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

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. 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.)

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.)

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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.)

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