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NOTE: I posted this review some time ago, labelled as NSFW as it discussed a NSFW story. It got stripped away in the great NSFW purge of 2013. Here it is, reposted, with the NSFW links edited out. Enjoy it in most of its former glory!
Co-written with my boyfriend.
A lot of digital ink has been spilled over AnonAuthor’s Xenophilia, from those who love it, those who hate it, those who praise its sumptuous world building while lamenting its clunky expositional style, those who deride the sex scenes as awkward, to those who label it grade-A fap fodder. (Scarlet's thoughts can be found here.)
Something intrigued me about the role of Lero and Rainbow Dash, not so much their characters or roles in the plot, but their use as emotional tools. I had thoughts running round my head, but it wasn’t until my partner-in-crime (and partner generally) showed me this video that it all clicked:
Campster mentions that while Alyx Vance is a good female character, she’s not a great female character — contrast her level of characterisation with Dr Breen’s, for example — and the reason gamers love her so much and think she’s such an amazing character is that she’s been specifically designed to make you love her. To roughly quote him:
So you’re bumbling around City 17 and you meet this girl. She’s instantly warm and inviting, she gets you out of your current jam and helps you find where you need to go. She’s cool and hip, yet approachable; chaste and innocent yet still flirty; independent and capable yet still fragile in a weird way. Here is this beautiful, single, age-appropriate woman who lives with her father and by all accounts is just waiting for you to arrive, to befriend her robot dog, save her world, and whisk her away.
Pretty sweet deal for you. How could you be so lucky?
BECAUSE SHE WAS ENGINEERED TO MAKE YOU FEEL THAT WAY, YOU DOLT!
The basic premise of the story: Rainbow Dash has a severe crush on all around Good-Guy-Human Lero. Dash finally confesses, Lero considers the proposition, and the pair embark on a relationship. Sex and worldbuilding happen, with a tiny dash of plot added somewhere in the mix.
Lero’s role in this is obvious and a well-worn trope in the human-on-pone genre. He’s the reader insert, and not particularly remarkable except in his highly-competent execution. He has a sense of humor but the readers aren’t forced to groan though godawful ‘witticisms’ or punch the monitor as all the other characters laugh at things that aren’t funny. He banters with Rainbow Dash and shares her interests, while still being his own distinct character. He’s intellectual to a certain extent, but not so much that he verges on Mary Sue territory. He has a masculine occupation — handyman — but he’s a masseur, is quite capable of romance, and apparently the better cook in the relationship. He’s friendly, warm and empathic to everyone he meets.
As an aside, competently-executed reader inserts are rarer than you think. Compare and contrast Lero to the protagonist of This Magic Moment by ScatMan2001, who is a boring, snippy douchebag with a boring military desk-job in Equestria yet manages to earn and keep the romantic affections of Princess Celestia herself. Or the protagonist of Prefsab’s Sophistication and Betrayal, a boring engineer whom Rarity falls head over heels for despite the pair having nothing in common, kept together only by the machinations of the universe that seems to be exclusively on the protagonist’s side. Lero is better constructed because AnonAuthor is apparently smart enough to recognize there are people in the universe who aren't him.
Now, I suggest that a romance protagonist has three components that make the reader love them and their story: connection, fantasy and pathos. We’ll use Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight as an example, as it’s incredibly popular with readers and you’re all probably familiar with the basics from cultural osmosis alone.
Bella Swan is our protagonist. She connects with the reader because she’s just like what Meyer’s fourteen/forty year-old female (initial) readership imagine themselves as. Dark hair, just like you. Loves reading, and is a ‘cut above’ the rest of the dunderheads she’s surrounded by, just like you. Her family are nice, kinda, but don’t understand her and she’s as much their caretaker as they are hers. She’s intellectual but not intimidating, pretty but not beautiful, kinda clumsy, and is the ideal blank slate for the reader to project herself onto.
The fantasy is straightforward — she gains the affections of Edward Cullen, who is explicitly constructed to be the author/reader’s romantic ideal, an amalgamation of Romeo of Romeo and Juliet, Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice, and Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights. Like Romeo, he can think of nothing but Bella, but like Darcy he’s also mature and capable of actually caring for her. The fantasy here is that a man like this — alluring, exciting, dangerous but still loving — will fall for you — YOU, YOU THE READER, READING THIS, YOU — and your life will grow awesome.
If the ‘connection’ component is presenting Bella’s ‘good’ characteristics so that the reader can feel happy projecting themselves onto her, the ‘pathos’ component is presenting the shitty bits of her life so that the reader can better empathise with her. She feels completely alienated in the rainy, gloomy town she’s stuck in. Both of her parents are well-meaning messes and she feels like she’s gone from being the caretaker of one to the caretaker of the other. She’s painfully clumsy, she’s plain, she’s not exciting or a cheerleader or a genius (well, she might be this but only compared to her dull classmates who don’t read things), she’s just an average girl who likes reading and is burdened with a bunch of childlike idiots stuck in Craptown, USA.
Thus, of course, making it all the more special when Edward Cullen appears and uplifts her from her soul-destroying, rainy life.
The problem with this is that pathos is required for emotional impact, but if there’s too much or it’s done wrong, the reader will hate the protagonist and everything they represent. The protagonist will be seen as a whiny, unlikeable douche, and the reader will resent the implication they should project onto them. And if there’s no projection, the romantic triad falls apart and there’s no emotional impact, no catharsis. And the right/wrong amount of pathos varies considerably between readers (ain’t that the truth)
And that’s where Rainbow Dash comes in. All the stallions in Ponyville think she’s ugly and butch, she’s only had sex once, and the stallion dumped her the next day. All the stallions she knows are either taken or are shallow, and are only interested in hot mares who are total douchebags* or her friends, who she loves, but knows that she’ll never be as good with women stallions as, and it hurts her. She frequently gets crushes and they all work out badly, because the stallions only ever want to be friends with her, as if they have some kind of area, or ‘zone’ for romantic partners, and another one for friends, and she always ends up in the latter.
When she finally makes a move, she thinks that Lero isn’t interested and prepares to slink off, he kisses her back. He tells her she’s actually beautiful, and the rest of the stallions are just blind not to notice it. They take the moment where you confess your crush and the person is completely taken by surprise — a nightmare moment for a lonely twenty-year-old boy, who has gone through that exact same thing again and again — and turn it into a moment of pure, liberating, ecstatic catharsis.
Sorry, did I say ‘a lonely twenty-year-old boy’ instead of ‘Rainbow Dash’? I apologise, I have no idea how I could have gotten those two confused after all IT’S ONLY THE ENTIRE SUBTEXT OF RAINBOW DASH’S CHARACTER IN THIS FIC!
That, dear reader, is where your pathos went. Instead of the dangerous balancing act of placing connection, fantasy and pathos all in the same character, AnonAuthor splits the narrative in two. Lero connects to the reader and gets the fantasy of being seen as an awesome dude and banging Rainbow Dash. Rainbow Dash stirs up pathos by being unfairly unloved, and gets the ugly duckling/Cinderella treatment when it turns out she IS loveable after all, and by an awesome person who loves her back and oh she totally gets me she’s just like one of the guys we can talk about anything together it’s like we’re best friends and she’s totally hot — sorry, there I go reversing the genders again when you got the point two paragraphs ago.
This is the grand allure of Xenophilia. Just under the surface is a Nice Guy fantasy, but you aren’t innately repulsed by it because it comes from Rainbow Dash, raised in a different culture from ours (though, note how an explicit comparison is drawn when Lero remarks that ‘in our culture, courtship rituals are reversed’, implying that human males have to go through the exact same horrible shit that Rainbow Dash goes through in a culture with a 5:1 gender imbalance). It’s a story where you can eat your cake and keep it too: You get to feel like the decent, honest and worthwhile Lero, while also feeling the relief of the awesome but unfairly maligned by those bitch cheerleaders stallion culture at large Rainbow Dash when she finally finds love and lust.
So how do we judge Xenophilia with the facade stripped away and the internal mechanics revealed? It’s certainly a novel technique within ponyfic, it paid off in spades in terms of appeal, and AnonAuthor should be applauded for being an early adaptor. Otherwise, there’s a few views you can take.
On the one hand, in light of other HumanDash wish-fulfilment tropes? It’s a good thing that Dash and Lero are constructed this way because it presents a model of HiE wish-fulfilment romance that encourages the reader to try to project into characters who aren’t perfect models of themselves, and forces them to empathize with common experiences rather than common identities. From a strictly critical perspective, it means we can do better- it’s one thing to get people to empathize with characters because ‘look, they’re just like you!’, it’s another to start from scratch and immerse them in a character and make them feel a connection to someone they don’t necessarily want to use as their avatar. Xenophilia might be a best-of-breed, but what that means is that we can always be on the lookout for better.
On the other hand, it’s a blatant emotional manipulation designed to appeal to a certain subset of readers — the poor little straight young male readers, and fuck those guys because everything caters to them already — who get to put themselves in the same position as Dash. They get all the pathos and catharsis of your super amazing crush finally saying yes and validating them as an attractive and wonderful human being, and they also get to pretend to be Lero the omni-capable and omnibenevolent, but separating the two (and dumping the pathos on a character we already love, and justifying it by creating a whole universe so the cards CAN be stacked against her) stops more discerning readers from being grossed out and squickquitting.
When you open Xenophilia, you’re not just seeing a pair of central characters whose story you can immerse yourself in — you’re seeing an escape to a new and fantastic universe where you’re having lots and lots of magical sex with a perfect partner. It’s not immediately obvious who that partner is, however, and therein lies AnonAuthor’s cunning design. You think you’re just enjoying a touching, genuinely poetic love story. You think the writing is sweeping you off your feet. Nope! That’s just your fantasy carrying you away and making you forget that everything you’re seeing is engineered to feed your basest sentiment.
*(In fact, we technically even meet a few- the mares who freak about Rainbow Dash’s interspecies sex. Come to think of it, they’re also a way to make Dash a secondary conduit for reader projection- you jerk to MLP porn or have fantasies involving the characters, people will mock you. Ergo, hey, look, Dash has to deal with that too! in the context of the worldbuilding it works, but it’s worth noting that even details like this subtly reinforce her status as player-character two rather than ‘just’ object of desires.)
FridayHIDDEN GEMS!!17 comments · 231 views
New kid, new town. Can he make big waves and steal a harem of six beautiful mares?
Trixie adopts Scootaloo in hopes of proving that she has truely changed for the better.
The nobles are at it again, this time their plan to get more power backfires as the new princess tricks them.
How will Twilight react?
Learning in a quite blunt way that she has to take on a consort
Will her plan work out for her, or will there be more difficulties then she had originally planned.
This story is about three of my OC's
You and Twilight have been friends for a very long time now, every since both of you discovered your passion for learning.
My first ever Fanfic, let alone first story I have created
There's also the other bonus of getting to sneak peaks at the busty principal.
Warning this fic is mostly about diapers but also there is some sounding
When Anon makes a mistake during one of his mission's he is some how sent to Ponyville instead of facing death.
Max stumbles through life feeling like an arrow without a target. That is, until he meets the ponies, and finds a cause worth fighting for.
Alex is introduced to the notorious Gamer Luna, princess of the night and...game trolling!?
Will is a brony who feels out of place on Earth.
The Last Chapter... OR IS IT?!
MLP/Halo crossover fic
43 comments · 400 views
“Redraft everything,” they say, “Write it and then rewrite it in case you did anything wrong,” they say, “Write it and then rewrite it without using ‘said’ or any words that mean ‘said’,” they say, “Write it and then rewrite it without using J or Y or any labial plosives,” they say, “Re-re-re-re-re-dedicate your life to Christ, and also take the adverbs out,” they say, “First drafts are always crap,” they say, “Write it again! Write it write it again and again again again again, write it until the rocks melt and the seas burn and the Leviathan rises to take creation betwixt its maw once again,” they say, “Write it and then rewrite it without using the verb ‘to be’ under any circumstances” they say, and they say a many similar things of a very similar nature until it all runs together in a neverending stream of writing advice tumblrs and Creative Writing 101 seminars.
What a load of wank. Yes, yes, I’m sure that Annie Proulx and Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy and this week’s Nobel Prize for Literature winner (whose works you take lovingly from your bookshelf far more often than those of some genre hack like a Dick or a Bradbury or a Christie) all write their novels, ruthlessly examine each and every word of each and every sentence to make sure it belongs there, purge anything they deem less than utterly necessary, sit on it for a month to make sure they’re reading it with fresh eyes, reexamine every sentence from the ground up, send it to their agent’s editor, make corrections, send it to the agent’s editor again, make further corrections, sit on it for another month, then burn their entire manuscript and collected notes before repeating the process six-to-eight times until they are sure that each letter is borne of the deepest springs of Literature themselves and not sullied by mere human hands.
I have heard these stories of the craft, seen them in the New York Times Review of Books, listened to them on Radio Four podcasts, skimmed them over a thousand blogs. I have seen authors of well-received works declaim that not a single word of their first draft remained in the final draft of their work. I am sure that this is a creative process that works for them, and I wish them joy.
Of course, it’s all utter rubbish. Robert Heinlein, Harlan Ellison, Dean Wesley Smith, they all explain in detail how wrongheaded the myth of ‘writing must be slow and neverending and edited in perpetuity’ is, but really, the myth holds no more water than Ladder Theory* or the idea that the Bush Administration blew up the WTC**. Even a cursory glance at the bibliographies of good writers shows it to be false: Phillip K Dick spent most of his writing career slamming out a novel a week in a shed while taking too many amphetamines and not enough antipsychotics, and his literature is beyond reproach. Charles Dickens slammed out words at a phenomenal rate to hit deadlines for the magazines that published his novels. Harlan Ellison would take a sentence-long story, sit down in a bookshop with a manual typewriter, hammer out a short story in a single sitting, and then win a billion science-fiction awards for it.
Even in our literary microcosm of My Little Pony fanfiction, we can see similar things. Darf kicked out 6000 words of lush, perfect pornography per week at a bare minimum, and that motherfucker didn’t redraft shit. Kkat’s Fallout: Equestria—whatever you think of its place in the fandom, only a fool would deny that it is a damn fine post-apocalyptic novel, and has a cast and level of plot complexity that makes Lord of the Rings fold its arms and nod respectfully—had a 8-10k update every week, and its equally twisted spin-off Project Horizons was written at about twice that rate. Raging Semi wrote the greatest love novella I have ever read (in all fiction) in about the time it takes to get out of bed on a December sunday, and then wrote the second-greatest love novella I have ever read a short while after.
Anyway, this post is not made for arguing such points. If any of you feel that the pinnacle of good writing can only be reached through slow, meditative, word-churning, you are welcome to write your own damn blog post on the subject and link to it in the comments here. I am not here to talk about the what, I am here to talk about the how.
Specifically, how do we improve? If we follow the first three of Heinlein’s rules—Keep writing, finish what you write, never rewrite except to editorial order—then how do we get good stories? After all, there’s a grain of truth in the myth: when we start writing, our first stories tend to suck. If we’re not actively seeking out the flaws in these stories and fixing them, how will we ever grow?
Fortunately for you guys, I have an analogy from the world of Mixed Martial Arts.
Most combat sports—judo, boxing, muay thai, BJJ, sambo, greco-roman or amateur wrestling, any karate that doesn’t suck—have four basic stages of training: techniques, drilling, sparring, competition.
Technique is the most basic level. Techniques can range from simple things—slipping a jab, ‘bridging’ your hips to buck off an opponent sat on top of you—to complex things like dual-throw combinations in judo, head kicks in muay thai, bizarre spider-guard attacks in jiu-jitsu.
There’s no real skill in learning a technique. There’s the speed that you can pick a technique up, and the number of techniques you can remember, but the actual skill is all in the application.
Writing is the same way. There are techniques, you know them, you’ve heard them a thousand times, you compulsively seek out tumblrs to learn dozens more every week. Show, don’t tell. Basic grammar. Advanced grammar. Relatable characters. Avoid Mary Sues. Remove unnecessary words. Keep the plot moving. Save your notes and drabbles. Make characters work for their goals.
You’ve heard of these techniques before, and many that I haven’t mentioned, and many that I’ve never heard myself. They’re not the whole story, though, if they were good writing would be a simple matter of ‘read all of these writing techniques and create a masterpiece.’
It’s the same with mixed-martial arts. You cannot learn to fight just by watching and going through the motions of all these shiny techniques. Martial artists learned this in a brutally empirical fashion in the UFCs of the early nineties, when masters at arts that focused purely on learning techniques (wing-chun kung fu, aikido, penjak silat, bad karate) got thoroughly trounced by mid-level kickboxers and wrestlers who spent their time learning to apply a far simpler set of techniques.
Drilling comes after you learn the technique. You practice the technique against a resisting opponent in a situation that allows you to isolate that technique. A common situation in Brazillian Jiujitsu (a pure-grappling sport) is guard passing/guard retention: To stop the attacker from climbing on top of the defender and striking/applying locks at will, the defender wraps their legs around the attacker. The attacker has to ‘pass’ the guard, and the defender has to ‘retain’ it. There are basic techniques to pass guard, and guard itself is a technique which can be improved in various ways.
A guard passing drill looks like this:
Both fighters are in position to practice a small set of moves. If either wins the game or draw the game, they stop and restart. Drills can differ: Sometimes the defender is using one, specific defense to help drill attacks against that defense, sometimes joint locks and chokes are permitted so that the attacker must defend themself at the same time, sometimes strikes are allowed to practice for a MMA context. The level of resistance also varies, high intensity when both partners are well-acquainted with the skillset, lower intensity when the partners are still getting a feel for the moves.
Writers have similar exercises. Drabbles. Character-focused dialogue. Experimental chapters. ‘Change-the-ending-and-go-from-there’ stories to see where a story could have ended up. Short stories with different viewpoints.
Exercises that stretch the skills you love, and nurture the ones you’re unfamiliar with. I (shamefully) don’t use many drills, but I have a few, usually revolving around plotting, world-building, and what-if games. Chuck Palahniuk suggested one where you remove every ‘thought’ verb from a piece of writing, to improve ‘showing’ skills.
Drills like this are very useful, and they can create a lot of improvement in a small stretch of time. Used well, they can improve your skills by leaps and bounds. Used poorly, they will simply bore you and send you running for the next stage.
In martial arts, this is the fun part. You’re up against one of your training partners under the rules of whatever sport you’re playing, and both of you are trying to win. Boxers want to punch and avoid getting punched back. Judo players want to grab their opponent, lift them bodily, and hit them with the planet. Jiujiteiros want to establish a superior position before forcing their opponent to tap out via a choke or joint lock. Wrestlers want to wear tights and teabag each other.
Sparring is almost always done at full-resistance, and it’s where the bulk of the learning occurs. Guard drills will teach you to pass guard, and mount drills will teach you to win after you pass, but sparring teaches you to link these drills together, to work against an opponent using all their guile against you, to recover from the unpredictable, to read your opponent, and to fight even with a 200lb dude in sweaty canvas pyjamas sitting on your head.
There is no ‘redrafting’. You do not stop during sparring to make sure you’re getting a move right, you don’t go back for do-overs, that’s what techniques and drilling are all about. There are no do-overs, only the next round. You may recognise the mistake you just made, but you do not fix it in that bout, by then you have already been teabagged. You keep them in mind for the next bout, juggling them along with the two-dozen other mistakes to avoid and techniques to try that are flying about in your adrenaline-addled mind. You can’t learn everything at once.
Seriously, you can’t learn everything at once.
(Plateaus are a thing here—too much sparring and not enough drilling and you’ll end up in the same ruts, clinging to a moveset that’s fraying around the edges as all of your training partners grow used to your best attacks. Same goes for writing—if you stop experimenting under ‘safe’ conditions and stop pushing yourself, you’ll end up writing the same stories over and over again)
For writers, first draft is sparring. There’s no opponent except the elusive story inside your head that you are trying to drag onto the page, fully formed. It’s free-form, you are putting yourself under no particular constraints except those of your characters and genre, and you’re trying to write the best damn story you can.
It’s where you learn to write, and instead of being judged by involuntary teabaggings, you are being judged by your own sense of taste.
I believe you should approach it like sparring: each first draft should stand in its own right. If your first draft is full of mistakes, do not go back and try to eternally stir that pot of mistakes until it’s something resembling a good story. At best, you will marginally improve your story at the cost of slowing everything the fuck down. At worst, you’ll simply be stirring up a pot of crap, it’ll still be crap, and you’ll worry that your next draft will be unfixable crap too.
Also, do not linger and agonize over words, hoping to get around the ‘oh shit I’m not allowed to fix my mistakes’ problem by never making any mistakes. In sparring, such dithering will get you punched, thrown, or sat on. Work as quickly as you can. Move past your mistakes. If you find yourself making the same mistakes over and over, focus on them in drills.
I say this now because I’m hitting the ‘several hundred thousand words written’ stages of my writing life, and I can now step back and view stories with some detachment. My two best-rated short stories, A Persimmon Spring and Morning Glow, were both first drafts, both written in less than a day, and both only touched up for minor spelling and grammar issues. A Persimmon Spring is probably the favorite thing of mine I’ve ever written.
Conversely, my least favorite stories are ones I spread out over a long period of time, agonized over, and touched up incessantly. They feel patchy and strange, like a restored painting that’s been given too much detail in some parts and almost none in others. My very least favorite stories are the ones that never even became stories, ones with three or four half-completed redrafts that tired and disappointed me.
Why’d they disappoint me? I was trying to learn everything at once and apply it all at once, and you can’t learn everything at once.
I’m loathe to talk about this part in much detail because it’s been years since I’ve competed in a combat sport, and I’m the rankest of noobs at actually having people pay me for my words. I’m only adding this part for the sake of completing the analogy, so take everything I say from hereon out with a bigger pinch of salt than usual.
Competition is the bit you see on telly—high-level athletes fighting for a win. Like this: Three things to note here:
1) You learn a lot from fighting in competition, as pretty much everyone who’s fought in the UFC will tell you.
2) This learning happens between-fights. You do not have time to learn and apply anything particularly useful during the fight. This is knowledge you will use for your next fight.
3) If you enter a competition as a raw noob, you will get your ass kicked. Even amateur MMA competitions require a high baseline of skill and conditioning, and almost nobody possesses that without some kind of training.
For writers, ‘competition’ means getting your story bought, either as commission, as a novel, or sold out of your car-boot. Similarly:
1) You learn new skills getting your story published, from getting around publishers to working with paid editors to dealing with self publishing to creating cover art and so on and so on.
2) After some time, you may learn from fans what they want to pay for and what they want to see. Or you might start chasing statistical phantoms. I lack the experience to say.
3) If you submit your writing to buyers as a raw noob, you will get rejected. Writing is a craft, and it’s one that you can improve over time.
I am now getting to the stage where I read works in my genres and think ‘pshh, I’ve written better than this’. In 2011, I was not at this stage. Reading early Banishment Decree chapters makes me wince. Reading early unedited Banishment Decree tables makes me wince harder and read through my fingers. Reading the few pony works I wrote (and took off FIMfiction shortly afterwards) before that is literally painful, and the less said about the things I wrote before pony, the better.
My writing is now far better than that. This is not because I have an amazing team of editors, or because I redraft a billion times, or because I think for two years before I dare put down a sentence lest it be the wrong one.
My first drafts have improved because I’ve learned techniques, I’ve drilled techniques, and I’ve written first draft after first draft after first draft.
That’s how you learn.
*How to tell that Ladder Theory and assorted PUA rubbish is in fact rubbish: Look on Facebook. Look at the various people in relationships. See how there are very few harems of ‘HB12s’ dating Alpha Papas like it’s the goddamn Leroverse. See how there are ugly people in relationships with ugly people, pretty people in relationships with ugly people, pretty women dating ugly men, ugly women dating pretty men, and even women dating women and men dating men. Then either come back to reality, or just go full MGTOW and leave the rest of us alone already.
**How to tell that the Bush Administration did not blow up the two towers: Well, they blew up, didn’t they?
1w, 6dI'm on fire5 comments · 95 views
Finished another Banishment Decree chapter already. Three chapters in four days. Not posting it quite yet, though. I feel like leaving the cliffhanger to soak in a little longer
4w, 6dState Of The Chuck Address8 comments · 197 views