The University 411: A Crash Course in Research Part 2: Evaluating Your Sources

Yesterday we talked about how to find research sources. Today we’re going to discuss evaluating the strength and value of the research you’ve found.

First consider the title and abstract/summary. Don’t download and try to read everything that’s on the topic. For instance you may be looking for research to write an English Literature essay on George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and find a lot of information about the historical inspirations for the series. Unless you were looking specifically for historical influences, that research is not likely to help you. Yes, you’ve found a critical article or book on your topic, but it’s not a piece of research that is likely to help you meet your objectives.

Whether you’re using a database or google, a full-length book or an article, you should look up information about the author and their credentials. Usually this should be supplied for you in the form of an author bionote. Why is this information important? Well first, you want to see what’s their academic background. As a fantasy literature scholar I tend to come across articles written from all areas and specialities – history, sociology, psychology, education, etc. Even if the article is written by a literature scholar, that doesn’t guarantee that contemporary fantasy is their area of speciality. Their primary area of focus may be something like medieval literature or children’s literature. By understanding their background, you can grasp some understanding of their research foundation. For example, a medieval literature scholar, might have a good grasp of historical knowledge (both in terms of actual facts as well as critical theories and methodologies in that field) but may be unaware of current literary criticism on fantasy. By understanding their foundation, you can evaluate the application of their work to your own research along with possible strengths and weaknesses of their work. Also consider the journal itself or, if it’s a book, the publisher and whether the book is part of a series. What’s their remit? I.e what is their area and speciality?

If you’re using the internet or you’ve picked up a book at a local bookstore instead of a university library, take a moment to consider the intended audience. (This goes for EVERYTHING you read and not just when you’re in research mode. Think critically.) Be aware that the website or book is aimed at the general public and not at an academic audience. That isn’t to say that the information published in these works are incorrect, but approach them with the understanding that their methodology or underlying assumptions may not be thoroughly vetted and backed by published peer-reviewed research. For example, there are a lot of parenting books out there written by popular bloggers. They may have done some “research” themselves in the form of reading other parenting books or maybe even peer-reviewed articles. But they are unlikely to have the sort of training where they can critically examine this research and evaluate their methodologies and assumptions. So look up author credentials and see if they’re speaking as a reputable researcher in the field. Don’t assume that a published book means the author and their work was thoroughly vetted by the publisher. The author might be someone who can guarantee to the publisher that their book will sell because they already have a wide audience; They could be a public figure or even just someone who can show some decent social media following.

If the author IS esteemed then the next step is to evaluate the appropriateness of the work in your field. Popular non-fiction is a tricky case. For instance, while I used the scientific theories in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time as a critical tool to investigate Fantasy literature in my first monograph, it’s probably not a book that a theoretical physicist should be basing their work on; you should find the original peer-reviewed research as it’s applicable to your field.

A snippet from The Shape of Fantasy of my own interpretation of Hawking’s Future Light Cone

Once you’ve thoroughly vetted the academic rigour of the author and publisher, the next step is to take a good look at the date of publication. If it’s an older print, then new evidence might have been published since then that refutes or challenges the article. In some cases, the author themselves might have built on and expanded the work (or retracted it!) and you should certainly be aware of these as well.

Finally, after vetting the publisher, the author, and the date of publication, we’ve reached the part where we’re sitting down to read the article or book itself. But wait! This doesn’t mean we can turn off our critical lens. You should now evaluate the author’s methodology. Are the steps they’ve taken to reach their conclusions appropriate? Are there any gaps that they fail to acknowledge? If they have acknowledged these gaps, is their justification for why they’ve left the gap in place reasonable? I.e did they properly consider these gaps and the choices they made for their methodology, or did they put it in as an afterthought once the research was already undertaken (in these cases, they’re probably responding to peer review feedback). You can still go ahead and utilise the piece in your own research. But acknowledge their gaps.

Vetting your sources doesn’t necessarily mean you’re don’t use them at all. Instead, it means you should carefully consider their weaknesses. This consideration should be part of your research notes. I.e not necessarily part of your research paper itself. But if the piece of research becomes an essential foundation to your own work, then your paper should absolutely identify these weaknesses. Make sure to keep the tone professional (i.e. no personal attacks or harsh judgment). You should also include how you’re avoiding the same pitfalls in your own work or offer your own justifications. A note of caution here: don’t go overboard with spending so much time (word count) defending your methodology that you don’t have enough space for the rest of the paper. If you’re using an outline, roughly identify how big each section should be before you start your first draft. You might spend hours or days critically examining these sources only for it to end up as 1 or 2 sentences in your work. I’m sorry to inform you but that’s what the research process looks like. 🤷🏽‍♀️

The University 811: Using Outlines for Proposals and Redraftin

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.

Draft 10 of the outline of my next book presented in outline view from Scrivener

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.

Screenshot of Scrivener

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.

Outline of Draft Chapter 5 (i.e. just the first sentence of each paragraph)

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.

The University 411: On the Use and Abuse of Outlines

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.

A handwritten outline of one of my job applications. Outlines are useful everywhere.

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.

The University 411: Tackling the Blank Page by Identifying Your Objective

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.

The University 411: Tackling The Blank Page with Concept Mapping

Yesterday 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, concept mapping (and its various iterations) might be a way to tackle the problem (identifying your objective is another). Go through all of your notes with a separate sheet of paper, and write down your main ideas, observations, and supporting points. You’re not re-writing notes here (as I recommended in an earlier post regarding note-taking); instead you’re reorganising your notes in a visual manner to establish connections and relationships.

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.

Radial Model
Linear Model

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.

Chuckie’s Concept Map for a Chapter on Performance/Performativity in Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind

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!

The University 411: Tackling the Blank Page

So you’ve gone to all of your lecturers and took notes like a diligent student. Now what? You’re sitting down at your desk to tackle your essay or research project, and you’re not sure where to start.

If you google “writer’s block,” you will probably discover pages of suggestions to address this problem. But, there are a number of scenarios which might have you staring at your screen or notebook in terror and we can’t find the right solution if we can’t diagnose the cause. So first, do a mental health check. If you’re in a depressed state, then you’re unlikely to have the energy or motivation to tackle work. While I talk generally about mental health here, I want to add advice I’ve seen floating around from Tumbler “redheadhatchet”: “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” I apply this advice almost daily to all sorts of scenarios. Consider my “exercise regime”; if I manage to do just one sit-up a day, that’s better than not doing anything. This is also the advice offered by the “Fabulous” App, which helps people establish healthy habits. Build on that one small habit a day (we’ll stick to exercise and the one sit-up example here, but it can apply to any habit). Start with one sit-up and move up to more. If one day, you don’t have the energy to do the 20 that you’ve worked up to, that’s okay. Do the one. Doing even one sit-up means you haven’t broken your streak of exercising every day. Doing one is enough. It’s better than not doing one at all.

Extending this advice to the university: Turning in a half-written assignment or a poorly-written one is better than not turning in one at all. (And, as my colleague Helga reminded me today, instructors also need to be aware of these hidden struggles that are students are facing; instead of condemning the holes, acknowledg the strength of the material that IS present and offer constructive advice for how to address and expand on the gaps). This is also the advice I would give for addressing anxiety (which might be combined with depression, but we’ll deal with it as separate entities for this discussion). Maybe you’re anxious because you’re scared of failing or because you want your work to be perfect. Unless you’re an prodigy – the university-assignment-writing equivalent of Beethoven – every mark you make on the page is NOT going to be perfect. I’ve heard rumours that Terry Pratchett operated like that; thought and thought and thought until he had the perfect sentence to write on the page. But we can’t all be on the same level as Sir Terry Pratchett. So go ahead and mark up your fresh new notebook with chicken scratch hand-writing. This is part of the process.

If you’ve done an assessment of your mental health and have determined that it’s fine (or manageable), then the next step is to determine what stage you’re stuck at: Is the problem that you don’t have any idea at all, or you have loads of idea and you’re not sure what to focus on? (Check out Concept Map as one of the tools to address this type of problem. Identifying your objectives is another.) Or do you have some semblance of focus, but you’re not sure what order to present them in? Or maybe the problem is you simply don’t know how to start; i.e. what the first sentence should be?

You can probably start to grasp why determining the cause of your blank page syndrome would be the first step in finding a solution. This is true in general about anything you’re procrastinating about or avoiding. Sit down with your bullet journal and dig deep into thinking about root cause. In my day job as a Quality Assurance Manager, we do root cause investigations routinely to determine what resulted in a part having flaws. There are a number of tools you can employ for root cause analysis. One of these is to keep asking yourself “why” (also called the Five Whys).

Example:

  • I’m late to work.
  • Why? I slept in.
  • Why? I forgot to set my alarm clock.
  • Why? I was so tired yesterday evening that it slipped my mind.
  • Why? My toddler was teething and kept us up late.

There’s not much further we can go with that unless we want to question the “whys” of evolution on the subject of teething pains. So we’ve identified the root cause and for there we can apply solutions to address it specifically, rather than investing it a new techy alarm clock that does a song and dance and shoots lasers at you. The alarm clock wasn’t the problem in this scenario.

The “Root Cause” of my Sleep Issues

Tomorrow we’ll dive deeper into the tools we can use to address the varying causes of blank page syndrome. As you progress through university, you’ll find that the fear of the blank page will have a number of causes, so keep track of a number of tools and techniques and what works best for you in each scenario. So until tomorrow, take care!

The Sartorial Nightmare of Kick-Ass Female Characters

A couple years ago I finally got around to picking up a collection of Robert Lynn Asprin short stories as a taster (long overdue for a fantasy scholar, I know). Unfortunately, by page 2 I was wondering what the hype was about. Or, more accurately, whether the hype wasn’t fueled by the nostalgia factor. You know, a time where we didn’t (overly) concern ourselves with sexist racism (or sexism and racism).

“Myth-Adventurers” (2007), the first story in Myth-Interpretations (2010), starts off normally enough: two female characters chatting; one human (“a Klahd, actually”, p. 7; whatever that means), the other reptilian (something called “a Pervert… or Pervect if they knew what was good for them”, p. 7). A nod to interspecies racism, but still within the realms of the standard Fantastika set-up.

The first descriptive paragraph alludes to the idea that the two are killers with the “lithe, athletic, graceful look that put one in mind of a pair of lionesses discussing a kill” (7). Lovely metaphor. Paints a pretty picture of two kick-ass ladies and I’m settling in to enjoy their adventure. (Although I’m wondering whether lions are treated as animals or people in this narrative, but that’s just a stray thought.)

Then we flow into the next paragraph: “If their builds and manner weren’t enough of a giveaway, their outfits completed the picture. The Pervect, Pookie, was wearing one of her favourite” (7) -> here is where I turned the page and immediately regretted it:

action leather jumpsuits with multiple zippers which both issued a skin tight fit and held the tools of her trade. The Klahd, Spyder, was still working on her look, but today had settled for calf-high boots with fishnet stockings, a dark plaid mini-skirt, and a sleeve-less black leather halter top which left considerable portions of her midriff bare.

Asprin, p. 8

Here, I paused. Now I’m all for female empowerment and a woman’s right to choose what she wants to wear. If you want to wear calf-high boots with fishnets and a miniskirt, by all means, go ahead. I have nothing against a “sleeveless black leather halter top” except for the redundancy of the description (halter tops are, by definition, sleeveless). But I’m questioning how any real “killer” is going to be fighting in these outfits. Have you ever tried moving in a skintight leather outfit? Let alone one that “both insured a skin tight fit and held the tools of her trade”? How? How does it do both? Does her skin have any circulation?? But maybe as a reptilian species, she moves differently….

The description continues:

All in all, she looked like a parochial schoolgirl gone Goth gone biker slut.

Asprin, p. 8

Yeah. No.

No woman looks in a mirror and describes herself like that. Maybe a school-girl gone bad. maybe a goth girl. Maybe a biker-chick. But not a combination of the three, and definitely no woman aims for a “slut” look. The idea just seems to scream the whole “she was asking for it” mentality. You know. “What was she wearing when she got raped?” “Maybe she wanted to get raped.”

And then the description continues with this bit of ridiculousness:

Throwing stars and knife hilts jutted from their sleeves and belts, along with various mysterious instrument….

Asprin, p. 8

At this point, I was completely unable to continue reading. As Eddie Robson pointed out when I posted the excerpt on twitter, it’s nearly impossible to tuck knives into the sleeves of a sleeveless halter top.

Here’s my own artistic rendition of this outfit:

A very, VERY badly sketched rendition of the outfit. I really can't draw.

But now that I’ve made the sketch, I’ve realized it’s not tooooo far out from other kick-ass Fantastika females. I’m sure one of the first kick-ass female killers that pops into people’s minds is Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2001), who regularly fights in leather and heels. And when I think kick-ass females, I will always think of Lucy Lawless as Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001). I mean, it’s in the title. If you haven’t seen Xena’s iconic, um.. armouring, then please do google it now.

Of course, it’s not just females that are made to be ridiculously overly-sexualized in books or in film/tv. Who can forget the show that launched the Xena spin-off, Hercules (1995-1999) with Kevin Sorbo’s deep-v sleeveless tunic? And really, any action adventure sword and sorcery-type film from the ’80s have plenty of bare-chested muscly men (I’m looking at you Schwarzenegger/Conan the Barbarian, 1982).

Given the context and history, Asprin’s description of his characters isn’t surprising. But I suppose my disgruntlement with Asprin’s work is two-fold. One, the posthumous collection published in 2010 would benefit from an introduction that glorifies the works a bit less. (I’d like to say that about ALL of the “classic SF” writers, actually. I’d like to see an introduction in classical-reprints that gives a small nod to the racism and sexism that many of these writers actively peddled). Perhaps I shouldn’t except the 2007 Myth-Adventures to be “woke” or sensitive, but, there is always a part of me that argues that, regardless of “the times”, writers and artists should do better.

But the second reason the passage aroused my pique only became obvious when I attempted to re-read the collection again, this time alongside Kurtis J. Wiebe’s Rat Queens (2013-). Rat Queens, if you haven’t read it, is…. how to describe it…? like a car-accident that you can’t look away from, but one involving a clown car crashing into a trailer full of dragons. At times violent, humorous, incredibly gory, and extremely touching. Now, I can easily see one of the characters (Betty, in particular) describe themselves as a “schoolgirl gone Goth gone biker slut”. BUT, and here’s the distinction for me, there is one thing to have a character describe themselves as such, and another thing entirely for an omniscient narrator to make the comment. And, right from the first two pages, it’s clear that the narrator has a voice, has thoughts and ideas about the look and carriage of these characters. It may be due to the difference in medium (narrative voice versus graphic art), but Wiebe’s graphic medium doesn’t have the same level of authorial commentary as Asprin’s narrative descriptions.

So I end this post with a plea. If you’re a writer, please, PLEASE think about how your narrative voice might unintentionally be peddling the male (or female) gaze. And if you can’t do that, at the very least think about if the outfit you described would be functional in an actual fight. Thank you.

Unedited Chaos (and a Tangent on The *Best* Pokemon)

Ah, the first blog post. It is infinitely worse than the “blank” page (that moment of writer’s block when you can’t seem to get started). Why is it worse? Because it’s public; unedited (or only mildly so); with no opportunity to muse and stew over each word choice. Any awkward sentences or bad ideas laid bare for everyone to witness your shame.

(Wow, so, we’re like a minute in and this has already spiraled into darkness. There’s is an uplifting turn, I swear. But first the promised tangent.)

My brother recently came back from a holiday in Japan and he brought his nephew – my 6-month-old son – two stuffed Pokemon dolls: Pikachu (Pichu?) and Eevee.

photo of my son's picchu and eevee stuffed animals

“Eevee’s the best one of them all,” I confided to my husband (he doesn’t “get” Pokemon, so he didn’t argue this bold statement).

Eevee IS the best Pokemon IMHO because it can become so many different things! The base form has so much unlocked potential, and more and more iterations keep getting added as the franchise continues. Eevee has the possibility of becoming so many aspects of itself, all depending on a single choice made.

… Writing is like that. While the nature of blog-style of writing is unfiltered, sometimes this raw clay is more exciting than the pristine finished product. It’s full of possibilities; different directions to take; a potential for mistakes to become beautiful discoveries; or for different iterations to reveal something new.

There’s an underlying theme in my first book (The Shape of Fantasy, out this week!): an element of chaos theory that permeates the text. I’m not sure at what point I discovered chaos or starting identifying as a chaos theorist. Chaos theory is the idea that there is a recognizable pattern, or a repetition, but this pattern is unpredictable. This is an idea I discuss throughout my book, but what I neglected to state baldly is the idea that the reason the pattern is unpredictable is because, in the real-world, there are too many variable at play. Sure, the principle of science is that an experiment must be replicable; but these experiments are done in lab conditions, an area where every part of the environment can be controlled: temperature, pressure, humidity, etc. If a single factor is uncontrolled, it can impact the entire experiment. Which is why weather is so often used as an example of a chaotic system – because trying to create an experiment to measure weather in lab conditions is nearly impossible. And yet, scientists can still discern some pattern in weather conditions (enough to make a prediction of whether or not it’ll rain tomorrow).

It’s this principle of chaos that I apply throughout my book – and in life in general. Life is chaos. There may be patterns, a repetitive journey people follow (birth, school, work, death.) But there are so many different patterns to this “formula.” Similarly, Epic Fantasy has very well defined patterns (it is this structure that I explore throughout the book). But a great storyteller will manipulate and play with these patterns, mixing the variables to offer something new.

Writing any piece of work has that potential of chaos in it. The number of drafts you go through are all iterations of the same product. In the coming weeks, I will reflect on my own thought and writing processes for The Shape of Fantasy; directions I wish I could’ve taken it. I’ll refrain from reflecting on the smaller editing choices and focus on the big pictures. But it’s important to note that, when writing, minute changes can result in drastically different effects. For example, the simple act of italicisation – of emphasing one single word over the other – can change the meaning and tone. Likewise, every word, sentence structure, paragraph break can change the meaning and tone further. In this regard, every single choice can be important.

No wonder so many people fear the blank page.

But the blank page is not meant for perfection. It’s meant to be moulded, kneaded at, played with for a second, third, tenth draft. So I am here to assure you that there is nothing to fear about the blank page.

It’s the published page you should be agonizing over.