Sarah J. Carlson

Contemporary Young Adult Author

The post-it notes that helped get me through



IMG_7442Revisions and major re-writes are hard. To put it VERY mildly. Scuplting your latest draft into a thing of beauty require completely different mental processes than pounding out that initial first draft. And, for me, each round of revision requires a focus on a different part, starting with each POV character’s internal and external story arc, then the evolution of their relationships with secondary characters, then setting/dialect, then finally line edits and word count. Then, for me at least, repeat the process again after any feedback that leads to major changes.

To help me keep my brain focused on the right things, I plastered the wall over my computer with notes to self, presented to you in no particular order above.

Stakes: What’s at stake for each character? The world (if appropriate)? How are the stakes rising with each section, each page? What happens if the main character gets what they seek? What’s at stake if they fail, for them personally, but also possibly their loved ones, and their community/world? And why should I care as a reader?

Goal, Motivation, Conflict: What is the character’s goal? Why do they NEED it? And what’s getting in their way? Every chapter should have it’s own GMC and should move the overall internal/external plot forward. Thankfully, I had several critique partners who hounded me about this 😀 Gotta love good CPs!

attack hug

Agency: What active role is the main character taking to achieve their goal, to resolve the internal/external conflict? What choices are they making that drive the plot forward and have serious consequences?

Backstory: This I got from Angela Ackerman’s Backstory Checklist.

Chapter One: I literally wrote at least a dozen different chapter ones for my most recent WIP. Finding a starting point was a challenge. Beyond that, it was hard find the balance of essential information/backstory with action, dialogue, and forward momentum.

airplane panic

Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but still it’s no easy task because chapter one is the foundation of your book, where you create the contract with your reader, set expectations about genre, voice, character, central conflict, hint at obstacles and antagonists, etc. I like to think of it as the seeds you plant that will grow into the rest of your story. Writing a good first chapter is an art.

IMG_6664(My back garden at dawn)

The Backstory and Chapter One post-its are directly tied to my next post-it, what can the reader find out later? One of my greatest struggles with chapter one was the complicated situation that set the stage for one of my POV character’s inciting incident. But how much was absolutely essential for the reader to know to get the gist of what was going on and to connect to the character? Asking what the reader can find out later helped me stay focused on writing the active scene as opposed to drowning them in all the stuff that set the stage, which could be dribbled in over the next few chapters.

Patience/take your time: waiting for critique feedback, taking revisions slow, putting the WIP through another round of feedback can be excruciating when you just want to be DONE. Or maybe you’re 99% certain you are done. But sculpting you WIP into the best it can be is what really matters in the end, whether your goal is to get an agent, or get it on submission, or prepare it for publication (self-publishing, Big Five, and everything in between).

Open mind: Getting critique partner feedback can be very hard. Good critique partners should always give you hard but constructive feedback that challenges you as a writer. I can’t count the times CPs have called me out on stuff I didn’t realize or ignored. There were so many times I just wanted to ignore hard feedback, rationalize it away, but then weeks or sometimes months later, I realized they were right. Of course, the caveat is that it must be true to your story, not what they think your story should be.

Nice vs. necessary: Word count was a big issue for me in this revision. I needed to cut at least 15,000 words. Hence nice vs. necessary. What scenes, characters, bits of dialogue and prose, lines, even words are absolutely necessary to move plot and character development forward? If it doesn’t fit into that category, cut it. A scene description might be pretty, a bit of dialogue funny, or a bit of prose may be lyrically inspiring, but if it’s not moving things forward, it’s not needed.

It’s not just what you think is the goal, the reader must feel it: You won’t be sitting next to a reader telling them, oh, Bob needs to figure out he’s worthy of love, or Susie needs to realize they can love their father and hate what he did. The reader needs to be able to infer that on their own. If multiple CPs aren’t picking up on it, then it’s not working.

Filter words/interiority reveals something new: This is also related to slashing word count. For more on filter words, here’s something from Pub(lishing) Crawl. And when your character is thinking something make sure it’s revealing new information or perspective, not just rehashing what’s already on the page.

These post-it notes were some of things that helped me emerge from this round of intense re-writes, revisions, and line edits feeling proud of what I sculpted.





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