Sarah J. Carlson

Contemporary Young Adult Author

Category Archives: Revising

Signing the publishing contract

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My mom has said on more than one occasion that when I put my mind to something, I make it happen. At the end of 7th grade, we moved from a suburb of Milwaukee to the rural town of Sparta, Wisconsin, population 9,000. I swore I’d move back to Milwaukee. I started my professional career as a school psychologist for the Milwaukee Public Schools. After I saw the movie Braveheart in like 6th grade, I swore I’d go to Scotland. I went twice; once, I even hiked to the ruins of the town my ancestors immigrated to Canada from on the Isle of Mull.

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Grazing sheep on the Isle of Mull, off the west coast of Scotland near the ruins of a town that people were forced from to make room for grazing sheep.

Before my husband and I moved to Singapore during the summer of 2013, I resolved to take a group of middle school students who had worked with me for a year in a community service club to Pine Ridge Reservation to volunteer. With the help of those students and many others, I managed to get the whole trip paid for at no expense to the students and navigate the bureaucracy of my school district to make it happen.

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Our autographed school t-shirt that went on the wall of Re-Member. Mitakuye Oyasin means “all [people/things] are related” in Lakota.

From a very young age, I loved making up elaborate worlds and stories in my imagination. I’d be running around in my back yard by myself, talking to entire casts of characters that existed only in my mind. I’d often rope my four younger siblings in, too. I first realized my love of writing those stories down in 4th grade when I was selected to go to a special writing convention for all the elementary schools in the area. All our short stories were printed and bound into a book. After that were many notebooks filled with stories inspired by Stephen King and Michael Creighton. Some of them are still in a box in my parent’s attic somewhere. After that was an elaborate sci-fi story I spent many hours researching Europa and methods of faster-than-light travel and star systems with habitable planets. I finally finished a draft at some point in college. It was 240,000 words. *cringe*

After I let someone look at it, then couldn’t pay them to read the whole thing, I knew I needed to learn more. So I took critique classes at UW-Madison, went to conferences, and got involved in more critique groups and read books. Wrote several more (and better) books that I queried without luck. About five years ago, after a trip to Belfast, Northern Ireland, I was inspired. I started researching and learning. Then, while sitting at an Irish pub in Madison, Wisconsin, I took the first primordial steps toward writing a book that is now called All the Walls of Belfast.

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Taken by me at a bonfire in Tiger’s Bay, Belfast on Bonfire Night (July 12th, 2011).

Then I moved to Singapore for my husband’s job, found more writer friends, and really, really got serious about writing. I got involved in the fabulous Singapore Writers Group within a week of getting off the plane and focused on developing my craft, critiquing others, and taking and applying constructive feedback, even when it was hard to hear. Researching, so much researching. And re-writing—and re-writing again—while riding busses and sitting in various coffee shops in Holland Village and Robertson Quay and Buona Vista.

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Writing on the MRT in Singapore.

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One of the many flat whites consumed at one of many coffee shops in Singapore.

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I found out about fabulous twitter-based writing contests such as Pitch Wars, Nightmare on Query Street, and #Pitchmas. other twitter pitching contests. Finally I landed an agent, Claire Anderson-Wheeler at Regal Hoffman & Associates, after she liked a tweet.

Then I moved back from Singapore and went back to work full-time as a school psychologist and had my daughter.

For the next three years, while balancing all that, I re-wrote parts of All the Walls at least twice, then basically fully re-wrote it again based on Claire’s developmental feedback and feedback from a plethora of critique partners. In the end, I’d say the whole thing ended up being re-written. Thankfully, Claire never stopped believing in Danny and Fiona and my abilities as a writer, but she challenged me over and over again to find the heart of my story and focus on that.

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Sampling of the many, MANY post-it notes that helped get me through.

It’s hard to quantify amount the support I’ve gotten over the years from Claire, and from fellow writers in Madison and Singapore and Belfast (also my far-flung crit buddies in Belgium, Turkey, and Cali), who have been essential in pushing All the Walls of Belfast to be more accurate, more authentic, more focused.

The past five years of working on this manuscript has felt like running a mentally (and sometimes physically) exhausting marathon with an ever-moving finish line. I’ve lost count of how many files I’ve naively saved with “final draft” tacked on the end.

But, like my mom has always said, when I put my mind to something, I never give up.

So, I still can’t believe I’m writing this, but….

Finally, in February 2018, the manuscript went on submission. I signed my contact with Turner Publishing (distributed by Ingram) on March 27th, 2018 while on a road trip to Colorado. After speaking with the acquisitions editor, I knew they were the perfect fit. They loved Fiona and Danny as much as I do and got All the Wall’s potential to expand the worldview of American readers and teach them something new.

I still can’t believe that soon I’ll be holding a copy of my book baby.

Persistence, perseverance, patience, and a lot (a LOT) of hard work really can make dreams come true.

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Picture taken on a three day hike on the Routeburn Track on the South Island of New Zealand. I *may* have come a few inches from falling off a cliff.

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It’s been a long road

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IMG_7330(My daughter at Devil’s Lake State Park)

It’s been a long road.

I’ve spent the last two years feeling like I’m running a marathon, nearing the finish line, only to have it moved farther and farther away. Of course, I’m only racing against myself. But feeling like I’m perpetually so close makes it hard to stop pushing . I started working on this novel in November of 2011, set it aside, then dug it up again after moving to Singapore in 2013. It’s been completely re-written several times, based on feedback from critique partners and my agent. On my computer, literally dozens of different saved versions exist. My document of “cut stuff” is twice as long as the manuscript itself.

It’s been daunting and frustrating at times. It seemed impossible. I wanted to give up, doubted my capacity as a writer. Doubted my ability to find my way through.

IMG_5297(My daughter hiking in the Canadian Rockies)

But my writer friends believed in me, which helped me believe in myself.

Now I’m thrilled to say, after filling entire notebooks with revision planning and brainstorming around feedback… After almost completely re-writing one of the two POV story lines (yet again)… After four rounds of feedback from both new and old critique partners, with comprehensive revisions in between… After seven months of late nights and very early mornings…. And lots and lots of this:

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(A flat white, my favorite coffee drink)

Now I can say that I’ve finally crossed the finish line for this shiny new version of my novel and sent it to my agent. I’ve been working on it so long now that I can’t objectively say if it’s ready to go on submission, but I am so proud of what it’s become.

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(My celebratory cupcake with ridiculous quantities of frosting)

How to (hopefully) cut 10,000 words

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I’ve finished the fourth draft of my WIP, Hooligans in Shining Armour. Fourth draft of the third version written over nearly three years, to be clear. And… I’m about 10,000 words over where I’d like to be.

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Yeah.

I’ve also been waging a war on the rather large gardens around my new house, which have been neglected the entire season because baby and work and writing. As I was yanking out another five-foot-tall thistle, it dawned on me. Kind of a perfect simile for my next editing adventure, the weed jungle hiding the beauty underneath. When I started weeding, I wasn’t even sure which were weeds. After some digging (and finding evidence of previously-chopped weeds), internet searching, and consulting with my neighbor, the master gardener, I feel fairly confident I’ve got it mostly figured out. Here’s a pre sample of my gardening adventure.

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So…cutting those 10,000 words. I have a multi-pronged plan of attack, as I did with weeding. I’m going to take a step back, be objective, and ask myself some hard questions. In the end, hopefully I’ll have a more focused, streamlined manuscript where every line has a purpose: to advance plot and/or characterization. It will likely require the killing of several darlings. The good news is, not only will weeding your WIP help with word count, it will help with oh-so-essential pacing as well. I usually look first for scenes and big picture things to cut, then go line by line.

Before I get to work on major WIP weeding, I always save a new version of the document and create another document to save everything I cut, in case I decide later that, yeah, it actually was necessary.

Here’s my plan. 

Step 1: Stop freaking out. It IS possible.

Step 2: THINK THROUGH the main plot and subplots. Ask yourself how subplots are progressing the main plot or driving essential character development. If they are not, consider cutting.  I created a color-coded diagram of both the main plots and subplots for both MCs. This helped me to distance myself and think objectively, as well as see new connections between plot and characters.  

Step 3: List out all the characters and their roles. Ask yourself, what role does each serve for the MC? Are there any characters that duplicate the same role and can be cut?

Step 4: With each scene, potentially with each paragraph, ask yourself, “is it nice or is it necessary?” I’m going to have to ask myself this a lot. I have plenty of scenes that brim with conflict or humor, or both. Are they nice to have and enjoyable for the reader? Probably. But are they serving a unique, essential role in progressing the main plot and/or character development? Are there other scenes that get the same job done? If the answer is yes, then it is just nice to have, not necessary. Start cutting.

Step 5: Now start from the top. Go line by line. Does the reader need all the setting descriptions to picture the scene? Do they need all the body language? Dialogue tags? Or is some of it just nice to have. In dialogue, every line should advance plot or character. If it doesn’t, it’s just nice to have. Cut it. Look for places where you can write more succinctly. Trim the fat. Pull the weeds. Cut any line, any word, that is not essential to establishing new setting, advancing plot or developing character. It’s amazing how much this adds up. Cutting even one hundred words per chapter will add up to thousands.

Step 6: Admire all your hard work, then take some time away from it. Read through your MS again to make sure it still flows and makes sense. Personally, I try to get this read through done relatively quickly to ensure everything flows and connects, which I can lose a sense of if it’s spread out over too many days or sittings.

Step 7: Send to your beta readers.

Oh, and here’s my garden post picture.

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Wish me luck and objectivity! Happy writing.