Chicago Writers Conference’13

“There is no such day when I find myself without stories or

ideas swarming around me.”

Rick Kogan, an icon of Chicago journalism and a keynote speaker at CWC’13.


I was blessed to attend Chicago Writers Conference last month with my friend, talented writer Madelaine Standing, who came all the way from Canada.

CWC’13 started with a Kick-Off party at Open Books Bookstore where I volunteer. Besides socializing and making new friends, conference attendees were entertained by special readings of Chicago Stories by performers from This Much Is True.

For the next two days the conference took place in Harold Washington Library Center of the Chicago Public Library.

One of the most interesting presentations for me on the first day was that of Ian Belknap, the founder of “Write Club” – a lineup of Chicago writers/performers who compete in performing for cash going to a charity of their choosing. Ian gave advice on performing writer’s work in front of the audience and capturing listeners’ attention. Here are a few tips from Ian on how to be an excellent reader:

1. Always keep in mind that the goal of reading is to deliver the message, tantalize the audience.

2. It’s always better to choose simplicity when reading an excerpt from your book.  If a sentence can’t be read in one breath, it has to be rewritten. Dialogue would probably be a bad choice, unless it’s a breaking point in a story. But if you do read a dialogue, don’t change the way you talk with a change of the character. Instead, you can change a deepness of your voice or the way you turn your head.

3. When asked to read a 5-minute long piece, make it 4 minutes, and leave  room for questions.

4. Not everyone is brilliant when it comes to public speaking. You may need to take a Live Lit class or public speaking class in your local university before performing your work.

5. Practice is the mother of excellence. Read aloud as if you are performing as much as you can; study your tendencies and improve them.

Shannon Downey from “Pivotal Chicago” shed some new light for me on social media as a tool for selling books. She stressed that once a writer defines social media as a marketing tool, she is screwed. Social media should be seen as a collection of tools that can help a writer curate a boundless community of people in a different way. Trust and authenticity are factors that will drive any social media. Instead of promoting your book on your website, become sort of “go-to” in your field. Less than 10% of your content should be about what you are selling.

Since I am interested in travel journalism and plan to attend Columbia College to get my MA in Journalism next year, I really enjoyed a presentation by Glenn Jeffers, an Editor of Kellogg Magazine, “How to Take “Free” Out Of Freelance”. He gave a step-by-step guidance for beginning freelancers to get their foot in the field:

  1. Get business cards. You never know whom you can run into.
  2. Create your website with your resume and short clips that show your ability to tell what happened in a precise manner.
  3. Do your research on editors of magazines/newspapers that you’re interested in and see what they’re currently looking for. is a great tool for this. It is a website that features news in publishing industry as well as writing jobs.
  4. Define what your area of expertise is and work hard to expand your knowledge.
  5. Improve your video/audio production knowledge.
  6. Try to submit your work to small publications: custom publishing companies where they have a small editorial staff and hire journalists-freelancers (i.e. Hemisphere Magazine by United Airlines or universities alumni magazines); regional publications such as Chicago Sun – Times or Red Eye. If your first work is spotless, you’ll become a sort of go-to for the editors.
  7. Join professional journalist groups such as Chicago Headline Club.

I feel overwhelmed with the gratitude for experiencing Chicago Writers Conference! Besides learning more about writing craft, I feel a part of Chicago creative community now.


Publishing Academy at Open Books: My Magical Summer


12 teenagers…

4 weeks…

Hours of writing…

3 volunteer writing coaches and editors…

4 Open Books Leaders…

…on the quest to publishing.

This is a summary (rather brief one) of what happened at the Publishing Academy program Open Books had this July. Twelve teenagers from Chicago Greater Area embarked on a journey of writing their own fantasy novels and publishing them with Open Books. And I had a pleasure of being one of their writing coaches!

First thing that struck me was that everyone had different fantasy stories, from the far-away kingdom tales to dystopian future epics, or a dreamland of a dying girl sick with cancer.

Open Books created a magical atmosphere that sparked imagination and had plenty of resources for writing.


During the first week, the students created and built engaging fantasy worlds. The coaches helped them by brainstorming ideas and making science fair poster boards with the description of the worlds.


A talented young writer Natalia and a story board for her book “Chimera”.

The authors invented their main characters, protagonists and antagonists. The coaches explained what indirect and direct characterization was and assisted in developing characterization skits for all the characters.

Open Books invited local artists to make sketches of the young authors’ main characters. This helped them visualize their main characters and connect to them better.


Next week, the students completed plot outlines and hero’s journey. We used The Hunger Games as an example of the character’s hero’s journey.

No good fantasy novel can do without combat scenes and action. During the second week Open Books invited martial art expert and creative writing teacher Jordan Bond to work on our students’ battle scenes. First, they discussed the difference between mentioning a fight and describing it in detail. Next, Jordan explained descriptive language to enhance battle scenes. What are synonyms for “defend” or “attack”? What kinds of weapons can be used and how they affect the person’s movement? What kinds of sounds can be heard during the fight? With this new knowledge, the students had a chance to write or refine a fight scene from their novel. Then they took turns reading their scene aloud as other students acted it out.


combat 1

The students participate in “sword fighting” with pool noodles.

During the third week, guest speaker John Murphy, a game designer from Young Horses, discussed the overlap between writing and video game design with the students. He showed Young Horses’s new game, Octodad, and introduced TWINE – a software that is used to create interactive stories. The students had a chance to use it to develop their stories’ endings.


The students also learned how settings “show” the characters and how mood affects the type of story you are writing.

During the last week, the young authors wrote their author bios and had their photos taken for the book covers. They also had a chance to take part in front/back cover design.

Writing process included one-on-one conferences with the coaches, writing time alone, activities such as “question hat”, “put your character in a scene” etc.

Open Books Leaders created many incentives. Passports, for example, served to mark how many points the students had for completing their quests. Quests were tasks that we asked them to complete during each session (i.e. finish chapter or add character’s characteristics) or at home (i.e. write a review for the last fantasy novel they read). For each completed quest they got “coins” and stamps in their passport. They could later redeem their “coins” at the Open Books bookstore for used books.


My students Victoria(on the left) and Natalia(on the right) and me after completing their novels.

At the end there were a lot of hugs, happy tears, and a pizza party. Finished line crossed!

My student Aine and me on the last day of the Publishing Academy.

My student Aine and me on the last day of the Publishing Academy.

The author launch party took place in the Open Books Bookstore on September 19th 2013. The students, now published authors, read extracts from their books to the audience of their relatives and friends.


There was an autograph party afterwards and coaches-students reunion. And a sense of pride that we have accomplished such a big goal – a creation of the book from an idea to 70 or more well-written pages!

Me and my student Aine.20130919_192236[1]




These words were the biggest reward for me for taking part in PA.

So, if any of you will ever take part in similar programs, I have a few tips:

– Personal bond with teens is very important.  Don’t talk down, but rather show your interest in them.

– Despite what you’ve heard, teens do need a “counselor”, an advisor figure. Don’t be shy to show your authority.

– When critiquing, first point out what you like about the work. Then move on to the areas that need improvement. I found it useful to write everything down on a separate paper for them.

– There is no such thing as “too much editing”.

Here are some tips for helping your students write:

  1. Encourage them to be good thinkers.
  2. Meet students where they are. Figure out where the students need help to get started, and begin there.
  3. Be excited, engaged, and curious, ask questions.
  4. Be a good listener. Some students struggle with getting ideas from their minds to the paper. Yet, they have no problem telling stories all the time. Before you even hand your students a pen and a paper, ask them to tell you their story, orally.
  5. Be an active part in the writing process. Regular check ins are a great way to make sure your students are on track.
  6. Celebrate the small victories and be specific about them.
  7. Set achievable goals.

The young authors talked about their experience and gave advice to the aspiring writers at the Authors’ Launch which you can check out here.

At the end, I think I got even more from this experience than my students. I exercised in brainstorming ideas, editing someone’s work…Publishing Academy helped me to be a better writer!

You can learn more and purchase books by Publishing Academy authors by following this link.


Open Books Reading Buddies


As a child, I liked to read with my grandmother. I remember her soft voice which opened a door to another reality for me, a fairy-tale land filled with characters I still love. One time when I was sick in bed with high temperature and couldn’t sleep all night, she read my favorite Peter Pen twice to me, and I think that was the main reason I felt better in the morning.

So when in July Open Books was looking for Book Buddies volunteers, I grabbed the opportunity to pay back all the time that my grandmother invested in teaching me to love the printed word. Book Buddies is a weekly  literacy program the main purpose of which is to help boost students’ reading skills and add to their confidence about reading. Twice each week, volunteers read together with two Little Buddies in 30-minute segments. The program usually runs for a semester, but that time it was just for the month of July.

My Little Buddy was a first – grader Angel (it’s the cutest name ever, isn’t it?:). Now, it is crucial to build a relationship when working with kids of such a delicate age from day one. Open Books assisted in this by giving the students a survey to fill out about themselves at the beginning of the program. That’s how I learned Angel and I shared passion for soccer.  Needless to say that the books that I chose for him to read were mainly about sport. Also, prior to the program, Open Books assessed the students’ reading levels. It made it really easy to choose the appropriate books. All the books brought to the site had labels on them with a difficulty level indication.

If any of you plan on reading with young children, these are the main points to consider in my opinion:

1. Build phonemic awareness and phonics (connection between letters and sounds). When you encounter an unfamiliar word, you can sound it out together or use a picture to give a clue to the word. Rhyming is also a great tool with young kids.

2. Make sure the children comprehend what they read. Ask them to retell the story in their own words. Prior to reading the book, build a background – ask them what they think the book will be about. Also, let them make predictions as you read.

3. Build their vocabulary. Challenge them to use new word in a sentence later in the day.

4. Work on their fluency. Read a book which was difficult for them couple of times.

And, of course, don’t forget to praise them for the progress they are making. Try to avoid the cliché “Good Job” though. Instead, try these phrases:

1. Praise for doing something right:

“I like the way you…”

“I had fun… today!”

“You should feel very proud of yourself for…”

“You learn so fast!”

“I really enjoyed working with you today because…”

“You are a great reader because…”

2. Encouraging a Struggling Reader:

“Great try at…”

“Don’t worry, you’ ll … next time!”

“Don’t give up on …! You’ ve almost mastered it!”

“You are getting better and better at… every day! You’ ve just got to keep trying!”

I can’t stress enough the support I had from Open Books site leaders and Program Directors! They were always around if volunteers had any questions and provided encouragement to Little Buddies. Open Books used Student Progress sheets that volunteers were required to fill out to track anything they could help with to make each session smoother.

Finally, nothing can compare to a child’s gratefulness and words like: “You are the coolest adult ever!” At the end of the program, the kids were asked to make the volunteers pictures or cards. This is what Angel made for me:

 angel pic

It’s us playing soccer. Unfortunately, I lose…J

In September I started Book Buddies program again at Mitchell Elementary School. This time it ran for a semester and involved third-graders. There are a few more things that I learned  about reading with kids:

 – If you are reading with two or more children, try acting scenes out(role-playing). It will make reading fun and prevent the kids from being bored waiting for their turn to read.

– Since the program ran for a few months, we could implement a system of encouragement for the Little Buddies. They got a sticker for every session they attended, and could redeem ten stickers for a free book of their choice. Sometimes I gave two stickers for one session if my Little Buddy went over the page goal we set up at the beginning of the session. That made my Little Buddies super excited!!!:)

Sweet Home, Chicago: Slam Poetry With Middle Graders.

     Hey, everyone! Summer is gone and the season for vacations and time away from my laptop is over. I had a very busy summer though volunteering at Open Books and taking part in almost every literacy program they had:) In the next blog posts I will share this experience with you.

    “Go Big or Go Home!”- these were the encouraging words that started each slam poetry performance at summer field trips on creative writing I was a part of. It means “express yourself to the fullest or leave”. Originated in Chicago as a competitive art of performance, slam poetry helped bring poetry into the masses and stop it from being still. All topics are safe and acceptable in slam; it explores what hurts the most and what is the most important for the author.

Slam is very popular in the Windy City. For instance, Young Chicago Authors(YCA) hosts Louder Than a Bomb Slam competition that gives young talent a chance to show themselves. At the field trips we used this video of Adam Gottlieb (a slam poetry star at YCA) to illustrate what an effective slam was:

A performance by Lamont Carey “I Can’t Read” is also a powerful example:

And so, at slam poetry field trips we taught our middle-graders to focus on WHAT they are saying with their work and most importantly HOW they are saying it, using body language, voice, and face expressions. The topics for their work the students could choose varied from the dreams for their future to their favorite activities. Since we asked them to describe something intangible,  we told them to use five senses to talk about it. To warm up the students, we first created class slam poems about happiness:

Happiness looks like a rainbow.

Happiness tastes like buttery waffles with syrup.

Happiness sounds like pop music on a sunny Saturday while sipping lemonade at the beach.

Happiness smells like cotton candy flavored gum. Yum!

Happiness feels like winning the World Series.

 …and summer:


To my surprise, when asked to write what they want to become, students’ answers ranged from a movie star or a cook to an astronaut. One girl touched my heart and the hearts of others when she wrote that the things she liked to do was not to feel medicine in her blood after she’d recovered from an illness…

Please, enjoy the poem about future dream my student and I created together:

My dream is to be a dancer.

Being a star. Practice makes perfect.

My dream is bright like the stage lights when people applaud me after the dance.

Being a star. Practice makes perfect.

My dream tastes like a big piece of watermelon that my mother cuts for me on a summer morning.

Being a star. Practice makes perfect.

My dream smells like a touch of a perfume before the dance performance.

Being a star. Practice makes perfect.

My dream looks like beautiful costumes made especially for me.

Being a star. Practice makes perfect.

My dream feels like sore muscles after a tough training.

I want to become a dancer. I want to feel elevated.