Friday, February 15, 2013

GhostOfHeraclitus's Whom the Princesses Would Destroy...

Ah, the unsung heroes of the world. The janitors, the garbage-ponies, the staffers of the Equestria Civil Service. The glue and the lubricant that holds society together and keeps it running smoothly. Always a shame when something gums up the works...

[Comedy][Slice-of-Life] • 19,700 words
To Twilight Sparkle and Princess Celestia, it is a simple surprise visit to Canterlot. To the ponies of the Equestrian Civil Service, it is twenty-four hours of chaos, politics, weaponized dessert, politics, underhooved manipulation of media, politics, and things batrachian and tentacular. Who said bureaucracy isn't exciting?

Hit the break for a chat with GhostOfHeraclitus, and links to Whom the Princesses Would Destroy... out on the ponynet. Don't forget to grab a copy in your preferred ebook format over at the Downloads page!

Where do you live?

For personal reasons I tend not to be free with this information. ‘An undisclosed location somewhere in the Balkans’ will have to do.

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

I’m a grad student, working on a doctorate in applied computer science and, as part of that, I work as a researcher and a teacher.

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

It kept showing up in the oddest places. TvTropes kept listing examples, io9 kept reporting on it, and so on. Naturally I grew curious, but I was put off by how saccharine it all seemed. At one point, just as the Skyrim hype rose to fever pitch, I saw the My Little Skyrim video and thought to myself, "That's a very cute drawing style. And, stab me, the show looks epic." So, I resolved to only watch the first episode, just to make sure I wouldn't actually like it. Get it out of my system as it were.

I realized I was a fan, some hours and the entirety of the first season later, when I called a friend of mine and had, roughly, this conversation:

"I come to you with a revelation," said I, with the air of someone coming down a mountain with a collection of stone tablets.

"Go on," he replied in the both wary and weary tone of someone who had fielded this type of call in the past.

"In a war between ponies and the Warhammer 40k universe, the ponies would win."

"...I thought you didn't take drugs."

"Don't need drugs. I have ponies."

Luckily, I have very understanding friends.

Do you have a favorite episode?

As much as I adore the first season, my very favorite episode is from the second: "It's About Time." It's all that's best about MLP: half adorable, half hilarious. I also have a soft spot for "Dragonshy" and "Bridle Gossip." Oh, and "Read it and Weep". And I better stop here lest I list pretty much all of them.

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)?

Twilight Sparkle. No doubt whatsoever. I'm a fan of all of the mane six, of course, but Twilight Sparkle will always be best pony. Perhaps being a massive nerd myself, I'm a touch biased. She's also fun to write about given that she possesses both a razor sharp intellect and a unique talent for being oblivious. There's potential for both tragedy and comedy there that's a true gift to any writer.

If I include fanfiction and such, I'm a fond of a lot of interpretations of background ponies, especially Vinyl and Octavia. I'm always stunned by how carefully and thoroughly the fandom fleshed out even the most obscure of characters who appear silently in the background for three frames of episode twenty-three or something.

How did you come up with your handle/penname?

The funny thing about my penname is how poorly it fits now. I've always found Heraclitus interesting, and his "The learning of many things teaches not understanding" is a little shard of wisdom of particular significance to me, personally. Heraclitus is also fascinating because of how little we know about him, and how just about everything we do know comes from the reflections of others who spoke little of him, but were unanimous in terming him "The Obscure."

But that's not why I chose it as a penname. I chose it because I felt that GhostOfHeraclitus would encapsulate perfectly how I normally behave when joining a fandom: I lurk, ghostlike, in the background and very rarely do I comment, and when I do, it's usually in the form of obscure pronouncements, both gnomic and eristic, commonly decrying human nature. Clearly, things haven't quite worked out that way, and now the name is a bit of a misnomer.

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

Being a researcher of sorts, I write a lot of papers. I also did some amateur journalism a while back. But pony fanfiction is the very first bit of fiction writing I did which I then showed to someone. I've been writing pretty much all my life, but up until quite recently pretty much all of it ended up in the trash. What inspired me to stick with it was seeing how much good writing the fandom had, and getting a lot of encouragement and some wonderful pre-readers.

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

If I discount my actual job, I read a lot and I read widely, flitting from research topic to research topic, or from author to author, as the mood strikes me. I also enjoy video games, board games, and, most of all, pen-and-paper roleplaying games. Lastly, I'm a big fan of tea, and so I spend considerable time experimenting with steeping times, blended varieties, and so on, and one of these days I'll figure out a way to blend wild thyme and Assam together properly.

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

Oh, I can't possibly choose just one. If I had to, at gunpoint, choose a small group it'd have to be Terry Pratchett, Jorge Luis Borges, Iain (M.) Banks, and John Milton. It's an odd bunch, but each is important to me in different ways. Terry Pratchett taught me to love English as a language more than any other author, and showed me that humor does not preclude profundity. Borges enchanted me with a sort of playful erudition that's a wonder to behold. He's also, I frequently claim, the very first geek. He not only wrote fanfiction himself (of Swedenborg, no less!) but he'd also, I maintain, completely understand why TvTropes has pages and pages of detailed natter about an entirely fictional series of Daring Do books. Iain Banks, with or without the M, is a great stylist of extraordinary inventiveness, and I am especially fond of his Culture novels—they are much like the exciting space opera adventures I enjoyed as a child, but properly grown up and demonstrating a brilliant grasp of characterization. Last, but by no means least, Milton makes the list for a mastery of grandiloquence that is second to none. I must have read Paradise Lost a dozen times, but there are still turns of phrase in there that give me goose-bumps. Now that I've named these, I'm just about squirming about not naming others, people like Charlie Stross, Tolkien, Dostoyevsky, or Coleridge, but if I must draw a line somewhere, it'd be under those four names.

I also read a lot of nonfiction, and while I play favorites less with my nonfiction reading, I have to mention at least one name: Carl Sagan. I can't imagine anyone who's had as profound an influence on the way I think than him. In the realm of fanfiction there's quite a few people I'm a fan of. I won't mention any because I'm a friend of not a few and it'd be odd if they read me gushing. And, make no mistake, I would gush. There are some truly spectacular writers in the ponyfic world. I'm enough of a nerd to have read some fanfic in other fandoms, but, seriously, nothing else I saw compares. That being said, I will mention one story from a different fandom that I'm quite fond of: Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. The writing can be a bit hit and miss at times, but none can fault it for richness of ideas.

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?

Not really. One part of writing and having my words read that I really like is seeing all sorts of different reactions to my stories. So, I guess that my ideal reader is somewhere between the reader that sees something I buried deep in the story, almost just for myself, and the reader that sees something new I never consciously put there.

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

I can't really see myself as much of an authority, but here's a few things that have helped me considerably:

1. Find a pre-reader. Pre-readers, or editors as they call them in the Real World, are indispensable to just about any writer. It's not just the typos, commas, and such. A good editor will also provide feedback on your style, plotting, characterization, and so on, giving you a chance to figure out what works and what doesn't. Heavens know I'd be lost without mine.

2. Give yourself permission to be terrible. A lot of people[1] who'd quite like to write have a neurotic need to make everything absolutely perfect for their first story. As a result they revise endlessly, throw things away, and fuss and fiddle and never get anything done. My advice is to let yourself be terrible. Don't delete things, just get the words on the page and worry about quality later. The important first step is to get yourself writing, then worry about how well you're doing. It seems counter-intuitive, but it does work. Just be aware that you'll be doing an astonishing amount of revising, editing, and chucking entire screenfuls of text away. There is an old writerly chestnut that says "All writing is rewriting." In time you will come to understand that this is true.

3. Pre-read for someone. Trying to be an editor is difficult business but it will teach you an astonishing amount about what makes stories tick. When you see a finished story, especially if the author's good, you may be tempted to think that such a wonderful thing must have sprung fully formed, Athena-like, from the writer's forehead. Seeing the messy and, on occasion, painful method by which stories are actually assembled is not only very instructive, it also does wonders for your self-confidence.

4.Read widely. It's a tad redundant to tell aspiring writers to read, undoubtedly they do so already. But what I would suggest is to make a conscious effort to read things outside your comfort zone, and, especially, outside your chosen genre. I'd suggest making excursions outside fiction itself, and reading as much nonfiction as you can. The real world's a great place to find ideas. Though, if you aren't careful, you may end up seriously considering writing a story about commodities index investment in Equestria.

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

Generally, once I have an idea for a story, I outline it, frequently going through several different approaches until I find something I'm happy with. Then I write draft zero, trying to get as much writing done as I can, and eschewing editing altogether. Then I send this to a pre-reader or ten and listen very carefully to what they have to say or, on occasion, scream. Then, I rewrite the story, thus creating Draft 1. Then after a few rounds of editing and an argument or two, I post the story.

What inspired you to write Whom the Princesses Would Destroy...?

Well, this is embarrassing. You see, I never set out to write Whom the Princesses Would Destroy... I set out to write this vast ambitious adventure story which was (very provisionally) titled Gods of Equestria. But I realized that I shouldn't start something that big without some practice first, so I decided to write a short comedic one-shot, no more than two thousand words in length. Just to see if I could. Well, after some writing, I turned in about nine thousand words of my two thousand word story to my pre-readers who, after due consideration, gave me a laundry list of problems. Reacting decisively, as is my wont, I decided to be depressed for a while.

After I got over myself, I decided to really think about my characters, about who they were and what they did, and rewrote the story. My two thousand word comedic one-shot now had almost nineteen thousand words, but the problems were very nearly solved, and in the process I realized that writing with actual themes is vastly more fun and fulfilling.

Did you run into any tough spots or challenges when writing Whom the Princesses Would Destroy...?

The whole business of not setting out to write it in the first place aside, I did have considerable difficulty with the very start of it, trying to make the beginning engaging while offloading a lot of exposition. I'm still not quite happy with how it came off, but it's better than it used to be. Still, if I wrote it again, I'd extend the story a bit so that you see the Civil Service cast of characters solving what, to them, is an usual problem in a way that defines their characters clearly, in the style of the first episode of the show. Complexities can come later.

When you set out to write Whom the Princesses Would Destroy..., did you have any specific messages or themes in mind?

Not at first, no. Originally it was written very haphazardly. But, as it happens, during a rewrite I did think about it a bit more seriously and came up with a number of themes I decided I could explore. Some are tied to characters, and haven't been fully explored yet—like the nature of loyalty. Dotted is loyal to Celestia, and it is my intention to explore what this loyalty really means. A simpler theme in Whom the Princesses Would Destroy... is the notion of the bureaucrat as a heroic figure. They may use various forms of chicanery and deceit, but ultimately the Civil Service is loyal, there's that word again, to the Equestrian people. Even if Equestrians are fickle, and altogether too easily taken with things like decorative leeches.

The notion behind the heroic bureaucrat is to serve as the antidote to all those stories where Celestia is bored to tears by stuffy officials by asking "So what do all those stuffy officials actually do? What are they like? Do they want to be stuffy, or is it a job requirement?" I got the idea, in a roundabout way, from Terry Pratchett who set about writing Guards! Guards! by asking what another stock character type, that of the hapless guard, was really like.

Where can readers drop you a line?

I can always be reached at

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

It may seem tawdry, but I really want to thank my pre-readers and various pony-collaborators: Bad Horse, Dagger Tongue, Device Heretic, Kobalstromo, PoweredByTea, PrettyPartyPony, Skywriter, toafan, Varanus, and the people I forgot because I have the memory of a boiled potato. You guys are magnificent, and I couldn't have managed any of this without you.
[1] My charming pre-reader, Bad Horse, insists that I mention that I too suffered from this problem.

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