Aug 30, 2013

POETRY FRIDAY: In Celebration of Labor Day

Thanks to Tara at A Teaching Life for hosting Poetry Friday today!

Life has been a whirlwind lately—with school starting and all of the related hoopla, I was tempted to title this post “The Back-to-School Boogie” (as opposed to "The Summer Slide" post from June 18). ☺ My boys are back in school, homework and other after-school activities are gearing up, and the weather turned cooler for exactly two days but then (unfortunately) reverted to hot, sticky summer again. The cool weather was nice while it lasted and really made me look forward to fall!

Every year, just as everyone at our house starts to ease into “school mode” again, along comes Labor Day weekend, a welcome flashback to summer’s fun and a quick breather before the school/scouts/soccer/piano merry-go-round starts whirling again. So in honor of this fun weekend, I have some poems to share.

But first, here's a quick review of the history of Labor Day. According to the U.S. Department of Labor's website:
“Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

Labor Day was first observed in New York City on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, and was organized by the Central Labor Union. By 1894, Congress had passed an act declaring the first Monday in September a national holiday. Since then, Americans have celebrated the holiday every year with picnics, parades, and speeches in honor of our country’s dedicated laborers. As a kid, all I really understood about Labor Day was that we had a 3-day weekend right after school started. This year, I will make sure that my boys have an appreciation for the history of this special holiday, beginning by making them read this blog post. (Hi, Will and Ben!)     
An early Labor Day poster, circa 1923
Although Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” was originally published in 1860*, I think it captures the spirit of Labor Day perfectly, celebrating the early tradespeople who helped shape this country into what it is today:
by Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The woodcutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day-at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

*“I Hear America Singing” was published in the 1860 version of Whitman’s LEAVES OF GRASS, and appeared in the section entitled “Chanting Democratic.”
While perusing poetry for this post, I also came across this anonymous poem about “stick-to-it-ativeness" that I love. Its words of wisdom can be applied toward any endeavor—even writing— and I plan to print it out for future reference:

Author Unknown
If a task is once begun,
Never leave it till it's done.
Be the labor great or small,
Do it well or not at all.
Have a great Labor Day weekend, and Happy Writing!

Aug 23, 2013


Thanks to Betsy at I Think in Poems for hosting Poetry Friday today!

Today I am revisiting haiku poetry, one of my favorite poetic forms. In my first haiku post (which you can find here), I discussed the structure of haiku, which is most commonly comprised of three lines of 5-7-5 syllables and often focuses on some element of nature.

The double haiku is simply a pair of haikus focusing on the same subject or connected by a common element. These are fun to play with, especially if you love “short and sweet” poetry, like I do! ☺

Here is a double haiku I wrote a few years ago following a trip to the zoo with my boys. I always love watching the emus—they are so haughty and funny!

Dame Emu
By Becky Shillington
Dame Emu struts by 
High stepping, feathers ruffling
Glancing left, then right
Head cocked, her eyes say 
“Look at me, lowly subject
I’m Queen for the day!”
I hope you have a wonderful Friday, and Happy Writing!

Aug 20, 2013

Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Writing Conference *Experience*

Since joining the SCBWI almost nine years ago I have attended many writing conferences. At the beginning, I was terrified. I stressed over what to wear, nervously hugged the walls during the many “meet and greets” and continental breakfasts, avoided the evening social hour (I still can’t believe this!), and was tongue tied and star struck in the presence of *any* agent/editor/author within a ten-foot range.

Thankfully, I am much more relaxed when I attend a conference these days. With time I have realized three essential truths about attending writing conferences:
·        Children’s writers are the nicest people you will EVER meet!

·        Editors and agents are just regular people.

·        A positive conference experience can majorly benefit your writing and supercharge your excitement about your writing, which is the most valuable conference “take away” of all!

With the fall conference season upon us, I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned that help me get the most out of the conferences I attend. I hope you find these helpful!
Study your conference brochure and any other available conference information ahead of time. Look at the schedule, decide which sessions you’d like to attend, and make a tentative plan. Sometimes conference organizers will ask you to select your breakout sessions ahead of time, but sometimes you will be required to wait until the conference begins to choose your sessions. Either way, it helps to have an idea of what you are interested in attending so you don’t drive yourself crazy with indecision on the day of (yes I have done this…).

Research conference speakers ahead of time and read books by the authors who are a part of the conference faculty. I LOVE to do this! It is such a thrill to meet published authors, especially when I am familiar with their work. If you plan to attend a breakout session by a specific author and read his or her book beforehand, it can also help you to understand the author’s presentation better, since authors often use excerpts and examples from their own books during their presentations. If your conference has an autograph session scheduled you can get your books autographed, too! 

Get a good night’s sleep the night before. I can’t stress this enough—when you are at a conference, you (naturally) sit for long periods of time, and sitting = sleepy if you are not well rested.

Dress comfortably and *always* bring a sweater. Hotels can be cold, but they can also be stuffy and hot; be prepared for either.

Arrive with time to spare. It is better to be a bit early than risk running late. Registration lines can be long, and you will want to get a good seat for the opening keynote address. If you don’t know anyone to talk to while you are waiting, look for someone else who looks like they don’t know anyone either, and start talking. (I met the ladies in my wonderful online critique while chatting at a conference. I promise—you can meet really great people this way!)

Have business cards handy. OK, so I admit, this year will be the first year that I have business cards to hand out (they arrived in the mail yesterday). I have avoided this step until now because I do not have a book published yet. But I’ve been published in magazines, I have a blog, I’m active in several writers’ groups, and am in full-speed-ahead mode with two different manuscripts right now. For years I have been gathering business cards at conferences and jotting down my information for other writers I’d like to stay in touch with, and when several people at last year’s conference said, “What do you mean, you don’t have a business card??” I decided that by this year’s conference I would have cards of my own to share. I chose to use Vistaprint, but there are lots of great companies that will let you design your own cards for a marginal fee.
Here is my new business card--I included my blog address and email.

Have realistic expectations. Don’t expect to sign with the super awesome agent who is there before you drive home, or have an editor beg you for your manuscript. This rarely happens, and you will be disappointed if you are attending a conference solely for this reason. Conferences provide great opportunities for meeting agents and editors, and you may even be invited to submit your manuscript for consideration once the agent or editor you are chatting with hears your fabulous pitch. But remember that the main purpose of attending a conference is to learn more about the craft of writing. Following a fabulous, inspiring conference years ago, I actually heard an author say that she had wasted her money because she didn’t get a book deal out of the conference. Don’t be this person.  

Have a short pitch ready. How hard can this be, right? VERY hard, I tell you. Especially if you are tongue tied and star struck when an agent or editor (or author you adore) asks what you are working on. If you have written a short pitch ahead of time and practiced this pitch, you will be much more confident. Trust me on this one.

Make the most of your breaks, depending on what YOU need. During breaks, mingle. OR find a quiet spot and regroup. Your choice will largely depend upon your personality. I am an introvert, so sometimes I *need* a moment to myself. My sweet friend Ann always offers her hotel room as a quiet getaway, since I live 20 minutes from the conference site and don’t usually reserve a room (thanks, Ann!). I am also a pro at finding quiet spots at conference sites. Other attendees want to take advantage of every single moment to network. Just allow yourself whatever kind of break you need.

Remember that agents and editors are real people who need breaks too. If you see an agent or editor heading to the elevator, don’t chase them down. That usually means they are heading for their room. And please don’t follow them to the bathroom to pitch your book (I know we’ve all heard this one, but seriously, people DO this and I have heard about this happening very recently!)    

Bring snacks, some cash, and a bottle of water. The $1 M&Ms you buy at Harris Teeter taste just as good as the ones they sell for $2.50 at the hotel. ☺

Take advantage of any “extras” offered at the conference. My local SCBWI conference offers “Intensives” preceding our conference each year, which give authors and illustrators a chance to focus on and workshop their skills. We also have the option of signing up for critiques with authors, agents, or editors. These require an extra fee, but people generally find the expense worth it. Our conference also offers opportunities for late night critique groups, art portfolio displays, a Saturday social hour, author’s round table, a “First Pages” session, and much more!

Regarding “First Pages” sessions…I have participated in and attended many of these sessions, where authors anonymously submit the first page of a manuscript, a reader presents it to the audience, and a panel of agents and editors give their honest first impressions of the writing. *Most* of the time this is a positive experience and the panel participants are respectful and give honest, constructive feedback. Yes, it can hurt a bit if a panel member hears your writing and says “the writing is not great and I’d stop reading here,” etc. BUT this is good to know, right? And this kind of feedback will definitely make our writing better.

However, on one occasion I had the terrible experience of sitting in on a first pages session where the editors on the panel were disrespectful and definitely crossed the line regarding another author’s piece of writing. Pretty much everyone I talked to there was mortified by their behavior, and that is all I will say. The important lesson here is to realize that if you submit your first page for critique at one of these sessions, just be prepared to hear anything and everything, and don’t take it personally. First pages really are a wonderful opportunity to gage professional opinion of your writing, and the agents and editors who sit on these panels allow us an inside glimpse into publishing’s first crucial step—getting the attention of the folks in charge!

Take advantage of the opportunity to hear illustrators and art directors speak, even if you are not an illustrator. When I first began attending conferences, I wasn’t drawn toward sessions given by an illustrator or art director, since I am a writer and definitely *not* an artist. But during a fabulous keynote address by an art director from a big publishing house several years ago, I learned that picture book writers can get SO much out of hearing the perspective from the “other side.”

Plan ahead to meet friends you have met through online writers’ groups at the conference. This year I am looking forward to seeing several friends I first made contact with on Verla Kay’s message board. It is always fun to put a face with a name!

Within a day or so of the conference, take time to type up and/or organize your notes, and plan to take advantage of any special submission opportunities you may have following a conference. Sometimes editors from closed houses will allow attendees the opportunity to submit to them during the months after a conference. Don’t let these rare opportunities slip through your fingers!

Finally, please be aware that speakers participate in these conferences as part of their jobs, so don’t reprint or distribute conference-specific information online (or otherwise). If you blog all the fine points of a super awesome agent’s workshop, for example, that information is now free for anyone to take, and takes away from that presenter’s opportunities moving forward. It is fine to recap, but not to “re-present.”
* * * * *
There are many writing conferences put on locally, nationally, and internationally every year. Resources for further information include:

The Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators

Local writers’ groups—in South Carolina, for example, we have the South Carolina Writers’ Workshop, which includes all genres of writers and presents a wonderful conference each year. The organization doesn’t have to be geared toward children’s writers to be helpful; as writers, we all share the same goal—to write great literature!

National writers’ groups such as the American Christian Writers and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, just to name a few.

And don’t forget about online conferences, such as writeoncon, which took place online (for free!) last week!
* * * * *
I hope you’ve found this helpful, and that your next conference experience will be a great one! Happy Writing!

Aug 16, 2013

POETRY FRIDAY: Clerihew Poems

Clerihew poems are short poems written about a specific person or character. They always have four lines, are simple to write, and are funny!

British writer Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956) invented the Clerihew format at the age of 16 (fun fact: he also is credited with writing the first “modern” detective novel). Bentley’s Clerihew poems focus on notable people from history and (then) current events. His poems are humorous and often irreverent, and follow three main rules: they have four lines, follow an easy aabb rhyme scheme, and humor is an essential element.
Here is a Clerihew poem Bentley wrote about Cleopatra:

The one thing Cleopatra
Never could abide was a flatterer.
When Anthony compared her to Thais
She knocked him right off the dais.
And here is another that Bentley penned about Lewis Carroll:

Lewis Carroll
Bought sumptuous apparel
And built an enormous palace
Out of the profits of Alice.

For more Clerihew poetry by Bentley, click here.
As you can see, Bentley had a lot of fun with this format! And as writers and teachers, we can, too. In classrooms, kids can use this format to write about their favorite heroes, historical figures, book characters, celebrities, etc.—the list is endless. And even reluctant writers will be a bit more excited about writing a poem that *has* to be funny!    

After exploring this fun format, I wrote my own Clerihew poem in honor of back-to-school week, which is next week where I live:
My new teacher Miss Daisy                                                                                Is basketball crazy.                                                                                                        She dribbles and dunks her way through the day                                                       Then for home work she tells us to “Go home and play!”
Can you write YOUR own Clerihew poem? I’d love to read it!
Happy Writing!

Aug 13, 2013

Why I ♥ SCBWI and Information about the SCBWI Carolinas Fall Conference Sept. 27-29

For anyone serious about writing and/or illustrating for children and teens, membership in the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators   (SCBWI) can be very helpful. The SCBWI is an international organization that provides resources and support for children’s writers and illustrators on every step of the journey to publication. Membership in the SCBWI provides opportunities for networking with industry professionals; connections to other writers and illustrators through critique groups, conferences, and discussion boards; access to THE BOOK (the organization's comprehensive publication and market guide); the support of a professional guild for children's writers and illustrators; and much more (to read more, click here).

I have been a member of SCBWI since 2004, and have been active in the North Central/Northeast Texas chapter in Dallas/Fort Worth as well as the Houston, TX chapter. Currently, I am active in the Carolinas SCBWI chapter. I met the ladies in my wonderful online critique group at a SCBWI conference years ago in Texas, and discovered my in-person critique group through the Carolina chapter’s list serve. I have found some of my closest writing friends and supporters through this wonderful organization, and am thankful for the doors the SCBWI has helped open for me!
All of this is a prelude to my focus today--the upcoming 21st Annual SCBWI Carolina’s Fall Conference, which will be held in Charlotte, NC September 27-29. This year’s conference includes writing and illustrating Intensives by industry experts, general and breakout sessions that cover everything from authors’ first ideas to editors’ first impressions, an Autograph Party and Portfolio Showcase, a Saturday Social, an Author’s Round Table, late night critique groups, and much, much more! For full conference details click here!  

The opening keynote speaker for this year’s conference in the amazingly talented author Cynthea Liu, and author/illustrator Dan Yaccarino will deliver the closing keynote address. Other conference faculty includes the following authors and industry experts: agent Stephen Barr, author Vijaya Bodach, author John Claude Bemis, agent Sarah Davies, author Donna Earnhardt, publishing director Emily Easton, author Alan Gratz, author Gretchen Griffith, art director Patti Ann Harris, agent Susan Hawk, author Lisa Williams Kline, editor Emma Ledbetter, author Stacy McAnulty, author Megan Miranda, editor Joy Neaves, author Monika Schröder, and author Chris Woodworth (if I have omitted anyone, I apologize).
This is a fabulous lineup, and I can already tell that my biggest dilemma will be deciding which breakout sessions to attend! I am also looking forward to reconnecting with friends I only see once a year, and making new author/illustrator/editor/agent/etc. friends. (Can you tell how excited I am?!?)
If you are not a member of the SCBWI and are interested in writing and/or illustrating books for children and teens, do yourself a favor and find your local SCBWI chapter here. Membership is well worth the investment!
There are several other great organizations out there for writers, and many of these also present great conferences each year. Please stop by next Tuesday, August 20 for a related post discussing other conference opportunities for children’s writers, and how to get the most out of your “conference experience.” Happy Writing!

Aug 9, 2013

POETRY FRIDAY: Cinquain Poetry

Thanks to Renee at No Water River for hosting Poetry Friday today!

In fourth grade this past year, my boys learned about cinquain poetry. I hadn’t played with this format in years, so I put it in my “ideas” file to tackle in an upcoming Poetry Friday post. The cinquain is a fun, succinct format that is perfect for kid and adult poets alike, and I am excited to explore it more today—I do love short and sweet poetry, after all!

Basically, a cinquain poem is a five-line poem that spotlights a person, place, or thing. Each line has a prescribed formula and minimal words, which can be helpful for young poets who crave structure in their writing. (As a kid, I loved using outlines for papers and stories, and the whole 5-paragraph essay formula was definitely my friend! I still outline today when writing longer works, but that is a whole other topic that I will post about one day soon...)

The cinquain format also naturally encourages kids to chose their words very carefully, and to *think* of words that really encapsulate their chosen topic. There are several variations of cinquain poetry, but for the purposes of this post I am focusing on the format most commonly found in the elementary curriculum. Here is an example that I came up with, followed by the “recipe” for a cinquain:

hot, sunny
laughing, playing, relaxing
campfires and starry nights

Line #1: a noun/one-word subject

Line #2: two adjectives that describe your subject

Line #3: three verbs that end in –ing related to your subject

Line #4: a phrase about your subject  

Line #5: another noun that is a synonym for your subject
Here is another fun cinquain (yes, I am aware that I sound like an eight-year-old girl here…☺):
playful, sweet
loving, cuddling, romping
my best writing buddy

Have fun trying out this fun format, and Happy Writing!

Aug 6, 2013


Today’s Young Reader Review comes from Abby, a rising fifth grader who loves to read. I hope you enjoy this great review!

* * * * *

Hi! Thank you so much for joining us today, Abby! Please tell us a little about yourself.

Thank you for having me today! I am ten years old. I enjoy playing soccer, running track, and drawing, as well as reading. I have a dog named Daisy and I would love to have a pet hamster, but my mom has a no rodent in the house rule.

I *completely* understand the “no rodent” rule! = ) What types of books do you enjoy reading?

I read Chapter Books and Middle Grade books. I really enjoy fantasy, mystery, and contemporary books!

Wow—you have a variety of reading interests! What is your very favorite genre?

My very favorite kind of book is a contemporary book. I like stories that have kids my own age in them and take place at school. Andrew Clements’ books are funny, but I also love because of mr. terupt, which makes me cry every time I read it. I enjoy older classics like Anne of Green Gables and the Nancy Drew books and newer classics like the Harry Potter series. I also read a lot of historical fiction books.

I like humorous books too, and I especially love reading classics. Nancy Drew books were one of my favorite series when I was your age! I know it is hard to pick a favorite book of all time, but tell us about your current favorite.

My current favorite book is The Million Dollar Throw by Mike Lupica. The main character is a quarterback who has potential to be great, but isn’t performing well which is the least of his problems. His best friend, April, is going blind. When he has a chance to restore her sight, he does everything he can. I found this book to be very moving and inspirational.
The Million Dollar Throw sounds like a warm, wonderful book! I am adding it to my “To Be Read” list! Are there any kinds of books that you would like to see more of?

I would love more books like the Lemony Snicket series and Wendy Mass-type of books.

Is there anything else you would like to share with us about books or reading?

I like reading at night when the house is quiet. When I am into a story, I feel like I am the main character. Sometimes I feel like I could read forever!

Me too! I can’t go to sleep at night unless I read awhile first. That is the magic of reading—it can take you on fantastic adventures without ever having to pack a suitcase! = )

Thanks again for joining us today, Abby! Enjoy the rest of your summer vacation, and have a great fifth grade year!

Thank you for having me!

Aug 2, 2013

POETRY FRIDAY: Poems of August

I am, once again, stunned by the speed at which our summer is flying by! Every year, the beginning of August brings with it a flurry of anticipation, determination, and regret; anticipation of the new school year to come, determination to make the last few weeks really count, and regret that the long days with my sweet boys are almost over (where we live, school starts on August 21st).

Of course, the days of August create a beautiful, calming ambiance, as well. Hay sits in bales along country roads, roses are in full bloom, peaches are *perfectly* ripe, and blackberries, tomatoes, watermelon, cucumbers, and ______ (fill in the blank with your favorite summer fruit or veggie here) are ripe for picking. Sunny afternoons bring a haze of warm, buzzing air, and books beg to be read in lawn chairs, hammocks, or—if it’s too hot outside—big comfy couches in air conditioned rooms.
One of my favorite summer reading spots

I found a lovely poem about August to share today, which describes this month perfectly:
Fairest of the months!
Ripe summer's queen
The hey-day of the year
With robes that gleam with sunny sheen
Sweet August doth appear.
by R. Combe Miller

While exploring summer poetry, I also came across this gem by Elizabeth Maua Taylor that captures August’s nature perfectly:
August rushes by like desert rainfall,
A flood of frenzied upheaval,
But still catching me unprepared.

Please go here to read the rest of the poem!

When contemplating my own August poem, I decided to revisit a new favorite poetic form of mine, math poetry. Here are a few that I came up with:

½ play time + ½ pool time = 1 perfect summer day
                                                    +         swatting
                                                        August night

(berry patch + pail + purple fingertips) × grandma = blackberry cobbler
SC blackberries are the sweetest!

Enjoy the last days of summer, and Happy Writing!