The 5 Secret Rules of Catgirl System

It’s an old rusty crusty maxim by this point that limitation breeds creativity. Well, with Catgirl System, I started out knowing many things I wanted to include, but many many more things I didn’t. I gave myself limitations—on what characters could say, where they could go, and even the thinks I allowed them to think.

Some of them will make immediate sense to you while others seem a little more arbitrary. There are reasons behind them all.

So these are the five heretofore-unwritten laws of the Catgirl universe…!

5. They can’t curse.

In an effort to make the story feel “softer,” I decided almost immediately that the characters would not curse.

“Heck” and “shoot” are permissible. “Hell” should only be used in the context of vague, non-religious, magical lands of infernos.

Relatedly, I also decided to avoid some of the language that I grew up using for easy jokes. I didn’t want character to call each other names like “lame” or “stupid.” From time to time, I rack my brain over an alternative to “stupid” for the characters to use that can, nonetheless, be used to insult someone. Usually I come out with a pretty decent phrase that even sounds natural.

I mean, some of my alternatives to insults and curses totally don’t sound natural, but I try to make those unnatural in a funny or endearing way. Would a cat from the inner cities of Earth be saying “dang”? I can’t promise you that, but it kind of tickles me.

4. The world is small.

I’ve talked about this somewhat before. The world Taipha ends up in is encapsulated in a single map. The map does not grow; it only changes.

I did this because I wanted to capture an “endless tutorial” sense, except not as horrific as that term implies. It should feel more like a vacation, training wheels coming off to lead into a long and enjoyable ride.

I was inspired by the opening chapters of Threadbare, All the Dust that Falls, and Cinnamon Bun, where the hero ends up in a town, or a home, or a castle, a place with boundaries. These “first levels” may have several wings or floors, a farm or an estate, but in the end, you can still sum them up as a single place. I find something comforting in the idea that they only have so much ground to cover, and that familiar locations can be accessed again without much trouble. So I figured that for a story that I want to feel fairly comforting, it would be fun to try something very similar, only with a forest and not a human place.

3. Every random thing Taipha finds in the forest helps tell the story of this fantasy world…but heavy world-lore is rare.

Taipha finds treasure hidden around the woods because I thought spontaneous treasure-hunting would be fun. Building this into her system also gave me an ever-present way to brainstorm ideas for off-the-cuff adventures whenever I needed or wanted it.

A consequence of this: I did not rigorously plan out every object she finds. I didn’t interweave them with the deep lore of the Vencian Wood. There are hints of that, but they’re just that: hints.

But I think this is a positive thing. I don’t want the thing in the forefront of reader’s minds, every time they see a random treasure pop up, to be, “This is what we’ve been waiting for: new lore about the world!” I’d much rather it be, “That was a fun little treasure-hunting adventure! I wonder what the treasure is.”

The treasure-hunting isn’t a means to an end! It is the end!

2. Ultimately it should feel like the world is on Taipha’s side.

You will see what I mean once more of the story comes out. One example of this, though, that appears like a hundred words into the story, is Taipha’s connection with a goddess. Maybe she doesn’t have twenty-four-seven access to the goddess hotline, but about half the time, she can call and the goddess will answer. And…okay, maybe she also doesn’t always give good advice, but about half of the times she does attempt any advice, it’s genuinely useful.

I wanted Taipha to have an immediate companion—even if she’s too rude to be an actual friend—both for banter and so that her world doesn’t feel lonely right off the bat. (A lot of LitRPGs feel that way.) Broccoli Bunch is pretty quick to hug her first skele-pal, but in Catgirl System, I didn’t even give Taipha any downtime. Bam, she just has a (vaguely) reliable ally.

And another example that shows up within the first five chapters is a mysterious cabin housing humans, the creatures Taipha avoided so much before the story began. But they’re not that bad. Maybe they’re a little bad. But they’re not, y’know, that bad. The cabin begins to teach her that the world around her is maybe not that bad, and challenges can be overcome.

This law goes hand in hand with the final one…

1. Every moment of psychological devastation should be undercut.

The basic reason for this is because I don’t think anyone clicks on a story called Catgirl System expecting, or wanting, psychological devastation. Surprise is one thing, but whiplash is another.

I’ve seen readers tell authors, “I love your work, but this latest section is just too hard for me to read right now.” They would continue if not for the particular fear and discomfort it sets off for them. When this only happens many chapters in, it has to be especially devastating.

For a story like Catgirl System that aims to be lighter and breezier, I absolutely do not want that. I can’t prevent 100% of things, but there are two major preventative measures I can take. One of them is forewarning readers. If some amount of fear and blood is introduced in the early chapters, readers have at least a bit of an idea of how much fear and blood is to come.

The other one is undercutting the devastation.

A lot of things that are played for laughs in the story would not be funny if they happened to someone in real life. I think that the goddess, Sierra, is a funny character. She has a lot of banter with Taipha. But she’s also an asshole, and usually, Taipha does not want to be sharing brainspace with her heavenly snark. Taipha also has several anxieties and insecurities, on top of what I guess would be called species-based dysphoria. Sierra presses her buttons on all of that. Taipha is initially uncomfortable with the idea of transforming into her humanoid form, but her goddess makes her. In other words, she is being forced by an omnipotent being to do things she does not want to do, and that sounds horrible.

And I want to write that while also avoiding the trap of making Taipha into a total clown, or that goddess into more than what she is: catty and morally gray.

I use a lot of strategies to undercut what would otherwise be straight-up existential horror. First, I use lots of humor. Purely as comic banter-partners, Taipha and Sierra kind of have the dynamic of two bickering siblings, with Taipha as the naive younger sibling. This means there’s something relatable and familiar about their banter. Ideally, that should help readers think a little less of “Taipha is chatting with an existential being, that is scary” and more of “ugh/heh, I know/have siblings like that.”

Also, I try never to put Taipha in the wrong about their relationship, and also to keep her sympathetic rather than make her an absolute fool whom we all want to dunk on. She never deserves the poking and prodding from Sierra. The fact that Taipha is our POV character makes this easier to put into practice, but I also give her lots of moments that I hope are sympathetic and relatable.

I try not to stack trauma upon trauma, and one way I do this is by adding in several moments of calm. When Sierra forces Taipha to transform, I make sure that she doesn’t immediately thrust her into a situation that would make her anxiety skyrocket. Instead, Taipha ends up in a long moment of calm. Here, she can just think for a while, almost meditating on her problems, possibly coming to terms with them.

When Taipha does explode (and rightfully so), I don’t want it to be played for suspense, used as a dramatic cliffhanger so that readers can fret about her explosion alongside her. I would rather resolve the explosion within a chapter, or else let that fury or sorrow gently taper off to another pocket of calm. Sure, we can have some meltdowns (especially if we try to forewarn the audience that these will be coming), but the suspense should come from the action, the humor, the adventure, and good feelings about the protagonist and where she’s going.

I did all this because when I was planning the story, I was reading several YA novels and wondering why their authors made the decisions they did. I thought about the ways some books “softened” their moments of trauma, making them easier for readers to get through, trying not to inflict a new trauma on others.

While I want my story to be able to ask questions that are intense and troubling, and include many troubling things, I would rather not make readers feel more than a fleeting discomfort, one that they know will be soothed, in a fulfilling or hilarious way, on the next page.

Remember: these are not laws of storytelling.

These are only laws for Catgirl System, and they certainly won’t resonate with all authors or work for 99% of stories. But thinking about the unwritten laws of stories is one of my favorite hobbies of all time, and I always love to see other authors do it. Why not try it myself?

And now to uphold the pact I swore to uphold: my bimonthly writing update, to keep me accountable.

My Catgirl System Writing/Editing Progress

Um…decent. I wanted to have Book 2 totally finished about a week ago, but I guess I did have life hiccups, so that’s fair…ish. I’ve been reminding myself recently that it will take serious discipline to do all the things I want to do in life. Lately I haven’t been showing much discipline. Relaxation is definitely good from time to time, but if I relax too much then I just slump over. Not amazing.

Anyway, now I’m *deep breath* 99.99999% done with Book 2. I’ve finished most of my formatting, but not all of it. Also, I probably don’t have an immediate need for ISBNs. I probably won’t buy any. I know that you were all wondering about that when I mentioned ISBNs last time. Yeah. You were so hung up on it.

Thank you for reading, and Patrons, thank you for Patreonning.

For more cat action, check out this formal introduction to our cat hero Taipha, or this review of solitaire dungeon crawling in Four Against Darkness. Wait…that last one wasn’t about cats. Or was it? Only one way to find out. Same with this article about album and book covers that were ahead of their time. Yowza!

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