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My Favorite Contests – 2014

blueribbonI’ve been watching the relentless countdown to Christmas on my kids’ Advent calendar, feeling at once underprepared and overly ambitious about the turn of the New Year. As a token toward begin organized for 2014, I started to fill in some dates on my submissions spreadsheet. (That sounds more impressive than it actually is, folks.) I thought I’d share a list of my favorite contests for picture books, children’s poetry, and children’s magazine fiction.

Have I won any of these contests? No. But I love entering them because, for me, the process of getting ready for a contest deadline often brings out the best in my writing. (Or as my husband might say, a wild raging beast that wants to win, win, WIN.) And those non-winning entries can be repurposed. One piece I submitted to a Children’s Writer contest didn’t win, but I turned it into a rebus and sold it to Highlights. My Barbara Karlin entry from last year didn’t win, but did (with some revision) land me an agent.

This is by no means a complete list. Please leave a comment if there are other picture book/short story-focused contests you know of for 2014.

Ongoing

Children’s Writer contests
Children’s Writer magazine holds 3-4 contests each year. Entry is free to subscribers, $15 for nonsubscribers. Recent contests included Seasonal Poetry, Kindergarten Stories, Young Adult Short Stories, and Middle Grade Mysteries.

Susanna Leonard Hill’s contests
Susanna runs contests on her blog about 3 times per year. They are free to enter and prizes have included critiques from agents, editors, and published authors, free books, and more. These are usually for short children’s stories from 100-350 words.

January

Highlights Fiction Contest
This yearly contest for magazine stories usually has a theme. This year it’s holiday stories up to 800 words. No entry fee and the prizes are drool-worthy – tuition to a Founders Workshop or $1,000.

RateYourStory Contest
(ADDED) This new contest from Rate Your Story includes categories for picture book, novel/novella, and “everything else.” Prizes include cash, critiques, and memberships to Rate Your Story. Free entry for members, a very reasonable $5 for non-members.

February

Pacific Northwest Writers Association
This contest allows entries in every category of children’s literature. You do not have to be a member of PNWA to enter. There is an entry fee, but the nice thing about this contest is that the fee includes two critiques on your manuscript.

March

NAESP Contest
UPDATED: I just found out that this contest is NOT being offered in 2014. [This contest for picture books and chapter books actually offers the opportunity to have a book published by Charlesbridge Publishing. It could be a good chance to get your manuscript out of the regular slush and into the presumably better odds of contest slush.]

Barbara Karlin Grant
For SCBWI members. This prize for picture book manuscripts offers a grant of $2,000, plus bragging rights to all your writer friends.

March Madness
If you enjoy the gut-wrenching agony of having to produce a passable poem containing an assigned word in a short span of time, then this contest is for you. If not, it’s fun to follow along, at least.

April

Golden Quill Poetry Contest
ADDED: As part of her Rhyming Picture Book Month challenge, Angie Karcher is hosting a contest for rhyming poetry. Click the link for details. Prizes are scholarships for one of three online picture book writing courses.

May

Southwest Writers Conference Contest
This contest offers a category for picture books as well as middle grade or YA. Open to nonmembers. There is an entry fee and I believe you can pay a bit extra to get a critique but it’s not posted in the rules right now. It could also be a good chance to get your work in front of an editor, depending on who the judge is that year.

June

Hunger Mountain – Katherine Paterson Prize
I have not entered this one, but it seems like a great opportunity to get some work out there, and something nice to add to your query letters if you win. Caveat – they do publish the winning entries in the magazine, so probably best not to submit a picture book manuscript.

July

Cheerios Spoonfuls of Stories
(DEADLINE CORRECTED: Thanks to Mandy for the correction on the submission date.) Sadly, I have never been able to enter this fantastic contest. The winning prize includes $5,000 and a publishing contract with Simon & Schuster. Talk about launching your career! But they accept only completely unpublished writers, so if your writing has been published in any way, and you have been paid for it, you are disqualified. Bummer.

August

Pockets Fiction Contest
(ADDED: Thanks, Susanna, for reminding me of this one.) This contest is for children’s magazine fiction. The website says that they will begin accepting stories in March, with a final deadline of August 15 – plenty of time to get entries in!

Shabo Award
The website description reads: “The contest is open to writers with a ‘nearly there’ manuscript who have not yet published a picture book.” The prize is tuition to a day-long master class and follow-up session to polish your manuscript. OK, so I live nowhere near Minnesota, but if I won this I would seriously consider a visit!

September

Lee & Low New Voices Award
(ADDED) This is a great contest for picture book writers of color. Award is a cash prize and a publishing contract with Lee & Low. I’m not eligible for this one, but if they ever open up the award to writers of Italian/German/Dutch descent, I’d be all over it.

Contests specific to New Englanders or New England SCBWI:

January

PEN New England – Susan P. Bloom Children’s Book Discovery Award
Guidelines (UPDATED)
Open to picture books, middle grade, and YA. New England writers only. Sorry, rest of the country. We like to keep ourselves to ourselves here in New England.

April

New England SCBWI – Ruth Landers Glass Writers Scholarship
Open to all types of children’s literature. The prize is free tuition for one day to the New England SCBWI conference.

December

New England SCBWI – Peg Davol scholarship
This is a new prize that was announced in the regional newsletter. The prize, open to picture books, will be awarded to one pre-published author and one published author. Winners will receive a manuscript critique before the regional conference, and in addition a free critique at the conference. (Must register for at least one day at the conference.) I missed the deadline in 2013, but will keep an eye out for it in 2014!

Craft Book Read-Along: Writing Picture Books – Final Check-in

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I’ve owned WRITING PICTURE BOOKS by Ann Whitford Paul for about four years now. But it wasn’t until about four months ago that my copy saw any hard use. As I mentioned in my first post of this series, I read the book when I first got it, and kept it on my shelf to dip into from time to time. But I never did the exercises in the book, and couldn’t shake the feeling that I didn’t get as much out of it as I could have.

Now, my copy is literally dog-eared. I’ve carried it in my bag for months. I’ve read it at the playground, at gymnastics class, at soccer practice. And I’ve completely many (not all) of the exercises. Doing this has been not unlike taking a picture book writing class — but this one cost only $16.99. Based on her advice, I’ve made some changes to the way I think about story writing, and it has helped my writing improve.

The final section of the book has a great chapter called “Priming Your Idea Pump” with lots of techniques for coming up with story ideas. This, I find, is the major change between the writer I was two years ago, and the writer I am now. Two years ago, I had written a single picture book manuscript and I worked that thing to death. Countless revisions. Countless reviews by critique partners. More revisions. I sent it off for a conference critique and was thrilled that the editor liked it. However, when she asked, “What else are you working on?” I was stumped. I was writing some poetry for magazines, but had no other picture books in the works, or even a list of ideas. *slaps forehead*

At that same conference, Jane Yolen was a featured speaker, and she made reference to her own recent rejections. (Yes, even Jane Yolen gets rejected…on a regular basis, it seems.) I’m not sure if it was some phrase of hers, or my own imagination that created this image in my head of a writer’s body of work as a mountain — a mountain that grows bigger with each completed manuscript. The peak of the mountain represents the work that’s published, or publishable. Everything underneath is the stuff that’s been rejected, or just isn’t good enough or polished enough to see the light of day. As I thought about this, I realized how huge Jane Yolen’s mountain must be, and how puny mine was in comparison. But (and this is the great thing about conferences) I wasn’t discouraged. Instead, I was energized and determined to start building my own mountain.

So, I primed my idea pump and started a new story. I signed up for a class. I participated in PiBoIdMo and 12×12. My mountain is growing, and now, thanks to WRITING PICTURE BOOKS, it has grown a little bigger and (I hope) a little sturdier.

Tetons by Ansel Adams, 1942 (National Parks Service/NARA)

Tetons by Ansel Adams, 1942 (National Parks Service/NARA)

OK, it’s not that big yet, but it is growing! How’s your mountain coming?

Craft Book Read-Along: Writing Picture Books – Critique Groups

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Critiquing is one of my favorite things to do. I love to dissect a story and figure out what makes it work — and what could work better. And what better way to procrastinate over my own writing than by picking apart someone else’s?

Chapter 18 of WRITING PICTURE BOOKS by Ann Whitford Paul has many great tips for finding and hosting a critique group (she’s published some of these on her blog), as well as a comprehensive list of questions to help guide the critique process.

I currently belong to two online critique groups. I also occasionally exchange manuscripts with 7 or 8 writers outside of these groups, whom I’ve met in classes, in conferences, and online. Here’s a list of places where I’ve found these writing partners:

  • Community education classes. My very first critique exchanges were with writers I met through a picture book writing class at my local arts-education center.
  • Verla Kay’s Blueboards includes a place where you can request a critique swap with other writers.
  • Online writing challenges like Picture Book Idea Month and the 12×12 picture book writing challenge are good places to make connections.
  • I’ve picked up a few writing partners from SCBWI conferences. These are great, too, because there’s a chance these people live near you and could meet in person.
  • WriteOnCon, a free children’s writing conference, is another way to make connections.

Why critique? In her book, Ann Whitford Paul compares writing a story to a triangle.

One side is you, the writer. Another side is your words. But it’s not a complete triangle until that bottom line, a reader, brings them together.

Unless you are scrawling away in a journal, eventually your words are going to be read by someone else — with luck, lots of someone elses. It’s important to find out how your words are being received by readers. Further, not every reader reacts the same way to every piece of writing. If we did, we’d all love the same books. Having a wide and varied group enables you to gather reactions from many different readers before making changes.

Focusing on other writers’ work and trying to analyze what you like and don’t like about it helps develop your own skill as a writer. And trust me, there’s no better way to procrastinate…

School is winding down, summer is here, and next week I will post my final check in for this read-along.

Craft Book Read-Along: Writing Picture Books – Making a Picture Book Dummy

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Chapter 17 of WRITING PICTURE BOOKS by Ann Whitford Paul deals with making a picture book dummy. No, you don’t have to be an illustrator. Yes, you can draw stick figures. A good dummy doesn’t have to be a work of art and no one else ever has to see it. But as a writer, it can tell you so much about what works and doesn’t work in your story. I have found that the act of chopping up the text and deciding what will go on which page helps me to see:

  • where my story’s pacing needs to change (usually I need to move things along more quickly, occasionally I need to slow things down)
  • whether I am using page turns effectively
  • how much text I have on each page — fine to have different amounts but if I can’t fit the text on a page in my dummy, that’s a clue that I need to cut
  • on what pages the important moments of my story will happen, and whether this matches my picture book map
  • whether something “new” is happening on each page (which was discussed way back in chapter 1)
  • whether I’m using language consistently throughout the book (for example, if I use a bunch of sound words at the beginning, do I also use some in the middle and at the end)
  • other stuff I’m sure I am forgetting right now

While the discussion about making a dummy comes toward the end of WRITING PICTURE BOOKS, I usually make a dummy fairly early in the process, after I have a solid first draft with a beginning, middle, and end. Below are two different ways I make a picture book dummy.

A Notebook Dummy

This is simply 16 sheets of paper in a looseleaf notebook. This gives me enough room to draw my little stick figures and write the text. Theoretically, I could  easily adjust this dummy by replacing just one sheet of paper rather than having to redo the whole book to make a small change.

notebook1

The notebook dummy is nice because it forces me to think about the pictures, and how the images on each spread will be different from one another. It’s not my favorite, though.

A Folded Dummy

I make these small folded dummies out of four sheets of paper cut in half vertically and then folded together. I then copy the text of my story into an empty word processing file. I increase the font size to about 18, and then I print the document with a layout of 2 pages per sheet. The resulting text is small, but still readable. I then use scissors to cut the text into spreads, and tape it onto the pages of my folded dummy.

dummy1         dummyopen

I don’t usually bother to draw the illustrations on these dummies because at this point I have a good idea of what I want to see on each page. This is more about working with the text.

The thing I love most about these little dummies is that I can carry them around in my bag or even my pocket. Sitting around at the dentist’s office, at baseball practice, at gymnastics class, becomes productive thinking and writing time.

Do you make dummies for your stories, and if so how do you make them?

Craft Book Read-Along: Writing Picture Books – Section 4 Check-in AND Chapter 16

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I recently attended a session at the New England SCBWI conference during which the presenter, speaking about catching an editor’s or agent’s eye with your book, asked the audience to think of a book we love. Then she asked us to think of a book we love enough to read 15 times. That is (approximately) how many times an editor has to read a book on the road to publication.

She was speaking primarily about novels, but as picture book writers we have to remember that not only will an editor have to read our words many times over, but parents will probably have to read them many more times than that. Raise your hand if you can recite The Very Hungry Caterpillar by heart. (Me! Me! Me!)

Section 4 of WRITING PICTURE BOOKS by Ann Whitford Paul is entitled “Language of Your Story,” with good reason. Picture books are meant to be read aloud, and read repeatedly — both excellent reasons to make sure that our words are as poetic, beautiful, and easy-to-read as we can make them.

True confessions: I did not have time this past month to do all of the exercises she recommended in this section. But the next time I am revising I do plan to go back and work through some of them, especially the checklist of techniques for slashing word count in Chapter 15.

For now, I will plow ahead into the next section, which consists of only two chapters.

Chapter 16 is called “Grabbing the Reader with a Great Title.” Boy, do I need this chapter! My usual MO with titles is I think of some working title for my manuscript when I start it. That remains the title until someone in one of my critique groups gently suggests that the title really could be stronger and maybe no longer has anything to do with the story. At which point, I’m stuck because now I’m kind of attached to my old title.

In Chapter 16, Ann Whitford Paul outlines all the things a good title should accomplish. It must be:

  • brief
  • catchy
  • unique
  • straightforward
  • express the mood of the book
  • hint at what the book is about
  • not give away the ending
  • create surprise
  • give the illustrator an idea for the cover
  • child can easily say it out loud
  • include the mc’s name (but doesn’t have to)

That last one is an important point. I do find that I’m more drawn to titles that include a name. I’m not sure why. Maybe it helps me to start to feel a connection with the character before even opening the book.

Just out of curiousity, I looked up the list of picture book titles listed in Candlewick’s fall 2013 catalog (one of my favorite publishers). These have presumably been through some sort of vetting process and deemed “good.” It was interesting to look at the list and see how well these titles achieve the items on the checklist above.

Candlewick – Fall 2013 picture books

Dinosaur Kisses

Jazzy in the Jungle

Peck, Peck, Peck

My Blue Is Happy

Ike’s Incredible Ink

Tug-of-War

Digger, Dozer, Dumper

Stick!

Maude: The Not-So-Noticeable Shrimpton

My Dream Playground

Faster! Faster!

Little Owl Lost

Animal Opposites

See What a Seal Can Do

Most of these are strong titles, but the ones with most appeal to me are Digger, Dozer, Dumper (I’m a sucker for alliteration) and Little Owl Lost (for the mystery factor). What about you? What are some of your favorite titles, and why?

Craft Book Read-Along: Writing Picture Books – Word Count

writingpicturebookscoverI’m someone who writes “long.” Most of my stories start out about twice as long as they need to be. In some ways, that’s nice because it means I have a lot of material to work with. But it also means that I agonize over every cut. Am I gutting my story of personality? Am I making it so sketchy that it no longer makes sense? Usually, if I put things away for a while, time will help reveal which cuts I can make without sacrificing meaning or voice.

Chapter 15 of WRITING PICTURE BOOKS by Ann Whitford Paul has many excellent suggestions for cutting word count. Sixteen excellent suggestions, to be exact. This is important in today’s picture book market when we hear that many editors want books that are in the 300-500 word range. I won’t share the whole list here, but do take a look at Chapter 15 if you struggle with cutting.

My favorite (and the one I find most effective for me) is number 14 – Characters don’t pee in stories. I find I often go into a level of detail, backstory, and scene-setting that’s not necessary. Below are two drafts of a story I wrote for a contest on Susanna Leonard Hill’s blog. I find contests to be a great way to get motivated to write, and to restrict myself to a specific word count. In this case, the limit was 300 words. My first complete draft was 556 words. Gulp! And yet, by cutting out many of the unnecessary details, I was able to get the text down below 300 words. And  the story really isn’t any different. When I struggle with cutting, I sometimes go back to this story to remind myself that I’ve done it before — and can do it again.

BIRTHDAY AT THE BEACH by Carrie Finison

(FIRST DRAFT – 556 WORDS)

The phone rang just as Kara was finishing dinner.

“Yes?” said Mom. “Now? OK. Yes, I’ll be there.”

Mom hung up.

“Grab your jacket,” she said, grinning.

“Where are we going?” asked Kara, wondering where she had put her jacket among all the unpacked moving boxes. They had lived in this town almost a week, but their boxes and furniture had arrived on the big truck just two days ago.

“To a birthday party,” said Mom.

A birthday party? But we don’t know anyone here, Kara thought.

“Whose birthday?” she asked.

“It’s a surprise,” said Mom.

“Where’s the party?” asked Kara as they hopped in the car.

“At the beach,” said Mom. “I told you it would be great to live near the beach,”

“But it’s almost dark!” said Kara.

Mom smiled.

“Will there be cake?” asked Kara.

“Nope, no cake at this party,” said Mom.

“A birthday party at the beach, in the dark, with no cake? What kind of party is this?” asked Kara. But Mom was tight-lipped. “You’ll see,” she said.

A few other cars dotted the parking lot at the beach, only 5 minutes away from their new house. Kara and Mom jumped out of the car and walked through the lot down onto the sand. In the distance, Kara could see a small crowd of people.

“That must be it,” said Mom.

When they got closer, Kara could see that the crowd was divided into two groups. Down the middle, a sort of path toward the water was marked by ropes tied to sticks poked in the sand, to keep people back. A woman sat in the middle of the path holding a clipboard. At the head of the path was a sunken patch of sand.

“Watch that patch of sand,” whispered Mom. For a birthday party, it sure was quiet, Kara thought.

Kara stared hard at the sand. Nothing happened. Then, she thought she saw the sand move. It was quite dark now, and hard to see. Then the sand moved again, and a quiet murmur rippled through the crowd. Slowly, the sand started to pulse and bubble. To Kara, it looked like a pot of water just beginning to boil. Then a black dot appeared – first one, then another, and another and suddenly the sand boiled over with tiny creatures struggling up through the sand.

“Turtles!” Kara whispered to Mom, and Mom squeezed her hand. As they watched together, the baby turtles scuttled along the path toward the water. The woman with the clipboard counted them. The crowd remained very quiet and still, but every once in a while someone would stoop down and gently guide a wandering baby turtle back to the path.

As Kara watched, the crowd of babies reached the ocean. The waves, though gentle, threw some of them back, but still they struggled forward. Kara thought about how brave the baby turtles were, crawling across the sand into the vast ocean, a place they had never been and could know nothing about. But somehow they trusted the future.

The last of the turtles had reached the water and the crowd started to break up, still careful not to walk on the pathway in case any late-hatching turtles came out.

“I think I’m going to like living near the beach,” said Kara.

BIRTHDAY AT THE BEACH by Carrie Finison

(FINAL DRAFT – 297 WORDS)

Mom hung up the phone just as Kara finished dinner.

“Grab your jacket,” Mom said, grinning. “We’re going to a birthday party.”

“Whose birthday? We don’t know anyone here,” said Kara. She searched for her jacket among the moving boxes that had arrived, like they had, only three days ago.

“It’s a surprise,” said Mom.

“Where’s the party?” asked Kara, climbing into the car.

“At the beach,” said Mom. “I told you it would be great to live near the beach,”

“But it’s almost dark!”

Mom smiled.

“Will there be cake?”

“Nope.”

A birthday party at the beach, in the dark, with no cake?

At the beach, a small crowd had gathered. Coming closer, Kara saw that the crowd surrounded a rope-marked path from the dunes toward the water. For a birthday party, it sure was quiet.

“Watch that patch of sand,” whispered Mom, pointing. Kara stared through the growing darkness. She thought she saw the sand shift. Then it shifted again, slowly, and then more rapidly. To Kara, it looked like a pot of water beginning to simmer. A small black head appeared, then another, then a flipper, and suddenly the sand boiled over with tiny creatures struggling toward the surface.

“Turtles!” Mom whispered, squeezing Kara’s hand. Dozens of baby sea turtles flip-flopped their way across the sand toward the waves. A woman with a clipboard counted them. The crowd remained still, but once in a while someone stooped to gently guide a wandering baby turtle back to the path.

They’re brave, Kara thought, watching the tiny creatures make their way into the vast ocean, a place they had never been and could know nothing about.

“Happy birthday,” Kara whispered, then smiled at Mom.

“I think I’m going to like living near the beach,” she said.

Craft Book Read-Along: Writing Picture Books – The Beat

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It’s been a little while since I posted in my blog series about WRITING PICTURE BOOKS. I’ve been a little busy…well, writing picture books, among other things. But I did want to check in sometime during poetry month about Chapter 13, “Rhyme Time.”

When I was in high school, my Latin teacher thought it was fun and educational to have all us students sweat blood while translating Virgil’s Aeneid. I’m sure you all know it. It’s the one that starts out, “Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris/Italiam, fato profugus, Laviniaque venit.” No? Not ringing any bells?

In addition to translating (and memorizing large chunks of) this Latin tome, another assignment was to scan the poetry, marking the stressed and unstressed syllables of Virgil’s dactylic hexameter.

Dactyli-who Hexa-whatsit?

Fast forward several years (OK, decades) and this seemingly impractical skill is now very helpful to me as I write poetry and rhyming picture book stories. Yes! I am actually using something I learning in high school. Thanks, Mr. Esposito.

One thing I like about the way that Ann Whitford Paul addresses poetry in Chapter 13 is that it feels approachable, even for someone who forgot terms like consonance and alliteration from high school English class. The examples she gives, using a nursery rhyme as a starting point, show some of the common ways that poems can go wrong. I highly recommend reading this chapter, even if you don’t write in rhyme, simply because adding poetic devices and musicality to prose is helpful for all picture book writers.

Back to meter, Chapter 13 doesn’t go overboard with complex metrical analyses but she does define some important basic rhythms. When thinking about meter, I always find it helpful to think of a well-known poem that is written in a certain meter — and try to make my poem sound like THAT.

Iamb
Sounds like: da-DUM
To write in an iambic rhythm, make your poem sound like Sick by Shel Silverstein:
“I cannot go to school today,”
Said little Peggy Ann McKay.
“I have the measles and the mumps,
A gash, a rash and purple bumps.
(Do you hear it? da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM/i CANnot GO to SCHOOL toDAY/said LITtle PEGgy ANN mcKAY)
Note: Very common meter, fun, upbeat

Anapest
Sounds like: da-da-DUM
To write in an anapestic rhythm, make your poem sound like Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore:
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
(Do you hear it? da-da-DUM da-da-DUM da-da-DUM da-da-DUM/twas the NIGHT before CHRISTmas when ALL through the HOUSE)
Note: Very bouncy rhythm, good for humorous poems

Trochee
Sounds like: DUM-da
(Note it’s the opposite of an iamb)
To write in an trochaic rhythm, make your poem sound like The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
(Do you hear it? DUM-da DUM-da DUM-da DUM-da DUM-da DUM-da DUM-da DUM-da/ONCE uPON a MIDnight DREARy WHILE i PONdered WEAK and WEARy)
Note: A dreary rhythm

Dactyl
Sounds like: DUM-da-da
(Note it’s the opposite of an anapest)
To write in a dactylic rhythm, make your poem sound like Virgil’s Aeneid. Or “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds by Lennon/McCartney (but I’m guessing it was probably mostly Lennon)
Picture yourself in a boat on a river
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes
(Hear it? DUM-da-da DUM-da-da DUM-da-da DUM-da-da/PICture your SELF in a BOAT on a RIver)
Note: This meter works better in Latin than English, apparently.

These are the basics, and there’s a lot a writer can do to mix and match these rhythms in ways that are tried-and-true, and also new. It helps me to look at lots and lots of examples and have templates in my mind as I am writing and learning about all this meter stuff and rhyming stuff and poetry stuff.

Last night as I was slaving over this post about meter, Laura Purdie Salas came up with her own fantastic post on the same topic with great examples and LOTS of helpful links. Go read!