Friday, August 30, 2013

PoweredByTea's Never So Far Away

Simple, meditative, a breath of fresh air. The polar opposite of last week, really. The sort of story that should be enjoyed with a cup of tea or a summer's breeze.

[Slice-of-Life] • 3,500 words
Twilight takes a walk in the woods near Canterlot to clear her mind, when a mischievous little phoenix starts dropping chestnut shells on her head. Quite a familiar mischievous little phoenix.

Hit the break for quite a few words from PoweredByTea and a link to Never So Far Away out on the ponynet. Don't forget to grab yourself an ebook copy over at the Downloads page!

Eeep, turns out I can be quite verbose when explicitly invited to talk about myself.

Where do you live?

The North-East of England at the moment, but it's a bit fluid right now.

What kind of work do you do? (i.e. are you a student, do you have a career/day job, etc)

I'm a PhD student; at least, I think I still count at the time I'm writing this. I submitted a few months ago and since then I've been through the viva (which was as nerve racking as you'd think during the run up, but wasn't actually so bad once I got talking) and submitted corrections, so I guess I'm just waiting for the letter.

How did you discover My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic? When did you realize you were a fan of the show?

I got hit from lots and lots of angles. I was told about it by several friends independently, all of whom seemed to like it, and then ponies started showing up on the Internet. One friend in particular emphasised that the characters were well developed and the stories had real character driven conflict in them. This intrigued me but not enough to actually start watching.

Funnily enough, what tipped the balance was reading Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson. It's a good epic fantasy book with one of the most well thought out magic systems I've ever seen, lots of high adventure, etc., etc., but what stood out for me was the main character, Vin. She begins alone, not even able to comprehend that such a thing as friendship for friendship's sake exists, and, well, not wanting to give any spoilers, but while Mistborn is a story of many things, one of them is basically Vin learning about the magic of friendship. That resonated very strongly with me.

When I put the final book down, I just knew that sooner or latter I would be watching the thing with the ponies. I resisted a few weeks more, but I was got in the end.

Do you have a favorite episode?

Um, gosh, I don't think I could point to one in particular and call it my favorite, but, well I do like Winter Wrap Up—that song, what more can I say?, Fall Weather Friends, Suited for Success—I care about fashion and dresses now? Well played FiM, well played, Sonic Rainboom—some great Rainbow Dash, Stare Master, Green Isn't Your Colour, Cutie Mark Chronicles, The Best Night Ever, Lesson Zero, Sisterhooves Social, Sweet and Elite, It's About Time.

I've been a little bit lukewarm about season 3, but I did like One Bad Apple. I'll include Spike at Your Service too, just for the bit where Rainbow fast talks herself into having to fly head first into a pile of rocks.

Who is your favorite character based purely on the canon of the show itself? Would your answer change if you considered the fandom in its entirety (i.e. art, fanfiction, memes, etc)?

It has to be Twilight. I empathise very strongly with her loneliness and her joy of at last finding friendship, as well as her many insecurities. That said, I have a fondness for both Rarity and Rainbow Dash as ponies whose personalities tend to cause clashes and thus keep things interesting. Finally, there's Celestia. She's often accused of being very bland and simply being there to hand out quests, but look closely and you'll there are lots of hints of something. Just look at her face during the parasprite parade during Swarm of the Century, and we cannot forget the tea incident in A Bird in the Hoof. There is a character there under the queenly mask.

When the fandom stuff is considered, Celestia and Luna get much stronger. While the odd Trollestia joke can be fine, I tend to like the more serious takes. Here are two ponies who have lived for at least a thousand years. What have they seen? What have they endured? How have they changed? They are fascinating to think about, and some of my favorite things the fandom has produced explores these questions.

I must admit a fondness for season one Luna fics, as people knew so little about her back then that we basically got a new Luna with each new story, and it's wonderful to see how many directions she was taken in. That said, the fandom seemed to be converging on a consistent character for her, like they have with Lyra or Ditzy/Derpy. One of these days I should try writing a season one Luna fic, for the nostalgia value. It can have lots of "Celestia's Suns" and end with a friendship report.

I entered the fandom well into season two. I have no idea how it's even possible for me to be nostalgic about all this.

How did you come up with your handle/penname?

I must admit, I've always struggled with coming up with online handles. I have yet to think of one I'm happy with. The truth is, I never actually meant to interact much at first, I was just creating an account to track a few stories, so I picked random7634. At some point, I started leaving comments on stories and blog posts and I realised I should probably come up with a better handle.

So it was about this time that Skywriter's Princess Celestia Hates Tea showed up in the feature box. I didn't read it at first because it looked like another Pony X verbs Y story, but it just stayed up there for days and eventually curiosity got the better of me.

Now we have to break off this tale to say that I drink a lot of tea. I come from a culture that is stereotyped around the world as being full of tea drinkers, and the amount of the stuff I get through is still be considered abnormal.

So there I was, reading Princess Celestia Hates Tea, drinking my cup of tea, wondering about a proper username, and it occurred to me that PoweredByTea would probably be as good a name as any, so I went with it, and there you go.

In hindsight, it's not so great. For a start, it doesn't read well as a noun. Oh well, the cycle of not being happy with my online handle continues.

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

A long time ago. I don't even remember the details but it was sci-fi and involved six characters going on a journey. In space. Two of them were aliens. I expect it was really, really bad and I'm glad I don't have a copy of it.

My next foray was an epic, collaborative story that was run on a internet message board. Anyone could post a chapter at any time, but not two in a row. My early contributions were awful. Simply awful, I had no idea what I was doing. But then there was this guy, who I shall call "Jon S.", who a posted chapter, and it was good, really good. Suddenly what I was doing wasn't good enough for me any more. I started trying a little harder to make my contributions good and I soon I was having lots of fun doing so too. I think by the end of it, only myself and Jon S. were still interested with everyone else having gotten board.

I attempted to write a few more times since then, but sadly I fell out of the habit when I started university. Ponies had made me want to restart the hobby again.

What do you like to do when you're not writing?

I used to to do a lot of live action role playing with a university society, and have dabbled in Go and fencing. The live action role playing is something I really must get back into because you meet a lot of interesting and fun personalities. I tend to muck about with computers and computer programming and lately I've been teaching myself Haskell bit by bit.

Unfortunately, for last two years especially, my time has been split between working on my PhD and feeling guilty about not working on my PhD.

Who is your favorite author (published or fanfiction)? Do you have a favorite story or novel?

I think my all time favourite book is Watership Down. I still have the copy I was given as a child somewhere; a battered old paperback with the cover falling off and the pages falling out. Other standouts have been Timothy Zahn (Zahn's books were responsible for me being a Star Wars fan for a few years—I started by reading them, then saw the films), Terry Pratchett of course, Frank Herbert's Dune (but not the sequels). As I said, I've been reading a lot of Brandon Sanderson lately but nothing has really topped Mistborn.

Within the fandom, Device Heretic for Eternal, Cloudy Skies for Within and Without, and Aesthetic B for The Immortal Game. I should also mention that the first five paragraphs or so of A Short Story by Twilight Sparkle are very dear to me, and I used them as a reference for the Twilight in Never So Far Away.

Stephen King believes that every author has an "ideal reader" – the one person who they write for, the one person whose reactions they care about. Do you have one, and if so, who is it?

I'm not sure I have one of those, sorry. I guess I just write the kind of story I'd like to read? Heck, my other story on fimfiction, The Wrong Fork, was written because I had this idea that wouldn't go away. I very nearly didn't publish it, so with that one I suppose wasn't expecting it to have any readers at all.

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

Since there's a lot of general advice given in answer to this question, and good general advice too, so I figured that rather than repeating everyone else I'd give some more specific tips at risk of not being comprehensive.

On motivation: I think everyone has trouble staying motivated from time to time, me included. I've been experimenting with various ways to push myself to get started lately, and I'm sort of settling onto a method. If I'm going to do some writing, I try to deliberately decide to do so advance, if that makes sense. Basically, I try to be firm with myself on the point that this evening, say, is for writing and not for messing about on the Internet. Next, before I open the document, I think about the scene that I'm going to write and how cool it's going to be. Presumably, you see, when I first conceived the scene I was excited about it (if not, why am I even wanting to write it? Why would anyone want to read it?). The thing is, lots of time may have passed since that initial conception and I need to recapture that feeling of excitement. Once I have that down, getting started is easier. My hit rate isn't exactly 100% and I still find myself wikiwalking or watching random things on youtube, but this method seems to get me past the starting phase more often that just opening a blank Google document.

On dyslexia: I'm a dyslexic. For quite a long time during my teenage years I was convinced that dyslexia meant writing could never be for me; I would never be good at it, so why bother? It was actually Jon S. (see above) who dissuaded me of that. I posted something badly spelt as usual, and to my surprise I got back an angry telling off in response. I'd, um, misspelled something that had unfortunate implications. I was a little shocked, but also ashamed. I respected Jon, you see, and here he was telling me off. From the on, I had to start caring. And you know what, once I started caring, I started improving. Funny how no amount of similar advice from English teaches had had quite the same effect.

So that would be the next tip, I guess, going out to the dyslexics out there. Just because you have this diagnosis, doesn't mean you don't have to care, nor does it mean you can't improve. It's going to be harder for you, but we're living in the age of good spell checkers, automatic red underlining, and Google. Times have never been so good. Whenever you write something, even if it's just a Facebook post, pay attention to the words you consistently get wrong and try and learn them one at a time. Type the correct spelling out in full rather than just clicking one of the suggestions, so you build up muscle memory. It won't be easy going, but you can improve.

I've also recently been made aware of the OpenDyslexic and Dyslexie fonts. These are designed to make recognising letters easier for dyslexics. While I haven't used them for long enough to form a full opinion, they do seem to help a little and I've heard good things said about them so they might be worth a look.

On perspectives: Learn about perspectives, and play to their strengths as you write. It's a topic I find fascinating, and I think there is a lot to be gained by having an awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of each. By default, I write in limited third. In every scene there is one focus character, and what I write is filtered and coloured through that character's thoughts and perceptions. It's a perspective that is generally considered great for immersion because the reader is going though the exact same voyage of discovery as the character, in time with the character. That can build empathy. On the other hand, it's harder to break out and give the reader important bits of exposition because you can only write about what the focus character actually knows.

You can actually attack show-vs-tell a little bit with limited third. If you get into the mindset of describing what the character is seeing, hearing, smelling, thinking, and so on, you'll end up showing by default. Here's a line I'm quite proud of: "Twilight herself was watching the sunrise, smiling faintly. Beside her, a firefly lamp, flask, and book lay forgotten." (Note that the perspective character is not Twilight.) Hopefully it's clear to the reader what Twilight has been up to without any "telling" being needed. The thing is, I wasn't worrying about showing and telling at the time, I was just focusing on being in my perspective character's head; I just wrote exactly what she saw. Limited third did all the "work" for me.

Other perspectives have their advantages and disadvantages too, though I have less direct experience with them. You can be "chattier" in both first and third omniscient. This is especially true in first if it makes sense that character telling you their story would break off to explain something. There is a passage in Skywriter's first person story Contraptionology! where the narrative breaks off for several paragraphs in order to set up a joke. You couldn't do that in limited third but in first person it's fine, because Applejack (the narrator) is embarrassed about screaming like a little filly and it makes sense that she would break away for several paragraphs to make excuses. See also: Terry Pratchett, who uses quite chatty third omniscient most of the time. He can get away with stopping the narrative for pages at a time in order to tell you about Bloody Stupid Johnson's unique take on architecture. He can even get away with footnotes.

On text to speech: One thing I tried recently that worked really well was putting the text of a story through a text-to-speech program and listening as I read along. I've been told that reading what you've written out loud can help spot errors, but that never really works well for me. It's just too easy to end up seeing the words I expect to see rather than the words that are there. The text-to-speech program works better. I even managed to find two or three mistakes this way that had made it past all my prereaders. In future, I'm going to start using text-to-speech more frequently.

On the only thing I can say for certain: If you write Celestia, do consider including Philomena if possible. It turns out that mischievous phoenixes are a lot of fun to write. While all the other advice here may turn out to be the ramblings of a madman, you can trust me on this one.

What is your typical writing process? (Do you work through multiple drafts, do you have any prereaders/editors, etc?)

Funnily enough, long walks in the woods do feature heavily, or, failing that, pacing up and down will also work. I start out by letting my mind wander while thinking about an idea and, for whatever reason, the physical act of walking helps me focus on that. On a good day, I come back with a rough mental plan of how I want a piece of writing to go, whether it's single scene or a vague plot line. Once I've got that I sit down and start typing, beginning at the beginning and working though. If I get stuck, I pace about the room for a bit.

Once I'm done with that, I send what I've written to my prereaders. I'm usually quite excited at that point, so sometimes they get things that are not very well edited, if they are edited at all. There's very much a "hey, look what I did" thing going on. From there, it's the standard fix the little language errors and address any structural problems, repeat until it's done.

This process works great for short stories, but I seem to have problems with anything longer. My one attempt at something novella length so far has ended up a mess. I'm afraid to say that I wrote scenes out of order and before I had a clear idea of what would be in other scenes. I think I basically ended up using my entire story as my outline. I do not recommend working this way at all.

What inspired you to write Never So Far Away?

A while back, Skywriter posted a link to Alison Krauss's song "Evermore" and said that someone should really write a story about Celestia and Twilight. I had a listen and agreed, some sucker really should. There's a lot about the song and the lyrics that just fit. It was shortly after this that I ended up having to go on a long car journey and I had got the song stuck in my head and inspiration struck. So I guess that sucker turned out to be me. In the end, I think everything turned out fine.

Perhaps I should say something about how the song inspired the story, especially given the fictional singer in the song is clearly a fit for Celestia, but the story is from Twilight's perspective. I guess the image I really latched on to was the April forest in the first verse, and how it was a place that was a little bit set apart from the chaos and rush of everyday life. The song was being sung in a place where everyday roles and masks could be discarded for a bit, and things could be said that wouldn't otherwise be said. If you can believe it, I had intended the ending to be a little bit bittersweet in that Twilight knew she would be back to panicking around Celestia soon. The dream would be over and the real world would return. Celestia, however, wasn't having any of that and we got the ending we got.

I'm not sure I was consciously aware of all this while writing. I just listened to the song on loop and followed the emotions it conjured up.

Did you run into any tough spots or challenges when writing Never So Far Away?

Yes, two. Firstly, the less important one. I really struggled to come up with good title and synopsis. The title in particular was tricky. I'm not even sure I'm happy with "Never So Far Away". If you read the story up to the title drop or listen to the song you'll know what it means, but I have no clue what it says people who have done neither. I'm not going to change it, it's too late for that now, but it still doesn't read well for me.

Okay, now the more significant one. I sent the first draft off to Skywriter and the response was that although most of it was fine, he wasn't sure what the ending meant. That initially surprised me, but when I looked again at what I wrote, well, what I wrote was Celestia and Twilight having a pleasant afternoon. It wasn't really about anything more than that.

Now that could be good enough, and I'm sure many people would be happy to read about their favourite characters enjoying a quiet moment together, however there was more going on in my head than what I managed to get onto the page, if that makes any sense. Which conveniently leads onto the next question...

When you set out to write Never So Far Away, did you have any specific messages or themes in mind?

Not consciously, not when I set out writing. I was just listening to "Evermore" and thinking about the characters and how screwed up and unbalanced their relationship is and worked from there, but as I said, at the end of the first draft there was more going on in my head than on the page so I had to work out what actually was going on in my head so I could get it down onto the page. It didn't help that what was going on in my head was pretty jumbled.

So after pondering for a few days, I finally came to some conclusions. The story was supposed to touch issues of self worth and feelings of inadequacy, which are things that probably get to everyone from time to time. Once I knew this, I added a paragraph towards the beginning and five hundred words towards the end and suddenly the whole thing started reading a lot better. The story had tension that wasn't there before.

Incidentally, I don't think it matters if the reader doesn't pick up on this consciously or at all, or decides it means something else to them. This is just what it means to me.

Where can readers drop you a line?

The best way to contact me is Email to that account gets automatically forwarded to my primary email, so I tend to see it quickly. Failing that, a PM on FIMFiction will also work.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I'd like to thank all the people who have preread for me. At present that would be Skywriter, Ghost of Heraclitus, Bradel, Toafan, and the mysterious "Nettle".†

† Not actually that mysterious. I just know her in real life, and she doesn't really interact with the brony community online.

At the time of writing, Wikipedia claims the world record for stone skipping is 51 skips by Russell Byars. That surprised me too, but in the light of that, perhaps Luna's implausible sounding record seems a little more attainable, especially given she's immortal and has had lots of time to practice. Even then, she's still not up to Byars's standard. I guess hands really are better.

It's hard to tell, but I think for the purposes of the world record, skips are counted, not splashes. Nobody tell Celestia her five would actually count as a four.

In case anyone is wondering, I'm really bad at skipping rocks too. Someone had to physically grab my arm and hold it in the the correct position before I could do it at all.

And finally, Celestia's pool is a real place. It was a long time ago, on some family outing, when I saw it. I no longer remember where we were. My memories have grown muddy, but I'm sure the rock cliffs, the waterfall, and the trees looming overhead were all there. So next time you are out for a walk, take a quick gander about and you never know, you might just find it.

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