children, writing

Using bullet journals to unlock writers block

Bullet journals are known as planners for creative personalities. Daily tasks, appointments and goals are released from the confines of stoic leather backed planners and cold digital apps. Instead, designs, boxes, pictures, and color explode onto the pages of bullet journals in a creative but orderly fashion, providing the perfect path for tracking life’s assignments.

Though I am a “creative”, I scoffed at this new phenomenon thinking it was just another way to waste time in order to doodle. I admit to being a bit of a free spirit when it comes to tracking my to do’s. Little sticky notes work just fine, thank you.

Recently, however, my attitude did a full 180 degree turn. My writing enthusiasm was at an all time low. I just couldn’t seem to work my way out of the dreaded writer’s block corner. So I started looking through the upcoming themes of magazines I’ve written for in the past. As I scanned themes, the idea of nature studies and bullet journaling collided in my head. Could I use this bullet journal trend to create an interesting article on nature studies? Hmm? Perhaps.

Of course, this required a shopping trip. I would need to research and try out the idea before actually writing the article. I would also have to enlist the help of my 15 year old son to be sure this was not just an adult idea that kids would hate.

We both chose our topics of research, mine mushrooms, his coding. Of course coding, right? Each day, we sat and created our journals together. Talking and drawing and coloring in ideas. I won’t go into detail about the how’s as there may be a magazine article to enjoy about that.

All, I can say, is I can’t wait to write about the process. I also can’t wait to share all my new found knowledge regarding mushrooms. I had no idea there were so many kinds.

Now, I find myself thinking of other ways to use my new found research process to keep track of things I’m interested in. Who knows, I may even decide to make lists, set goals and keep a calendar. Pfft. Naw. Just kidding.


3 Golden Rules for Conventions

My father is an inspirational leader. Now in his late seventies, he works harder than most fifty-year-olds. Each year we go to conferences to speak and share our ministry with others. Dad is the first to arrive and the last to leave our vendor booth. Just when our feet are killing us and our will to continue is fading, Dad cheerfully encourages us and then reminds us of his three golden rules: “Don’t sag; Don’t lag; Don’t brag.” His pep and vigor always motivates the team to work hard till the end.

Here are my father’s three golden rules for conventions:

#1. Don’t Sag

You’ve seen them, the vendors who sit behind their booth scrolling aimlessly through their phone, looking like they wish the floor would open up and end their suffering. These are the breakers of rule number one. It’s possible they began well, but these rule-breakers have no stamina for long days standing on cold concrete. They seem to think that their fancy booth display should be the magnet that attracts hundreds to them, when in fact their own sag is sending the message, “Do not approach, I am not worth talking to.” Now in the sagger’s defense, it is incredibly difficult to maintain a cheerful, ready disposition when people seem to barely look at the sparkly banner that took hours to design. 

My father would say, “Your sign is nothing without you. Stand up, direct your gaze to people walking towards you, smile and say something.” 

What you say is crucial. That brings us to rule number two. 

#2. Don’t Lag

Now that you’re standing up and making eye contact with people you need to engage and be engaged. Resist the urge to “bark.” Yeah, you know those people at fairs who stand at their booth and yell, “Get yer popcorn.” I’m serious about this. I’ve seen it happen. Usually it’s a bit more savvy, but this is not what don’t lag means. Instead, make eye contact, smile and say, “Good morning. Are you enjoying the convention?” If all you receive is a cursory nod or grunt, no fear, stay standing and greet the next person. When they slow their pace and respond, ask another question such as, “What are you looking for today?” If you are selling self-help books and they say, “car parts,” respond with good humor with something like, “I don’t have car parts, but I do have (insert product name). May I share about (insert company or product) with you?” If they say yes, it’s time to share your resources in a succinct, clear way. The lag is almost behind you don’t screw it up by oversharing. Keep it short and then ask one last question, the close. The close is something different for every company, but don’t shrink away from it. Just beware the brag.

#3. Don’t Brag

This is a feisty little rule that will sneak in at the last minute if you don’t watch out for it. This is especially true if you’ve been standing all day and feel that maybe you’ve not made enough connections or accomplished your company goals. Suddenly, you find yourself sharing how your company beats the competition and nobody does it better than you. Pausing, you pant just a little and say the dreaded words, “Do you want to buy something?” All your hard work of not sagging or lagging goes up in a puff as your audience walks away empty handed. 

My father has encouraged us to avoid the brag by remembering we are not sales people. We don’t merely want to sell the stuff we came with. We want to connect in meaningful ways with people in order to give them the opportunity to use our resources to enrich their lives or the lives of others. Okay, I know, by the end of day two your feet are burning and you really do want to just sell the stuff you came with. Just wait, because day three of every convention is why you’ve been following these rules. On day three, you must diligently avoid the lag, sag, and brag. 

For us, day three is the busiest day of a convention. People have heard us speak in our breakout sessions, or made a connection with us at our booth, and now they want to go home with something that can help them do the work they need to do. One convention we were so busy the vendors around us kept asking if we were the keynote speakers. They’d been lagging and sagging all weekend and couldn’t figure out what was happening at our booth. If we’d had the time, we would have shared our golden rules with them. 

So when is your next convention? Are you ready to practice the three rules? Yes, you may accomplish some company goals, but the biggest reward just may be that you walk away with dignity and perhaps a few new friends. 


Are Writers Conferences Worth It?




The answer is yes. Yes, conferences are worth the money and the time it takes to go. Conferences are the place to find out just how much you have to learn as a writer or an illustrator. If you want to grow go to a conference. I’ve been to two this year, and I have a third one in June. Here’s what I’ve learned so far at each conference.

I. The Ashville Christian Writers Conference

This conference was held a the beautiful Billy Graham Cove. I was blown away by the soaring wood-beamed ceilings and house size chandeliers in the dinning room. The food and accommodations were five star and opportunities to find a serene spot to read or write or draw were in abundance.

I learned two things at this conference:

1. How to write a 25 word pitch. This was incredibly helpful and though I am still working on the nuances of my pitches, I am able to clearly articulate each project in a simple, memorable way. If you don’t have a 25 word pitch you need one.

2. Pitching to editors is not scary. I thought I’d be terrified and that editors would scoff at my stories or worse, tell me I should just quit. Yeah, I always think the worst. I pitched to at least five editors and each one was gracious and patient. I felt like a new born puppy trying to open it’s eyes for the first time, but I learned so much. I even had an agent from Hartline Literary agency ask for a proposal. (I’m working on it!)

I learned a lot more than that, but you’ll just have to join me next year to discover more.

This is me with my friend Maggie Rowe and then her with a bunch of famous people.




II. SCBWI’S Marvelous Midwest Conference

This conference was less than ten minutes from my house in Naperville, IL.  This conference was held at a Marriot. The food was a B+. I didn’t stay the night as my own bed is my favorite. The Lobby had soft couches and comfy chairs for chatting with people and lots of sturdy tables for setting up computers or laying out art work.

Here are the top three things I learned at this conference.

1. My 25 word pitch needs work. I went to a session called high concept and discovered my pitch lacked a little luster. In fact, what my pitch really lacked was a strong hook with a unique twist. Honestly, I came home trying to decide if Una the pig could pull off a story line where she is saved from the clutches of the evil farmer by a mafia boss pig named Brutus who trains her to be his right hand pig so together they can burn down the slaughter house, free their families and take over the farm…. NAW! That’s crazy. Hmm..

2. Illustrators have portfolios. Well, you don’t know what you don’t know. That’s why you go to conferences. I have this website with my stuff, but all the illustrators I met at this conference also have a physical portfolio. I went out yesterday and bought a portfolio and am beginning to build it.

I titled this picture: “Courage, dear heart.” After one of my favorite quotes from C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series.  It takes courage to begin this process. But I’m certain the outcome will be useful and beautiful.

“Courage, dear heart”

3. There are Christian editors at the SCBWI conventions. Linda Howard from Tyndale was there. I went to as many of her sessions as I could and gleaned all I could from her talks on what Christian editors are looking for, and how the Christian market is doing. I also loved her talk on marketing your own books. She suggested we need a blog and we should write about “stuff”.  Okay, we should write things that reveal who we are as a writer and illustrator. Things other people might want to read.

Here’s the link to SCBWI if you are not a member, you should be. Https://  If you are a member come find me: Joleen Steel

I have one more conference this year. I just hope I can figure out poor Una’s story before I go, she really is too nice of a pig to work for Brutus.


E4E9D1C2-C5CF-4E2F-B36E-0C985B5CBAC5Joleen Steel is a Canadian illustrator and author who lives in Warrenville, IL with her husband Dave and their youngest son Matt. Joleen teaches kindergarten at a classical Christian School and writes for The Old Schoolhouse Magazine. As the Executive Director for Camping Stick Kids (, Joleen illustrates and writes the ministry’s books and curriculum. Camping Stick Kids has been featured on Focus on the Family’s Adventures in Odyssey.

children, writing

Striped Socks and Flamingo Pink Shoes

So this morning I woke up with an old Sunday School song in my head.

This is the day,

This is the day

That the Lord has made

Let us rejoice and be glad in it!

I am often struck by the joy of the Lord in the early moments of my morning. This song made me not only glad, but caused me to pull out a favorite pair of pink shoes. I wore them to church. Though I fell short of all out dancing, I did a lot of tapping of my toes and hand raising. I came home and decided to post the little story below. I’ve been working on it and thought you all might enjoy it. It’s not a Christian story, but it certainly reminds me of the comfort & joy we have in our ABBA Father, God.

Polka dot striped socks with flamingo pink shoes By Joleen Steel

Polka dot striped socks with flamingo pink shoes

Dance me down the sidewalk

Prance me up the lane

Silky ribbons flying 

Twirling around my mane

Leaping up the park steps

Whooshing past the trees

Glittering sand is flying

Circling around my knees

Dancing, prancing, twirling, stopping

Listening to the jazz band play

Toes are tapping, jazzy snapping

Flamingo shoes on a sunny day

Polka dot striped socks with flamingo pink shoes

Dance me up the boardwalk

Prance me through the crowd

Silky ribbons sailing

As we ride the merry-go round

Galloping round the circle

Up and down we go

Unicorns and horses fly

Around the lighted show

Galloping, prancing, sailing, flying

Slowing down, it’s time to leave

Feet are jumping, heart is thumping

Flamingo shoes on a lovely eve

Polka dot striped socks with flamingo pink shoes

Waltz me down the glowing path

Turn me round and round

Silky ribbons blowing

Drooping to the ground

Reaching up to get a hug

Watching stars fill up the sky

Head is dreamy, moon is gleaming

Trying not to close my eyes

Waltzing, turning, reaching, dreaming

Wrapping arms around you tight

Ready to go home to bed

Flamingo shoes on a sparkling night

Polka dot striped socks with flamingo pink shoes

Sway me down the hallway

Tuck me into bed

Silky ribbons falling

Beside my sleepy head

Looking out my window

Lamps glow in the street

Tomorrow we will dance again

But now we need to sleep

Swaying, tucking, looking, sleeping

Shoes are sitting out of sight

Dreaming of tomorrow

waiting for the morning light