Sarah J. Carlson

Contemporary Young Adult Author

Tag Archives: Young Adult Writers

Gah, writing the first pages of your novel!

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paper bag

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

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Oh, the synopsis. The beastly synopsis. And it seems like everyone wants something different. One page or two?
bunny gif

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!

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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.

To stay up-to-date on all things ALL THE WALLS, and for stuff about the craft of writing and my random pictures, follow my blog, sign up for my newsletter, or follow me on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

The Dreaded Query

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scared

…really shouldn’t be all that dreaded, because it’s just a formula. And, honestly, writing a query letter is   is a very beneficial exercise: it forces you to boil your novel down to it’s very heart and soul.

Participating in the fabulous #WriteMentor as a mentor has helped me, as I’ve been trying to help others. It’s also been a great way to fill my time as my debut contemporary YA novel All the Walls of Belfast (Turner Publishing, March 2019) is locked away for edits. And, as I was prepping feedback for all the authors who submitted to me, I did notice a lot of common problems across entries. So, I’m launching a summer series with some tips around getting your submission materials query ready.

So, let’s start with the dreaded query letter. This is a struggle for most writers, because it is SO DIFFERENT from writing that novel, or even that synopsis. It takes a different part of your brain. Tons has already been written about query letters. I’m not going to reveal anything earth-shattering or re-write what experts have already written—I’ll provide some resources at the end. I’m just going to give you my personal thoughts, for whatever they’re worth. Because, who knows, it may work for you!

I think, first and foremost, it’s helpful to conceptualize it as what it is: basically a cover letter for your resume or CV you use when applying for a job. It’s a formal business letter, and it’s purpose is to give an agent or editor a tease about your book and leave them hungry to know more, while also revealing more mundane details like word count, genre, and a tiny bit about yourself. The ultimate purpose of the query letter is to highlight the uniqueness of your story and make the agent/editor sit up and want to read your pages. Because, the hard truth is most agents get hundreds of queries every week, and that’s in addition to all the hard work they’re putting in for their clients. Not all agents read beyond the query. So you need to make sure your query grabs their attention. It should be the unique concept of your story itself that grabs their attention, not fireworks or cheap tricks. Also, do NOT use rhetorical questions. General consensus is recent comp titles are good to have, as it helps categorize your book and is very useful in marketing and shelving it.

Your main goal in the query letter is to introduce the main character(s), central conflict, and show us what the main obstacle/barrier/antagonist. We need a strong sense of what’s at stake if they fail. Why should we care?

At the core of the query are these questions:

1)      What does the character want?

2)      Why do they want it?

3)      What obstacles are in the way?

4)      What’s at stake if they don’t get it?

It should also show how the character’s agency, their choices, will be what drives the plot. Focus only on the most essential characters and the main plot line, otherwise it gets convoluted and confusing.

A query differs from a synopsis in that it DOESN’T tell us the ending, just gives us a taste of the story. The synopsis lays out blow-by-blow what happens all the way to the end. The query shows the reader with the heart of the story, lays bare the central conflict, then teases the reader with an impossible situation, an impossible choice that must be made. The query should leave big questions in the air about what’s at stake and what’s going to happen, so the reader is desperate to know more.

In terms of the bio, it doesn’t have to be huge—just a few sentences if you’ve never published anything. Do mention any writing organizations you’re a member of, such the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Romance Writers of America, or the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. This shows a level of commitment to the profession of writing. If you’re not a member of some kind of writing organization, consider it. They can be great ways to learn about trainings, get critique partners, or find other professional development opportunities. If you’ve been selected as a mentee in any writing programs (like PitchWars or WriteMentor), consider mentioning that, as that shows a commitment to craft.  Other than that, otherwise just briefly state your educational and current professional experience, and perhaps if there’s anything that might even tangentially qualify you to write this book. Like I always mention I’m a school psychologist with a professional focus around supporting children who have been exposed to trauma or toxic stress, as the books I write tend to incorporate elements of both.

We DON’T need to know every training you’ve ever attended or book on craft you’ve ever read or even how many books you’ve tried to write. We DON’T need to know that you’re in a critique group. Now, if you’ve organized one, particularly a large one, that could be relevant. DO NOT advertise that you just finished this book up in NaNoWriMo a few months back; this will suggest to agents that you may not have taken the necessary time to send your novel through critique partners and properly edit it.

Then there’s there obvious stuff like grammar and typos, being consistent with capitalizations. Again, this is a professional business letter. And if you can’t get it right in the query letter, it’ll leave agents and editors wondering about the editorial quality of the rest of your work.

Really, there’s a formula for writing a query letter. Here are a few resources about that formula:

www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literaryagents/pubtips-query

www.janefriedman.com/query-letters/

www.agentquery.com

www.queryshark.blogspot.com

For me personally, my writing tribe has been critical in helping me finally master my query back in the day; query letters are definitely instances where we as writers are too close.  Having a set of objective eyes is essential. They can make sure it’s stream-lined, focused, and makes sense. As with all things writing, I think critiquing others can only help you develop your skill for your own work as well, so exchanging query letters and helping one another will always be mutually beneficial 😊

Look for another craft post on the beastly synopsis soon. Happy writing!

 

Delving deep into setting

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In my day job, I’m a school psychologist. Now school is officially out for the summer!

celebration

After weeks of scrambling to finish up special education evaluations, writing up and filing all the supports and interventions kids have gotten, trying to see as many students as possible before they leave for the summer (or too often forever) … I’ve made it through.

It always takes a bit to get my brain turned back to writing. And this year, the catalyst has been returning to my high school home town for the annual Butterfest. Which, incidentally, has never had anything butter-related from as far back as I can remember to middle school.

So why Butterfest to turn my writing brain back on?

I’ll be getting edits back from my publisher for All the Walls of Belfast (Turner Publishing, March 2019) soon, as well as my final cover design. Eeeeeeee. But still nothing to do there at the moment per say. Getting back into #WriteMentor and helping my fabulous mentor needs to be ASAP, and will be. But I need something inspiring.

So when my sister told me she was making the trip back for Butterfest, I decided to join her. As a teen, I remember the building excitement as we practiced marching in band for the Butterfest parade, watching the rides slowly go up the week before, planning when to go with friends. Then finally opening night. The Zipper and Superloop and Gravitron. Walking around with friends free of parents and supervision just as the school year ended, hoping to see boys we liked, fretting over if we picked the right outfit. And, back in that day, searching for trinkets I thought were cool in the craft fair/flea market. And it was just something to DO. In my hometown, weekend excitement was the bowling alley (which apparently closed), movie theater, playing video games or watching movies at a friend’s house. Maybe a trip to the mall in La Crosse or Olive Garden if you were lucky. For other crowds, it was parties at people’s houses or in farm fields or deer shining.

Annnnyway, back to why it was inspiring. My current WIP is set in my hometown and deals with complex issues around the overpowering desire to break free and the intense pull to stay, for family and familiarity and safety. I’ve gone back a few times to work on capturing setting, but not in a few years. As a writer, truly capturing a sense of place and culture is something I’ve discovered I LOVE doing, whether it’s somewhere relatively far flung like Belfast or close to my heart, like my high school home town. Almost making setting it’s own character, and making sure it shapes the characters and the plot. Actually diving into the setting, physically being there, helps genuinely capture things beyond the sights–it’s the sounds, smells, textures, temperature, interplay of light and shadow … the feel of a place you just can’t get by looking at Google Maps Street View or pictures. It also allows for me to gather details that would be what my Junior English teacher referred to as “specific is terrific.” The graffiti, specifics for clothing, the decals on the cars/trucks, dialect, news playing on a local radio station in the diner.

Since I’ve left that town, I’ve lived in Milwaukee, Madison, Singapore, and now the Madison area again (all much more cosmopolitan and urban). And, even though I still live in the same state, culturally it’s very different. And, over the years, it’s been really fascinating looking at this town using more of an anthropological lens like I did for Belfast, trying to appreciate the culture, language, society, norms, food, attire, etc. Even down to popular sodas—Sundrop, which doesn’t even exist 127 miles away in Madison. And also reflecting on my own experiences coming of age there as well.

So Butterfest may well be the perfect catalyst to turn on my writing brain again.

A few pictures from my adventure.