Skip to content

Jeni Chen Posts

My Process for Making the Artworks for the Utility Boxes

I applied for the art wrap program over a year ago in Feb 2020. I had to submit a statement of intent, a CV and ten work samples. The public art program in my city selected a number of artists to be on the artist roster every two years.

Many cities have public art programs. Check out city websites and look for public art programs or call to artists. I signed up for their email notifications so whenever there’s an opportunity, I get an email. I look at the request for qualification, a detailed document explaining what they are looking for, to see if I am interested or qualified.

This spring, the program sent me the location of the two utility boxes that I would be making the artworks for. I was advised to respond to the location of the utility boxes. Since one of the boxes was outside a Gymboree Daycare/Preschool, I thought about making something with kids or animals in my initial sketches.

I superimposed some work samples that I have submitted to see how they would look. I also made some new sketches and photoshop’ed them on the utility boxes. I still had no idea what I would draw at this stage but I knew I wanted to have bright colours!

I went online to research anything I can find about the city of Richmond. I checked out the area on the map. I went to the utility boxes on location again. I remember getting the inspiration for my Art Column while checking out the actual column and walking the area. The utility boxes that I was assigned to were around the Olympic Oval very close to the Fraser River. I walked around the area, took pictures and made some sketches.

I remembered an article I read online while doing research about the conservation of eelgrass. Apparently, our Fraser River estuary has one of the most extensive eelgrass habitats in the world, providing food and shelter for a multitude of organisms such as juvenile salmon.

One of the articles I read said, for less than $6 per year per person in Greater Vancouver, it’s not too late to save 102 species at risk of extinction! It mentioned that five species of salmon, the white and green sturgeon are at risk. I decided to depict salmon and sturgeon with eelgrass for one of the utility boxes.

For the second utility box, I researched the other at risk species mentioned in the article and found the Western Sandpipers interesting. Millions of migratory birds from around the world use the Fraser River estuary as a resting stop to refuel during their long-distance flight. Western sandpipers consume diatom-containing biofilm covering the mudflats of the Fraser River estuary and they are at risk due to encroachment of shoreline habitats.  I googled diatom and found them to be out of this worldly beautiful!

Some artists even managed to arrange these microscopic algae into amazing art! You gotta check it out here.

I feel it took me more time and work to figure out what to draw than the actual drawing. Once I know what I want to make, the execution was quick. I had so much fun drawing, I made different art for all four sides and the top of the second utility box!

Once the art wraps were installed on the utility boxes, I realized the spec they gave me on one of the boxes was 11 inches short, so they had to cut off the legs of Western Sandpiper and most of my diatoms on one side. Thank goodness I did different art for all sides so you can still see the diatoms on the other side! Next time, I will double check the spec by measuring it again myself!

Finally, I had to submit an artist statement for the artworks and you can read it here.

Leave a Comment

Signing My First Book Publishing Agreement

After receiving the offer to publish, I talked to my mini critique club members and our SCBWI regional advisor. They advised me to compare my contract with the sample contract on the SCBWI website. The sample contract is a standard industry contract with explanatory notes by a lawyer on how to modify it to protect the authors and/or illustrators. You can find the sample contract in “The Book, the Essential Guide to Publishing for Children” on the SCBWI website. It contains over 300 pages of resources and is free to members. My SCBWI regional advisor told me to treat the offer as a business negotiation and to ask for what I think is fair.

My publisher is also a member of SCBWI and prefers to work with someone who’s a member. I spent a few days studying the contracts and asking questions. I think one of the first things to do if you want to become an author/illustrator is to join SCBWI and meet the members in your local area. There’s also a super helpful group called KIDLIT411 on Facebook that you can join for free. I find the people in the kid lit industry friendly and willing to help. It’s reassuring for a newbie like me to be able to ask experienced people questions and find answers.

In my mini critique club, someone was represented by an agent and she said her agent spent six months negotiating with the publisher on her behalf. Also, agents usually negotiate a higher pay for the author/illustrator because they take a cut from the pay. Another option is to hire a lawyer to go over the contract with you.

On the financial side of things, there is an advance payment and then the royalty. Advance is usually paid in instalments and you must earn out your advance before receiving any royalties. For example, if you are paid $2000 in advance, you must earn back the $2000 before receiving any royalties.

Check out this survey of 174 published picture book authors in 2017 about their advances and how long it took to earn out their advances.

Check out this post about the finer points of how royalties are calculated:

This page on SCBWI website answers some of the most frequently asked questions from how to get your children’s book published to how much you can expect to make on your first book:

Around the time I was signing my publishing offer, #publishingpaidme was trending on Twitter. It was interesting to see how much some people are getting paid!

Leave a Comment

Getting a Publishing Deal on Twitter

I met Monica at my picture book illustration class. I asked to tag along with her to my first SCBWI meeting so I wouldn’t feel so scared. Later, she invited me to join her mini critique club with a total of five people. We met online every two weeks during the lockdown. I found the number of people perfect as everyone had time to share and we got to learn each other’s material well enough to provide constructive feedback.

One day, our mini critique club was helping me improve my cover letter and someone mentioned #PBPitch which was happening in a few days. For one day, authors and illustrators can pitch their story on Twitter. If a publisher or agent likes your pitch, you can submit your story to them. This reduces the number of cover letters I have to write and that is good news to me!

At first, I wasn’t sure if I want to try #PBPitch again because I didn’t get any likes the last time I tried. I am glad that I still researched #PBPitch on Twitter and on their website www.pbpitch.com to see how people write a pitch. I found a successful pitch that was similar to mine and used the format to re-write my pitch. I also improved my illustrations over the year and I think those helped because this time I got three likes and one of them became my publisher!

There are many pitching parties online and my publisher looks for author-illustrators this way so I highly recommend trying. Also, you will have to find a publisher that publishes the kind of story you write so timing is important.

My other secret that I am still experimenting with is to get happy first before taking action. Since the lockdown due to COVID-19, I’ve been spending time reading books and watching YouTube videos of my favorite spiritual teachers. One of my favorite teachers is Abraham-Hicks and she always says to be satisfied with the now before anything you desire can happen. So I spent some time doing meditation and researching how people write a good pitch. I only submitted when I felt good and inspired to do so (Abraham-Hicks often explains the difference between inspiration and motivation). Then I forgot about it. I didn’t check my Twitter for several days because I don’t want to feel something has to happen for me to be happy. I can choose to be happy now in my current situation.

A few days later, I checked my Twitter and saw that I got three likes! Again, I made sure I feel good before submitting my package. In another time, I’d probably rush through the whole process worrying if I didn’t do it quickly enough I’d miss out on the opportunity.

Soon after, I got an offer to publish and I was in disbelief!

Is Abraham-Hicks right? Does the universe really conspire to help us if we allow it? One of my favorite quotes from my favorite book The Alchemist:

#PBPitch happens three times a year. There are also many other pitch parties on Twitter such as #dvpit and #pitmad. If you Google “twitter pitch” you will find many lists like this 2021 Twitter Pitch Parties for Writers with dates and links. Check out their websites to see how to participate. And don’t give up! You never know when your next publisher will be on it!

Leave a Comment

Life Is The Dancer, And You Are The Dance

“There are three words that convey the secret of the art of living, the secret of all success and happiness: One With Life. Being one with life is being one with Now. You then realize that you don’t live your life, but life lives you. Life is the dancer, and you are the dance.” Eckhart Tolle wrote in his book A New Earth (Chapter 4, p115).

I first thought: How am I the dance and not the dancer? But I really felt a resonance with it even when my mind was unable to make sense of it. Is it proof that “I” and “my mind” are not the same thing? How can I feel the truth in it and not comprehend it? But I was inspired to draw dancers nonetheless…

Joseph Campbell ‘s “follow your bliss” has changed the course of my life since 2016.

He said the idea behind it came from the Sanskrit Sat-Chit-Ananda. Sat means being, Chit means consciousness and Ananda means bliss. He didn’t know exactly what being and consciousness were but he knew his bliss. By following his bliss, it led him to full consciousness and being. See his interview with Bill Moyers here.

I was obsessed with reading about Sat-Chit-Ananada for a while and came upon the teachings of a South Indian Sage Ramana Maharshi. In his teaching “Who Am I” he said:

“We know that the train carries all loads, so after getting on it why should we carry our small luggage on our head to our discomfort, instead of putting it down in the train and feeling at ease?”

This explained to me what “life is the dancer, and you are the dance” meant in a way that my brain can understand. But my artistic side liked the more poetic way it was described so I continued making art about dancers. Was it why Degas and Matisse paint so many dancers? Did they know the secret too? Now I know that my search for the Truth of life is also inspiration for my art. These two sketches of dancers were inspired by Degas and Matisse (one during his Les Fauves period, one during his later period).

Then I tried carving on plywood (the wood is too hard) and styrofoam printing:

Finally I made a GIF of uncoordinated dancers (that’s how I dance!) for welcoming the New Year!

Leave a Comment

How I Created My Website Using WordPress

In 2018, I took another picture book illustration class and we had to create a portfolio website for our final class presentation. There are many ways to create a website and some are free and easy to use for beginners such as Weebly.com, Wix.com and WordPress.com. I set up jenichenart.wordpress.com for the presentation and since it’s free, you will see wordpress.com after my name.

The teacher talked about Behance which is an industry specific network for creatives to showcase their work. Art directors go there searching for talents and you may get freelance work from there.

After some consideration, I decide to set up my own website JeniChen.com using WordPress.org. Unlike WordPress.com, WordPress.org (own by the same company) provides more flexibilities, including search engine optimization (SEO) functions to increase traffic to your site and you get to own/control your content, yay! The downside is that if you don’t have any technical backgrounds, there’s a learning curve. But there are so much information and tutorials out there, you can google your way into some proficiency. No coding or html knowledge required.

When people want to find you on the internet, they usually search by name. That’s why it was recommended that we snatch up the domain with our name in it as soon as possible. I purchased my domain name JeniChen.com and web hosting from GoDaddy. In 2019, Google flagged my site as unsafe because I did’t have something called SSL certificate. GoDaddy charges $99.99 per year to have this SSL certificate while some other hosting companies provide it for free. I will be looking for new hosting company soon.

Here are some basic general steps to get started:

1. Buy a domain name and web hosting plan. WordPress.org recommends these three companies.

2. Follow the instructions from your hosting company to install the free/open source code on your own hosted site.

3. Start playing with every button and functions on the backend. Google anything you are trying to do. I just googled “how to have different themes on wordpress” and found step by step instruction on how to do just that. I wanted my portfolio and my blog to have different looks and different functions.

Sometime I thought I was way over my head and I should just hire a professional to do it. Other times, I found the challenge interesting. It’s like finding the pieces to a puzzle that was a vision in my mind and I can change it anytime I want. When I found the missing piece to the puzzle and made it work, how satisfying it felt! 

PS.  My site is a basic portfolio and blogging website that gave me a presence online that’s my own. There are many ways and options to build a website. This article is about how I build my portfolio and blogging website JeniChen.com using WordPress.

PPS. I just learned that anything you put on WordPress.com, they can use for free and they can shut you down like Facebook/Twitter, etc. On the other hand, you own your content on WordPress.org.

Leave a Comment

Fake It till You Make It or Being Present?

I didn’t work on my picture book story from the time I wrote it down in 2016 until I took a second picture book illustration class in 2018. What had I been doing during those two years? Although I loved to draw as a child, I had no formal training in art. I remember thinking that I needed to learn some basic concepts in art and illustration before I could tackle this project. So I enrolled in the Fine Art Certificate Program in my local art school. Now I am working on my debut picture book, I still feel I am not ready sometimes. I have so many excuses such as I am a newbie and I don’t know everything yet. Then my publisher announced the book deal and I posted the news on Facebook. Once my family and friends knew about this, I started to panic: What would they think about my book? What if they didn’t like it?

These kinds of thoughts made me feel overwhelmed and stressed. Then I saw a video (starting at 1:55:29) where Eckhart Tolle talked about writing his best seller The Power of Now (this book has the coveted spot on my night stand).

1. He felt an urge to write the book. It was like something wanted to come into being and he became a channel. He talked about the purpose of the universe is to create and express through us in another video.

2. If you become stressed while doing it, it’s because you are attached to the outcome (ie. to write the book in order to become famous or rich, etc.)

3. The practice is to be present. Enjoy the doing, the action IN THE NOW which is more important than where you want to get to.

It was just what I needed to hear. Besides, we learn in real life situations and not in a vacuum. I am grateful to have this opportunity to learn while doing it. Whatever the result is will depend on the quality of this moment. So all I need to focus on is this moment. Am I doing my best? Am I enjoying it and allowing the energy to flow into my work?

Debbie Ridpath Ohi (children’s book author/illustrator) said it brilliantly in her comic You May Be Luckier Than You Think. I just have to appreciate where I am now and enjoy the journey.

Leave a Comment

Where to Submit Your Picture Book Dummy?

When I attended the SCBWI Conference in Washington, everyone got a list of agents and publishers who also attended the conference. I found this list very valuable because some of the publishers don’t accept unsolicited materials unless you attended the conference. There is a timeline for you to submit to them after the conference so I was glad I had finished my dummy book when I attended the conference. In addition, the conferences are info packed and you get to meet a lot of like minded people.

I like to hear about other people’s publishing journeys and their creative processes.

Check out SCBWI’s official blog to see what’s happening in a conference. http://scbwiconference.blogspot.com/

I’ve sent my dummy book to every agents/publishers that were in my category (picture books abbreviated PB) on the list. I didn’t hear back from any except an agent who asked if I have any other work. I don’t have anything that’s ready to be shown but it was encouraging to hear that from an agent. I sent out a few more dummy books in the mail to publishers who accept unsolicited material but didn’t hear back from any of them. When I checked their websites, they were all closed due to COVID-19. Please see my previous post Getting ready to submit my picture book dummy to see how I compiled a list of publisher to submit to. In addition, if you google picture book submissions, you will find lists like these: 75 Children’s Book Publishers Currently Accepting Submissions

Before submitting to publishers, it was advised on most submission guidelines to research what kind of books they publish to see if your story fits in with their collections. This is a very time consuming process but I think this way, the publishers can weed out a lot of people who are not serious or prepared.

Leave a Comment

Getting Ready to Submit My Picture Book Dummy

I finally felt ready to send out my dummy book. I have emailed my dummy book to several agents/publishers on the list provided by the SCBWI conference that I’ve attended.

Writing cover letters to send to publishers was another art in itself. I googled “picture book cover letter sample” or variation of it and use the ones I liked as template. At this time, I’ve already collected a list of publishers that I wanted to send to and entered their submission requirements in an Excel sheet. In my picture book illustration classes, we were taught to read lots of picture books, make a list of publishers that publishes the kind of books that you like or make and google their submission guidelines. A lot of publishers don’t take unsolicited submission meaning you will have to have an agent to submit on your behalf. I think it cuts down a lot of work for the publishers as they receive a lot of submissions. I do see a number of publishers who do not accept unsolicited manuscripts but welcome illustrators to email them their portfolios. Chronicle Books is one of the publishers that still takes unsolicited submissions and they write a very good blog about the whole process plus some useful tips. I read their blog posts when I first started preparing to submit and found it illuminating. A good place to start here: So, You’ve Written a Children’s Book…Now What?

Some publishers require physical dummy books to be mailed to them. I am happy that I agreed to make yearbooks for my son’s school and was taught how to use Adobe InDesign. It was very useful when I needed to print my own dummy book and have contact to the printing company.

Here is a list of publishers that accept unsolicited manuscripts:  30 Children’s Book Publishers Seeking Picture Books               

Go to the publisher’s website to see their most updated submission guidelines as they may change.

Leave a Comment

Trust Your Inspiration and Fail Faster

In 2019, I put my full effort into making my picture book dummy. I remember feeling excited every morning, wanting to get up to start working on my picture book. I felt I had a purpose because the story has meaning to me and it felt good making it come together!

I went to SCBWI critique meetings and signed up for the SCBWI conference in Washington. At times, I felt frustrated or dejected when I got negative feedback. Sometimes I felt pulled into different directions by other’s opinions. I tried to re-work my story and illustrations many, many times. But in the end, I always referred back to my original inspiration which was on pieces of scrap papers. All in all, I found the critique groups very useful and necessary. I met friends who encouraged me to move forward on this journey when I doubted myself.

These are what I’ve learned from my experience so far:

1. Trust when you are inspired to do something.

I felt the story coming to me at dawn and that I had to write it down means something and I need to pay attention to it. I remember an interview of Abraham-Hicks by Dr. Wayne Dyer who quoted Rumi: “The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep!”

Watch the interview What Is Inspiration  – Dr Wayne Dyer & Esther Hicks: Co-Creating at Its Best:

2. Fail faster.

As it was my first dummy, I didn’t know how finished/legible my sketches should be so I tried to do it well which took a lot of time. I finished my dummy before I went through the majority of the critiques and it caused a lot of frustrations when I had to redraw them again and again. Sometimes I felt hesitant to change because I didn’t want to redraw them again. Then I stumbled upon this video: Fail Faster – A Mantra for Creative Thinkers – Extra Credits

It says the most basic lesson of design is to fail faster. Don’t wait until you think you have a perfect product before testing it out with people. On the other hand, my picture book classmate told me that because the amount of work I’ve already put in, the final illustrations will be easier. Thank you Mariana for the encouragement! And since it was my first dummy and I don’t have a lot of illustrations in my portfolio (yet), the sketches needed to be pretty finished to give potential publishers/agents a better idea of what the finished illustrations would look like.

So whatever happens, it’s all good.

Leave a Comment

Inspiration that Woke Me Up

After I finished the children’s picture book class at my local art school, one morning around 4am, I woke up with this story buzzing in my mind. The story kept going that I couldn’t fall back asleep so I decided to write it down on a piece of paper (in very low light).

At that time, I have already learned to keep pens and papers in my night stand drawer because ideas come to me during the twilight hours (and in the shower).

I am so happy that I wrote down the story in 2016 because I didn’t work on it until 2018. If I haven’t wrote it down I would have forgotten about it (or most of it).  In 2018 I decided to take another children’s picture book class and I typed out the story and got my first critique in class.

The picture book teacher told us about SCBWI so I joined their Facebook group.

From my local SCBWI Facebook group, I learned about a FREE event* that helps people create their children’s picture book dummies. The registration was closed at the time but I followed the advice on the free resources and started working on creating my dummy book. The free resources are great for newbies and included basic info such as picture book templates, layouts and a very useful schedule that kept me on task.

*You can check out Dani Duck’s “Smart Dummies” here:  https://www.daniduck.com/smart-dummies/

Thank you Dani Duck, you helped push me into my PB journey unknowingly (now you know).

Also thanks to Lisa Cinar and Cynthia Nugent who taught my Picture Book Illustration classes at Emily Carr University of Art + Design.

Leave a Comment