If you're in the market for a comic tale, today's story has a deal for you.
[Comedy] [Random] [Slice of Life] • 6,260 words
Ballpoint Smudge has one job. It's not an easy one, but it's one he's determined to do to the best of his ability. The only problem is that as soon as he meets Twilight Sparkle, everything he's ever learned about princesses goes flying out of the window. He was expecting her to be regal, haughty and bossy. Instead she's warm, friendly and welcoming. Perhaps she's genuinely a nice pony? Nah. It's got to be a test.
FROM THE CURATORS: Although the central gimmick of this story is right on display in the title, "this is no one-note joke of a fic," Chris said in his nomination. "A pleasant blend of conversational humor, exaggerated characters — the protagonist's conversation with his boss is the high point of the story — and even a light moral, this is one of those works that is just effortlessly enjoyable from start to finish." Broad agreement followed, along with compliments on the story's breadth. "The voicing and general writing are the highlight here, along with that boss scene Chris mentions," Present Perfect said. "The lightning-fast dialogue is easy to follow and only adds to the humor."
He wasn't the only one to praise the subtle whimsy on display. "From the very first paragraphs, I loved the narrative voice," AugieDog said. "The sort of Terry Pratchet/Douglas Adams humor on display here is a delicate balancing act, and the author manages it better than most." Soge went further: "There is real skill on display here, from the superb voicing to the intricate characterization and the late reveal about Twilight. It's one of those fics that makes me want to instantly follow the author."
But there was more than the voicing to like. Chris pointed out the melding of nostalgia and modernity: "It captures an early-season feel (right down to a letter to Celestia!) while grounding itself firmly in the S6 era," he said. And AugieDog approved of the story's extension of its sources. "Even the way the author pretty much quotes word for word the insurance dialogue from Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary serves the story well," he said. "The author takes the lines, expands them to make them work in a pony context, and takes them somewhere Bierce would never have imagined in his wildest dreams."
Read on for our author interview, in which The Minister of Scones discusses fifth earls, hot water bottles, and summary pie.
Give us the standard biography.
I’m an 18-year-old maths student from England. I read maths at a Russell Group university, but more I dare not say for fear of the dreaded internet stalkers. My rôle-models include Dr Johnson, Lieutenant-Colonel A.D. Wintle M.C., and Vivian Stanshall. They were all very English. Accordingly, so am I.
I try to maintain a healthy skepticism by reading Private Eye, but occasionally this gives way to a happy-go-lucky and fairly naïve attitude. Both of these are at times present in my writing. Essentially, I advocate whimsy in the face of adversity. That probably explains why I listen to so much Gilbert and Sullivan.
I’m very fond of science-fiction and fantasy, especially shows like Doctor Who and Blake’s 7. I watch a lot of ‘retro’ television, as I’ve always enjoyed television more when it feels more like a real stageplay than a film. I think most shows lost that when they went single-camera.
Now for a bit about my life. I was born at an early age, and sent to school, where I began to demonstrate high intelligence (Modest, huh?) and behaviour best described as, um, ‘unusual’. In typical nanny-state style, the school repeatedly lied to my parents, saying I was behaving fine, until they realised that actually they couldn’t cope and recommended that I see a psychiatrist. Now, frankly, anyone who willingly goes to see a psychiatrist should have his head examined (a clever joke), and so my parents took me out of school and home-educated me. It is to this that I attribute the fact that I’ve read lots of good books and know some things that are actually useful in real life, instead of how to write formulaic essays and jump through other such hoops.
I demonstrated immense mathematical aptitude (modesty again), and so sat my maths GCSE (a mid-level qualification) at the age of 13, rather than the usual 16. I got an A*. Shortly afterwards, I was sent back to school, where I toddled along happily learning things. By the time I was in sixth form, I’d grown weary of compliance (and frankly I thought that making us carry ID cards was nothing short of totalitarian), and so began to rebel by putting up satirical versions of the school’s inane posters. Things came to a head when I was summoned to the office of some high-ranking school official (he had a stupid title, but I forget what it was) over some posters I’d put up which featured a big picture of Terry-Thomas emblazoned with the legend “BE BIG! BE CLEVER! SMOKE!” The school lot failed to see the funny side. I was threatened with expulsion, but I don’t think they’d have done it. They needed me for the league tables. (Award self 10 modesty points.)
Now I’m at university. It’s okay.
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
Oohh, fun story, there. Basically, there’s an obscure, but superb, Doctor Who audio play called Death Comes to Time. It features a Timelord, played by Stephen Fry, called The Minister of Chance. Now, a year or three ago, when writing a birthday card for a friend (a pegasister, in fact, so the card had an origami Fluttershy inside) I was inscribing it with various fictional titles for both of us (Fifth Earl of Buckwinhamptonshireshire, and that sort of thing), and was reminded of the Minister. I like scones, so I just swapped ‘Chance’ with ‘Scones’. I liked the title so much that I jumped at the chance to reuse it.
Who's your favorite pony?
Tricky one. I might a few years ago have said Pinkie Pie, but sometimes I get pretty sick of her. The thing is, sometimes she’s badly written, and she’s just Pinkie for the sake of being Pinkie, which I don’t think works terribly well. I think I’ll say Applejack. She honest and dependable, and I approve of that.
What's your favorite episode?
I really don’t know. My first episode was Call of the Cutie, which I was led to watch by a bizarre set of coincidences. I was on the bus to Edinburgh as part of a school trip to see two art galleries (only one of them contained anything positively identifiable as art; the other was composed entirely of insults to my intelligence), and I felt compelled to listen to Tom Lehrer’s "New Math." No particular reason, I just felt like it. The only one I could get on mobile was an animated version by a YouTuber called OcarinaPlaya, or something like that, and featured a singing unicorn. I thought it was pretty cute, but didn’t realise it had anything to do with My Little Pony. Still, I checked out his channel, and found Doctor Whooves animated in the same style! I had to watch that. It didn’t make much sense out of context, but I still enjoyed it.
Anyway, after a bit of poking around, I discovered that the Doctor was (sort of) a proper character in, er, My Little Pony. Because I have no shame, I watched the clip from Call of the Cutie. The thing was that it was so cute that I ended up watching the whole episode. And then the first three seasons, which was all that had been made at the time. If you’ll cast your minds back, you’ll recall that you used to be able to watch whole seasons of MLP in one go on YouTube.
Anyway, as a direct result, Call of the Cutie has a very special place in my heart.
What do you get from the show?
Comfort, in a way. I watch a lot of kids’ shows, and plenty of them aren’t ones I grew up with, just ones I like. Writers often think they don’t have to be believable or rational when writing shows for children, and I reckon they’re right. There’s a lot more imagination and weirdness, and I enjoy that. The one thing I don’t like is condescension. If you treat kids as though they need to be talked down to, they’ll behave as if they do. Really, they need a challenge from television.
As far as the show goes, although I still watch it, I do feel it’s gone downhill. Mostly it just the characterization — it tends to be rather bland, with ponies just acting like parodies of themselves. Some episodes are still really good, though.
An interesting thing is that I’ve seen every episode of My Little Pony ‘n’ Friends and My Little Pony Tales, and, for the most part, thoroughly enjoyed them. I don’t enjoy G3 nearly so much, though the songs are generally good.
What do you want from life?
Various things, including love, books and hot water bottles. A dog would be nice, too.
Why do you write?
The aforementioned Dr. Johnson once asserted “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Since I don’t get any money, a simple process of logical reasoning should lead you to the answer you seek.
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
Plan carefully! I often don’t plan, and end up with something substandard as a result. If a story looks like it’s changing direction and deviating from your plan, fine. Now re-plan it. I know, I know, Charles Dickens made up his stories as he went along. However, you are not Charles Dickens. Unless you are, in which case, Edwin Drood is long overdue an ending. Get on it!
Apart from that, proofread. Grammar is terribly important. If you just have a few errors, people will helpfully correct them for you. If your piece is strewn with them, they’ll give up and read something else. About a third of stories I see in the New Stories section of Fimfiction have descriptions I don’t understand. I don’t read those stories.
If you really struggle, you probably need someone to read through your story for you. I appreciate that that’s not always easy, but it is important. If you want to be taken seriously, it’s also worth reading about this sort of thing. A writer who can’t use words properly would be like a carpenter who can’t use tools. It doesn’t matter how good your plan for a table is if you’re holding the hammer the wrong way round.
I daresay you’ve heard all that advice before. That’s because it’s good advice. Follow it.
What was it about Ambrose Bierce’s discussion of insurance in the The Devil’s Dictionary that made you think it’d cross over so well with My Little Pony?
Um, nothing, really. It’s just that I only write pony fanfiction. I grant you, there are plenty of other shows it wouldn’t cross over well with, so there’s that.
I suppose one advantage is that a My Little Pony story can have whatever characters and scenarios you want, because it’s a huge world that we’ve only seen tiny glimpses of. The only prerequisite is that it involves ponies. I can’t imagine that shoehorning the insurance debate into, say, Star Wars would work quite so well. You’d have to set it on a planet where the set-up was viable, and you wouldn’t really be able to involve any Star Wars characters without a struggle, so the readers would only have your word for it that it was set in the Star Wars universe. With MLP, all you have to do is make the characters ponies and give them cutie marks, and hey-presto!
All the same, I’m surprised it did as well as it did. I suppose having a quirky title must have helped. Shame no-one ever did a reading of it, though. I always sort of wondered what an American reader might make of it, given how unashamedly English parts of it are.
Because analyzing humor only makes it funnier, talk a little about your approach to writing comedy.
I let the ideas and scenarios drift around in my head, and whenever something funny pops out, I put it in. I suppose a lot of my comedy is character-based; that is to say, humour rather than wit or buffoonery (at least if we use Frank Muir’s classification), which plenty of people don’t get; indeed, it’s been conjectured that that kind of comedy is fairly peculiar to the English-speaking world. For that reason, I try to put in some ordinary jokes, too.
I am very fond of comedy, and watch more sit-coms than is good for me. I’m the only person I know who’s watched every episode of Yes Minister, Selwyn Froggitt, and Black Books. To an extent, I think some of this must have rubbed off on me.
Mind you, my writing style is quite different to the way I joke in real life. I’m mostly reliant on a kind of absurdism, but that works best when it’s spontaneous, so I do my best to eliminate it from my writing. Blimey, I don’t half ramble!
What does the future hold for Ballpoint Smudge?
That’s up to him. He’s a nice enough fellow, but I can’t quite see myself using him ever again, so I’ve released him to go his own way. I hope things turn out nicely for him. He’ll probably get married to that filly I mentioned in the story, but who can say? Jackpot, on the other hand … well, he’s already mid-comeback. An utter swine, of course, but great fun to write.
Why end with Twilight writing a letter to Celestia?
I was stuck for an ending that summed up the story. Back in the day, when MLP writers were stuck for an ending that summed up the story, Twilight wrote a letter to Celestia. I wanted a piece of that pie. That, or it was a horrible imposition that all the writers hated. Still, I liked it. I think people were pleasantly surprised by it, as well, so that was nice.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
I’m glad you asked me that. You see, when reading through the story recently, it struck me just how awful it was. Truly awful. Not my best work by a long shot. It’s badly structured, badly paced, and, worst of all, chunks of dialogue from the Devil’s Dictionary are reproduced almost verbatim. It was like watching Star Wars immediately after The Dambusters. About the only thing I was happy with was some of the dialogue (the original dialogue, mind). Frankly, I’ll not take the credit for plagiarism. Especially not gimmicky plagiarism.
With that in mind, at the time of writing this (the end of January), I’ve just embarked on a rewrite. A significant rewrite, from the ground up. I’m still planning it at the moment. I intend to post it as a new chapter of the original, called something like ‘Insurance Revisited’. I don’t expect many people to read it, but at least I’ll be able to sleep at night.
Thanks very much for the attention (and especially to Present Perfect for that lovely review he gave me a while ago); I remain,
— The Minister