Keeping it simple for '17:  Talk about lists ~ Two actual lists ~ A list of questions & answers ~ and pictures, including my cat. 
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1. Start Here.

New Year’s Resolutions often feel like genie’s wishes to me:  outsized, made under stress, and requiring supernatural effort to fulfill. So I make annual To-Do Lists instead — ten to fifteen specific items that I know I can accomplish in a year, if I keep the goals in mind and create the right long-term framework for the actions. While I haven’t written out these lists every year I’ve lived in New York, in the years when I have, I usually organize the items in three categories:  Read, Practice, and Experience. Under “Read” I set out a list of three or four novels I’ve  always meant to read and never got around to:  The Brothers Karamazov, Midnight’s Children, Villette. Under “Practice,” I put things like “Cook dinner for a friend once a month,” “Eat four servings of fruits and vegetables a day,” and “Floss.” And under “Experience” went items like “Walk all the bridges connected to Manhattan,” “Eat at Momofuku,” “Go to the Whitney Museum,” or “Run a half-marathon” — trying to push myself out of my everyday life and work absorption toward special moments or more challenging goals. When I lived alone, I posted the list on the back of my apartment door, so I saw it every day, and as I completed each item on the list, I’d write in the date of completion next to it. I don’t think I ever finished the entire list in a year — Moby-Dick and Infinite Jest remain unread — but the “Practices” especially pushed me to make better choices:  When I hesitated over the bathroom sink late at night, torn between the annoyance of flossing and the allurement of bed, the list would say, gently but firmly, “FLOSS.” And then I would.

So I offer this as a technique that might be useful to you as you contemplate the writing and publishing you wish to do in 2017 — both the making of the list, and the categories to break it down. Perhaps you want to create a “Draft” category for your dream projects, “Revise” for those already in progress, or “Submit” for those you’ve been fiddling with for too long. Maybe your “Practice” could be to write every day, or to write a chapter a fortnight, or to draft a picture book a month, or to keep a reading journal to reflect on and learn from the books you admire (or loathe). “Experiences” could include “Getting ten rejections” — because that would mean you had the bravery to send your work out ten times, and survived it — or developing a new school-visit presentation, or trying a different form or genre of writing, or attending a national SCBWI conference. And perhaps you want to “Read” some books that might help or inspire you; I’ll offer a brief list of suggestions below. 

If you like the idea of this list, start by thinking through what you want your writing and publishing lives to look like in 2017, and identifying the goals and practices that will help you create those lives. This in turn leads us back to those big questions:  Who are you? What do you most want? What do you most need? And what kind of changes or sacrifices are you willing to make so you can get those things? Whatever goals you set out, remember to frame them as actions within your control:  You can’t control whether your book will make the New York Times bestseller list or you’ll get an agent; you can control how you shape your marketing efforts and the quality of your first ten pages. Try to make your list in a spirit of love and not punishment, as it should offer your writing and the best parts of yourself more space, more joy, more depth, honor, and time in your life, not be designed to starve you in any way. (Keep in mind the wisdom of the excellent pastrix Nadia Bolz-Weber:  “Nothing you resolve to change about yourself will make you more worthy of being loved.”) And do write or type the list out, and post it somewhere that you can see it regularly, to stay in touch with your to-dos through the next year.  

2017 promises to be a remarkably tumultuous year on the world stage, and its noise and need for action could reach deep into our lives. I wish all of us good fortune in finding the answers, and setting the goals, that will help us stay focused and do great work through this new year.

2. A List of Some Useful Books for 2017
  • Well, The Magic Words.
  • Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin — about how to formulate and keep good habits. (I’m reading this one now.) 
  • Any book by Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun who writes often about fearlessness and compassion.
  • If you want to work on plotting or narrative design:  The Secrets of Story by Matt Bird. (Matt also has his own podcast now, also titled "The Secrets of Story.")
  • If you want to work on character:  Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card. (Card is both a craft genius and a virulent homophobe, so please buy this book used or get it from the library to avoid giving him money.)
  • If you want to work on your writerly psychology and attitudes:  The Hero Is You by Kendra Levin
  • If you want to work on branding and marketing:  Online Marketing for Busy Authors by Fauzia Burke
  • For pure fun:  Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo. I mentioned in my last newsletter that I was enjoying the first book in this duology. That enjoyment turned to awe and love by the end of the book, and only increased through the second. If you have any taste for fantasy and also loved Graceling, Ocean’s Eleven, The Great Greene Heist, Fast Five, or the Iron Man movies, I think you’d love these. 

3. My Writing Life To-Do List for 2017

Sharing this with you so I’m held accountable for it:

  • Maintain this monthly newsletter through the whole year.
  • Post to my blog at least twice a month, even if it’s just re-sharing newsletter content. 
  • Figure out the heart/point/pleasure of that one odd picture-book manuscript I wrote two years ago, and revise it to a place where I feel good about it going out in the world. (Yes, I write picture-book mss., because they suit my writerly strengths for form, structure, detail, and fun. My manuscript Wings is scheduled to be published in 2019 by Atheneum/S&S, illustrated by Tomie dePaola.) 
  • Write three more picture-book manuscripts, and revise them to my satisfaction. 
  • Vary my sentence structures more by using fewer colons, semicolons, dashes, and list/triplet structures. (This one will be the most difficult.)
4. A Q&A List

Can picture books have a word count of 1,750 to 2,000 words?

Assuming you are talking about fictional manuscripts here:  Certainly they can, but you should know that (a) some editors will reject that length automatically, as it runs counter to all the market trends we see, and (b) you really, really, really need to be able to justify that word count via the quality of both the story and the language. Shorter is both truly more likely to sell and often better. 

Is the use of Looney Tunes-style slapstick allowed or frowned upon in the children's book industry?

It’s certainly allowed in books that are designed to be funny and goofy — see Captain Underpants, for instance, or the Diary of a Wimpy Kid titles. If the book as a whole has a more serious aim, I’d probably avoid it. Or, if this question is really about violence, e.g., “Can I make one character punch another character so hard that his teeth fly out, as long as it’s funny?” . . . Well, it DOES need to be funny, and believable within the world you’ve set up. If it isn’t, it’ll just come off as gratuitous violence or cruelty, and I think most editors would want to avoid that.

For unpublished authors who enjoy writing in a variety of genres, how important is it to focus on only one genre until a book or idea finally sells?

Hmm. If you find it energizing to (let’s say) write romance, mystery, and SFF all at the same time, more power to you! On the other hand, be careful that dividing your writerly attention among those worlds doesn’t keep you from developing your skills to the utmost in one of them; and having feet in three worlds would require you to build separate platforms and connections in all of them, which can be a lot of work. Do it as long as it’s fun for you, but the sooner you can focus, the sooner you might simplify your writing and publishing lives. 

5. A List of Upcoming Appearances

February 8-11 - Associated Writing Programs Conference in Washington, D.C.

February 16-18 - Desert Nights, Rising Stars Conference at Arizona State University

March 11 - JambaLAya SCBWI Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana

April 28-30 - Pikes Peak Writers’ Conference in Colorado Springs, Colorado

I'm open to invitations for the summer and fall of 2017!
Please send an e-mail to
6. A Pictorial List of Items Seen on the Woolworth Building Lobby Tour

Just under the wire, I marked one item off my 2016 To-Do List yesterday:  I took a tour of the lobby of the Woolworth Building here in New York City (also known as the headquarters of MACUSA in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”). Aren't the details of it amazing? I was very glad I put the tour on my list. 

Marley and I wish you good books, good companions,
good writing, and good luck in 2017. 

With best wishes,


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