7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Carolyn Marsden

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Carolyn Marsden, author of THE WHITE ZONE) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent — by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.

GIVEAWAY: Carolyn is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Rendon won.)



Carolyn Marsden attended Vermont College and earned an
MFA in Writing for Children. Her first book, THE GOLD-THREADED DRESS,
published by Candlewick, was a Booklist Top Ten Youth Novel of 2002.
Her second novel, SILK UMBRELLAS, was a Texas Bluebonnet nominee
and Booklist Top Ten Art Novel of 2003. Since then, Carolyn has published
many more award-winning middle grade and YA novels with Candlewick,
Viking, and Carolrhoda, almost all with multicultural/historical themes.
Her latest novel, THE WHITE ZONE, came out in Feb. 2012
from Carolrhoda Press



1. Participate in other art forms. While writing is indeed an all-consuming, infinite endeavor, it can be helpful to engage in other art forms as well. Any kind of creative enterprise helps keep the flow of creativity vibrant and strong. Plus the guiding principles of all art are basically the same–theme, light and dark, repetition … For me, dance and painting/collage inform my writing and push it in new directions.

2. Work with others. Since I began to work collaboratively, I’ve never experienced writer’s block. Living in California, I’m surrounded by people who grew up all over the world. These people have often lived rich, fascinating childhoods that make for good fiction. More material flows my way than I’m able to make use of. If you ever feel you have nothing to write about, talk to someone who grew up in another culture.

(Will an agent be interested in your degrees or where you went to school?)

3. Find/create a nourishing critique group. I absolutely couldn’t write without the input of my peers. As writers, we usually can’t see our work objectively. The insight and vision of my critique group members are essential. Through working together, we’ve formed a supportive community based on a common aspiration.

4. Write anywhere and everywhere. In working on my first books, I found myself faced with revising the plot from the foundation up a couple of weeks before copyediting. I learned to be extremely flexible about where, when, and how I worked. I have written on cruise ships, while having an operation on my toe, in lines at banks and at the DMV, and even at red lights. If you want to be a writer, don’t wait for the muse to strike. Don’t be too particular about working conditions.

5. Write child-sized stories. Many of my books have large historical/political backdrops. In my first drafts, I’ve often made the mistake of letting that interesting material predominate. When I read through that first draft, the story is a big yawn—there’s no real conflict that can be resolved. Over and over I’ve had to remind myself of the importance of keeping my main character front and center. The child protagonist must be confronted with a child-sized problem that he/she can solve.

6. Work hard! I’ve encountered very talented writers who effortlessly produced engaging first drafts, and who got accolades for doing so. In some instances, these writers didn’t feel the urgency of putting in the hard work of revision. Consequently, their work went nowhere in terms of publication. When I leave critique group meetings on Wednesday nights I usually have what I call Brain Swirl. My material is sometimes headed in a whole new direction. Sometimes the entire story is in flux. Or I may wake up in the night with my own revolutionary idea. Even though big changes make me anxious, I summon the courage to be flexible, tenacious, and resilient. Writing for children requires an almost unimaginable investment of time and energy. In finishing a novel, I often feel that the blood has been drained from my veins! Don’t hold back from doing the necessary work, from submitting your very best. Often writers tell themselves that it’s okay to turn in a manuscript “as-is” to and editor or agent and see what they say. However, these days publishing is way too competitive to take such a risk. Pressed for time, agents, and especially editors, are usually not willing consider sub-par manuscripts. So do put in the necessary effort.

(Can your query be longer than one page?)

7. Read authors who take your breath away. This is always humbling, yet inspiring. I listen to books as I drive and often find myself awestruck—there in the midst of traffic—by extraordinarily magnificent use of language. As a result of exposing myself to excellent writing, I like to think that my own writing grows better and stronger.

GIVEAWAY: Carolyn is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Rendon won.)



Writing books/novels for kids & teens? There are hundreds
of publishers, agents and other markets listed in the
latest Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market.
Buy it online at a discount.


Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

Want to build your visibility and sell more books?
Create Your Writer Platform shows you how to
promote yourself and your books through social
media, public speaking, article writing, branding,
and more.
Order the book from WD at a discount.

You might also like:

  • No Related Posts

9 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Carolyn Marsden

  1. Cecilia M. BW. Gunther

    A generous yet precise list of good solid advice. The one that stood out for me is to work hard. Enable your writing to shine by giving it the very best care. I am a photographer as well so I felt very smug being able to tick the first box.
    Reading good books is so important. A man once said to me – a long time ago – how can you possibly read and not be put off trying to write. I am still gobsmacked by his one dimensional thinking and he was an artist. Maybe he thought I was a dreadful writer. Or just preferred me to stay in the kitchen and not get any ideas!! Lovely thoughtful article. Thank you Carolyn, Celi

  2. debeypenguin

    Thanks for the advice!! Now I’ve just got to keep following those I already do and do those I don’t currently do…. Lots of HARD WORK all around!

  3. Ceejae


    “Extraordinarily magnificent use of language is a rare flower.” After discovering the joy of the adventure, appreciating the beauty of how our minds translate our experience became my next love and I wanted to learn the art. I was initially inspired by Dostoyevsky’s “The Brother’s Karamozov” and D.H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love,” (although I read it again recently and was not as moved) but surprisingly many of my essays have turned out to be humorous. I love your suggestion about participating in other art forms, I do some, but should probably do more.

    Would you have any suggestions of authors or titles?

    Thank you for a great post!

  4. Angeline M

    Reading other people’s work, looking at other photographer’s photos are invaluable in the creative process. Something read or seen in another work may give you a different perspective and,in turn, inspiration.

  5. plong

    Carolyn, thank you so much for these tips. Wading through site after site and article after article, it can sometimes be a little daunting to find things that ring true but your article “hit home” for me in a big way – especially about the critique group. I am trying to soak up as much intelligent information as I can and I am most certainly keeping this for future reference. Thank you again for sharing with us!

  6. Carole Caprice

    Oh My Gosh! GREAT tips!!! I’m an Artist too ~ draw, create original greeting cards, knit, other general crafts, do desktop publishing, some photography, and singing, too ~ The Arts are SO important, but seemingly & sadly, looked down upon by the general public, in my opinion. I mentioned once that I had majored in Fine Arts (in a Bible study of all places), and the man next to me said, “Ha!.. you majored in ART??”, then kind of mumbled, “what can you do with that?” I felt a little hurt and condescended.. I’m very creative and artistic & good at what I do. I’ve not only sold about $1500 of my handmade goods to people over 17 years or so, but have had one person ask me if he could buy an original picture I drew, another requesting a copy print of a digital freehand image I drew, and know that my creations have had a positive impact on people ~ making them happy or moved in some way. To me, that’s important. That’s the whole PURPOSE of Art. Writing is yet another form of Art-making ~ the expression of an idea, and all are on the same level, to be respected and appreciated. Engaging in the creative process enhances & expands your imagination, and sparks new ideas.. it’s all good, – – – and a very good tip to advise!

    RE: “I’ve had to remind myself of the importance of keeping my main character front and center. The child protagonist must be confronted with a child-sized problem that he/she can solve.”
    Yes! You’re SO right! I think people like to read about PEOPLE… they want to see themSELVES in what they read and see how others work through their challenges for answers to their OWN challenges. I think that’s why people are so obsessed with Reality TV ~ we wanna see how OTHERS are coping or not, and compare ourselves to them & their success or lack thereof.

    RE: “Write anywhere and everywhere” – YOU BET!
    I’ve had SO many ideas and phrases come to me at the most unexpected times… usually when I’m tired, in bed, and DON’T wanna grab a pencil & paper to jot it down, BUT.. you MUST, or it’s lost forever! I carry a little notebook & pencil with me wherever I go.. I even write down my dreams.. You’ve just gotta be a human catchers mitt and be ready to trap the ideas when they come!

    Your article above reads easy. I enjoyed it! 😀 Thank you.

  7. Rendon iii Candy

    Thank you Carolyn! I couldn’t agree more with your advice about pursuing other challenging art endeavors. For me, I have daily and weekly goals for both word count and short films I want to make. 😀


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.