On Learning From What You Read

Photo credit: Erik Schepers on Flickr
It's often repeated that one of the few rules without exception in the writing world is if you want to be a good writer, you must read. Reading is essential for writers for a variety of reasons: it keeps you aware of what's out there and what's selling, it shows you what's already been done and what's popular, and it gives you the opportunity to really consider what works and what doesn't for every novel you pick up.

I've gotten questions about that last point in particular, namely, how do you analyze the books you read to apply lessons to your own writing?

For me, I find that most of my analysis is passive. I'll quietly consider voice, tense, and stylistic choices as I read, really only paying close attention when it's an usual tense (second person, third person present, etc) or when the voice is very different from anything I've read before (Half Bad, The Hate U Give, and so on). When a book has a lot of POVs, I'll ask myself as I read why (and whether) each POV is necessary and whether or not I think it works. I'll sometimes find myself asking how I would improve a sentence—or if a sentence is really well-written, I'll sometimes re-read it and consider why I like it so much.

Then when I go back to my own writing, I kind of have two modes of applying what I've learned. When I specifically want to evoke a similar technique or stylistic thing, I'll sometimes open up the book I learned it from and re-read a section so it's fresh in my mind as I consider how I'll write. But most of the time, the lessons I've learned come out passively—they embed into my writing as I first draft, and more often as I revise and consider how to improve a manuscript. I'll often find that something especially reminiscent from a book will stick with me for years—even without re-reading—and as I write I'll occasionally recognize what book I learned a particular technique from.

I know some writers take notes when something sticks out to them from a book, and that's cool too—I could definitely see that paying off. But the passive application of just paying attention while I read and asking myself questions as I go along has worked well for me so far—and maybe it'll work for you too.

How do you learn from books you've read?

Twitter-sized bite:
How do you learn from books you've read? Join the discussion on @Ava_Jae's blog. (Click to tweet)

Book Review: THREE DARK CROWNS by Kendare Blake

Photo credit: Goodreads
So as most of you know, I'm a huge YA Fantasy fan, so when I heard the pitch for Kendare Blake's Three Dark Crowns, I was definitely curious. Combined with an awesome cover and an unusual tense choice (third person present) and I was glad I picked it up.

Before I go into how much I enjoyed this one, let's take a look at the back cover copy on Goodreads:
"Every generation on the island of Fennbirn, a set of triplets is born: three queens, all equal heirs to the crown and each possessor of a coveted magic. Mirabella is a fierce elemental, able to spark hungry flames or vicious storms at the snap of her fingers. Katharine is a poisoner, one who can ingest the deadliest poisons without so much as a stomachache. Arsinoe, a naturalist, is said to have the ability to bloom the reddest rose and control the fiercest of lions. 
But becoming the Queen Crowned isn’t solely a matter of royal birth. Each sister has to fight for it. And it’s not just a game of win or lose…it’s life or death. The night the sisters turn sixteen, the battle begins. The last queen standing gets the crown. 
If only it was that simple. Katharine is unable to tolerate the weakest poison, and Arsinoe, no matter how hard she tries, can’t make even a weed grow. The two queens have been shamefully faking their powers, taking care to keep each other, the island, and their powerful sister Mirabella none the wiser. But with alliances being formed, betrayals taking shape, and ruthless revenge haunting the queens’ every move, one thing is certain: the last queen standing might not be the strongest…but she may be the darkest."
So initially I was a little confused about why there were so many POVs—I was expecting three (one for each princess) and I think we end up with...five? Something like that. For the first portion of the book, I know the many POVs made it difficult for some people to get into it. I just rolled with it, and in the end it made sense as to why every POV was necessary. I will say I did find it a little difficult to keep track of all the names and places (the map helped with the latter, though), so sometimes I confused characters. But once I got used to the cast, that became no longer distracting. 

So that said, there were two things I really liked about this book: the magic, and the sisters themselves. There are a lot of takes on magic in YA, and many of them look like Mirabella: some sort of elemental stuff with extras thrown in. Nothing wrong with that, I love elemental magic portrayals, but I was really fascinated by the magic of the poisoners and naturalists. The poisoners especially was magic I hadn't seen before in YA, and it was super fascinating to see how that magic manifested (or how it was supposed to manifest, anyway), how it affected the way other people looked at them, and how they "showed it off" to demonstrate power—and the ruse of power. 

What I really liked about the sisters was they exceeded my expectations in multiple ways. I'd expected Mirabella to be the "evil twin" in the sense that as the most powerful (whether she knows it or not) she'd be biting at the bit to take out her other two sisters, but she was much more complicated than that. 

But what I especially loved about the three was they demonstrated a variety of ways to "be a girl" without ever implying one way is better than the other. Katherine and Mirabella are both traditionally feminine and take power in their femininity—which was awesome to see. On Fennbirn, women are the top of the power totem pole, so the girls never deal with misogyny and in many ways, their femininity was used as a display of power (yay!). Arsinoe, however, is an entirely different kind of girl. She's defiant, cuts her hair short, and never once wears a dress—even in the scenes where the girls are expected to dress formally, she stands beside her two sisters in dresses wearing a black shirt, vest, and pants. I loved this, because I've literally never seen a princess portrayed as anything short of femininely unless she was in disguise—and as a bonus, Arsinoe never gets any grief over it. She's accepted as she is, and while acknowledged as different, no one ever implies her less feminine style is a bad thing. 

So all in all, I found this book fascinating—and I was so glued I read sixty percent of it in one day. While I didn't love some of the details at the end, I really enjoyed this one overall and I'm very much looking forward to the next book, One Dark Throne

Diversity note: From what I could tell, not much there, unfortunately.

Twitter-sized bite: 
.@Ava_Jae gives 4 stars to THREE DARK CROWNS by Kendare Blake. Is this dark fantasy on your TBR? (Click to tweet)

Vlog: On Creating Conflict

Without conflict, there isn't a story, but sometimes coming up with conflict isn't as easy as we'd like. So today I'm talking about coming up with different sources of conflict, from central conflict to tension throughout the manuscript.


How do you figure out conflict for your manuscripts? 

Twitter-sized bite: 
Struggling to figure out the conflict for your WIP? Author @Ava_Jae vlogs some tips. (Click to tweet)

Fixing the First Page Feature #33

Photo credit: mynameisgeebs on Flickr
Somehow, March is nearly over and it's time for the next Fixing the First Page critique—woohoo!

As usual, I'll start by posting the full first 250 excerpt, after which I'll share my overall thoughts, then my redline critique. I encourage you guys to share your own thoughts and critiques in the comments (because I'm one person with one opinion!), as long as it's polite, thoughtful, and constructive. Any rude or mean comments will be unceremoniously deleted.

Let's do this!


Genre/Category: YA Dystopia

First 250 words:

"I took deep breaths, trying to calm my racing heart. 
You can do it. You have to do it.

One more breath, two, three… 
It was early morning, but I still glanced around to make sure the street was empty. Not that many people lived in the area either way. I was surprised when I was informed I had to wait on that spot. In any case, the roof of an abandoned two-story building was the perfect hiding place. 
The air was calm and cool, oblivious to my state of mind. I was glad no one would ever notice this moment of weakness. I wasn’t afraid of a technical failure, but of an emotional one. Failing though was something I never allowed to myself. 
A man appeared in the corner of the street, starting me out of my thoughts. I studied him carefully. Around 40, tall and thin with a receding brown hairline. The description fitted. For the last hour, I had half wished he wouldn’t appear, almost hoped he would choose another street or time. But that was not my lucky day and definitely not his. 
He looked around him once or twice, but other than that, he looked certain no one was watching him.

No one but me. I tried to swallow my fear and resisted the urge to close my eyes.

Just do it already. 
One more breath. And I pulled the trigger of my rifle. 
Less than a second later, the man was lying motionless on the pavement."

Okay, so! I'm pretty partial to in medias res openings myself, because I like jumping right into the story. But the danger with these kind of openings is if you move too quickly and don't provide enough introspection and explanation, so they can sometimes be confusing and readers may find it difficult to connect with the protagonist. Which is what I'm seeing here.

As a reader, I have a lot of questions right away: why does she have to kill that guy? Does she do this often (is she an assassin)? What was he doing that he didn't want to be seen? What was she afraid of? You don't necessarily need to immediately answer all of the questions, but you definitely need to answer the most important one of why. Why is it so important that she kill this guy? Why does she have to? Without knowing the stakes, as a reader I don't really care if she succeeds or not, because I don't yet know why it matters. And because she's killing someone, it also makes it a little more difficult for me to connect with her, because from a reader perspective right now it just seems like she killed someone in cold blood.

Okay, so, with that said, let's take a look at the line edits:

"I took deep breaths, trying to calm my racing heart. 
You can do it. You have to do it.

One more breath, two, three… 
It was early morning, but I still glanced around to make sure the street was empty. Not that many people lived in the area either way. I was surprised when I was informed I had to wait on that spot. A few things about this sentence: first, this would be a good place to give us more information—when who told her to wait there? And why was she surprised? What's different about this particular case? In any case, the roof of an abandoned two-story building was the perfect hiding place. 
The air was calm and cool, oblivious to my state of mind. As a reader, right now I'm also oblivious to her state of mind. :) Which is to say, this would be a good spot to give us a glimpse! What is she feeling right now? It'd be good to show those emotions before she comments on her weakness, because otherwise we're not really seeing much of anything that could qualify as "weakness." I was glad no one would ever notice this moment of weakness. I wasn’t afraid of a technical failure, but of an emotional one. What would qualify as an "emotional failure"? And what are the consequences if she has one? We need to know the stakes to really understand why this matters to her—and why it should matter to us. Failing though was something I never allowed to myself to fail
A man appeared in the corner of the street, starting me out of my thoughts. I studied him carefully. Around 40 forty, tall and thin with a receding brown hairline. The description fitted. For the last hour, I'd had half wished he wouldn’t appear, almost hoped he'd would choose another street or time. Why does she wish that? If she has to do this, why would she want him not to show? But that it wasn't not my lucky day and definitely wasn't not his. 
He looked around him once or twice, probably making sure certain no one was watching him. A couple reasons for this adjustment: firstly, I'm trying to make her sound more like a teen (sure versus certain, for example). Secondly this is her perspective, so I'm clarifying that this is what she thinks he's thinking. And third, rather than telling you to try to describe what "sure no one is looking" looks like, I think it's easier (and more effective) to adjust the sentiment a bit and say he's looking around for this reason rather than he looks like he's sure no one is looking. But if you prefer the latter, feel free—just describe what that looks like, rather than stating that's how he looks. 

No one but me. I tried to swallow my fear and resisted the urge to close my eyes. Okay, so rather than stating she's scared, it'd be much more effective to describe how that fear physically affects her and show it reflected in her thoughts. I wrote a post a while back on writing emotion effectively that you might find helpful with this. 

Just do it already. 
One more breath. And I pulled the trigger of my rifle
Less than a second later, the man was laying motionless on the pavement."

So there we have it! I think basically what this opening needs is more filling in, from clarifying the stakes, to a bit more explanation as to why she's there, to more time to really sink into her mind and see what she's feeling on the page. Interesting start overall, with room to flourish. If I saw this in the slush though, I'd probably pass because it still seems to need some work before it's ready for submission.

I hope that helps! Thanks for sharing your first 250 with us, Eleni!

Twitter-sized bite:
.@Ava_Jae talks stakes, showing emotion, and more in the 33rd Fixing the First Page Feature. (Click to tweet)

On Writing Family and Platonic Relationships

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Sometimes, when writing a book with a romantic subplot, it can be easy to forget about other relationships. From acquaintances, to friends, to family, we all have some kind of relationship network, however large or small, and primarily good or bad it may be.

But especially in YA where romance tends to nearly always be present and family is often—er—killed off, it's easy to write yourself into a situation where the protagonist and love interest are the only people of importance in each other's lives.

And while that can sometimes work in a story, let's be honest—most people's circle of relationships is way more complicated than that.

In YA, platonic relationships that stay platonic are somewhat uncommon, and family relationships tend to go one of two ways: either everyone pretty much gets along (save for the occasional sibling bickering), or there isn't much family in the story at all. (There are exceptions of course, but, you know, generally speaking.)

In my own writing, I've been trying to challenge myself to write dynamic relationships, especially with family members. In Beyond the Red that mostly comes out in sibling relationships, but in one project in particular I'm working on I've been trying to focus more on a dysfunctional family unit and the complicated relationships therein. In part because I think there's still plenty of room for that in YA, and in part because to be frank, I have very complicated family relationships myself.

To the point, platonic relationships—whether through family, friends, or acquaintances—are a pretty huge part of everyone's lives, and certainly a big part of most teens' lives. While it's easy to let a romance overshadow other relationships in a character's life, it can be good to stop and consider what other people are important in your protagonist's life—and how those characters can help develop the plot and your protagonist along the way.

What are some of your favorite platonic and family relationships in YA?

Twitter-sized bite:
Romances aren't the only important fictional relationships. @Ava_Jae talks writing platonic & family relationships. (Click to tweet)

Fake Writers Don't Exist

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If you've been in the online writing community for any extended period of time, chances are likely you've come across who says or implies you must do something to be a real writer, or if you aren't writing a certain way, it isn't real writing. Sometimes the implication is accidental and the writer will clarify and apologize; sometimes it wasn't and they'll double down when called out.

Over the weekend we had another incident along those lines, when a pretty well-known author tweeted that writing = pen and paper. Some disabled writers, myself included, talked about why the implication that writing on your computer or phone, etc. isn't real writing is problematic and damaging, especially to the disabled community. But the whole incident got me thinking about this false set up of Real vs Fake writers.

So let me reiterate the title of this post: fake writers don't exist. It isn't a thing. And neither is fake writing.

Writing is writing, whether you put words down with pencil and paper, a keyboard, dictate, tapped on your phone, or some other way—and if you write, you're a writer. It doesn't matter if you started this morning, or three years ago, or three decades ago; it doesn't matter if you've been published; it doesn't even matter if you want to be published. The only requirement to calling yourself a writer is to write. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Twitter-sized bites:
How do you know if you're a real writer? @Ava_Jae says the answer is simple. (Click to tweet
Author @Ava_Jae talks about why "fake" writing and writers don't exist. (Click to tweet)

Vlog: On Breaking Writing Rules

I share a lot of writing rules and strategies both here and on my blog, Writability. But does every writing rule need to be followed? And what if a writing strategy doesn't work for you? Today I'm talking about exceptions and breaking the rules.


What do you think? Have you broken any writing rules in a way that worked? Have any of your favorite books? 

Twitter-sized bite: 
Does every writing rule need to be followed? Author @Ava_Jae vlogs about exceptions. #writetip (Click to tweet)

Fixing the First Page Winner #33!

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Yet another quick pre-post post to announce the winner of the thirty-third fixing the first page feature giveaway!


And the thirty-third winner is…


Hooray! Congratulations, Eleni!

Thanks again to all you lovely entrants! If you didn't win, as always, there will be another fixing the first page giveaway in April, so keep an eye out!

Discussion: How Do You Feel About Hyped Books?

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For the most part, I've generally had good experiences with hyped books. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, and Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, for example, were all pretty intensely hyped books that completely lived up to the hype for me.

But there have also been more than a handful of hyped books that I was cautiously interested in—or even very interested in—until early reviews came out, revealing problematic elements or disappointing things that made me remove the book from my TBR. Many have gone on to continue to be successful, but the early reviews made me pause and think twice before picking them up—for which I'm glad.

But there is always the chance, of course, that the massive hype surrounding a book will inflate expectations so much that it'll be hard for the book to live up to it. I think the closest experience I've had with that is a YA book I was really looking forward to for a specific aspect of representation—until a review came out with really troubling information and I pulled the book from my TBR. But I think, in most cases, I've been able to avoid too much disappointment in that area by either only pre-ordering the books if it's from an author I've loved before or if people I trust have said they read and loved an early copy of the book. By being somewhat cautious in that sense, I've been able to cut down on some reading experiences I wouldn't have enjoyed otherwise.

So I suppose, in a sense, the same source of (much of the) hype—social media—can also serve as a buffer for disappointment if you follow the right people. So for me, when I see a book getting hyped and I see people I trust giving it a thumbs up I can pretty safely pre-order without worry of disappointment. And it's worked well so far.

How do you feel about hyped books?

Twitter-sized bite: 
How do you feel about hyped books? Join the discussion on @Ava_Jae's blog. (Click to tweet

Discussion: How Many Projects Do You Work On Simultaneously?

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Once upon a time, I only worked on one project at a time. That's still my preferred method of working—I like to be able to focus on a single project and divert all my energy into that project until it's done, a method that's often allowed me to finish both first drafts and thorough revisions relatively quickly.

Then I started getting published and joined the world of deadlines I didn't set for myself.

Right now I have, oh, five projects simmering at once,  counting a half-plotted project I have to start drafting this summer on a not self-imposed deadline. One has been thoroughly revised and is waiting for external feedback, one has been partially revised but had to be set aside for a deadline project, one is a short (for now) deadline project, and one is my 2016 NaNo novel which...I'll get to when I get to. Two are Sci-Fi, two are Fantasy, one is a Thriller—all are YA. Which is to say I've been keeping really busy.

Though it's been interesting to transition from one project to juggling several in different stages at a time, in a way it's also been encouraging because I have plenty to work on—which has helped dispel the fear of "what if this is the last book idea I ever come up with?" And it's pretty cool knowing I've got several real, on-the-page, ready-to-work on projects, some of which (all of which?) may one day be published.

Working on many projects simultaneously has been a lot of work, and sometimes it feels like the workload will never end (which is why breaks are so important!), but it's been gratifying so far. This may very well be how my writing career continues for the foreseeable future, and I am very okay with that.

How many projects do you work on at once? 

Twitter-sized bite: 
How many projects do you work on at once? Join the discussion on @Ava_Jae's blog. (Click to tweet)

Fixing the First Page Giveaway #33!

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It's that time once again! We're halfway through the month (I know, right?), so it's time for the thirty-third Fixing the First Page feature.

For those who’ve missed before, the Fixing the First Page features is a public first 250 word critique. Using the lovely rafflecopter widget, anyone interested in winning a public (as in, featured in a post on this blog) first page critique can enter.

For an example of what this critique will look like, here's the last Fixing the First Page post.


  • ONLY the first 250 words will be critiqued (up to finishing the sentence). If you win and send me more, I will crop it myself. No exceptions.

  • ONLY the first page. I don’t want 250 random words from your manuscript, or from chapter 3. If you win the critique and send me anything other than the first 250 words of your manuscript, I will choose someone else.

  • I will actually critique it. Here. On the blog. I will say things as nicely as I can, but I do tend to be a little blunt. If you’re not sure you can handle a public critique, then you may want to take some time to think about it before you enter.

  • Genre restrictions. I'm most experienced with YA & NA, but I will still accept MG and Adult. HOWEVER. If your first page has any erotic content on it, I ask that you don’t enter. I want to be able to post the critique and the first 250 in its entirety without making anyone uncomfortable, and if you win and you enter a page with erotic content, I will choose someone else.

  • You must have your first page ready. Should you win, you need to be able to submit your first page within 48 hours of my contacting you to let you know you won. If 48 hours pass and I haven’t heard from you, again, I will choose someone else.

  • You’ll get the most out of this if it isn’t a first draft. Obviously, I have no way of knowing if you’re handing me a first draft (though I will probably suspect because it’s usually not that difficult to tell). I won’t refuse your page if it’s a first draft, but you should know that this critique will likely be of more use if you’ve already had your betas/CPs look over it. Why? Because if you don’t, the critique I give you will probably contain a lot of notes that your betas & CPs could have/would have told you.

  • There will not be a round 2 (unless you win again in a future contest). I hate to have to say this, but if you win a critique, it’s NOT an invitation to send me a bunch of your revisions. I wish I had the time available to be able to look at revisions, but sadly, I don’t. If you try to break this rule, I will nicely say no, and also remember to choose someone else should you win a second contest. Which would make me sad. :(

So that’s it! If you’re okay with all of the above and would like to enter to be the thirty-first public critique on Writability, do the thing with the rafflecopter widget below. You have until Sunday, March 19th at 11:59 PM EST to enter!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Vlog: On Consistency When First Drafting

By another request, today I'm talking about keeping your voice consistent when first drafting...or not.


Is your voice consistent when you first draft?

Twitter-sized bites:
Is your voice consistent when you first draft? Join the discussion on @Ava_Jae's blog. (Click to tweet)  
Is it important for your voice to be consistent in the first draft? @Ava_Jae vlogs some thoughts. (Click to tweet)

Book Review: THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas

Photo credit: Goodreads
Whenever you have books that are really, really hyped, you run the risk that the hype might inflate everyone's expectations so much that the book has trouble living up to them.

That wasn't remotely the case with Angie Thomas's The Hate U Give.

Before I reiterate what everyone else is saying (that you need to read this book immediately), here's the Goodreads summary:
"Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend, Khalil, at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed. 
Soon afterward, Khalil’s death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Starr’s best friend at school suggests he may have had it coming. When it becomes clear the police have little interest in investigating the incident, protesters take to the streets and Starr’s neighborhood becomes a war zone. What everyone wants to know is: What really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr. 
But what Starr does—or does not—say could destroy her community. It could also endanger her life."
So I'd actually started The Hate U Give a little earlier than I'd originally planned because the other book I was reading wasn't grabbing me as much as I'd like. That wasn't an issue here—I was immediately sucked into Starr's voice, and world, and the characters of her life. The Hate U Give juggles several conflicts in Starr's life—the conflict inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, of course, with witnessing Khalil's murder, but also her half-brother and friend living with an abusive father—the neighborhood's most dangerous gang leader, a friend who gets into a dangerous situation, Starr juggling the disparity of going to a private school where she's one of the only Black kids and then going home to her neighborhood, that as dangerous as it can be is her home, her secretly dating a boy from her school, and her PTSD from witnessing her best friend's death. Not to mention the conflict of trying to decide whether to speak up or whether to hope no one outside of Starr's family ever learns she's the one who witnessed Khalil's death.

All of these conflicts in Starr's life may seem overwhelming—and for her, at times, they are—but the way they're written always makes sense as one conflict blends into another into another. Altogether it creates an incredibly compelling plot that keeps you turning the pages, because truly, there are no dull moments.

Then there's the voice. Starr's voice is so powerful, and honestly, The Hate U Give serves as an excellent example of why #ownvoices books are just better when it comes to portraying different marginalized groups. From the constant code-switching, to the cultural nuances, to even the way Starr thinks just felt so incredibly raw, like I was reading a real person's thoughts transcribed unfiltered onto the page. I had the undeniable sense while reading that this book wasn't written for me—and that was a good thing.

To say The Hate U Give is eye-opening and unforgettable is an understatement. I'm not at all surprised it debuted #1 on the New York Times bestseller list and I fully expect to see it win loads of awards, because this book is that powerful and that good.

All in all: read it. And any time you hear someone disparaging the Black Lives Matter movement, give them this book. I really do believe it could change hearts, minds, and lives.

Diversity note: Most of the characters, including the protagonist, Starr, are Black.

Is this book on your TBR? The answer better be yes. ;)

Twitter-sized bite:
.@Ava_Jae gives 5 stars to THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas. Is this powerful YA on your TBR? (Click to tweet)

5 Essentials to Establish Before You Start Plotting (or Writing)

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So you have an inkling of a story idea with some vague images, lines, or concepts, and the time has come to turn that into a workable plot or (if you're a pantser) a draft. But how do you turn a vague idea into a structured story? It starts with establishing some essentials before you dive into the plot.

(P.S.: As always, these are suggestions and I'm in no way suggesting it's impossible to plot or pants without them. But establishing these upfront can certainly make the process a little smoother—and easier.)

  1. The basic premise. What is your book about? What elements does it involve? This is a pretty obvious starting point because it'd be difficult to start plotting or writing a book without a premise in mind. A general idea of the what is important as you get started—even if that what is still pretty vague, it helps to start here so you can flesh that out before you dive in.

  2. Your characters' goals. Knowing your main characters' goals upfront is absolutely essential to making sure you don't accidentally write a passive character. This means knowing what your character wants to accomplish on page one and what they want to accomplish near the end (because those things can change!). It's okay if your characters' goals evolve throughout the course of the book—the important thing is that you make sure they always have some kind of goal they're striving for—in every single scene. Because if your characters don't have a goal, chances are likely they'll lose their agency because they won't be pushing for anything—instead, the plot will be pushing them around. 

  3. The opposition to your characters' goals. Of course, there's no story if your characters can easily accomplish their goals. Knowing what the opposition is to your characters' goals and what will make it difficult for them to accomplish what they want is important to establish the foundation of the conflict—and conflict, of course, is essential to any story. 

  4. What's at stake? Relatedly, knowing what's at stake is important when considering your characters' goals, because with little at stake, your character isn't risking much, and thus there isn't much making your story compelling. Consider both what's at stake in the macro sense (saving the world) and what's at stake personally for your character (saving their sister, for example). By establishing the stakes early on and making them personal, you'll make it much easier both for yourself while you're writing and your future readers to connect with the protagonist and care about the protagonist's journey. 

  5. The general setting. While you don't have to have every world building element established upfront (I certainly don't), it's always a good idea to have a basic understanding of the setting. Where is your story located? What basics do you know about this setting? The setting is great to keep in mind as you plot or pants especially because it can play a role in the plot if you let it. 

Once you've established these five essential elements, you have enough to start considering the story as a whole—whether that means brainstorming and plotting in earnest or jumping into a draft is up to you. All the other details—more information about your cast of characters, narrators, tense, POV, the structure of the story itself—will fall into place as you push yourself to consider the story more deeply. But once you have these five essentials in place, you've got a pretty good foundation to build the rest of the story on.

What else do you consider before plotting (or pantsing) a WIP?

Twitter-sized bites:

Think you might be ready to start plotting but aren't sure? Author @Ava_Jae talks 5 essentials to establish first. (Click to tweet)
Think you might be ready to start pantsing your WIP but aren't sure? @Ava_Jae talks 5 essentials to establish first. (Click to tweet)

On Writing #ownvoices Intersections

Photo credit: Sebastian Hillig on Flickr
One of the projects I'm working on right now is the most #ownvoices manuscript I've ever written. It's been both a challenge and interesting to work on, because writing one aspect of marginalization is hard enough, but this WIP has several intersections—like me.

As sometimes emotional and scary the process has been so far, it's also been somewhat cathartic. On more than one occasion I've experienced something related to one of my identity aspects—whether a microaggression or related life experience—and then I sat down and added it (or something close to it) to my manuscript to better flesh out the everyday experiences someone like me deals with.

Of course, the responsibility weighs pretty heavily as I write. Writing an #ownvoices manuscript isn't all sunshine and butterflies—it requires reflecting deeply on your own experiences, including experiences you don't really want to dwell on, considering any internalized -isms and -phobias you may have honestly and making sure it doesn't show up in your writing, and eventually getting feedback from others in the communities you're representing to make sure nothing damaging slipped in.

Then of course, there's knowing your experience isn't everyone's experience, so even things you pull from your life may feel inauthentic to someone else in your community. And there's being aware of the responsibility you're picking up, especially when you're representing an underrepresented community with your book. There's knowing the way you write it and portray these identity aspects is the difference between a kid one day seeing themself in your writing, or your writing doing undo harm to the reader who absorbs something damaging from your words.

All in all, I've been taking my time with this one because it's not something I want to rush. There are too many details to get right and ways it could go wrong. But as challenging as the experience has been so far, it's also been rewarding. Because one day I may be able to introduce the world to a character with intersections like mine—and maybe it'll speak to another reader out there like me too, who hasn't seen more than occasional fragments of themself fully represented yet, if at all.

And that's pretty darn cool.

Have you worked on any #ownvoices projects? 

Twitter-sized bites:
.@Ava_Jae talks working on an intersectional #ownvoices WIP, and the responsibilities involved. (Click to tweet)

Vlog: First Person Dos and Don'ts

By request, today I'm talking about Dos and Don'ts when writing in first person. And bonus, nearly all of them apply to other perspectives, too.


Have you ever written first person? 

Twitter-sized bite: 
Struggling with the 1st person POV in your WIP? Author @Ava_Jae vlogs some dos and don'ts. (Click to tweet)

Discussion: What Are Your Favorite MG Reads?

Photo credit: Valerie Everett on Flickr
I've kind of made a pact with myself that I'd like to read more Middle Grade this year, in large part because even though most of what I read is YA, my experience with MG has always been positive. From Artemis Fowl, to the Percy Jackson series, to The False Prince trilogy, to George, and The Last Great Adventure of the PB&J Society, I've really yet to pick up a Middle Grade book I didn't enjoy.

My knowledge of Middle Grade books, however, is super limited. I've got quite a few excellent ones on my TBR, like The Gauntlet, Ravenous, Furthermore, The Lost Hero, The Sword of Summer, The Pants Project, Finding Perfect, Some Kind of HappinessAmina's Voice, Love Sugar Magic, and Escape from Aleppo, but as I'd like to expand my Middle Grade repertoire, I figured what better way than to ask.

So who are your favorite MG authors? What are your favorite MG books? I'm especially trying to focus on MG reads with marginalized characters, if at all possible, but I'm pretty open to anything as long as it's well-paced. Shout out your recs!

Twitter-sized bite:
What are your favorite MG reads and authors? Join the discussion on @Ava_Jae's blog. (Click to tweet)

On Writing Food

Food is one of my favorite parts of world building, both when I'm reading and writing. I think this is partially because food, at least for me, has always been the most visible part of my cultural identity—the Caribbean Cuban food I grew up with had always been something that set me apart from my (mostly white) peers, and it's something heavily celebrated in my family. We love our food.

A post shared by Ava Jae (@ava_jae) on

So I suppose it's not really a surprise I've found food so fun to read and write about, because I understand how intimately food ties into identity and culture. And honestly, it's just a plain fun part of world building.

What your characters eat will largely depend on their environment, culture, and economic status, so their food can say a lot about them. In Beyond the Red for example, Eros's first exposure to the luxurious, imported food Kora regularly eats is a huge reflection of the two very different lives they led before their paths crossed. In a WIP I'm working on with Cuban and Mexican characters, where their cuisine intersects and diverges is a marker of the way cultures in proximity interact and influence each other.

The nice thing about writing food is you can usually slip it in naturally without much effort—after all, characters have to eat. Meal times provide a great opportunity to build the character's world and culture and subtly reveal details about them. What's their favorite food? What do they hate to eat? Do they like to savor their food, or do they just eat whatever because they have to? Food can be a point where your characters come together or diverge depending on what you want to accomplish with it.

Finally, food provides an easy place to put details that can give the world a sense of verisimilitude. After all, every place on earth has some kind of local cuisine—and your world should be no different.

How do you use food in your writing? 

Twitter-sized bite:
What do your characters eat? Author @Ava_Jae discusses this fun aspect of world building and how it can be used. (Click to tweet

One Year Later

A year ago today, my first-ever published book, Beyond the Red, was officially out in the world.


It's pretty amazing to think about, and a lot has changed since then. My publisher bought the rest of the trilogy, Into the Black (out this Fall) and The Rising Gold (out Fall 2018). I did my first-ever mini book tour with some author friends, taught at a conference and did my first signings, school and library visits. I graduated college, started freelancing, cried over an election, reconnected with family members I'd never met, got sick a lot, became more politically active, briefly worked in a bookstore, started new medication, and more. I wrote three manuscripts in a year, one of which was revised and turned into my editor, the other which is in the revision process, and a third I'll look at later. I'm looking into major life changes, filling out more applications for things than my brain wants to handle, got into my first-ever car accident (I'm okay!) and finally got the laptop I'd been saving forever for.

It's been a whirlwind of a year. And looking back, there isn't much I can point to and say I wish I'd done differently.

In that time I've learned a ton. About publishing, about writing, about myself and my limits and what I can push myself to do. I've been trying to learn to be patient with myself as I try to navigate life with a body I can't always trust. And I've been trying to pace myself, especially lately, while mentally juggling more projects and deadlines and life things than I know what to do with. Some days are easier than others, but the important thing is I'm progressing and I'm proud of the books I'm working on. I can't wait to share them with you guys.

It's been a year since my debut and what a year it's been. And I'm looking forward to many, many more.

What has your last year been like? 

Twitter-sized bite: 
A year after debuting, author @Ava_Jae looks back. (Click to tweet)
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