Sarah J. Carlson

Contemporary Young Adult Author

Tag Archives: Young Adult Writers

Derry Girls: A guide for Americans

derry_girls_ep2f_-_publicity_-_h_2018Image courtesy of Netflix

“Whatever you do, don’t slag off the Pope. We’re outnumbered!”

This line comes from an episode of Derry Girls. You may have noticed it trending on Netflix lately. Originally on Channel 4 in the U.K., “Derry Girls” follows the hilarious antics of five awkward and often misguided teens as they try to navigate the universal struggles of teen-dom. But against the not-so-universal backdrop of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Snappy one liners juxtaposed with armed sectarian conflict. All set to an amazing soundtrack of all your early nineties favorites.

One of the things that struck me during the years I spent researching for my debut Young Adult novel All the Walls of Belfast, set in post-Troubles Belfast, and Derry Girls is the tribalistic concept of identity and how it divides. Clive, the wee Protestant from East Belfast surrounded by Catholics, captures a deep-rooted them-versus-us fear well in that snappy bit of dialogue as he warns a suspected fellow Protestant against busting out the Protestant joke book.

Think the growing division in the United States between Democrats and Republicans, but to a whole new level; imagine physical walls between Democrat and Republican neighborhoods. And add in thirty years of sectarian bloodshed and hundreds of years of systematic oppression and violence by one group against the other.

The Troubles was not about religious beliefs. It was about history and ethnic/cultural identity. In the early 1600s , the King of England used Protestant Scottish and English people loyal to the Crown to colonize what is now Northern Ireland. He gave them lands belonging to local Irish Catholics resisting the Crown. Boiled down simply and speaking generally, Protestants see themselves as British and Loyalist or Unionist and wish for Northern Ireland to stay in the United Kingdom. Catholics see themselves as Irish and Republican (no affiliation to American Republicans) or Nationalist and are more likely to want a united Ireland free of British rule. In Northern Ireland today, the main political parties are still Unionist (Protestant affiliated) or Republican (Catholic affiliated).

The Troubles lasted from 1968 until 1998. Over 3600 people were killed and many more were injured. It began during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, after attempts at peaceful protest demanding equal rights for Catholics (“one man, one vote,” protection from job discrimination, access to equal resources such as quality housing) were met with violence on behalf of the British government and the mostly Protestant police force. At first, most of the violence on the Catholic side was in defense of their neighborhoods, which were under siege following the unrest. From there, the Provisional Irish Republican Army launched an armed campaign to force concessions around civil rights and to get a united Ireland. Protestant Loyalist paramilitaries took up arms out of fears of a united Ireland.

Derry Girls is told through the Catholic lens, but it’s really more about people trying to live normal lives as the sectarian conflict rages in the background. It highlights how normalized things like bombs being planted down the street and British soldiers searching your school bus with massive guns can become.

The first ten seconds Derry Girls brilliantly captures the conflict of identity: an armored British military car drives past two boys spray painting over the “London” part of a Londonderry road sign. Londonderry is it’s official name, but it was called Derry until the early 1600s, when the English government changed it to Londonderry to thank a bunch of London investors. Especially during the Troubles, you could tell tribal affiliation based on what a person called it. Catholics called Derry. Protestants called it Londonderry. The conflict of identity comes down even to the name of the city in which Derry Girls takes place.

When I was traveling around the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland researching for All the Walls of Belfast, I was struck by the fact that in the Republic of Ireland road signs called it Derry, but as soon as I crossed the border into Northern Ireland (and switched from kilometers and hour to miles per hour), road signs called it Londonderry.

Let’s go back to making fun of the Pope. Here’s the context. One of the Derry girls, Clare, starts calling into question why they hate Protestants. She decides to wear a Union Jack dress to a party thrown by someone from their all-girls school. Clive, the wayward Protestant from East Belfast, launches himself at Clare, assuming she’s Protestant because of the dress, and warns her they’re surrounded, so don’t say anything that might offend Catholics. Clive has spent days pretending to be Ukrainian, and being led around on a leash, because he’s so terrified these Catholic girls will figure out he’s a “Prod.”

He’d probably never actually talked to a Catholic before. And the Derry girls had probably never really talked to a Protestant either. In the first episode of Derry Girls one of the girls mentioned going to “Friends Across the Barricades,” a cross community program meant to bring Protestant and Catholic kids together.

While traveling and researching for my book, I learned, at least as of seven years ago, it’s not uncommon for people to go their entire childhood without having meaningful interactions with kids from the other side, especially in working class communities. In All the Walls of Belfast, one of the two main characters had never spoken to a Catholic in his eighteen years of life. But beyond not talking, deeply rooted fear and anger toward them can still linger, even in people who were children or not yet born during the Troubles because it’s passed on from one generation to the next.

A fact that shocked me: even though the Troubles have been over for more than twenty years, as of 2015, only 7% of children in Northern Ireland attended religiously integrated schools. The vast majority of Catholic and Protestant children don’t even go to school together.  Government agencies track school achievement data by religion like we track by race in the United States.

It makes one think about how easy it is now, especially with social media, to retreat into our echo chambers and vilify the other side as elitist or ignorant or wanting to murder unborn babies or letting school children be slaughtered as a sacrifice to protect gun rights. Us versus them. And not just our politicians. All of us.

Twenty years after the Troubles ended, the vast majority of Northern Ireland has moved on. But there are still 109 peace walls dividing Catholic and Protestant areas in Belfast. During my times in Northern Ireland, I asked people if the walls should come down. The answer from those living around them was pretty much always no. Because they were still afraid of them.

It was these walls that inspired me to write All the Walls of Belfast, a love story about a boy and girl separated by a forty-foot-tall peace wall, and the legacy of their parents’ pasts, long after the Troubles ended.

Seasons 1 and 2 of Derry Girls are currently available on US Netflix. All the Walls of Belfast is available on Barnes & Noble, Amazon, IndieBound, and Book Depository.

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Derry Girls Season 1 glossary:

Wain: small child or infant

GCSE: an exam taken after year fourteen (when students are 15 or 16) that determines whether a student can move on to A-Levels, which are usually required to get admitted to university.

College: a name for a kind of high school.

Slag off: making fun of someone; can be good natured.

Class: a good thing

Fanny: vagina

Quid: pounds (money)

Chippy: fish and chip shop

Slabber: a smart ass

Buck: engage in intercourse

Boak/boke: puke

Craic (pronounced crack): a good time or good thing

Fruit: derogatory term for a homosexual, used as an insult

Minger: unattractive or repulsive

Fringe: bangs

Balaclavas: ski masks

Prod: Protestant

Fenian: term for Catholics; can be derogatory

Tout: snitch to the authorities

Provo: member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army

Wee RA (pronounced ra) man: member of the IRA

The Free State: Republic of Ireland


Ahhh!!! I’m holding a published copy of my debut novel!


It’s a real, actual book. Still don’t totally believe it 😊😊😊 For the rest of the United States and Canada, All the Walls of Belfast is out March 12th, 2019. 🧡💚🧡💚

Gah, writing the first pages of your novel!



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For me, where and how to begin my novels has pretty much always been the hardest part to get right. For ALL THE WALLS OF BELFAST, I (no joke!!) wrote probably at least twenty different first chapters, the start points ranging from abus ride home from finals to a funeral to a plane landing in Dublin. And a few other places in between. So, yeah….

If your first chapter, first page, first paragraph, maybe even first line, can’t draw in readers, the rest of your book doesn’t matter. And there are so many jobs it has to get done, including establishing genre, introducing us to central characters (but not too many), showing us the world, and introducing the central conflict.

So, how can we make our first pages un-put-down-able? Here’s a few tips I learned based on my experience reading submissions for #WriteMentor.

  • Give us a sense of character and ordinary world. What is their life, their world, like before the inciting incident shatters everything and forces the main character to change course? We don’t necessarily need a ton of “ordinary world,” just a taste, so we can see what changes and get a sense of what’s at stake. For character, give us a sense of what their weakness is, what’s going to need to change, before they’re able to overcome whatever obstacles are thrown in their way by the antagonist causing or resulting from the inciting incident.
  • Voice. Ah, the mythical voice that everyone wants but can be so hard to create as a writer. When I think of voice, I think of the character’s world view. What is the lens they use to interpret events and interactions around them? This is created by past experiences. Ground us in the character and show us the character’s unique voice as early in page one as possible.
  • Activate our senses very early on. Page one. Ground us in the scene so we feel like we’re there with the main character. And when I say activate senses, I mean ALL of them: sight, sound, smell, taste, texture, light and shadow, temperature, humidity, etc. Gravel crunching under the MC’s sneakers. This can reveal stuff about both setting and character (what the character notices and how they react to that, how the clothes they’re wearing or their hair interacts with the world). The FEELING of emotions in the body: the rush of adrenaline, the sweat, the dead weight of exhaustion, the heart palpitations and butterflies of excitement. The more specific and unique to the character, the better. 
  • Avoid backstory. We don’t care about it unless we care about the character and until we do, we have nothing to attach that backstory to, so it’s kind of meaningless. It also slows down pacing and drains tension, which is critical on every page. Only give us tiny bits of what’s absolutely essential for us to know it that precise moment to understand what’s going on. You’d be surprised how little the reader really needs. Trust their intelligence. The rest can come out later.
  • But most importantly make us feel emotionally connected to the character. If we don’t care about the character, we don’t care what happens to them. What does the character want/need and why? What’s at stake and why should I care?
  • Get dialogue in there quickly! We want to hear the MC’s voice.
  • Leave us a sense of conflict, of mystery, of wondering. This creates tension and leaves us wanting to see how it resolves, especially if you’ve given us a reason to care about the character.
  • Then there’s the basics: show don’t tell and active voice. This also draws us in more as readers.
  • Another thing it took me a long time to learn: I don’t truly know where and how to begin until I know where and how it ends. Then I know for sure how the plot will play out, how the characters will evolve and change as they overcome those internal and external conflicts and achieve (or don’t achieve) their internal and external goals. Once I’ve written “the end,” I have a much better idea of how to start so the reader sees those whole arcs. how they need to start to truly capture those arcs.

So those are a few tips on first pages. And, absolutely yes, we need to be hyper-focused on our first pages, but those only get you in the door with readers. The rest of your novel needs to be just as good.

Here are few more resources:

How to Write the Perfect First Page

The First Page

Four Approaches to the First Chapter of Your Novel

25 Things to Know About Writing the First Chapter of Your Novel

Happy writing!

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!

OMG my novel is now on Goodreads!


Turner Publishing has now officially put my debut YA novel ALL THE WALLS OF BELFAST up on Goodreads. Here’s a quick blurb: Pitched as THE CARNIVAL AT BRAY meets West Side Story, ALL THE WALLS OF BELFAST follows two teens trying to understand their past and preserve their future in post-conflict Belfast–a Wisconsinite who learns she has a father and brothers in Belfast and a boy trying to escape an abusive home to pave his own way.

Check out the official Goodreads book page here! If you’re intrigued, please add it to your “Want to Read” list. Wow, now it’s all really starting to feel real.

And I’m excited to announce that VERY SOON will be the cover reveal. I’m totally in love with it and can’t wait for it to be out in the world.

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