Sarah J. Carlson

Contemporary Young Adult Author

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A Labor Day weekend free of writing 


My family went up to a cottage in St. Germain, Wisconsin, and for the first time in months I didn’t do anything writing related for three whole days. Didn’t open my laptop once, even on a rainy day. So refreshing ☺️

Now I’m excited to get back at it.

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.





A quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.



Happy 2015 from Singapore!!



Sacred beings and Mitakuye Oyasin: Lessons I learned on a service trip to Pine Ridge


blog pic….that the entire United States needs to have implanted in our collective brain.

Two summers ago, I took a group of students of color on a service learning trip to Pine Ridge Reservation. I call them my students, don’t mind me. My students spent an entire year fundraising (baking, poetry slamming, selling brats, writing letters) and engaging in learning activities in addition to all their homework AND over the summer. We were all so excited when it was time to go.

The trip was life-changing for the kids, but also for myself and my fellow chaperones. Click here to see pictures. My students worked incredibly hard under the scorching South Dakota summer sun: built bunk beds and outhouses, skirted a trailer, and helped roof a house. My students learned a lot about the history of the Oglala Lakota and of the terrible things done to them by our government. They faced extreme poverty with big hearts and open minds. Each student learned something new about themselves. To speak their mind, recognize their own strengths, say no, take risks and try new things, challenge themselves, and that, even when things seem so hopeless, they can make a difference.

On our last day, my co-chaperone told me that the teachers back home would NEVER believe what our kids had done and how hard they worked and learned. My students amazed me while we were there, and I’d been working with them all year to get them ready.

I learned a lot, too. When I first started consulting with the volunteer center about bringing my students, one of the staff shared that they’d had some bad experiences with kids from inner city Milwaukee–as though that suggested anything about what to expect from my students. We were also referred to as “inner city kids” by the staff while we were there at least once—we are from Madison, there is no inner city. I saw firsthand how my students were stared as we loaded on the plane, as we walked into the volunteer center and were the only group that wasn’t white. I watched white kids touching my students’ hair and asking them about rap and if they were from the ghetto (out of well-intentioned curiosity). During our learning sessions with staff at the center, there was a lot of talk about white privilege, which is something my kids are well, WELL aware of. I could sense discomfort from the other groups that this discussion was happening with a group of students who don’t have that privilege.

On the second day, one of the other adults (who I was later told was a bit eccentric) snapped on some of my students for no reason other than they were sitting outside talking and laughing during a break time; I can’t remember exactly what she said, but it included a racially-charged word. My students were upset and I was pissed, but they didn’t want me to talk to the lady. They said it wasn’t that big of a deal—because they were so used to it.

During one particularly long and (yes, I’ll say it) weird and boring lecture, two of my students were whispering. A lot of white kids were doing it, too. The speaker blatantly targeted one of my boys, yelled at and embarrassed him. It was so bad that a number of kids and adults from other groups came up and apologized to him later. The boy’s response…he kind of said he deserved it for talking.

After that, I had to have a talk with my students and say, I don’t care what the rest of the kids are doing, you will be better. And they were. My students never grumbled about having to work all day then have learning sessions THEN have small group discussions and journaling time. Because my students were there to learn and help. My students learned they could use power tools (better than me), conquer their fear of heights to roof a house, open up to people they’ve been in classes with for three years but barely know, and to be proud of themselves. They learned that terrible injustice still exists, but they can make a difference.

diffuse 3A few random favorite quotes from this trip:

Girl: “I wish I had a power saw at home. Then I could make anything!”

Boy: “This trip has really been life-changing…there is no number of times I would say thank you if I did it would go on forever and ever and ever. I’ll miss you and have fun in that foreign place of yours.” (i.e. Singapore, haha)


I’ve been to fifteen countries, climbed over mountains, witnessed sectarianism alive and well, gone to the ruined village from whence my ancestors immigrated to Canada, toured ancient temples, swam in many oceans, walked with elephants. But this service learning trip to Pine Ridge, South Dakota was probably the best experience of my life, because of those students.

Wow, do I miss those kids. And all the dozens and hundreds of other kids I’ve helped through nightmares and pushed toward dreams over the past six years, most of whom were African American.

And as I sit here thinking about Travon Martin and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, all I can think is, what if it were one of my students that was in the wrong place at the wrong time and got killed by police due to what started as a misunderstanding? Or one of their parents? Like Rumain Brisbon and Eric Garner. What Facebook images would be flashed on the TV screen? What tiny mistake would be touted to smear their character so we can reduce our cognitive dissonance over an unarmed human being killed?

But then I remind myself it doesn’t matter if it happens to “my” students. The fact that young black men are 21 times more likely than whites to be shot dead by a police officer is a national travesty.

Back to the Rez…

p1070911One particularly powerful guest speaker, a Lakota high school teacher, told us a few things that stick with me to this day.

Two important aspects of the Lakota belief system are Turtle Island (the Earth) and the medicine wheel, which incorporates the colors red, white, black, and yellow. To the Lakota, it symbolizes that we are all one, no matter the color of our skin. We are all brothers and sisters traveling together on Turtle Island. We shouldn’t be colorblind, we should celebrate our differences.

p1080210Mitakuye Oyasin: we are all related.

The most powerful thing this speaker said: the Lakota word for child literally means sacred being. What if our society thought of all children this way?