What compelled you to come to the conference this year? I asked Sally. We were both attending the Friday evening pre-conference "Fringe" event on Vlogging (Video Blogging) led by Olivia Kiernan. It was my first meet-up of the 2015 Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) British Isles annual conference in Winchester, UK. Sally had already been to the Scrawl Crawl earlier that day.

To be amongst authors. That’s why I come every year, she said.

And thus began what for author Miriam Craig has turned into the best weekend of the year. I always come to the conference because I love seeing old friends and meeting new people. I always learn a lot. It’s a great way to keep up to date and to experiment.

This year's event, entitled New Readers Ahoy, Creating Stories to Treasure, featured a star-studded line-up of speakers -- many dressed as pirates -- including keynotes Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve, Jonny Duddle, and David Fickling. I find the SCBWI British Isles conference unique -- and wonderful -- among SCBWI conferences worldwide in that its offerings don't stop with the education and nurturing of pre-published authors and illustrators, the organization's traditional mandate. Indeed, with it's popular PULSE line-up of events, the British Isles conference also provides for the needs of published and mid-list creatives, and thus keeps familiar faces coming back year after year. And now in the second year of its SPARK strand, those who've journeyed to publication via an alternative path can find a safe haven within SCBWI as well.

I was honored to join the SPARK line-up to present on the role of Crowdfunding in publishing alongside Gillian McClure and Larisa Villar Hauser, who each recounted very different forays into self-publication. There was much to be plumbed there about the good, bad, and ugly of the DIY publishing route.

Basically, the conference is like a spa get-away for children's authors and illustrators, though with cake and congratulations and conversations well into the night, rather that quiet and calm. People attend the conference for the sense of community:

I mainly come for the networking, for sharing the buzz of being an author, said Maureen Lynas.

I always learn a lot, said Lisa Mann, but mostly it was a great chance to see people and catch up with everybody.

Others arrive seeking insights into the craft, like Benjamin Scott,

I came to feel reinvigorated about writing, which definitely happened!

And John Condon, who had this to say:

One of the reasons I always come to conferences if for the opportunity to have my work critiqued by professionals, both industry insiders as well as other writers. But I always find that I come away with so much more, including just great conversations, each day and evening, sometimes into the next morning. You learn so much more and make many more new friends that you expect to. I learned loads of little practical tools… like ways to help me keep writing even when inspiration doesn’t come.

Pirates Sean Noonan and Paul Morton introducing their pet parrots!

Pirates Sean Noonan and Paul Morton introducing their pet parrots!

Another new author I met, named Liz, said she’s so focused on learning about the writing craft at present that coming to the conference, her first, seemed the ideal thing to do. It was a gift she gave to herself:

My children are finally old enough for me to be able to come away, so it was a break for me; a chance to do something just for me.

Dave Gray had very personal reasons for attending as well. He and Juliet Clare Bell just launched their delightful The Unstoppable Maggie McGee. But he now finds himself in that between-project place characterized by a mixture of let-down -- I'm so sad that's over -- and fear -- can I do it again?

At the end of a big project, it’s easy to feel tired, it can be hard to get your energy back. Coming to the conference helped me to recharge my batteries and think about what’s next.

Many attendees, like Tolu Shofule, simply want it all:

My reason for coming was to bond with fellow author/illustrators and to learn more about the industry, the dos and donts of publishing. The sessions I went to were so worth it, so insightful. The Q&A with Jonny Duddle… I didn’t want it to end! To meet someone you so admire and hear about what happens behind the scenes of the creative process is so valuable!

And some are looking for specific pointers, like illustrator and first time conference attendee Katherine Lynas,

My big tip is to work on eyeballs. My characters all look surprised, apparently. I could include a few details without being overwhelming, I learned, that would add a bit more interest.

Author Louise Kelly came to the conference for one reason, but was surprised to gain so much more:

I hoped to sort my head out and to work out the details of my story. But actually what I’ve come away with is some really golden nuggets on how to structure what I’m writing.

Fireworks were going off all over the place, in fact, in Candy Gourlay’s Sunday intensive on structure. Candy recently received a lightening bolt of insight during a graphic novel class she took with Bridget Marzo. Candy had never heard of the idea of the "mid-point" applied to fiction writing before.

Most of us include it naturally, instinctively, she said.

But screenplay writers all know about the mid-point and use it to drive the story toward the climax and ending. This learning was such a breakthrough for Candy that she volunteered to bring it to her fellow writer-members of SCBWI, which is characteristic of SCBWI members' sharing ethos. Apparently it was worthy...

Kathryn Evans: I’ve been struggling with a plot problem for three weeks. I realized in Candy's workshop that my midpoint is coming too early. So I need to swap some scenes around and add some others. And I’m going to start tonight!

Jeannie Waudby: I’ve got this scene in my current story that I’ve really not understood, but I knew it needed to be there. And now I know: it’s the mid-point.

Mo O’Hara: Candy had us break our story into six pieces, and I realized that my midpoint was nowhere near the center of my story and that my resolution didn’t actually solve the problem I set up. A shard of light descended from the ceiling. And it landed on me. the God of words said, here you go, Mo! And I went, “Ahhhhhhhh!"

Sally Kindberg summed up the collegial sharing you find at SCBWI conferences most deftly with this comment:

The conference always reminds me brilliant everyone is! I’ve got lots of ideas from others. We’re all bouncing ideas at these events. You get an idea from one person, put your own spin on it, and bounce it to someone else. It’s exhilarating!

Mike Brownlow, a long-time organizer and panel chair had this to say:

Everybody learns something at this event, no matter how experienced they are! Even Jonny Duddle, one of our keynotes. I sat next to him at a session today and he was scribbling away. The conference provides real, proper professional development, which is what SCBWI is all about.

Kathryn Evans models her Sea Wig made of book covers by this year's SCBWI-BI launch authors.

Kathryn Evans models her Sea Wig made of book covers by this year's SCBWI-BI launch authors.

But author Christina Banach, who I found at the final cake cutting just beaming (FYI: SCBWI-BI does very good cake!). Although the answer was obvious, I asked if she'd had a good conference. This is what she said:

The conference has rejuvenated my love of story and has been a beacon of light in what is, at the moment, a pretty dark world. It’s fantastic! Thanks so much to everyone who organized it!

But I'll give the final word to Sarah Broadly:

I urge everybody to come to the conference next year because it’s going to be awesome.

Does that mean the organizers are planning for next year already? I wonder what the theme will be, because here's my tip to all you would- be Winchester meet-up goers:

Start working on your party costume today!