Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Theses and Dissertation Writing Strategies

I finished revising and have now posted my 32 page guide to writing strategies for theses and dissertations to the Essential Edits site.

I argue that one has to unlearn undergraduate writing skills to learn a completely new skill set to survive.

Research suggests attrition rates of between 50% to 65% for PhD candidates and thesis-route master's programs. Interestingly enough, most drop out of the program after completing all the course work and all the data collection and analysis for thesis/dissertation, which suggests that the problem is in the writing stage—though this is seldom recognized in the literature, and often not even by the students themselves! Reorienting graduate students to the different nature of sustained writing projects could assist many more students in completing their graduate degrees.

The guide is available free from EssentialEdits.ca/ThesisStrategies.pdf.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

H. A. Hargreaves, PhD (1928-2017)

H. A. Hargreaves, the grandfather of Canadian science fiction as a distinct genre, passed away July 27, 2017. This is more or less what I said at his funeral yesterday:

I have to confess that I didn't know Hank all that well. I'd only ever met him in person five or six times. But as H. A. Hargreaves, the author, he had a profound influence on my life.

I first met Dr. Hargreaves in 1977 when I was helping to organize an open house for the campus science fiction club (ESFCAS). A club member I didn't know well said, "Hey my English professor has just had a collection of his science fiction published. It's actually pretty good. Let's get him to do a reading." I was skeptical, because in 1977 sf was not widely considered appropriate subject matter for a professor of English literature, so who knew what an English professor might think of as SF; and I had frankly never heard of Hargreaves. But I didn't have a better idea, so we invited Dr. Hargreaves to read.

He read "Dead to the World", his most famous and most widely reprinted story, to a crowd of about 50. That story—and the rest of the North by 2000 collection, which I then rushed out to buy—changed my life.

First, Hargreaves showed me that there could be a distinctly Canadian science fiction. Hargreaves' was the first collection ever explicitly marketed as "Canadian science fiction", which was itself a new idea for me. I think everyone assumed that SF was a strictly American genre, exemplified by John W. Campbell's Analog magazine. Before hearing "Dead to the World", I had been slowly reading my way through the Hugo and Nebula award-winning novels (mostly American and British writers), but after hearing "Dead to the World" it occurred to me to search instead for Canadian SF. "Dead to the world" was charming, oddly engaging, and completely different than anything I had ever encountered before. Here was a new version of the genre that resonated with me in a way I couldn't completely put my finger on. So I tried to nail that down, and ended up spending the next 40 years of my career lecturing on the nature of Canadian science fiction, as distinct from the American and British versions of the genres.

Second, Hargreaves was a major influence on my own writing. (Well, by "major influence", I mean the opening scene in my novel is a direct steal from the opening scene of "Dead to the World".) As a reader, reviewer, and editor, I must have read thousands of short stories over my career, but the stories that most often come floating into memory are those from Hargreaves' collection. There is something strangely compelling about his story-telling that makes these quiet stories about TV repair, bureaucracy, or a college classroom so uniquely memorable. I never took a class from Professor Hargreaves, but he was certainly one of the people who taught me how to write.

More than that, his writing from a distinctly Canadian perspective gave me (and the other Canadian SF authors emerging in that period) permission to do so also.

I mentioned the American editor, John W. Campbell. Campbell was immensely influential, not least because his was the highest paying SF magazine, which meant everyone tried to match their style to Campbell's tastes in hopes of selling to Analog. Hargreaves was a great fan of John W. Campbell as well, and always sent his stories first to Analog, for as long as Campbell lived.

However, in contrast to Cambpell's preferred alpha-male, engineer heroes—who always won the day by dint of superior character and scientific knowledge—Hargreaves' protagonists were ordinary people caught up in sort of mundane events. Instead of a Captain Kirk or a Captain Picard heroically defending Star Fleet, Hargreaves wrote about the spaces station's TV repairman. Whereas Campbellian fiction was about winning through to one's goals, Hargreaves heroes often failed to achieve their goals. Instead, if they got their happy ending, it was by suddenly realizing that they had been pursing the wrong goal, and now choosing something different. The protagonist of "Dead to the World" for example, fails in his attempt to correct the computer error which has listed him as dead. After several attempts to be reinstated, he comes to realizes that he's actually way better off (listed as) dead.

Campbell always wrote back with a two-page critique, saying he loved the story, but that it would have to be changed to be an Analog story, fit for Campbell's American audience. Hargreaves, however, always chose to stick to his own vision, and sent it instead to British editor Ted Carnell—who always printed the story exactly as is.

(There was one exception. On the last story Hargreaves submitted to Campbell, Campbell made the usual demands for revisions, but then ended by saying, 'or you could forget all that and instead take this other suggestion for when you send it to Ted.' Hargreaves took that one, greatly pleased that Campbell had apparently understood Hargreaves' vision all along, and had approved of the stories going to Carnell instead.)

By modelling one version of what Canadian SF might look like, and sticking to his vision rather than trying to conform to the American market, Hargreaves became the grandfather [Phyllis Gotlieb is the grandmother] of a distinctly Canadian SF. He was consequently inducted into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Associations Hall of Fame in 2015.

Hargreaves next to display of Hall of Fame Trophy, at Fish Creek Library, Calgary.

Third, it was not lost on me that although Hargreaves wrote only a single story every other year, he still managed to create a significant canon—both in terms of size and importance—over his lifetime. Busy with life as literature professor and father, teacher and opera singer, he devoted only a single week of his holidays to writing that year's short story. As a professor and dad myself, I look to Hargreaves' as my model of a successful writing career. I often hear people claim they need to quit their day job to become full-time writers, or that anyone who claims to be a professional writer who does not make their entire income writing is a fraud. Hargreaves' example puts the lie to all of that. No one can dispute either the quality of his work or his place in history of the genre, yet his writing life was squeezed into a corner smaller than that afforded to many of those who complain that they cannot manage with less than full-time. Full-time is great if you can get it, and even half-time would be privileged, but no time is no excuse. Writers should check their sense of entitlement when embezzling time from parenting, familial, or day-job responsibilities. If Hargreaves could do it, so can the rest of us.

Similarly, although I recognize the existential threat presented by the writing hobbyist to those professional writers trying to distinguish themselves from those engaged in vanity self-publishing, Hargreaves' writing career demonstrates that percentage of income may not be the best measure of 'professional quality'.

* * *

After lecturing about Hargreaves place in history for two generations, I was confronted by an audience member who pointed out that North by 2000 had been out of print for years, and nearly impossible to find.

"I'm surprised no one has thought to reprint it," I said. "It really deserves to be available to the current generation."

"Aren't you Senior Editor at a small press?" my questionner asked.

Do'h!

So I did take the manuscript to my publisher, who developed the expanded edition, North by 2000+, which include every SF story Hargreaves had ever written. She loved Hargreaves writing so much, she asked to see what else he had. Thus was born Growing Up Bronx Hargreaves collection of autobiographical stories.

* * *

Meeting Hank, the person, was always an honour and a pleasure. He was always kind, generous with his time, and soft-spoken. I can't imagine him ever shouting in anger, though I know that injustice angered him. He was the archetypal 'nice' Canadian, though as demonstrated by his refusal to compromise his vision, 'nice' should not be confused with a lack of strength or character. I suppose I should count this the fourth dimension on which Hargreaves has had a significant influence on me. I hesitate only because I spent so few days in his actual presence, but reading Growing Up Bronx makes it feel like I have known the man from childhood.