Author Interview: Hyba Ouazzani & Apartment

Today I’m pleased to introduce you to my good writing friend and inspiration, Hyba! I’ve mentioned her before on this blog: specifically to promote her podcast in my writing resources post, and to leave a glowing review of her novel, Apartment, in my last goals recap. I’m thrilled to have her on the blog to talk about how she developed her book, and I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it.

Etta: Can you start by telling us about yourself and what you write?

Hyba: My name is Hyba Ouazzani, and I’m a Muslim author, podcaster, and blogger based somewhere on the vast continent that is Africa.

I enjoy writing in a range of genres. Apartment is my psychological thriller, and I’m currently working on a murder mystery called Marie/Elise, a high fantasy novel called The Pirates of Sissa, a futuristic sci-fi called Neon Vape: A Vaporwave Odyssey, a horror novel called An Entity in Your Midst, a GameLit serial fiction called The Beast of Ildenwood, an epistolary Gothic tale called Letters to Adam, and many, many more! Sometimes, I write poetry and short stories. In short, I enjoy writing in all kinds of formats and genres. If the story and concept idea are good enough for me, then that’s all that matters.

That being said, I am most interested in writing pieces that make certain statements about society and humanity at large. Pieces like Apartment are meant to challenge the reader, make them ask questions about the darker aspects of human nature and the world we live in. The Pirates of Sissa deals with justice, conflict resolution, and the lasting effects of imperialism. Neon Vape takes a hard look at the extent to which companies are willing to go to make a profit and be market leaders—in other words, the dark side of capitalism. I’m working on a short story that challenges the impossible beauty perceptions and other expectations pushed upon women. Anywhere there’s a good discussion to be had is where I want my books to be!

Etta: That’s a wonderful variety, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of your works! I recently finished Apartment, so I wanted to know, what gave you the idea for that story?

Hyba: Apartment came out of the blue as I was sitting criss-cross-apple-sauce on my bed. I had the urge to write something, and I started writing it—though I wasn’t even certain what I was writing at that time. There was just the apartment building, huge and ugly and empty. And there were just the two inhabitants—two in the midst of this great, big beast of a building. Those first words that the book starts off with are the first words that I wrote for Apartment (though they’ve undergone a bit of editing ever since, especially when it comes to keeping track of the numbers!). I chose a place to anchor my ship and got to work.

It was weird, messy, and entirely unexpected. But somehow it worked together in such a way that I began to see it take some kind of form. These characters that went about their mundane everyday lives but were just a little off. That sticky suspense that clung to their skin like sweat. The cold, isolated, hollow building set in that sprawling hot desert. All of it came together, and as I started weaving all of these elements into a picture that made sense, I knew that this was an intriguing project.

I wanted it to mean more than what I was putting on paper, so I took a lot of care to craft the story in such a way that it could be analyzed, read and re-read. The story unfolded, the characters came to life, and even when I got to that muddy middle, I somehow found a way to trudge through and see the whole book to the end. It was the first book I’d ever finished.

Etta: This story is labeled as ‘magical realism.’ How did you choose which aspects of the story to make fantastical and which to keep grounded in our world?

Hyba: I knew that the fates of certain characters needed to be metaphorical and symbolic of wider themes—for example, James and Eli have very fantastical ends as characters. In other areas of the book, I chose to insert magical or fantastical elements to highlight key points about the plot, characters, settings, or themes—and almost always signal to readers that “This means something deeper!”

In other words, the fantastical aspects are almost never added just to be there. Most, if not all, convey specific messages and invite readers to think about what these strange and unexpected events and characteristics actually mean about the characters, the settings, or the themes found within the story.

Etta: Do you think horror and suspense stories based on speculative fears (demons, supernatural, ghosts etc.) or real world fears (stalkers, serial killers, natural disasters, etc.) are more effective? Or do you think it depends on the particular story?

Hyba: Not only do I think it depends on the story and its execution, but I also think that it depends greatly on the reader and what they believe in. For some readers, the supernatural is a very real thing, and is therefore a very real fear, but others scoff at the supernatural and find pure entertainment within the pages of such horror. For some, fear of the unknown is stronger than fear of the known, while the opposite is true for others. An unstoppable event, like a natural disaster, may be much more frightening for some readers than something that could potentially be stopped, like a stalker. And yet, there are also some that will find a natural disaster much less horrifying than a malicious, evil human being.

I think it boils down to the psychology and beliefs of the reader. We all have those little things that really make us tick—that make us smack those pages closed and check to make sure our doors are locked and the windows are closed and the bathroom light is on before we fall asleep. At the end of the day, any kind of horror will find its intended audience, and that audience will appreciate it as a horror that is true to them and, in some ways, very real.

Etta: Psychology plays a large role in the story: how did you develop the characters with such specific neuroses that play off each other so dramatically?

Hyba: The characters’ psychologies are based on real-world issues, arguably magnified (and arguably not). I think when you get a cast that has such a diverse set of vices, opportunities for these vices to come head-to-head start popping up naturally. While I didn’t set out to have their neuroses play off of each other, I did enjoy pairing together characters that are destined to meet again (ex: Alex and Eli), and characters whose meetings are unexpected (ex: Angela and the Manager).

In fact, my main focus was on their demises. I knew that Eli and Alex’s fates were intertwined, and therefore their final scenes had to be with one another. I also knew that their destructive nature meant that one of them wouldn’t make it out of that final meeting alive. I knew that Angela’s new-found delusions of grandeur would lead her to her downfall, and what better way to do that than at the hands of the Manager, whose own superiority complex and history places him much higher up the abominable “food chain”, as it were? And, I knew that the Manager, for all of his arrogance and self-confessed hunting prowess, needed to be put to a stop in a way that was entirely unspectacular and unimportant—and so his death came at the hands of the driver. And, the driver, for his part, comes to meet his fate as a result of Eli’s death. Some deaths are interlinked in ways that are fantastical, which allows me to paint a broader, more profound picture for the reader.

That being said, I can see how putting two characters together because of their psychological conditions might turn out various intriguing scenarios. Say, for example, a pyromaniac and someone with a pyrophobia being stuck together in a setting rife with flammable items. I can certainly see this playing out into a very tense psychological thriller!

Etta: How fascinating! Thank you for explaining your reasoning! Now, of course, the setting is crucial in any suspense story, and especially in this one. What inspired the aesthetic of Apartment?

Hyba: It was so long ago, I’m not quite sure what first inspired me to create the Apartment aesthetic anymore. I want to point to the concept of the liminal space, and the idea of someone existing in an empty place on their own. I might also point to various architectural styles and buildings, especially the strange not-quite-rightness of brutalist and/or constructivist architecture—especially those huge buildings that seemed to dwarf everything around them. It seemed so alien, so impersonal, so isolating. I think these are a couple of aesthetics that may have inspired Apartment in its early days.

Etta: That makes a lot of sense! Carrying off the last question, what prose choices did you make to help build up the atmosphere such as a certain extended metaphor or motif or symbol?

Hyba: One of the big decisions I made, though it might have happened subconsciously at first, was creating a sense of the mundane in the prose, especially towards the beginning of the novella, to help strange events (hopefully) stick out in stark contrast to the regular everyday goings-on of the characters. For example, you have a scene where James is going about his usual morning ritual until something strange happens, something out of the regular day-to-day, something that stands out in contrast to what he has become used to. And from there, that little thing starts picking at him, again and again, becoming more and more apparent, demanding more and more attention, and ultimately transforming him.

There were many reasons for choosing this kind of narrative technique. Not only did it serve to create contrast, but it also served to pull the reader into an almost sleepy lull—until they come upon a little detail, pass it, recognize that it wasn’t altogether a normal thing, and go back again to double-check. I wanted readers to almost-miss these little threads that begin to unravel at the beginning of the story. In addition, it also created a sense of suffocation. We’re so trapped inside the characters’ heads—stuck with them in their minds, and stuck with them in this building—that it creates a sense of frustration and restlessness, a sense of suffocation. I believe it helps readers understand better why certain characters are so easily led astray once they are given the chance, and why some of them seem to act almost desperately restless, just looking for something to do.

There are quite a lot of other elements in the book—choices that I made for a variety of different reasons as it pertains to prose, symbolism, metaphors, and more—but it would take a long time to write about them. If anyone is interested in learning more, though, I’ve written and released an entire literary companion for Apartment that’s available here (for free). Check it out—but only if you don’t mind spoilers!

Etta: Thank you for sharing that resource! One last question, what was your favorite part about writing Apartment?

Hyba: Writing suspense—building it into my stories—is one of my favourite parts of writing in general.

With Apartment, I felt it was almost all suspense. In fact, that was one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much, and possibly one of the reasons that I was able to push through and finish it in a shorter amount of time than any other book I’ve been working on. That slow-burn, rising tension is one of my favourite things to write, especially when laid into the perspective and mind of a character that may or may not be completely alright—or completely reliable.

Up until Apartment, I didn’t think I could write something that was almost purely suspense-driven. I always stumbled upon plot, and how to reconcile suspense with other elements that were—well—not so suspenseful! Apartment was a huge learning experience for me as an author, and I’m very happy with the result, and so happy to know that readers have enjoyed it, too.

Etta: Well, I know I loved the story, and I’m sure others have as well. Where can people find you and your writing?

You can find me over on my blog (hybaiswriting.blogspot.com), where I share short stories and snippets, a range of updates for WIPs, talk about my characters and worlds, and sometimes write advice or research posts related to books and writing. To connect with me on my social media, find me on Twitter (@HybaIsWriting), Instagram (@hybaiswriting), Tumblr (@hyba), and Pinterest (hybaiswriting). Finally, you can also check out my podcast over on Anchor (anchor.fm/hyba) or your go-to podcast app!

Thank you again to Hyba for agreeing to do this interview with me and for leaving such thoughtful and thought-provoking answers! If you enjoyed this, be sure to go check out her other work. Thank you for reading, and until next time, happy writing!

6 Types of Framing Structures

Framing Structures are a literary device used to add context to a story for the benefit of the audience’s understanding or deepening the experience. They’re everywhere in fiction, but how can you choose which one works best for your story? In my experience, they fit into one of the following six categories, which I’ve defined for you today! Each has different purposes, strengths, and weaknesses, and none is better than the others, so this article takes an analytical look at what makes them work well, and includes examples to illustrate. So let’s get into the trope talk, shall we?

Passed down

These are stories that start with one character (normally an elder) passing down a story to a younger audience that serves as a reader stand in. We hear the story within a story through the lens of the character hearing it for the first time. This is often the simplest kind of framing sequence and creates a feeling of familiarity or relatability with the framing characters. Writers understand the joy of telling a story to an enraptured audience, and who hasn’t sat for a read-aloud as a child? This framing sequence also brings the story into our world, and people may want to go find the story from the story. A great example of his framing structure is The Princess Bride (both the movie and book), where the grandfather tells the story to his sick grandson, and the author makes snarky commentary in the margins.

Recounted

This structure is very similar to the “Passed Down” structure with one key difference – the character doing the storytelling exists diegetically or in-universe. The scale of this frame can vary from the protagonist recounting their entire life story to a new acquaintance to sharing a short tale between characters as they sit around the campfire. This is another common and relatively simple structure that can be used to great effect for immersion or demonstrating a moral. Often, at the end of the story, a character might explain what they or the subjects learned from the experience and how they came to be in the current situation. These can take a first or third person approach and the form of a retrospective or in media res, where the reader is filled in on the history as necessary. The audience learns more about the world through the characters, as this is a great way to sneak in subtle exposition. It also helps you learn about the characters themselves. Are they an unreliable narrator or lecturing their subject?

An example of this structure is seen in A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness, where the monster tells Conor three stories in exchange for his truth. This is one of the oldest examples of a framing sequences as well, being found in One Thousand and One Nights, where the storyteller is a woman in the sultan’s court who receives a death sentence, but tells the king a story each night, never ending it before dawn so that she can postpone her execution one more day. After One Thousand and One Nights of stories, the king decides to spare her life. (For further reading, The Library of Congress has a fascinating article on this.)

Dream Sequence

This structure is very useful for playing with surreality and fantastical elements without breaking the status quo. It allows endless what-if scenarios to put the characters through a gauntlet of incredible (or horrifying) experiences without necessarily putting them in physical harm, though the stakes can be raised if what hurts the character in the dream world can also hurt them in real life. Sometimes this trope gets a bad rap for being used as a fake-out, but dreams give us a deeper look into a character’s psyche, especially if they’re not the type to share their emotions externally. The Matrix is the quintessential example of this trope, but my personal favorite is my good friend Quinn’s book, Dream’s Shadow, which takes this framing sequence to the next level in a way I’ve never seen pulled off so well. If you’re interested in reading more about this WIP, you can read our conversation here!

Nested

Nested structure is an exponential version of the recounted structure, where a character begins to tell their own story, then takes a tangent to explain an element of that story. This gives a “story inside a story inside a story inside a…” situation, which can provide more depth to the world and set up foreshadowing for future plot points to come back later. This is less common in modern literature, which is as streamlined and trimmed as possible, but it can be seen often in classic literature. In Frankenstein, the framing character is the sister of a sea captain receiving his letters from an artic expedition. The captain comes across Victor Frankenstein who tells him the story of how he arrived in the artic, which includes telling the Creature’s story of how he survived abandonment by hiding near a family cottage, which includes telling the story of that family, and then backing out of the layers towards the present. The entire novel is told in retrospect using a dive in-climb out model.

Another subset of this is the tangent-setup nesting structure, which is seen in The Count of Monte Cristo. Every few chapters when Dumas explores a new plot thread, it may seem like he’s simply getting distracted and exploring unnecessary backdrop – I remember when first reading, I found the Italian Bandit and Haydee subplots to be tedious, but just when I thought I’d forgotten about the event, the characters return to play a role in the final revenge schemes. It’s pulled off so well I wrote a 4 part analysis last year, so if you’re interested in learning more about this, I’ve linked the first part here.

Epistolary

Epistolary framing structures tell a story through letters, newspaper clippings, journal entries, and the everyday writings of characters interacting with the plot. Often, each snippet contains one limited POV, and the sum of each part gradually reveals more about the story through the eyes of the narrating character. This format is especially useful for mysteries and suspense where keeping the audience partially in the dark is important to the plot, and they allow for an extremely narrow focus on character psychology. Dracula is the best example of this framing structure, and I also wrote this post breaking down why it works so well for the horror genre if you’re interested in reading more.

Discovered

In a discovered plot, the framing character is an investigator of some sort collecting clues about what’s really going on. This framing structure is not unique to serial mysteries, but this is perhaps one of the most common examples, where an anthology of standalone adventures gradually builds to an overarching meta plot. While it is difficult to pull off, the culmination of events can be extremely satisfying, and red-string brigades will have a blast trying to connect the dots before the framing character does. This structure also supplies endless rewatch/relisten/reread value as you can go back and pick out the foreshadowing in each episode. My favorite example of this trope is Rusty Quill’s The Magnus Archives, a horror fiction podcast that has some of the best setup/payoff delivery of any work I’ve seen.

Which framing structure is your favorite? Have you read, watched, or listened to any of the examples provided here? Are you using a certain framing structure in your wip? Tell me about it in the comments, let’s start a discussion. Thank you for reading, and happy writing!

In the Dark – Dracula

Hello my friends, it has been a hot minute since I last shared a reading rec, but what better month to get back into it than October! Today I want to share my personal favorite classic horror novel, and break down what makes it work so well. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the characters of Dracula from pop-culture, but they’re often so far removed from the original context that the concepts lose their teeth (heh). To understand why Dracula became such a ubiquitous icon of the vampire horror genre, we need to revisit why people feared him in the first place. For this article, I’ll be referring to the book with italics, and the character in normal text, to avoid confusion. This will also include spoilers, since I stand by a copyright-spoiler expiration policy. If you want to read the book for free, a copy is available from Project Gutenberg (which is what I used to find my excerpts.)

I’d also like to preface this with a disclaimer that if you’ve read the SparkNotes summary, this article will have a much different analysis. In my opinion, the SparkNotes takes a bad-faith assumption that treats the male characters as sex-motivated repressed Victorians who ignore religion for scientific advancement and fear Strong Women ™. I disagree, but I encourage you to read the book and both analyses to form your own opinion. If you’ve read the book already, leave a comment to start a discussion!

Framing Structure

Dracula is an epistolary novel, told through a series of 1st person journal entries, letters, and newspaper clippings. Bram Stoker introduces us first to Jonathan Harker, who meets Dracula at his Transylvanian castle and experiences the threat first hand, and isolated from the rest of the characters. His diary entries show his desperation and fear as he tries to escape, then cut off, leaving us to wonder if he’s still alive.

The story then cuts to an exchange between Mina Harker and her friend Lucy. Through these letters, we meet the most of the rest of the supporting cast: Dr. Seward, Arthur Holmwood, and Quincey Morris, the three men who propose to Lucy. During this portion of the story, the tension is low, but since it comes after Jonathan’s diary entries, we know that the threat is still out there. Stoker creates a feeling of dread as we wait for the Dracula to reappear. When he does, the characters remain oblivious to the growing horrors that plague their town, as they lack the context of Jonathan’s experience. The dread becomes dramatic irony, as the characters live in ignorance and the reader watches the events unfold, unable to warn them.

This framing sequence throughout the book also maintains a sense of mystery, as the reader still doesn’t know Dracula’s whereabouts or ultimate plan until halfway through the story. We learn more about the true series of events alongside the characters as they collect pieces of evidence and put the full picture together. Once the characters are on the same page (literally, after they transcribe and share notes), the festering slow burn becomes a race against the clock as they try to prevent Dracula from destroying England, and the world, once and for all. The act of transcribing the details of the events immediately after the fact also gives us a view of the scene as the character themself tells the story and reflects on their experience. The way they choose to describe the settings and feelings helps to build up the tone of dread and terror throughout the story.

The Characters

Every character in this book is memorable and lovable in their own way. Through their writing, we gain insight into each personality and how each views the world. Dr. Seward is analytical, Jonathan is straightforward, Lucy is romantic, and Mina is emotional and perceptive. We also get to see how they perceive the others. It’s wholesome to hear Seward and Quincey praising the qualities of Arthur when he gets the girl instead of him, and saying he’s happy that Lucy is happy. Mina’s and Jonathan’s love gives them hope amid the disaster. Whenever one member of the group does something especially brave or clever, we only hear about the event from their friend recounting the glory of the deed. The framing sequence gives us a deeper insight into the group dynamics, and it became one of the sweetest found families I’ve ever read. When adaptations remove the characters from this POV, they also lose this interpersonal element of internal admiration, which the original captures so well. Mina remarks of her new friends:

Dr. Seward went about his work of going his round of the patients; when he had finished, he came back and sat near me, reading, so that I did not feel too lonely whilst I worked. How good and thoughtful he is; the world seems full of good men—even if there are monsters in it.

From Mina Harker’s Journal

By creating these dynamics that invest the reader, Stoker also raises the stakes. Losing any one member of the group would devastate to all the others, and when Dracula attacks Lucy and Mina, it’s not only scary, it’s also tragic. We feel their grief through their personal writings, in a way they don’t always share publically, so we know what they’re suffering when their friends don’t. We also see how they lean on each other for support when it is too much to bear alone, and this combination of dynamics makes the story compelling for more than just the titular character.

The Stakes

This is a Catholic book!

Even if you’re not religious, I believe anyone can still enjoy the story by experiencing the threat through the lens of the characters who wholeheartedly believe in the Christian afterlife. To them, vampires are an affront against God’s holy plan of salvation. Dracula is a murderer and a rapist, but beyond that, he also brings other people into the living hell of immortality against their will. This is a sin paramount to the others, as the Bible condemns leading others into sin: “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” from Luke 17:2.

There are also exponential implications past Dracula’s immediate influence. Each victim that loses their humanity goes onto turn other people and terrorize their local communities with a single-minded blood-thirst. Van Helsing likens this to a plague and insists that they must stop the cycle before it is too late. It leaves you wondering how many people he’s indirectly hurt throughout the years, and how many times this tragic story has played out in the past. From the weeping townsfolk pressing crucifixes into Jonathan’s hand, we can take a guess.

It takes convincing from Helsing for Seward, Quincey, and Arthur to accept the existence of vampires.

My thesis is this: I want you to believe.”

“To believe what?”

“To believe in things that you cannot…Now that you are willing to understand, you have taken the first step to understand.”

Van Helsing and Dr. Seward

As soon as they have the faith to listen, Van Helsing systematically proves what he knows to be true, proving that science and faith rely on each other and the characters value both in their approach to the world. He takes the men to the graveyard that evening and they see first-hand how vampire-Lucy has lost almost every shred of her humanity. At first, Seward (who recounts the event) is still skeptical, but his disbelief is born out of love for Lucy and desperate fear. With the evidence staring him in the face, he doesn’t want it to be true, because that means the only just and merciful solution is to kill the vampire that took the soul of their friend. They decide to let Arthur strike the final blow. As her would-be husband, they know Lucy would want to be laid to rest beside him, and this is the closest she can have. Vampire-Lucy beckons him to join her, but she is selfish and callous, wearing the appearance but completely replacing the kind and generous woman they knew. Arthur still has to kill her, so she will stop killing children, and it is just as much justice for Lucy as it is a tragedy. He considers it an honor to be the one to drive a stake through her heart, and let her have the peaceful death and chance at true eternal life and happiness in heaven that she deserves.

Thematic Inversion

It is also worth noting how Dracula perverts what the heroes see as good and holy for his own means. When he speaks about the vampire ladies in his court, Luca, and Mina, his language is possessive and obsessive. He sees the women as his property, compared to the men who speak with devotion about the ones they love. Jonathan and Helsing exclude Mina at first from the meetings to discuss how to deal with Dracula, a fact they deeply regret later when the Count attacks Mina. Love and a desire to protect motivate their choice, rather than dismissal.

Van Helsing obtains a dispensation to use the Eucharist (God’s body, blood, soul, and divinity under the appearance of bread and wine), to use against the evil. When it touches her, she burns, and in her later diary entries, her grief hurts just as much. As soon as the men realize their failure, they go out of their way to support Mina and respect her input, which ultimately helps them create their final battle plan. But even as they scheme, Jonathan remarks on how the vampire’s influence compromises his position:

To one thing I have made up my mind: if we find out that Mina must be a vampire in the end, then she shall not go into that unknown and terrible land alone. I suppose it is thus that in old times one vampire meant many; just as their hideous bodies could only rest in sacred earth, so the holiest love was the recruiting sergeant for their ghastly ranks.

Jonathan Harker’s Journal

There is also a symbolic perversion of the presence of blood throughout the book. Christians believe that we are saved from sin and eternal death through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross – his blood fulfilling the Moasic covenant from the Passover, where the blood of an unblemished lamb saved Israelite families from the angel of death. Stoker’s inclusion of the Sacred Host throughout the story, treated with the utmost reverence and not simply as a fantastical tool, makes a clear (but oft overlooked in pop culture) parallel between Mina made unclean by the blood of Dracula, but saved through the blood of Christ.

How can writers use Dracula to develop their stories?

  • Using limited or first person POVS and/or unreliable narrators preserves the mystery and fear of the unknown
  • Revealing the twist to the reader but not the character creates dramatic tension and dread
  • If the reader falls in love with your characters, any deaths or threats will hurt more. Likewise, hurting a character’s loved ones is a gut punch. Or worse, forcing your characters to hurt their loved ones for their own good.
  • Ask what your characters have to lose? Is their humanity or free will at stake? What would be a fate worse than death?
  • How does evil warp what the character’s love? Can you twist any symbols or themes into dark mirrors of themselves to create a poignant parallel between the heroes and the villains?
  • What separates a hero from a villain? How close do your characters get to turning? Having them walk the knife’s blade between good and evil can make for excellent drama, especially if they’re conflicted about their state/actions.

I hope you found this analysis interesting and useful! It was fun to revisit this format after so long, just in time for Halloween. Do you agree with what I have to say? Did you learn something new, or use any of the questions to develop your characters? Leave a comment below, and let’s start a discussion. I’m curious to see what you have to tell me. Thank you for reading, and happy writing!

Runaways Beta Call and September Goals Recap

Hello my friends, I have a special announcement for you today! I am now recruiting beta readers for Runaways!

If you aren’t familiar with the story, Runaways is a middle grade fantasy novel that focuses on themes of betrayal, forgiveness, and sisterly love. You can read the synopsis and some early excerpts right now on its WIP Page, but I plan to release it serially on this website in the coming year, and I need help to get it ready to share. If you’re interested, please check out This Form – all the relevant info is in the introduction to help inform your decision. I’m super excited to share this story with the world, and I appreciate all the support so much. 🙂

While we’re on the topic of big updates, I also completed most of my goals this month! (?) School is now in full swing and I think I’ve finally adjusted to the balance of school, work, activities and writing. (If you want to hear more about that topic, you can check out this post). I spend most of my limited free time working on my books, so I’ve been a little more absent on social media, and while it’s frustrating that I can’t interact or edit as much as I like, I’m happy I still have these opportunities. So without further ado, what did I get done?

Won by 4 points! 12/14 goals

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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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August Goals Recap

Hello, my friends, I hope you all are doing well. School has begun for me, and I cannot tell you how excited I am to be back on campus. The first week was spent so busy meeting up with friends (some I’m only meeting in person for the first time!), organizing club activities, and starting a research project, in addition to all my classes. I’m doing my best to schedule writing time in the mornings, before my 9am classes, and was able to more or less stick to that plan! We’ll see how long it lasts, especially once homework starts piling on, but for now I’m pleased to have a dedicated hour. It’s not much, but maintaining the creative momentum is half the battle when it comes to keeping a habit, and having the dedicated hour of escape from my other responsibilities will help me stay balanced through the semester, so I have high hopes!

I also said in my last recap that I found another way of tracking writing progress that I would be using going forward. Well… I ended up not using it as much as I thought I would, but I still somehow managed to finish more words than I did in July! I’m going to continue experimenting with the chart, but I think it works better when my attention is split between a bunch of things, rather than doing a sprint, as you’ll see in the goals breakdown. So what did I work on?

Won by 3.5 points – 8/9!

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Author Interview: Quill & One Siren’s Soul

Today I’m pleased to introduce you to my great writing friends, and all time favorite people on writeblr! Quill is mostly a fantasy and sci-fi author, and shares excerpts from their WIPs in the universe of One Siren’s Soul – a fantastical adventure with pirates and sirens set in an alternate-universe, 1700s-era, Age of Sail Earth version of earth. It has a colorful cast of absolutely delightful characters, and one of the coolest magic systems I’ve ever seen, so I’m absolutely thrilled to share their work with you today!

Etta: Hello and welcome! First could you introduce yourself and talk a little about what you write?

Quill: Hello hello! It’s a lovely honour to be in this metaphorical interview room. You have wonderful virtual decor.
I’ve had more than a few names, but you can call me Quill! Half of the time, I almost couldn’t tell you what I write–most of my notebooks are filled with bits and bobs from all sorts of genres, writing exercises and random dream journaling that make not a lick of sense (sometimes not even to me). But of what I let see the light of day, my writing usually focuses on the fantasy or sci-fi genres, with worldbuilding that often begins as something simple enough and then that side of the brain that makes everything difficult kicks in and decides it should be super deep and complex. I definitely love to dabble in all sorts of things, but I have to say, something about that “magic is science and science is magic” aspect just holds me enraptured

Etta: Thank you for agreeing to do this! ahh the “magic is science and science is magic” approach to worldbuilding is my favorite and I’m so excited to hear your answers. Let’s start at the beginning, When you start developing a magic system, what’s your starting point?

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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!

Lessons Learned from a Year of Blogging

Storytime: It’s August 3rd, I’ve just wrapped up a month-in-review, which means the next item on my to-do list is to start writing and queuing blog posts, Instagram photos, and tumblr links for the rest of the month. As is my customary routine. I open the WordPress dashboard and realize, “Oh hey, I’ve put up 50 posts on a near-weekly basis, that’s kind of neat!” I file this information aside in the “cool facts” portion of my brain, and go to open a new post, before doing an abrupt about-face as realization dawns on me in a sky-shattering Eureka moment. I madly scroll down my list, half-disbelieving as the date under my first post confirms that I’ve reached my 1-year anniversary of keeping this website, and I nearly missed it.

I reached one year how did that happen???? Honestly I’m still in some denial that I’ve made it this far, and in shock at what this blog has become since this first tentative post. I’ve learned so much over this past year, and changed so much as a person, so I wanted to share some of my biggest take-aways today. If there are any other aspiring authors reading this, I hope this serves as some degree of motivation and advice for you. To whoever is reading this, thank you for your support. I never thought I’d make it, and this milestone is exciting beyond my wildest dreams.

The only point of comparison that matters is past-you: As I’ve become more invested in the indie-author space, learning more about how to create an effective author’s platform, and taking the steps toward self publishing, I’ve also been comparing myself to the successful authors I’m learning from. These writers have multiple books out, thousands of followers, and make a living wage off their full-time author career, and I asked myself, “I’ve been working so hard, why am I not at that level?” That’s not a fair question to ask. I’m an unpublished 20 year old uni student, obviously I’m not going to have that kind of platform yet. But I will eventually, if I keep working hard.

Follow your interests: External validation matters less when you’re intrinsically motivated. It is easy to get caught up in the statistics and feel beholden to creating content that will get the most hits, but if you’re not enjoying the process, then what’s the point? If I write about what I love, keeping this blog won’t feel like a chore, and I’ll be able to maintain consistency which is ultimately more honest than following a quick trend.

Follow your interests: Other people can tell when you care, and that means they care more about reading what you have to say. I never expected anyone to care about my Count of Monte Cristo posts, but those have some of the farthest reach! My personal writing is unpublished and I figured only a few close friends would care, but I’m floored by the number of views my excerpts get when I put them up. Who cares about the way I outline? 50 of you, apparently! Moral of the story: Don’t be afraid to share your passions.

Quality > Quantity: I want to put content into the world that’s going to be useful, motivational, and entertaining. If I’m going to spend my time on this project, I want it to matter to someone, not just be mindlessly consumed and then discarded. By putting in the effort, I create articles that I can redirect people back to because I’m confident they still contain solid information. I might not write as prolifically as other bloggers, but even my old posts still get a few hits a day because they’re just as relevant.

Planning -> Consistency: At one point this past year, I was taking 18 credits of chemical engineering and business classes through zoom university, working 20 hours a week at a lab, and still putting out posts on the weekly. I won’t pretend that I wasn’t crazy or losing tons of sleep, but I can say that I would not have been able to maintain that posting schedule if I had to come up with new ideas every week. Knowing what came next meant that I could add it to my to-do list like any other assignment I knew was coming up soon, and it felt like something that could be accomplished and not an extra I’d get to if I had the chance. Even a simple schedule is better than nothing.

Education beats intimidation: I didn’t know anything about web design, blogging, the publishing industry, or author business when I started this. As I’ve done that research, the fear of the unknown was replaced by an understanding of the next steps to take, and even if the amount of work is still intimidating, I know that’s something I can tackle one step at a time. Educate yourself about what scares you. It might still be scary as hell but at least you’ll have the weapon of knowledge to use against it.

Spend your time on what matters most now: I don’t plan to publish for another few years. My stories are not ready to release yet and I want to graduate and have a financially stable job before I go all-in on the self-publishing project. I would be wasting my time on researching Amazon ads and trying to network with authors to get speaking engagements. Will I try both of these things eventually? Probably. But for now, I’m going to focus on what’s attainable: finishing my books, and keeping this blog running in the meantime.

So I find myself writing this in complete disbelief. I’ve wanted to be an author my whole life; as a little kid I hid under the blankets with a flashlight, notebook, and pen, thinking “I wanna write a book!”

Everyone does that, right?

Everyone has big dreams and big plans. But here I am, tentatively holding the half-finished 2nd draft of my manuscript, the almost-finished first draft of a new story, a blog of 50 posts, and countless more ideas, taking the next step towards putting the wildest of my literary endeavors out into the world for real. This is it, guys. I’m going legit. I’m really doing this whole “I’m going to be an author!” thing. I’ve got a website now.

Real Authors have websites, right?

I have slightly more of an idea where to start with this, but I figure a next step, no matter how unsure, is a next step nonetheless. I hope my humble corner of the internet will turn into something more, and I hope I’ll be able to bring you along on the journey.

So let’s take the next step together, shall we?