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Student Essay-Writers: A Field Guide

Unlike winter, essay season seems to come earlier every year. A list of topics goes up. The request for a thesis and outline goes out.

And of course, there’s a rush on the libraries.

Over the last 3.5 years, I’ve had ample opportunity to observe different strategies to the “research” part of the research paper. Now, I’m not talking about whether you use notecards or looseleaf; obsessively note page numbers or look them up later.

I’m talking about procuring sources.

Sources are currency. Sources are power. Sources are the security blanket that lets me sleep at night.

My preciousssss…..

There are several types of student essay-writers. Let’s look at a few.

The Hoarder

Style: Start early. Clear shelves before other people even have a topic. Hoard books like a squirrel hoards nuts, because if you leave it too long, everyone else will steal your books and you’ll have nothing left to use.

Traits: Twitchiness, anxiety, slight hunchback or raised shoulder from carting heaps of books.

Worst Fear: “Item due back: April 8”


The Cyberpunk

Style: Automatically set catalogue filters to “online resources.” Read books, journals, primary sources without ever leaving the comfort of your room or carrel.

Traits: Blurred vision, headache, aversion to smell of old books.

Worst Fear: “Access Denied.”


The Monk

Style: Seek out the really old, really rare books that can’t be taken out. Set up camp in library, lifting brittle pages late into the night. Don’t come out until research is done/essay complete.

Traits: Dust-covered fingers, keyboard marks on face, vague feelings of pride and loneliness.

Worst Fear: “The library will be closed the weekend of….”


The One-Hit Wonder

Style: Find one book. A real book. Probably the authoritative book on your subject. Read that one book. Quote that one book throughout. Have a list of vaguely related articles from which you occasionally cite a sentence or two in order to meet bibliography requirements.

Traits: Smug grin, skill at mental gymnastics.

Worst Fear: “Plan to devote considerable attention to the historiography…”


The Overly-Ambitious

Style: Between databases and rare collections, come up with mostly primary sources. Not only mostly primary sources, but mostly random, obscure, hard-to-categorize primary sources. Pamphlets with no real publication information. Oral interviews. Third English Editions of a translated passage of a primary source in an electronic book currently in its second edition in the original French.

Traits: Half-bald from pulling hair out, sore teeth and jaw from constant clenching, a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style lying in a broken heap in the corner.

Worst Fear: The correct/recognized way to cite your source simply does not exist.


The Underachiever

Style: Read the Wikipedia article. Track down and use their footnotes. Done.

Traits: A mix of confidence and desperation, tendency to lose hours to following the Jacob’s Ladder of Wiki-links.

Worst Fear: The prof edited Wikipedia.


There are more, I’m sure, but…I need to return to my stacks upon stacks of books. 😉


New Year’s Post

For a while, I thought about not doing a New Year’s post.

With my loss still so raw, and the grief only now really hitting, I have rarely been happier to see the tail end of a year. Except then, I got to thinking. Taking the entire year into account, 2012 was too big to be ignored. It was a year of immense growth and opportunity: from backpacking through the South Pacific, to meeting (and befriending!) some pretty incredible people, to strengthening friendships back home, to publishing and podcasting, to discovering where “home” really is for me.

Like I said, a big year.

It was a year of heights, of suddenly finding myself on mountaintops (literally and metaphorically) and wondering how on earth I’d gotten there. There was a LOT of good in 2012. It’s important to remember that: that oftentimes, I was stunned by how happy I was.

2012 started with a bang, but it definitely ends with a whimper. Some of my personal dreams came true this year, but so too did some of my nightmares. I had tears in my eyes as I stood atop Mt. Victoria and finally gazed across Wellington. I had tears in my eyes as I stood in the cemetery.

From one extreme to the other.


But it’s no longer 2012. My Twitter-pal (and one of the charming hosts of the Roundtable Podcast) Dave Robison recently said something about New Year’s being just another day, that we can make changes any day of the year.

It’s true, but I think the start of the year is a good time to take a breath, to mentally prepare for those changes and plans.

2012 was a great year, writing-wise. I’m optimistic 2013 will be even better. Frankly, I have a better idea of what I’m doing. Graduating means I’ll have more time (as was helpfully pointed out to me, my “day job” will really be just that—something on the side, a daytime diversion as I put my energy into writing). Oh man, when I think of all those hours spent reading articles, going to class, and writing essays…I’m so excited to put that time into fiction.

As I start putting the shambles of my life back in order, and figure out how to live around this huge, gaping hole, I’m more grateful than ever for what I have. I have some pretty awesome people in all parts of my life. Tired and sad as I am, I’m actually kind of cautiously hopeful for 2013. It feels like 2012 was a build-up, December was a breaking point, and 2013…

Well. I guess we’ll find out.

With thanks,


WFC 2012 Packing List

I don’t know what it is about cons, but I always seem to forget I’m actually going until a few days before. Then I get hyperactive and restless, waiting for the convention like a small child who’s going to Disney World knowing that their friends are already there.


Yeah, a little.


You bet.

With Dragon*Con, I was so burned out from travelling, I’ll admit to basically just chucking some things in a bag and hopping on the plane. Really, my main priority was not having any checked luggage—after crisscrossing five countries, there was no way I was dealing with more customs officials than I had to.

World Fantasy Con is in Toronto. On the surface, it seems like packing should be easy. After all, I’m not even staying at the hotel—I’m coming home each night.

Except that by “Toronto,” they really mean “Richmond Hill.” Close enough that staying in the hotel isn’t really worth it financially; far enough that I can’t get home quickly or easily spur-of-the-moment. In Atlanta, I could nip back to my hotel room if the need arose. Here, I need to make sure I’m set for the day.

And so, my packing list.


I have books! They’re shiny and new, and slightly unnerving to hold! I will be selling books! Find me at the Dragon Moon Press Pub Night—Saturday, November 3rd, 7pm-late, at the Fox and Fiddle (115 York Blvd, close to the hotel). Also find me at the Dragon Moon Press table. Also find me around the con (purple glasses, stunned look).


They’re also shiny, and really cool.

Business Cards

One of my biggest regrets of Dragon*Con was that I didn’t have cards. Now I do, so finding/contacting me online will be much easier.

Granola Bars

I came home from work one day with very low blood sugar. My anger and contrariness scared my roommate (normally I’m, you know, not angry). Mostly, hypoglycaemia just leaves me shaky and spacey, but even that’s not good, especially at a con.


My other regret of Dragon*Con: while everyone else whipped out their phones and instantly made plans on Twitter and Facebook, I was stuck running with my iPod to one corner of the second floor of the Hilton, because that was the only place I could find free Wi-Fi. Since my old phone died, I’ve become one of the cool kids with a smartphone. Plus, I’ve got Hapax-the-Podcast on there…in case I get bored (unlikely, but it is a long commute).

Notebook and Pens

I’m a writer. This is a no-brainer.

Extra TTC Tokens

Because they do seem to disappear…


If I’m being paranoid, the odds I’d ever have to use this thing are maybe 1 in 10,000,000,000,000, especially as my hives seem to be caused by stress, rather than an actual allergen. Still, I feel like collapsing in anaphylactic shock would kill the mood a wee bit.


Strikes me as being important.


For holding stuff.


No, I will not be crouched under dealers’ tables, highlighting history texts. But it is a long commute, and late November is my academic crunch time, so if I can get anything done, all the better.

And, of course…



Speaking of exciting things (aha, a segue worthy of The Roundtable Podcast), guess what? Blythe (whom you may know better as Serafine) was in an independent horror-comedy film—perfect for Halloween. I watched. I squirmed. I laughed. All good.

See you guys on the other side!


In which I visit the hospital

The sun was out for the first time all day. My boss had just called to see if I could work next week (in my favourite building, no less!). My roommate and I were eating freshly baked cake. I was whiling away the last hour or so before I needed to leave for a pool party. Life was pretty good.

And then—

“Whoa. What’s wrong with my hands?”

Small, flattish red bumps covered the backs of my hands. They seemed to spread as I watched, covering more and more space, though not really venturing past my wrists. I checked my feet, and found a few around my toes.

“Hives,” was Gemma’s diagnosis. In general, she’s not the type to accept much nonsense. As her boyfriend and mother both have epi-pens, she is even less inclined to do so with allergies—especially when you don’t know what’s causing them. And so, I was  quickly dosed up with Benedryl, given copious amounts of water, and, when the hives refused to fade and my throat started tightening, bundled off to the emergency room.

Here’s an effective way of getting attention in a hospital: state, “I have hives, my throat feels tight, and we have no idea what’s causing it.”

We moved quickly through triage (I could only laugh at the question, “Have you travelled outside of North America in the past thirty days?”) and into a curtained-off corner of another room. For the next while, I answered questions, while Gemma provided additional details.

Yes, I thought I might be allergic to wasps, but have never actually had that tested. No, I hadn’t been stung by a wasp. No, I hadn’t used any new detergents or soap. No, I hadn’t gone walking barefoot through any parks. No, I’ve lived in this house for a year. Yes, I had started drinking almond milk instead of regular milk, but I’d been doing it for over a week and hadn’t had any since that morning.

“Well,” one doctor said, observing the new splotches on my feet. “I think you’re having an allergic reaction.”


Apparently at a loss, they decided to give me more Benedryl, this time via an injection into my muscle. Here’s an effective way of getting hospital staff to treat you like you’re six: stare at the giant, pokey needle, clutch your friend’s hand, and stammer, “Will it hurt?”

I still maintain that a fear of needles is perfectly rational.

They left us a while longer while the antihistamines did their work. The spots faded, but all the combined Benedryl took its toll as reality felt increasingly dreamlike and I drowned beneath a wave of drowsiness. I tried to chat with Gemma, but I think my side of the conversation stopped making sense. However, I do remember that we both decided it might be a bad idea to take a picture of myself looking sad in a hospital bed, post it online, and caption it, “In ER. Just got a huge shot. Doctors have no idea what’s wrong with me.”

But, eventually, the doctors decided the hives had calmed enough to let me go. They wrote me a prescription for an epi-pen, gave me instructions to come back immediately if I experienced any facial swelling or throat closing, and sent me on my way.

As soon as we got home, I hit my bed, slept for an hour, woke up for a brief conversation with Gemma, and fell asleep again until just now.

 I’ve been told that hives recur, and since we don’t know what caused them in the first place, they may come back. So, just a general announcement: if you see me with bumpy, angry-looking hands and feet, don’t worry. I probably don’t have the plague.



Dunedin by the Numbers

After four months, it’s time to say goodbye to Dunedin, and explore the rest of New Zealand and the wider South Pacific. My term at Otago has been unlike anything I could have imagined. I’m highly impressed that all of my profs learned my name (it was also slightly unsettling… I hadn’t realized how accustomed I’d grown to the anonymity of U of T). I’m far more grateful for U of T’s resources. I like that Otago gives exam topics/questions in advance. I learned that I really, really like the bike lanes and public transit around the St. George campus in Toronto.

But I think I’ll present an overview of the past four months in the form of a list. Here is… Dunedin by the numbers.

1.70 – Price of a Learner’s Cone at the Rob Roy Dairy

60 –Estimated average age of the jazz quartet that plays the Robbie Burns pub

4 – Ascents up Baldwin St (incidentally, the steepest street in the world)

3 – Expeditions out to the peninsula

240 – Minutes of walking before we gave up and accepted that we were stranded on the peninsula

2 – Shots of espresso in a Long Black

3 – Sandman books in the Dunedin Public Library’s collection (that I found and borrowed, anyway)

0 – Times I got bored of seeing the Southern Cross

5 – Classes this term

4 – Bank branches guaranteed not to eat my card

90-120 – Minutes spent in the Good Earth Café every Café Sunday

3 –Photo requests from friends back home

2- Photo requests accomplished thus far.

(Lost Count) – Times I’ve nearly been run over

5:30 – Awakening for the ANZAC Day Dawn Service

3 –Nationalities living under one roof

1 – Ring to Rule Them All

1000 – Highest I can count in Māori

18 – Recommended inside temperature in degrees Celsius, according to NZ Health

6 – The actual temperature in our kitchen

9000 – Words written for essays

1 – Wild penguin sighting

16 – Most books I ever had out from the library at one time

251 – Pokémon officially recognized in this flat (sorry, but if it came after GSC, it doesn’t exist to me)

182 – Approximate age of a wonderfully massive and craggy tree in the Botanic Gardens

(Too high to count)  – Times the creepy robotic self-checkout kiosk voice has chirpily reminded me to “Please place item in the bagging area!”

15 + – Weeks to switch my instinctive “default” from right to left

4 – Amazing, challenging, wonderful months

Thanks, Dunedin. Let me summon my very best Māori and say “Ka roto koe i taku ngākau, e noho ana.”

You’ll always have a place in my heart.

The Transience of Things

Because exam preparation wasn’t enough fun… As I study, I’m also trying to figure out the logistics of packing up my life and sending it to the other side of the world.


Coming down, I just brought everything on the plane. The return is tricky, because I’m not going home right away. I’m backpacking, which means that I can’t lug all my worldly possessions with me (well, I suppose I could, it would just be terribly inconvenient and nerve-wracking). I found a luggage forwarding service that will handle my clothing and books, but almost no one wants to touch my laptop.

The luggage forwarders requested that I do an inventory of my possessions. Counting everything down to the last sock certainly gives some perspective. Most of my things can be replaced. Clothing, books, even my beloved mug… none of them would cause an absolute catastrophe if they went missing, my weeping bank account aside.

My laptop, on the other hand…

Those SF stories of uploaded personalities suddenly don’t seem so futuristic, not when so much of my writing, my photos, my music, and all the audio for Hapax-the-Podcast are on a machine.

While NZ Post will ship the laptop with great reluctance, there is a degree of risk. I’m mainly concerned about Hapax-the-Podcast (there are enough copies of Hapax-the-Novel floating around to set my mind at ease, and The Next One has always been on USB). The fully-completed episodes can be converted to WAVs/MP3s and transferred to USB easily enough – those still languishing as Audacity projects are a lot harder to move around/access on another machine.

But before I flew to New Zealand, I took all the dialogue out of each episode. I converted all of it to WAV files, copied everything to another USB, and left it in Canada. So, worst case scenario, my actors’ work is safe. Would re-editing and re-scoring everything be a pain and create an insane production schedule? Absolutely. But it means I’ll never have to say to my cast, “Hey, guys, remember how much fun we had recording? Well, guess what – we get to do it all over again!”

I can see their faces now.

Although I’m working feverishly to finish as much as I can before departing, it’s entirely possible that my laptop will show up when it’s supposed to, undamaged, with everything safe and sound. I certainly hope so… because despite my backup plans, I feel terribly insecure sending so much of my life into the big wide world with nothing but packing peanuts as protection.

And there was much rejoicing… or vehement cursing. We’ll see.

Keeping a Cool Head

I know I typically post towards the end of the week, but I did have a few things I wanted to discuss.

I now have all four of my essays back. Three of the four went as expected, and I was happy. Perhaps I got complacent. Actually, I did get complacent, because the last one absolutely blindsided me.

I passed, but it’s a great deal lower than the marks I usually get, and I’m not pleased. For those who know me well, this is (for once) not a case of my having ridiculously high standards. Trust me, you would not be pleased either.

So: shock, and if I’m being honest, some anger. And as long as I am being completely honest, my first instinct was to snap, to rave, and vent.

But I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m taking a second, sober look, and I think that, in this case, the principle of “Pick Your Battles” applies.

This was not the most amazing piece of academic writing I have ever produced. The others weren’t my best either, but they were still better. However… I’m on exchange. Yes, it is called Study Abroad for a reason, but realistically, I’m here just as much for the learning outside the classroom. I can learn history anywhere. There are some things about myself, and about life, that I can only learn in New Zealand. Presumably for this reason, every class I take here is judged at home on a pass/fail basis. As long as I pass, I get the credit, but the mark will never, ever show up on my University of Toronto transcript, and does not factor into my GPA.

So really, it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter. I’m not saying that in a nihilistic way, but rather in a “it is not particularly relevant to my ultimate goals” kind of way. When I’ve cooled off, I’ll see if there’s anything I can learn from the comments, but otherwise, getting upset over a paper that will not affect my GPA or my grad school prospects seems like a waste of energy.

Moreover, it reminds me that the time is coming when I’ll be looking at reviews, which is the other reason why I am choosing to let this go. When I get my first negative review, am I going to rant? No, of course not. I don’t want to be That Person. Again, this is training to Pick Your Battles.

The “good” thing about rejection, bad reviews, and bad essays is that you can usually learn something from them. But if not… then perhaps a bit of perspective helps. One bad review in a heap of good ones loses some of its bite. One bad essay in three years of university looks less like an indictment of my academic skills and more like a bump in the road. And when I think about all the things I’ve done and seen in New Zealand… I know that those experiences are far more valuable to me as a person than one more A would be.

As I mentioned earlier, I do set high standards for myself. I want to do well. I want to write well, and tell good stories, and perform good history. But when things don’t go as I’d hoped… well, then I simply ask for the ability to handle them with grace and dignity.

You know it’s essay season when…

It is 8:00, and I have coffee.

That wouldn’t be a terribly surprising statement… except that it’s 8:00 pm. I’m one of those people who can’t handle caffeine after 4:30, not if I plan on sleeping that night.

I don’t really plan on sleeping tonight.

I have two essays, a debate, and a short(er) assignment all due within the next week, then a test and another assignment at the beginning of the week after. So naturally, I’m here writing a blog post about my work, instead of actually doing it, but… I digress.

I have coffee.

I was in the library, working on one of these essays(EVERYTHINGYOUKNOWABOUTDARWINANDTHEVICTORIANCHURCHGO!), when exhaustion hit me like a truck. I’m not sure if it was crashing blood sugar, or the consumption of a single glass of wine earlier in the evening, but I was a zombie. Reluctantly (but really too stupid in the head to do anything else), I packed up my computer and returned home, where I had some cereal.

And I made coffee.

Now I can feel it kicking in. I’m still really, really tired, the “I-wonder-if-vampires-attacked-me-in-the-night” kind of tired, but the cogs of my brain are turning again. With any luck, both essays can be finished over the weekend. Schoolwork has been Priority No. 1 for me for almost as long as I can remember… but that seems to possibly be shifting oh-so-slightly (agh! I feel squirmy inside just typing that). I feel bad laying my fiction-type writing aside, even if it’s only for a few days. Inertia can be a powerful and terrible thing, and I’m not letting this story stall and die on me.

Now my coffee is gone….


Oamaru Recap

I’ve returned a wee bit early from Oamaru. Frankly, it reminded me of the Distillery District more than Black Creek – lots of galleries in a small, twisty section of town. Not quite what I expected, but very nice nonetheless. My early return doesn’t mean I wasn’t having a good time. It just means that I misjudged how long it would take me to do everything.

Yesterday, I had a very long, but very, very good day.

It started with what I intend to make a routine while travelling: a trip to the café for my daily caffeine fix and word count. The owner brought my Long Black just as my netbook flared to life.

“Doing a bit of catch-up, are we?” he asked, nodding at the screen.

“Um, no, actually. I’m writing.”


“I’m a writer.”

“A writer!” He beamed. “We had a writer used to come round. Turned out three books sitting here.” He broke off suddenly, and gave me a stern look. “Well,” he said. “Get at it!”

So I did.

My next stop was the Steampunk HQ, located in a former grain storage building on the edge of the Victorian Precinct. Like most of Oamaru, it was smaller than I expected, and the steampunk a shade darker than I’m used to, but certainly worth the look.  Even better, I made friends with the curator, who told me that if I came to the North Otago Museum after lunch, she’d unearth some photos of nineteenth-century Oamaru, along with some more recent photos of its past steampunk exhibits.

I hit the public gardens next, but a sudden downpour hit me, so it was a rather bedraggled Canadian that darkened the doorstep of Annie’s Victorian Tearoom. A woman in period maid’s costume met me with a smile, and an eye on my soaked hair and jacket. “Would you be wanting a hot drink then, dear?”

“Yes, please.”

“Go on and sit anywhere you like…” She paused, and looked me over again. “But may I suggest by the fire?”

Yes, they had a real, wood fire. In a real fireplace. A Victorian tea set and gas-lamp graced the shelf behind my head, and a little old man played piano in the corner. My server had muttonchops. I sighed. I was home.

Now, I eat very quickly. It’s embarrassing, but I can’t help it. Turns out that fancy china is an excellent cure. And believe me, the food was delicious: flaky scones with dollops of cream perfect for cooling the mouth after a sip of hot coffee. As I paid, the server asked, “Was everything to your liking?”

“Oh, yes, you have no idea how much I needed this.”

He nodded. “You looked a bit rain-soaked, I’m glad you were able to warm up.”

“It’s not just that…”

We then got into a conversation about history and historical sites – apparently, he worked at a heritage site in Christchurch until the earthquake, and then moved down here to keep some of his period lifestyle. “I’m kind of a history geek,” he confided. (Males – there is no faster way to make me fall in love a little bit.)

Later, I went to the museum, where the steampunk curator works afternoons. As promised, she had a collection of photos to show me, and we talked for a while about Oamaru’s history, steampunk, and speculative fiction in general. The longer I stay here, the more I realize how rich New Zealand’s tradition of spec-fic is – and it’s not just Lord of the Rings. There’s something about the people, and the country, that works very well with this kind of literature.

And to finish the day, I went for a wander in the reserve just outside of town. Lots of huge, creaking trees, a few sheep, and a seacoast trail with breathtaking, ruggedly beautiful cliffs.

All in all, a thoroughly excellent experience… though I’m quite content to have left it at just the one day.

Misery Loves Company

I always knew this week would be hard. I’m typing this on Good Friday. Aside from all my family members’ birthdays, Easter is the main holiday I’m missing. This blog isn’t the place to get deeply into it, but suffice it to say that I have thoroughly enjoyed the past few Easters with my church choir. The music is beautiful, as is the service, and I love the way Easter’s symbolism converges with the agricultural calendar.

On my mind this weekend...

All this to say that I’m a little wistful this weekend, an ocean away from the people and places that mean so much to me. I knew this would happen, and I was already prepared for a rough week.

Then I got sick. The shaking chills, plugged ears, swollen glands, tight-chested, coughing-until-you-feel-you-can’t-breathe kind of sick. I’m on the mend, but it was worst Tuesday night. At about 12:30 am, while I lay in bed, gasping and sweating, a movie and laughter blared in the room next to mine. I’d already asked them to turn it down once, and I certainly wasn’t leaving my bed again.   

That night, for the first time, I thought: You know what? Screw it. I want to go home. I miss my friends.  I want my apartment back. I’m sick, and alone, and living in a glorified dorm. Screw it.

I had enough sense to realize that my illness was likely behind this outpouring of emotion (at least in part). So, I told myself that if I felt as miserable in the morning, I would see the International Student Advisers.

Luckily, I didn’t have to. Then, after choir yesterday, I got to talking with one of the friends I’ve made here: a girl from California. The Californian admitted that she’d already been to the Advisers, and admonished me for not calling her in the depths of my misery.

It’s hard for me to ask for help. But sharing our homesickness was like taking a sigh of relief – just knowing there’s someone else who feels the same. It’s a nice reminder that opening up can be a good thing.  

And so… back on track, and looking forward to my trip to Oamaru – the Steampunk/Victoriana capital of the South Island (who knew, right?).  

No, I will NOT be asking them, "Are you hot?" or "Are you Amish?" or "Are those your real clothes?" Adventures in historical interpretation could be a whole other post, if not another blog entirely.