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.


“Colorful Me” Field Trip


My face.
Milk-tea brown.
I am brown. I am beautiful.
Your face.
Sienna brown
or cocoa brown,
café con leche brown or
radiant ocher brown.
Our hands, our fingers.
Cinnamon brown
or rich coffee brown,
sandalwood brown or rosy adobe brown.
Our ankles, our feet.
Nutmeg brown or mocha brown,
dark chocolate brown or tawny golden brown.
Our eyes.
Luminous topaz brown or sweet cappuccino brown,
shiny sepia brown or twinkling brown.
Our hair.
Spruce brown or bay brown,
russet brown or deep tamarind brown.
We are brown. We are beautiful.

From Tan to Tamarind:Poems About the Color Brown by Malathi Michelle Lyengar

My second field trip with Open Books was based on the book Tan to Tamarind and was dedicated to the idea that no matter what color is your skin, you are BEAUTIFUL! Each poem in the book celebrates different shades of the color brown  and the role it plays in many human experiences and rituals.

At the end of the workshop the 4th graders created their own poems describing the colors they associate themselves with.

Before writing their poems, the kids learnt about simile and metaphor because they had to craft metaphors to write the poems. Here are just a few examples of the beautiful descriptions students came up with:

“My lips are a smooth peach.”

“My hair is a bright morning sun.”

“My nails are a yellow sweet fresh melons which my mother brought from the market.”

“My eyes are two green ripe apples from my garden.”

It is always a great pleasure for me to work with children and inspire them to open up and share beautiful ideas they have!

Surviving As a Freelancer: Tough But Not Impossible.

freelancerYou know how they say you shouldn’t quit your day job to become a full-time writer? Well, last Thursday at David Wolinsky’s workshop at “Open Books Chicago” on freelancing I met three(!) people who did exactly the opposite – they quit their well-paid corporate jobs to pursue another career: writing. I left empowered and encouraged to start investing more in the dream of mine: dedicate all my time to writing for kids and freelancing as a travel journalist rather than working for someone 9-5.

David started with describing things as they are in a freelance world: not promising at all. He said that nowadays people think that “freelancing” means writing for free. It’s not a joke, and some editors hope in the future that’s how it will be. Layoffs, buyouts and other scary things like content aggregators(special software that accumulates data from various websites for an article thus eliminating a necessity to hire a person to do a research and all “writing” in this case comes to “content architecture”-combining pieces of already written information) await everyone who dares to enter the industry.

So, what if you still want to write? It’s tough, but not impossible!

-Find gigs, not assignments. It’s the closest thing to security freelancers can get.

– Cultivate variety, meaning:where you’re working; are you doing it full-time? subjects you’re covering.

-Start publishing your stuff online. The more, the better.

– Internships are another great way to enter the industry.

– Set goals, deadlines, specific places to write for, certain amount of money you want to earn(pocket-money? legit second income?).

David stressed that to get started in a freelance world, it’s crucial to find people whose work you respect and reach out via email and let them know you enjoy their writing. It can look something like this(from David’s presentation):

SUBJECT: RE: Your (Smithsonian list) on (tall building)

Dear Gervasius,

My name is(your name) and I’m a writer and a (day job) in Chicago. I came across your(publication piece) and just wanted to let you know (your opinion). I especially enjoyed your (observation) that the (Superdome) resembled (a can opener). I hadn’t thought of it before, but now it’s all I can think of!

Keep up the good work!


(Reader Readerson).

Give them 7-10 days and if they don’t answer-move on.Most probably they will if you mention that you are a writer as well:) Networking is a key in the freelancing world. They might get you in touch with an editor whom you can pitch.

David also mentioned a great way to find out what magazines are currently interested in:  they have a Media Kit link on their websites where they mention a list of things they plan to publish soon.

Thank you “Open Books Chicago” and David for conducting such a useful workshop!

By the way, my first volunteering field trip with “Open Books” will take place this upcoming Thursday, May 24th and I will keep you posted.

For all those who want to make an impact on a child’s life through literacy promotion and who live in Chicago, click this link and enroll in volunteering with “Open Books” now!

Finding time to write is easy as one, two, three!

7-1-12Recently I visited an open house presentation at Story Studio Chicago – a growing community for writers in Greater Chicago Area which focuses on creative and business writing classes as well as customized writing instruction. This time a workshop was about how to find time to write for those who complain they are completely overwhelmed with other responsibilities in life. Our presenter shared three effective ways to do so:

1. Write in “wedges”. For instance, you have a goal to finish 90.000 words novel as soon as possible. You know that in one day you can complete a piece of 600 words. If you dedicate 5 days per week to your novel then you can have 3.000 words in a week. It will take 30 weeks(or 7.5 months) to finish 90.000 words manuscript. If you spend 2.5 months on revising then in a year your novel would be complete. 600 words a day should be easy for any writer and can be written anywhere from 20 min-hour. You can spend 10 minutes in the morning, lunch time, and evening writing 200 words every time. At the workshop we did a writing exercise to show that it’s possible to write 200 and more words in 10 minutes if you write non-stop. The main trick is not to pay attention to any distractions and not to take pen off the paper(or hands off laptop keyboard:).

2. Make yourself accountable for your writing progress. One way of doing this is to have a “writing buddy” –  a person who can supervise your writing process and make sure you stick to your goals, and, of course, read your work. Another way is to have a critique group once per week or three times a month. In this case you will enhance your writing discipline by making sure you have something to present at the next critique session.  As for me, my best friend and co-author of several pieces is my “writing buddy”. I tell her how much I want to finish in a week and she controls me by sending, hmm.. not friendly emails if I fail to do so:)

3. Create a rewards system. If you finished 3 chapters in a week and are satisfied with the results – treat yourself! Buy that dress you like, go to spa-salon or take a weekend trip. The most important thing is to keep yourself excited about completing your goals.