Sarah J. Carlson

Contemporary Young Adult Author

Tag Archives: creativity

All the Walls of Belfast Novel Aesthetic


All the WallsI’m in between writing projects at the moment, so I took some time to play around with creating my very first novel aesthetic for All the Walls of Belfast. Most of the pictures are my own, but the others I obtained from Shutterstock and Pixabay. So excited about it!

Drawing inspiration from adventure


I’ve been busy updating my website. My biggest project: creating new photo pages documenting my journeys in Belfast and around Northern Ireland as a part of my research for All the Walls of Belfast, my YA novel. My first trip was in July 2011. I returned in July 2015, and then a third time in June 2016 (incidentally the day of the Brexit vote). These trips gave me the priceless opportunity to delve deep into the past, current events, differing perspectives, culture, dialect, and setting. Feel free to take a look 🙂

Turning my writing brain back on


I’m just going to admit it. I haven’t done any sort of writing for a month. October was so busy with work and weddings and my daughter’s birthday and all the lovely Fall things that I didn’t even think about writing.


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But, to be honest, it’s been rejuvenating. With one of my WIPs, I’ve felt like I’ve been running a marathon with no finish line for about five years. It’s been in a perpetual state of me thinking it’s almost done, only to discover some major issue, triggering major (if not almost entire) rewrites. This WIP is particularly complicated for many reasons, but now–for real–it’s with my agent.

In September, I dabbled with a few other WIPs, but none of them grabbed me at the time.

But after a month off, I feel like my creativity wells have been replenished. I’m ready. And I’ve figured out why one of my WIPs wasn’t working, even though–for once–I have a fairly strong plot from the get-go. The problem is I’m not connected to one of the main characters. I can’t feel her voice. I don’t feel her inner conflict. II don’t know who she is as a unique (imaginary) human being. I don’t know her core beliefs and fears or her moral compass. She isn’t real to me yet, therefore I can’t care enough to write her. I need to discover her. Once I do that, I know this WIP will carry me away, because I love the setting, concept, theme, and other main character.

Here’s my plan to kick start my writing brain again.

I’ve got my playlist, my personal soundtrack for the book, ready to go.

I’ve started a new Pinterest board with quotes that inspire my MC (and me) as well as images that inspire the setting and scene.

And I’m delving back into a few writing resources that challenged me to become a better writer a few years ago to get me into my character’s head.

I’m excited to finally write again 🙂

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.





It’s been a long road


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:


(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)