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

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Why the World Needs Storytellers

Let me tell you a true story…

I enrolled in my university with enough transfer credit to wreck my normal first-year course schedule, but a low enough score on the Chem AP test that I had to retake the general/intro chem course, which was a brilliant start to my chemical engineering educational career. After much pestering of the department offices, I registered for a few advanced courses, loopholed my way into starting a business minor a year early (though that’s a story for another day), and arrived for orientation feeling slightly rattled by the fact I’d already broken a bunch of rules before the semester even started.

One of my regularly-scheduled classes was Intro to Engineering – basically a crash course in the different programs offered that let you meet the faculty and explore the labs. It was in this class I met Professor G. After a week or two of working with him, I knew I had my heart set on chemE, and I asked him about getting involved in the department research. Yes, as a stupid undergrad first-year that was retaking genchem. I truly expected the faculty to laugh in my face, but Prof G listened to my request with an indulgent smile, said that I could totally join one of the teams, and asked me what field interested me.

I bluescreened. I didn’t think I’d get this far, and I fumbled for an answer besides, “uhhhh. Cool chemistry stuff?”

Professor G took pity on my ignorant embarrassed self and started asking follow up questions about my interests, clubs, what events I had done in Science Olympiad during high school, genuinely trying to help me find something to focus on, and encouraging my curiosity. In my fluster, I let slip that I like writing, and prayed he’d let it slide and go back to quizzing me on hydrogen fuel cells.

He zoned in on that like a missile. “What do you like to write?”

“Oh… fiction. Fantasy novels. Nothing useful to research.”

“You’re a storyteller!”

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How I Make a Magic System

Today’s post is an in-depth break down of how I worldbuild the magic systems in my fantasy stories. I talked a little about Laoche’s magic in an earlier post about my process in general, which you can read here. But at request from @abalonetea (a good friend of mine who’s been on this blog a few times before, once in an interview, and once requesting a Trope Talk), I wanted to do a breakdown on how I come up with the idea for a magic system, how I develop it from the first concept, and how I go about breaking all the rules. I’m not going to pretend my method is the best or most efficient way to create a magic system, since it’s taken me nearly six years to piece together, but for what it’s worth, I hope you find this breakdown useful and interesting!

The Premise

I find it most easy to build out a magic system if you start from a really simple idea that you want to explore. I want to create the feeling that you could get lost in this world trying to discover all the different possibilities. For the sake of the story, I also think it’s best if the magic system supports the themes.

For Laoche, I wanted my characters to be learning about their world and uncovering new truths that shake up the status quo, and so I took an almost scientific approach to building the underlying mechanics. There’s so much about our own universe we cannot even imagine yet, and I want my readers to come away from my stories with a sense of curiosity, by following along with the characters as they chase answers. I needed to understand the physics of my fictional universe, so then I could decide how much of that would be hidden from the characters. There are hard and fast rules that dictate the way the world works, but the way individual characters apply their powers can lead to an infinite variety of effects.

Alternatively, Runaways takes place in our world, and the characters explore the hidden supernatural world. Much of the fantastical worldbuilding comes from folktales, mythology, and other stories that have inspired me over the years, and so I wanted a soft magic system that could account for so many different (possibly contradictory) tropes. I needed a system flexible enough to will all of these things into existence, something based on the pure stubborn belief that the impossible can happen. This is a world where stories have power, faith affects the fabric of reality, the placebo effect works, and heartfelt human tenacity saves the day.

The Building Blocks

For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to focus on Laoche for this example. The first step once I came up with my premise was to answer the question of “Well, how does this work?” At this point in the process, I’d already started drafting Storge, and so I knew I needed my magic system to work with the story I’d constructed, without introducing any plot holes or breaking internal consistency. I already had four types of magic in the ways Luca can store the energy, Enne can amplify it, Grace can silence it, and most Atilan could convert it into different spells. (or 5, if you count generation as it’s own category). I also knew that in the Laoche Chronicles, there are instances of all the different types of magic existing in superposition, so I needed to understand what made that state possible.

Since I already knew what I wanted these types to do when used by a human, my next step was to define what these four types of magic are on the most basic physical levels, how they can switch, and how the lines between them can be broken. Then I needed to figure out how that power interacts with the natural world: can other species do magic besides humans? What about plants? What effects do the different types have on gravity, and time? I started exploring how people learn magic, what if feels like to use it, how different people end up with different types of magic.

I was surprised as I put everything together just how many potential plot holes I was able to stitch together! This is also the point where I took my brain dump documents and started to fit in all of my whacky ideas that go, “OH WOULDN’T IT BE COOL IF…” Once I had a framework to build around, I could connect all the dots and come up with explanations that made sense. Thinking about the implications also led me to a bunch of neat “what ifs?” that have been filed away for future reference – little tidbits of canon that may or may not ever make it into the story, but serve to make the world feel more real.

The Restrictions

To keep myself from getting carried away or introducing more holes, I also wanted to define exactly what nonnegotiable rules exist: what’s the most overpowered magic could theoretically be, what are the limitations, and consequences? For the sake of storytelling, I wanted death and time travel to be an absolute no. You can heal mortal wounds, or slow and speed up time slightly, but there’s no chance of resurrecting someone who’s already gone, communing with the dead, or actually stopping/traveling through time. This eliminates a significant chunk of possible plot-holes, and gives clear stakes for my characters to face.

Besides those few limitations, most of the restrictions come from the consequences of trying to do magic. Since magic is treated like a natural part of the world, I’ve also established that it’s an amoral insentient thing to be treated carefully. Like fire or radiation or water, it can be extremely powerful, either beneficially or harmfully if you don’t know what you’re doing with it. Character’s abilities are restricted by how much they’ve practiced and studied, if magic is available for them to use, and if they have the energy and ability to cast properly. There are also societal restrictions, such as the Atilan/Debilan divide in Maaren, where one could do magic, but it comes with political, religious, or inter-personal ramifications.

The combination of possibilities and restrictions gives me a LOT of room to play with, and as long as no one character has inconsistent powers, most of my system should work without loopholes! I have both the flexibility and the framework to add new details as needed, and an internal logic that both my characters and readers can follow.

That was a fairly high overview of the process so If you’d like more information on how I learned this, you can check out my resource rec post (specifically Hello Future Me’s book “On Writing and Worldbuilding” and Brandon Sanderson’s writing lectures!). Happy writing!

Author Platform Crash Course: Marketing and Publishing Tips

When I started my writeblr during a rotation break at my lifeguard shift, I never expected I’d be writing this post today. What I’m about to share with you is the result of two years learning how to navigate online writing communities, two marketing classes in my business minor, countless influences from successful authors I admire, and 22 pages of notes taken from my marketing and publishing research. I’ve learned so much and I’m honored to have come so far since I first started putting my writing out there on the internet!

Before I get started with the information, I’d like to include a few disclaimers:

  • This information is accurate and up-to-date as of Summer 2021. If you are reading this post at a later date, keep that in mind, and do your own research accordingly.
  • I am a white English speaker based in the US, so this research does not include a nuanced view of other countries’ markets, legal processes, and publishing industries, nor information on publishing in other languages or as part of a minority group. While I tried my best to make it as inclusive as possible within a realistic scope, it is by no means all-encompassing.

If you’re reading this, I’m assuming that you have a story you want to release! The first step to publishing is getting the manuscript into a state where it’s ready to be sent out into the world, which means editing. If you’d like a comprehensive guide on the editing process, check out this post first! That being said, I’ll start by sharing my publishing research!

Traditional vs Self/Indie Publishing:

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Tackling Tropes

Hello Hello! This post is going to be a little different from the usual Personal Process series, since this week it’s a special request from my good friend Katie Koontz. I interviewed her about her character Bolte for an earlier post, and when she asked me to cover character tropes, I wholeheartedly agreed! Today, I’m doing a deep dive into how tropes are used in storytelling, some fun ways to play with them, and offering a few exercises to think about how they impact your story.

Tropes as Tools: Definitions, and how they differ from cliches.

There are a MILLION definitions out there but for the sake of this article, I’m going to use the broadest term: A Trope is a storytelling shortcut or motif that conveys information to the audience. If you notice a pattern, plot device, symbol, or archetype in three separate pieces of media, it could be classified as a trope. In fact, even the Rule of 3 is a ubiquitous trope. Every piece of media has them, and they aren’t objectively good or bad, they just exist. Saying you’re trying to write without tropes is like saying you’re going to write without a font.

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Editing Your Novel: My Personal Process

Most writers have a serious love/hate relationship with editing. Rereading your old writing is a special type of painful, but the process of refining the words into something beautiful can be thoroughly satisfying as you watch your skill with writing grow. I’ve been editing the first draft of Storge recently, so I am closely acquainted with that feeling, but I’ve figured out a method at works for me and makes the job a whole lot more enjoyable. It won’t be perfect for everyone, but I thought I’d share it in case you could learn something from it!

For context, when I say I’m editing the “first draft”, I mean I’m editing the first completed draft of the story. It’s the first full manuscript I’ve finished, not the very first set of words I put to page. I started several variations of the story before realizing I had too many plot holes and characterization problems to continue. Then I would quit drafting after few chapters to go back to the drawing board. There were a few reasons for that original block. First, Storge is a very complicated story and I didn’t have enough experience or skill to execute it yet. Second, I was still figuring out my own process and didn’t yet know that I needed a detailed plan in order to tell that kind of story. I think this draft is the 5th version, but it’s the only completed one, which means its the only one that really matters for the sake of this discussion. All of my planning and scrapped drafting ahead of time helped eliminate a lot of plotholes and teach me about my writing process, but it’s not what’s actually being edited today.

I’m also planning to self-publish, and so this guide is geared to that end goal. I do not know where beta readers and professional editors fit into the querying and traditional publishing process, so I’ll hazard a guess that it’s best to go with what the professionals say. Additionally, this process focuses on long novels, but it can also be used for short stories and other works. The steps just would take less time and require fewer cycles of double checking. I wrote this to be as cohesive as possible, but you can always scale it down if needed.

That being said, now what? I’ve got a finished manuscript – how do I even start making sense of this 110K word thing??

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My Personal Process: Worldbuilding, and Where to Start?

When I first started writing this post, I thought it was going to be an easy one to write. When I first started worldbuilding the world of Laoche, I found a bunch of question lists I liked online, and put them together into my own questionnaire that I thought encompassed everything you could possibly need to worldbuild. I’d just copy/paste that list of from my “blanks” document, mess with some formatting to make the enigmatic WordPress happy, and be on with my day. That’s when I stumbled across this website, a comprehensive worldbuilding checklist that includes more details than I could ever hope to come up with. It’s a great resource, and I’ve bookmarked it for future reference, but now I realized that I could just share this instead, and be out of a blog post. Instead, I’ve decided to explain how I decide where to start worldbuilding.

It’s very easy to get caught up in the world past the point where it’s relevant to the story. Big lists of things to consider don’t help with this either, because it’s easy to feel pressured to answer all the questions up front and build yourself a cage made of potential contradictions, or so overwhelmed that you consider switching to contemporary Earth. It’s also very easy to focus on your plot and characters so much you forget to put infrastructure into the background of the world, then struggle to fit in unique settings around the existing story that fit the themes.

I think it’s the most useful to start by asking cause and effect questions like, “What about the world influences the way my characters think?” and “What do I absolutely need to know to inform the plot?” These lists are supposed to be a guide where you can pick and choose what you want to work on, and what works for the story, then ignore the rest to figure out later, so your outline-stage worldbuilding can be as detailed or vague as you need it to be. If you find you need a certain gesture or fashion description as you write, then you can just come up with it on the spot, choosing what makes sense in that moment. Then add a comment or highlight to that section so you don’t forget what you came up with later. Your editing self will thank you for it. That all being said, I want to share my process on how to approach what aspects of worldbuilding in what steps so that I don’t get so overwhelmed and work on the most important things first.

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My Personal Process: Outlining/Plotting

Welcome to the second entry in this series of Personal Process posts! This series is keeping with the theme of the month, and for February I’m going to be talking about outlining and plotting, since I’m neck deep in planning The Laoche Chronicles and this gives me the chance to both share some behind-the-scenes with you, as well as give you some tips on how I make outlining work for me. This is just my process, and I’m not saying it’s the end all-be all for plotters, just another method that you might be able to learn from and adapt to suit your storytelling needs.

It works particularly well for very complicated series, but if I’m working on a more straightforward contemporary novella, I’ll skip over the whiteboard step and go straight into the document outline. For short stories, I might just make a bullet point list of Stakes, Beginning, Middle, Climax, End, Character Drive. I find that knowing how to tackle all the different angles leads to a better understanding of structure in general, so I find it interesting to study all the different scopes, then change this process to fit the needs of my current WIP.

Step 1: Brain Dumping

At this point, I probably have some semblance of a premise and characters for this idea, and possibly also an endgame idea of where I want to take the story but not middle or clue of how to get from point A to point B. This is where I collect ALL the thoughts. Usually, I do this between phone notes and a document on my laptop for brainstorming, but I also use voice memos or whatever else works. I’ve drawn ideas on my hand in pen during a life guarding shift before and just taken pictures of my inked-over arm before I have to jump into the pool again. It happens. In any case, you have ideas.

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My Personal Process: Developing Characters

Welcome to the first of the Process Posts! This is a series that will be going live on the 2nd Friday of every month talking about how I personally develop a certain aspect of the writing process. Sometimes, seeing a different perspective on part of the writing process can be helpful in figuring out what method would work best for you, so I wanted to share mine! Of course, this is just my way of doing it, and I’m not claiming it’s the best that it universally works for every project, so feel free to chime in the comments with your own suggestions so we can learn from each other. 🙂

Step 1: Brain Dumping and idea gathering

As far as I can tell, there are two main approaches to character creation – ground up and plot down. Ground Up characters are the sort of OCs that pop into your head with a concept or image or premise, but you have to figure out how to fit them into a story. Plot Down OCs are the sort that arise out of a need for a specific role to be filled in the story, and then you have to create a character out of a few required traits to fit that the bill. This part of the process is where I’m just gathering ideas on how to turn a concept into a person and collecting them in one place. I use a lot of daydreaming, making playlists, finding aesthetics on unsplash and pinterest, reading through prompt blogs and saving everything that catches my attention. This is also the stage when they get a name and the beginnings of a personality.

I don’t know about you, but I hoard ideas like a dragon haha. When you’ve got several years of pinterest boards and phone notes and screenshots there’s no lack of potential for plot hooks and backstory. One of my recent favorite methods is going through my “Everything Playlist” (2114 songs and counting lol) and picking out songs that fit their story arc and point of view on the world. For the Ground Up characters, they help brainstorm what sort of character arcs work for them and how they react to certain situations, and can be the start of a backstory for Plot Down OCs. If you want an example of this, I have the playlists for all my Storge characters linked on the WIP page. I’m building playlists for the Laoche characters now, and Weswin has proved amusing because in-story, he’s a wandering bard. Coincidentally, he’s also the one with the longest playlist. 😛

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Ways to Stay Creative When You Literally Cannot Write

When I started to write this blog post, I searched “time management quotes” into google only to realize I hated pretty much every single one of them. Aside from the annoying misattributions, these sort of motivational platitudes that guidance counselors post on the bulletin board outside their office seem to have one thing in common: that they put fault on the person reading them for not being good enough. They say, “if you just worked a little smarter, or were more self disciplined, or were better at prioritization, you’d be able to achieve your goals.”

I’m not going to get into all the numerous ways this saccharine shallow positivity can quickly turn toxic. Most of us writers are also students, have busy jobs, family obligations, major life changes (and take your pick of crisises, thanks to 2020) that demand absurd amounts of time away from our chosen crafts. A lot of the time, there’s several of these in play at once. Life gets busy. Sometimes, you find yourself in over your head, having done the math, realizing that you barely have time to get a full night’s sleep, much less open a document and even think about putting words down.

The intention of this post isn’t coming from a guilt trip of “I can do all these things and still write, here’s how you can too!”, but rather a shared exhaustion I’ve noticed in the writing communities I frequent. At the end of the day, we might be too tired to write, yes, but that doesn’t mean we still don’t love these stories and want to return to them. I easily get frustrated and sad when I can’t be creative because Real Life gets in the way, and sometimes beat myself up for not being able to do it all. So in light of last week’s post on my September goals, my purpose in writing this post is rather to suggest some very simple coping methods that I use to help keep me in a creative mindset so I don’t go crazy in the interim, and can get back into the flow of writing faster when the time does present itself. They won’t be perfect for everyone, but I hope you’re able to find something useful out of this ramble.

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