Friday, September 27, 2013

Benman's Happily Ever After

What makes you you? If you wake up at a happier time, in a happier place, could you wake up as a happier pony?

[Shipping][Tragedy] • 2,700 words
Shining Armor will do anything to save his marriage. Anything.

Hit the break for a chat with Benman (and some big news) and links to Happily Ever After out on the ponynet. Don't forget to grab yourself an ebook copy over at the Downloads page!


Where do you live?

Boston, Massachusetts.

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

You know how sometimes, good things happen, and sometimes, bad things happen? My job is to make sure as many good things and as few bad things happen as possible. Right now it looks like the best approach is earning to give to the best charities in the world, so that's what I'm doing.

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

I honestly don't remember how I found it. I'm on the internet; these things happen. "Over A Barrel" was the first episode to come out after I caught up.

Do you have a favorite episode?

"Green Isn't Your Color," easily. Everyone is trying so hard to be so nice and the nicer they are the more they hurt each other and oh my stars I could watch it forever. The moment at the fashion show where Rarity is consumed with jealousy, and she's watching Fluttershy's career slip down around her ankles, and all she has to do is stay quiet, and then she decides to step in and save her friend... it makes my heart melt every time.

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)?

Rarity, or more specifically, the season 1 characterization of Rarity. She is both a fundamentally active character and a fundamentally good character. I say active because she goes out and makes things happen (say, by deciding to make dresses for everypony) more often than she reacts to outside events. I say good because she moves the story forward by being nice to people. When she causes conflict, she causes conflict by giving.

Expanding the question to fanworks, I'd go with the princess sisters. We have just enough information to imply a sprawling backstory filled with drama and pathos, but the details are wide open. People have taken that in some really, really cool directions.

How did you come up with your handle/penname?

Look, I can't be clever all the time.

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

I've been telling stories since I figured out this "language" thing. There's a video of three-year-old Ben narrating a fanfic about Thomas the Tank Engine.

Most of my pre-pony storytelling experience has been in GMing roleplaying games. It's fascinating because, unlike writing, no one has total control. You're trying to put together characterization and theme and pacing while the players are bouncing off the walls and coming up with things you would never imagine. This means you can't think in terms of grand choreographed plotlines; to hold things together, you need powerful characters guided by powerful motivations, and most everything else follows from there. I like to think this approach shows in my prose.

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

A lot of reading. I critique for friends, I've been putting together the Big Project (see below), and I'm ostensibly still one of Equestria Daily's prereaders.

In my other life, I'm the organizer of the Boston chapter of Less Wrong, so a giant chunk of time goes into planning and running that.

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

Gonna pass on this one. I don't think there's a useful way to decide who's better between, say, Connie Willis and Ursula Le Guin. They're trying to do different things, is all. Instead I'll substitute a similar question and answer it: Which authors have had the biggest impact on your life?

The answer to that one is Orson Scott Card, who taught me empathy in Ender's Game, and Eliezer Yudkowsky, who taught me reason in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

If we're only talking about horsefic, though... Skywriter, easily. If you'll permit me a moment of unapologetic hipsterdom, I was reading his fanfics about adorable awkward genius quadrupeds before Twilight Sparkle was even a gleam in Faust's eye. I'll admit to doing a little dance when he started writing about ponies.

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 write out of spite. I read a story and I think "augh no that's not what you should've done why would you do that. Fine, if you won't do it my way, then I will." It is my fondest hope that the author who evoked this will like what I produced.

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

Tip the first: Make sure your readers actually care about what's happening. Intricate plots and detailed characters are great and all, but first, give us a hook. My rule is that every scene needs a conflict, where a conflict means (A) a character we care about, (B) something she wants, and (C) a reason she can't have it.

This rule is trebly important for beginning a story. If you've ever had the misfortune of reading something that opens with two chapters of exposition before the plot starts, you'll know what I mean. I call this the Ghostpig Rule, after Cat Valente's excellent (profanity-laden) article.

Tip the second: Have great prereaders. Having good prereaders is stupendously helpful, and I think most authors realize this. What I don't see discussed, though, is the gulf between a good prereader and a great prereader. Going from good to great helps about as much as going from nothing to good. (And, of course, you can and should use both. Always be looking for more and better prereaders.)

Tip the third: Always and everywhere, make things worse for your characters.

Tip the fourth: Finish writing before you start publishing. You will discover things about your story as it progresses, and you absolutely need the freedom to go back to chapter two and set up the thing you just realized belongs in chapter six. If you already published the first five chapters, well, too bad.

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

I write the first draft in chronological order, unless that doesn't flow easily, in which case I skip around like crazy. That done, I send the draft off to Baxil and anyone else I can browbeat into looking at my words. I take the feedback and revise. I send it off again. I repeat until the story is done. Sometimes this takes one try. It's taken as many as eight.

As for outlining and planning and whatnot, I've tried many different things to see what works, but I haven't settled on a consistent style yet.

What inspired you to write Happily Ever After?

I was listening to Vimbert talk about Twilight, Revised with one of his readers in IRC. I was missing a lot of context, and somehow I got it in my head that it was a story where Celestia's been screwing with Twilight's mind, so Twilight has to struggle with the nature of identity and choice once it becomes clear that decisions she made—decisions she still likes—weren't actually her own. This is... kind of close to what happens, but also completely and utterly not what happens. It's complicated. Anyway, I read the story and enjoyed it. Still, I couldn't help be disappointed that it wasn't the thing in my head, as unfair as that is. Twilight, Revised is a story of right struggling against wrong, and I wanted a story that questioned what is right.

A day or two later, folks were talking about how horrifying Cadence's special talent is, and the idea fell together. My first instinct was to cast Cadence as a manipulative villain, but, well, see Tip #3.

Did you run into any tough spots or challenges when writing Happily Ever After?

No, actually! Normally I write a piece at a time, building one scene of top of another, and revise, and revise, and revise. It usually takes months. I blazed through this in two days. Maybe three dozen words changed between the first draft and the final product. (My attempts to duplicate this process have been numerous and unsuccessful.)

When you set out to write Happily Ever After, did you have any specific messages or themes in mind?

If something external makes you into the person you want to be, are you still yourself?

This question isn't hypothetical. I deal with it in my own life, although I use prescription stimulants rather than princess pony powers. I'm enough of a consequentialist to side with Shining Armor on this one, but it took me a while to sort through all the issues holding me back. Cadence is the personification (equification? ponification?) of those issues.

Where can readers drop you a line?

For anything related to colorful horses, go with my FIMFic account or benmanbrony@gmail.com. For everything else, benlandautaylor@gmail.com.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Yes! I get to announce the Big Project!

As you might know, RBDash will be shutting down the Pony Fiction Vault pretty soon. I was disappointed when I heard the news, and if you're reading this (which you are), I assume you were, too. These interviews are really cool, and I'd hate to lose them.

Well, let it not be said that I abandoned the internet in its hour of need. Five of us have banded together to take up the sword and keep this tradition going. By the time you're seeing this on FIMFic (or a week after this is posted to the Vault itself), we'll have a schedule posted at our site. The first interview will be posted a week later, on Friday, Oct 11.

I am super excited about this. I'm working with a great team, and we've got some excellent interviews coming up. You'll get to learn which three-part epic was written on a dare, see proof that I am not the only one who writes out spite, and most importantly, learn who Best Pony is.

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