from our deepest selves.



Poet extraordinaire, Harry Laing, took control of the stage for our final session of the day to entertain us with some of his exciting and delightful poetry, topping it off with an insightful poem that summed up (rapped-up) the events of the day, leaving us all laughing (and quite possibly rolling in the aisles had we had a bit of room to spare). What a great end to a fabulous day.

Of course, the presentations weren’t everything. We also had critique sessions going on throughout the conference for both writers and illustrators, and there was a wealth of new connections being made, friendships formed, and experiences shared. 

Have a read (or a rap) of Harry's wrap up rap!

Thank you to everyone who participated, presenter or attendee. You all made it an unforgettable day.

We also have to thank ALIA, whose premises we completely turned upside down for the day as we moved furniture around everywhere, and thanks, too, to Jimmy Redden from Harry Hartog Booksellers, who once again shared his time bringing a superb array of books for us all to drool over.

A fabulous day! 

Cate Whittle

for the SCBWI ACT Team