Friday, June 28, 2013

Bad Horse's Mortality Report

Something that Friendship is Magic doesn't let the casual watcher in on: it's friendship reports all the way down.

[Tragedy] • 4,300 words
Princess Celestia writes a report to her teacher on what she has learned about mortality.

Hit the break for a nice long chat with Bad Horse and links to Mortality Report out on the ponynet. As always, you can grab an ebook copy over at the Downloads page!

*This is the original draft.

Where do you live?

In a secret bunker near Washington, DC.

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

I've broken codes for the NSA, designed NASA's ACES air traffic simulator, developed a system for the Army to detect new computer viruses, designed an artificial intelligence infrastructure for DARPA, and worked on software for the NIH to automatically summarize medical journal articles. Now I'm working on software to detect infectious bacteria in the air from their DNA. If you can find the pattern there, let me know.

But really, I want to direct.

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

I saw users on say it was good. They're hardcore rationalists, not people I'd expect to be watching a little girls' show. So I watched a few episodes in secret. Didn't like the first two. I haven't liked any of the two-parters. They fall back into the G2 mold of being about fights with supervillains instead of about ponies. I tried one more, "The Ticket Master", and I was hooked. The plot was all about the characters and what they wanted. Other comedies shows you flawed characters to laugh at. MLP shows you characters with different strengths that clash with each other in funny ways. (So many people tell writers to make characters interesting by giving them flaws. Sure, if you want to write South Park.)

Do you have a favorite episode?

The idea that you can have a "favorite" is just one of the ways Plato has corrupted Western thought. But I love "Ticket Master", "Best Night Ever", "Look Before you Sleep", "Bridle Gossip", "Green Isn't Your Color", "Suited for Success", "Sleepless in Ponyville", & "Canterlot Wedding".

(Just kidding. I loathe "Canterlot Wedding". Though I admit "This Day" ties with Flim & Flam for best song.)

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)?

I don't always have favorites. But when I do, it's Twilight, either way. Applejack gets honorable mention for being the only pony who isn't batshit crazy.

How did you come up with your handle/penname?

By wondering how to manipulate people into reading my stories. Plus, it gives me an excuse to be evil.

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

I read thousands of short science fiction stories through high school, which was the worst possible training for me because it was the kind of story I liked most and therefore the kind I already naturally wrote. I read every "How to write" book I could find, subscribed to Writers' Digest, and minored in writing. I wrote mediocre science fiction & fantasy short stories, mostly of the Isaac Asimov school, where the story was just a vehicle to get an idea across. In grad school I papered my entire office door with the rejection slips for them. Then I went to Clarion, the science fiction & fantasy writing workshop, and I finally got two stories published immediately afterwards. About then I also got my first two scientific papers published. I'd struggled for years to get published, and when I finally was, nothing happened. Nobody ever told me they'd read my stories or my papers. So I stopped writing.

I didn't start again until last year. I'd given up on writing, because I'd convinced myself that you could either write interesting fiction, or entertaining fiction, but not both. Even Shakespeare, who's famous for writing for both the literati and the pit, did it by alternating between highbrow and lowbrow in a clumsy way that he only played for humorous contrast and that comes across as condescending. Then I read Fallout: Equestria. It proved that you can write fiction that's interesting and exciting at the same time.

Only later I realized why you never find writers who are both interesting and entertaining, and why it had to be a fan-fiction writer who combined the two again. There's probably always been a polarization between highbrow/intellectual and lowbrow/commercial. But for the past 100 years, it's been a war. The highbrow, serious, academic works in every art – literature, poetry, painting, architecture, music – deliberately cut themselves off from the mainstream and forced anyone who wanted to gain admission to their circles to make art that most people hated. I'm not making this up; you can still find manifestos that artists from the 1910s like Ezra Pound churned out like conspiracy-theorist blog posts, explaining why art has to be unpopular to be good. This is why, for example, the great poets of the 20th century, like Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, and Billy Collins, were insulated from academia or studied other, older traditions. Likewise, kkat probably didn't realize she was stepping into the middle of a war and was supposed to choose sides. If you write mass-market paperbacks, you're pretentious and artsy if you challenge the values of your target audience. If you write for a literary press, writing an exciting adventure would be gauche. It's not about art; it's about tribal affiliation.

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

I pick a hobby, set a goal, pursue it for a year or two, then move on to something else. So I can play a little trumpet, a little guitar, a little piano, and had a few fruitless years of voice lessons. I spent 3 years working out almost every day and monitoring my food obsessively, until I could bench 300 pounds. Then I quit. Now I'm a 180-lb weakling again.

I sign up for the crazy Groupon lessons: skydiving, scuba diving, stock car driving, medieval longsword, yoga, barbershop quartet. I do whatever it is for a week or couple of months, then move on. I use writing as an excuse—never know when you'll want to write about a skydiving barbershop quartet. I went through Army ROTC's 6-week basic camp at Fort Knox so I could write military characters (and survive a zombie apocalypse). But really I just want to do something different.

I take molecular biology laboratory courses at Johns Hopkins and at the NIH for fun. I'll be in a lab, transfecting DNA into mouse egg cells with serious professionals whose employers paid to fly them in from all over the world for training. They ask why I'm there, and I say, "I'm on vacation." I think the instructors are afraid of me.

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

Favorites again. Ray Bradbury for style, humor, wonder, and optimism. Peter Beagle for style and realistic heroism. Hemingway for understatement. Jorge Luis Borges and Dostoevsky for ideas. Jhumpa Lahiri for real-life problems and emotions (though it's always about the travails of yet another young Indian wife left alone during the day while her well-intentioned but insensitive Americanized husband teaches at a university). Terry Pratchett for laughs.

I don't have favorite novels, but I'll name some fantasy-type novels, to help stem the rising tide of "GAME OF THRONES IS THE BEST FANTASY SERIES EVAH!": The Last Unicorn, Titus Groan, Mythago Wood, Tapping the Dream Tree, The Princess Bride, Watership Down, Grendel, The Dark Tower (King, not Lewis), Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Night Watch (Lukyanenko, not Pratchett). Moby Dick is great if you forget its historical roots & read it as epic high fantasy. The best book you've never heard of may be Crazy Weather by Charles McNichols, which also has a historical setting (somewhere in Arizona or California around 1900 where the white, Indian, & Mexican worlds meet) more alien to me than any science fiction. Some other books that aren't technically fantasy, but have that sense of wonder, are Riddley Walker, Dandelion Wine, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and A Canticle for Leibowitz.

My fiction-reading fell when I realized that science and stories about other countries have the world-building and sense of wonder that I look for in science fiction and fantasy, and are true besides. If I read a novel now, it's likely to be foreign. American literary authors don't interest me, or anybody else, very much lately. Seems Americans have run out of things to say. I like how comfortable America is now, but the price is that the best we can produce is John Updike novels.

You can probably learn a lot from Tom Clancy and Robert Jordan. I found everything they wrote uninteresting and unmemorable, yet I couldn't stop reading. Their stories convinced me to stop writing, because I thought they proved that being entertaining had to come at the expense of being worthwhile.

(Tom Clancy had one of the same literature and writing professors that I did. After a few years, she took him aside and said, "Tom, I know you want to be a writer, but you just can't write." Years later, when he was invited to speak at the college, he said he'd do it if she introduced him, which she did. She loved my writing. That's probably a bad sign.)

In fanfiction, Skywriter. He won't just write a hilarious comedy; he'll write a hilarious comedy that's also an allegory or a deep character study. He's brilliant at the things I'm bad at, like making an opening catchy without a helicopter chase, or making dialogue interesting. device heretic is excellent at explicating deep and complex relationships, AbsoluteAnonymous at squeezing feels and insights out of simple ones. Cold in Gardez handles a broad range of story types expertly. Horse Voice plays the reader like an expert fisherman, letting out some line and then reeling it in, until he yanks them out at the end to leave them flopping on the ground and gasping for breath. darf is excellent when he's not writing porn. (And probably when he is, but I wouldn't know.) I might have mentioned GhostOfHeraclitus if he hadn't surpassed me in watchers after posting just 3 stories. Insolent upstart.

Also, Fallout: Equestria and Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality are required reading.

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?

My ideal reader is me, and an important lesson I learned writing fan-fiction is not write for myself. The last time I "wrote for myself" was a story to explain why Celestia really sent Luna to the moon, and I ended up with three pages of Celestia lecturing Twilight on the connections between deism, Buddhism, Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and BDSM. Ain't nopony else got time for that!

I don't just want to write. I want to make a connection with my readers. Storytelling is love; writing for yourself is masturbation. Telling a writer not to care what his readers want is like telling a lover just to blow his load and go to sleep, and if this reader doesn't like it, another will come along later.

You'll grow more as a writer if you write for others. I didn't think I could write comedy. I did, strictly to get into the featured box. Turns out I'm good at it, and it's fun (and I got into the featured box). I tried a little shipping, which I thought I hated, and I enjoyed that too. Who knows, maybe I'll write clop and gore someday.

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

Make friends with other writers. I wouldn't have kept writing without constant feedback and encouragement from GhostOfHeraclitus, and some of my stories wouldn't have been as good. Chess Kitteh, Georg, bookplayer, JMac, and Cypher also have my thanks. BUT, it's hard for an unknown writer to get this kind of help from a well-known one. They have too many requests. Keep your eye out for great new writers who are less well-known than you are, and talk to them when you find them.

Admit to yourself what you want from writing. Don't be that guy who says he writes only to express himself, then complains that he doesn't get enough readers.

Don't start with a novel. It will suck, and you won't know why (or even know that it does), because it will be too complex for you to understand without having analyzed many simpler, shorter stories. Better to make ten simple 10,000-word mistakes than one complex 100,000-word one.

Edit other people's stories. People whose writing is at least as good as yours. The most time-consuming part of learning from mistakes is making the mistakes. Let other people make them for you. (BTW, checking grammar and spelling is proofreading, not editing. Editing means thinking about the story very hard, then summarizing in a few sentences how to make it even better. A good long non-grammar-focused Equestria Daily rejection should give you an idea of what that means.)

Experiment. Make hypotheses and test them. Split some of your stories into small chapters, and keep track of what fraction of people who read each chapter go on to read the next chapter. Find the places where you lose readers, figure out what's wrong with them, fix them, and see if the numbers change. Delete the first chapter. Post different versions to and, or the same version with different titles, and compare the numbers. Take advice from pre-readers that you think is bad sometimes, just to try it out.

Write fan-fiction. In print, you write a story, spend 3 months sending it around, finally get it accepted, wait 3 months for it to come out, then wait 2 months to get a one-line review on somebody's website. I can get an idea on Friday, write it over the weekend, post it on Monday, and have a hundred comments on Tuesday. I get metrics: How many people read it? How many went on to chapter 2? How many liked/disliked it? What did they say? What did they understand?

There are many classes and books to teach you about writing. But most can only teach how to write stories that writers and editors like. Until recently, no one has known what readers really want, because readers only get to see what passes the filter of writers and editors. The professionals were probably taken by surprise by the success of Cowboys and Aliens and John Dies at the End, but fan-fiction readers could have easily predicted their success. It's also only on fan-fiction sites that we can get much information about how readers behave and respond. Only by writing fan-fiction did I learn things like:

The other members of your writing group will read your entire story. Readers will stop after 500 words if you haven't grabbed them.

Most readers who quit, do so on the first chapter, regardless of how long or short it is. If you can get them to click on "Next chapter" just once, you've got them. People don't like making decisions twice.

Luck matters. A lot. So does quantity. Got the wrong pre-reader at EqD? Story approved at 4AM? Sorry, you wasted a month of writing. Try again. Success = quality × quantity × luck.

Something like half the readers of Sisters read it because of the Calvin & Hobbes picture. Look at the picture on Biblical Monsters. It's a great story, but that wouldn't have mattered if it'd had a picture from the Pony Creator.

Word-of-mouth doesn't work. Brilliant writing will not make you popular. (Case in point: DuncanR.) Get onto EqD or into the featured box if you want to be popular.

Some of the things writers love – ideas, themes, dialogue – bore most readers. Nothing turns readers off faster than two characters talking about an idea. Don't dismiss them as "not your readers." You have to have something for everyone, or no one (including your ideal readers) will find your stories.

Writers love subtlety. But if 2 out of 3 other writers pick up on something in a story, maybe 1 in 3 readers will get it. Reserve subtlety for easter-eggs, not for plot points. A writing teacher of mine praised a famous Steinbeck story I later ripped off, "The Chrysanthemums", for its subtlety. Steinbeck mentions a speck up ahead in the road, and to understand the story the reader must realize what the speck is, how it got there, and what that implies. That's way too subtle. If Steinbeck had posted it on FIMFiction he'd have gotten pages of comments saying "WTF, bro?"

Emotion trumps content. If there's a message in your story, but it runs counter to the mood, readers will miss it.

If you compile a list of famous authors' favorite novels, the top of the list will always have War and Peace, Ulysses, and Madame Bovary. If you compile a list of novels that readers hate most, you'll find the same books at the top of the list. Admit that some crucial aspects of those famous (and wonderful) books are awful almost beyond belief.

Another reason to write fan-fiction is to learn how popularity works. Suppose you work hard for years, and learn to write well, and publish a lot. Will you get better? Will you become rich and famous? In fan-fiction, you can study this empirically. You can publish a chapter or a short story every two weeks, become famous in six months, and retire, jaded and burnt out on fan hatred, in a year.

I'm not as good a writer as I want to be, but I know now that technical ability isn't what limits my popularity. I can decide now how much I want to be popular and how much I want to be me. Before fan-fiction, you had to write for twenty years and become a bitter, disillusioned alcoholic first. I don't have to angst over whether to prostitute my art for popularity; I've already done it, and I liked it.

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

I don't get inspired and then have a masterpiece flow out of me. My writing is slow, plodding, and deliberate.

I start with ideas: some characters, a set of dramatic moments, a feeling, maybe a theme. I figure out a story that can fit them together. I get an outline in my head, maybe write it on paper, then start writing those parts that are clear to me, regardless of where they are in the story. Often the ending comes first. I write outwards from those islands of story until the pieces come together. I move sentences and paragraphs around a lot. The longer the story, the more things change. The first draft of the first chapters of "The Detective and the Magician", my Holmes/Trixie story, had Holmes visiting Ponyville to investigate reports of the doings of Pinkie Pie, and Twilight intriguing Holmes while Watson fell for Rarity. I let it sit, and Trixie came along, insisted she was a far superior Irene Adler, kicked the other mares out of the story, and dragged it along after her to Fillydelphia.

Once the first draft is finished, I go through and fill in names and places and other details I didn't bother coming up with during the draft, fix the grammar, add descriptions and pretty phrases, cut out things that don't contribute, fix the places where I called Rainbow Dash "him", and throw out adverbs and those stupid apologetic qualifying phrases I keep writing that make me sound like I'm trying to be polite, or English. Then I rewrite, again and again, until all the jokes fall flat with me and I can't tell anymore whether it's good or awful. Then I go through a checklist that I add to every time I find I've done some new stupid thing. Then I ask pre-readers for comments, argue with them, and rewrite it again. Then I set it aside for a few weeks while I try to get cover art. Sometime during those weeks, I realize what story I'm really trying to tell, figure out what the theme is, and make changes to bring the theme out. I may rewrite it starting from a different scene or a different point of view. If it survives that, and it's over 2500 words, I recheck the commas and semi-colons and submit it to EqD, and they make me edit it again. Then I post it. Then I see the comments and realize I've done something incredibly stupid, add that to my checklist, and edit the story again.

I have a terrible memory; I have trouble remembering my own phone number. But after working on a story for a couple of weeks, I have it almost memorized. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with the realization that one word somewhere is not the best word, and I have to get up, turn on the computer, and fix that word before I can sleep again.

Having smart pre-readers is important. One or two isn't enough, because there's some crucial realization you need, and the odds against any one person having it are high. Sometimes a pre-reader understands my story better than I do. Ideally, I'd like to have as a pre-reader everybody who's new stuff I've already decided to read anyway. If I'm watching you, I'd probably like to do some mutual pre-reading with you.

I can't imagine releasing chapters before having the entire story written. After "finishing" Detective & Magician, I had to change most of the earlier chapters to lead up to the ending.

What inspired you to write Mortality Report?

Getting sick of stories about how terrible it was to be immortal.

Did you run into any tough spots or challenges when writing Mortality Report?

The whole process took three months. The first version, which is still on, was just Celestia's letter. It was 2000 words long, dry, abstract, and people hated it. 10 people read chapter 1; only one of them read chapter 2. (For comparison, if 10 people read a story with bad grammar about a black-and-red alicorn who screws Fluttershy while quoting Strong Bad, 5 of them go on to chapter two. I've counted.) I showed it to some good writers, and most thought it was unsalvageable. But some smart people – not writers, but abstract thinkers like me – loved it, and pestered me not to give up on it.

I thought and thought about how to make it something other readers would like. I thought maybe they hated it because of the unpopular ideas in it, so I temporarily posted a "bizarro world" version on ponyfictionarchive that was almost the same, but with all of the themes inverted to say the opposite thing. It didn't make any difference.

Up until then, when faced with a story that bored people, I'd always made it shorter. Sometimes that's the right thing to do, like with "Twenty Minutes". That story originally had 2000 words of scenery and background in the first chapter, and was more-hated than the original Mortality Report. About 1 in 20 readers went on to chapter two. I cut it to 1500 words, and still nobody went on to chapter 2. I cut it to 1000 words – still no luck. I cut it to 444 words, and suddenly half the readers went on the chapter 2 (after which they usually went on to chapter 3; the hook is in chapter 2). Then I combined the first two chapters and posted it to fimfiction. (Well, first I completely rewrote the story with the second half coming first and the first half retold in narrative, changed the plot, and then threw it out and went back to the first version. That happens.)

I couldn't make Mortality Report any shorter. I had to make it longer, adding material that would be more interesting to most readers. The people who loved the 2000-word story were my ideal readers, and I didn't want to destroy the story for them by diluting it. But if I didn't make it accessible, most ideal readers would never find out about it.

I embedded the letter-writing within a story, stretching it out to over 3000 words and changing some things from general observations to specific recollections. EqD pre-reader 63.546 said it still wasn't engaging enough, so I expanded two more sections into a flashback and a recollection, bringing it to 4100 words. Then I was stuck. The story still had a lot of talking and not much action, but I didn't think I could make it any bigger. It's an idea story. If I went beyond 5000 words, readers would get lost in the story and lose track of the ideas. If I stated the ideas bluntly, readers would reject them. But the pre-reader was happy with the revisions, so I said, "The hell with it, post it and see if anybody likes it."

The recollections added to make it more engaging also make it more confusing, because they focus the story more on Celestia being sad, and less on what she's doing and why. It might help if I added a recollection showing Celestia being happy, instead of having just sad recollections that are there to explain the mismatch between her responsibility and her personality.

More readers misinterpreted it than understood it. I think they just conjoin the situation and the characters' moods and assume a direct causal relation: "Immortal pony is sad, therefore immortality is sad."

When you set out to write Mortality Report, did you have any specific messages or themes in mind?

My Celestia likes being immortal. But she wants to be a mother to Twilight more than she wants to live forever. The story is also about what people really mean when they say they want a purpose in life, and why it might be an awful thing for some people to actually have one. (I see I blogged about that theme in connection with Shutdown around the time I was starting Mortality Report.) Another theme is the same as in The Cold Equations: Being moral doesn't mean being nice. Unlike Cold Equations, I tried to put a human, er, pony, face on each position: Celestia as nice, Twilight as moral. In that way, it says the opposite of Cold Equations, because we know that Twilight isn't cold at all. As Celestia says, "She has true love, which seeks the best for the object of its affections."

There are at least two other interpretations. Celestia might not be doing the right thing, but just rationalizing away her desire to be a real mother to Twilight. Giving her life is a literal way to do that. A third interpretation is that Titania is in the wrong, and Celestia is consciously or subconsciously washing her hands of the master plan and resigning her commission.

Where can readers drop you a line?

Email A PM to Bad Horse on fimfiction works, but it's easier to reply in gmail. Or start a discussion in the writers' forum, and I might see it. I wish more people would use that forum. FIMFiction blogs and groups are nice, but not very good at creating a community or providing people who don't have hundreds of watchers a way to start a discussion.

Sometimes people I don't know ask me to pre-read their stories. If they're one of my watchers, I want to do something for them. Yet I'd rather read for the shy person who didn't ask me because they didn't want to impose. So last Christmas I said that I'd read at least 1000 words, once, for any of my watchers, in order of when they started watching me. Don't know if I'll do that again. It took a long time. But I'm afraid that pesky Christmas spirit may seize me again.

You can recommend other peoples' stories to me, but please don't ask me to recommend your own stories on my blog. Awkward.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I blog about writing fiction, for intermediate to advanced writers, and to trick my clever readers into solving my writing problems for me. Some examples:

Writing: Relating plot and character
Some numbers
Radiers of the Lost Ark
My favorite first sentences
Theme and plot: A Canterlot Carol
Review: The Hobbit
Why Fallout: Equestria is Worth Reading Even if You Hate it
Jack Bickham, My Strange Hero
Mask of the Sorceror: Too much wonder
Show and Tell 1
War and Peace, truth and fiction
How not to ship the Mane 6 with each other
Does grammar matter?

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