Sarah J. Carlson

Contemporary Young Adult Author

Tag Archives: #WriteMentor

The Beastly Synopsis


Oh, the synopsis. The beastly synopsis. And it seems like everyone wants something different. One page or two?
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Just like the dreaded query letter, there are many resources out there with explicit guidelines on how to write it (I put the links at the end), so I won’t rehash it here. I’m going to give you my two cents, based on my own experiences, research, and reading many through #WriteMentor, for whatever it’s worth.

The query letter is all business. The synopsis is similarly not glamorous. It’s one and only job is to show the entire story arc, boiled down to its essence, so an agent or editor sees characters and the plot and, very important, what makes your story unique. Just tell the story, and show us through the action and plot why we should care about your characters and why the story needs to be told.

For me, like the query, it’s always been a painful, yet incredibly useful exercise. Writing the synopsis forces me to find and succinctly show the very heart and soul of my story. Sometimes having to boil your story down to a synopsis reveals plot holes or contrived plot devices. It forces you to lay out what’s at stake and how your MC’s choices are driving the story (or not…eek).

The synopsis is really just a summary of who and what changes in the book, from beginning to end.  It’s job: to show the characters and their actions that drive the plot forward in reaction to the antagonist’s actions, and how it impacts them physically and emotionally and changes their central relationships.

The biggest thing is to focus on your main character’s AGENCY. Show the reader how their choices (both good and bad) in response to the antagonist are propelling the plot forward all the way to the inevitable end. Every line in the synopsis should be causally connected and building on the last, showing the plot thickening due to the character’s choices. And it must show the entire narrative arc, including the ending.

We want to connect to your characters, to care about them, and this is done in part through building a strong sense of internal and external conflict. If we can’t feel the tension in the synopsis, what does that say about the book? Here’s a great bit of advice from Jane Friedman, who knows the art of everything writing a thousand times better than me:

“Incident (Story Advancement) + Reaction (Feelings/Emotion) = Decision (Story Advancement)”

Do this over and over again for each obstacle the main character faces.

You can read the rest of her advice on synopsis writing here.

You don’t need to name every character or detail every subplot, especially if you have multiple POVs or complex things going on, or it becomes confusing, convoluted, and incoherent. Show us the main character’s choices in response to the obstacles being thrown out there by the antagonist, the consequences of those choices (physical, emotional, relational), which lead to the next choice they have to make. Show us how the choices change the relationships between important characters, as this is at the heart of tension, and internal and external conflict. Show us the evolution of the important relationships as the plot progresses.

Each sentence should show the internal and external  plot thickening due to the character’s choices and agency.

A few more tips:

  • Use active voice, third person, and present tense.
  • Be succinct. Less is more.
  • Don’t offer your interpretations as an author, saying things like “the story begins with…” or “then we learn.” Just show us the story.

Just like the query letter, have members of your writing tribe tear apart your synopsis. Their fresh eyes will see things yours don’t. Have people unfamiliar with your story read it as well, to see if you synopsis makes sense and flows with no context. And critique others’ synopses, as this will help you learn what works and doesn’t, and hopefully apply it to your own.

Here’s a few more resources:

Learn How to Write a Synopsis Like a Pro

How to Write a Synopsis

How to Write a 1 Page Synopsis

The Anatomy of a Short Synopsis

On my end, All the Walls of Belfast is now on Good Reads! Check it out, and if you’re interested, add it to your “Want to Read” list. Cover reveal with teaser trailer coming SOON!

Next week, the topic will be those critical first pages. Happy writing!

Memorial Day Weekend R & R, AKA a break from writing


We planned a last minute escape to Door County, Wisconsin for the long weekend. I forced myself to take a much-needed break from planning a possible book trailer for my debut novel, All the Walls of Belfast, and preparing feedback for both my future #WriteMentor mentee and also all the people who trusted me with their submissions. Here’s a few of my favorite pictures 🙂

Feeling refreshed and ready to work.


Writer’s Retreat Up North


This weekend, I had the privilege of attending a writer’s retreat up in the North Woods of Wisconsin. It may be the first weekend of May, but when we first arrived, the lake was still partially frozen. Happy spring, love Wisconsin.

Last year, after I came home, my husband asked, “What did you do the whole time?” There are no learning sessions or scheduled activities beyond meals. It is just writing. For like three days. So my response: “wrote like a crazy person for like 14 hours a day.” And I think he did think I was a little crazy. Or maybe more than a little, lol. But it was amazing. I mean, call it what you want–being in the zone, writer’s high, whatever–but being away from home, surrounded by other like minded, like devoted people, freed my brain and it was absolutely amazing. I’ve spent this entire year just WAITING for the next one.

This year, I didn’t have something I NEEDED to work on. All the Walls of Belfast is currently untouchable, and I recently sent another WIP to my agent. None of my other projects have been calling to me either. But cue #WriteMentor! A new twitter-based writing contest to hook unagented authors up with mentors who are agented/published. The past few years, with my super busy life, I’ve been missing the camaraderie of a solid Twitter writing community. So I signed up to be a mentor a few weeks ago and this Friday, the submission window opened. Perfect timing. At the writer’s retreat, I had the unique opportunity to devote all my brain power to reading entries and prepping feedback. And I could pick the brains of fellow writers around issues like how debut novels pitched as trilogies are fairing in the market place. Writer’s retreats are also a great place to build new writer connections. Only small hiccup, my laptop decided to spontaneously die on the first full day.

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And it was an hour and a half drive one way to a Best Buy to get a new one. #writerproblems

All’s well that ends well though, and I managed to get through all of my submissions, make new writer friends, and interrogate a published author on the finer points of tax deductions, making audio books, and marketing.

I highly recommend writer’s retreats to any writer, no matter where you are in your writing journey 🙂

#WriteMentor Wishlist


Hey, so I’m a mentor in #WriteMentor, a new opportunity for querying writers to get hooked up with agented or published author mentors.

If you’re a mentee hopeful, you may have seen my Mentor Bio on the website, but here’s a little more intel.

About me:

The eldest of five children, I was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania. I spent the first few years of my life in dying coal mining towns in the Pocono Mountains. My father’s career as a Methodist minister took us to Wisconsin, where I spent the rest of my childhood growing up in places ranging from unincorporated towns of four hundred to the suburbs of Milwaukee. I obtained a Bachelor of Science in Psychology, a Master’s of Science in Education, and an Education Specialist Degree in School Psychology. Currently, I live outside Madison, Wisconsin with my husband and young daughter. I work as a school psychologist in an elementary school with a diverse, mostly low income population; I have also worked in middle schools. My professional areas of focus include supporting the success of children with behavioral and mental health needs and helping to promote resilience in children who have been exposed to trauma or toxic stress.

I had the opportunity to live in Singapore for a year and a half and focus on my writing. There, I made writer friends from around the world. I also had the unique chance to be enmeshed in cultures different from my own.


Additionally, I’ve been lucky to travel to seventeen countries on four continents. I like adventures.


Feel free to check out my upcoming YA Contemporary novel All the Walls of Belfast (March 2019, Turner Publishing).

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My Wish List:

Number 1 Favorite: Contemporary YA

As a school psychologist, I love reading and writing YA that deals with the realities many teens face. I love well-researched stories that explore complex social and mental health issues in an empathic way. I do NOT want anything that glorifies, or could be construed as glorifying, suicide, self-injurious behavior, teen pregnancy, substance use, or eating disorders. I’m not necessarily looking for an “issue” book, but rather gritty YA contemporaries that show teens fighting to rise above external and internal conflict difficult situations through their own resilience. I want characters struggling with internal and external conflict, being forced into making impossible choices with real consequences that they suffer because of their own bad choices. I enjoy characters I grow to love who then make wrong choices that make me want to throw the book across the room. I’m also a fan of redemption and coming-of-age stories.


I’m eager for stories that feature deep, authentic, conflict-ridden relationships between characters (whether romantic, friendship, or family) that drives the plot. I particularly enjoy stories where the secondary characters are well-developed and complex. As a school psychologist, I also like seeing adults in the character’s life taking on the mentor role, whether it’s a teacher, family member, or rando person, because having one positive adult relationship is one of the best ways to promote resilience in youth who are struggling.

I love to travel and learn about other cultures and sub-cultures. As such, I enjoy reads that open my eyes to people coming from backgrounds different from my own.


Other interests:

I’d be open to character-driven Historical YA that features deep, conflict-ridden relationships, especially if it shows me cultures and places I’ve never been. I also would be open to light Magical Realism with strong character development.

MG, Fantasy (especially High Fantasy), and Sci-Fi aren’t really my area of expertise, so there are other mentors out there who might be a better fit.

What I’m looking for in a mentee:

I would like to partner with someone with an open mind and a query-ready manuscript who knows the heart of their story and is willing to work hard. I will say, for personal reasons, the sooner I can get the manuscript after you’re selected, the better, please.

What you can expect from me as a mentor:

Full manuscript developmental edit report (1 read through and report).I’m also more than happy to answer any questions and provide advice around querying and what comes after.

In terms of feedback, I’m…um…thorough and honest, let’s just say, because getting hard, constructive feedback and using it is really what has pushed me to be the writer I am today. Be prepared for long developmental edit letters or lots of comments, with suggestions on what you can do. I won’t re-write things for you, and I may not give ideas for fixing everything, because I don’t want to change your voice or your story. I’ll also point out what’s working and make suggestions things that aren’t based on what I see as your strengths as a writer. After you get the letter, I’m happy to bounce ideas back and forth and help you come up with a plan moving forward. This is the process my agent and I went through more than once!

I feel one of my strengths is developing characters that feel real and creating authentic internal conflict that drives and is driven by plot, and then using that internal conflict to create dynamic relationships with other characters, which then can drive the plot.

I’m open to different means of communication, ranging from email to potentially Skype, though that would take some careful planning.

If you have more questions, feel free to connect with me on Twitter. So, so excited to see your manuscripts!


Had to throw one GIF in there 😛