Friday, October 4, 2013

Pen Stroke's Past Sins

This might be the biggest fanfic in the fandom. It's a close race between it and Fallout: Equestria, but Fo:E might lose a little traction due to its explicit content, whereas Past Sins is more family friendly. But countless spinoff fics, fan art, and fan music – and a professional print run – shows that Nyx's story really resonated with all branches of the fandom.

[Dark][Sad] • 203,000 words
On a dark night filled with even darker magics, an insane cult attempts to give Nightmare Moon a body and life of her own, utterly separate from Princess Luna. But, when the spell is interrupted by Celestia, something unexpected is created.

Now, a little black alicorn filly named Nyx finds herself living under the care of Twilight Sparkle, only to be haunted by memories and emotions from her past. Is she Nightmare Moon reborn or is she simply a doppelganger with a soul and mind of her own? Can Twilight Sparkle protect Nyx from those who refuse to see past her dragon eyes and black coat?

Or, will Nyx be forced to inherit the sins that may not even be hers and become the greatest evil Equestria has ever known?

Hit the break for a chat with Pen Stroke and his assistant in crime Batty Gloom, and links to Past Sins online. (Check out the Equestria Daily link for links to other fan works based on the story.) As always, you can get your own ebook copies at the Downloads page, and as a special gift for Vault readers, Pen Stroke got the Equestria Publications team to generate an exclusive PDF of Past Sins, including the illustrations created for the print run – get it here!

Where do you live?

PS: I'm currently living in Pasadena, California.

BG: I'm currently living in Elizabethtown, Kentucky.

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

PS: Game Programmer.

BG: At the time of this interview? I work for a Rent-To-Own company but I am looking for better employment.

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

PS: My discovery of MLP was a combination of Batty influence and the influence of friends in my senior year game project class. I first started watching the series because of a few people on my senior game development team. It was the standard progression of symptoms, really. I watched the first episode and enjoyed it. I watched another episode and enjoyed it a little more. A few days later, I was caught up with all the episodes that had current aired. After that I discovered EQD, and through it stumbled into Batty Gloom under his new and current name. He had written the story The Truth About Pinkie Pie and I had just posted For My Sister. After that, we pulled ourselves deeper until we were neck deep in the fandom and loving it.

BG: While I no longer follow the site anymore, I used to regularly watch That Guy With the Glasses, mostly the works of Cinema Snob, Oancitizen, Linkara, and CR!. That last guy is important but I'll get back to him in a second.

Anyways, I actually first discovered the series before it was even aired and was still in pre-production. I stumbled upon a small article about the My Little Pony reboot and, at the time, I rolled my eyes and sarcastically quipped to myself, "Wow, they'll bring back anything these days!" (At the time, I was unaware that there had actually been three other My Little Pony shows since the original 80's cartoon.) I was a little weirded out by the promo picture of the main characters, Celestia, and Spike, but mostly because they were drawn a little off-model in it, which made them look kind of creepy when compared to their much more polished show models.

Anyways, I really didn't pay much attention to it, even when it was gaining attention at Know Your Meme (which was where I found out about the show's cult following) but when CR! made a Pinkie Pie in 5 Seconds video, I caved in and checked out the pilot. I was pleasantly surprised by how natural a lot of the dialogue felt and how it didn't talk down to its target audience (seriously, when was the last time you heard of a kid's show use the word "precipice"?). I enjoyed the first episode and then watched the next one. It was spring break and I was ahead of my college studies, so I marathoned the rest of the episodes, "Green Isn't Your Color" being the most recent at the time.

I soon realized with no small amount of horror that I liked a cartoon about magic ponies and lost what little sanity I had left.

And then Batty was a brony.

Do you have a favorite episode?

PS: Oh, this is always a hard one. A lot of episodes bring their own unique flavors that makes them hard to compare. I really enjoy almost all of the musical numbers from the show, top picks of those being "Art of the Dress," "Raise This Barn," and "Becoming Popular." But, at the same time, I greatly enjoy "Luna Eclipsed" for the appearance of Luna and Zecora's role in the episode.

So, I guess I can't really pick one that's my favorite.

BG: I like a lot of episodes, really, but if I had to pick, I'll say "Return of Harmony Parts 1 and 2." Conversely, "Keep Calm and Flutter On" is my least favorite, not because of the concept, but because I think it was mishandled and probably should have been a two-parter.

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)?

PS: Of the main characters, it would be Applejack. Of the background & secondary characters, it would be Zecora. Of the villains, Nightmare Moon.

BG: Of the main characters, Twilight Sparkle and Rainbow Dash both tie for favorite. Of the background and secondary characters, Photo Finish. Of the villains, pre-"Keep Calm and Flutter On" Discord.

How did you come up with your handle/penname?

PS: I honestly wish I could say it was meant to be something clever, but it was just a pen name that I came up with that fit well.

BG: I think I came up with the fan character design first in my head and then ended up with the pen name.

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

PS: I started writing back in middle school with some fanfictions in other fandoms. In high school, I did some original novels. None were published, but I wrote and finished about four, the longest being over three hundred thousand words. After that, once I started college, my writing fell off a little bit. I kept skills sharp by doing interactive fiction on with Batty back before he was known as Batty, but didn't do anything beyond that until I got pulled into MLP.

BG: I can only remember writing one other fan fiction eons ago during the early days of web 2.0 (which no longer exist in any form, thank heaven) but other than that, no. However, I stumbled upon the site, participated in the interactive stories, and eventually began collaborating with Pen Stroke before he was known as Pen Stroke, first just responding to his posting, then emailing ideas and future story arcs with him. We became fast friends and eventually began writing pony fan fic with each other after we each discovered the other had written a story the other liked (Pen Stroke had recently written For My Sister and I had recently posted The Truth About Pinkie Pie).

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

PS: Writing is my primary hobby, so it's hard to really say what else. I like taking bike rides if I get stir crazy in my apartment. I have a Skype based RP group that I participate in. It's a reliable way for me to get writing in even if my inspiration for proper stories is all dried up. Beyond that I've gotten into League of Legends thanks to some friends, and I do really enjoy hitting up the conventions when I can get to them.

BG: Mostly watching animation and playing video games. Reading if I have time.

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

PS: I think I'd have to say my real favorite author is Terry Brooks for his Sword of Shannara series, even though I never read the third book in the trilogy. He's my favorite because he is the first author to ever get me to rage quit a story. I don't know why, but the ending caught me off guard like a sucker punch to the jaw even though, looking back, I know there was foreshadowing about what would have happened. Still, others that I would claim as authors I enjoy that are published are Orson Scott Card, J.K. Rowling, and J.R.R. Tolken.

In the fandom, I can't really say I have favorite authors but I do have favorite stories. I really enjoyed the Screwball Trilogy by Warren Hutch. I also liked the original Shipping and Handling by Pegasus Rescue Brigade, even though I have yet to get around to reading its sequel. Other stories that come to mind that I enjoyed are Fallout: Equestria by KKat, Yours Truly by Thanqol, Sunny Skies All Day Long by PhantomFox, Tilt by Passport-Clean, and In Memory Of by Obselescence.

BG: I can't say that I have a favorite author (especially since I don't read nearly as much as I ought) but I have enjoyed several of Neil Gaiman's works. I also enjoy works about philosophy or any fiction with a theme relating to the real world, such as A Brave New World, 1984, and Animal Farm.

In the fandom, I don't have any favorite authors but then again, I haven't had time to catch up on my reading. I really enjoyed the Screwball Trilogy and Fallout: Equestria, though.

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?

PS: Well, for one, I feel the writer him- or herself needs to fit his or her mold of an ideal reader. You need to be enjoying what you're writing and doing it for your own enjoyment. Not only will that help ensure that you have fun writing your story, but it will always lead to better quality stories. After that, I think I can honestly say I've started to figure out my ideal reader after writing in this fandom for nearly two years. My ideal reader is someone reading just for the enjoyment of it. There are stories out there meant to challenge you, meant to make you think deeply and have grand revelations about the universe. Those are the stories that are some of the finest works of art, but they are also very difficult to get right. And, even when they are done perfectly, they can be a little off putting. It's something like modern art, especially things like abstract expressionism. To some, they are grand paintings of deep meaning. For others, it looks like someone just threw paint at the canvas.

The kind of story I like to write, the ideal story for my ideal reader, is one that presents itself kind of like a warm blanket after a cold day. It's just something you can enjoy. My ideal reader is both young and old, as I like my stories to be as approachable as possible. Yes, this has gotten me accused of making the story too safe and the language too simple, but my counter to that is why does every story have to be complex? To go back to the painting metaphor I made before, I never want my reader to be unsure just what my story is about. I never want to confuse my reader to the point they think I did the writing equivalent of throwing paint at the canvas.

And this itself falls into the kind of writer I am, or the ideal writer I want to be at the moment. I just want to be a writer that can have fun writing. There are those who take writing very seriously, who take fanfiction very seriously. And, who knows, in a few years I may buckle down and try to seriously write something original of my very own. But right now, I just want to write for the fun of it. I want to write about ponies and their magical world because it's a great way to relax after a long day.

So, my ideal writer, my ideal reader, my ideal audience is really just people who want to enjoy a good story they can just relax with.

BG: I'm just going to say "ditto". I write because I like to and I hopefully want to make something that someone else would like to read. I just want to write for fun for people who like to read for fun.

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

PS: Well, I can only really think of a few pieces of advice I can offer. The first is that a lot of professional writing books and other authors may tell you that you have to outline your story. That you should know the characters, the plot, and the scenes like the back of your hand before you hit the page and that it should all be written down someplace. I've, personally, never been an author like that, simply because some of the fun I get from writing is seeing where the story goes on its own. Having a plan is good, but don't be afraid to go off the trail and just write and see what happens. Also be willing to change. Forcing your story to adhere to your original outline can ruin some of the natural flow and can force you to ignore wonderful ideas that spring to your mind. Your outline should only be a trellis. The plant that is your story should use it to help it stand, but should be able to grow and flower wherever it likes.

The second big tip I should say is to get other eyes on your story. This is really true of anything you work on. When you've stared at something for a long time, when you're mired deep in your own work, it can be difficult to see where something isn't working. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is step away for a few days and give yourself a breather. Other times, something that will really help is just having someone else take a look. FIMFiction and /fic/ are filled with groups and boards of folks willing to lend other authors a hand. And I'm not just talking about getting people to find grammatical errors. I'm talking about getting folks to point out how a particular plot twist doesn't make sense or how a character seems to be acting OOC. It gives your story something like a sanity check and helps you be sure that the reader is seeing the story in the same way it exists in your head as the author.

And I suppose my final piece of advice is to always try to keep writing. Maybe it's just a thousand-word story over a lunch break or a few pages of fiddling to see if a story idea will work at all. Your writing, your prose, is the tool you use to craft your story and to let it get rusty can discourage you as well as force you to take time to sharpen your skills back to their old quality. At the same time don't try to force yourself through a chapter. That's when writing becomes work, and not only can you harm your own story but you can burn yourself out to the point where you're you even want to finish the story. Fanfiction should always be fun, in my opinion. It's a celebration of a show or fandom you enjoy, and what kind of party would it be if you weren't having fun?

BG: Like Pen Stroke said, getting others to look at your story is key. A group of three or four can do wonders. But even more importantly, make sure said readers are both honest... AND understand your goal.

There was this one guy that wanted to be our full-time pre-reader/editor but he tried to overwhelm the story with his own ideas, forgetting that they're, well, our stories to begin with. Simply put, he was putting his own ego ahead of the writing process. That might be fine if we wanted him on as another assistant or co-author but we really just wanted some input, not let him take over the story.

The other pitfall to avoid is someone who is afraid of telling you that your idea is terrible at worst or needs to be tweaked at best. Pen and I, while polite about it, hold nothing back from each other. If we think a particular scene is too much of something (whether that something be violent, extreme, silly, or just excessive) or OOC or even something as simple as "Event B should happen before Event A," we'll tell each other so and we've been blessed by having Illustrious Q doing the same with us. Often, he never even tells us an idea; he simply suggests "I think you can do better" and that challenge has allowed Pen Stroke to pull off some great writing.

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

PS: I probably have one of the most informal writing processes one can imagine. It usually amounts to me getting an idea, fiddling with it a little bit, and building up the story from there. Once I have a few chapters down and a general arc for the plot planned, I'll let in my content pre-readers. These days, that usually means Batty Gloom and Illustrious Q. They are there for the high concept stuff. The overarching plot, the direction of chapters, the flow, and stuff like that. After that, I'll bring more pre-readers. They will usually be trying to catch grammar mistakes, but I try to encourage them to comment on other things as well. Things that don't make sense to them, things they enjoy, or ideas they have that would improve the story. After that, the story usually goes up on FIMFiction. Yes, readers usually pick up on a few more typos at that point, but at the same time it's never so many that folks aren't able to enjoy the story.

BG: Used to be that I simply wrote a chapter one at a time. Like Pen Stroke, I'm very informal and often jump from chapter to chapter, tweaking this, editing that, or even inserting whole new chapters between others. If I'm really inspired, I'll complete whole chapters at a time and then show it to Pen Stroke for his evaluation.

Unfortunately, real life responsibilities have gotten in the way of my writing time as of late. It's hard working a 12-hour shift and finding the energy to write. Doesn't help that I had to move back home and I don't have as much privacy as I'll like. My days off are usually spent trying to find a better job, not writing. Let's just say that I wrote about 5/8ths of a story and I'm passing it off to Pen Stroke; I hate to do that, but if I don't, it'll never see the light of day at this rate.

In any case, I keep a word file of several story ideas I want to tackle once I finally have free time again.

What inspired you to write Past Sins?

PS: The original thought for Past Sins came from the story that preceded it, Creeping Darkness. While Creeping Darkness was, at its heart, a crossover between MLP and the Xbox franchise Alan Wake, it touched on some of the themes that became core to Past Sins. It was also the original birthplace of Nyx. In that story she represented a last bit of innocence within a Nightmare Moon that, much like in Past Sins, had been torn away and separated from Luna to become a sentience of her own. Creeping Darkness also became, in its final chapters, a story where Nightmare Moon redeemed herself in a way by giving up a great deal to help Twilight.

It was those themes, which were really little more than plot devices in Creeping Darkness, that Past Sins took root in and grew from. They were concepts that were just too interesting to ignore, and they haunted my brain for a while before I finally sat down to write the first chapter of Past Sins.

BG: While I didn't have much pull in the story in the early days, Pen Stroke at least involved me as a pre-reader from day one. He would poke and prod my brain for ideas, suggestions, or opinions and I said whatever came to mind.

The original story of Past Sins would have turned Nyx into a true OC; rather than be the reincarnation of Nightmare Moon, she would have been something like a clone. Originally, Nyx was an accident and Nightmare Moon herself would have been inside a gem created by Spell Nexus, kind of like a lich and its soul jar. Now, while that would have made a fine story in and of itself, I couldn't help but feel like it was missing something. After pondering for a bit, I approached Pen Stroke and said, "Hey, what if Nyx actually was Nightmare Moon reborn? And she regained her powers and memory?" At first, Pen Stroke wasn't so sure about it and that would have been the end of that but I decided to play devil's advocate and list an equal number of pro's and con's about doing the story either way. Pen read it, liked it, and the story took a different path from there.

After that, Pen gradually let me have more voice in the story (although he always had the final say), enough to call me an "assistant". A few jokes or ideas I could claim (Nyx asking about being grounded at the end of the story, the number and content of Pinkie Pie's party rules, Nightmare Moon's speech in chapter 10) but the story is still mostly Pen Stroke's; he just graciously let me have a part in molding it.

Did you run into any tough spots or challenges when writing Past Sins?

PS: Yes, there were trouble spots in the original version of the story, specifically in the later chapters when we were trying to balance several aspects of the story that were coming to fruition. And, of course, there were the issues that came after the story was posted. The rewrites that occurred around the original, infamous Chapter 10 as well as changes that cascaded from that. Some folks hated us for making those changes, some folks found they were just what the story needed. Others criticized us for giving into the clamorings of an audience. And to that, all I can say is it isn't giving in when your audience brings up a point you agree with. Still, in the end, with the Season 2 edits that were done to get the story ready for its fan-driven paperback printing, the whole experience of adjusting something to make it better based off of your audience's feedback is something that greatly helped me as a writer.

BG: I think when Pen Stroke and I talked about the story, we pretty much agreed where the story needed to go: Nightmare Moon is reborn as Nyx, Nyx gets to live a few months carefree before regaining her powers and memories, she takes over Equestria, her conscience gets the better of her, she destroys the remaining part of her evil nature, gets trialed and eventually gets to become Nyx again.

What we struggled with was the specific content of some chapters. A lot of things changed not only in the season 1 rewrite but the season 2 rewrite as well. I also remember Pen Stroke rewriting chapters 18 and 20 no fewer than three times each. This was because he was having trouble finding out how he wanted things to happen; the what he knew, but not the how.

For example, originally, it wasn't going to be a horde of savage monsters that attacked Ponyville but rather a giant, Ursa Major-sized monster called a Leo Major. Why? Well, since the shape of Equestria wasn't revealed at that point in time, we thought that maybe Equestria was connected to other countries by land, and far enough would have been the Equestrian equivalent of Africa. And because the land was so far away, the other side of the planet would have been locked in an eternal daylight. So after a few days of scorching sun, this lion creature would begin the long trek to Equestria to confront the princesses on why they weren't setting and rising the sun and moon. Eventually it got scrapped. I forgot the exact reason why but it did and I would argue it was for the better.

Pen Stroke was also struggling with whether or not Nightmare Moon's trial would be conducted in secrecy or published in the newspaper ("Extrie, Extrie! Read all about it! The trial of the millennia! Equestria vs. Nightmare Moon!"). Eventually it was done in secret like it is in the story, with the princesses giving their version of the truth after the fact.

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

PS: After finagling around in the beginning with other root concepts to the story, we seemed to settle on many of the same themes touched on in Creeping Darkness, the biggest of them being, "What would it take for Nightmare Moon to want and earn her redemption?" Beyond that, most of the other themes grew naturally from the story. The themes revolving around nurture vs. nature, of defying others' expectations, and about letting go of the past became part of the story simply because of how well they fit and how well they supported the central, original theme.

BG: Like I said, while still good, I wasn't sure if Pen Stroke's original idea of Nightmare Moon and Nyx being two completely separate characters was such a good idea, so for me, having Nightmare Moon being reincarnated and seeking redemption was the main goal. Like Pen Stroke said, once we had that in mind, everything else fell into place.

Past Sins has inspired countless artists and authors to create their own works based on your universe. How does that make you feel? Have you read any of the spinoff stories?

PS: To put it bluntly, it makes me feel awesome. It always blows me away when folks do anything because of how much they liked the story. I don't say thank you enough to those people, and I doubt I could say it enough even if I quit my day job and just thanked people online for the rest of my life. The artwork, the music, the stories are all signs that Past Sins was not only an enjoyable experience for someone, but it was an inspiring one at that.

And I can say I have read some of the spin-offs, and it's interesting to see other authors pick up on the hooks I left for myself. They sometimes go off on some very interesting tangents. It's like getting to see the road not traveled, or like getting to see what might have happened if someone else was holding the map. And if it's done in good fun out of respect for the source material, it's almost always an enjoyable ride.

BG: It makes me very happy and it's kind of humbling in a way. I had a small part in help making something that gave so many people enjoyment? And they expressed that enjoyment in fan works? I never thought I would ever do something like that and like Pen Stroke said, neither of us can ever fully express our gratitude enough. When Creeping Darkness was released, it was fairly well received at the time and a lot of people really liked Nyx. I joked that with so many people saying they liked the character, that maybe someone would make a Nyx fan art or something.

I had no idea what would come later and it still amazes me.

Did you expect that Past Sins would become anywhere near as popular as it has?

PS: Oh no. I had no idea it was going to blow up like this. Originally, I was hoping it would be as popular as Better Living Through Science and Ponies. I was proud of it at the time. That's why the story got the cover image it's so well known for. The original Past Sins cover image from Valcron was a gift to myself for finishing the story, my longest story in a very long while. But I had no idea it was going to take off like it did.

BG: No. No! Wait, what? No. Hell no! Not at all.

Because I knew Pen Stroke as both a great writer and an even greater friend, I knew the story would be liked but not that liked! I was thinking it would be as popular as Better Living or Creeping Darkness.

On an audio interview, one of the interviewers joked that Pen Stroke and I have no idea how popular the story really is. For the sake of remaining humble, I want to keep it that way and just be happy to know that some people enjoyed it.

Is there anything about Past Sins you'd like to change?

PS: At this point, I think I can honestly say no. Sure, if I really reached I could probably pick out things that I wish had been done differently, but... really, I am satisfied. With the off and on rewrites done over the years and the Season 2 upgrade, Past Sins got more spit and polish than I could have ever expected. It's a story that has done well, had a great run in its prime, and still gets a steady stream of new readers and new comments almost every week. The story and Nyx are a famous and infamous part of the fandom, for better or worse. So, yeah, at this point I think I am more than content to leave the Past Sins just the way it is.

BG: At this point? Not really.

Well, okay, maybe retcon that drop of blood thing but Pen Stroke has made it very clear he wanted to keep that in. :P

Other than that, I'm happy with the story the way it is. It made an impact, for better or worse (Achievement Unlocked: Base Breaker!) and it managed to survive two seasons before getting canon-bombed to the realm of alternate universe, which not many fics can boast. We'll see what Pen Stroke and I can do in this now alternate universe in the forms of sequels and side stories and any of the other stories we come up with together.

Where can readers drop you a line?

PS: You can find me in a lot of places. You can drop me on FIMFiction as Pen Stroke, or you can e-mail me directly at I also have a DA page under the name PenStrokePony as well as a YouTube, though I really only use that to house the couple of PMV's I did and to hold pony playlists. So, yeah... I am really not that hard to find.


Is there anything else you'd like to add?

PS: A final thank you to everyone that made Past Sins what it is today. From pre-readers, to artists, to musicians, to other writers, to readers, all I can really say is thank you for making me and my story such a big part of this fandom. It's been a wonderful ride and I wouldn't exchange it for anything. I would also like to thank anyone who has ever sent me a fan e-mail directly. Though I don't reply to them, I read every one I received and it always brings a smile to my face. Though I hope I never quit writing, knowing folks are enjoying my stories certainly helps keeps me motivated. And, of course, a final thank you to RBDash47 for including Past Sins in the Vault.

BG: Thank you to everyone who read the story, helped edit the story, or made fan works for it. I've known Pen Stroke for a very long time; he's one of the nicest guys I personally know and a lot more humble than you'd expect from someone who's made as big of an impact in a fandom like he has. While I haven't proportionally done as much as Pen Stroke has, I hope to always be able to support him in anything he does and maybe even contribute to the fan community once I get my own life in order. Again, thank you to everyone who has even so much as skimmed through the story and a final thank you to RBDash47 for not only including Past Sins into The Vault, but even for letting this crazy assistant to say a few things too.

1 comment :

  1. "The Screwball Trilogy"? The stories by Warren Hutch? <.< If that's what he means, those are some of my absolute favorite fics of all time!

    Wait. Hold the phone. Are you interviewing two show writers about their episodes???