Friday, June 21, 2013

Jake The Army Guy's Under a Luminous Sky

Even the magical land of Equestria isn't always safe from darkness and deceit. Luckily, certain special ponies are ready to fight for their way of life.

[Dark] • 99,700 words
Ponyville, the humble village known for its peaceful tranquility, is shaken to its core when a body is discovered in the Everfree Forest. As the townsponies grieve, the strange, pale Special Agent Bentgrass, from Their Majesties' Royal Investigative Service, arrives at the Books and Branches library and drags Twilight into a world she's only read about: lies, corruption, suspicion, and murder.

Faced with an indifferent police force and Agent Bentgrass's infuriating methods, Twilight must put the pieces together and catch the killer. But as blood continues to spill and questions pile up, one thing is terrifyingly clear: in the dark of the Everfree, much more is at play than mere murder.

Hit the break for a talk with Jake (and check out the video interview he recently did with PiquoPie!) and links to Under a Luminous Sky out on the ponynet. Don't forget to grab your own ebook copy over at the Downloads page!

Where do you live?

I am currently stationed at Fort Benning, GA. Thirty miles from water, two feet from Hell.

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

I'm an orangutan groomer. When I find the time off from that, I'm a Staff Sergeant in the US Army. By trade, I'm a Public Affairs Specialist/Broadcast Journalist. Depending on where I'm stationed, I make radio and TV newscasts for the Army, or I do public affairs and media relations. I'm currently halfway through a two year tour of duty as a Drill Sergeant. Yes, those guys in the big brown hats that yell at people. I teach, train, and turn civilians into soldiers. It's a very tasking job, but there's nothing quite like knowing that I had a hand in forming the future of the entire US Military.

Oh, and I get to scream and cuss at people. And make them do push-ups. That's always a bonus.

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

I first heard about the show from Memebase. As a brief aside, Memebase has introduced me to my two favorite TV shows, Doctor Who and MLP. Who would have thought a website born of the idiocy and randomness of /b/ would lead to such an enriching era of my life. Huh, trippy.

Anywho, this was back at the start of season two, when I was stationed in Korea. I would troll Memebase while I pretended to do actual work, and I started to see memes and macros based on the show, and I thought they were cute, kinda funny. The ponies were very aesthetically appealing, and the jokes were all about being so proud of liking this silly-looking show. Slowly, I began to actually look for these memes, until one day I realized that I went there specifically for pony pics. So, I figured, "Eh, what the hell? Let's give it a shot."

That night after work I went to Youtube and simply put in "My Little Pony," intent on watching the first episode that came up, which happened to be Swarm of The Century. I chortled at Pinkie's antics, I d'awwd a bit at Fluttershy, the usual first time reactions. All in all, I said what most of us said after that first one: "Huh, that wasn't that bad. It was actually kinda good!" So, I watched another one. One became two, two became three, and three became oh my god, I have to wake up for PT in an hour, what the hell?! About a week later, after watching every episode, I realized that I must, indeed, be a brony. ‘Twas a moment of self-actualization and horrible acceptance that may not be rivaled in my lifetime.

Do you have a favorite episode?

Definitely "Applebuck Season". People much more eloquent and much smarter than I have gone into much detail about how much this episode is much better than others. Much. Much, much, mu—ahem... sorry.

I'll simply point out a few of the things that make this one stand out. First, it's the first episode to center on best pony, so there. The excellent writing combined with the superb timing in both the dialogue and the animation made for some of the funniest bits in the entire show. Sleep-deprived Applejack is dangerously adorable. Having been on some epic-length patrols in Iraq, I can totally relate to her and confirm that yeah, lack of sleep does that to you. Though, after 72 straight hours in a tank in Sadir City in July, I doubt I was as cute as AJ was. The excellent voice work of Ashleigh Ball, some of the best animation in early season one, and the introduction of the concept of "Applebucking." For real, I could go for a long time on why this is the best episode.

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)?

Well, if the above spiel didn't tip you off, Applejack is best pony in canon. Now, a lot of people may say that she doesn't have enough strong episodes, that she's just a character for the others to bounce from, to which I say: yeah. She's a rational, level-headed, grounded pony. I'm sorry if that doesn't make for interesting TV antics, but we can't all be hyper and crazy. The fact is that Applejack is the only fully matured character on the show, and yes, that includes Twilicorn. She has no aspirations... because she's already achieved them. AJ is simple, but simple doesn't mean boring. She loves her family, she loves her farm. She doesn't want fancy things out of life, she just wants to buck apples. Also, I'm a sucker for freckles.

Wait, um... nevermind that last bit...

If we're talking fanon, then I have give it to my main man Spike. To me, Spike represents the character with the most dramatic potential. A dragon amongst ponies, raised away from his own kind, destined to outlive his family by centuries. Plus, he's the most useful child character. He's mature enough to be able to rein in Twilight or help the Mane Six out with serious issues, but still young enough to be able to get into childhood antics. I say fanon because due to the nature of the show, a light-hearted slice-of-life cartoon, they'll never be able to use him at his full potential.

Plus, Spike got dat swag.

How did you come up with your handle/penname?

My name is Jake, I'm in the Army, and... well, I think you can figure out the rest.

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

I write for copy, which is so different from writing fiction that it doesn't count as the same thing. In fact, that was one of the biggest hurdles I faced when I began my little foray into fiction: unlearning all the grammar and style rules that the military journalism school, DINFOS, drilled into my head. Pony fiction was the first time I ever tried my hand at creative writing, and Under a Luminous Sky was the very first thing I ever tried to write.

These days in addition to writing fiction, I also do fan fiction reviews for FOB Equestria, a military-themed brony website.

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

I spend entirely too much time with poni poni poni. Some may say there's no such thing, but... meh. When I'm not ponying, my big passion in life is heavy metal. Metallica, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Slayer, Megadeth, Overkill, ad infinitum. Metal is the one subject that I could speak on longer than pony. I also play drums.

Beyond that, I'm a horror movie buff, into vidya games, and generally things that keep me inside.

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

Obviously, at least to some, my favorite authors are Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. I never really read much, until someone left a copy of The Cabinet of Curiosities laying in the barracks back in 2005. Since then, I have read their entire library, including the books they published individually. Very recently I've been trying to up my hipster cred by reading some poetry. Robert Frost, Lewis Carroll, Longfellow, the classics.

As far as fanfiction, I can't pick just one. I am constantly trying to Frankenstein myself aspects from my favorite authors. Short Skirts and Explosions—when he's not effusing his literary endeavors with the sickly sweet syrup of purple prose, encasing them in superfluous words, a cocoon of needless descriptors that chokes the pace out of the story like so many sinewy vines of ivy suffocating even the most abundant of gardens—has a way with dialogue that makes me all moist and gooey inside; The Descendant has this artistic, visual way of writing that gets me every time; and dozens of other writers have little things that I try to steal... er, I mean tactically acquire.

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 editors. If I can impress them, then I have done my job.

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

Every day a Private will come up to me and ask how he can do better at his push-ups. I always say the same thing:

"Do more push-ups."

NEVER STOP WRITING! For me, writing can be very stressful. Even when I have a clear vision as to what happens in a chapter, sometimes it can be hard to squeeze the words out. Walk away for a bit if you have to, but come back.

Find dedicated pre-readers. Dropping your story off on some random thread on /fic/ is good for honing your skills, but once you begin to seriously write, get someone you trust to work with you. Having someone who knows your style can help you break past blocks, and they can help tease out those little details that elude you sometimes.

Get over yourself. This can be taken in two ways. Firstly, never think you're so good you can't learn anything new, and never rebuke honest criticism, no matter how harsh. When someone tells you your story sucked, just remember that means they liked it enough to read it to the end.

The second way, and the way that I have to take it, is stop thinking down on yourself. My editors are most likely tired of my constant self-defacement. See, I suffer from I-Think-Everything-I-Write-Is-Crap syndrome. Literally every scrap of prose I write I feel is the worst drivel ever. If I listened to that voice, I'd never write again. You have to ignore that niggling feeling, push past it and just write. The first draft of everything is crap, and usually the second and third, as well. Don't be afraid to write badly. Or, as Ernest Hemingway put it, "write drunk, edit sober."

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

Very... odd. I tend to visualize dialogue in my head first, planning it out kind of like a movie. The way I flesh the dialogue out is I act it out, i.e. I speak the lines. This has gotten me more than a few odd glances, as I sometimes forget where I am and start having conversations with Twilight Sparkle at the Waffle House.

Once I have a semi-firm grasp on things (that's what she sa—I... I am so, so sorry), I begin to write. For some reason, I can never write at my computer. Whenever I try, it usually ends up with me staring at a blank screen for an hour telling myself that I suck. Google Docs' mobile app has saved my life. I have no idea why, but I write so much better spur of the moment. Especially at work, when I can sneak away from the Privates for a few minutes, whip out my iPhone and type a bit. This has the bad habit of making my pre-readers want to murder me, because I always end up typing "if" and "in" instead of "of" and "on."

Speaking of those glorious human beings, after I get a final draft, I send it off to my two pre-readers, Golden Vision and Pilot. They tear it to shreds, I weep and work on it. Once they approve, I send it to my final guy, Piquo Pie, who serves as an editor. He gives it a final glance for errors or gaping plot holes, then off to publish.

What inspired you to write Under a Luminous Sky?

In case you haven't noticed from my long-winded nature, I absolutely love telling stories. Having someone sit down and be engaged by something I'm telling them is a high that never gets old. I never thought I would do anything with it, though. Only professional authors can write good stories, right? Initially, I avoided fan fiction for the same reasons most people do at first: I thought it was self-indulgent crap, wish-fulfillment, self-insert wankery. Even in my initial descent into bronydom, I cruised right past the fanfics on EqD.

Then I saw Silent Ponyville. Wait, Pinkie Pie... goes to Silent Hill? This can only end in awesomeness.

After that, I quickly set about devouring all the "classics" in the fandom. As I did, I quickly realized that these aren't trained authors; they're just normal people that wanted to tell a story. Having just finished two straight years of writing radio news stories, I decided that I had a story to tell, as well. I had, at the time, never read a noir/murder mystery with pony, and felt that I could do the genre justice in pony form. After a lot of hard-earned lessons, of course. It really is the same answer a lot of authors give: I wrote the story I wanted to read.

Did you run into any tough spots or challenges when writing Under a Luminous Sky?

Maintaining the tone. Writing dark fiction in a universe like MLP is a tricky thing. The first instinct is to go full ret—er, full rainbow, we'll say, and crank the dark knob to eleven. Now, many great fanfics have done this, like The Immortal Game, The Night that Never Ended, and the aforementioned Silent Ponyville. But in doing so, those fics, in my humble opinion, lost that MLP kitsch. They are still amazing stories, but they stopped feeling like My Little Pony and became Pastel-Colored Talking Miniature Horses Get Murdered.

That wasn't what I wanted to do. I wanted a world as close to canon as possible: a bright, cheery world of sunshine, rainbows, and fairy farts in which something happens that the ponies don't normally see: murder. It was a constant struggle to maintain that balance. Often times my pre-readers would have to rein me back in because I went too dark, or conversely, I went too happy and broke the atmosphere.

That, and keeping the characters consistent. Not letting Twilight slip into sidekick territory, keeping Bentgrass delightfully enigmatic and not aggravatingly annoying.

And Zecora. Dear, sweet, bald baby Jebus, I hate writing dialogue for Zecora. I want to find whoever it was that decided having Zecora speak in rhyme was a good idea and punch him right in the ding-ding.

When you set out to write Under a Luminous Sky, did you have any specific messages or themes in mind?

Nope. All I wanted to do, hell, all I've ever wanted to do was tell a gripping, tense story. People have told me that they noticed themes in the story, but if they're there, it's completely accidental.

The only things that you could say were "messages" were my views on certain characters and themes, or rebuttals against certain commonly accepted headcanons in the fandom. That Rainbow Dash is straight, and Spike views Twilight as a sister, not a mother were the big ones. But again, the reason I decided to write this story was just to entertain people by maintaining a tense atmosphere and interesting characters.

Where can readers drop you a line?

My FIMFiction page is really the only way. Since I have no social life and spend most of my time on there anyway, you can expect a swift reply.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

People who follow my blog know I tend to get a bit sappy, so this bit should come as no surprise to them. This is going to sound trite and cliche, but thank you all. Seriously, every single one of you who read even one chapter of my stories, thank you from the bottom of my heart. You're the only reason I put myself through so much stress. Hearing that someone enjoyed reading something I wrote is the best feeling I know of. I may not get around to replying, but I read every comment, and do my best to thank everyone who faves my story.

This fandom means so much to me. It has introduced me to great friends, helped me cope with some personal issues, and gave me a great outlet for all my crazy ideas. Now, it seems that everytime I start to feel down, I log on and find that someone has clicked that little star button. And then everything is fine.

Once more, thank you to Piquo Pie, who corrects my errors through grammatically horrible comments, to Pilot for keeping me in check when I threaten to go off the rails, and of course, to my main man Golden Vision for teaching me how to write.

I love you all. Stay safe, stay free, and stay metal! \m/

1 comment :

  1. I remember when you were still hashing this out on Golden Vision's /fic/ thread. It's come a long way since then, and you've earned it. Well done, Jake!