Sarah J. Carlson

Contemporary Young Adult Author

Tag Archives: PitchWars

One of the many, many (did I say many?) lessons I’ve learned by writing a lot: Over-explanation and KISS


kissbandNo, not that KISS…

I pretty much never post on the craft of writing. I’m no expert by any means, but over the past few days, I’ve been doing a lot of critiques for fellow writers on #writeoncon and #pitchwars. I’ve noticed a trend: over-explanation. Now I’m not referring to a J.R.R. Tolkien-esque, two-page description of setting, because obviously there are plenty of places for that, like Lord of the Rings or probably Game of Thrones (which I couldn’t get my YA brain to read, not going to lie).

lotrI’m talking about explaining something in several sentences, in slightly different ways, when really the point could be made with one example and one sentence. I think this is usually done to drive an important point home, but over-explanation just waters down.

I’ve picked a terrifying example from my first attempt at writing a novel. I started it at 17 and worked on it for a decade before I finally just set it aside. You must promise PROMISE not to judge. Check out this nugget of gold from my very first page…


Ari walked across the small, cramped room that was the Douglas-Mac­Clan­nough family living space, her Companion tucked under her arm. She joined the rest of her family at the table for breakfast and set Max on her lap; she couldn’t forget to bring it to school again or her instruction autom might fry her. Her father glanced up from rocking her baby brother, Ryan, his eyebrows furrowed in feigned annoyance,

“We’ve been waiting for you for five minutes now,” he stated, doing his best to sound stern as he tenderly cradled Ryan in his arms.

“Sorry,” she muttered distantly as she stared drearily at the cold silvery tabletop her stomach weighed down with leaden worry. “I didn’t sleep well last night. Besides, breakfast isn’t here yet anyway.” She shrugged flatly. It was a lame excuse on her part, but it was true. After all, it was kind of hard for a girl to sleep knowing that it was her last night in her own bed with her family only a few feet away—when in a mere twenty-three Earth hours, she would be on a journey that would take her nearly four hundred million miles away. Her eyes fell to her lap, to her white-knuckled, clenched fists. Fear rumbled around in her stomach again, making her whole body feel weak and numb. Butterflies were what most people would call them, and Ari would too—if she had known what they were, that was. Ari swallowed, trying to force the burning sensation in her throat to go away. She wasn’t ready to leave her mom and dad! To leave the only place she’d ever known….

Her older brother David, being his stupid and immature self as usual, snickered. “True dat! I think we best be filin’ a complaint to the administrator’s office ‘bout how the food management and distribution units always be late when they deliver, the food’s always cold, and man, the taste! Whew! What’s this stuff jeebin’ on? I mean, I know it ain’t organic, but can’t they at least make an effort to make it taste real, or taste like anything at all for that matter? It’s crap!” He ranted, throwing in an English word to spice it up. At least his whining would get their dad off her case. “What is—”



THE-MORTIFIED-PUNTER1OH MY GOD!!! Could you even get through all that? I bet you skimmed 😛  I had to force myself to actually read it. So many adverbs!!! So much body-part directing. And an exclamation point in narration? Not only did I over-explain, my over-explanation interrupted dialogue. That explains why that document has…wait for it…227,000 words!!!scared1My analogy: it’s like writing with a dull pencil versus a sharp (COPYRIGHT). You can read what was written by a dull pencil, but it’s not as clear or as neat. Sharp pencil is better; it’s clean and to the point. No need to say: Her eyes fell to her lap, to her white-knuckled, clenched fists. Fear rumbled around in her stomach again, making her whole body feel weak and numb. Butterflies were what most people would call them, and Ari would too—if she had known what they were, that was. Just say: her stomach churned or something. Pick the one sentence or example that expresses it best and use that. KISS: Keep It Simple Silly (I’ll never call my writer friends stupid). Not only does it make it more clear, it can make what you’re trying to say more powerful. It’ll jump off the page.

Here is my quick and dirty re-write:


Ari joined her family at the table. She set Max, her Companion on her lap. If she forgot it again, the instructor autom might fry her.

“We’ve been waiting for you for five minutes,” Dad said as he rocked baby Ryan, forced sternness in his voice.

“Sorry,” Ari muttered as she stared at the dent in the metal tabletop. “Breakfast hasn’t been delivered yet anyway.”

“Do you have butterflies again?” Mom asked.

Ari rolled her eyes. What were butterflies anyway? “I’m fine,” she lied.

It was hard to sleep knowing that, in a mere twenty-three Earth hours, she’d be on a ship headed four hundred million kilometers from home.

“I think we should file a complaint with Colony Admin,” David, her older brother, snorted. “Food Dist is always late, the food’s cold, and they don’t even try to make it taste real. It’s crap!” He threw in an English word to spice it up.


This re-write gets all the jobs done of the original: reveals genre, introduces the characters, establishes they live in a colony that doesn’t have butterflies, shows English isn’t the main language, and hints at Ari’s inciting incident and how she feels about it. I also think the fact that she doesn’t know what butterflies are/is going millions of miles away strikes the reader more because those sentences aren’t buried in crap. When you throw in the English thing, the reader can piece together that she’s a human but not living on Earth. I don’t come out and TELL the reader that on purpose, I SHOW them with clues and let them reach that conclusion on their own while leaving them curious as to why and where she does live so they’ll keep reading.

So that rough re-write: 153 words. Original: 385 words. If that’s a representative sample for the rest of my novel, I could easily half if and get it to a still-not-reasonable length. Pop over to my last post to see what helped me get to where I am today with my writing.

That was actually pretty fun to do. Maybe I’ll go back to that story someday.

Anyway… Sharpen those pencils and KISS, writer friends!

To read my most recent, much, much better (I swear!) work, click here.

What’s one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned about the craft of writing since you wrote that first page of your first novel?

Hey there Young Adult writer friends (or anyone really)… Would you do high school again if given the chance?


HATE-HS-GIF(Okay I didn’t feel THAT strongly about high school, but…)

Writing YA brings back so many…memories of high school. I’m getting back into the swing of  writing after my two month Southeast Asian travel extravaganza. After finishing up my novel set in Belfast, I’ve decided stick close to home for my new one. And by close to home, I mean exactly home. Rafa and Rose (title tentative) is set in my hometown and at my high school. I’m super-excited about it. First because I’ve been living in Singapore for the past year and I’m missing all things Wisconsin. Second because it gives me a chance to unpack and remember that part of my life in rural Wisconsin–setting, culture, and personal experiences. Not going to lie, I wish I would have thought to bring my yearbooks to Singapore haha.

38-tragically-awkward-prom-photos1.jpg.pagespeed.ce.eYRUu6KBWeSo for this novel, instead of spending hours and days and weeks and months researching setting, dialect, history, culture, etc., I’m delving into my own brain. It’s an interesting psychological journey, traveling back to a place and people that I’ve left far, far, far behind. And not always pleasant. My fellow YA writers, I’m sure you also tap your own memories of experiences and emotions from that part of your lives, too.

high school 1All this has got me thinking…. If given the chance, would I subject myself to high school again? The peer pressure, paranoia, fear of rejection, lovesickness, anxiety over grades and ACTs and college admissions, the drama, self-consciousness, cliquiness. It’s such a strange microcosm of existence. And then biologically, if you look at what’s going in your brain with hormones and frontal lobe development and emotions.

hs doesnt matter(Doesn’t feel like it at the time, does it? Everything matters, is life or death :P)

On top of that, the American “high school experience” is glamorized, sensationalized, dramatized so much in the media; it  sets these expectations of what it should be like. Just a recipe for disaster.

I wouldn’t do it again as the person I was then. If I had the confidence and extroversion I’ve sprouted since college, then I probably would be game. Lots of things I would have done differently.

Anyway next time I’m back in the good ol’ USA, I think I’ll swing by my high school hometown.

What about you? Would you do high school over again? What might you do differently?

If you write YA, how do you harness your experiences growing up when you write?

Non-writers just don’t understand: How many different ways can I possibly show a character smile?


sighOkay, so for the record, I only used “sigh” 26 times so that meme is a hyperbole (my fancy word for the day). Anyway, I entered Hooligans in Shining Armour into writing competition called “Pitch Wars”. You submit your query and first chapter to four mentors. Mentors each pick one manuscript and help the writer whip it into shape to submit to an agent round in November.

I’m brushing up my manuscript. One of the things I like to do is search words and phrases to make sure I’m not being too repetitive: sigh, smile, grin, rolled my eyes, pissed up, icy fingers, etc. All writers have words or phrases that they slip into using too frequently. I’m trying to spot mine find more interesting ways to express them. In this MS, a lot of them are related to describing either emotion or drinking (lol, my hooligans drink A LOT). My novel’s written in first person. I’ve been working hard on using body language to show emotion of non-POV characters, rather than labeling the emotion or using sadly. I’m also trying word dialogue to imply tone, and use tone to show emotion.

Here’s the phrase I’m sprucing up now: She pursed her lips and sighed. “If your dad was arrested…” The character is feeling torn. She wants to help Fiona but she legally can’t, and she doesn’t want Fiona to take it into her own hands. It actually doesn’t sound too bad, except I’m watching how often I use the word “sigh”. Also she just pursed her lips and now she’s talking.

Here’s my #1 contender for spruced-up version: She pressed her fingers to her forehead. Her fingernails had been painted nude. “Fiona, if your Dad was arrested…”

That took me at least ten minutes come up with. I’m still mulling over “Her fingernails had been painted nude.” It feels a bit passive to me. Amazing how many tiny things go in to sculpting a novel.

you dont even knowOne way I get inspiration for non-verbals is through reading. I write down good ones I find. Obviously, I don’t copy them, but they give me a starting place. I also use the power of the internet and pin good resources so I don’t lose them. Check out my Craft of Writing board!

Have you ever tried searching words in your WIP to check repetition? What word or phrase do you overuse?

#PitchWars 2014: My Mentee Bio (or just a way to learn random stuff about me)


I’d never heard of Pitch Wars two weeks ago. I happened by another writer’s blog discussing it and was like, hmmm… two weeks is plenty of time to whip my novel and query letter and synopsis into shape (see my adjectives below). One of the best parts so far has been meeting fellow Pitch War mentees and critiquing one anothers’ submission material. Love fellow writers ❤

Tiny blurb about my novel.… Hooligans in Shining Armour is an 82,000-word Young Adult contemporary that brings the love story of If I Stay into a cultural battlefield, a Northern Irish version of Sharon M. Draper’s Romiette and Julio. So Romeo and Juliet with a dash of sectarianism.  Feel free to tweet or email me. Always a pleasure to talk about my hooligans.

hooligans cover

What are your hobbies and interests? 

Writing, obviously. So, back story, I’ve been living in Singapore for the past year (crazy it’s been that long!) for my husband’s job. I’m working a small amount, so I’ve kind of become a full-time, unpaid writer :P. This year, I wrote Hooligans. I’d been toying around with the idea since my trip to Northern Ireland in 2011. I went to one writer’s group in Singapore (the amazing Singapore Writer’s Group) and then haven’t stopped working on it since! I’m also a co-organizer for the 500+ member Singapore Writer’s Group. I’ve met so many amazing writers through this group and they have helped revolutionize my writing

Other than that…. Taking advantage of the strategic location of Singapore and traveling as much as possible. While embarking on said adventures, I’ve been taking millions of pictures. I’ve also started actively editing my pictures. Lately I’ve really been into capturing people in their daily lives as well as doors/corridors/columns (it’s not as random as it sounds, I swear). I think it’s the lines make interesting composition or something. Phhhh listen to me talking like I know photography jargon. I also occasionally dabble in oil painting. Here are two examples of my closed-rectangular obsession below taken at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.


And some portraits I really like from Cambodia and Vietnam

Bike ride near the rice paddiesCaught this little boy floating.Chasing the cows

I also enjoy running, even in the ridiculous heat and humidity of Singapore.

10264176_10154015699080153_5996446754965199627_oI’m the one in the front 😀

Being a token Yank over here in Singapore has heightened my interested in the NFL. (side note: haven’t met many Americans here and hang out mostly with Brits, hence the token-ness). I feel the need to embrace my Wisconsin culture! And yes, Americans, we do have unique cultures, which I didn’t really realize before I moved across the world. I sometimes blog on being the token Yank. Follow me if you’re interested in reading about me calling trousers pants and giving my friends a good laugh….

328191_802575316205_743762526_o…Guess what my favorite team is? My Dad is from Green Bay and I am from Wisconsin, so….

Finally…and a BIG finally… music. Absolutely need to breathe. Okay, well maybe that’s an exaggeration, but seriously, I must have music on at all times: when doing dishes, walking to the store, riding the bus, writing, sometimes even trying to fall asleep. I create playlist soundtracks for all my novels. Recently I’ve really been enjoying the Singer/Songwriter iTunes radio station, which kind of surprised me. I’m generally more of an Alternative, Hard Rock, Hip-Hop, with a dash of Celtic music kind of girl. Oh and I did play the clarinet in high school so…there’s that I guess. My favorite song right now is “Walking Lightly” by Junip (a Singer/Songwriter discovery).

Do you have any pets?

Yes, two amazing dogs that we imported with us all the way from the United States! That’s true love (and thousands of dollars…seriously).

photo (3)photo-1 (4)

Toby (Australian Terrier)                          Ailie (Cairn Terrier)

And no I don’t normally dress my dogs up. It’s just too funny-looking NOT to post.

Do you have any special talents? Tell us!

Not to get all sappy and serious, but perhaps this is a special talent. Back home in good old Madison, Wisconsin, I work as a school psychologist. This is related to what I think is my special talent. I can build a relationship with pretty much any kid. HOLD ON! In a professional setting! I’ve worked with hundreds of kids and teenagers from at least twenty racial/ethnic backgrounds and the gambit of social strata (except maybe the 1%). That’s why I love writing…wait for it…YA!!! I get kids and teens. And I absolutely love working with them.

List 3 adjectives that would surprise people about you: 

Introverted. My friends don’t believe me, but it’s true. My extroversion is a learned skill and I definitely get “peopled out” and need to go hide for a while .

Manic. Just a bit. On occasion. Like write 16 hours a day. Perhaps a few days in a row. Like recently lol.

that stuffs amazingDetermined (to the point of obsession on occasion). When I put my mind to something, it will get done, whether it’s obtaining  funding a student service trip to South Dakota or finishing a revision by a self-imposed deadline. My mom sometimes jokes about this personality trait of mine. In 8th grade, we moved from Milwaukee, WI to Sparta WI. Between door slams and blasting Smashing Pumpkins, I swore I’d move back, and that’s where I took my first job as a School Psychologist. In 6th grade I saw the movie Braveheart and fell in love with Scotland. I immediately started watching travel videos and reading all about Scotland. Now I’ve been. Twice. And my current novel? Months and months of research on current events, history, setting, culture, dialect. Hunting down people in Belfast to read it. Hiring a Belfast development editor to read for dialect and culture. At least fifteen critiques by Yanks and Brits. It’s been an epic quest finishing it, but now that it’s pretty much done, I’m so proud of it. All the stress and panic and doubt and, yes, tears have been worth it.

The-OfficeThis pretty much sums up how I feel about it! I’m off to my condo elevator 😛

Do you have any tattoos? If yes, what are they? And where are they located on your body?

Nope. A) I hate pain. B) I have commitment issues 😛 No seriously I cannot imagine anything that I know I would still want on my body in thirty years.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

I’m incredibly proud of Hooligans. I’ve been writing since I was 12. I have like four novels hidden away in a secret file on my laptop. One’s over 200,000 words long! Eek! I’ve learned A LOT since then. Okay, if any mentors see this, don’t judge. Hooligans is only 82,000, I swear!

In terms of my the rest of my life, I’m proud all the work I’ve done as a school psychologist for the past six years and cannot wait to get back to the United States to continue. Related to that, I’m pretty proud that my husband and I were brave enough to completely uproot our lives and move across the world. That’s not exactly an accomplishment, but it was a scary decision and sometimes we still wonder if it was totally insane to do. Moving to Singapore has definitely changed my entire outlook on life. I cannot even quantify what I’ve learned about the world and myself as a result. It’s also made me a better writer.



I will say there are times when I can’t wait to get back to this though…

557168_10100111065895585_2043205287_nAnd that’s my story. Or one small part of it.

If you’ve reached the end of this post you MUST post some random fact about yourself. The most random. If you don’t, I’ll know! Okay, no I won’t but maybe karma will get you 😛