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Thoughts about a Writing Retreat

I have just returned home, tired but happy, after teaching a Writing for Young People class at the 5th Annual Mining the Story Writing Retreat at Shake Rag Alley in Mineral Point. The final part of the experience, for me, is to reflect on the retreat. What were some of my favorite moments?

      • Spending time talking and thinking about stories, in particular ones for young people, energizes me. Workshops were lively and thoughtful thanks to my lovely students. It’s nourishing for the soul to do something you love. I recommend it.
      • Sharing your story with strangers can be hard. Our writing is personal and we can feel vulnerable when we offer it up for comment and critique. But there is also a wonderful moment in a workshop when we break through that ‘stranger barrier’ to becoming ‘writers-in-arms’. I was thrilled when, at the end of the weekend, arrangements were afoot in my class for a new student critique group to be birthed.
      • Wisconsinites, I have learned, are fiercely knowledgable and passionate about their home State. A student gave me some locally foraged mushrooms (Morel, Yellow Oyster, and Pheasant Back) along with some cooking tips. (They were absolutely delicious, by the way). Stories often centered around a love of the Driftless Area. Isn’t that a romantic, wistful name? In fact, it refers to a local geological phenomenon. Parts of southern Wisconsin escaped the flattening glaciers of the last Ice Age and the land has retained its forested ridges, river valleys, waterfalls.
      • Mineral Point was once a mining town, worked by Cornish miners. As a Brit, I had a sense of coming ‘home’ as I recognized the influence of Cornish architecture in the downtown area. There was also a sense of coming home as the town, rather like Cornwall, has a strong artistic community.
      • When I gave my presentation for the Literary Citizenship panel, I talked about SCBWI. If you are interested in writing kidlit, I wholeheartedly recommend joining this wonderful organization. It was instrumental in helping me find my writing ‘pack’ over here in America.
      • I was made so welcome by the other faculty, by the students, by the Shake Rag Alley Center staff. A special thanks to the Executive Director, Sara Lomasz Flesch, and the Retreat Artistic Director, Patricia Ann McNair.
      • Learning something new and valuable makes my heart sing. I did not just teach; I also attended various classes.
        • Eric May taught me about considering my ‘opposite’ in creating a fictional character.
        • Shawn Shiflett reminded me of the power of the unconscious, of harnessing the gifts it gives us in our dreams, when storytelling.
        • Sheree L. Greer gave empowering tips for us to take charge of our revision process.
        • Christine Maul Rice reminded us of the dilemmas faced by editors in her role as founder of Hypertext Magazine.
        • Philip Hartigan taught us about the craft of book-making.
        • Patty McNair impressed on us the importance of a writing community. She closed the retreat by aptly quoting the African proverb:“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”


Mentorship Program in a Pandemic

What a great finale to an online creative writing mentorship… After adapting to Zoom and connecting virtually every month since September 2020, I finally got to meet my lovely mentee in person (albeit masked) yesterday for our last session. Nora was a pleasure to work with — I enjoyed getting to know her and also her characters. All the best in your onward journey to high school. May the Muse be with you!

The Ins, Outs & All About Writing with a Passion & Sustaining Your Career

There are plenty of disadvantages to the pandemic, but one bonus is that geography doesn’t stop us from connecting online. I’m thrilled to be hosting this event on behalf of my network in SCBWI Illinois with Jennifer Ward who will be talking about The Ins, Outs & All About Writing with a Passion & Sustaining Your Career. Wherever you are, you can join us to chat with Jennifer, author of 26 books for children over the course of 23 years (and all books still in print!). The live event is free and the first five registrants will win a copy of one of Jennifer’s books. Click here to find out more/register. 

Creative Writing Competition, Spring 2021

My students this year were a talented bunch. Each of the  submissions to this competition surprised me, created a world in my head. There is something lovely to celebrate in each one. Several themes threaded through the stories — dreamy qualities, trees, swimming, and stars. My co-judge, novelist and creative writing professor, Shawn Shiflett, was also astonished by the quality of the stories from these sixth graders. Bravo!


Gianna Parolin – “The Stars in my Head .

This unusual story is told from the point of view of a ‘Down syndrome kid’, Neville, who has an inventive and original way of interpreting the world. I would enjoy spending time amongst the stars that he imagines in his head! The writing is tight and draws us in immediately right through to the satisfying ending.

Audrey Tromp – “Taken by the Tide.

The atmosphere in this story is very different as we join twelve year old Roselle Ashford in her rural life with her great uncle. I found the attention to the detail of the character’s life compelling, the writing poised, and the slow measured description of the hunting scene felt very ‘real’. 


Sophie Picha – “Trees in the Deep”. This was another strong submission, also illustrated by Sophie. She deftly creates an atmospheric setting for her story with particular attention to sensory detail. The plot moves apace as our heroine is confronted by ghosts, curses, and dark mysteries of the past. 

Helena Vadbunker – “The Night of Memories”. This piece has a dreamlike quality, as the protagonist faces his past in order to move forward in life. Phrases such as ‘the pixely figures dancing across the empty, mysterious nothing,” were especially evocative in creating the landscape of memory.

To find out more about other competitions I have run, click here.

Behind the Scenes with Sarah Hammond, interview with Carol Spelić

This month, Shake Rag Alley feature an instructor interview with me in the light of my upcoming  Writing for Young People workshop at this year’s fifth annual Mining the Story Writing Retreat. Here’s a sampling of my interview, with link to full article on the Shake Rag Alley News page here:

Q: There are so many genres when it comes to writing.  What inspired you to pursue writing for children?

A: That’s an interesting question because, as I pondered my answer, I couldn’t remember ever sitting down and making that conscious decision. It is a passion that I always just felt. Ever since I was a child myself, I have told stories and the things I want to write about are suited to children. As Maurice Sendak once said: “I don’t write for children… I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’”

Grants and Awards for Kidlit Writers and Illustrators

If you are a writer or illustrator of children’s books, SCBWI is a pretty important organization to consider. It offers so many resources to help kidlit professionals at all levels of their career. I am a co-representative for one of the SCBWI networks in Illinois. We run a monthly program which is open and free to the public, online at the moment of course. For up to date details of our meetings, click here. Last week, we gave a presentation and had a discussion about the SCBWI awards and grants that are available for kidlit writers and illustrators. There is an impressive range of opportunities out there — check out this link if you are interested.

Writing For Young People – My Kidlit Class at the Mining the Story Writing Retreat

Interested in learning about writing kidlit? I’m excited to be teaching a 3-day class at Mining the Story – 5th Annual Writing Retreat at Shake Rag Alley from May 21-23. We’ll be covering story craft from picture books, to middle grade, and young adult fiction. There are lots of other writing treats scheduled, too. 📚 ✍️ Check out this link for details. Hope to see you there!  

How To Foster Creativity in Young Storytellers — Ten Tips and Tricks

I’m delighted to have been invited by the Illinois Association for Gifted Children to give a webinar about promoting creative thinking and storytelling in the upper elementary/middle school classroom.

I will discuss the structure of a fiction writing session and give ten tips and tricks to boost creativity in students. Topics covered will include: ways to spark imagination, how to deepen story craft techniques, and a discussion of writerly processes to improve conditions when working with the imagination. There will also be an opportunity for a Q&A. Attendees will leave with practical resources to help their pupils’ stories to soar! Click here to learn more and register.

Creative Writing Programs 2021

I had a lovely start to the new semester this week. These three books came up in my first eighth grade class of the year, along with story beginnings about equal rights, dream sequences, and discussions about how to write a good argument. If you’re interested in learning more about my creative writing program options, click here.

Responsible Adults

I was thrilled to learn that one of the short stories, titled Salvage, in Patricia Ann McNair’s latest collection was born in one of my writing classes. Responsible Adults is published by Cornerstone Press and the virtual book launch with Women and Children First bookshop, including the lively reading and conversation between Patty and novelist Eric May (pictured here), was fun.

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