Friday, February 24, 2012

Caerdwyn's A Shower of Stars

This week we have an author whose work I discovered by pure chance and immediately loved. I highly recommend you check out the rest of his work; one other story even includes a fully functional apple cake recipe woven seamlessly into the narrative. This story in particular caught my eye for its interesting take on Luna-as-Nightmare-Moon, and its more serious look at the Wonderbolts' existence.

[Adventure][Tragedy]  10,700 words
What starts out as an ordinary afternoon for Twilight Sparkle and Rainbow Dash quickly turns serious, as half-forgotten plots come to fruition.

Hit the break for a thoughtful interview from Caerdwyn, and links to A Shower of Stars out on the ponynet. Check the Downloads page for a copy in your preferred ebook format as well!

Where do you live?

Silicon Valley, a.k.a. “Never-Never Land”

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

I’m a software engineer. If you’ve been on the Internet for more than thirty seconds, you’ve been touched by the stuff I work on. Heh heh... touch.

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

A friend whose opinion on animation I’ve learned to trust recommended it. I’ve never had a hangup about watching movies or TV shows that as a mucho macho man I wasn’t supposed to enjoy, but I’d avoided MLP:FIM for a long while because of how unimaginably trite, insipid and downright awful the previous MLP shows were. After a while I gave in, just because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Okay, fine, show me what you’ve got.

I saw the shows in broadcast order (no cherry-picking, I just sat down with episode 1 and started through it). There were some good moments and very expressive character animation in the early shows, and I especially enjoyed the Benny Hill shout-out in Ticket Masters, but it wasn’t until about Dragonshy that it really began to take hold. Winter Wrap-Up was when I decided that this was a show I wanted to stay with; the music and staging and storytelling were simply outstanding.

The characters snuck up on me. The voice-acting in this show is great. To be honest, sometimes I’m not so impressed with the dialog as-written, but the actors really carry it through. Going through the first season for a second time was the real treat; having gotten to know the characters, I could appreciate the earlier shows much more.

Do you have a favorite episode?

Suited for Success. I’m a big fan of Steven Sondheim’s musicals, and also a big fan of character development. To be honest, Rarity really annoyed me up to that point; I saw her as a shallow drama-queen with little in the way of redeeming qualities. However, Suited for Success was, like Winter Wrap-Up, a musical treat, and Rarity’s handling of customers and their irrational, contradictory demands is something I understand all too well. This episode added a great deal of depth to Rarity’s character, explained why she was the way she was, and painted everything that had come before in a different light. I like Rarity now, where before I wouldn’t give her the time of day. Episodes that can make that kind of change are special.

Runners-up are Winter Wrap-Up (another musical masterpiece with an endearing theme), Dragonshy (big adventure, lots of fun, and kick-ass Fluttershy), The Best Night Ever (a truly celebratory, uplifting episode that perfectly wraps up season one), and Green Isn’t Your Color (more Flutter-Squee!).

The second season thus far (at the time of this writing, Hearts and Hooves Day) has had better character animation, but the stories have been less impactful. The editing hasn’t been as tight, and there haven’t yet been any stunning episodes like the ones mentioned earlier. Lesson Zero, Sisterhooves Social, and Family Appreciation Day have been very good, but nothing has reached the heights of Suited for Success or Winter Wrap-Up.

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)?

Applejack. I grew up on a ranch, and her outlook, ethical code and stubbornness are something I can really identify with. Applejack is best pony, and I ain’t a-gonna hear otherwise.

I also like Celestia. The fan handling of her in various incarnations (Trollestia, Molestia, the authority figure of the Solar Empire) do her a disservice. To be honest, I don’t give much weight to “fanon” interpretations, as in most cases it’s just projection that reveals more about the author/artist than about the character. While I enjoy fan material, and have produced a bit of it myself, I recognize that how fans interpret characters is often divorced from the show. Fans and fan-work don’t change my opinion often, and for me there’s only a couple of fan artists/writers whose material have truly elevated the show. That being said, the impact those fan-artists have had on my views of some of the characters and the show itself is profound.

My least-favorite character (aside from Spike, who suffers from Token Sidekickitis) is Luna. I don’t care for the direction the show took her in Luna Eclipsed, and I certainly didn’t buy into most of the fannish interpretations of Luna. I recognize the irony of saying this, as one of my stories is a Luna story.

How did you come up with your handle/penname?

The name comes from a role-playing game I ran back in the 80’s (remember when Dungeons and Dragons was a satanic indoctrination method protested by fat church-ladies?). Caerdwyn was the local mysterious heavy whose motivations you never were quite sure of.

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

I’ve been writing for a very long time; back in junior high school I was already cranking out stories. In college I double-majored: Computer Science and English (Creative Writing). Though my career has been in high tech, I’ve continued to write, and managed to get a few kudos for it along the way. I’ve won a few writing contests, been professionally published a couple of times, and wrote/edited/everything-except-drew a comic book series. I also have written song lyrics for musical friends.

MLP:FIM isn’t my first entry into fan fiction. Though most of my writing has been original material, I’ve done fanfic tied into online role-playing games that has been well-received. No Kirk/Spock slash-fiction from me, though; Spock has higher standards than that, and Kirk has needs more often than every seven years.

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

I’m a private pilot, shooter, gaming addict, ham radio operator, feeder of dogs, stealthy PMV director/editor, and pinball machine restorer.

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

J.R.R. Tolkien. No author at any point in history before or since, in any genre, has done as good a job of world-building. The depth of his creations and the joy he took in the craft of writing are true inspirations. While he was not-so-great at character or dialog, that’s not what I read and re-read The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion for. Perhaps this is because of my mumble-mumble years of running roleplaying games and creating gaming worlds, but what brings me back for a second or third reading is the setting.

For non-fantasy fiction, I’m a big fan of Larry Niven. He’s another great universe-builder, and when he teams up with Jerry Pournelle (who understands how to create believable characters well, and whose strengths complement Larry’s), they make for an unstoppable team. The Mote in God’s Eye stands out as the best first-contact science fiction novel I’ve ever read.

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 for myself. I really can’t get into anyone else’s head, and have found that if I target a specific individual, as often as not I get the opposite reaction I’d hoped for. There are people in my life whom I very much want to please with my writing, and whose opinions I greatly value. I don’t write “for” them though.

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

1. Grammar and spelling matter. If you want to write, you really do need to master this. Language is the tool you’re using; learn to use it. Know the difference between “too” and “to”. Know “they’re”, “their” and “there”. Don’t use apostrophes like a grocery-store advertisement. Put yourself on a strict low-exclamation-point diet. Learn, where, commas, do, and, do, not, go.

2. Read your dialog out loud. If it sounds wrong, it is wrong.

3. Cool it with the “purple prose” (look it up). Her name is Rainbow Dash, not “the brightly-colored mare”. Cutting down on the evocative text will make a story flow better and will let the story speak for itself; too much florid over-the-top verbiage will exhaust and irritate the reader. The longer the story, the less intense the word-choice needs to be. This is something I have trouble with from time to time.

4. When you finish your rough draft, for each character go through the story and read their dialog, skipping ahead from spoken line to spoken line. You’re looking for consistency in voicing and delivery. You also need to ensure your characters don’t all sound the same. It can help to pick one character at a time and make a complete editing pass for that character’s dialog all at once.

5. You don’t have to write the story straight through. Rough out the key scenes, then connect them.

6. Show your story to others. If they say that something isn’t clear or something bothers them or something is missing, the problem isn’t with them. Ultimately you won’t be there to answer a reader’s questions or clarify something; the story has to stand without you.

7. Don’t be afraid to set aside a story that’s not working. Move on to something else, and come back to it later.

8. The art of a good story is making characters that people will like, then hurting them. That being said, don’t be gratuitous. Too much emo will lose your readers every time.

9. If you write clopfics, fine, but remember that even in a clopfic what happens between the ears is far more important than what happens between the legs. The standards don’t slip just because the bedsheets are rumpled, and how the characters act and react must be credible.

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

I start with a premise and a couple of key scenes and work backwards from there. I will go through many drafts, changing words, messing with the pacing (cutting here, adding there). I’m one of those people who agonizes over every turn of phrase.

Writing for me is an exercise in connecting the dots. I write the pivotal scenes then fill between. Getting the good scenes down is very satisfying, and incentivises me to finish the story so those scenes don’t go to waste. I’ll take my incentive where I find it.

I have three friends whom I ask to review my stories. Two of them are skilled editors and professionally published authors; the third has probably read every MLP:FIM fanfic ever written. While I don’t always enact their suggestions, I do take their concerns very seriously. As mentioned earlier, the story has to stand on its own.

What inspired you to write A Shower of Stars?

I wanted to write a multi-chapter story. My first attempt, still incomplete, was an examination of Celestia’s mindset and what outliving all your friends can do to you. Boring! One of my friends lobbied heavily for a Rainbow Dash story, so I gave it a shot.

I’ve always viewed the Wonderbolts as a military demonstration team akin to the Blue Angels. In my view they’re soldiers with particularly good duty, but are also the ones who are the first line of defense when the shit hits the fan. (I was happy to see this borne out in Secret of My Excess, though I wished they were depicted as something other than buffoons.) Given that I’m a military brat, son of a career fighter pilot and a pilot myself, it was a natural source of inspiration (write what you know). I also had a point to make about the military’s role and the sacrifices that soldiers and sailors and airmen make for an often-unappreciative civilian population.

Did you run into any tough spots or challenges when writing A Shower of Stars?

The biggest issue was the action sequence in the last couple of chapters. The action was not something that would stretch out for too long, but it needed to have enough bulk in the story to sustain the pace and to drive home the point. I wrote it last because it was kicking my butt; I don’t like stretching a scene just to fill an allocation.

It didn’t help that I had a mental image of how it would play out if it were a comic or a movie. Comics and movies aren’t literature; they have different needs and different pacing. You can’t just describe a movie and expect it to become a book. Over-the-top emotional scenes are easy. Action sequences are hard.

When you set out to write A Shower of Stars, did you have any specific messages or themes in mind?

As mentioned earlier, I wanted to hit on the theme of appreciating veterans. The old saying of “soldiers die so that civilians can remain soft and ignorant” is very true.

I also believe that Rainbow Dash has the most “growing up” to do of the main cast, and is the least informed about what life is all about. People like Rainbow Dash don’t grow up until life slaps them in the face and forces them to, and I wanted to write a story that did exactly that. She also needed to demonstrate the element she represents, and the show itself has been lacking in that theme.

Where can readers drop you a line?

I check my DeviantArt account daily.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Be good to each other. The MLP:FIM fan community is enormously creative and has a lot going for it, but it’s fragile. I’ve seen how this plays out if the divisive elements are left unchallenged. I want this fandom to remain special for a long, long time, but that will require work from everyone involved.

Keep writing. Keep drawing. Love your ponies. Don’t troll. Love and tolerate that which is lovable and tolerable and turn your back on the rest.

Support the show. Buy pony swag. Buy pony shows. Put some cash into Hasbro’s pocket, because this show isn’t free to make. It’s YOUR job to make Hasbro glad they’ve made a good show and kept their mitts off of the fandom and out of the scripts.

And remember who’s Best Pony, y’all.

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