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EqD pre-reader and guy who does interviews

Jan
22nd
2014

Despite the dark tag, Alone is a story about love and family. We see the love between Twilight and Celestia, between Twilight and her brother, and between Spike and Twilight's parents. We also see the love of the changeling queen for her brood. Even weird bug things will do anything for their family! So despite the darkness and death, in the end this was a heartwarming story that reaffirms the values we’ve come to expect from a show like Friendship is Magic.

This is why I love fanfiction.

Alone by Dafaddah

Plot summary: Twilight faces more than she bargained for when a resort island turns out very different from her expectations, and she must make a decision that will  forever change how she sees herself.


1. What inspired you to write this?

A few months ago I decided to try my hand at doing a horror story in the more traditional sense, that is, a story where the horror comes from an impending sense of wrongness, of having the feeling that the rug has already been been pulled out from under you, and all that's left is to contemplate the inevitable fall.

I wanted to write this type of horror story because it's hard to do effectively, and also because I really enjoy reading them! I've been writing fanfiction for almost two years now. In that time I've sought to keep stretching my boundaries by trying new themes and genres. Yes, some of my other stories on FIMfiction could be considered horror, or at least dark. But in those cases the horror was pretty much up-front and the scenarios were already established by other fanfic authors (e.g. Optimalverse, etc...) The structure and techniques for those types of stories are very different from what I needed to do with Alone.

Also, I wanted this to be about a character with whom readers were already deeply involved at an emotional level. Naturally I chose my best pony: Twilight Sparkle! I care an awful lot about her, which I hope comes through in my prose, and I would like to think that because of our similarities in attitudes – (eggheads for science unite!) – I think I have a reasonably good level of insight into her character and motivations. It's my hope that readers leave this story with a better understanding of Twilight and caring more deeply for my fellow nerd-herd pony!

There is another reason I wanted to do this story with Twilight as protagonist which has more to do with my own head-canon regarding her: I felt there was something missing in Twilight's education in order for me to feel comfortable with her elevation to Alicorn status. As we learned in Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility, and I felt she needed a shot of what responsibility at this levels entails, specifically the realization that not every problem can be resolved with friendship and magic. (I'll elaborate on this point in some of the answers below.)

A final point on inspiration. The master of this type of horror is of course Stephen King, so I would be remiss in not mentioning his fiction as model for what I was attempting to do with Alone. His stories generally start off as Norman Rockwell slice-of-life, and then an element or character is brought in that makes the back of your neck itch like there's a mosquito in the room. When you've finally cornered it, you find out it's just a lure put out by the giant bug behind the wall that's trying to catch you!

2. What advice do you have for people writing dark stories?

First, dark stories are all about emotional investment. The reader will 'feel the dark' way more if it's happening to a character they feel strongly about, not just in a general sense but in the specific context of the story. The author has to take the time needed to get the reader emotionally invested and build up that feeling of proximity... before gently making them jump from the derailing train car into the hades-bound hand basket.

Second, dark stories work best when they are emotional roller-coasters. They can't just be all doom and gloom, there have to be emotional highs to provide a contrast to the depths of despair (or whatever other unpleasantness you have planned for your poor, unsuspecting hero or heroine). The pacing of these ups and down is important in building the tension towards the climax.

Third, you have to strive to draw the reader into a more visually immersive experience so that it becomes even easier for them to share the protagonist's sense of jeopardy. This means that in a dark story you really have to pay much more attention to feelings and to use the background itself and lots of 'texture words’, so that you can provide the reader that 'touchy-feely' experiential stream. As a side benefit, this approach also makes it possible to imply many things without having to state them outright.

3. I love the way you built up the creepy atmosphere and sense of wrongness; we knew something was wrong on the island, we knew Twilight was all alone there and in danger, we knew there were changelings involved, but we never knew the specifics. Do you have any advice on how to evoke a creepy atmosphere?

Especially in this type of horror story, subtlety is very important. From a writing perspective, this is one of those 'less is more' situations. A small discrepancy or deviation is far more noticeable to the reader that a big one. A recurring deviation creates a buildup of tension. In Alone there was the constant focus on Twilight's lack of companionship for the trip. It went from something Twilight wanted, to a joke, an embarrassment, an annoyance, and then finally a crisis. And then the resolution of the immediate problem plunged her deep into her moral crisis, leaving her feeling even more alone. Of course, the title of the story was a pretty heavy-handed clue as to the importance of this factor!

4. How do you pull off a good twist ending?

As in a magic act, the fun for the audience comes from being aware that something is hidden, without actually knowing precisely what it is. Here the old show don't tell rule becomes very important, and it is used by emphasizing the consequences on the protagonist (and others around them) of actions happening behind the scenes. Of course the main characters themselves mustn't know too much either, and that ignorance has to be realistic and in character.

A particularly effective technique here is the red herring, pointing the reader in the wrong direction, one you know will be falsified eventually. However, be careful with this device. Its use has to be subtle and balanced, and you have to leave some clues that there is more going on. If you don't then you could turn the reader off, because people in general get miffed if they think the story's main character (or the reader) is being led around by the nose!

In the case of Alone, it was easy for the reader to conclude that there were changelings on the island. But I put in enough OOC behaviour (for changelings) that the reader would still feel that itch that says I don't have the full picture here.

5. Tragedy and darkness seem to go hand in hand, but that’s not what you did; sure, there was tragedy and some bittersweetness to the ending, but it was also a heartwarming one about hard choices and how the people who love us will support us no matter what. Why did you make it about that? Is this a theme you try to explore in your other stories?

That's a great question! I think all stories in the end are about change, and change that is a pure loss is in fact rare. The tragedy here is the loss of innocence. It is certainly bittersweet, but in the end there is personal growth and the hope for a better future.

In this case Twilight's understanding of the world is significantly expanded. She now knows that defending the ponies she loves is not going to be a moral cakewalk, and she gains a much broader understanding and appreciation for the Princesses, her brother, and all those ponies who defend Equestria on a daily basis.

Also, the irony of the title is that Twilight finds out that she never was alone, even after she had stepped over a line that she had believed (yes, somewhat naively) should never be crossed, and that an act that she thought would irrevocably distance her from the Princesses and her BBBFF instead has brought her closer to them.

Relating this to my other stories, much of my fiction is about transformative experiences, either tangible or purely internal. On a structural level, my stories run quite a range styles, from drama, adventure, to comedy and/or parody, so my stories aren't all 'serious' by any means! Themes that are common to all my stories are a basic rational/scientific world view, and recognition of the importance of friendship and caring for others. This is no doubt why I feel such a close affinity to Twilight. Also, characters in my stories are rarely 100% good or 100% evil, and the interplay between these facets of personality and moral beliefs (about good and evil) fascinate me.

6. One of my favourite parts of the story was actually tangential to the main plot; it was the scene where Twilight leaves Spike behind with her parents. By showing their relationships, you made us care more about Twilight than we would otherwise. Could you elaborate on the relationship between Spike, Twilight, and her parents?

One of the disappointments I have with the TV show is its rather cavalier treatment of Spike. He is a sentient being raised by Twilight and her parents. But he is visibly not a pony, and so in any realistic sense is an adopted child. This situation was made more complex by his arrival in Twilight's life at a very young age, too young for her to assume such a responsibility under normal circumstances.

I believe Spike's fostering to Twi was a deliberate strategy on Celestia's part to get her to develop genuine empathy towards others (and by this I mean all sentient beings) before she reached the full potential of her power, and so before that power could possibly corrupt her. As we learned in the opening to season one, Twilight had a strong personal bias towards isolating herself and spending as much time as possible reading (more parallels with my own early life). CeIestia deliberately set upon a course to get Twilight more directly involved with others, starting as early as when she was foal-sat by Princess Cadence. I also think that Celestia has done all this with the willing cooperation of Twilight's own parents.

Whether you buy that argument on not, Twilight's current relationship to Spike is verging more on the parental than sibling, which the show seems to have fewer and fewer qualms in presenting. And Spike's relationship to her parents is more like that of a grand-child – he gets more pampering than discipline. By the way, I've explored the nature of Twi's and Spike's relationship in another of my stories, Filial.

In Alone, I wanted to show the level of Spike's dependence on Twilight for just the reason that you mentioned in your question: it makes clear to the reader what is really at stake in Twilight's own survival. At one point in Alone, Twilight wishes Spike was there with her, and then immediately revises her wish, as she realizes the potential dire consequences to her 'number one assistant'. That was Twi being parental: realizing fully well what the little dragon meant to her, and her responsibility to keep him out of harm's way.

7. After what she did, Twilight feels like she failed the Princess. Is she that sheltered, or is Equestria just that peaceful?

Is Equestria peaceful? If Ponyville as portrayed on the show is even remotely typical of a small Equestrian town, then I should think not! BTW, I grew up in a small town. Trust me, I know peaceful!

Was Twilight naive? Yes, absolutely!

Let me elaborate. Twilight has been meticulously guided along the path of Friendship and Harmony by Princess Celestia, and here she is having to resolve a situation by going outside of what she's been taught. This event was not foreseen by Celestia and is not part of her plan for Twilight's education (or perhaps not so soon in her education).

One can argue that it would only make sense for Celestia to get some martial training for the Elements of Harmony, given their importance to the defense of Equestria. But there is no hint of that ever having been done in the TV show. Maybe Celestia has implemented some guard protection for the Bearers of the EoH covertly (as some fanfics depict), but then again, wouldn't these guards have interceded in any number of mishaps the Bearers have encountered in the seasons since their investment?

My own theory is that the Bearers haven't been trained in a military sense so that the Bearers themselves can be kept free of the temptation to use their power for darker purposes. The opening episodes from this season certainly presented the offensive capabilities of the EoH when Celestia used them to imprison Nightmare Moon. Maybe she wants to avoid creating another Sombra!

In any case, in Alone, Twilight is naïve in that she's never faced a situation that she had to choose between two evils (from her perspective) and carry the consequent perceived stain on her psyche. Here she is forced into making such a choice, ready or not. Angst and personal growth ensue.

8. Do you think what Twilight did was right or wrong? What about what the changelings were doing?

Twilight did her duty: she protected the other pony guests of the island from the hunger of the wasplings, should they have hatched, and from the Dire-wasp itself, should it have found its entire brood destroyed. She did the only thing she could, and at a huge personal cost. She became a hero with that act, and in so doing achieved a much deeper understanding of what the Princesses, and service ponies like her brother, sacrifice for to make it possible for other ponies to live the happy lives.

As to the changelings, I have to admit that it was my express purpose with this story to not give Twilight an easy choice to make. The situation was morally ambiguous. You could see the changelings as sinister love thieves, or you could almost categorize the changeling island as providing couples' counseling and helping repair broken relationships. (Imagine the advantages an empath has in figuring out what has gone wrong in a relationship and in taking the right steps to fix it. No wonder the resort's motto was 'Nopony leaves Bucktouche Island dissatisfied’!)

Twilight is a very smart mare. I have no doubt she figured all of this out pretty quickly, and could easily come to admire the ingenuity of the changelings' resort setup. In fact she said so to the changeling queen, although she also admitted that she was very uncertain about the moral implications. What was key is that Twilight came to see the changelings as not necessarily malevolent, and finally to recognize them as individuals with their own ethics, personalities and even family lives, and that friendship with changelings was indeed possible. Changelings stopped being 'the other', another important step in her education, so that once she is elevated to Princess status she doesn't become a potentially genocidal xenophobe.

After I posted the story I did get quite a lot of comments on these issues, which was my intent. One of the great things about fanfic sites is the opportunity to engage directly with readers. These types of issues get readers involved with the story, and as an author nothing makes me happier than to see them discussing such points, either with me or amongst each other.

Report amacita · 320 views ·
Nov
27th
2013

The Wind Thief is the only crossover I love as much as Fallout: Equestria, and after talking with Cold in Gardez, I'm not surprised: the things I love about one are the things I love about the other, and he intended it that way from the beginning.

The Wind Thief by Cold in Gardez

Plot Summary: Skyrim crossover. When a thieving unicorn is arrested, she gains Princess Celestia’s attention by claiming to be the dragonborn. Celestia gives her a quest: guard her faithful student through a cursed dungeon to retrieve the Wind’s Eye, an artifact with the power to end the threat of the dragons.

Why I liked it: The Wind Thief doesn’t try to be a novelization of Skyrim, and it doesn’t try to be a sprawling 300,000 word epic either. Instead, it tells a self-contained, 68,000 word story about an original character, set in a fused MLP/Skyrim world that captures the essential elements of each universe.

From the Skyrim half, we have a land locked in perpetual winter, the return of the dragons, a dungeon-crawling hero, draugr fights, dragon shouts, and treasure. From the MLP half, we have Twilight Sparkle and Celestia each playing a role basically identical to in the show, and Luna, whose story is both the same and different from canon. It also helps that the main character bears many similarities to Trixie. After reading it, I feel as if I had an authentic Skyrim experience, but I also understand some of my favourite ponies better than I did before.

There’s a lot to love about this story. The romantic subplot between Sly and Twilight was great, and the fight scenes cool and meaningful without being repetitive. But my favourite part was the scope of it all. What initially appears as a trek through a single small tomb turns into something much more. Not only is the tomb far more vast than expected, we also unravel layer upon layer of history as they delve deeper: Sly remembers her childhood, Twilight tells of the origins of the Wind’s Eye and what happened to Luna, and they ultimately discover how the tomb’s guardians came to be cursed and why there’s a tomb there in the first place.

Questions

1. What inspired you to write The Wind Thief? Why a Skyrim crossover? Why one that isn’t about the dragonborn? And why write about a single quest through a single dungeon rather than a sprawling epic like Fallout Equestria?

The simplest answer is that Skyrim had just come out, and I was looking to write an adventure/crossover-style story. Kkat’s monumental Fallout: Equestria story was drawing to a close at the time, and her style of crossover was another significant inspiration: rather than simply rewriting an existing story with ponies, take the essence of that story – the return of an ancient foe, a land locked in winter, a world where the past is at war with the present – and infuse it into the ponies that we know and love.

Is Sly the Dragonborn? Maybe. She’ll certainly tell you she is, but then, she’s not exactly someone you’d trust with your 401k. Ultimately, that’s not a critical part of the story. Instead it focuses on her and Twilight’s search for an ancient artifact in a tomb that turns out to be far larger and more dangerous than they expected. Rather than trying to follow Kkat’s epic (and exhausting) opus, I wanted a relatively small, self-contained story that could be expanded with sequels if I wanted.

2. Sly reminds me of Trixie: light blue unicorn, boastful, antagonistic towards Twilight. But instead of calling her Trixie, as I think many authors would have (canon characters usually being more popular than OCs), you made her an OC. Why? And when you’re writing a crossover or AU, how you do decide when to fill a role with an OC and when to repurpose a canon character?

I never honestly made the connection between Sly and Trixie until people started pointing it out in the comments. Now, of course, it seems obvious.

Sly is loosely based off my playstyle in Skyrim; an archer who prefers to stick to the shadows, with only as much magic as necessary to get by in a dangerous world. She’s also a bit of a kleptomaniac who uses her massive ego as a shield against her insecurities, and it’s that last part that I think leads people to comparisons with Trixie.

As for deciding whether to use an OC or canon character, my main consideration is usually how much my intended character will depart from the characters established in the show. Readers in this fandom are generally very protective of their ‘headcanon’ for a given character, and woe betide the author who upsets them. If you’re going in an unusual direction, it’s often better to make a new character from scratch than to try fitting a square Twilight Sparkle into a round hole.

That said, I used Twilight Sparkle as the primary supporting character, and I left her generally unchanged from what we see in the show. She’s still a bookish, powerful magic user without much experience in the real world or with other ponies. Part of the fun of writing is seeing how an established character like her will fit into the new world I've created.

3. Some parts of your story are predictable: Twilight and Sly are going to be shipped. They’re going to survive the dungeons and find the Wind’s Eye. Other parts, less so, like the wish, the origin of the dungeons, and what happens with Celestia at the end. But to make a satisfying ending, you have to deliver on the implicit promises your story made at the beginning; some parts of your story have to be predictable. How do you keep things new and interesting while still providing a resolution that satisfies reader expectations?

There’s an implicit agreement between writers and their readers regarding main characters. If it’s a tragedy, the reader knows to expect a bad ending. If it’s pretty much any other story, they know to expect a good ending. If you give readers the opposite ending from what they expect, you’re in for a rough ride.

The fun in subverting expectations is how you deliver those endings. For example, most people would consider dying to be an unhappy ending. But it’s just as easy to imagine a story that ends with the main character’s death, but also in their victory. For a pop-culture example, consider the fate of Bruce Willis’s character in Armageddon. For a more literate example, consider the fate of Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, who volunteers to be executed in the place of another man whom he judges to deserve life more.

The Wind Thief’s ending was mixed for our heroes. They did get the Wind’s Eye, yes, but not in the way they expected. Likewise, they both survived, though again not as expected. They do have a relationship, but it’s not clear that they’ll be making kissy-faces with each other anytime soon.

4. The Wind Thief is your third most popular story, after “Naked Singularity” and “The Contest”, and it’s several times more popular than your other adventure stories, “The Lantern” and The First Light of Dawn. Why do you think that is?

Experience? The First Light of Dawn was only my second story, and I was still learning how to write (caveat: I’m still learning how to write). I think certain stories simply have a larger prospective audience. A crossover with Skyrim, a few months after Skyrim came out and Fallout: Equestria was ending, was bound to be more popular than a clumsy-but-well-meaning first attempt at an adventure.

5. The Wind Thief has three memorable and very different fight scenes: one for each of the cursed brothers. The first was similar to a regular boss fight from Skyrim: attack, dodge, use a shout, attack some more while it’s staggered. The other battles had different strategies: the giant spider blinds Twilight right at the start, so she can’t just smoosh it, and the sorcerer is immortal, so no amount of stabbing will work. How did you adapt the combat system of Skyrim so that it worked well for a novel? And how did you work the fight scenes into the story so they were fun and advanced the plot and character development?

It turns out that writing combat is hard. Writing combat based on a video game is even harder.

Take the Legend of Zelda. Most boss monsters have a special attack Link has to dodge. Link then strikes some special part of their body, stunning them, then runs in and wallops on them while they recover. Repeat 3x times, collect your Heart Container. Countless games use this same format.

You can’t write a scene like that. It’s so unrealistic it would destroy the reader’s sense of immersion. Instead you have to write a combat scene from the ground up, shaped by the source material that inspired you. So Sly has shouts and her bow and her sword, and Twilight is pretty capable with her fireball spell, but they’re not used in the willy-nilly fashion of the game. Sly doesn’t have HP or MP; if she takes a blow from that huge axe, she is going to die. You can’t just have characters trading hits like they do in a video game. Each injury has to be accounted for and shapes the outcome of the entire scene.

The most important part of the battles for me was what they showed us about the characters. Ideally, your hero shouldn’t get in a fight with the villain and then win simply because she’s stronger. The hero should have to struggle to win, either by sacrificing something, using her brains, or making some difficult choice.

All three of the brothers are vastly stronger than Sly or Twilight, on top of being nigh-immortal (or actually immortal for one of them). They have to work together, use their heads and take chances in order to win.

6. What do you think of video games as a storytelling medium? Is there anything storytelling-related that you wish video games did more of, and is there anything that you think novelists can learn from video games?

I think they’re great. We’re blessed to live in an age with Indy games like Braid or Journey that are literal works of art. The fact that they are playable works of art is almost beside the point.

More mainstream games tend to sacrifice artistry and storytelling for the sake of playability, but even there we see strokes of genius. Shadow of the Colossus, Mass Effect, and The Last of Us were all mass-market games that stood out as having good stories in addition to being enjoyable games.

I do wish more video games would treat their players intelligently. Stories can be subtle, filled with nuance, and still have power.

7. Do you have any advice for people writing an adventure or a crossover?

I would tell them to decide, right away, what the essential parts of each half of the crossover are. Is it the setting? Characters? Idea? Events? Once you know what you want to include in the crossover, you can write an original story incorporating those things from the ground up. This tends to be much more appealing than the two most common (and, generally, poor) types of crossover: a story rewritten with ponies as the main characters, or a literal mixing of two worlds (i.e. Master Chief! In Equestria!) Kkat took a setting from the Fallout universe and introduced it to the MLP universe, and if you can do as well as she did, you’re doing something right.

8. How do you know when what you’ve written is good?

Feedback. You need to be willing to show your stuff to people who will critique it. The fact is, almost nothing I write is good until other writers tell me what I’ve done wrong. Then I go back and fix it, and eventually I’ll get something I’m happy with.

9. In one your comments, you said that you love the use of theme and motif in fiction and wish more authors would attempt it, but that it requires a deft hand, lest it squish the rest of your story. Could you elaborate on that? And how did you manage it in The Wind Thief?

Theme and motif are an excellent way for authors who already grasp the basics of writing – the mechanics, the narrative arc, the characterization – to add a new level of sophistication to their work. Going back to Kkat and Fallout: Equestria, she is constantly using the memory orbs as both a device to advance the plot and also as a motif: memory and the past are LittlePip’s enemies just as much as Red Eye and The Goddess. Her ultimate victory isn’t just over the villains arrayed against her, but against the past itself. Her occasional refrain, “Do better,” is a hint of this.

The Wind Thief’s theme is about the importance of choice. The Wind’s Eye, a magical jewel that grants wishes, is perhaps the most perfect expression of choice. With it you can have literally anything that you want. This is not necessarily a good thing, though; almost every villain in the story made the wrong choice when they had the Wind’s Eye, and that choice destroyed them. The few heroes who use it managed to make the right choices, but every one of them died as well. Every major event in the story is driven by wishes and the choices they represent, though all but a few of these wishes occur off-screen, and all but one occurred hundreds of years in the past.

The climax of the story isn’t Sly defeating the final guardian of the tomb; it’s the choice she makes afterward, when the Wind’s Eye is in her possession.

A motif is any recurring element with symbolic importance. In The Wind Thief it is the perpetual winter that accompanies the dragons, both past and present. This also serves to tie the story back to the game, which of course takes place on a frozen, snowbound continent.

Report amacita · 513 views ·
Nov
22nd
2013

Twilight Sparkle: Night Shift is a lot of fun. It’s part Men in Black, part H.P. Lovecraft, and part Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. On November 16th, it won the Foal Free Network’s Stories Back from the Read 2013 contest, beating entries by ToixStory, theswimminbrony, and RavensDagger. Though how someone with less than 100 followers can win a popularity contest against people with 400, 400, and 1,260 followers is beyond me. Yay, underdogs! Regardless, they’re all good stories, and when Admujica asked me if I'd interview the winner, I happily agreed.

Twilight Sparkle: Night Shift by JawJoe

Plot summary: Twilight Sparkle is a monster hunter, working for Luna’s secret organization, the Night Shift. What starts out as her typical monster of the week missions take a darker turn as she uncovers hints of a sinister conspiracy. Whatever they’re working towards, it can’t be good, and Twilight needs to stop them before it’s too late.

Why I liked it: think what drives the story is Twilight. JawJoe’s version of her may be a few shades darker than canon, but she’s still an excellent fit for the story he’s telling. She’s clever and highly motivated, and the story never gives her an easy break. Whenever she’s not fighting for her life, she’s doggedly pursuing the novel’s mysterious villain. Because once Twilight sees a problem, she won’t rest until she solves it.

While it’s fun to try to solve the mystery before Twilight does, it’s also fun to just sit back, enjoy the creepy atmosphere, and see how dark things can get.

There are different kinds of horror. My least favourite is relentlessly dark and ultimately depressing. Night Shift is the opposite. It’s the action hero kind of horror, the kind where the good guy can win most battles by punching the bad guy in the face, even if the bad guy happens to be a tentacled abomination from beyond the stars. At least, that’s what it is until that last third of the story, when we learn that the most horrifying problems are the ones that you can’t just punch away. That’s when JawJoe proves that he knows how to be both smart and fun, and I look forwarding to seeing how it all ends.


1. What inspired you to write this? Why write a "secret organisation keeps monsters in check" story if it’s been done so many times before?

The inception of the story is, indeed, quite the story. It came close to never seeing the light of day at all.

The first idea for Night Shift came to me not long after I'd finished my previous fic. Except, at first, it wasn't called “Night Shift” at all. “Twilight Sparkle: Vampire Hunter” was inspired – you guessed it – by that one movie about Abraham Lincoln. (Being from Europe, I always assumed it was historically accurate.)

The plot was to revolve around Twilight being a solitary vampire hunter. Something about Celestia being the head vampire, conspiracy, all that. The first chapter was originally drafted in that spirit, with very little idea of where this story was going to go. It was merely by random happenstance that it took the direction it did: when Twilight is “interrogating” Vinyl, and tells her “You've made one hell of a mess,” I  thought, “Hey, wouldn't it sound way cool if she said 'one that we'll have to clean up' next?” And thus, the Night Shift organisation – and the fic's title – was born.

I wrote that first chapter for my own entertainment, and published it just for kicks. After a surprisingly positive reception, I thought that maybe I should carry on writing this. Which was a problem, because I still had zero clue about the fic's direction. Long story short, many abandoned ideas – and a hiatus of near-on half a year – later, I released the second chapter, pushing Night Shift into the coveted feature box for a small period.

I looked at the feature box – my competition – and, with a certain arrogance that is, I think, common to all rookie writers, I noted that all I could see were cheap one-shot comedies and stories that try to be “deep” and “philosophical” by tossing around concepts about the sorrow of immortality, the folly and tragedy of man, or the occasional one about the author's bleak (and often uneducated) outlook on nuclear technology. And, of course, lots and lots of clop.

Thus, my quest was clear: to write something simple, something stupid – something that is actually fun to read.

2. The story starts with a monster-of-the-week formula, but each episode advances the overarching plot so that by the end, we understand enough to confront the true villain. Why did you structure it like that? And how did you balance the pace of the overarching plot (introducing important new characters and story elements) with the need to pace each individual episode so that they are each interesting and fully developed on their own?

Although I randomly blurted the first chapter out one day, all the rest were (mostly) deliberately planned.

What I knew from the start was that A) I'll have to begin with the good old “monster of the week” formula, because it's fun to read, as well as serving as the perfect hook, and B) I mustn't allow the story to drag on for too long, because there's nothing I hate more in a good show than useless filler.

From then, the theory was simple: I'd spend the first few chapters introducing the reader to the Night Shift world and Twilight's character, all the while making them ask questions. Then I'd gradually answer those questions and replace them with new ones.

I had a few vague ideas for individual “episodes” written up, and during the planning stage I just looked through that list to pick what I thought would fit best. Some ideas, such as “Pinkie finds Twilight's equipment; is completely clueless” and “Twilight tracks down a changeling who cuts her a deal for his life” never made it into the fic. Some others, like “Twilight finds victim in creepy hospital” were cannibalised and used in a different form. “Twilight and gravekeeper whack zombies with spades” made it with zero change to the basic concept.

For balancing the overarching plot with individual episodes, the key to success was simple: time. I didn't rush it; look at the release dates between chapters 1 and 2, then between 3 and 4. I took the time to finish the entire fic before publishing chapter 4. This way, connecting the dots of the overarching plot, often retroactively, was a relatively simple affair. The main plot devices to that end were the mysterious “cult” and Omen's character, who were always there to sway Twilight back onto the plot's tracks whenever she strayed too far.

3. The first two thirds of the story are very grounded and sane: Twilight is working for a monster hunting organization, going on missions while gathering clues to lead her to Big Bad. In the last third, she’s delving into the mind of the villain in some kind of prolonged dream sequence / Inception homage / act of hands-on magical psychotherapy. How do you keep that grounded? And how do you know if you have a satisfying ending? For that matter, how do you know when what you’ve written is good?

To answer your last question first, I don't. But that's the beauty of it, isn't it? Being a “writer,” I simultaneously loathe and love every word I commit to virtual paper. When my love is a little higher than my hate, I know I'm onto something. I did have every chapter read by several people before release, too, and I did incorporate their feedback in order to polish the story. But in the end, different readers like different things, and they all have different standards. I could only try, and hope, for the best.

For the portion of the fic you mention – which I collectively refer to as the “dream chapters” – it's really just a bit of cheating; a creative way to circumvent a very practical problem. With Night Shift being limited to Twilight's first person point of view, I had no effective way to provide adequate explanation for everything that had happened so far, even though that's the point of the fic: unravelling the mystery. Once, while I was still working on chapters 2 and 3, someone told me that limiting the POV to Twilight would hurt the story, as “I had no way to get into other characters' heads.” I took that as a challenge.

As for good endings, well, as long as you're not Mass Effect 3, you're probably good.

Seriously though, I'll be damned if I know. For Night Shift, I merely tried to tie up loose ends and provide a, well, satisfying conclusion to the main conflict. There is (well, as of this interview, there will be) also an epilogue at the end which will answer some lingering questions and make for a final conclusion. As I've stated above, the main purpose of Night Shift is to entertain. If the reader stands up from the fic thinking “well, that was a good story!” then I'll have achieved my goal.

4. You said that you were unhappy with the ending and you had to rewrite it. What happened?

Oh, the ending. From the moment it was first conceived, it was a pain in my neck. I kept putting it off during the planning stage – “I'll get to it, later, tomorrow, after lunch, maybe.” What I had, in the end, was the complete body of a story missing its head.

So I sat down, day after day, trying to find a way to approach it. There was a first pass – some ~7000 words long – that had some good elements, but felt rather lacking and rushed. Then a second pass – just over 18k words – was, technically, readable. What had to happen, happened, and I was almost ready to just give in and publish it as such. Note that this was almost a full year after I published chapter 1. To be frank, I just wanted it done.

After some... words of advice from my beta reader made me see that pile of garbage for what it was, I knew I had to rewrite it, from the ground up. It had a long list of issues ranging from pacing to plot contrivances and overall badly planned and just as badly executed ideas.

After the rewrite, the core concept, as well as the best moments from previous drafts are all in there, and what's between them sucks considerably less, while also making a tad more sense. One might say it's good. Then again, I can never know what's good and what isn't, can I?

Really, it's the ending of Night Shift; my little baby's growing up. There comes a time when you just have to let go. I don't think I'll ever be satisfied with it – and that's okay.

5. My favourite plot arc has to be your Lovecraft homage, the Shadow over Horsmouth. Trixie was fun, the monster they fought was creepy, and the cult was even creepier. Plus, the poor little filly! It was a great mix of fluff and horror. How did you balance those elements while maintaining the creepy atmosphere and sense of danger?

The Horsmouth chapters are special to me, because they're based on the first – and so far only – pony-related dream I've had. Before I ever thought of Night Shift, I had this dream in which Trixie and Twilight visit a town where there are only unicorns with dark reddish-black eyes. It turned out that they put something into the water which killed off non-unicorns, while increasing their own magical power. When I was writing up episode ideas, I knew it had to be in there.

The town in the dream was, however, completely normal from the outside; just like Ponyville or any other small town, really. The Lovecraftian stuff was invented specifically for Night Shift.

It follows the basic “2-parter structure,” where we spend the first part learning about the danger (without confronting it) and the new characters. Then the action picks up in part 2 as it rolls towards an explosive finale. Super simple concept.

I went out of my way to make Horsmouth a particularly uninviting place, even sans the “disease” and the cultists, for one reason: atmosphere. I wanted to fascinate the reader, as well as make them feel just a little uncomfortable. I tried to walk on the fine line between real and unreal – Horsmouth had to be a place you can imagine to actually exist, but you'd rather not. Whether I succeeded is not for me to judge.

And, of course, then there's Trixie. It may or may not be apparent, but I always considered Night Shift to be a parody – a parody of the show, and of itself. So you have all this dark subject matter – murder, sacrifice, illness – and facing the evil are two unicorns, old enemies and new friends. Did I mention they're unicorns? Did that sink in? With a concept so ridiculous, I absolutely needed to have some fun, and I built the entire episode on that duality.

Yes, the danger is real; yes, people (ponies) are dying. But Twilight and Trixie, being the eternal snarklords they are, definitely weren't going down without cracking a smile. The contrast between the light, “fluffy” parts and the dark descent into the mountain also makes both stronger by comparison, I think. No light without darkness, as they say.

I originally intended even more banter between Trixie and Twilight, as well as Luna's letter about “looking into Horsmouth” to be present. I cut much of it because not only did it kill the pacing, but I also found that I just simply wasn't smart enough to be consistently entertaining with the endless snarking.

6. In many ways, your Twilight is no longer the pony we know from canon: it opens with her torturing and hacking up Vinyl Scratch, and later she plans to stand by and watch while cultists sacrifice a little filly in the caverns over Horsmouth. How has the world of Night Shift changed her? And how do you show that while still staying true enough to her canon character?

One of the recurring complaints I hear as regards to Night Shift is that Twilight is ridiculously OOC. Which is true. The most common praise it seems to get is, however, that it works. Which I hope is true.

How did she get this way? Well, the answer's right there in the fic. She's become jaded. She keeps telling herself that what she's doing is good, but as the story progresses, she finds it increasingly hard to believe. The story, I feel, starts out where she's farthest from her past (show) self, and she gradually gravitates back towards it. She'll never be the same again, of course; she knows that, and it troubles her.

A stray reference to reading, knowledge of various books, tendency to over-analyse everything, and the occasional “big word” – these are what show that the Twilight Sparkle we know is still in there, somewhere. It's just been a long night for her.

7. Do you have any advice for people who want to write something creepy?

Only what's probably the most cliché piece of advice one can give here: find what you find creepy, and apply it. Consider Horsmouth. Being a city kid with a pedigree, having grown up in a place where there are no mountains within hundreds of kilometres in any direction, those little mountainside villages creep me out. They're so old, and they're so lonely. So isolated. Some houses don't even have phone lines installed. Your mobile phone isn't getting any reception either. And then you see kids running around on a nearby hill, and it's like they don't even know they're in some God-forsaken backwater. To realise that it's home to them – that, to me, has always been just a little bit creepy. Multiply that personal, childish fear to unreasonable levels, and voilà: you have Horsmouth.

And note that “scary” and “creepy” are not the same thing. “Scary” is obvious. Something is out there to get you; your roommate literally has skeletons in his closet. Scaring your audience is an emotional climax after a period of suspense.

Creepiness, then, goes hand in hand with suspense. Suspense is uncertainty. Is that man following you, or did he just coincidentally turn the exact same corners? And why is it that your roommate is acting a bit weird these days? Is he really, or is it just you? You don't know, but you want to, but you can't.

Creepy isn't wrong, and it isn't quite right. It's something familiar cast in an unfamiliar light. It's something that could be nothing.

8. What part was the most fun to write? What part was the hardest?

Most fun? Horsmouth. Hardest? The finale. But I've talked enough about those already.

I really enjoyed writing chapter 13, “We.” I really enjoyed exploring and experimenting with the characters there. That's not to mention the last line, which is, to me, the climax of the entire story. I originally intended to title the chapter “Name,” just because of that. I changed it, though, so it'd be a little bigger of a surprise. Oh, and if the first episodes of season 4 end up being anything like “We,” just remember: you saw it here first!

If we're not counting the finale, I probably had the most trouble with chapter 4. Overall, it's still the one I'm the least satisfied with. I feel that Omen could've had a more powerful introduction, and the monster of the week – the titular zombies – just don't pose a big enough threat. The chapter, thus, ends up lacking focus and overall punch, while also suffering from clunky dialogue. It comes down to bad planning, I believe: I tried to cram too much into too small a space.

Oh, and Omen in general. Keeping his apparent “Mary Sueishness” at a reasonable level was a challenge, and I'm still not sure I managed.

9. Do you feel that you’ve learned anything and grown as an author from writing this story? How does your writing in this one compare to your earlier one, Harmony’s End? Why do you write so many dark stories?

Have I learned anything? Absolutely. They aren't things I could list, but the sheer amount of experience I got from writing Night Shift is invaluable. Comparing Night Shift to Harmony's End isn't even fair. Honestly, I'm kind of ashamed of Harmony's End now. Sometimes I feel like removing it from the site. It's terrible. Hah! Maybe one day I'll look back at Night Shift and feel the same way. Then, at least, I'll know I have improved further.

Why do I write “dark?” The darkness isn't the point to me, really – it's more about the adventure. But no adventure is complete without high stakes, and high stakes are a natural product of darker themes. And while I read a criminally low amount of books – the greatest sin for any aspiring writer – I absolutely adore Lovecraft's insanely convoluted and borderline unreadable prose. I try – and promptly fail – to mimic it, both consciously and subconsciously.

That said, goodness knows I'd write comedy if I could. Fact is, making someone laugh is a lot harder than creeping them out. Someday!

I'm actually ogling the prospect of moving away from ponies and onto original fiction now. Nothing I could publish, of course – I'm nowhere near good enough for that – but I feel it would be a logical step forward. If anything, it'd be an excellent opportunity to learn and practise more.

Report amacita · 564 views ·
Nov
15th
2013

I’ve always thought of myself as the arch-nemesis of fluff, but A Taste of the Good Life finally convinced me that fluff and conflict can live together in harmony and both be better for it. In this interview, Eakin talks about the relationship between fluff and conflict, as well as some of the ideas in the story and the choices he made in writing it.

Plot summary: After Main Course’s Manehattan restaurant burns down, he goes to visit his sister in Ponyville. There, he buys an abandoned building and turns it into a restaurant, but with the building comes an unexpected tenant: Scootaloo, who has been living there since she ran away from her abusive father and alcoholic mother in Canterlot. Main Course ends up taking care of her. Pretty soon, his restaurant is a success, and Scootaloo is really warming up to him. He even meets a cute mare, and there’s the possibility of romance... until the mare turns out to be Scootaloo’s mom.

There’s so many things to love about the story, but my favourite has to be Main Course. He’s a big old softie who can’t resist doing the nice thing, even when it’s a terrible idea. Open a restaurant in a town that he’s just supposed to be visiting? Sure, why not. Adopt a damaged little filly? Of course. Fall in love with the wrong mare, and try to make it all work anyway? Yes, that too. He’s good, and he’s daring, and we can only hope that maybe, just maybe he’ll be clever enough to make it all work.

I’ve long been a fan of the kind of story where Scootaloo’s an orphan and she ends up gaining a family. Something about it just resonates with me. Maybe it’s the warm and fuzzy feeling I get from reading about something wholesome and good happening to a character I love who so desperately needs it.

The idea, of course, is nothing new. I’ve read tons of stories with a similar concept. Scootaloo is an orphan living under the Ponyville bridge. She’s a runaway living in the CMC clubhouse. Her dad is abusive and she just wishes somepony would save her. But there’s several things that make A Taste of the Good Life different.

First, it’s not about Scootaloo and Rainbow Dash. I’ve seen that plotline enough. Second, there’s a sympathetic antagonist. It’s easy to make us hate an abusive parent; it’s much harder to make us forgive one and love her in spite of what she’s done.

But most importantly, while Scootaloo is a big part of the story, she’s not the only part: it’s also the story of her mom seeking redemption and Main Course trying to fix his restaurant and, in a way, also fix the people in his life who are broken. I like a story with meat to it, not just a wish fulfillment fantasy, as nice as those are sometimes.

Italics are me. Regular text is Eakin.


1. What inspired you to write this story? Why tie together Main Course and his quest to rebuild the Knoll with Ebby and her quest to regain her daughter’s love?

I've always liked to cook, so I had the idea for a pony running a restaurant from the get go. It was even starting to creep into a few of my other stories, so I decided to get it out of my system. I also liked the thematic connection. Main Course fixes two very broken things over the course of this story: The Knoll, and Ebby. Scootaloo, for her part, gets to learn from his example and fixes her own relationship with her mother. It's no coincidence that the culmination of all she's learned about cooking and that final reconciliation happen at the same time at her birthday party.

2. Why did you tell a story about a chef and end it with Scootaloo learning to cook? Why not something about flying instead? Was it just because you wanted to be different? Or you didn’t want to get Rainbow Dash involved?

Dash is a good big sister, but being a mom is probably a little much. My take on Scootaloo's character, at least as it exists in this story, is that she's really desperate for approval from some parental figure after the way she grew up. Once she'd glomped onto Main instead of Dash, it made sense to me that she would show the same passion for his interests. Plus as I said above, she's learning more from Main Course than just how to cook.

3. You said in your comments that you were trying to keep Ebby sympathetic, even when she was the antagonist. I think you succeeded, and once she gave up on forcing Scootaloo to be with her, I started to cheer for her. Was there any point when you were worried that you might not be able to pull it off?

I worried that I would make Ebby too likable too soon, actually. Judging by the comments that got posted right after Ebby called in FPS, I needn't have worried. Rarity's 'heinous bitch' line, though a great line that I love, probably primed the pump in that regard. More generally, I find sympathetic antagonists more interesting. A lot more people are going to remember Queen Sparkle that Chrysalis from my other major stories.

Better get out of the habit before Count Obsidian shows up in the sequel. Seriously, fuck that guy.

4. How do you feel about Scootaloo’s choice by the river?

I thought it was justified. That and the scene after it were the turning point for both of them. If Scootaloo hadn't come to terms with just how deep her anger at Ebby ran, and Ebby hadn't gotten the message that she needed to back off hard, I don't think they would have ended up a family again.

5. The Pinkie Pie scenes were some of my favourites in the whole story. What made you decide to bring her to the Grassy Knoll?

Pinkie is just a character that I find genuinely fun to play around with. She's not there to advance the story in any really meaningful way, just to throw in a bit of levity to offset the heavier moments. I never really plan out exactly how her dialogue is going to go, I just try to let it flow as much as possible and see how ridiculous I can get with her table numbering system, for example. Badly written Pinkie is the character I find the most grating to read, but well done Pinkie is my favorite (in small doses, at least). Structurally, it was so that scenes revolving around Main running the Knoll could keep happening even after he'd opened it and the whole Ebby situation starts to take central stage. I didn't want it to be scene after scene of him with Scoots and Ebby, and leave my readers wondering when he was finding time to run the 'Knoll,' exactly.

Also, Pinkie, in my mind, is the most 'Ponyville' of the Mane Six. She knows everypony in town and is most emblematic of the general level of insanity that pervades the supposedly dull, rural town. She was also the inspiration for the whole extended metaphor I tried to weave in around the color pink being strongly associated with ponies or moments that are gradually strengthening Main's connection to the town and his new family. Generally, if Main comments about something pink the comment's really about Ponyville.

6. How do you create an interesting and likeable OC? Honestly, I was impressed that you made us care so much about Main Course and his quest to rebuild the Knoll without even showing us any significant canon character until chapter three.

I think the decision to take a chapter fleshing out his life in Manehattan and one on the relationship with his sister after he arrives in Ponyville was a good call. I think people like him because he's likable. He's a good guy, not some great epic hero or anything but just somepony who has his own identity and relatable goals and goes about accomplishing them in reasonably clever ways. And if he ever gets too cocky about it there's Silver Scroll there to keep him in check. That brother-sister dynamic was a great way to flesh them both out a bit and show what a good team they are.

7. How do you get the voices of your characters right?

I don't know if there's any magic trick to it. I'm gonna sound crazy but I just sort of listen to them talking to each other in my head and write it down. The same conversation can happen twenty or thirty different times in slightly different ways and I just merge together the ones I like. I actually ended up with another different version of that scene between Main and Ebby in her apartment completely written, a bit racier and a bit darker in tone, for example.

8. What do you do for your minor characters? All of your main OCs are good, but I also found your minor characters memorable, like Palomino with his martial-arts threats. Even Mayor Mare was interesting with her wall of photos of herself and the line where she laughs and says she’d forgotten how direct “you city folk” could be.

I think I just try to imagine that these are ponies going about their own lives and we're just getting a little snapshot of their day. Mayor Mare I wrote as a consumate politician, and I think she stands out because she feels like she got where she is by being ruthless. She's reasonable, but you really don't want to get on her bad side. That scene at the end of chapter two was a lot of characterization for her and Main both, establishing that Main is good at finding unconventional win-win solutions. So when the flip side of that comes around and he gets himself in trouble with Grace by trying to do the exact same thing it feels a little more real. Palomino is the chilly professional who's been doing a rough job for a long time, so while he does care he comes across as a little detatched. The trick for me is that you have to give your readers something to latch onto about them fast. They don't have a lot of screen time to waste and they usually have something the story needs them to accomplish, so in all three cases I had them open with something that said a lot about them: Palomino's threat, Mayor Mare's photos, and Briggs' 'Relax' notepad.

9. Why did you start the story where you did? Orphan Scootaloo as a hook in chapter one would have been the first choice for a lot of authors.

I think that honestly the orphaned Scootaloo trope is so overdone that leading with that would turn people off. I'd rather have people invested in the story revolving around Main and the 'Knoll,' then sort of slip Scootaloo in as what that story's leading into.

10. Why did you end the story where you did? And why did you add that extra epilogue chapter after marking it complete?

I almost didn't. The story loses a little bit of its focus, I think, after the 'Somepony Save Me' chapter. I kind of wish I had done a little more to strain his relationship with his new daughter, either via Grace or by having her react more negatively to discovering that he's dating Ebby. Couldn't find a way to do it that felt organic, though. Forcing Main Course to choose between Ponyville and Manehattan, or Scootaloo and Ebby, just felt like they were questions with only one reasonable answer and that trying to pretend otherwise would just leave people rolling their eyes. I can't stand blatantly manufactured drama. Once they were clearly on their way to becoming a happy family it felt right.

Had I decided to stretch it, Ebby's slip up with the cup would have happened after the party and forced Scootaloo to decide whether or not she believed it was really an accident, maybe Main Course takes Ebby's side over Scootaloos... see just writing that it doesn't feel like something he would do to Scootaloo. Anyway, since the conflict was over I wanted to briefly jump ahead and show the three of them were a family working in the Knoll together. Then my Unnecessary Epilogue Syndrome flared up and I threw in that little 1,500 word bit at the end for good measure.

There is going to be a sequel though, where an older Scootaloo goes to a culinary school in Baltimare.

11. How did you structure the story? It starts with Main Course wanting to rebuild the Grassy Knoll in Manehattan, and it ends with him settling down in Ponyville with a new family instead. In the middle, there’s the whole drama with Scootaloo, getting the Ponyville Knoll up and running, and romancing Ebby. What ties it all together?

Everything Main Course does ends up tying him more and more tightly to Ponyville. The successful big city professional who has all the trappings of success but then discovering true happiness in a small town is a cliche, I'll admit, but cliches get to be that way because they work. I knew that I wanted to link together several smaller, overlapping story arcs. The Knoll arc more or less resolves by the middle of Scootaloo's, and in turn their relationship more or less finishes resolving in the middle of the battle with Ebby over her fate, which in turn leads to them falling for one another eventually and settling down. Someone in the comments called the way their little family came together a 'reverse divorce' which I thought was a neat description for it.

12. Why did Main Course and Ebby fall in love, despite the fight over Scootaloo?

Main Course and Ebby's relationship, though somewhat odd, basically works (I hope...) because they're fundamentally compatible individuals with some immediate flirtatious chemistry when they meet for the first time at Rarity's fashion show and then undergo some really intense stuff together. I think that if they'd met earlier, before Snare Drum got thrown into prison, he wouldn't see her as much different from the other rich and spoiled nobles. It took life beating her down for a few years to make her a little wiser and humbler.

It also damaged her, physically and psychologically. She feels like she's poisonous and completely unworthy of love, which is only reinforced by how Scootaloo rejects her. Main Course, though, is the kind of guy who can look past that kind of damage and see the potential within her. On a more mundane level, they're both well off ponies from big cities who share their love for a daughter. Given the stuff Ebby reveals about her past and Main's almost compulsive need to be the nice guy it's not surprising he'd want to help her, if only to give Scootaloo a chance to forgive her and move on if nothing else, and he falls for her in the process.

13. How do you balance fluff with conflict? Because your story has a good mix of both. I actually think the fluff adds value to the conflict. We wouldn’t be so invested in the bitter custody battle if it weren’t for the silly condiment battle earlier and Scootaloo’s cute attempt to ship Main Course with Rainbow Dash.

The fluff is indeed the bread and butter of the story. When you have characters that have every reason to be at one another's throats or not to trust each other, it helps to show why they more or less get along anyway. Scootaloo, the CMC, and Pinkie are all great for that. Like you said, it helps the reader understand why they want to root for a character or a pairing rather than the story just telling them they should. It also makes the story feel like MLP. That slice of life stuff is what the show does really well. Besides, the resolutions of the conflicts are really fairly predictable from the start. I wouldn't count on those to drive interest for very long. If you know what's going to happen you better enjoy watching the way it happens anyway.

14. What part was the most fun to write? What part was the hardest?

The hardest part was structuring the middle of Somepony Save Me to get everyone in the place I needed them to be for that cliff scene. Took me days.

Pinkie taking over the Knoll, the CMC trying to get Rainbow Dash 'knocked up,' and some of the Main Course/Silver Scroll back and forth while they were investigating the Knoll for the first time were fun. While not fun per se, I also found writing the wine scene after the cliff and Ebby's talk when she gives Scootaloo her pendant to be very cathartic.

15. Can you elaborate on the difference between badly written Pinkie and well done Pinkie?

Bad Pinkie Pie is really quite bad. It's the awful kind of randomness, like a tween girl posting something like 'purple banana screwdriver! LOL I R Random pay attention to me' as her Facebook status. You still have to anchor the over-the-topness to something genuine. I think a badly written Pinkie is just throwing random comments into a story because that's Pinkie and that's what she does. But that's NOT what Pinkie does. Pinkie makes ponies smile and laugh, and crazy zaniness is merely one arrow in her quiver. Sure it stands out the most, but if you disconnect it from that core purpose it becomes annoying rather than endearing. It also helps if the reader can understand her thought process. That sounds odd, since she's known for having a rather bizarre one, but what I mean is that looking in from the outside you can see the strings of improbable logic she's using. She doesn't always have to be over the top. Giving her understandable worries and motivations that peek through the saccharine stuff goes a long way. In this case, it was worry that her employer's business would go under or she'd be replaced as their daughter figure by their actual kids. Those are pretty grounded, relatable concerns. My point is that you don't have to pick between silly Pinkie and mature Pinkie, they're perfectly comfortable existing together in the character.

16. I think your comment on fluff just blew my mind. I was always told to try to cut the fluff and make everything tight and full of conflict. But if fluff is there to make us care about the stakes and the characters in conflict, I might end up having to tell authors to add fluff to their stories. Scary thought. I guess too much fluff is just a problem with pacing: we've seen enough that we're invested in things, but the plot isn't moving along. How does the fluff level in this story compare to the other stories you've written?

As for fluff, well, that's kinda a pejorative term for slower, more relaxed character-building moments. None of it should be there just for the sake of being there. It's still advancing the story and the relationships. I think another key is not to start to repeat yourself. Like, I have one scene of Main Course and Scootaloo playing Frisbee in the park. If I tried to put a scene like that in every chapter, it would start to get repetitive and people would start wanting to skip ahead. I can say they make it part of a weekly routine or something, but if I'm going to include multiple scenes in the park they'd better be different enough to justify each one's existence.

All my longer stories have it to some degree or another, otherwise your reader never gets a chance to slow down and catch their breath, and the characters start to feel less like people and more like pieces on a chess board that the story is cynically maneuvering to put them where it wants them to be. Those other stories were more action oriented so there was less of it. Actually, I'd say my 'exception that proves the rule' is You Can Fight Fate, at least the first four chapters of it, which were very 'go go go don't stop keep moving' (for both in-story and meta reasons) and frankly the story was a bit of a step down from Stitch in Time. Even Hard Reset had the loops where Twilight gave up trying to solve the main problem of the time loop to gorge herself on donuts (For science!), have tea with Chrysalis, and beat a bunch of changelings to death with a baseball bat. Hell, the baseball bat even ended up basically becoming a recurring character.

And you know, even though you obviously need conflict to keep things interesting and stir the pot, I think it's the slower, quieter moments that, if they're done well, are what sticks with your readers after they walk away from the story. Ask anyone who read Fate which parts they remember better: The recruitment of NMM and Discord leading into the attack on Canterlot, or Star Swirl's bratty teenage daughter and 'Well, that worked.'

Report amacita · 973 views ·
Oct
19th
2013

Through the Well of Pirene is HiE done right, and I’m very proud to see it on Equestria Daily. In this interview, Ether Echoes explains what makes it different, and just how he managed to write one that impressed two EqD pre-readers and Seattle’s Angels.


1. What inspired you to write Through the Well of Pirene? How does it differ from the usual HiE story?

I've always had a fascination for the idea of sending a human into Equestria or sending a pony to Earth. Back when I first got into the fandom, though, I ran into a number of HiE fics which really burned me on the idea – it seemed like every fic I came across was bland, ludicrous, derivative, or simply poorly written. There's a forest of self-inserts out there, whole deserts dotted with 'brony in Equestria' garbage, and more 'human turns into a canon character' fics than you can shake a pony tail at.

I'm sure there's good examples out there, but I've never really found one that hit every note I've wanted. Article 2 is probably the only one I didn't instantly dislike, but it was about military character (overdone) who was hyper-violent (chucking ponies around like nothing, somehow) and featured some questionable behavior on the part of the canon characters (too many to list.)

Thus, to a very large extent, I was inspired to write a Human in Equestria fic because I thought I could do one better.

Pirene differs in a few ways I find to be substantial. First of all, I took the effort to not merely develop a cast, but to develop a plot that was intimately tied to the idea of humans and ponies sharing a history together. Moreover, I wanted the plot to be worthy of young adult fiction (or even a semi-decent paperback fantasy novel.) Second is that I make sure everyone has something to learn, that everyone has something at stake. This isn't a human blundering into Equestria and their experience of a static world, this is me going step-by-step in showing how a person should adapt to new circumstances and a serious plot that's been planned out from the beginning to tie the events together.

I love fish-out-of-water stories, so I give that primacy with the ponified Daphne and Amelia, but ultimately that can't be the entire purpose of your HiE story, or you're just retreading old ground.

It's also important to mention my personal positive inspirations for Pirene. Top of the list are: Labyrinth, Dark Crystal, and Narnia. Each of these inspired some critical aspect of the seed that became Pirene, even if it is no longer always clear what belongs where.

2. What were you aiming for with Daphne and Amelia? How did you distinguish them from the run-of-the-mill HiE characters (e.g. self-inserts)?

With Daphne, the 'primary' protagonist if you will, she was always intended to be the bored socialite with a deeper past than even she understood. Her boundless imagination is a source of embarrassment to her in the first chapter, but it quickly becomes clear that it defines her entire existence in ways she's tried very hard to suppress. In that way, Daphne is meant to a bright light that has been blinded – there's a curtain between Daphne and her inner self, and every so often it shines through. There's bitterness to her, but there's also a great deal of warmth and compassion.

Amelia, on the other hand, is a bright light who has never been dimmed, and indeed has never seriously encountered limits. Where Daphne's luster has been dirtied, bruised, and grounded, Amelia knows no limitations. She was meant to be a foil for her sister, even if they spent pretty much the entire story apart. Where Daphne struggles every day with being an alien creature, Amelia revels in it. Where Daphne has to fight her own inhibitions and worry about consequences, Amelia explodes from event to event with atomic force.

It is worth noting that this strength is also Amelia's weakness. While her willfulness may have propelled her out of one form of danger, it lands her in others, and her reaction to circumstances forms a key part of the narrative.

It's worth mentioning at this point that I have a third protagonist, who is only introduced in Chapter 7. Leit Motif, Daphne's long lost friend, is damaged goods like Daphne, only she never had the burning passion within her that allowed Daphne to at least remain functional. Ironically, she is the only one not born human – depressed pones are adorable, though.

The key to making a good HiE character is to make a good character. Tautologies aside, the main reason HiE characters fall short is that they're usually one-dimensional, are poorly established, and rarely capture audience interest.

There's one other thing I did that I think makes a big difference here: make the characters self-aware without it being a self-referential fic. Daphne, Leit Motif, and – to a lesser extent – Amelia are all aware that the world around them is a little strange at times, but they aren't simply reacting. They're planning, thinking, trying to figure things out. I'm not doing that just for the audience's sake – I'm considering how characters would realistically react to their given circumstances.

All three characters – though again, Amelia to a lesser extent, see her characterization as a somewhat wild and impulsive character – are also aware of their own flaws, and are working to overcome them, even if they need a prod in the right direction.

3. If character is who a person is, characterization is how you show us. In the early chapters, what did you do to quickly characterize Daphne and Amelia, and make them immediately interesting and likeable?

In a word? Comedy.

If it weren't for the fact that Daphne and Amelia are occasionally quite silly, they would both be pretty insufferable. Daphne is a reforming social clique girl and Amelia is a little brat, while both of them are too smart for their own good. Even Leit Motif, who is about as cheerful as a bag of knives, has moments where schadenfreude cuts into her serious narrative and leavens the mood.

There's more to it, of course. In Chapter 1, not only do Daphne and Amelia play off their environment and each other in a somewhat comedic fashion, but you get to see insights into who they are and what they're about by how they act and react to events. Sure, Daphne can be a little shallow, but you quickly learn that there's a lot of repressed passion and creativity in her that's bursting at the seams. She laments for a friend she believes never existed, and as the story goes on she gathers allies and finds her own strength again.

Amelia, on the other hand, gets to revel in her own cleverness in a way that Daphne has lost. She demonstrates her latent intellect and passionate nature early on, but that's not really what draws people to her, I think. Amelia is not only clever and quick to grasp events surrounding her, but she's subversive as well, never quite looking at things the same way other people do. The key is not to make a character like this irritating – it's far too easy to make a shallow character with boilerplate 'odd' tendencies, rather than a living breathing character who has an alarmingly different point of view.

Also, I'm going to throw the audience a couple bones:

Some people have noticed that Amelia's vocabulary, and particularly her internal narration, is alarmingly precocious for an eight year-old girl. This is due to two factors:

1) As she points out herself at one point, her reading comprehension level is well above her grade. This isn't really as uncommon as people think – a lot of kids, even in our abysmal educational system, start reading early and well. This helps them develop in ways that others might not. Consider the Cutie Mark Crusaders, who are of her age, and their combination of dim childish idiocy and brilliant precocious talent.

2) The parts of her precociousness that can't be explained by being ahead of herself isn't a mistake on my part. It's foreshadowing. And that's all I'll say on that matter~!

4. I love the dialogue in this story. Not only does each character have their own unique voice, but it changes depending on who they're speaking to. Daphne to Marcus is different from Daphne to Amelia, etc. Do you have any advice for writing dialogue? And how do you make it funny?

It's important to discuss exactly what their voices are, which also aids tremendously in the construction of the the first person narrative as well, which leads to a very specific piece of advice:

Give each character a specific tone.

Daphne has a somewhat sardonic, mid-range voice that's always pointing out problems and seeking solutions. She likes to dig deep and solve problems.

Leit Motif has a husky, deep voice that's very feminine, but in a contemplative, soul-searching way. She analyzes and picks things apart. She does this not for any specific purpose, but because dissection allows her to process events in a way she finds easiest to digest. At the same time, she's sensitive and emotionally vulnerable.

Amelia sparks. She's got a little girl's voice, sure enough, but it's higher than it needs to be, because Amelia's brain is working faster than her mouth does. When they come, they erupt from her in a torrent that often tumbles words one atop the other. As her sentences go on, they acquire a higher pitch because she's trying to cram in yet more information.

The other part of your question, how they interact with others, is a little more complicated. The key is that these individual voices, in combination with their histories, informs me of their personality. From that, I extrapolate what they're thinking about at any given time by putting myself in their shoes.

When you're writing any sort of character, you need to get into their head, simulating their senses, memories, and emotions to get an idea of what they're feeling, and this is doubly appropriate when they're dealing with another character!

When Daphne is interacting with Naomi, she's seeing her past history with her. Naomi and Daphne have been friends since they were little girls, and they say things to one another that they'd never say to anyone else, simply because they trust and understand each other so well.

When Daphne is addressing Marcus, the shards of their recent breakup are cutting at both of them. They're united in a shared purpose, but they're not willing to see the good in one another.

Leit's interactions are always tinged with jealousy and loneliness. She wants to crawl back into her shell, but no one is letting her, and worse, there are these strangers coming to take away all the things that she loves!

Amelia, now, I always have to remember that when she views the world, she's looking for cracks to fit herself into. Daphne tries to pull situations apart to solve them and Leit Motif so she can understand them. but when Em pulls something apart, it's so she can worm through. She's an explorer at heart, far more so than her sister Daphne, whose imagination is great but whose caution limits her.

Daph and Leit may listen to someone to understand and empathize with them, but Amy is listening for information she can use. Sometimes, this is information she can use against them. Look forward to Chapter 10, where some of this will be displayed very clearly.

5. You have some interesting lore in your story: the goblin city, the Morgwyn, the enchanted river, this mythical Golden Bridle. How do you come up with this stuff, and how do you work it into your story effectively? Do you have any worldbuilding advice for people?

This brings us back to my influences, and I would add to the earlier literary/movie influences (Labyrinth, Dark Crystal, Narnia) my passionate love for mythology. If you look up the word 'Pirene,' you will see that she is a nymph of a spring (or well) which is a key part of the legend of Bellerophon, whence came Pegasus. The Golden Bridle comes from the same legend, and is a magical gift that allowed Pegasus to be controlled and mounted.

That's really not the end of it, though. I am a historical enthusiast, and particularly the history and practice of magic throughout the ages. Pirene is embedded not only with mythology and literature, but a measure of occult lore as well. Consider, if you will, the imagery that Daphne experiences in Chapter 5: A Whole New World, and wonder for a minute just how accidental all of this actually is. Consider the nature of the Wand King and the stained glass windows in his throne room in Chapter 6: The Stage.

Ah, but that's not all! I'm also very found of faerie stories, particularly the old, authentic ones, or best-try modern recreations thereof. The Goblins derive a lot from changeling myths, and the Morgwyn in particular draws on notions of a shadowy hunter that always delivers what it promises – yet, at what cost? Things being generally 'enchanted' are a central part of this mythos, and I aim to capture that.

There's also another bit I'd like to point out:

Internal history

You can really see the Labyrinth influences in the goblin city, but that's only a portion of it. They're a bit of a fantasy pastiche, admittedly, but what makes the goblin city feel real is the fact that I know what the goblins are, where they come from, what they are doing, and why they are doing it.

That river, the one that, despite its gaping loopholes, bars humans from Equestria? That's derived in part from the river outside Rivendell, which Elrond could command to protect his city from attack. It has its own specific history and purpose. The Bridle and the Veil are an intimate part of the human-pony connection that astute readers should pay attention to!

While I'm in the habit of throwing bones... There are three major villains in this fic, just thought you should know~!

6. Another pre-reader said that TtWoP has some of the best atmosphere he's ever read in the fandom. When Daphne is in the forest, and Amelia is in the goblin city, it feels real. How do you do it?

I'd actually refer you back to the bit on character voices and my inspirations for this story and say that the points addressed there are a good start.

You need to be able to put yourself in a character's head and understand the nature and history of your environment. Like everything else here, though, there is always more to it.

Generating atmosphere is probably one of my favorite things to do as an author (you know, on top of all those other things I love.) This is also probably the hardest one for me to convey in simple terms. Atmosphere is created not merely by the voice you're using, but, for lack of a better term, the music.

When I put myself in mind for a scene, one where the emotion and vibe is meant to be conveyed in a more subtle fashion than description, I have to immerse myself in the environment. At that point, I start putting it to a sound track of sorts. I can't always use external music/songs to help me, either, because it has to be very internal, extremely unique to the scene. It doesn't help that I'm tone deaf, anyway, so my internal soundtrack is usually more helpful anyway~!

I do think of it in terms of orchestral composition, though. When you're building up tension, you need to start sawing at people's nerves. When a scene calls for awe or elevated comprehension, you need a soaring theme. If you want to punctuate events and leave a lasting impression, you need a certain finality.

In one of my other fics, Them, there comes a time when it seems as if the hero, Rainbow Dash, has failed. She's grievously injured, and she's falling from the sky. I used short, pointed sentences separated by paragraphs, bringing what had been a blow-by-blow narrative to quick, crushing ends. I varied my use of language, making it seem as if hope was lost without ever saying so. When she refused to give up, I gave the sentences a dogged note of determination, but tinged with hints of hopelessness.

I use this same idea all the time in Pirene, and if I had the skill I'd put it all to a theme.

That's how I think I get my atmosphere. Maybe some sharp-eyed literary critic will correct me on that. I'd actually point to GrassandClouds2 as an author on FimFic who seems to be using the same technique. I certainly feel it when I read his work.

7. What did you do to make the goblin city seem like a real part of Equestria? Like it's always been there, and has its own people and history every bit as real as the ponies?

Isn't it funny when you ask this question, how in a sense this is the most OC part of the entire fic?

Consider for a minute: not only do I throw a human, or even a cast of humans, into Equestria, but I bring forth an entire species and whole worlds outside either planet! Who the heck does something like that?

Even before the entire plot of Pirene had crystallized in my mind, the goblins were there. When I supposed that Equestria was a world apart from Earth, I knew that it wouldn't be the only world. I knew that these worlds were far apart in spirit, with barriers that are shockingly close when you think about them, but which the inhabitants never approach. Equestria's barriers are within the Everfree Forest, lethally dangerous and hard to navigate. Earth's version of the Everfree is safer, but very few people ever find their way to other worlds, and those who do often don't return – devoured by monsters, the River, or simply lost and unable to come home.

The goblins and their city fit into Equestria because they fit into the wider narrative I have placed Equestria in. They are the outcasts, the Roma of the worlds, who fit into the cracks and hidden places. Goblins are everywhere because they can blend in so well.

More specifically, the goblin city does itself possess more than a little of the whimsy that fuels Equestria. Goblins are a little rough, but they have a good-natured camaraderie about them that fits the aesthetic of Equestria extremely well. Their lives are a little silly, but they're silly creatures in a way, ruled by strange magic and operating under strange rules. In a large sense, they bridge the gap between Equestria and Earth – appropriate for creatures with a toe across the line in either land.

That's a running theme in this interview, you may be noticing – create a deep backstory and let it shine through your work. Don't infodump; let it reveal itself bit-by-bit, and people will reward you.

I'd say look forward to Amelia's upcoming chapters. Not only is she going to explore goblin history, but she's going to be visiting one of their most important cities and crossing grounds, with friends both new and familiar to us.

I just completed a huge amount of work putting together a setting bible for Pirene. It helped to solidify a number of things which had previously been uncertain.

8. Do you have any advice on how to write a good first person narrative?

As for a first person narrative, remember that there is a certain level of... conceit might be the best way to put it, especially with past tense. It demands that the narrator remember events to an alarming degree of detail and yet not hint too much about what is to come. It offers challenges because you can't get out in order to look at someone else's head. There are times where I would have found it extremely useful to show an event neither Daphne nor Amelia could have seen. I have to restrain myself and try to hint in creative ways instead.

At the same time, this is the ideal way to dig into the head of a character. If you don't overdo it, you can really settle readers into the narrative and get them engaged in the characters.

Really, though, if you're going to write first person, make sure your perspective character is someone interesting to live in. They don't need to be nice, brilliant, or even very functional, just a fascinating character of their own accord. We can forgive a lot of weirdness for a character we like.

9. What part of the story has been the hardest to write, so far?

I'd have to say Leit Motif's parts. She was a difficult character to get into.

A lot of this difficulty, actually, was in dealing with the advice of separate prereaders. There was at least one prereader (a personal friend of mine) who thought I was going exactly the wrong direction, but I knew I had to ignore his advice this time. I'm glad I did, because the result was very fulfilling for me personally and for many of the readers. His advice has been very helpful in other places, of course; Leit is just a difficult character.

In a way, this is a reflection of something I find generally hard: starting. Not so much planning and the like, but the first few words of any given piece is always the most difficult. This is because, to a large extent, the events of a chapter may be known to me, all of the characters may be known, but the exact flow and pace of the chapter is lost until I've had a chance to sit on it and really feel it.

Leit Motif was hard because she was a new, very different voice, and also the star of one of two of the most emotionally powerful scenes in the fic. I had to go over them again and again to hit the right notes.

10. Do you have any advice for authors trying to get published, or trying to get onto Equestria Daily?

Yes! So very yes.

A few things, in fact, permit me to itemize them:

1) Have an idea and plot it out before writing it. You don't need to know everything in exquisite detail ahead of time – there are parts of Pirene that only revealed itself to me after I had started. Amelia, for example, was both younger and had a lot less agency, even though her role was very similar. Though the climax was always clear to me, many parts of the ending and the events leading up to it had to be shaken out as I went along. Having a strong idea of a plot and narrative structure is crucial to writing a good story, though.

2) Crack down on yourself and produce, even if something isn't working. Sometimes, finishing something down the line helps you to go back and fix things that were wrong in the first place. This is generic advice, but it's how I've written a chunk of a novel instead of just a few pages.

3) Be willing to revise things. I don't do this nearly as much as a friend of mine, but, then, I tend to know what's right with a story the first time. The trick is refining it to the right standards, which brings me to the single most important piece of advice:

4) Get a good editor and stick with him or her. I found Morning Angles and he has been utterly crucial. I could have finished Pirene without him, because I have a strong and consistent vision, but I work at my best when I have someone who is willing to go the distance with me. Not only does he fix my errors, but he allows me to bounce ideas off him and refine them into something even better. He works with me, not against me, like some editors I've seen. He'll tell me when I'm doing something wrong, but he gets why I make those errors and he'll suggest ways to do things differently. I can't emphasize enough how that's made Pirene thrive. He checks over every sentence, and it's not done until it's done.

Report amacita · 969 views ·
Oct
4th
2013

Uniformity is one of my favourite adventure stories in this fandom: epic scope, a conflict-filled romance, and a mystery that only deepens the further you read.

For me, one of the most intriguing parts was how adcoon took old fandom tropes—Lyra, humans, and a Lyra/Bon Bon ship—and told an entirely different kind of story. Yes, this story has a “human” tag, but it’s like nothing you’ve seen before. And the ship is the opposite of the typical fluff we usually see: it’s slow and rocky, and at times you wonder if their relationship will survive at all.

In this interview, I asked adcoon how he made his story so awesome, and he gives some thorough and insightful answers.

Bold is Amacita; regular text is adcoon.


1. What inspired you to write Uniformity?

I can't remember what inspired the original idea about Lyra, perhaps it was just a random brainwave, but at some point I got the idea that I wanted to write a story about Lyra having this particular secret and Bonbon finding out about it. It was originally thought to be a very different story, less adventure and more sad.

But I seem to get way more ideas than I can write, so I had a bunch of other story fragments at the time that I wasn't sure what to do with. For example, I wanted to write a story about Rainbow Dash and Lightning Dust in the desert, with Dash writing back to Twilight about the experience. And I wanted to write a story about a young Celestia adventuring to find the great firebird Roc, and how that led to her controlling the sun and getting Philomena as a pet. I had no idea how Luna would fit into that, which was a bit of a concern, admittedly.

As I was trying to flesh out the Lyra story, I got the idea of incorporating and refitting these other stories into it, and that's how it all came together to become this grand adventure. It took a lot of thinking to get all the different pieces to fit together and make sense, but it was certainly worth it.

2. Could you tell us what you did with Lyra and Bon Bon to make them more than just the same ponies we see in fanon all the time? What did you do to "make them your own"?

Bonbon has a few scenes in the show, and she's usually a bit of a jerk. I tried to keep that. Lyra has even less canon personality, but she often comes across as very emotional to me. Along with the fanon of a potential romance between them and Lyra's human interests, this was my base for them.

Beyond that I treated them like I would an OC in the same roles. Lyra was shaped a lot by her secrets and her past, which automatically made her somewhat different from other Lyras in the fandom. I also gave her a slight tendency to talk in questions, especially when she's relaxed and happy. It's not a strong character trait that I enforce strictly, but I try to keep it in mind as a bit of occasional spice.

Bonbon had less of a past to shape her personality, so she was mostly defined by her stubborn pursuit of Lyra and her tendency to be a pushy jerk, but I knew that deep down she had to be extremely dependable, loyal and caring, a true friend who just doesn’t always know how to be tactful.

3. How do you see Lyra and Bon Bon's relationship in Uniformity?

Their relationship is a tragedy. By all rights they should be together, but then it would be a very short story. Lyra likes Bonbon too, but she's terrified of letting anypony get close to her, and Bonbon's pushing only makes her more defensive and desperate. Lyra never intended to become such a close friend with Bonbon, but her heart betrayed her, and now she's getting frightened and feels she has to end it.

But Bonbon is nothing if not stubborn and loyal to a fault. She won't be turned away by anything. She will stay by Lyra no matter what, even if Lyra doesn't want her to, like Samwise to Lyra's Frodo. It's tragic, but perhaps there is hope that they can overcome the barrier between them.

4. With Uniformity, you didn't just cave in to the urge to just to put Lyra and Bon Bon together and write fluff: there was a lot of serious conflict between them. What can you tell us about using conflict in a romance story?

Romance without conflict is like making love in several layers of winter clothes. It may be nice and warm and above all safe, but it's not going to get anyone very excited, and no one believes it's what people do in real life.

No love was ever easy, and all relationships are fraught with conflict. Moreover, conflict is what really drives a story. You can only read so many words in which nothing ever really goes wrong, where every potential danger or conflict turns out to be a dud or easily won, before you get really, really bored and stop reading.

Constantly challenge your characters. Don't let them have what they want without a fight. Take off your gloves and put on the brass knuckles instead. Don't pull any punches. Let them rise to the challenge and show you what they're really made of. Only that way can they truly shine, even if they fail.

5. One of my favourite parts of Uniformity was the sense of deep lore and mystery. What advice can you give to authors trying to do something similar? How do you do great worldbuilding? How do you evoke a sense a mystery?

Look for inspiration in the real world, in existing mythology, as well as in other fiction. It's famously hard to be truly original, but there's a world of ideas out there to be used. Be original in how you pick apart, reassemble and paint over existing ideas to make them your own expression.

But more importantly, make sure you tell these myths and legends like they're supposed to be told, not like an encyclopedic entry or listing of facts. Myths and legends are stories too, just like the rest of your story. They were told or even sung around the fire or in taverns by friends and strangers alike. They brought people together in the telling. Treat them like stories in their own right, put some meat on them and give them life. Have an interesting character tell them, and have other characters listen and participate in the telling, not just passively receive the facts.

6. Uniformity hooked me by continually raising questions and, instead of answering them right away, raising new ones. I had some vague hints about things as I went along, but it wasn't until the end of the first plot arc (some 45,000 words in) that I really got some answers. Can you talk about the techniques you used to do this?

The characters are key. If you know your characters really well, then the mysteries tend to unravel naturally of their own. Make sure every character knows something, but not everything. Give different characters different secrets, different knowledge and roles, different motivations, different levels of willingness to share their information with different people. If one character knows everything, then it becomes a simple question of when said character spills all the beans, and if you want to maintain any sense of mystery then that has to happen near the end, which may require a lot of heavy-handedness to ensure. Not to mention that a character who knows everything is a boring character.

Try not to force a mystery to stay a mystery if it wants to be revealed, it'll just feel artificial. Let answers come when it's natural for them to come, and instead let those answers lead to different questions and new mysteries. I think it's best to keep focus on a few major mysteries at a time, but they can have some overlap, and sometimes one will take a backseat for a while.

In Uniformity there are probably six or seven major mysteries so far, but some of them only appear or take focus as others begin to unravel, and some of them are obviously related. Most of them focus around one particular character. What's going on with Lyra, and what happened on Hearth's Warming Eve? What's Dash's reason for being on this journey? What's up with Trixie, and what happened in Manehattan? What are Scootaloo and Luna up to? What's up with Bonbon's dreams? Who or what is following them in the mountains?

The key is to keep things fresh.

7. Uniformity is one of the few human stories that I actually like, and it's way different from most HiEs. Why did you do it the way you did, and what advice would you give to someone who wants to write a human story that's "different from all the other HiEs"?

I knew I wanted an epic adventure of the classic sort, the kind of story where a bunch of mostly clueless friends venture into the unknown on a quest for faraway lands. And I knew I wanted a story about Lyra and humans.

But I'm not a huge fan of the HiE concept myself, except as comedy, and I think that helped. It's the "I can do better" thinking. By writing something which you're not a great fan of, you try not to do what everyone's done before. You automatically attempt to see it differently in order to make it work for you. If you make something you normally don't like work for you, then almost by definition it will be different from the rest.

8. Uniformity is pretty epic, as is appropriate for an adventure story. We have haunted tunnels, snow-swept mountains, and there's tons of danger. What advice do you have for people who want to write an epic adventure?

Look at a map. Look at the places that aren't marked with many names, or which don't feature a lot in other stories, and think to yourself, "I wonder what amazing things someone would see if they went there."

I remember when reading Lord of the Rings and looking at the included map of Middle Earth, I always found my eyes wandering off to that big lake north of Mordor. Rhûn, it says, and that's all it says, and as far as I know it's never mentioned. I just stare at that mysterious lake and say "Whoa!"

Adventure is all about exploring the unknown, the hidden places. It's pretty easy with a blank spot on a map, but the trick is to apply this same sense of wonder to any place, even the middle of a bustling metropolis. What is behind this old door? Beyond this wall? What is hidden from sight, possibly in plain sight? If you can imagine that, then you have your adventure.

It's easy for an adult to look and say, "well, there are some mountains there, and that's just some old man living there." But as a child, even that hedge over there is a mystery. What is behind that hedge? And maybe the old man is secretly an evil wizard who summons dark spirits in his basement! Try to look at the world you're writing in and think like a child.

Ignore the easy answers. Forget your first impulse.

9. Could you share a bit about your writing process? How do you plan and edit something like this?

I like writing to be an adventure in itself. I want to be surprised just as much as the reader by what happens and where the story goes. The greatest moments of writing are when the characters take you by the hand and lead you on an adventure that you never could have planned, and I think that will shine through and feel more authentic for the reader a s well.

The one thing I try to do is to know my characters, because they will be driving the entire story. I work out what they each know (and don't know!) about the world and about each other, and what they each want. What are their goals? Their driving force? How do they feel and react to things and situations? Once I know that I just have to provide them with a scene, and they'll take over from there.

I plan how the story begins, the events leading up to the opening scene, the first few moments, and what it's all about. I also make sure I have a working idea for a resolution, an ending to work towards, but how that actually plays out will depend on the characters and their choices along the way. Hopefully everyone will be surprised.

I usually start each chapter with a rough outline of events, just two or three lines describing each section to myself. Then I just start writing from the beginning. I can’t write out of order, I need to write one section before I can write the next one. I don't pay attention to mistakes or whether something doesn't work, I just keep writing until I hit the end of the chapter.

Then I go back and start editing from the beginning until I hit the end. I repeat that process, rereading and editing from start to finish until I find myself only fixing minor mistakes. Then I send it off to a friend for review and do a few more passes based on their critique.

10. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors, especially those trying to get published on EqD?

Write the whole thing before you start publishing chapters. This is a mistake I have made and is making, and so that's the one piece of advice I'd like to give to fanfic writers in particular.

It's tempting with fanfiction to write a chapter and publish it right away before moving on to the next, but I'm a firm believer that you can't really know your story before you've written it to completion. Once you reach the late chapters, you will find yourself wanting to go back and change certain things based on what you've learned in the process. Doing so with chapters that have already been published is no fun to anyone.

It also ensures that once you do publish the first chapter, you're going to actually finish the story. Who hasn't started reading a great story, only for it to go on indefinite hiatus in the middle? No one likes that.

I could give a lot of advice, but bottom line is this: Be persistent, be observant, and be thoughtful. Read a lot, including what people have to say about writing, and think about what you're reading. Look at the world around you, and think about everything you see. Listen to people and yourself, and think about everything you hear or say. Seek out art and music for inspiration, learn or practice new skills, fill your life with new impressions.

If you do this, then pretty soon you can make your own list of advice.

I've submitted eight stories to EqD now and had six of them published. Two of them got rejected twice, one of which finally made it through on the third attempt, and it was a painful experience in both cases. But the one thing to keep in mind is that it's a chance to get better, and if you're truly passionate about anything, then pain and hard work is unavoidable.

Making mistakes is part of life, part of experience. No one ever stops making mistakes, because never making mistakes is a mistake in itself, meaning that you've stopped trying at all. Keep at it, see through the pain, and you will come out in the end as a better you.

Report amacita · 520 views ·
Oct
3rd
2013

Letting Your Mane Down” impressed me by telling a funny story about Twilight getting a manecut. If that’s not slice-of-life, I don’t know what is.

How did TheBandBrony make it interesting? It wasn’t about the manecut; it was about Twilight’s anxieties about being Equestria’s newest princess. After all, a princess’s hair has to be perfect, right? And if the hairdresser slips up even a little bit, she’ll be a laughingstock.

The story is mostly just Twilight sitting down at the barber shop, getting a cheap haircut, and worrying about things. It’s hard to imagine why this could possibly be interesting, but for me, Twilight’s anxieties were concrete and immediate, and that, plus some humour, was enough to sustain my interest over a 5,000 word short story.

In this interview, I talk with TheBandBrony about “Letting Your Mane Down”, slice-of-life in general, and his impressions after getting his tenth story posted to Equestria Daily.

Bold is Amacita; regular text is TheBandBrony.


What inspired you to write “Letting Your Mane Down”?

The inspiration came in a singular moment during my most recent haircut when I swore the barber was attempting to chop off my face with his scissors. Last time I ever trust a five-dollar haircut.

What was the hardest part to get right?

The ending. Mercy, mercy, mercy, the ending. As far as fics go, this one was one of the ones I sat down to write at eight in the evening and didn't stop until I finished at one the next evening. I had gotten everything down in one take—except for the ending. I came back to it the next day, then the next, then the next, for about a week, thinking that a nice conclusion would just slide right out of my head and onto the screen. Finally, I got frustrated and just pounded out the little, "Just a manecut?" bit and called it a day. Applejack didn't do much, Twilight didn't learn her trademark Very Important Lesson, and I felt frustrated.

If I remember right, the ending was the biggest problem you found in the fic structure-wise. In a way, I'm glad you made me nix it and do it again.

One thing I noticed about your story... it's all internal conflict. We just have Twilight sitting around, getting her mane cut, and thinking about things. How did you write that and make it interesting?

Your guess is as good as mine!

I tried to write it in such a way that there were no terrifyingly long stretches of internal dialogue, that all the thoughtful, slower bits were offset by more whimsical, comedic action to keep things from getting dull. I tried my best to play Twilight's thoughts off the actions going on around her.

That sounds pretty reasonable. And it wasn't all getting her mane cut. 2,800 words getting her mane cut, 500 adjusting the front, 600 getting Clean Cut to take her money, 700 trying to sneak home, then talking to Applejack. And each of those allowed you to explore your theme in a different way.

Did it really take six hundred words to convince Clean Cut to take the bits? Goodness, perhaps I should have just used the "shut up and take my money" meme.

No no, it was fantastic. I loved that part. It's some really great insight into Twilight's character and princesshood.

Why thank you!

You've written 40 stories. 18 of them are slice of life. What makes a good slice of life story? What does slice of life even mean?

Wow, forty already? How the time flies.

Lots of people like to define slice-of-life because it's seemingly easy to define. It's a story that features everyday adventures where characters don't really wander all that far from the norm, and that's that, right? The thing is, the best of those everyday adventures, no matter how seemingly mundane, will still leave you feeling like you've scaled Mount Everest or tamed a wild lion in the plains of Africa. That's what I aspire towards when writing slice of life stories: to make the reader feel like, through doing something simple, they can achieve something extraordinary.

For me, the best slice of life stories have some kind of character growth at the end. If you can write a friendship report about it, you've probably got a good SoL story.

That's a good indicator.

What are your thoughts on Twilight?

Purple Smarts is, as far as characters go, a pretty nifty one. I find her compelling to write about mainly because when I write about her, I find myself writing about me. The morals to her stories (the one about rejection in “Letting Your Mane Down”, especially) will often mirror the morals to mine. Writing about her learning things often leads to me learning things.

Plus, purple's my favorite color. I can't go wrong!

Like Equestria Girls, “Letting Your Mane Down” deals with Twilight’s feelings about suddenly being a princess, although in different ways. Can you talk about that?

From what I've seen in Equestria Girls, Twilight seemed almost reluctant to accept the crown, not because she was afraid of the responsibility it entailed but from the ostracization that wearing it might cause. She's not afraid of running a nation—she's afraid of not being able to walk around town without being bowed at a million times and offered preferential treatment. I did my best to play off that point as humorously as possible so as not to crush the point (the, "As princess of Equestria, I command you to take my bits," line comes to mind), though at some point it took on a life of its own.

You've gotten at least 10 stories posted on EqD. Do you have any advice for people trying to get their stories posted?

Don't think of blunt critique as negative, because it isn't. If someone types up even a single sentence showing you how to improve, odds are they care about your story enough that they want to see it shine.

Also, PRACTICE. Holy Gosh, practice.

I don't know where people get the ludicrous idea that writing is somehow separate from any other skill-set, in that it doesn't require practice in order to improve. Just like you can't hit a double-high C the first time you pick up a trumpet, you won't be able to write The Great Gatsby Two: The Return of Owl Eyes the first time you put pen to paper. Writing talent is not inherent. Only dedicated work and practice will make it better.

That's some really good advice. What has your experience been like working with EqD pre-readers?

I've been utterly terrified every time of getting a pre-reader that conforms to the ugly stereotype of being rude and dismissive. So far, I have found none like that. I've worked with... gosh, I want to say around fifteen of you guys in my time, and I've never gotten that fabled "bad pre-reader" experience.

It's intimidating, to be sure—after all, they're a large group of experienced writers who are absolutely better than me in most every way—but I've found that they challenge me to rise to the occasion and improve myself to meet the standards they hold.

Pre-reader quotes—what do you think of them? Are they important to you? You've had a few stories posted with a quote and a few without.

Pre-reader quotes do a great job of highlighting the best qualities of a fic they're endorsing. Often times, I'll be drawn to a story by the pre-reader quote more so than the actual description. I like to think of them as an extra stamp of assurance that, hey, this story's really good.

Plus, they give me a nice little confidence boost whenever they end up on my own stories. You know you're doing something right when you get a pre-reader quote.

Report amacita · 256 views ·
Jul
31st
2013

Zenith is the best story I’ve ever read about Spike, and it’s one of my favourite fanfics ever. It’s heartwrenching, beautiful, and breathtakingly epic. The Descendant’s professional life involves working with children, and he brings that experience to Zenith, painting a vision of Spike so compelling that it completely redefined the way I see him. In this interview, The Descendant explains that vision, and in doing so gives a ton of advice for authors wanting to write child characters.


1. Do you have any advice for authors writing child characters?

In general, authors make two mistakes when writing for children. They either portray them as smaller adults, or as dullards. I have worked with thousands of children in my life, and I can assure you that the overwhelming majority of them are neither.

Do me a favor. Spend a few minutes sitting on the floor. You are now looking at the world through the eyes of a four year old. See how high-up everything is? See how far away everything seems? A child's world is limited in size and scope, and far too many people still look at the world through an adult's eyes when writing children. The situation gets a little better as children age, but an author needs to keep limitations in mind. Remember how great it felt the first time you were allowed to take your bike out of the driveway? Suddenly the world felt massive and open, and suddenly you were a grand explorer... because you were allowed to ride to the end of the block and back. Once again, a child's world is limited in scope and range.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, not everyone under eighteen is an infant. Children's minds are not yet set, and as they encounter new things they attempt to categorize and appreciate them. Children have a sense of wonder at the ordinary, and they are, in many ways, more open to new ideas than adults. Children are not oblivious to their surroundings. Everyone can think of traumatic events or events that left an impression on them from their childhoods, and that's the way we were designed to be. Children have the same emotional range as adults, but too often writers only lets kids have two emotions... blissfully happy or crying. This is a shame, because kids often show their emotions more fully and with less self-consciousness than adults. Pensiveness, embarrassment, depression, all of the emotional aspects that writers love to show in adults are present in kids as well. Children have all of these emotions; all that they lack is the toolkit of experiences that they need to fully articulate them and deal with them.

2. What inspired you to write Zenith?

Well, first and foremost, it was the artwork of Lysok. When I saw his pieces Spike's Quest and Griffon's Lullaby I was startled by how closely they matched the "high fantasy" vision of Equestria that I've always used when I approached the series. I had to ask him for permission to write this story.

Second, I've always wanted to write an epic story about Spike. He's the most overlooked principal character in the series and in fan art and fan fiction. The kid has everything that he needs to be an "underdog hero", and saving Twilight, the character who means the most to him, was exactly what I needed. What makes Spike such an effective character is the fact that he doesn't have the capabilities of the rest of the cast, and that he is facing a world they have forgotten. He has to make little jumps to reach things that are high, that he grabs ahold of his tail when he's worried. He's a character caught in a moment when he still has a child's body, but has the intellect and spirit of someone much older. That is something that I've wanted to utilize in ways I hadn't before, in an epic fantasy story, and Zenith is that platform.

3. In your mind, what is Spike's relationship with Twilight, and how do you explore that in Zenith?

Well, let's start off by stating what, in my opinion, it is not.

We are far beyond the point in canon where anyone can reasonably suggest that Twilight only sees him as a slave, employee, or pet outside of a comedy or dystopian alternate reality. Still, Twilight has a bad habit of falling back into "supervisor mode" at the blink of an eye. Spike has responsibilities that no child would realistically be assigned (in Owl's Well it is revealed that he cooks for her, and he is essentially the library's janitor).

I think this state of not knowing "which Twilight", be it supervisor or friend, he's going to encounter from hour to hour shows on him, and is one reason why he's developed such a sarcastic personality.

They are best friends, that's obvious, even if Twilight did not recognize what that meant for most of her time in Canterlot. The fact that she says that Shining Armor was her "only friend" grates on me like a thousand house cats being taught to yodel. I can't help but think that Twilight is still Spike's best friend, but that since they came to Ponyville and she's learned what having friends is like, they are both closer and farther apart. She is showing him more tenderness, but she's now leaving him behind to do activities with "their" friends. Once again, it is not explored how Spike feels about having her go off to have fun, and the child is left not knowing who he is to her.

We don't have an episode that tells us how Spike feels about Twilight having picnics or going to parties with the other ponies, though we can safely assume that he (tried) to make himself the cake in Just for Sidekicks as a way of dealing with her leaving him behind. It's the constant change between friend, employee, and family, that the kid has a hard time dealing with. So, he becomes sarcastic and snarky as a way of acting out.

Now we get to the big two.

They share a lot of traits that siblings would have. They know each other's moods, and they aren't afraid to be snarky, loud, or even cynical with one another. They care deeply about one another, and have difficulty showing it at times. In many ways, Twilight's relationship with Spike is more typical of a "real" sibling relationship than her "blood" relation, Shining Armor, which feels almost too perfect and free of conflict to be believable. The problem here is that Spike has responsibilities that no sibling would have, and in the canon we see him acting as her equal far too often to assign him the "baby brother" role. They never refer to one another as "brother" or "sister" (except when Spike was speaking ironically in Winter Wrap-Up), and the hints at other aspects of their relationship are too strong to leave it in what otherwise would be the most obvious category.

And now, the heartbreaker... Twilight is not Spike's mom. As much as I adore stories like DarthLink22's Families and TheMyth's Longing, whenever I read him call her "Mom!" or "Mommy!" and her say "Son!" or "My baby!" my eyebrows arch a little. Despite the immense amount of work that these authors did, I can't quite wrap my head around the context that would be necessary for that to happen. Part of this is because Twilight makes a piss-poor mother.

Seriously.

Really.

If I asked a student what they did last night and he answered, "Well, my mom went into a fit of hysteria where she believed her actions would lead to the end of the world. When I tickled her to snap her out of it she threw me against the wall and I had to apologize" (It’s About Time), or "I was doing some math, and when I told the athlete that they hadn't done much better my mom hit me" (Hurricane Fluttershy), I'd be on the phone to the school principal and Child Protective Services before the last syllable had sounded from their lips.

Furthermore, Twilight is guilty of the great crime of any parent or caregiver... namely, withholding affection. She has never fully embraced him, and only gives him politically correct "half-hugs" or "side hugs". This would be tolerable if she did the same with the rest of the cast, but she hasn't. I grumbled when she wrapped Flash Sentry, a boy she'd known for a day, in a full hug right in front of Spike. Furthermore, at the conclusion of season three she told the girls that she loves them. Spike has never received those three most important words.

He told her that losing her love was what drove him to run away in Owl's Well, but her reply was a nuzzle and to tell him, essentially, "In my personal secretarial pool, you have seniority!" When Sombra's door showed her that his worst fear was being put away from her, being separated from her, she put him in another crappy "half hug" and told him, "That will never happen. You have tenure!"

This is not how a mother interacts with her child. There are some very famous stories in this fandom that show Twilight as a mother, but fail to address the way that she treated the child who was already under her care, and substitute another child for the role Spike has been denied over and over in canon. That bugs me a little.

Still...

Twilight has shown Spike tenderness and concern above what an employer, a sibling, or even a best friend would show. At the end of the day, even if they are even "half hugs", he's the character that she has hugged and nuzzled the most. She worries about him and shows him more tenderness as the series goes on. He rides along atop her as foals do with their mothers and siblings. In Dragon Quest, Ms. Faust's intent to have shown Celestia as Spike's mother figure are dashed when Twilight says that Spike was given to her when she hatched him, leaning us towards Twilight having been his primary caregiver most of his life (I personally like to think that Celestia and others were still present in his upbringing, especially during Twilight's youngest years). Spike has not only dealt with having a mother figure in Twilight who wasn't the epitome of motherly instincts, but also having her be not that much older than him, and has come out of it as an affectionate, caring, loving, happy child.

For someone like me, who works with kids and sees how their lives are shaped by their experiences, it says a lot about him, even if it is just a cartoon reality.

So, how do I see their relationship?

As we've just seen, there are no easy words that work. They aren't siblings. They are more than best friends. They are not parent and child. Yet, oddly enough, they are all of these things. Spike has always been with Twilight in her deepest, darkest moments. The first moment we meet him he's trying to help her make friends, and the last thing he says in the series is that she can't give up and that he believes in her. Spike's devotion to Twilight is so constant that when he doesn't believe her in Canterlot Wedding we are left scratching our heads and saying, "What?". Twilight relies on him. She believes in him and trusts him. Twilight treats Spike in a way that she does not treat any other character in the show, and she has never recoiled from his comforting touch. They are as close to one another as his doggie basket is to her bed.

So, how to describe their relationship. I always say that, whatever they are to one another, he's her little one, and she's his big one. They have a relationship built on shared experiences, familiarity, love, trust, and just a little bit of interdependence. This "indefinable we", this "Us", is what their relationship consists of, and no two other characters in the canon, or in many series I've watched, share such a unique relationship. In most mythology, unicorns and dragons are enemies, but here we see an adorkable, obsessive-compulsive character who is prone to fits of adorable insanity raising a snarky, sarcastic child of a different race, a different specie altogether, and somehow this has just worked!

That is a very important lesson to be told, that love supersedes all things, especially in this age of mixed families and foster children. That's what draws me to these two, what inspires me to make stories about them, and what keeps me active in the fandom.

4. How do you see Spike's relationship with Twilight changing now that she's a princess, and how did this affect Zenith?

Despite having individual moments sitting in my pre-writing. I was missing the crux of my story, the event that would send Spike off on this quest and make it so that only he could go. Alicorn Twilight was exactly what I needed, so that was fortunate that it happened when it did.

I think that Equestria Girls showed us a few things. It showed us that Twilight does have new responsibilities, that Spike is still trying  be useful to her, and that the characters work as teenaged high school girls (complete with shallow crushes). Throw his all together and we see that Twilight's life is changing.

I was inspired to write Zenith not because of anything that I saw last season or because of anything that was hinted at in EqG, but because of what I feel we aren't going to see. Everything ended up smiles and blushes at the end of EqG, and at the end of season three, so the "vibe" that I'm getting is that Twilight becoming an alicorn (or beginning a romantic relationship, possibly) won't be creating the type of conflict that it has immense potential to.

This is especially true for Spike.

A child's world is defined by routine. The first thing that a teacher tries to establish in the first days of school are the classroom rules and routines. If that is not established, a very special kind of anarchy will rule for the rest of the year. Spike's wants the best for Twilight, he loves her and wants her to be happy, but his world has now changed in a very fundamental way. Twilight has changed not only physically, but now has new roles and responsibilities. If she had to leave him alone to go to a meeting of Ponyville's Hay Council, then going off to attend to matters of state that last until the wee hours of the morning probably means that they are going to see less and less of one another, and that Spike is going to have to get used to going to bed alone.

In the real world, this is a very trying time for a child, and worrying. I remember trying very hard to get one student to tell me about his mother and how she was going to have a baby, as we knew something was interfering with his schoolwork. He broke down in tears. This wasn't a little kid either, but a fifth grader. His world was changing in ways that he could not control, and without the experiential emotional toolkit to help him deal with the situation, I... well, I broke him. That felt bad.

I honestly do not believe that the show staff will choose to deal with these issues. I do not feel that they will look at the realistic emotional toll that changes in the life of a principal caregiver has on a child. I can not see a scenario where Princess Twilight Sparkle takes the time to tell him that she loves him and that no matter how much her life changes that she always will.

Therefore, I decided that I would do it myself. Zenith is a story about change, about how there are right ways and wrong ways to deal with it. Spike, being a child and without the experiences to help him see the right and the wrong, will make a series of choices that will define his relationship to Twilight for the rest of the series (in my head, at least) and hopefully give the readers something to ponder.

5. The hospital scene in Zenith was the only hospital scene ever to make me cry. What did you do to make it so effective?

First of all, thank you for letting me know that it was that emotional for you! I'm glad that you found it so effective.

Put bluntly, I tried my best to write it from a child's perspective. From the first moment, Spike i already in over his head with this thing. He drops the glass, shattering it, and suddenly all of the things he's been trying so hard to hide from the adults become impossible to hide. He has to stretch and squirm to try to get a new one. He is shocked by the breach of trust when Pacemaker accidentally lets slip how long Spike has been at Twilight's bedside.

All of these things would be "big deals" in a child's eyes, and for Spike, who doesn't have Twilight to hide behind anymore, it means dealing with these problems without her. For the first time in his life, ponies are speaking to him directly and trying to get him to make hard choices, telling him that he must leave her. This is a story about Spike trying to function without Twilight. It goes poorly for him, at least at first.

6. Zenith also has one of the best synopses I've ever read. Just the scope and the strength of character it promises were enough to get me emotionally invested in the story, even before reading the first page. Do you have any advice for writing a good synopsis?

Heh, truth be told, I shocked myself with this one! I've always thought that the most effective synopsis in the fandom is "Rainbow Dash flies east," from Imploding Colon's Austraeoh. I tried to copy that feel with the first line of my synopsis, namely: "Once upon a time, Spike went for a walk." Still, I felt I needed more.So, I decided to speak in generalities. I let my readers know that there's a lot to come with this work, but I tried not to give too much away.

I think that this is the best description I've ever done, and I wish I could tell those who are still reading this and haven't given up yet what they could do to make successful synopsis. Let me say, there are some things I can recommend.

Capitalize your story's title appropriately. If you don't show your story respect, why should we?  Don't tell us that this is your first fic, that you know that there are errors, that there are certain shipping pairs, who your favorite pony is, etc., etc., etc., ad infinitum. You are telling us about the story, not you. If there's anything wrong, you should have taken measures to fix it, and anything else about the story should be shown in the story itself.

7. Do you have any thoughts on the CMC?

I've never tried to write a C.M.C. "We're gonna get our marks!" style story, mostly because I find those the most onerous episodes. As individuals, though, I think I could write character studies as long as the one's I've written about Spike today for each of them! They really are wonderful little characters in their own regard, and each has something that makes them unique.

Apple Bloom is an amazingly resilient character. I've often praised her in other places, mostly because her spirit seems to be the strongest of the three. She is growing up in a difficult situation. Her brother, grandmother, and sister have had to become something akin to parents for her. This role confusion is exactly like what Spike is going through, and I can't help but feel that a clearer "mother figure" is one of the things that Apple Bloom is looking for when she visits Zecora. Apple Bloom is just that right combination of innocence, farm-bred toughness, and folksy wisdom that I appreciate in characters who I need to be earnest and dependable, so that's why I used her as the other little dragon in To Change a Heart.

Sweetie Belle is adorable. If there isn't some insane super-genius out there attempting to weaponize her trademark squeak then I will be greatly disappointed in how far the mad sciences have fallen since I left that profession. Sweetie Belle has a stable home life and has good friends, so we have to look to other places for her conflict. Her relationship with Rarity is the most explored... perhaps too much, considering the good place they've reached in the canon. I'd like to ask other authors a favor: When you have Rarity tell Spike that it isn't going to happen, or you wish to ship Spike with some other character, don't choose Sweetie because "she's Rarity, just smaller!". That's bunk. Sweetie has her own personality. She is more jubilant, more adventurous, and more free-spirited than Rarity. Remember that each character has their own personality... if you respect these characters, you'll see that they aren't interchangeable.

I struggle with pegasi. Fluttershy is the only one I feel I can write well. I find Dash hard, and Scootaloo harder still. I guess that it is because the "life fast, die young, live for the moment" vibe that the pegasi send me is so much in contrast with my own personal philosophies. I feel bad for Scootaloo, in that I don't think that I can write for her without knowing something more about her. She has a great personality, though. I don't dislike her, I just don't have any real use for her. I need to know where her conflict is coming from. Her relationship with Dash seems like a shadow version of Spike's with Twilight. We know why Spike has a relationship with Twilight, but Scootaloo's desperate need for approval from Dash still requires some context for it to be exploitable in my writing.

8. What is the one thing you would like people to remember when writing Spike?

I've noticed a recent trend towards people writing that Spike has asked Twilight to stop hugging him in public, or that he squirms away from hugs. Really? Spike wears his heart(s) on his sleeve, if he had sleeves, and he is by far the most loving, clingy, and "huggiest" character in the series. Within a minute of meeting Dash they were laying in a pile laughing together. He springs upon Fluttershy and wraps her in a proper, full hug when they discover that she is alright in Froggy Bottom Bog. He leaps to Twilight to give her a hug at the end of the second episode. He hugs Applejack over and over until she's literally sick of it at his birthday, and again during "that episode". He has never, ever, ever shied away from receiving affection from Twilight... and why would he? Every time he receives affection from her it cements his belief and hope that he's important in her world, that he has a place. Look at episodes that aren't even about Spike and Twilight. When Apple Bloom is in the library getting mark after mark, he's holding Twilight's leg, as though he's seeking her reassurance. In Green Isn't Your Color he's standing beneath Twilight when they are watching Rarity, seeking her closeness.

Spike is a great little guy who wears his affection openly. Let him hug and be hugged in your stories... it will make you smile when you do.

9. Any general advice for people trying to get their story accepted by EqD?

I have three stories awaiting approval on EqD as I writing this, Zenith, Children of a Lesser Dragon God Boy Whelp Thingy Guy, and The Father of My Children. If all three are approved then I will have twenty-five stories that have been featured on Equestria Daily. I don't know if that makes me the most posted author on the blog, but I wouldn't be surprised if it did.

Here's the thing, the last story that I sent through that was approved without at least a request for some revisions was Bailout back in November of 2011, and looking that story over I wish that it had been sent back to me for work. Every story has something that it can be improved. The blog wants to feature stories that show off the talent of the fandom. If you submit a story, don't ask yourself, "Is this story better than X's story?" What you should ask yourself is, "Have I done my best, and does it compare in terms of quality to the art, music, and videos that are on the blog?"

I've been writing for over a decade, across fandoms that are now dead and silent, and now I can only say that those experiences had helped me learn. I would have learned faster if somebody had told me what I was doing wrong rather than just giving me hollow praise for all of those years. I wish that the other fandoms had sported places like EqD, and that there had been pre-readers to tell me how much I sucked.

Don't take rejections personally. The pre-readers are just fans too, trying to do what they think is best. Learn, grow, and do better next time.

Report amacita · 802 views ·
Jul
19th
2013

Sharaloth is best known for his dark, epic, and highly original AUs. In this interview, he gives some advice on worldbuilding and explains the process he used to create The Heart Thief, part of his Fallen World series. We also talk about his most recent story, Lavender Unicorn Syndrome, and his writing outside of the MLP fandom.


Amacita: What inspired you to write Lavender Unicorn Syndrome?

Sharaloth: Well, there's this thing that the MLP fandom calls Lavender Unicorn Syndrome, where an author overuses race-colour descriptors in place of proper names or pronouns. It gets annoying when used too much, but the backlash against it was rather furious, to the point where ANY instance of a race-colour descriptor would be called out as 'bad writing'. I have a tendency to include such descriptors, but only sparingly, as I know how to properly use a good pronoun.

Sharaloth: I've been meaning to write a comedy story for a while, simply to stretch some of my little-used writing muscles. Most of my stuff, especially in the MLP fanfiction community, tends towards the epic and dark, I do don't want that to be the entirety of my repertoire. I've had several comedy stories bouncing around in my head, one of them is even half-written, but since I focus a lot of my energy on the aforesaid big projects I've not had the time to write them. I was working one day when an idea came to me, the idea of taking the overreaction to LUS and turning it into the central joke around which to base a comedy fic. So the inspiration, you could say, was spite. Spite and sleep deprivation.

Amacita: LUS was your first attempt at comedy?

Sharaloth: In the MLP fandom, yes.

Amacita: Okay, so you've done writing outside of MLP? Can you tell me about that?

Sharaloth: I write mostly original fiction, I've yet to be published, but I've written one complete book and am working on at least two others. I have a couple short stories and a vast backlog of story ideas. This is only counting the stuff that I think is publish-worthy, I have quite a bit more that is unprintable or deeply, deeply flawed.

Sharaloth: In terms of fanfiction, I've written a few things. Most of what I've done in fanfiction was many years ago. I wrote a Buffy story that I never finished, and an embarrassingly bad Sailor Moon / DBZ crossover that I hope will never see light on the internet again.

Sharaloth: More recently I did a couple stories in a series for the Whateley Academy group, but they might as well have been original fiction, considering how that group works.

Amacita: Cool. So what has your experience been like trying to get your original fiction published?

Sharaloth: Frustrating. Most publishers do not accept unsolicited work, and finding an agent has been trying. I have many other options, but financial considerations have forced me to move slowly on getting my work out and selling.

Amacita: I think you're a really talented author, and I wouldn't be surprised to see your stories on the shelves in a few years.

Amacita: In fact, whenever I need an example of how to do good worldbuilding, I point people to your stories.

Sharaloth: Thank you.

Amacita: What's the trick to great worldbuilding? Do you have any advice for other authors?

Sharaloth: The trick to great worldbuilding is to actually build the world. It has to be real, not just a backdrop for your characters to do their thing in. It has to live and breathe, it must have its own trajectory.

Sharaloth: To worldbuild properly there must be a dozen things that never get mentioned for each thing that is. Everything that you put on the page must have a logical cause, an origin and a system that keeps it in place.

Sharaloth: Castle Dreadskull didn't build itself (or did it? and if it did, how? and why?), most places have reasons for being the way they are, and those reasons will shape how people live in them, think of them, refer to them, etc, etc, etc. Basically, don't half-ass it. Think of the world you're building as if it is real, and make it consistent. Not necessarily completely explored and explained, but consistent within itself.

Sharaloth: Then, and this is crucial, be parsimonious with that same world. Everything is interesting to you, but most things will not serve the story. Mention facts about the world when they are important, or when they come up naturally in the conversations your characters will have.

Sharaloth: Lord Doom lives in Castle Dreadskull—this is important information and should be given to the reader as soon as possible (either at the beginning of the story before the action happens, or when your POV character learns of it for the first time). The viscount of Simperville has a world-class sommelier in his employ: this is not important information unless your characters really, really need to know something about wine. However, it will inform the character of the Viscount. He will be fond of fine wines and have a stock of the best, and will likely expect the best compliment to any meal he has, and will react accordingly if it does not meet expectations.

Sharaloth: The world informs the characters, the characters experience the world.

Sharaloth: So the most important thing in worldbuilding is not how complete your world is, but whether or not your characters live in it like it is.

Amacita: One thing I've been told is that worldbuilding needs to serve multiple purposes if you want to include it in your story. If you have some part of your worldbuilding you want to show off, you have to work it in so that it reveals character, advances plot, raises the stakes, sets up conflict, makes the reader laugh, etc. The more it can do, the more worldbuilding you can put into your story.

Sharaloth: This is good advice.

Amacita: Can you talk about the Fallen World for a bit? Where did you get the idea?

Sharaloth: Well, the original idea was from the picture CDRW posted, along with a request to create a fic from that picture. I thought about it for a good few hours, then decided to have a go. I had a picture of Lyra standing upright and holding a bow with magic fingers that I'd gotten... somewhere. I decided that the two would go quite well together.

Sharaloth: The genesis of the idea was basically D&D with ponies, but I quickly abandoned that as a better one began to form. I basically needed a reason to get smithing pony and shooting pony together, and so Lyra shows up at the Shaper's door looking to get a bunch of metal arrows made. Why? Dragon! Why dragon? Fallen world!

Sharaloth: I wrote The Archer and the Smith over the course of a day and a half, maybe 12 total hours writing and revising.

Sharaloth: The whole Fallen World scenario took shape during the process.

Sharaloth: The process is different for different stories. The Archer and the Smith is one that took shape so quickly the process was essentially ongoing as I was writing it. Another Fallen World story, The Heart Thief, was a much more involved process, with actual stages to the creation of it that might serve as a better example of a process in motion.

Amacita: Okay. Can you talk about that?

Sharaloth: Sure. After the success of The Archer and the Smith I promised further stories in the Fallen World. I hadn't decided at the time whether The Shaper was Applebloom or not, but popular opinion and the hints I had already woven into the story kind of made that decision inevitable. So, I had one Crusader doing something in one story, and I said I would write more, why not do the series on each of the Crusaders?

Sharaloth: So I started thinking about it, and poking at the world I created to see where a good story would fall out for one of the CMC. There was speculation about the Rulers, which of the Mane 6 was which and all, and I wanted to showcase one of them, to show the readers what had become of their beloved characters to turn them from the loving, happy ponies we all know and love into the oppressors of Equestria. Especially I wanted to show how they were still the ponies we knew, but also not. The best place to show that was with Fluttershy, whose dichotomy of character would be the most shocking.

Sharaloth: I decided that the next story wasn't going to be an adventure. I've done adventures, and they're my favourite types of story to write, but TAaTS was something of an experiment in writing succinctly (which I have difficulty with) so I decided the next story was going to be a Tragedy. Once that was in place I knew exactly what I was going to do. There is only one way to go with a Tragedy figuring The Tyrant. Since I knew that none of the CMC were going to get pulled in by one of the Mane 6 that way, I had to create an original character to be the center of the hubristic fall. That OC was Steady Hoof, a thief who would be drawn into the Tyrant's power because he's seeking the love of a mare he can't have. In this case, the best bet for that was always Scootaloo.

Sharaloth: So, I had a protagonist, a conflict, and, finally, I built the setting. Fluttershy's domain, the City of Gardens and Cages. This was all setup. I hadn't even finalized the plot by the time I'd gotten this far.

Sharaloth: The next step was in plotting everything out. I needed to introduce the setting, and the easiest and most natural way to do that is to have an outsider be the viewpoint character, so Steady Hoof became a refugee from the Heartland. He had to fall in love with Scoots, and I also had to establish that the Tyrant was pretty evil, and having Scootaloo save Steady from interfering in an execution served both purposes.

Sharaloth: Steady has to have time to become stupidly enraptured with Scoots, so she's now a thief too, and invites him to her gang. There's a ton of backstory that I built for Scoots that was once in the story, but later deleted because it just didn't work with the rest of it, but it explains why she lets him stay even though Steady's a godawful nuisance.

Sharaloth: Steady has to have a reason to meet Fluttershy, so now comes the quest to steal the Tyrant's heart.

Sharaloth: What happens after that is entirely due to the way the characters are. Their own faults and hopes and blindness.

Sharaloth: Actually writing it took awhile, mostly because I wanted to keep a consistent tone of bleakness underlying Steady's singleminded drive. No one expects him to succeed. Everyone thinks it's a bad idea, even Fluttershy. This is a harsh world and he is doomed from the moment he set hoof in it, only drawing out what little comfort from what others give him. So I had to maintain that right up until the point where he meets Fluttershy, at which point the narrative changes. It's not about Steady's obsession, it's about Steady's fall. The truth is staring him right in the face from the moment he first meets her, but he won't know the truth until the very last sentence.

Sharaloth: It had to build slowly, then burn cold at the end.

Sharaloth: Then, of course, I had to edit it.

Amacita: Why was Steady Hoof a thief?

Sharaloth: Because I came up with the title first. :P

Sharaloth: Really, because it gave him a reason to be anywhere I wanted him to be.

Amacita: What do you mean?

Sharaloth: A thief can be anywhere. In the street, in a dingy cellar, in the royal bedchambers. Anywhere.

Sharaloth: And they have reason to move. If their identity is discovered, they can't stay in the same place, so they can be a new person in a new place, just learning the ins and outs of the city, and they will learn, as they must know the pulse of their surroundings to know what to steal from who, and how to avoid the guards, etc, etc.

Sharaloth: A thief can be anywhere, be anyone, be anything. It's a really versatile character type.

Amacita: I've never thought of it like that before.

Amacita: What did you do in editing The Heart Thief?

Sharaloth: I read it over umpteen-hundred times and tweaked it over and over again. Sometimes only a word here or a sentence there, other times entire passages. As I mentioned, there were whole paragraphs on Scootaloo's backstory and cutie mark that got excised for not fitting well enough.

Sharaloth: Once I was satisfied with it, I got pre-readers to look it over and catch all the things I inevitably missed. Then I edited it again, then once more for good measure. Then I posted it.

Amacita: Well, you've gotten three stories posted by EqD now. Do you have any advice for other authors who want to get posted?

Sharaloth: Edit your works, and get other people to edit them, too. Then be patient. Then take your rejection with good humor and fix the stuff they tell you to fix. At least take a good look at it, I mean most of it's just good advice. Some is stylistic and you can take it or leave it, but EqD has a style guide or something (a writer's omnibus, at the very least) and if you want it on their site you have to at least pay lip service to following their rules. Then, once you've done your best to address their concerns, try again.

Sharaloth: But, seriously, edit your freakin' stories.

Amacita: Personally, I try not to take style too seriously, and if I say something and the author chooses to ignore it or offers up a good reason for ignoring it, I rarely ever argue.

Sharaloth: *shrug* Some stuff is more important than others.

Amacita: My philosophy is that the author knows their story better than I do, and anything I look at, they've probably thought about a lot harder than I have. But first I have to trust that an author knows what he's doing before I get to the point where I'll let just about anything slide.

Sharaloth: That's a good attitude, I think.

Sharaloth: That being said, an external perspective can see things that someone mired in the middle of the story might simply be unable to see. Forest for the Trees problem and all that.

Amacita: Is there anything you'd like to add before we finish up?

Sharaloth: Nope. It's been a pleasure talking with you.

Amacita: Same here. Have a great night!

Report amacita · 526 views ·
Jun
19th
2013

From the moment I saw Sunset of Time in the pre-readers’ queue, I wanted to post it. Three rounds of revision later, I was finally able to. In this interview, The Albinocorn and I talk about what makes a great time travel story and what it’s like to go through three rounds of revision with an EqD pre-reader.


Amacita: What inspired you to write Sunset of Time?

Albinocorn: When I first saw the description for Sunset Shimmer’s toy saying she was Celestia's former student. For one thing, her color scheme was really adorable. So I started looking for more artwork of her, and I stumbled upon a little comic strip where she was Twilight's student instead. I ran with it.

Amacita: Is there any theme you’re trying to explore with this story?

Albinocorn: Self-discovery, the magic of friendship (of course), and how everyone has choices; those choices may have consequences, good or bad, but in the end only we can make them.

Amacita: Were you attracted to time travel stories before Sunset of Time? In other words, just how genre-aware are you, and do you think you've read anything I might find interesting? Personally, I love time travel stories, so when I saw your story in the pre-readers’ queue, I was really excited.

Albinocorn: My Choices: Twisted Tales Through Time by koolerkid is a very good time travel story. Genre-wise, there isn't going to be as much time travel as I might have hinted at. Though time will play an important role.

Amacita: Okay. As for me, my first exposure to MLP wasn’t the show; it was Capn Chryssalid’s The Best Night Ever. More recently, I read Ponydora Prancypants’ “Que Sera, Sera,” which for me, set the record for the most a short story has made me cry. Before that, I came from the Harry Potter fandom, where two of my favourite fics also had to do with time travel: Harry Potter and the Wastelands of Time and Backward with Purpose.

Amacita: My favourite time travel stories aren't so much about the idea of time travel as they are about the people doing the time travel. In The Best Night Ever, it’s about Blueblood becoming a better person. “Que Sera, Sera” and Backward with Purpose were about love and self-sacrifice. Wastelands was an awesome action adventure, but it was also about how time changes people.

Amacita: In my experience, too much cleverness with time travel just gets confusing.

Albinocorn: In my original notes, very original, I had Sunset bouncing around through various points in time, but it got very confusing very fast.

Amacita: That's the value of revision.

Amacita: In Backward with Purpose, I think the author finished writing it, then went through it with her editor and revised the hell out of it. She also weaved in enough cleverness with time travel that it took an entire companion novel to explain all the things that were going on in the background. Both it and the companion novel were very powerful and very well executed. But yeah, it's incredibly hard to do.

Amacita: As for Twisted Tales Through Time, I liked it. I hope the author will finish it.

Albinocorn: Same here. But life has other plans sometimes.

Amacita: Indeed. That's one of the downsides of fanfiction; so many great stories are never completed. Whereas if you pick something up in a bookstore, you get the whole story.

Albinocorn: And there's less cliffhangers.

Amacita: Speaking of revision, you went through three rounds of feedback with Equestria Daily. The first rejection was purely for grammar. The second was for story issues, namely Sunset Shimmer seeming incompetent and weak, though I also gave the whole thing a thorough proofreading. The third round was just some quick feedback before posting, mostly some minor blocking issues and a few things I missed the first two times. You were only awarded a strike for the first rejection.

Amacita: What was it like for you?

Albinocorn: The first time was almost expected. I had one editor, and he's a very good editor but still, that's only two pairs of eyes to catch any of my mistakes. And that's all I was thinking about when I first took on an editor, just someone to fix my grammar.

Albinocorn: The second time was a little frustrating... okay, it was very frustrating. I had two editors then, and I was almost positive it would get taken in. Instead I got ten pages of notes and suggestions. I'll be honest, at first it felt like a slap in the face and someone saying 'this is everything that is wrong with your story.' But after I cooled off I went through it and realized that these suggestions were given not because my story was bad, but because it had the potential to be better. Although some of the revisions were harder than others, I think the story is miles ahead of where it used to be, and I took in some helpful writing tips.

Albinocorn: So thank you, Amacita.

Amacita: You're welcome :-) My favourite part of this job is helping stories reach their full potential. I'm really happy that you came to see feedback more the way we do, or at least the way I do.

Amacita: Honestly, I felt bad after giving you your first rejection, especially since it was both a rejection with a strike and an "I didn't finish reading this, but here's some grammar issues" rejection. I mean, yuck! That's the worst kind of rejection to give.

Amacita: And I knew that your story had a ton of potential.

Amacita: And I knew that I really hadn't made that clear in my letter, so I felt like a jerk after doing that.

Amacita: Sorry, I guess :|

Albinocorn: Eh, I was more of just disappointed in myself. The entire time I was thinking, 'dammit, if I had just found these errors, I would have gotten in!'

Amacita: I was really happy when it came back for round two, because then I knew I could make up for my glib first review by giving it a very thorough second review... and I'm glad you didn't take that the wrong way :-)

Amacita: When I give detailed feedback, it means I think your story is worth the time to go through and make better. I trust you as the author to take all my criticism and use it to make a stronger story. And you did a fantastic job.

Albinocorn: Again, I had to cool off for a day, but when I re-read it I realized a vast majority of your criticisms were warranted. Especially the details about Sunset herself. That was also the hardest part to read and to revise.

Amacita: I was going to ask you about that. I mean, I only noticed that she was acting consistently weak because it was my second time reading through it, and I had just read "Sol Stein on Writing," in which a professional editor talks about what makes a great character, and he mentioned how he likes to juxtapose moments of strength with moments of weakness to add depth to a character.

Amacita: After you revised it the second time, I was able to go through Sunset Shimmer’s scenes and literally count up every moment of strength, cleverness, and awesomeness. There were quite a lot. So by the time I got to the parts where she's awkward or a bad liar, those moments of weakness only made her more loveable.

Albinocorn: Glad you enjoyed it.

Amacita: Have you written in other capacities (other fandoms, professionally, etc)? When did you first start writing?

Albinocorn: Actually, this is the first fandom I have ever joined. I love Harry Potter myself, but I never bothered to go look for fanfiction of it. And even now, I can't think of a decent story that could fit in that world. I started writing years ago, but it was literally just a couple of paragraphs of things that I never finished. I didn't start fully writing and fleshing out my ideas until last year when I started working on some of my other stories on FimFiction. Now I actually want to be a professional writer.

Amacita: Cool. If you ever have any original fiction you'd like feedback on, I'd be happy to take a look.

Albinocorn: That be great! I'll keep that in mind when I start on my original stuff, but that might not be for a while.

Amacita: Do you have any tips for aspiring writers, or writers who are struggling with their own stories?

Albinocorn: First, if you are going to write, only write one or two stories at a time. I'm trying to juggle four stories at once, and it is not fun.

Albinocorn: Second, be open to all criticism, it may sound harsh at first, but it'll be helpful in the long run.

Albinocorn: And nothing is really original anymore, but always try to throw a twist in your story that will make it memorable.

Albinocorn: And I think I have to go.

Amacita: Okay. Well, thanks for taking the time to do an interview with me.

Albinocorn: Of course, it was fun! And the least I could do for your help.

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