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Bad Horse


You shall love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart. -- W. H. Auden

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Apr
28th
2016

Writing: How I screwed up "The Mailmare" · 2:54pm Apr 28th, 2016

I have a probably stupid habit of revising my old stories, especially the long ones. Usually I just reword; sometimes I emphasize something different.

(Guys. I had Celestia say there were 6 ponies in the room in "Mortality Report" when there were 5 ponies in the room. None of you were OCD enough to catch that? Seriously?)

I was going over "The Mailmare" and got checked hard. That first scene. Urgh.

Folks say there are 2 kinds of writers, "plotters" and "pantsers". Plotters plot things out ahead of time; pantsers fly by the seat of their pants. Like all binaries, it ain't real; you can be a little of each. But I'm mostly a plotter. When I'm writing, I'm thinking about what needs to happen next. So my stories are tight. Every scene, every paragraph in my stories has a purpose that contributes to the larger story.

A pantser writes thinking about what would be interesting to happen next. So their stories are emotional. Every scene has an emotional drive and purpose.

Scenes need both. (Especially in screenwriting. Screenwriters whine about being rewritten, but I bet part of the reason rewriting is so endemic in Hollywood is that neither a plotter nor a pantser can write a script.)

That first scene isn't necessary, plot-wise, but it sets the stage, shows you the stakes--shows you the lives of ordinary ponies, how gray and bare they've gotten, the impact of what Derpy's doing, and the potential for renewal. The Flowers. It's all symbolic an' shit, man.

What it doesn't have is inner tension. It has a little plot tension--will Mr. Flower shoot Derpy or won't he? But he doesn't stress out about it. He stresses a little about the threat to his family, but not about killing somepony. He just picks up the rifle and aims.

Here's an example where violating "write what you know" has a price. We've seen so much killing on TV and in video games that it seems like pushing a button to most of us. But killing someone isn't an academic matter.

My lawyer says I shouldn't advise you to go out and kill someone to help you write a pony story. The next-best thing is probably to read interviews about it. There are surprisingly few accounts of what it feels like to kill someone, given that hundreds of millions people have done it. The change in attitudes over time is illuminating--there are accounts from the Middle Ages that describe the joy of killing men, and gladiator combat, torture, executions, and animal abuse were popular public entertainment for all ages in Europe until the late 19th century. People paid money to watch them. (Rooster and dog fights are still popular in some places).

Modern descriptions usually describe killing as a horror for those who are new at it, while those who've done it a lot often find it funny. There's a wide range of responses--most Americans are traumatized by having to kill in self-defense, but I also remember Studs Terkel interviewing a guy from World War 2 who had taken a Japanese prisoner and was too tired to walk him back to base, so he shot him.

Anyway, just skipping past that point is a major failing. That was the emotional tension that I could have based the scene on, but I didn't. Probably I didn't want to deal with it. I'm rewriting it, but it's hard--my first try had effects that spilled over into other chapters.

Report Bad Horse · 686 views · Story: The Mailmare · #pantsing #plotting #tension #writing
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Comments ( 20 )

Especially in screenwriting. Screenwriters whine about being rewritten, but I bet part of the reason rewriting is so endemic in Hollywood is that neither a plotter nor a pantser can write a script.

Not really.

Rewrites happen because a producer looks at a script and likes the idea of it, but the scriptwriter has a different vision of his own work. The producer options it and hires a rewriter to work with him on making it more in line with the producer's vision.

Then it's passed on to the directors, who all pitch their visions of the script. During this time the director has a new team of writers come in to help tailor the script to his singular, final vision.

Then the actors come in and turn dead, barely-formatted text on a page into an actual character, and bring in their own rewrites as they discuss with the director potential angles for the character, backstory, tone, elements and the arc. The actor also has his own editor brought in to change his character's word choice and diction to one that suits that actor. This is especially true of Will Smith, which is why every Will Smith character is excruciatingly a Will Smith character.

Then you have the on-screen shoots as they finally get to see how each scene works on its own and in context off the page, devoid of just being ink of paper and now bringing the nuances of the new medium with it, and is rewritten on a day-by-day basis by a script supervisor, especially if lines that look good on paper hit the ear wrong on set.

Writing a novel, however, you get to work as an island in a vacuum. Or a peninsula if you count a publisher/editor/agent direct line.

I need to read a lot of things, but your stories should be high up the list.

I'm also going to make a second totally separate comment for this link, because the tone is completely different:

There is a Reddit page known as "Watch People Die" that is exactly what it says on the tin.

It is horrible and distressing. It is actual live and linked footage of actual people actually dying. There's a lot of it. There's a lot of really horrible stuff there.

But if you are an author who wants to know what it is actually, truly like to witness death, there are videos here of everything from an execution to tragic accidents to everything in between, it's invaluable for research.

It will almost never be like what you think. It's almost always worse. But sometimes it is funny, and you'll laugh, and you'll wonder why you laughed because it was awful, but you couldn't help yourself because they just got decapitated by a plastic wheelie bin and it's so patently absurd that you don't know what else to do.

I cannot stress enough this is not for the faint hearted.

3902639 All that too, certainly. I said "part of". I think that a movie script has to have a tight plot structure and constant drama, and most writers can't do both.

RBDash47
Site Blogger

(Guys. I had Celestia say there were 6 ponies in the room in "Mortality Report" when there were 5 ponies in the room. None of you were OCD enough to catch that? Seriously?)

Oh, shit. I'm revoking your place in the Vault.

That was the emotional tension that I could have based the scene on

Hm, I wonder if that's enough, since we neither know him or care for him, having just met him? It's been a while since I read the scene, but I remember liking it. I think as long as you make it mean something important to him, then we'll care and feel the tension. (Well, duh I suppose)

My favorite example of this comes from a book on writing: a man is chased around the woods by a raging bear, ducking and dodging wildly around trees as the bear crashes about him (dramatic, in one sense, but with little tension). Then in a moment, he spies his rifle resting on a stump between him and the bear. Then he notices an easy path of escape behind him.

And suddenly, there's tension. He can either run and guarantee survival or face and try to conquer his fear. Whichever choice he makes will tell us the kind of man he is, and we know he knows it too.

So if you manage to make shooting or not shooting derpy meaningful like that, I think it'll create a lot of tension. If I recall, he has a daughter, doesn't he? Maybe before he's always held off on shooting (because it isn't as easy as ppl think), and has paid the price (his daughter too, especially), and today he finally resolves to hell with mercy he's shooting on first sight. As Derpy gets in range, he notices she's a mare, not a stallion like he expected, and suddenly he's reminded of his daughter. Derpy IS somepony's daughter. But every time he's shown mercy it's bitten him in the ass. What does he do?

Something like that might work, because we can understand his struggle and clearly see that if he shoots he will be consciously forcing the humanity out of himself, but not because he wants to. Really, it's the world trying to force it out of him. What he does shows us the kind of stallion he is.

My lawyer says I shouldn't advise you to go out and kill someone to help you write a pony story

*sets down rifle*
Aw, okay.

PresentPerfect
Author Interviewer

How dare you, sir. How dare you. You have let us all down. :V

Where's that image of Picard screaming "There are five ponies!" when you need it?

What it doesn't have is inner tension. It has a little plot tension--will Mr. Flower shoot Derpy or won't he? But he doesn't stress out about it. He stresses a little about the threat to his family, but not about killing somepony. He just picks up the rifle and aims.
Here's an example where violating "write what you know" has a price. We've seen so much killing on TV and in video games that it seems like pushing a button to most of us. But killing someone isn't an academic matter.

Don't be silly, Horse. That grounds the story in 'apocalyptic wasteland', which is obviously correct.

To that cranky old pony killing someone absolutely IS an academic matter, that's the whole problem with the world premise as postulated. Your whole story is apparently about rising above that initial tone. As a writer you MUST establish the world you're in, which that does, very tersely and effectively.

You can't possibly have Mr. Flower show qualms about killing an intruder. You know perfectly well the whole point is, he has no such qualms. It's the kid who believes in the Mailmare. Not him! And the kid doesn't even necessarily object to his act as an act: it's that it is THE MAILMARE, that's what has him excited. That's important! None of them give a crap about killing random marauders. You can't make an arc out of the initial premise, nor can you distract from the primary purpose of the scene by putting in flashbacks and stuff and trying to explain how this old coot was nice once. That's not the job of the scene… you had it absolutely right the first time.

It sounds like you want to take the beginning of the story and ground it in the moral position of the end of the story, which completely removes all progress from the thematic arc and renders the CHANGES brought by Derpy's brave and foolish quest, meaningless. And what's more, the very thing you complain about and want to change, is the main thing that establishes the starting position of the arc and defines it as 'not good', 'should change by the end of the story'. It is perfect for its position in the story and you're not respecting that.

You are over-thinking it. Leave it alone, it's fine. :duck:

Its still better than the damn movie

I didn't notice any emotional flatness in the scene. Perhaps I just considered it to be of a piece with the bleak landscape and the bleak lives of its inhabitants--thematically apposite.

As for Mr. Flower just shrugging off the fact that he almost killed the person he's now talking to--again I didn't feel that was out of place. In fact I felt that it was reasonable. People can go feral very quickly when society breaks down, and your scenario assumed it had been broken down for awhile.

EDIT: I wanted to turn that title into a joke about you being Dinky's deadbeat dad--but nothing occurred.:derpytongue2:

3902639 I've heard the rewriting cycle to be roughly the same as a series of cooks all (censored)-ing into the soup and claiming it tastes better that way. Seriously, though. When you bring in a big-name director and show him a script, the first thing he/she wants to do is 'put his stamp on it.' As the script goes through the process, more and more stamps get stuck on it until it could be airmailed to Mars, next-day, and every stamp costs money and makes a more complicated film to shoot.

This is why you never give a movie-made-from-a-book to Verhoeven, and why Will Smith is a *good* actor. They both have a shtick, and if the character/movie you want matches that shtick, he gives a good performance. Otherwise, it's going to look like him when it's done. (rumor has it a great deal of Will's dialogue in MIB was made up with Tommy Lee Jones right before the scenes were shot)

3902930 Hmm. That's an interesting point. But in either case, I still need to rewrite it to put him on friendlier terms with his rifle.

3903759 Be careful about polishing that wood. Some people might get the wrong idea.:ajsmug:

I hadn't read The Mailmare yet (just the first chapter, now, and I still need to read the rest), but unless you plan to give Wild some reason for remorse or 20/20 hindsight that later affects his actions the story, why assign a lot of emotion to him for almost killing a pony he doesn't know, who could actually be a danger? He's clearly been through a lot, killed his share, and obviously has his mind fully set on defense while there's still a risk of danger to him and his family.

However, from my own perspective at this stage, it would have been good to see him at least address the thought from a pragmatic perspective at the end, if not a thoughtful one. This first chapter does seem to lack that particular focus. Just my first impression.

EDIT: Damn, I just realized that you changed your hat. That is hilarious!

Your lawyer sounds like no fun at all, you should get a new one.

3903759 Oh, by all means, though I didn't notice anything about him not liking his rifle: I guess he could be more into it, didn't seem necessary.

Point being: you are too erudite, and too respected, to be publically screwing this up :rainbowlaugh: if you go in there and break the beginning of the story because you want it to emotionally or tonally flash forward to the ending, you are a very, VERY silly pony, sir. :applejackconfused:

Try to trust me a little bit on this. I set up dozens of pony characters with intensely unpleasant arc-beginnings in order to have them travel and end up convincingly some other way, giving a sense of narrative progress. I have done it with Rainbow Dash, done it with Applejack, with Rarity: I made up a Kirin OC and started her off almost with Big Bad levels of arrogance and closemindedness just so that an arc could be her awakening to a broader view of things, and a recognition of her own limits.

Keep the everyman earth pony with the rifle as a blinkered provincial who'll shoot a pegasus as soon as look at her, his family the same, the kid only different because he believes in the Mailmare and otherwise not seeing a big problem with it.

Muddy establishing statements are garbage. You've written an establishing chapter that is clear, striking and good. I'm amazed that you're finding fault with it when it does its gosh dern job so effectively. If you do actually screw it up for some misguided reason I shall be very put off. Can't even figure out what you're trying to do with it, other than wanting to add 'inner tension' because you'd feel some kind of tension if you were aiming a rifle at Derpy Hooves: when you're not in the Wasteland. :duck:

Hey, Horse: I've been homeless (thankfully some time ago). I've hung out with heavily armed revolutionary nutjobs, and with people who deem classes of other people worthless, and with drug addicts who only see you as a target/wallet/resource, and desperate people of various descriptions. It's why I write the way I do, half the time. (I write redemption because ponies, and because redemption is also possible).

I don't care if it's not what YOU know: Mr. Flower is absolutely, dead-on, correctly observed. Writing how he evolves will be/is moving because it's starting from a totally plausible place. Whether you got it from 'Fallout tropes' or not doesn't matter: you observed how that works well enough to lay the foundation with inarguable veracity.

And this is why the suggestion of changing him to 'write what you, Bad Horse, know' so aggravates me. Since when did YOU live in the Wasteland? :pinkiecrazy:

Okay, reread yet again. You're gonna hate me for this, Horse, but even him being put off by his own rifle:

After five years, it was still “the rifle” to Wild, never “my rifle” like the sergeants made him call it during the war. The ugly black thing still looked to him like some predatory stick insect.

Even that's not wrong, Horse. It symbolizes the changes he's undergone. He has no choice about the changes as he's clearly suffered some horrible Wasteland attacks from pegasi. Think of it like this: the rifle is associated with the pegasi and the changes in himself, an incongruous thing always there to remind him of what was lost. He's a practical dude, he learned the ways of death, he's not going to flinch from them, he'll coldly kill a pegasus if threatened. Nothing requires him to love this gun, or the killing of pegasus threats: it's just what must happen, the new reality. He resents it but he's completely used to it. That 'predatory stick insect' is an ugly ally he depends on daily, but it doesn't make the thing beautiful. I bet he takes scrupulous care of it but doesn't polish cosmetic bits. The barrel, however, is absolutely clean and ready to go. It's all totally consistent and rings true.

You're an odd duck of a Horse, wanting to fix stuff that came out great the first time :duck:

3902652
Mortality Report is one of my personal favorites. I'd say it's a good place to start.


given that hundreds of millions people have done it.

I'm OCD enough to catch that!

3904172

Your lawyer sounds like no fun at all, you should get a new one.

My lawyer says I shouldn't... hey. Wait a minute. :ajbemused:

3904299 Here I am invoking "write what you know". It's implausible to me that someone who was in, most likely, the infantry (er, cavalry?), would dislike his rifle, even if he hated war and combat. Loving your rifle, or at least feeling intensely uncomfortable if it's out of reach--which is hard to distinguish from love--is a standard part of military training. You get punished in the US Army if you set it down and turn your back on it, or take two steps away from it. Your rifle becomes like a cold steel teddy bear that you feel naked without.

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