Chatting · Writing Advice

Storytelling and STEM

This article is a little different from my usual fare. Between school and last week’s post, I wanted to talk about the practical side of being a creative writer while studying and working in engineering. Most of us aren’t full-time writers, so I’m hoping some of this applies to other people. At least, I hope it provides an interesting insight into why I’ve made certain choices with this blog. This also serves as an answer to some questions I’ve gotten on Tumblr about this topic, so I hope you enjoy!

How I balance my writing with my career choice:

I started posting my writing online on Tumblr the summer before I started uni. I considered how I wanted to present myself in both aspects of my life. It was my first venture into any social media, so I set up accounts using my real name to connect with professionals from my school. I also didn’t want my engineering professors, admissions councilors, or potential recruiters to google my name, find my “fantasy adventure nonsense,” and get confused. Or worse, dismiss me as being too flighty or inconsistent to succeed in the engineering field. I also wanted to maintain a certain level of privacy. If my writing attracted negative attention, I would have the safety of anonymity.

A year, a manuscript, and a community later, I started this website. Hi! I’m Etta Grace. Welcome!

How I balance studies with writing

I live by a schedule and multitask as much as possible. If possible, I schedule out an hour of writing time a day, and time over the weekend. I must shake ideas from my brain so I can focus on my other responsibilities. For every hour I spend writing, I spend 10+ doing school, but having a slice of time for writing at all is important to me. I’m infuriatingly slow, but any progress is welcome, because it’s a luxury.

To be clear, I’m not making money off this yet, and I pay a lot of money for school. I also realize I’m privileged to be at such an excellent school as a woman in STEM. I enjoy the time I spend in class because it’s such a rare opportunity to learn more about our world. Zoom university taught me not to take this experience for granted.

During the semester, I try to make peace with the fact I won’t write as many words. Instead, I let myself count daydreaming, class doodles, scraps of plot or world-building ideas, or brainstorming with friends as “writing time.” The balance tips to the studies, but this method keeps me from burning out, which is the most important thing in the long run. This is also why I rant about my goals lists so much! Everyone I know IRL sees my progress and accomplishments in everything else, but there’s precious few people who care about my writing. Having a community that cares for the small wins and patiently waits for a final product is encouraging.

How I choose my writing goals

(Speaking of ranting incessantly…) This is my thought process behind why certain WIPs make the list. Each month’s goals lists are somewhere in the 20-30 items range, and they include all the stuff I want/need to accomplish in the next month. The creative ones I share are the most interesting. I’ve been keeping these since 2018, so I’ve gotten pretty good at estimating what I can do. If I mark off over half of them, I “win” and treat myself. The ratio and specifics vary depending on the time of year. For example, setting smaller word count goals or less creative goals overall during the school year and piling them on during breaks. As for how I pick the specifics, I try to go by priority. This is also the order in which I mark them off!

1) What needs to be done? My blog isn’t my job, but I like to treat it like one so I can be an author one day. So writing articles + scheduling social media content is a goal. When a quarterly newsletter comes out that month (September!) I write a short story to include.

2) Sometimes I set myself deadlines on writing projects based on yearly events, like: Finish the draft before the semester starts. Finish editing Storge by the end of the school year so I can print off the manuscript with my unused points. Finish Runaways by October, so I can give to beta readers for Halloween because that fits the ~spooky vibes~. These sorts of goals get the next highest priority, but the WIP can change. Since Storge is so big, I just try to make constant slow progress towards the end like a marathon, whereas the others are more like sprints. Using writing trackers, I can estimate how many words I can do a month. Summer: ~20-30K total is a safe bet. School year: 10K is lucky. So once I have my WIP priorities, I set a number to them based on what’s workable.

4) Extras! In case I’m miraculously productive and mark off all the above, these are the “nice to haves” that are low priority. Fanfic, making mood boards, extra sets of 5k words on my main WIPs, or non-essential tinkering with my website/social media all fall into this category. These might overlap with cat.3 depending on what I’m dealing with that month. This category also explains the “you win if you fill out half of the goals” rule, because most of these don’t get marked off lol. And that’s ok! If they don’t happen, I still win, and if they do, then I feel accomplished. It’s also a more flexible category. If I set a goal as, “write a song for Weswin” (Laoche), but end up working on the magic system instead, I substitute one for the other and call it even.

Normally I have 1-2 per category depending on the month. I never lost a month yet (though a few were cutting it really close), and only lost a couple months of creative goals. See: March and November/December 2020 for good examples of why.

How my choice of career influences my writing

Oddly enough, not that often, but when I take direct influences from my classes, they’re BIG. ChemE is essential to daily life, but not interesting to write a book about. Sci-fi deals with dramatic stuff like space travel and AI and I’m here watching how paint dries and stickers stick. But occasionally, I learn about components of circuitry, black-body idealized radiation absorption, and the electromagnetic spectrum, and BAM, there’s a magic system for an epic trilogy.

More often, the scientific process influences my writing a lot more than the actual science does. I have fun experimenting with different systems for tracking my progress, organizing my ideas, and getting the words on the page. I enjoy trying to optimize the systems I have to be more efficient. The exercise of asking questions, dissecting plots, and finding out why stories work has helped my craft enormously.

My characters often approach their own problems and world with a similar method. Acheran is an artist, but his work with charms makes him an expert magician as well. Same with Madelyn, she’s a poet, artist, and mathematician. Stephan is a historian and an engineer. Even if polymer chemistry doesn’t bleed into the pages, the process will.

An example of how I take inspiration from my classes!

The coolest thing I’ve learned recently: black-body objects in heat transfer! When you solve problems, you need to start from an ideal very simple situation in order to understand what’s going on, before you move onto complex real-world examples. When you’re dealing with radiation (say, sunlight), we call the ideal material a “black-body” because it will absorb ALL radiation, instead of emitting any back out. Think about how if you wear black clothes in the summer, you’ll overheat faster than if you wore white! It’s because the color black absorbs more light, while white reflects it.

VantaBlack is a common example of a black-body material! It’s not ideal, but it’s pretty dang close, which is why it looks like a void and also overheats. This is also (roughly) my idea behind Grace’s magic, and other magic absorbers in Laoche Instead of overheating, they convert the magical energy to internal chemical energy, kind of like how plants photosynthesize from sunlight! People with absorbing magic have iridescent black hair, and in the fall, leaves will darken from red and pale green to maroon and holly colored. In areas where the soil doesn’t have enough nutrients to sustain life, the local flora will adapt to eat magic instead.

The coolest part of being an engineering student? I love making connections like these!

Thank you for reading! Did you like this, and would you be interested in more chatty posts like this? Do you have questions for me about my major? Let me know! If you feel so generously inclined, you can support my writing by leaving me a tip on my Kofi or donating using the secure box below. Until next time, thanks for reading and happy writing! 🙂


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