Thor: Reconstructing empire

So here’s a weird thing. I was really sick and high on cough medicine a few weekends ago and I happened to finally watch Thor: The Dark World (hereafter Thor 2 or The Dark World). Obviously, I was watching this movie well after having seen the glory that was Thor: Ragnarok, and it gave me some perspective.

First, let me disclaim. I did actually like Thor 2. This does not mean that I was blind to its flaws. We’re actually going to dive into some of those, sort of sideways. I was, however, pretty strung out sick, so if you are looking for a low-brain-power sick movie and like staring at Thor, this may be a good pick. If not, well, your miles may vary. But while Thor 2 may indeed be higher on my Marvel ranking list than Dr. Strange (let’s be honest, what isn’t) I’m not actually intending to talk about that today. I’m more interested in talking about Thor 2 within the context of the primary theme of Thor: Ragnarok – the critique of empire. Specifically, Asgard.

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What is that you say? Ragnarok had a theme that was that political? Far be it from me to point this out to you so many months later, but yes, it did. Taika Waititi is a brilliant maniac, and he very clearly constructed a story that dealt with some major issues that don’t often get taken up in big budget superhero films in a critical way. I would argue that his work paved the way for Black Panther to be as political as it was, actually. If watched in a continuum, Ragnarok becomes the swing towards self-awareness of what empire means and its bloody history, while Black Panther deals with the equally destructive issue of isolation. These are two sides to the same technologically-advanced coin. Add to that Black Panther‘s own complicated relationship with colonialism, and you get a profoundly politically charged shift in these two films.

But how do previous Marvel films play into that? Specifically, how do previous Thor films play into that?

Thor: Ragnarok makes clear that no empire rules cleanly, because empire requires conquest. This is the dirty secret of Asgard, the secret that assures its eventual downfall from a technologically advanced civilization to a society of refugees. Except it’s not really such a secret, is it? In The Dark World, and in the original Thor, we saw our share of violence, often of the genocidal kind. The Asgardian’s history with the Dark Elves, with the Ice Giants – it’s an open book. Once, a people lived here. Once, there was a world. Then the Asgardians came, for one reason or another, and wiped it out. In these stories, we are led to believe that these other people were inherently evil. In The Dark World, the Dark Elves are specifically trying to wipe out the whole universe of stars because they apparently don’t like light or something. They’re not good people, or at least we’re told they’re not.

thor dark evles

But what led them here? What led to this? Was it merely the inevitable result of one empire’s clash with another? Is that an excuse?

The movie The Dark World was constructed to appeal to our narratives of good and evil, and of whiteness, a certain Western European cultural nostalgia. The soundtrack evoked the Lord of the Rings to the point where it could have honestly been stolen. The characters on screen were, for the most part, white  (with the notable exception of Heimdall and Hogun, who unfortunately had little screen time) and human-looking. Scenes in Asgard were golden and clean, evoking righteousness. The Asgardians were being attacked. The last conflict was ages ago, and really none of their concern. Why couldn’t they be left to subjugate the orc-looking dudes on their planets (I really have to question that director choice, by the by) in peace? They were the good guys.

golden thor

Then the Dark Elves had to revive their centuries-old vendetta and try to wipe out the universe.

Perhaps what was most interesting to me about this movie was the way that it continues to reflect the empire’s fascination with being attacked on its own soil. By their nature, empires are sprawling. We see that the Asgardians conquer several worlds, and control those territories. Yet the Dark Elves do not attack them on those worlds. They attack them at the heart – killing their queen, destroying their throne, the symbol of Asgardian power. They are unstoppable – just as the Asgardians have been unstoppable on so many other worlds, with their relative might and skill.

Taken within this context, Thor: Ragnarok is an even more subversive movie than first supposed. Not only does Ragnarok deal directly with the evils of empire – it does so in the quintessential empire, in the home of what, in The Dark World, has been structured off of our own ideas of the golden (white/Western/patriarchal) society.

Impressed Loki

Honestly, having that context made me love the Thor oeuvre even more.


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Being sick, release dates, and other stuff

Life is hard, friends. I was sick with a terrible cold for two weeks and it threw me straight out of any kind of rhythm. I’ve been scrambling to get back on the metaphorical pony, and it’s been slow going.

You may know that it is almost April, and that I have some big things coming up in April. First, I will be at Roanoke Author Invasion on April 7th. I did this last year and it was a lot of fun, so we’ll see how it goes this year. Second, I will be traveling to Salt Lake City for a thing-that-is-writing-related-but-not-an-appearance in April from the 13th through the 16th. So that’s the first two weekends of April shot for writing things. (Not that I won’t be doing writing-related stuff, but I cannot actually write while I am doing appearances, etc. for obvious reasons.) Given that there are only two weekends left between now and then, that’s a little intimidating in terms of my timelines.

Accordingly, I’m announcing now that the release date for DAUGHTER OF MADNESS will be June 2nd. To cut the edge off of pushing it back a bit from the hoped-for April date, we now have preorders available on Amazon. This is my first time doing preorders, and I’m excited to see how it goes. You can preorder the book here.

To clarify, DoM is written, I’m just doing the fine-tuning and the formatting at this point. Being sick, however, meant that I lost two weeks on that (the dayjob and the other necessary bits of living have to come first, and when I only have limited energy that means no writing). I’ll be more sane and we’ll all be happier with the finished product this way. The perils of self-publishing and all.

I’ll have more news soon about a release event which I am very excited about and I’ll also have some cool graphics and other fun things to help get people excited leading into this process. I’ve even included a sweet banner with this post which you will have already seen if you’ve been to my Facebook or Twitter, and I plan on using that for all DoM-related posts going forward so you’ll know what you’re getting into. Enjoy!


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Maximizing your writing time

I received a comment a few weeks back about how to best maximize your writing time. If you only have a half hour to an hour a day to work on things, this can be a real challenge for making any headway on your manuscript. Here are some things that work for me. As always with writing advice, your miles may vary.

  1. Leaving myself notes. For our first trick, let’s look at the easiest one. I often find myself with only a short chunk of time for writing, and a lot that I want to get on the page. One of the easiest ways to make sure I know exactly where to pick up is to leave myself a note, especially if I am working in a notebook. You’ll often see odd bits of marginalia in my notebooks. They could be thoughts that I’m working out about later in the book, but just as often they are notes about what a scene is supposed to be or do according to where I am where inspiration strikes. Then I can go back and fill that in at my leisure.
  2. Using smaller chunks of time for editing. Another tactic that I find useful is to use the smaller chunks of time that I have for writing-related activities for editing. This may seem a little counterintuitive if your focus is to get words on the page, but there are a couple of advantages here. If you reserve the larger chunks of writing time for the harder work of coming up with new words, then you make more progress on your manuscript or other project more quickly. And editing (at least line editing) something that is pretty far along is really a more rote exercise. It’s a lot easier to do if you are not actually in the flow of reading – in other words, shorter blocks of editing time for line edits and proofing actually help you find errors, in my experience.
  3. Stopping in the middle of things. One of the most common pieces of writing advice out there is to stop in the middle of things. In other words, don’t finish a writing session at the end of a chapter. Finish it while you still have momentum. That momentum will carry you through the beginning of your next writing session more quickly. You’ll spend less time trying to figure out what happens next in the story and more time writing – helpful if you only have a short chunk of time to begin with.
  4. Outlining larger projects. One of the things that I most often tell beginning writers is that it’s important to outline. I don’t do full outlines like a lot of folks – that is to say, my outlines actually look like outlines, usually, with very general information and scenes sort of grouped together, at least until I get further along in a project. But for long projects, and even for short stories, it’s important to have an idea of where the story is going before you sit down at the keyboard. This piece of advice is a lot like number 1 on this list, but involves a little more time and planning in advance.
  5. Putting myself in the headspace with music. There are a lot of pieces that go into writing that aren’t actually writing. One of those is daydreaming. I find that there are a lot of times during the day when I can safely daydream about a bit of world-building or a character motivation without having to stop another task I am working on. One of the things that helps me with that is to listen to a playlist inspired by whatever I am working on. This is also a great way to get yourself in the right headspace as you go into a writing session, since it helps bring up the same thoughts and emotions you were having when you were brainstorming before.
  6. Keeping things in the cloud. One of my best tips for the person who has a tight schedule is to keep all of your writing in a cloud server. This is something I’ve only recently started doing, and I’m so glad that I have. It serves two functions – first, I don’t have to worry about my computer crashing and me losing everything I’ve ever worked on, because it’s backed up in the cloud. Second, I can literally work on something anywhere, even if I get slammed with an idea when I have no pen or paper. I even got a portable keyboard for when I’m on lunch. I still love writing in notebooks, but it definitely saves time not to have to type everything up and gives me more flexibility with note taking, etc.
  7. Eating while writing/editing. One of the big things that I do is use my lunch to write or edit. I’ve been a bit bad about this the past few weeks, but typically I use my eating time for writing. This is the one block of time that I know I will get – everyone has to eat – so if I make sure to make time for reading, writing, or editing during this stretch then it helps balance all of the rest of my needs for time later in the day. It’s not ideal, but if you’re pressed it’s better than nothing. And food helps me think.

That’s all the advice I have for you today! I hope it helps in your quest!


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Annihilation: I’m still disappointed in Alex Garland

I’ve been looking forward to the movie adaptation of Annihilation for a long time, largely because I really enjoyed the book and also because of one specific reason: the cast of the book is, with one exception, entirely female. This is a big deal, since the story revolves around a bunch of highly-educated, idiosyncratic scientists going into what is essentially the Everglades if the Everglades were a haunted house. I was disappointed to see such a big name as Oscar Isaac cast in the movie, though I enjoy him in most things, because I knew that would mean that his role as the husband was intended to be expanded. I rationalized that this was probably a good thing. After all, his death in the book is the entire emotional impetus for the Biologist’s entry into the psychotropic-murder-swamp that is Area X. It made sense that he would have a bigger role.

That impetus, at least, did not change.

(SPOILERS, if you haven’t figured that out yet.)

The movie kept a lot of things to love about the book, including the general creep-fest that is Area X. It jettisoned a lot of other things. Some of this was good. All of the characters got names, for example. There was no magical hypnosis to control their minds, and Area X was a bit closer than I expected, but overall they made some good decisions with that. I was also gratified that, when the husband – called Kane in the movie – did show up, the awkward sex scene didn’t happen. I was not particularly into that sex scene, for obvious reasons to do with consent, though it worked in the book in ways it would never have been able to work in the movie.

That’s about the end of the good changes, I think.

As a whole, the narrative the movie went with was not terrible, but it was not exceptional either. While there was no way that the movie could have stayed entirely true to the book – different mediums being what they are – my dominant feeling coming out of this movie was a sense of disquiet. That disquiet had nothing to do with the giant monster-animals eating people’s throats out to steal their voices, though that was creepy. It had a lot more to do with the fact that Oscar Isaac had such a central role in this film, as I had suspected. In the book, the Biologist goes into Area X to find her husband, or at least find out what happened to him. It is clear from early on that the doppleganger that returns is not him, but a copy, and a malformed one. The Biologist is an ecologist, and she relishes the diversity and fecundity of the newly reclaimed landscape, free of human contamination. Her connection with Area X is almost as personal as her relationship with her husband by the end, who, by the way, she does not find in the first book. Instead, we are left to guess at their story. Did she drown? Did she meet him on the island? Are they living together, still, or dead together, their ghosts haunting this new world?

In contrast, the doppleganger of Kane survives. Lena, the biologist, sets out to eradicate the thing that has threatened her love with her hard-earned military skills. She finds video of her husband at several places, including video of his death. Because of the loss she has experienced, she treats Area X like a cancer, not a cleansing. She burns it. And when she comes home she gets a happy-ever-after with Kane’s echo, miraculously alive.

Kane’s fate remains central to Lena’s story, but not in the way that the husband’s fate is central to the story of the Biologist. There are relatively few points of dialogue in the movie that do not center around Kane or Kane’s all-male team. (I cannot think of an instance of dialogue that does not at some point mention Kane or Kane’s team once they have entered Area X, excepting perhaps the scene with the alligator.) There are also three named male characters in this adaptation, one of whom was invented from whole-cloth to cast Lena as an adulterer, a confusing decision at best. I believe this was supposed to be a way to rationalize Kane’s decision to enter Area X, but it felt like an excuse to show Natalie Portman naked. Keep in mind that this is an adaptation of a book told entirely from a female scientist’s perspective, one whose central themes include a profoundly ecological bent (entirely removed in this on-screen iteration), and where the only male character dies within the first two chapters and lives primarily as a ghost in the narrator’s head.

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It is disappointing to watch a movie that might have, in a better world, taken a diverse female cast and given them a gripping, cerebral storyline that didn’t revolve around men – and which fails to do so. Annihilation was not a terrible movie, taken out of the context of the source text. I do not hate it. But there was so much potential for what it could have been. And despite numerous things done right, the movie fell short of that potential.


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The best thing I learned at MystiCon

I go to conventions to spread the word about my existence, sure, but I also go to conventions to learn. (And to meet awesome people, but that is a side benefit to the utility, even if it is a very important one.) This year, I had a number of great experiences – being on an all woman panel was one, I enjoyed that immensely – but the most meaningful learning I did was as moderator on the very last panel of my time there, Epic Scale Fiction.

As might be imagined, I focused most of my questions on the “scale” piece of this topic – that is, how to expand a story. And the most obvious method of expanding a story that’s already out there is to write a new story (or a continuation of a story) in the same world. I’ll admit my bias – writing a sequel has been a totally different affair for me than writing an original story, with a whole new set of skills that I needed to acquire. Check on any of my posts which contain progress updates on Daughter of Madness and you will see what I’m talking about. But I didn’t have the language to articulate what, exactly, I’d done wrong with my second book in the Creation Saga the first time around, and what, exactly, I was doing right with the rewrites.

(As an aside, I have gotten deep into edits and heard back from beta readers and guys, I am very confident that you are going to love Daughter of Madness. I’m also very hopeful to have an official release date soon.)

I now have that language, thanks to the panelists. A sequel still involves changing the status quo. You sequel starts in that shift, just as your original novel did. It’s not just a continuation of the prior story. Something must change for each of your characters. So:

  • Change the status quo
  • Your sequel is not a continuation of the old story, it’s something new
  • Each book should be a story unto itself

When I started writing Daughter of Madness, I was trying to continue the story that I was telling in Mother of Creation. This is where I went wrong, and this is why two thirds of the book got chopped and rewritten. I had a solid thread on Liana’s story, with drastic changes to her new normal in the offing, but I just expected the other characters to keep doing what they had been doing and honestly? I was bored. I was bored writing it, and it showed, and it didn’t make any sense at all. Everything was bad.

Then I listened to Kameron Hurley talking about the need to throw out part of her book on her Twitter. I realized I could do that. And I started over. I started telling a new kind of story for each of my characters. One where the setting was more or less the same, often, but the stakes had changed, either internally or externally. I muddled towards the answer that the panelists so concisely gave me.

Everyone approaches sequels differently. The level of backstory required, the way that you orient the reader to the characters, changes from person to person. I very much want people to read the first book before they read the second. They are installments in the same broad arc. But they still should be able to stand on their own enough that if I as a reader came back to this series after a long time, I would be able to orient myself and still be engaged. And the only way that can happen is if the story in the second book is just as gripping and engaging, in its own way, as the story in the first. It can’t be a repetition of what has gone before, though some of the same themes and conflicts may be present.

In a way, I’m glad I had to learn things the hard way. Even if I had heard someone say those very words before, I don’t know that I would have recognized it in application to my own work. Even if I had, I don’t know that the book I would have written would have been as truthful as this one, because if I had finished Daughter of Madness sooner I would have lacked the experiences I needed to make it sing. But I am glad I know the lesson now, and I wanted to pass it on to you, in case you ever find yourself in the same boat.


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