It’s Friday, I’m burnt out, and I’m doing the mom thing today (chasing the kid around nearly an hour past his naptime as he hasn’t eaten his lunch yet). So today I’m going to post a preview of my LGBTQIA+ Fantastika symposium paper – in abstract form. You can find full details of the event here:
But Where Do The Babies Come From?: Evaluating the Effect of Mothers as Matriarchs in Monstress, Wonder Woman, and Y: The Last Man
What happens in a world where there are no men or patriarchs?How are political alliances arranged? How are relations formed? And where do the babies come from? These are some of the questions posed in the works of Monstress, WonderWoman, and Y: The Last Man. Although men still exist in the world of Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s Monstress, it is striking that the political alliance between the Dawn Court and the Dusk court are made via the marriage of two females. While patriarchal marriage alliances are generally made in order to combine bloodlines, Monstress blatantly ignores this objective. In contrast, while in the original Wonder Woman comics, Hippolyta creates her daughter Diana from clay, in the 2011 retcon DC changed this parthenogenetic birth so that Diana is created from the union of Zeus and Hippolyta, reaffirming the role of heterosexual parentage. Meanwhile, Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man undermines this heterosexual/binary parentage completely. At the beginning of the series, Yorick Brown and his pet monkey Ampersand are the only two living males left on the entire planet, as a mysterious illness kills anyone with a Y chromosome. One of the explanations offered for this illness is, due to viable cloning, males were no longer necessary, and Mother Nature destroyed them. All three graphic narratives offer interesting perspectives of the place and space of men within a queered world. While these texts are still fairly conservative (as they do not engage in sustained conversation about either intersexuality or pansexuality), each narrative still reveals insights into the binary nature of power structures and family dynamics. This paper will begin this dialogue as the first steps of a larger project examining power and gender roles in fantasy fiction.
I’ve done so much close reading analysis that never made it into my published pieces. If you are working on publishing something yourself, it’s a hard lesson to let your darlings go. i.e, you might have this terrific piece of analysis, but it might not add much to your overall argument and/or because of word length or copyright requirements, you need to find a way to be concise instead of digging into the full quotation.
The following is material I’ve had to cut from an article published in Fantasy Art and Studies (details here; you can also find discussions of my problems with publishing this piece here). It (the cut material) focuses on BBC’s Merlin (2008-2012). As my final published piece took a survey approach, I couldn’t spend as much time to dedicate to Merlin as I had originally hoped. The first draft of this piece (a conference paper) focused almost exclusively on the television show. It took me years to figure out that I needed to cut back my attention to the show in order to let the argument come through. (University 811 Writing tip: If you’re struggling to get a piece published, you may want to consider the focus of your piece and then apply an outline approach.)
The Knights of the Round Table never fully get together in BBC’s Merlin as Arthur and titular character Merlin takes the places of the knights on their adventures. The show is clichéd in terms of production: dialogues, background music, costume, and even lighting. Not only are there violins playing when Guinevere and Arthur kiss, but there is a ray of sunlight breaking through between them[i]. But by abiding in these clichéd conventions, the writers are able to transform all the major and minor plot lines of the Arthurian legend to a point where they are barely recognizable, and still remain a quintessential Arthurian story. Merlin often ignores much of the canon. The character of Merlin is not depicted as a wizened old man, but as a young adult, the same age as Prince Arthur, and furthermore, he must hide his magical powers and take the role of Arthur’s manservant. In many of the Arthurian stories up to this point only those of noble blood can be a knight. But the British television show Merlin challenges this doctrine. Lancelot does not descend from nobility. And even Guinevere is simply the daughter of a blacksmith and the maid of Lady Morgana. It is interesting that in these feminist Arthurian novels, though the novelists argue for gender and religious equality, they still abide by a class system. While Guinevere’s right to rule usually came from matriarchal power and Morgana descended from a long lineage of priestesses, this still indicates the aristocratic right to power. While in Merlin, Arthur is also still the son of a king, more emphasis is placed on secondary characters, specifically the title character of the show – Merlin.
Although Arthur is initially depicted as an arrogant, spoiled, rich boy, through his friendship with Merlin and his love for Guinevere he slowly begins to appreciate the value of the people of the other classes. His transformation is in keeping with a conception of courtly love. As Larry D. Benson suggests in Malory’s Morte Darthur (1976), what distinguishes courtly love from other love is the concept that: “love is not only virtuous in itself but is the very source and cause of all the other virtues, that indeed one cannot be virtuous unless he is a lover”[ii]. Merlin and Guinevere’s influence inspires Arthur to show kindness to the lower class, which in turns inspires incredible loyalty in his knights (as they often emerge from among this class):
GWEN. You claim titles don’t matter to you, but you behave like a prince and expect me to wait on you like a servant. Saying it means nothing if your actions betray you. […]
ARTHUR. You’re right. You have me invited me into your home and I have behaved appallingly. […]
GWEN. Because I thought you’d shown some humility. You had done something kind for me even though I’m just a servant. A good king should respect his people no matter who they are. [iii]
The resulting code of Arthur’s knighthood is established around these perimeters. When King Uther refuses to let Arthur rescue Guinevere when she is kidnapped as she is only a mere servant, Arthur’s determination to rescue Guinevere further marks a redefinition of the knight’s code. The knight must “always put the service of ladies foremost”[iv]. However, “a lady,” in Malory’s time, would only indicate a woman of noble birth. Merlin challenges the class structure, and expands this perimeter to include service all women, children, and people in need of aid. A knight, then, is not one of noble blood, but one who demonstrates this characteristic of nobleness.
In Merlin, Arthur replaces the other knights in undertaking quests, as well as taking on other motifs associated with Lancelot. He is briefly betrothed to Princess Elena[v], a figure who is paired with Lancelot (and was made by famous by Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, circa 1842). Arthur also rescues Guinevere several times (and at least thrice from kidnapping) when it is usually Lancelot that plays Guinevere’s rescuer. It should be noted though that, like its feminist predecessors, Guinevere in Merlin unfortunately still needs to be rescued. Arthur additionally takes on the “knight of the cart” motif and the “fair unknown” motif – motifs traditionally associated with Lancelot. In “The Sword in the Stone”, “the knight of the cart” motif serves as a mechanics that forces Arthur to consider the state of his kingdom and wonder if Tristan’s hatred of his kingship is warranted: “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I don’t deserve to be king”[vi]. Arthur’s arrogance is transformed into a temporarily humility, as he considers his own qualities as a king. Similarly, when Arthur adopts the “fair unknown” motif in an earlier episode, it serves to confirm that he is a good knight (and therefore, worthy enough to be the King of Camelot one day): “I fear that people respect me because of my title. […] When I’m competing as William, my title doesn’t matter, nobody gives me any special treatment. So when I win this tournament, if I win this tournament, it will be because I deserve it. Not because I am Prince Arthur”[vii]. Arthur demonstrates a belief in a meritocratic conception of kingship, where his right to lead is not determined from noble blood or divine right.
In contrast, Lancelot’s decisions in Merlin are still fueled by a desire to serve Guinevere, returning to the outdated model of courtly love which is found in Chrétien and Malory. While he is identified as the “bravest and most noble of them all”[viii], and though he demonstrates all the aspects of chivalry, Lancelot is too submissive and humble to be accepted as a strong hero. Lancelot willingly embraces his death (smiling with his arms spread in acceptance and welcome as he walks towards his death) solely because Guinevere asks him to “look after [Arthur]. Bring him home”[ix] and thus he dies in Arthur’s place. Lancelot’s action and speech mocks the notion of equality. “Ever since I was a child,” Lancelot says when we are introduced to him, “I’ve dreamed of coming here. It’s my life’s ambition to join the knights of Camelot. I know what you’re thinking. I expect too much. After all, who am I? They have their pick of the best and bravest in the land”[x]. His deference is disturbing because, through the character of Merlin, the audience is well aware of how the nobility, and especially King Uther, treat the servant class. Though in other Arthurian stories the adultery brought about the destruction of the court, we see in Merlin that Arthur is able to persevere past their betrayal. The Lancelot-Guinevere storyline serves only to mark Arthur’s fortitude and compassion, and further distinguish the qualities of nobleness that should be found in a knight.
Well my commitment to blog everyday is starting to falter, so I dug deep into my vault of unfinished stories for today’s post. I stopped writing fiction … 15 years ago? and have only started to dabble in it again with a few flash fictions in the last 2 years. At that time (i.e when I started writing again), I tried to pick up the pieces of where I left off, but I couldn’t make head or tails of all the different versions in my old hard drive. So I stuck an arbitrary title on all the pieces (this one is titled with the supremely unoriginal “Prophecy”) and labelled each of the drafts with a word count. I have no idea which draft I wrote first or why I have 11 of them. I suspect that the stories are slightly different in each – enough that I couldn’t just continue writing in the same document, as I likely re-structured and rewrote everything. Take a look:
If you’re baffled why one version would have 40,000 words while another has 400, you’re not alone. Amusingly, the one I picked today WAS titled with the incredibly suitable “The Fulcrum of Chaos.” I picked a draft at random for today as I couldn’t bring myself to open up all 11 drafts at this point. I’m reminded of a tangle of wires or strings that I know needs to be untangled, but I’m going to let them sit in the box, put away neatly in my closet, pretending everything is neat and orderly. The following is the first page of a 30 page document. It’s essentially unaltered (although I couldn’t bring myself to let the grammar mistakes stand. The copy-editor in me cringes that I didn’t know the difference between things like ‘then’ and ‘than.’). In any case, enjoy! …..?
From the Chronicles of the Mages’ Guild
She heard screaming. The smell of burnt flesh. She froze in horror, looking down at the girl writhing in pain on the ground. Amber flames licked across the other girl’s skin, torching her hair. She reached a hand out toward her when the screaming cut off abruptly. Her senses were screaming at her to run. To flee.
Dropping her bag, she sprinted in the direct of the closet tree, looking for cover. The grass went up in flames behind her. She didn’t look. Kept running, dashing across the street towards the protection of the forest. She should’ve run the other way. Towards more people. But it was dark out, made darker by the new moon. There would be few people still on campus. No one to hear her scream. And whoever was after her didn’t care about harming others.
She tripped, her high heels catching on a tree root as she muttered to herself. Her breath left her in a rush as she went down hard, her knees scraping where her skirt rode up. Scrambling up, she abandoned her heels, running over the hard dirt of the path barefoot. Should she leave the path? Where would she hide? Adrenaline gave her speed, but fear robbed her of breath. She could feel her heart pounding, her chest tight. Pain exploded in her head, and she fell screaming to the floor. She wasn’t on fire. Where was the pain coming from? She couldn’t see! She patted the earth, trying to find her missing eyeglasses while she chocked for air.
Her attacker was on top of her instantly. She couldn’t see him. Her. Was it even human? Her vision was greying at the edges. The figure before her a shadow. She gasped in a breath before his fingers clawed around her throat.
Damned if she’d go without a fight! Drawing in the last of her energy, she focused on her hand, punching him in the stomach. She could smell the now familiar scent of burnt flesh, and he screamed in pain. He reared back, giving her enough space to knee him between the legs. Outraged, he drew up a knife, lashing out with a scream of rage. Searing heat speared through her chest. Her eyes blurred in pain. Movement flickered before her. A wolf. There was a wolf standing by the tree.
As I talked about in yesterday’s post, if you’re about to engage in a large project (such as a dissertation), outlines can be incredibly useful. You might already have an outline, although you might not consider it as one. If you’ve started thinking about your work in sections or chapters, you’ve technically started drafting an outline. The longer or bigger the project, the more outline drafts you will have, before you even start the project itself. I’m about to start my next big research project (a book) and I am currently on my 10th draft of the outline. As your outline might need to be reviewed and approved by another person before you even start (maybe your supervisor or the college/department that you’re applying to), you will have to revise your outline according to their feedback. That doesn’t mean you can’t move away from your outline later. Instead, your outline shows that you have some grasp of what you intend to do and can start your project immediately. You won’t be wasting crucial time trying to figure out first steps. In my case, my outline needs to be approved by the editors/publishers who are looking at my book proposal as well as the funding body for the fellowship I’m applying for. If you’re asking people to invest time and/or money into you, then you need to demonstrate that you can follow their guidance in order to create a strong product.
But outlines aren’t only useful at the start of a project. If you’re engaged in a larger project, it can also be incredibly useful while revising your work. If you’ve ever received feedback that “your ideas are good, but your presentation needs re-structuring,” that means you need an outline; the person reviewing your work couldn’t follow the logical order of your thoughts. In this case, sit down with a new sheet of paper or a new document and go through your existing project. Identify the major point of each section without including any details. Just the key ideas, written up in short, simple sentences or phrases. If you have sections, then this can be just the key idea of each section, or maybe 3-4 ideas in each section. (I’m just throwing around numbers here; it depends entirely on the size of your project.)
In any case, the key ideas that you’ve extracted is your new outline. Looking at your new outline, make sure that every point leads the next logical point. Are there areas where you jump from one point to a completely different point without any connection? Are there ideas that you should move up front, in order to understand the rest of your project better? Honestly, I think almost every single editor, reviewer, or supervisor that has looked at my work had told me at some point “this needs to be moved up higher, Chuckie!” as I seem to write back to front. So it’s perfectly okay if your work needs a major overhaul. Keep in mind that, while it’s impossible to move EVERY single idea up to the front, you should gesture or foreshadow them; make a statement like “defined below,” or “see section x” or “we will come back to this in our discussion of x”. As well, your introduction or abstract (and every project regardless of the field should have one) should have a mini-outline, where you identify what you will be doing. Finally, make sure you’ve addressed all your objectives for each section and that this comes across in your new outline. If it’s not obvious from your outline of key pints and is instead buried in the details, then you might need to put more work into addressing your objectives.
If you’re getting close to submitting your dissertation – or are post-submission and are now preparing for publication, you might want to consider an outline taken at a paragraph level. Each paragraph should start with a sentence that introduces the topic of that paragraph. Ideally, if you look at just your first sentence of each paragraph, you should be able to identify if your thoughts are following a logical order. (See my example below.) Again, Scrivener is fantastic for this. You can split up the document paragraph by paragraph easily using the highlighted selection (the first sentence) with each split.
You can then go to outline view and drag and drop the paragraphs around if they seem out of place. A simple compile function will reintegrate all the paragraphs back into one document. (You should then go through and make sure that if you moved paragraphs, you’ve smoothed any awkward transitions.) Here in the example below, I’ve taken apart the introduction of my draft for chapter 5. Right away, I could see that a point is missing, that I’ve made a jump or buried a point that should be presented as its own paragraph/topic. I’ll go back and re-examine those paragraphs to see if I should split a large paragraph into two or if I need another new paragraph entirely. The objective of this exercise is by taking the first sentence of each paragraph, I’ve formed a mini-paragraph, one that’s comprehensible even without extraneous detail.
Of course, there are other ways to ensure that your project follows a logical format. You don’t have to go to the sentence/paragraph-level that I have done. And if you have any tips or advice for how to (re)-structure your work, please do share! I’d love to hear more ideas for how you restructure and revise later stages of work.
Next time, we’ll continue this blog series with a discussion of study tips. Until then, take care!
As I promised in yesterday’s blog, today we’re talking outlines, and how to use them effectively. While sitting down and writing one sentence and then the next may seem a logical approach to tackling a project, processing information doesn’t always follow a linear trajectory. As we discussed with concept mapping, your brain might be jumping all over the place with ideas. So if you’re staring at a blank page and you’re not sure where to start, OR if you have a completed draft but you’re not sure if your work is coherent and logical to follow, you may want to consider creating an outline.
If you’re staring at a blank page, try concept or mind mapping first. It’s okay if your map is chaotic and all over the place. We’ll look at this as draft 1 of mapping. From there, take out a different coloured pen and number your map, or if you’re using an app, move the bubbles around. Identify the major concepts or ideas and identify a linear order. Identify your key components and sub-components in a 1, 2, 3 format. These should be simple statements that you can then expand or add details to. And voila! You no longer have a blank page. You have an outline that you can build off of.
Note that some instructors might require you to have an outline. If you’re submitting a science paper, you might have to use a specific format: introduction, hypothesis, methodology, data, analysis, conclusion. Technically, this format is an outline. If you’re in the humanities, your instructor might require you to submit a similar outline as an assignment before preparing a larger research project. However, unless it’s required by your instructor or you’re about to engage in a larger project (which we’ll discuss tomorrow), an outline isn’t strictly necessary. You haven’t failed or done something wrong because you haven’t used an outline. An outline should be used as an aid if you’re stuck – something to get you to the next step – and not something to focus on and worry about. So don’t stress if your outline isn’t neat and tidy, or if you end up moving away from it altogether. You don’t need to stick to your outline like you’ve taken a blood oath. You can revise your outline as you need to or ignore it completely if the ideas are just flowing out of you and looking at your outline will halt that process. Return to it if you get stuck again.
Although most people consider using outlines at the start of a project, it can also be useful at later stages. You should review your initial outline to make sure you haven’t forgotten to include a crucial point. As well, you can also make a new outline to confirm that your thoughts and ideas follow a logical process. Sit down with your project and identify the key points in each section or paragraph. Write this down on a separate sheet of paper. This is your new outline. Take a good look at it and see if, without needing any extra details, someone can follow your outline in a logical progression. If you’ve identified your objectives and audience before you started the project, go back to these and make sure your outline addresses all of these points (or sit down and identify your objectives now and make sure you’re tackled them all). You can also ask a friend or study group to look over the outline. (This approach cuts down work for your friends if they only have to look at a page or two instead of the entire project.)
If you discover with your new outline that your ideas are hard to follow, it’s okay to swamp around ideas and move them until they fall into place. This is completely fine and normal. Re-drafting is good because you’re making your work better. It’s not a failure if you need to restructure your work. Tomorrow we’ll continue our discussion of using outlines for the re-drafting process, focusing on students who need to create a large piece of work (such as a dissertation). Until then, take care of yourselves.
Earlier this week we discussed how the first step to tackling problems of the blank page is to identify the root of what’s causing it. If you’ve determined that the problem is because you have loads of ideas but are not sure what to focus on, or if you have no ideas at all, taking some time to clarify your objectives might be one way to address this issue (concept or mind mapping might be another, which we talk about here). What are you hoping to accomplish with your project? If your instructor gave you prompts (a selection of questions or ideas to chose from) then look carefully at the word choices and phrasing. Whether or not you’ve been provided with prompts, you may want to consider any of the following as either components of your project or the main focus.
For instance, prompts like “identify” or “define” require succinct and concrete answers. Don’t waffle. However, unless you’re in an exam situation or answering short questions in an assignment, it’s unlikely that prompts like “define” will be the main focus question for a larger project. But you may need to consider it as a central objective in the beginning stages of your project. Similarly, prompts like “outline” and “summarise” require you to focus on the main points and not on little details. Like “identify” and “define”, it might be useful to consider it as a central objective at the beginning of your project.
A prompt like “illustrates” requires specific examples. This may require and/or inform further “analysis,” where you take your raw data and form a narrative, looking how the data interconnects and drawing conclusions. Likewise, prompts such as “evaluate” or “assess” also requires analysis of data, but here you are required to take a position and make an informed judgment. Don’t forget to consider strengths and weaknesses of your position. Show awareness that you’ve considered counter-arguments and gaps and offer rebuttals and explanations. If this is a large project, you may need to identify and define your limitations, scope, or perimeters, i.e identify for your audience the specifics variables you are examining (in humanities this might mean a specific text or artist), and acknowledge what your study must leave out (the gaps).
While we’re on the topic, don’t forget to identify your audiences. Your instructor might ask you to address a specific audience; for example, the assignment might be to write a blog piece or design a pamphlet geared at a general audience. But if the audience isn’t defined then you can assume that your assignment will be primarily looked at by your instructor. That said, I recommend taking an approach where your classmates are the primary audience. This will allow you to gauge how much information and background knowledge you need to supply. For example, if you’re taking a class on biology and your project is on a specific organism, you likely won’t have to go back to the basics of defining the taxonomic ranks of kindom, phylum, class, order etc in order to identify and situate your chosen species within these ranks. By centering your peers as the primary audience, you can make some assumptions on what your audience might already know. While this can certainly include a brief review of the concepts discussed in class, it should not be a regurgitation of the entire lesson plan.
While I’ve thrown around a number of terms and prompts, there are a great many out there that I have skipped over. I hesitate from trying to list them all as I’m guaranteed to miss some. As well, I’ve limited my discussion of these terms as I am using them only as examples. There may be more nuances to how to approach the assignment depending on how the prompt or instructions are phrased. So if you’re struggling to get started, dissecting the question or assignment instructions may be a good place to start.
A couple of final notes: as I’ve said in earlier posts, if you’re unsure what’s required, don’t hesitate to ask the instructor – either in class or in office hours. If after you dissect the assignment and/or do some concept or mind mapping and you’re still struggling to get started, make an appointment with your instructor or drop in during office hours. If you can, email them in advance and briefly outline your struggles. This will allow them time to prep and consider the best way to help you.
DON’T put off asking for help until the burden of anxiety builds up to unbearable levels. Trying to fix the problem early will allow you more time to actually work on the fix. As well, the longer you put off asking for help, the harder it is to ask. However, I want to emphasise that it’s NEVER too late to ask for help if your struggling with an assignment or with understanding a concept. Instructors that want to see students succeed will find ways for you to make-up work if they are aware of your anxieties. Your undergraduate or postgraduate coordinator is also a good person to talk to. Hopefully this blog series will help anyone struggling to navigate university. But if anxiety is a major concern, as I talked about here don’t forget to take advantage of resources that may be available to you.
Tomorrow we talk about outlines. Until then, good luck, and don’t forget to take care of yourself.
Note that your bullet journal will work just fine for this activity. But, if you find yourself needing a larger canvas, hit up a noffice supply store and see if you can find some cheap easel/chart pads of paper. There are also apps and software out there that do the same (and you may already have some if you explore the features of your Office or iWork programmes). But DON’T waste time trying to find the perfect programme instead of sitting down to do your assignment. It’s a perfect procrastination tool and you don’t need the distraction right now. Instead, if you really want a software or app, make a note to yourself to find one when you’ve set aside time specifically for that chore. I use the Scrapple Software myself (from the same creators as Scrivener) as I tend to drag and move my concepts bubbles around, which a digital format facilitates better than handwritten. But I also rely on good old pen and paper (my bullet journal) for my smaller assignments or if I want to think through ideas as they occur to me instead of when I’ve scheduled time to work on a specific project.
You may already be familiar with concept mapping via its sibling mind mapping. To be honest, I use the terms interchangeably myself, but there are differences between the two and if you’re looking for an app to help you with your mapping, knowing the difference might help. Mind map focuses on one idea or concept as it’s central point, with other concepts radiating from it. If you’ve ever fiddled with graphic settings while preparing a presentation, you’re probably familiar with mind maps. While there are a number of types, I feel that, generally, they can be divided into two categories: radial display and linear display.
As you can see in the examples, while the radial model has a the central concept in the middle, with associated ideas organised around it, the linear model is hierarchical, with one point leading to the next. The linear model is probably better if you need to figure out how to structure a paper (i.e which idea to introduce first, and then second, and third). However, my mind refuses to think in a linear way and tends to jump around from idea to idea like a puppy. So I often start with radial models, and then turn them into linear models when I get to an outline stage (which we’ll discuss later).
Concept mapping differs from mind mapping in that you have several concepts instead of one focused concept. Where the bubbles in mind map usually have a 1 to 1 connection (one shape connecting to another shape in a one-directional/hierarchical way), concept mapping have lines and relationships all over the place, connecting together in multiple ways and in multiple directions. As you can see from my example below, this method is less organised than a mind map, but is extremely useful in collecting your thoughts. It’s my first step in beginning to impose some sense of order on the chaos in my mind.
If you’re struggling to get started on a project, concept mapping and mind Mapping are useful ways to set your mind the task of mulling over ideas. Don’t feel that you need to go straight from mapping to drafting your project. If it does inspire and excite you enough to start right away, then great! But it’s also perfectly fine to mull it over and sleep on it in order to come back to it with fresh eyes tomorrow. In fact, I recommend starting to think about your project as soon as the instructor releases the assignment details. Do NOT wait until the week of (or the day before!) to consider what your project is going to be on. Your brain needs time to incorporate all the concepts you’re learning and process it, before you can produce an acceptable piece for assessment. So grab your bullet journal and start jotting down ideas as soon as they come to you!
**Note that different countries use different terminology. In Canada and US, a grad student is someone pursuing further education after completing their undergraduate studies. In UK, a graduate is someone who has completed their undergraduate studies, full stop. So, in UK, a postgrad is someone who has gone beyond being a graduate. I’m more familiar with UK terminology, but if you’re not clear on the specific jargon I’m using throughout this University 411/811 blog series (which I started here), please comment and ask so I can edit the blog for other readers as well.
32 drafts. I don’t know why I decided to sit down and count my drafts. And by ‘drafts’ I mean some form of submission or completedness – i.e. I sent it to someone else to look at or I said to myself “I’m done for now. I’ll focus on my other chapters and come back to it.” So ‘drafts’ doesn’t even count the number of tweaks and changes I’ve made daily while I worked to achieve that draft. And I’m also not talking full manuscript here. I’m talking about one chapter. THEE chapter. The one that put me on this path.
Chapter 1 of The Shape of Fantasy from start to finish – from the initial kernel of an idea taken from a short undergraduate paper to published chapter in an award-nominated book – was a process that took 12 years and 32 drafts. The chapter plays an integral part of my life. But the profound impact it had on me probably doesn’t come across in the dry academic chapter description:
Chapter 1 – The Shape of a Hero’s Soul: Interrogating the Destiny of the Hero in Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion (2001)
Prophecy or the idea of the ‘Hero of Destiny’ are essential motifs in Heroic Epic Fantasy fiction. This chapter argues that while prophecy may drive characters and events in a narrative, the hero’s free will is not limited. Drawing from a tradition of Stoic philosophy, chapter one explores that, while the shape of the hero’s nature is pre-determined by a metaphysical entity, it remains up to the hero’s free will to determine whether to fulfil the functions of their design. This analysis utilises Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion (2001), the first stand-alone novel of the Chalion universe (2001-present), as a case study. Using the novel as a model of Heroic Epic Fantasy, chapter one demonstrates that in a narrative with prophecy and fate, the hero interacts with these devices through an assertion of free will.
The TL:DR version: in chapter 1 I look at fate and free will in epic fantasy.
I’m trying to determine if it’s coincidental or not that a chapter about fate ultimately determined the path I took in life. At some point in my undergraduate studies I became fascinated with the concept of fate. Being a thoroughly unreligious person, I instead fell into a deep dark hole of tarot cards, astrology, numerology, and all the other pseudoscience paraphernalia. I’m almost too ashamed to admit just how much money I poured into astrology books. (Although I don’t regret my tarot card collection because the art work is awesome and tarot is fun when approached with the right sense and humour, i.e as a tool for introspection).
It wasn’t until 2007, in an undergraduate Classics modules on Greek Literature, that I started exploring the rich histories and nuanced philosophical debates of fate versus free will at an academic level. Taken from a context of Greek theology, my final paper for the class compared King Croseus in Herodotus’ Histories with Phaedra in Euripedes’ Hippolatus and considered whether their falls were fated. Did the Greek Gods plan for these characters to fall? Or was fate outside of the control of the Gods as well? Does even Zeus have to follow its dictates? Or do humankind have some measure of control in their lives?
These were all questions asked but never fully answered in my undergraduate paper. But for the rest of my undergraduate career, I kept coming back to the question of fate and free will. (If you remember in my discussion of how to prepare for seminars and lectures I talked about identifying things that interest you; fate and free will was big for me). Later, in a Roman Literature class I was introduced to the phrase:
ducunt voluntem fata nolentem trahunt
Fate leads the willing and drags the unwilling. While the English translation adds “the” and “and” to the sentence, these words aren’t strictly required in Latin. As well, in English word order is important. (For example, subject verb object. I like books: subject, verb, object.) But in Latin, instead of word order the spelling ending of each word indicates its function in a sentence. Thus, in Latin the phrase is perfectly balanced:
Leads. Willing. Fate. Unwilling. Drags.
5 words with “fate” in the middle sandwiched between 2 possible choices: “willing” and “unwilling”. That phrase became everything to me. It combined fate and free will together in this beautiful perfect sentence.
This concept sat in my head gestating for years. And finally, three quarters of the way through my MA studies, I had my eureka moment. The eureka moment wasn’t a “I figured out the answers” moment. Instead, the eureka moment was a moment of “I’ve identified a gap and a possible method of addressing it.” If you’re considering postgrad/grad school, focus on that. Find a gap. A gap that you’re passionate about. A gap that makes you ask “WHY HASN’T ANYONE LOOKED AT THIS??”
Now, before you get excited, Stop. First ask yourself if the gap has an obvious answer, or if you’re attempting to answer it with something most people won’t object to. Your thesis shouldn’t set out to argue things like “the world is round.” Yes, I realize that, in a world where everyone has an opinion on everything, there will always be someone that refutes obvious statements like that, but most educated people won’t object to that statement so it’s not an argument for a research project. Even if an educated person does object (i.e in the form of a peer reviewed publication), consider the statement within the larger field. DON’T set out to pick a fight with just one person/publication. That may work for a small section of an article, but NOT for the entirety of your dissertation. Also don’t argue for the value of something: “We should be looking at x.” That can be where your start exploring what research questions to ask. But WHAT should we look about with x? “We should be looking at climate change and taking it seriously.” Yes. Agreed. Not going to argue that. But now what? What exactly are we looking at and how?
Do some preliminary research. First make sure there IS a gap. If you find someone else has addressed the gap, that’s okay too! Remember the second part of my bolded statement? “And a possibly methodology for addressing it?”. Does your proposed methodology give you a different insight into the gap? Something new and different from what’s already out there?
During my MA in Comparative Literature I was fortunate enough to take a module on Popular Literature and Culture. I was doubly fortunate to have an instructor who let us use any popular culture text for a final paper. I decided I wanted to do a paper on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. I loved the trilogy of course, but part of my decision was pure spite; we had studied the first novel for an English Literature class in Children’s Literature and the instructor danced around talking about agnosticism/atheism instead of tackling it head on because he did not want to “open up that can of worms” when I broached the topic in class. (15 years later and I still remember his exact response, so yes, that is a direct quote.) So here was my step towards finding a gap, with an instructor that didn’t want to talk about religion/anti-religion in Pullman’s trilogy. Of course, when I sat down to do the research I quickly realized how WRONG I was. This wasn’t a gap at all. There is a ton of material out there on religion and Pullman.
But while reading these articles and chapters I noticed another interesting trend: a struggle to successfully marry fate and free will together. That is, most of these literary critics saw the concepts in opposition to each other, as mutually exclusive terms. Why did no one see the beautiful marriage of fate and free will? Maybe it was because they didn’t know about Seneca and stoic philosophy? I quickly noticed this opposition of fate/free will applied to Fantasy criticism in general (in what little of it that was available in 2011). Given that Epic Fantasy is rooted in Epic Literature, this baffled me. Hasn’t anyone looked at the theology and philosophy of classic and contemporary epic literature and noted the connections between them?
This idea launched my PhD proposal. It set me on a path to Lancaster University, a journey that included moving from Canada to UK, from my parent’s house where I lived my entire life to my own flat in a city and country where I knew no one. I went on to make some amazing friendships as well as meeting the man I would eventually marry.
Despite all that, while the gap I had identified launched my academic career and my personal life, it was NOT the research question I ended up answering or the methodology I ended up using for the entirety of my research project. My PhD dissertation, followed by my monograph, became so much BIGGER than that. My initial research question and methodology is still there for chapter 1. I examined the question of fate and free will using a comparative methodology that took Roman philosophy and applied it to a contemporary fantasy text. When I started my PhD, I have envisaged a dissertation that either: 1. answered the question of fate and free will using a number of different methodologies and perspectives, or 2. used the comparative methodology of comparing Greco-Roman philosophy and literature to contemporary epic fantasy literature in order to identify and see more connections. If you take a look at my chapter descriptions for The Shape of Fantasy, I did neither. My project shifted entirely from what I envisaged in 2011 when I planned my research proposal. And that’s okay. It’s okay if you’re unsure at any stage about your research. I know sometimes it feels like you have no idea what you’re doing, but that’s okay. You’re learning. If your research has not changed the slightest from proposal stage to submission stage, if your ideas are exactly the same at the end of your PhD as they were at the start, then have you learned anything? That’s the point of all this, right? To learn something new.
32 drafts. From start to finish, it took me 32 drafts to write just 1/10th of my book. So, whether it takes you 10 drafts or 100, don’t stop. Keep going. A new draft means you’re learning.
Today we’re going to start discussing how to tackle the dreaded blank page. Until then, take care!
I’m taking a break from the University 411 Posts today before I get “fresher’s fatigue”. (News flash, your lecturers are exhausted by the first week of university too. And I’m not even teaching this year, but already I feel sympathy tiredness from everyone facing another year of covid teaching.)
In any case, I want to keep up posting everyday because I’m on a streak! I need my streak badge. So today instead of posting university/student tips, I’ve dug into my folder to pull out an unpublished story. (Constructive criticism welcomed).
It’s unpublished because flash fiction is HARD to write. 1000 words to introduce characters, plot, and a satisfying resolution?? But if you’re an aspiring writer (whether fiction or non-fiction), it’s a good way to practice your craft and hone your skills. Flash fiction makes you focus on each and very word, as you make sure that every letter and punctuation mark is both effective and necessary. Or, in other words, it makes you cut down on the waffle. (This introduction could probably benefit with some hacking and pruning. I’m meandering all over the place.) So, without further ado, here’s my first attempt at flash fiction.
A sharp alarm woke Elena. She’d been having an eerie dream. Intensely green hills… and a bright light, pulsing in the corner of her eye. “ELENA! WAKE UP!” Francesca’s shout shook her fully awake. “What happened??” She charged into the cockpit. Francesca was crouched over the controls. Elena’s breath caught as she took in the view of the planet zooming in on them. Blues and greens peaked out of the rolling masses of clouds. “Is that the planet? We’re coming in too fast!” Francesca didn’t reply as the landscape came hurtling towards them.
Six days. Six days of hiking up and down these god-forsaken hills. Captains Elena Norton and Francesca Bellini have been in worse conditions, of course. They had a mission to complete so for six days they trudged up one hill and down another until they began to see the outlines of a ruin. Over the past few days, a feeling of unease had grown. The green hills reminded Elena of her dream. But, she couldn’t quite remember what happened…. “It’s a shame we won’t be able to tell anyone about this mission,” she said instead. “Our ancestors destroyed so much of this planet. It still needs to heal. We can’t let— Do you see something moving in those ruins?” “It’s probably just an animal,” Francesca said. “Come on. Let’s get in and out quick.” They had their orders: land on the island, get in the building and destroy the machine inside. “Do you know what the big deal is with this machine?” Elena asked as they headed to the run. “It’s dangerous, of course.” “On an abandoned planet? Lightyears away from our nearest civilization? Didn’t you think it was weird that they thought it was so dangerous out here in the isolation? And how is it still running? You’ve heard the rumours, right?” “You mean the Quantum Machine? It’s a myth!” The Quantum Machine. A device created by theoretical physicists to predict the future. Although, some say that it didn’t simply predict the future; that the act of observing the future made it crystallize into reality. Elena opened her mouth to answer, but then froze. There was a sound…. “Do you hear a humming?” “It’s probably the machine running.” Francesca switched on her flashlight while Elena pulled out the map of the building. “It should be around the next bend.” They stopped short at the doorway. There was a bright light. It pulsed slowly out of the corner of her eye. The humming crescendoed. Together they crept toward the opening and peered in. The room was filled with humanoids. Hundreds of them. Skin stretched tight over twisted grey limbs. They were humming, from the back of the throat, gathered around the device in the middle. In the centre of the room was… a computer screen. A normal looking, antiquated computer screen. A big, squat, mammoth device. A cursor blinked in the corner. Was this it? The dangerous machine they’ve been sent to destroy? This old hunk of metal? Behind the computer was a small platform. Overhanging it was a swaying lamp, pulsing white light. The lamp swung back and forth over the platform, in a perfect pendulum. Looking at the light, Elena felt a sense of dread. The light pulsed as it continued its arc over the platform. The occupants hadn’t noticed them yet. They were focused on the screen. And the words typing across it. following the bright light in sky 6 days and 6 nights green hills green hills the captains norton and bellini will come to end “Come on,” Francesca said. “The mission. If we move fast, we can get in and destroy the machine before these… creatures notice us.” Elena shook her head, panicked. “This isn’t right. We need to get out of here. We shouldn’t be here.” She turned to run. “Elena!” Too late, they both realised the hum had died down. Francesca’s voice cut through the room. Before they could move, the creatures rushed toward them. “NO!” Elena struggled in vain. Dozens of strong hands gripped them, pushing them into the centre of the platform. The light swung toward them.
Elena opened her eyes. She was sprawled on a dusty floor. A bright light swung an arc behind them, casting shadows. Back and forth. She could see Francesca haul herself up from the floor, could hear her coughing from the dust. The room was empty. The creatures were gone. Francesca had already moved toward the computer screen, her face surprised. “It’s broken!” The computer screen was broken; an empty window with it’s innards hanging out. Dust lay in a thick film across it. The room looked as if it had been untouched for eons. Except for the swaying lamp on the platform, nothing moved. Francesca looked around the room with a baffled look on her face. After a moment she said, “Well I guess. We can leave… Mission over.” But the feeling of dread hadn’t left Elena. Instead, it continued to grow. “No…” she shook her head in denial. “We have to go back.” She looked at the light swinging back and forth over the platform. “This isn’t right. We have to go back.” “Elena, what are you talking about?” But Elena was already back on the platform. As the lamp swung toward her, she dove into the light.
Francesca stood framed in the open doorway. They were back at the doorway. But… how? The occupants hadn’t noticed them yet. So focused were they on the computer screen. And the words typing across it. Following the bright light in sky 6 days and 6 nights green hills green hills the captains norton and bellini will come to end Francesca looked back at Elena as she started to tremble. “Come on,” she whispered. “The mission.” Elena shook her head in denial. Run? Or stay and complete the mission? The choice was clear.