Friday, January 29, 2016


We make the commitment to write or draw something every day purely by profession. But, what happens when a manuscript or illustration is just not working?  Do you switch gears – pursue ideas for a new story or drawing and leave your wordy/scribbly quandary for another day? Maybe you polish queries, browse upcoming conferences or… eat some chocolate?

For some, this sticking “point” can be paralyzing. When that unresolved story problem makes moving forward too difficult, writing or drawing could come to a screeching halt. If you haven’t been formally published, this momentary block could brew discouraging havoc on your thoughts. But for those seasoned in story making, this is -  THE PROCESS.  Keeping busy at writing and drawing (no matter what!) will unstick you. Discipline is key and below are 3 ways to ensure you write and draw yourself out of sticky stories or scenes and never lose momentum (or consume extra calories) again.


Stuck? Take a break and try this. Grab a piece of paper and pen. Now find a container of some sort.
          If you are an illustrator:
  • List 10 things you never draw/or avoid drawing (i.e. vehicles, architecture, hands, bugs)    
  • List 10 things you would like to know more about(Steampunk? Scandinavian architecture?  Butterfly wing patterns?)
  • List 10 favorite memories

          If you are a writer:
  • List 10 people that fascinate you (inventors, zoologists, playwrights, etc.)
  • List 10 questions an interested editor/agent might ask you (i.e. Why did you query me?  Who are some of your favorite authors and why? What are your career goals and expectations? Google FAQ pages for ideas if you need to)
  • List 10 favorite memories

          If you are a writer and illustrator:
  • Do all of the above!

Cut your list up so each topic is on one slip of paper. Now fill the jar with your curiosities and memories.  Over time, you may come up with your own lists. Perhaps you even throw actual objects from vacations or special moments that murmured “I am a story nugget” to you when first found. The goal is to grow your collection so you always have material that inspires you to write or draw.

Plant this vessel on your desktop or studio sill.

Whenever you need a reboot, pull a slip from the jar. Set your timer for 15/30mts (you decide). Reflect and research for 5 minutes then… write or draw! If you pulled a slip that listed a fascinating person, prepare an interview. What would you ask them? Create your own answers.

Thoughts should start stirring and hopefully synapses are launching into fireworks. Your mind is taking a break from a problem…but in the form of writing and drawing something else. You are still practicing craft, building your writing/illustrating muscles but most importantly, staying in the game.


I read a book called THE HEALING POWER OF HUMOR by Allen Klein a few years ago, and bits and pieces have stuck with me.  One particular quote was “A humorous approach frequently also reveals new insights and possible solutions to our problems.”

Chances are at a random point during the day, we laugh, smile or gaze in some kind of amazement at something specifically. Why not document that moment daily?

As an author/illustrator, I do my best to create a cartoon for myself on slow days. Are they perfect?  No way. Are there times when I can’t come up with…something? Sure. But, a moment is reserved and I do my best to honor that. A quick doodle serves as a nice mental warm up and sets the mood for work ahead. One advantage to creating a cartoon is…it’s sharable! If you are an illustrator - use social media to open up. Let others get to know you and what makes you laugh. Chances are they’ll grin as well. Here’s one I did quickly, then later turned into my FB profile.  

If you are a writer, give the cartoon a go or just describe the scene. A slightly different option is to write an exaggerated letter as Allen Klein suggests in his book. “When we are blinded by our upsets, when they are all we can see, sometimes describing them in highly dramatic or overinflated terms can allow us to see the ludicrousness of our situation." If something is bothering you (rejections, bills, complaints, etc.), relieve yourself from the stress and put a humorous spin on it.    


When I needed a reboot after multiple rejections and agent roller coasters in 2014, I decided to make affirmations via my computer folder names. Before my website launched and my book was published, I created a folder called I WILL BE AN AUTHOR ILLUSTRATOR. This was where all work from that point forward would be stored.

It was a mighty name at the time because I was still fighting doubtful inner gremlins but, it was the boost I needed. I had to open it multiple times during the day which meant - I read it, multiple times a day. And, I kind of liked it. Then, really liked it. Within a few months of creating that folder my picture book, THE LADYBUG RACE, was selected as a Silent Book Contest finalist, which then led to my publishing contract.

I currently have a folder called 1000 WORDS A DAY. In an effort to build my daily word count, this teeny twist on folder nomenclature has fueled more consistent word filled pages. Content varies but the goal remains the same. When picture book dummies are not consuming my time, I add to this folder.  Some entries document my day, others may piece together story ideas that aren’t quite flushed out yet. Eventually, I began to see a pattern based on my file names. Here is what the last few days look like:

How does this work for illustrators? Still use words! As an artist, this practice is an excellent opportunity to build a better business. Beyond illustrations there are contracts, interviews, school visits, marketing and website pages to write. Use your 1000 WORDS A DAY to track your goals for the year. Write down all you want to accomplish and each day measure where you are and what you did to get closer to that goal. Pick what word count works best for you and jump in!

If writing or drawing everyday was a 2016 resolution, congratulations on making the commitment to push your creativity! I hope you find these suggestions helpful along the way.  

“You can measure your worth by your dedication to your path, not by your successes or failures.”

Amy Nielander is a picture book author and illustrator residing in Royal Oak, Michigan. Her first picture book, THE LADYBUG RACE (PomegranateKids) was released in 2015 and earned her a spot as a finalist in the 2014 Silent Book Contest. Artwork debuted at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair that year.  

Her weekly blog, THE BLOB BLOG, documents her + her kids adventures in character creating where 796 characters have been birthed collectively! Additional posts can be found on Facebook and Twitter.

Coming up on the Mitten blog: Patti Richards is preparing another Writer Spotlight. Who will it be? Come back next Friday to see.

Until then, surely you've heard about this little conference happening? 

Registration begins in 3 days on Feb 1st! For details about the 40 presenters and sessions (yes, 40!) and 8 intensives, go here.

Presenters such as:

Last year on the Mitten blog, Angie Kidd reviewed Lisa Cron's WIRED FOR STORY. Read the review here.

And start planning your conference carpool because how awesome is this?

Have a great weekend!

Friday, January 22, 2016

Chicago Style: I'm Not Talking Pizza by Dawne Webber

I was a comma neurotic.

neu·rot·ic: often or always fearful or worried about something: tending to worry in a way that is not healthy or reasonable. Merriam-Webster.

Comma rules eluded me. If I couldn’t manage to remember a handful of them, how would I ever memorize the entire comma canon? I wondered if this lack of comma knowledge would affect my writing professionally, as in with potential agents and editors. “Don’t worry about it,” a friend reassured me. “Publishers have editors to do that for you.” I breathed a sigh of relief and went on my merry way.

But I soon learned that, although grammatical perfection is not required in submissions to agents and editors, near perfection should be the goal. Melissa Donovan sums it up perfectly in her post, “10 Reasons Why Writers Should Learn Good Grammar”:

How will you get that short story, essay, or blog post published if you don’t know the basics of grammar, spelling, and punctuation? Sure, some managing editors will go over your work and clean it up for you, but most reputable publishers have enough submissions that they can toss grammatically weak work into the trash without thinking twice. Writing Forward

And Kate S. has a logical answer to the question “Do you have to be good at grammar to get published?”:

The problem is that there are so many people out there trying to get published who ARE good at grammar. If an editor is looking at your MS and at an MS with an equally good story, characterization, writing style, etc., but with better grammar, the editor is going to chose the story with better grammar. Stack Exchange

At least I didn’t need to memorize the comma rules. They were all over the place. I could use the Gregg Reference manual that I’d picked up years ago, or I could Google how to use commas.
There came a point when I began to suspect that I was not, in fact, comma deficient. My memory wasn’t the problem (so much). The problem was that comma rules varied depending on the source, and there were many sources.

If that wasn’t confusing enough, writer friends began dropping words like Oxford comma, AP, and Chicago style. A one-time journalist turned fiction writer was always disparaging one of them, but I could never remember which one. Then to add to the chaos, my daughter’s college courses required her to use the MLA (Modern Language Association) style. Exactly how many styles were there? And which was correct? It was enough to give me nightmares.

To prevent others in my situation from having nightmares, here are the three most common style guides and what type of writing they’re used for:
  • MLA (Modern Language Association) style is most commonly used to write papers and cite sources within the liberal arts and humanities.
  • The AP Stylebook is the prime reference for those in the news and public relations fields.
  • The Chicago Manual of Style is the guide for authors, editors and publishers of books, periodicals and journals.

Easy enough. I’m an author so the CMS would be my guide. But the debates were so intense (violent in some cases) that I decided to check with the experts, my editor friends on Twitter. Only after they agreed that the CMS was the style book for writers, did I rush to order my very own Chicago Manual of Style.

If you’ve never seen one, you cannot imaging the information bursting from its lengthy 1026 pages. It’s amazing. Let me tell you, this baby is not only about grammar and punctuation. Who’d ever heard of rectos and versos, much less knew what they were? It’s fascinating reading (for a little while).

Novelists everywhere owe The Chicago Manual of Style their gratitude. It’s an unsung hero of our times.

Dawne Webber is represented by Steven Chudney of The Chudney Agency. Ask Me to Wait, her YA contemporary novel, is currently on submission. Dawne lives in Troy with her husband and five children. They keep her sane amid the insanity of writing. 

This post was first published on Dawne's blog. Learn more about Dawne and find a wealth of information about writing and publishing at

Coming up on the Mitten blog: Everything you ever wanted to know about MFA programs. We have a team of students and graduates from various MFA/MA programs ready to answer your questions. Send your questions to me at, and I'll forward them to our experts.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Everything I Need to Know About Writing, I Learned From Figure Skating by Katie Van Ark

I skated my way into writing. At first reading, this may seem to imply that writing glided to me, as natural as sleeping and waking. It didn't. Writing came with the bruises of repeated Axel attempts: soaring jumps of hope crashed by rejections from agents. Writing came with the ice burn of editors' criticisms, the pulled muscle torture of a high school English teacher reading the short stories of our entire class aloud. (Two minutes in, I became painfully aware that mine would have been better targeted to a middle grade audience; half a class period later I was scrunching in my seat with the realization that I had written not a short story but a novella.)

No, when I say I skated into writing, I mean it literally. My passion for skating cultivated my passion for writing. Though I played with writing as a child, earning invitations to young author events and winning a poetry contest, my heart belonged to skating. I acted out entire competitions with my dolls, scrutinized the biographies of top competitors, and longed to try it myself. I took ballet and piano lessons, but the nearest ice rink was forty-five minutes from our house and there honestly wasn't money, or, with my competitive swimming and supercharged class load, time for much else.

With the help of adult-learn-to-skate classes, I came to skating as an adult and fell head over love. I thought I loved skating before; now, I breathed skating. This sounds perhaps like something that might happen to a character in a novel, but the passion was so overwhelming that my husband and I saw a marriage counselor over it. (Success – we just celebrated our ten year anniversary.) Even pregnant with my first daughter, I skated until my seventh month. The evening I realized I was too pregnant to skate anymore, I came home and cried for two hours. What was I going to do? Pouring the intensity of that emotion onto the page, I rediscovered my passion for writing. And realized that everything I needed to know about writing, I learned from figure skating.

  • First, it's okay to start small. I have a favorite childhood memory of building a backyard ice rink with my father. Our city backyard was tiny, and our rink was about six swizzle pumps wide and only a little bit longer. It had giant potholes where leaves from our crabapple tree froze under the surface and then caught the heat of the winter sun and melted the ice. Bumpy at best and treacherous at worst, it was ice. That my father cared enough to help me with this time-consuming, and in fickle west Michigan weather, often futile effort, gave me the seed of the idea that skating was something I could do. It's the same for writing. Even one frozen drop of water can be enough if you want it, really want it. For me, this was when I dared to show my mother, a writer and librarian, the beginning ramblings of my first book. She had lots of advice and areas to improve but, “Sure, this could be a novel,” were the words I took with me as my droplet of hope.
  • Second, however small your start, you must put in the time. It's about repetition. With good daily practice routines, the elements on ice come. With good daily writing routines, the words flow. Practice never makes perfect, but quality practice builds improvement bit by bit. Listen to your coaches, aka your trusted critique group, because whether you like it or not, they're right most of the time. But know that sometimes you have to follow your heart, sometimes you just have to know when it's time to ditch a project. I once completely changed programs three weeks before a national competition, much to the chagrin of my coach. That new program won me a national gold medal. So go ahead, re-write that novel in first person. Cut those scenes. Start over with a blank page. And take comfort in the fact that least in writing you can save all your old versions on the computer and pull out an old routine with the click of your mouse.
  • On the ice or on the page, you will fall down. A lot. All you can do is pick yourself up, the sooner the better. You must try again. It took me almost a year to learn a loop jump, two years for the flip, and five years for the lutz. I'm still working on that Axel and I won't even tell you how many hours I worked at writing, but I try to remember that everyone is afraid sometimes, that everyone struggles with some things. You must believe you can do it.
  • Take advantage of camps, clinics, and retreats. Fresh opinions can help you get over a rut. I had been struggling with a loop jump for months when I attended a skating camp in Aspen. New phrasing and the trick of jumping out of a backspin helped me master the element that week. And when asked for advice, give it when you can. Helping others can help you, too. It's so much easier to see the faults when watching, or in the case of writing, reading someone else's technique. And of course every once in a while you'll happen upon a move you can borrow and make your own.
  • Just like skating, writing is also about acting. To make your characters real to your audience, you need to feel them, get inside their heads. Wear your heart on your sleeve and keep a box of tissues nearby for the tears and runny noses. Because in skating, you only need to do one character per program but in writing you're going to need to do them all.
  • And finally, sweat the small stuff. Yes, pay attention to details in your routines and in your novels but don't forget about your actual real world. I used to have one of those t-shirts proclaiming that “figure skating is life, the rest is just details!” I gave it to Goodwill. Skating, writing, whatever your passions – life is in the details, and not the sequin-covered, rhinestone-studded variety. Don't forget to live.

Katie Van Ark lives in Michigan with two little girls who love mud, a cat that thinks it's a dog, and a very patient husband. The Boy Next Door, a YA figure skating love story, is her first novel. Visit her online at or on Twitter @kvanark.

Katie is one of the busiest people I know - mom, teacher, figure skater, author, and she's about to graduate with her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Through all of this, she's been very giving of her time to help other writers. 

A master's degree in fine arts: The best career move? What will I gain from all of that time and expense? Can it be affordable? Questions about MFA programs are often posed to editors and authors at writing conferences. Katie has offered to gather her fellow students at VCFA to answer your questions. What would you like to know about the MFA experience? Leave your questions in the comments or email me at We'll share the answers in a future post.

Happy New Year!
Kristin Lenz

Friday, January 8, 2016

Featured Illustrator Dana Atnip


 This questionnaire goes back to a popular parlor game in the early 1900s. Marcel Proust filled it out twice. Some of our questions were altered from the original to gain more insight into the hearts and minds of our illustrators. We hope you enjoy this way of getting to know everybody.

1. Your present state of mind?

Excitement! I love the promise of a new year!

2. What do you do best?

Cartooning and drawing fuzzy animals.

3. Where would you like to live?
I love Michigan, but living on a tropical island would be pretty awesome.

4. Your favorite color?
Purples, but I’ll take the whole rainbow.

5. Three of your own illustrations:

6. Your music?
Alternative and pop-punk, but classical when I’m frazzled.

7. Your biggest achievement?
Right now it’s my webcomic, Galactic Dragons. I’ve dreamed of putting my comic strip out there for years; I had to face a lot of fears and it was a lot of work, but I’m very happy with how it’s been going, and I love the work!

8. Your biggest mistake?
Letting my fears dictate me for so long and letting them hold me back.

9. Your favorite children's book when you were a child?
The Richard Scarry books, but honestly anything with animals, dragons, or unicorns.

10. Your main character trait?
A dreamer. My imagination is always moving, always thinking of new ideas.

11. What do you appreciate most in a friend?
For me a friend is someone with whom you can share your joys and sorrows, laughter and tears... someone with whom to have adventures with or spend the day doing nothing and just enjoy each other's company.

12. What mistakes are you most willing to forgive?
All of them. We all make mistakes, we all deserve forgiveness.

13. Your favorite children's book hero?
I adore Fancy Nancy. She’s never afraid to be herself (in the fanciest way).

14. What moves you forward?
I’m always inspired by artists and other creatives. Life is short and there’s so much creating to do!

15. What holds you back?
Ugh, still the fear and self-doubt thing, but I’m working on that.

16. Your dream of happiness?
Happiness itself is in the present moment. If you can be happy no matter where you are in life, then you’ve achieved.

17. The painter/illustrator you admire most?
My biggest hero is Carl Barks. He did the Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comic books for almost 25 years, and was known as “The Good Duck Artist” because his work far surpassed other comic book artists that did the Disney ducks. His work even inspired Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. After he retired from comic books he moved to oil painting, and his Disney oil prints still sell for hundreds to thousands of dollars.

18. What super power would you like to have? 
Being able to shape-shift into animals would be pretty sweet.

19. Your motto?
Just keep swimming!

20. Your social media?
My illustration website is:
My comic strip is: (for ages 13 and older)
Twitter handle: @GalacticDragons