Free Templates: Outline and Edit Sheet

Hello my friends, and Happy Thanksgiving if you celebrate! I had meant to share with you today an excerpt from Store, which explains the yellow rose symbol you can see around my blog and social media. This scene comes from chapter 12, and I had left off editing several months ago on chapter 10. Since I took a hiatus to work on Runaways, I needed to reread much of what I already completed in order to figure out what to do next. In the process, I started experimenting with a new method to stay organized. Storge is a hugely complicated read: painfully over-ambitious story, with 3 (and a half) subplots (if you count the Avian drama), and eight POVs, so I needed a new way to keep all the details straight and my old word doc list method didn’t cut it. I’m quite pleased with how my new spreadsheet works, but got so carried away in my analysis, and midterms, and hosting our family’s feast, that I never finished the scene.

But I’ve been talking about this incessantly on tumblr, so I’m not wholly without content for you today. I’ve created a blank version of my sheet, which is available here for you to copy and use for your own stories! I also created a blank version of the outline I use for brainstorming my stories. Both of these documents are shared by clicking on the links, and you will have editing privileges. Kindly don’t write in this document, make a copy, then leave the original blank for others to use! I explained how I use my brainstorming documents in this post and broke down the editing process from first read-through to final draft in this post. With the links out of the way, the rest of this entry will is an updated version of Step 3 in the editing process: the Developmental Edits.

The purpose of developmental edits is to change the content of the story to make it as clear and entertaining as possible. In this step, you stitch together plotholes, build up the character arcs, develop narrative foils, track motifs and foreshadowing, keep the timeline and pacing on track, make sure the world-building is consistent, and balance the POVs and subplots to make sure you don’t accidentally forget one for several chapters.

I have several tabs at the bottom of the sheet to keep track of each item in depth. The first page is an overview master plan. I list the individual scenes down from beginning to end, with the column next to that merging several cells together to show chapters. Then I have color coded boxes to show which POV has each scene, and which subplot is currently being followed. That’s also where I have their length in word count and pages, what kind of scene it is, and the timeline. This lets me set up useful formulas and make graphs, even though getting those incremental numbers from Word is a pain. The program isn’t set up in the google sheet, as it would vary for the number of scenes and chapters each stories has, but the option is there for you to use.

To the right are snapshot boxes for each item I mentioned before. Those columns get their own pages for more detail, because my “thinking out loud” rarely fits nicely here. I’ll do analysis on the appropriate page, then write the things I need to fix on the master sheet. This example is from the characterization sheet, but I laid out the others in the same way, changing the column headers and colors as needed.

This is where the thinking happens: I’m an underwriter, so when I wrote the 1st draft, you only ever saw the characters actions as they moved the plot along, but I wrote next to no introspection or “down time” to release the tension where the characters could show their thought process or growth. This process forces me to slow down and compare what I conceptualize for each scene versus what I actually wrote. Readers aren’t mind readers, and this puts me in the perspective of someone who doesn’t have the full picture. I’ve noticed loads of inconsistencies by filling up these boxes. This method works very well for complex or long novels. I didn’t have these steps for Runaways because it only has 1 POV and no subplots, but I’m finding it really useful here. It’s not for every WIP/writer, but for any outline-happy epic fantasy authors with Too Many Things to keep track of, I’d recommend giving it a try!

Happy Writing!

Symbolism in Addie La Rue

I first encountered The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab on bookstagram where it seemed like everyone was discussing the story. This novel hit the NY Times Bestseller List for 37 weeks straight through July this year, and not without good reason. In my opinion, the story more than lives up to the hype, and it is so effectively compelling because of the symbolism Schwab weaves through the narrative. Today I want to discuss three of the most important motifs that make Addie’s story so memorable and how aspiring authors can learn from Schwab’s writing to create meaningful symbols of their own. This will contain some spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book yet, beware of that before reading.


Adeline LaRue is a young woman living in the small town of Villon, France in 1741, who desperately wants to see more of the world. She feels trapped in an engagement she doesn’t want, and fears the headlong rushing of time, saying, “I don’t want to live and die in the same ten meter plot.” Her faith is torn between the Christian God of her parent’s and the old gods of her elder friend, Estele. On the night of her wedding, she flees into the woods and pleas for some higher power to save her from her fate, and the night answers. Despite Estele’s warnings to never pray to the gods who answer after dark, Adeline strikes a deal with him. At first, she offers a wooden ring, carved for her as a child by her father, but the god doesn’t deal in “trinkets.” They bargain, and draw their terms: immortality in exchange for her soul when she doesn’t want it anymore.

When she returns to the town, she finds that everyone she knew has forgotten her. She cannot remind them of her name, because every time she tries to speak the words, they get stuck in her throat. She cannot write or leave any permanent mark. Any interactions “reset” the curse. As soon as the other person walks away, they forget her again. However, she can steal. She takes some bare essentials and a wooden bird from her father’s workshop before fleeing the town. The story follows Addie – no longer Adeline – between her past through the centuries, and modern day NYC, as she navigates her curse and meets Henry Strauss, the first person in over 300 years who remembers her.

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How To Write Impactful Symbols

Hello my friends, today we’re covering every English teacher’s favorite subject! (cue collective eye roll). Take it from someone who started an engineering major specifically to avoid taking Lit classes: Symbols can actually be a fascinating and extremely effective technique to elicit emotional reactions from your characters and your audience. It’s one of my favorite, but poorly understood, rhetorical tools in a storyteller’s arsenal, so today I wanted to break down the topic and discuss how to write symbols that work.

What Makes The Curtains Blue? Or, When Does Symbolism Matter?

Whether a trait is a symbol depends on context: specifically in its reoccurrence and connection to the themes. A symbol needs to impact the characters and the way they interact with the world. If a protagonist remarks on the blue curtains and they’re never mentioned again, that’s setting the scene. If the curtains are closed whenever a character experiences a depressive episode, and they’re a barrier to the support system of friends and family reaching out to help, then that could be a symbol for the isolation of mental illness. A symbol is normally a physical object, though this isn’t a requirement. If a character refers in the narration to his depression as a “curtain of fog” throughout the novel, but actual curtains don’t affect the story, that would be an example of an extended metaphor or motif, rather than a symbol. So now with the definitions out of the way…

How To Make Symbols Relevant and memorable

Making an effective symbol is half about making sure readers remember it in the middle of all the other plot stuff going on. It really comes down to pattern recognition. One mention makes it a throwaway detail. Two mentions make it a coincidence. Three or more make it intentional. You also want to make sure you include the symbol in a context where it will be the most memorable, like an emotionally charged scene, rather than just setting up the environment. If you want readers to remember, the characters need to care about the symbol, and draw attention to it in some direct way that points out, “this will be back.” It’s an emotional Checkov’s Gun, where if you tie an object to an emotion, we expect the same object to return to evoke that same emotion again, or remind the character of the original occurrence. I’ll talk about this a bit more in the next section, but keep that reoccurance in mind.

It can also be interesting to compare the contexts in which you introduce the symbol is introduced. If an object is a useful tool in one situation, and serves as a damning marker in another scene, it becomes a more complex and interesting element that carries that context forward. When you introduce a symbol in different frames, not only do you draw a parallel between those two situations, you can also juxtapose them to take advantage of dramatic irony. This is the sort of setup-payoff loop associated with foreshadowing, the kind that makes the audience point at the page and go “oh! so that’s how that comes back!” Additionally, in mysteries, these can take the form of subtle clues and red herrings, to point reader attention away from the relevant details. The possibilities are as endless as your creativity!

The emotional impact of motifs and symbols

Not only can you juxtapose the context to take advantage of dramatic irony, you can also draw parallels and comparisons between the character’s mental states. A symbol can serve as a reminder of a different point in their character arc, to showcase how much they’ve grown or fallen since the last appearance. If they tie their emotions up in a physical object, and they bring that baggage with them, literally. It brings the emotion to the present to impact the reader as well. This is how you can create a mixture of anger and heartbreak to create betrayal over an ex’s ring, or bittersweet at a memento of childhood. How does the character react to the symbol when they don’t want it? Would they try to destroy or throw away the memories associated with the thing, or treasure finding it? If it’s something they keep intentionally, how would they feel if they lost it, or had to give it up?

This doesn’t have to be a simple onetime only setup/payoff event. Recurring motifs let you track those emotions through a story, each time growing more complex, harder to define, and more intense. It might not always be relevant, but each time you bring that object back into play, the reader recognizes, “oh! The symbol is back! This is important!” The trade of tension and relief between appearances also helps to keep the story moving as the audience wonders when the symbol will come back again. Does a character reject it in one scene, then rejoice at its return, only to cast it away again when they realize they are no longer tied to the past? Does the villain taunt them with their past failures, only for the hero to reclaim them as their own? These are the powerful turning points that make up the emotional beats of a story, and symbols let you leverage the backstory in a way that profoundly effects the present.

Was this a useful article for you? Do you have any symbols in your stories? Let me know! Next week, I’ll be discussing a book that uses several symbols spectacularly, to show you just how diverse they can be, and just how much range you can get from them. Until then, Happy Writing! 🙂

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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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?

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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