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Interview with Kwakerjak · 1:11am Apr 3rd, 2016

Time for an interview! Whether due to bravery or ignorance, Kwakerjak has happily agreed to be one of the first.

Kwakerjak is the author of several reasonably popular stories, including but not limited to Flash Fog; Wild, Sweet & Cool; and The Petriculture Cycle. For the sake of context and archival, here's his current short bio:

A thirtysomething Brony from Pennsylvania with a library degree. I also have a Patreon.

To go on further would defeat the point, so have an interview:

Would you care to add to or expand upon your short bio?

Not really. I try to avoid giving out personal details until I’m certain that they’ll be relevant to any given conversation. I suppose that if there is something to add to the short bio, it’s that in addition to the library degree, I also have a Master’s Degree in English, since that period had a bit of influence on my writing style.

Has your education helped with your writing in ways other than giving you a vocabulary of words that many people may need to look up to understand?

I’m not entirely certain that my advanced vocabulary has “helped” my writing in that sense, though the fact that I can use those big, fancy vocab words in regular conversation does seem to make it easier for my readers to figure out what I mean from context. But my education has had another effect on my writing in that it’s gotten me in the habit of close reading, and picking up recurring themes and patterns. As such, I tend to use some techniques associated with “literary” fiction, though I often don’t realize the full implication at the time (this last part doesn’t really bother me since I do put a lot of stock in the “Death of the Author” concept).

To point out one of the more prominent examples that I’ve noticed, in Flash Fog, there’s a direct correlation between Fluttershy’s willingness to take on leadership roles in her plans and the success of those plans, but it’s not immediately obvious because that correlation is not always causal (at least, not in-universe). She goes from just accepting Pinkie’s initial suggestion without thinking (and nearly getting Pinkie killed as a result) in the beginning of the story, to formulating a plan to rescue the Crusaders and leading the team personally at the end, which goes off without any hitches whatsoever.

Another, more direct influence (and one that I was aware of while I was writing) was a course I took on the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who had some very unusual ideas about how the human imagination worked, specifically in relation to God. One of these concepts, which he called “inscape,” provided the title of the second story in the Petriculture Cycle. It’s a very dense concept, but the part I latched onto for the writing of that story was that human beings, being created in the image of God, also participate in the creation of a human being—ourselves.

On the topic of Petriculture, what are your thoughts on its success as your first story on Fimfiction?  Specifically, that it has been one of the top 100 stories for years?

I think that’s a mix of several things. First of all, the various comments I’ve received on the story make it clear that the story’s central idea is relatively unique and compelling, and it seems I did a good job on the execution, and the fact that, at the time it was written, that central idea was at least somewhat compatible with canon (albeit with a few specific assumptions about Pinkie Pie’s reliability as a narrator in “The Cutie Mark Chronicles”).

However, I think that originality and quality, while explaining why I still get notices of people adding it to their bookshelves on a regular basis, don’t quite explain its initial burst of popularity, which I chalk up to the fact that the Feature Box algorithm was programmed significantly differently at the time. I may be misremembering, but I recall it spending a week at the top of the Feature Box, which is something that generally doesn’t happen these days. In any case, a bit of luck allowed it to get quite a bit of exposure, and being near the top of the site’s lists means that when new people find the site and look for stories to read, they find out about Petriculture, which only serves to reinforce its popularity.

A peek at your “favorites” bookshelf shows that you have added Wild, Sweet & Cool and Transdementia, but no other works of your own.  Are there intentional reasons behind their specific presence?

None that I’m aware of. I’m not sure why I bothered to add them to my “Favorites” bookshelf, because I don’t really need to be informed of any updates and such, and it’s far more convenient for me to use my user page to find them when I want to reread them. In fact, I might very well take them off of my “Favorites” list in the near future.

For those who don’t know, you’ve written a trio of stories for the chimera from Somepony to Watch Over Me, each focusing on one of the heads.  A brief search shows that these characters have received relatively little attention aside from your stories.  Why did you decide to write about them?

I suppose the simplest explanation is that I wanted to read stories about them, but, as you’ve noted, the fandom, for whatever reason, seems to have taken relatively little interest in them. I’m not entirely certain why these characters have been more or less ignored, because they seemed to have so much potential. I suppose you could say that I wrote Apex as a sort of “proof of concept,” to demonstrate that these three characters didn’t need to serve as a sort of foil to events in a main plot, but could carry a story entirely on their own.

That being said, the fact that they haven’t been used all that much means that I didn’t really need to worry about accommodating the most popular fan theories about the chimera, because near as I can tell, there aren’t any widely held fan theories. That meant that I had free reign to develop them as I wished, fleshing out the vague hints at unique personalities from the episode into something more substantial. It also meant I got to name the characters, because they have no official names, and there don’t seem to be many other bronies who care about them enough to make official names necessary. I’d like to think I did a good job of making them interesting while still staying true to the glimpse seen on the show.

Now, as for why I followed up Apex with two more stories, since Apex was told entirely from the tiger head’s point of view, it occurred to me that I should perhaps give the other two heads their moments in the sun. I actually didn’t start work on Courtship Behavior until I had a rough idea of what Let’s Kill Tirek would be about, because it seemed that making a trilogy would be the best route to take.

From your perspective, what makes for ‘good’ writing, and would you define it to be different from ‘entertaining’ writing?

Honestly, I don’t find concepts like “good” writing and “entertaining” writing to be very useful. The former is too subjective, and the latter implies a level of frivolousness due to the unfortunate notion that pure entertainment is unimportant. I prefer to think of things in terms of “interesting” and “dull.”

A good idea for a plot is usually a key ingredient for being interesting (at least when writing fiction), as are believable, well-rounded characters, but I think that other issues such as pacing come into play as well. I always try my best to keep my stories from dragging without also rushing past important details—though how successful I am surely depends on each reader’s personal tastes. It’s always difficult to find a balance between fleshing out a world, character, or concept and making sure that the story doesn’t get bogged down, but I think it’s always something that you should at least aim for.

What do you usually tend towards reading, fanfiction or otherwise?

It is with some chagrin that I must admit that I don’t read an awful lot of fan fiction. This is largely because it’s difficult to find stories that have both plot ideas that I find interesting, and a level of quality that’s high enough to sustain my interest. Several of the stories I’ve written were motivated by the fact that I couldn’t find a particular story that met these criteria, so I had to write them myself.

The other reason I don’t read as much fan fiction as I might like is that I spend a good deal of time reading other things. There’s a well-worn writer’s cliché about the importance of reading, and to a degree, it’s true. However, it’s often accompanied by a sentiment to the effect that writers should “read everything.” While this bit of hyperbole may make for a nice image, as actual advice, it strikes me as distinctly unhelpful. Granted, if a writer is looking for reassurance that they aren’t wasting their time reading whatever strikes their fancy, the “read everything” maxim works quite well; as a writer, nothing you read will be a complete waste of time (though perhaps the notion could be better expressed as “read anything”). If, on the other hand, there isn’t anything you’re itching to read next, you may need some more focused advice.

With that in mind, I would definitely encourage writers of fiction to read nonfiction, which, as it happens, makes up the bulk of what I spend my time reading—specifically history in my case. For one thing, nonfiction gives you a better sense of how reality works, and since, as TVTropes says, fictional worlds are assumed to be like reality unless otherwise noted, these bits of realism can help your readers with the willing suspension of disbelief. Second, you can get tons of plot ideas from nonfiction, because reality is, by its very nature, in the public domain. Even if you don’t lift an idea wholesale (which, to be honest, I rarely do), you can get a good sense of how people react in unusual (or, depending on what you’re reading, usual) situations, and that can make your characters’ responses to plot developments easier to believe.

Finally, when you read nonfiction that’s organized into a narrative (again, history is a particularly good subgenre for this), you learn how to make a story interesting even when the outcome is a foregone conclusion. I find that there’s too much emphasis on the importance of surprise in storytelling, when anticipation tends to be a much more effective technique (and not just because it works more than once). If you look at how stories were told in the past, from Homer to Shakespeare, the storytellers almost always assumed that their audiences knew how their tales were going to end. Since they weren’t worried about trying to surprise their audience, they focused on the aspects of storytelling that made their tales worth rehearing.

If I may point the topic back to one of your stories again, in Flash Fog, you wrote in that Rainbow Dash had cried over the death of a fictional character from one of Daring Do’s books.  After Daring Don’t, this is a small but dark corner for the story.  I do wonder, since Flash Fog is set well before Season 4, if you would intentionally write it the same now, knowing that the Daring Do books were based on her actual adventures?

I’m not entirely certain I would have written it that way if I’d have known, mostly because of how dark the implications are. Granted, it would still have the same effect on Rainbow Dash, since she’d have no idea that she was reading about an actual pony who died of complications from hypothermia, but I’m not certain that I would have been willing to kill off a “real” foal, even one that hadn’t been given any opportunity for character development, just to make sure the danger posed by the fog was clear.

That said, in retrospect, I really like the idea that Daring Do/A.K. Yearling actually did have a colt guiding her through treacherous mountains, and that he really did die (because for one thing, that would explain why he didn’t make the kind of miraculous recovery that Rainbow Dash was expecting from a Daring Do novel), so it’s entirely possible that I could have eventually concluded that that was the most effective way to reinforce the notion that hypothermia is as much a danger to magical talking ponies as it is to us non-magical humans. I went out of my way to continually reestablish the fact that the fog was dangerous throughout the story, mostly because here in our world, fog is usually only dangerous because of complications from reduced visibility. In order for the decision to give Fluttershy authority over a huge section of the Equestrian government to make any sort of sense, I felt that the fog needed to be seen as an unmistakable physical danger, rather than an inconvenience that could be worked around simply by being extra careful and alert. The fact that an unruly mass of cloud would naturally create problems for pegasi got me partway there, but hypothermia allowed me to make it a threat to unicorns and earth ponies.

Currently, nine out of thirteen of your stories are tagged with comedy.  I have read six of these thus far, and while certainly amusing, I don’t think any of them could easily be labeled as ‘silly’ or ‘hilarious’.  A definition for comedy that I have found in a number of places, even the site’s writing guide (though not the tag information page – this isn’t an objection to these tags), suggests that a work should be based on some silly premise and be full of jokes – or more specifically, make the reader laugh a lot – to be considered a comedy.  What are your thoughts on what constitutes a work of comedy, informed both by your education and personal views?

When I first started posting to FimFiction, I didn’t use the comedy tag that often. (In fact, I often had trouble deciding which tags to use, especially on Petriculture, which didn’t really fit any of the tags available at the time.) I started using it more often when I noticed that readers were leaving comments complimenting me on the humor in any given story. Nowadays, I use it preemptively whenever I think that the premise of a story will lend itself to humorous situations and dialogue. I figure that if the readers don’t agree, I can change it later.

I suppose that for me, the comedy tag means that humor is a prominent tool used in storytelling, even if it’s not the primary focus. A good example of this from outside the world of fanfiction is The Martian by Andy Weir. At its core, it’s an adventure story about surviving against insurmountable odds. However, for a long time, I avoided it because I find those kinds of stories to be really dull. What made this novel really good when I finally got around to reading it, though, was the fact that the main character was a wisecracking smartass who used his sense of humor as a coping mechanism, and this is found throughout the novel. So, even though many people would not describe the book as a comedy, I would.

Even with your success, education, experience, and outlook, are there any aspects of writing that you would consider more ‘difficult’?

For me, personally, I’ve always had trouble with ending a story. Part of it comes from my background as a fanfiction writer. I first started posting fanfiction to a site called the Anime Addventure. On this site, every chapter ends with a “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style” list of options, and anyone who’s reading can continue any particular story, so long as there’s an unused option. While this certainly is helpful for collaboration, the downside is that actually concluding a story is frowned upon, since it prevents other writers from continuing. As a result, when I started posting fanfiction on FIMFiction, I had little experience writing stories that actually had an end.

This might explain why nearly all of my stories have somewhat open-ended conclusions, but in truth, I tend to prefer open-ended stories in general. I really like the idea that life within the world of the story goes on, even after the storyteller has finished speaking. Heck, that’s arguably one of the driving ideas behind the very concept of fan fiction in the first place. Still, even though the characters keep living their lives, the audience inevitably demands some sort of conclusion to let them know that this particular part of those characters’ lives has reached an end.

As a result, I tend to avoid starting stories until I can think of a scene that can serve as a plausible ending. However, I still run into trouble when a story develops in an unexpected direction. This has happened twice while I was writing MLP fanfiction. In one case, Pandelerium, I ended up explaining the situation in an author’s note, so I won’t go into detail here except to reassert that the contents of particular note are completely true.

The other case is Flash Fog. Originally, Fluttershy wouldn’t have revealed the secret she’d been hiding until near the end, and once she learned that her situation wasn’t as bleak as she thought, she’d get a confidence boost that would allow her to effectively deal with the threat from the fog. This might have worked if the story was only 5,000-10,000 words long, as I originally thought it would be, but it ended up expanding much faster than I expected. Soon, I came to the conclusion that my readers would wonder why other characters weren’t questioning some of the oddities in Fluttershy’s behavior, and I decided that to maintain the all-important suspension of disbelief, this scene would need to go in the middle of the story, essentially resolving most of Fluttershy’s subplot, but leaving me with no time to resolve many of the other subplots that had developed as the story expanded. My solution was to have Pencil Pusher and the CMC bear the weight of the story until the Fog could get to Ponyville and Fluttershy could have her moment of glory at the end, as originally planned. Given the original reactions to the story’s actual ending, I think it’s safe to say that not everyone liked that decision, but I still think it was preferable to placing Fluttershy’s big reveal near the end of the tale. Plus, you know, I liked the ending, and nobody’s a bigger fan of my stories than I am.

An apt place, I think, to wrap up our interview, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a concrete end.  Are you able and/or willing to answer questions that are posted to this blog post for at least the next day or two?

I’d be more than happy to.

And there you have it! If you'd like to know anything more from Kwakerjak that wasn't covered in these approximately 3000 words, just post your own questions below! Questions and comments regarding my end of the interview are best placed here.

Comments ( 5 )

Y'know, it never occurred to me that the chimera trilogy had one story featuring each head.

This was a neat interview. I particularly liked this part:

Honestly, I don’t find concepts like “good” writing and “entertaining” writing to be very useful. The former is too subjective, and the latter implies a level of frivolousness due to the unfortunate notion that pure entertainment is unimportant. I prefer to think of things in terms of “interesting” and “dull.”

The part about reading more nonfiction does sound like a good idea, but I find myself massively turned off by a lot of biographies I've read. Can Kwak recommend some good history narrative-type items?

3844976 - Personally, I'd highly recommend the works of Marc Morris, who writes about medieval British history. The Norman Conquest, A Great and Terrible King, and King John are all really good. On a different subject, I'd also recommend Chaos by James Gleick, which isn't about the intricacies of chaos theory so much as it is the story of how this relatively new branch of science developed in the late 20th century. Finally, I'd recommend Battle Cry of Freedom by James M. McPherson. Not only is it a superb piece of narrative history (it won the Pulitzer Prize), but in his introduction, McPherson explains why he chose to organize his history of the American Civil War as a narrative, rather than topically, and I found it to be really insightful.

Interesting interview. I hadn't remembered the connection between Fluttershy's assertiveness and her success in Flash Fog, but it definitely works well, now that you point it out.

I can sympathize with the comedy thing, too, as in JPT, I think the chapters vary quite broadly in levels of funny, including some that rely on rather particular forms of humor.

Nice to get a glimpse at the mind behind some of my favorite stories!

Ah, the Addventure. Good times... if occasionally bizarre.

And for the record, I quite enjoyed the chimera trilogy.

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