Spoiler alert: title notwithstanding, I'm not going to tell you who I think The Best Author in the Fandom is.
But, if you'd like to know why I won't be answering that particular question, or if you want to know what qualities I'd look for in such an author, you should definitely click down to beneath the page break to read my thoughts on the matter.
I get a lot of e-mail. Most of it, sadly, is spam, but even when you sort that out there's still plenty left that comes directly from another human being and isn't trying to sell me something. And among those e-mails, I get a fair number of questions, mostly about this blog.
One of the most common questions I get asked is what my favorite pony fanfic is, or what I think the best pony fanfic is. I don't really like answering any questions involving the word "best" (or "worst," for that matter), because it suggests a level of absolutism that I'm not at all comfortable with, but it seems to be a point of interest for more than a couple of people. For those of you wondering, my responses to such questions consist of a couple sentences worth of conditionals ("considering only the fanfics I've read... taking my personal enjoyment as the determining factor..." etc.), followed by a recommendation of either Memories of Those Friends Who've Gone Before Us (if the question was "best") or It's a Dangerous Business, Going Out Your Door (for "favorite"). I reserve the right to change my mind about either of those at any time, though.
See? I can't even paraphrase myself without hedging.
Anyway, I recently got an e-mail asking me who I thought was the "best fanfic author out there." Although the questioner didn't specify ponyfiction, I'm assuming that's what he meant--it's mostly what I know these days, anyway. Leaving aside the answer itself, this raises an interesting question: how would one go about determining who the best ponyfic author is? What attributes would this author possess? I'd like to take a minute to offer a list of what I think are the primary traits which would define our hypothetical Best Author in the Fandom:
1) Volume, both in number of stories and number of words
I would be supremely uncomfortable naming someone the apex writer in any group without a significant body of work behind them. Moreover, I wouldn't consider a single story, no matter how massive or broad-reaching, sufficient grounds to judge an author on. I'd want to see an author produce at least four to six stories, and not all 1000-word shorts either, before I'd be prepared to even consider them in this context. The reason is simple: anyone can get lucky. The mark of a great author is the ability to produce high-quality work on a consistent basis, and that requires a certain sample size.
2) Technical Prowess
I'm taking "technical competence" as a given here: I think we can all agree that the ability to string together coherent sentences into something with an overarching narrative is an obvious prerequisite to Great Author status. But technical prowess as I mean it goes beyond that. I'm referring to the ability to transition smoothly between dialogue-heavy story elements and narration; to create vivid scenes using original turns of phrase and precise and evocative word choice; to being able to capture a variety of flavors of tone, a variety of distinct voices (in both dialogue and narration; the importance of a distinct narrative voice is often under-appreciated) and a variety of levels of formality, and use them in ways which enhance the story being told. A good editor can help with all of these things, it's true, but these elements are so pervasive in a story that there's really no substitute for not just competence, but excellence, on the part of the author him/herself.
3) Range, both stylistically and structurally
The Best Author in the Fandom is, by definition, a generalist. Otherwise, we'd speak of this fellow as The Best Novelist in the Fandom, or The Best FlutterDash Shipper in the Fandom, or The Best Comic Author in the Fandom.
Now, all of those are legitimate claims to make of someone, but my point is that they're more specific than "best author." The reason we specify that someone is The Best Comic Author in the Fandom is because we couldn't say that they're Fhe Best Author in the Fandom without fear of correction. Just like we speak about the Best Author in the Fandom rather than The Best Author, Period.
So, I would want to see a prospective Best Author in the Fandom write in a variety of styles, lengths, and genres, and demonstrate competence in all fields. Not necessarily brilliance in all fields--I wouldn't expect anyone to be equally gifted in all manner of writing, any more than I would expect a band director to be a master of every instrument. But I would expect the director to at least be able to play them all competently, and I'd likewise expect even a writer whose forte was slice-of-life one-shots to be able to write a decent multi-chapter adventure if he/she made the attempt. Well, if that writer were to be considered The Best etc., anyway.
4) Growth and Development
Writing is just like anything else; you get better with practice. This is true even of professionals, but it's especially noticeable with young and/or amateur writers, and fanfic authors tend to be both. There's simply more room for improvement when you start out so far from your personal ceiling.
To me, one of the marks of a great author--of a great anyone, really--is the drive to continuously improve. The urge to stretch one's boundaries, to push one's own limits. There are a depressing number of authors who are content to simply "write what they know" in the most literal possible sense: they figure out how to produce something they feel comfortable with (sometimes of miserable quality, sometimes not; it makes no difference, really), and then do nothing else.
I firmly believe that, for anyone I'd be willing to call Best Author in the Fandom, I should be able to look at a sample of their writing from a couple of years ago, compare it to what they're doing today, and say, "Yeah, I see the difference." It's true that authorial growth doesn't follow a straight line; even incredible authors can write duds, obviously, and sometimes someone will manage to produce something uncommonly brilliant, then struggle to return to that level. But there should be an overall trend towards improvement in quality.
5) Unique POV
A story should say something. Not necessarily something earth-shaking or life-altering, but something. Moreover, it should say that something in a way which is in some way original. A great author will find a unique angle to approach any story from, even the most banal. There are literally hundreds, probably thousands, of pre s2 fanfics floating around about Luna being weepy and depressed because even after a thousand years, everyone still sleeps through her night. But there were a few "sad Luna" stories that still succeeded, because the author was able to put an original spin on an idea which had seemingly been done to death by the time the show was just a few months old.
Stories are like snowflakes: no two should be alike. If a story is just like any other of a group--if there's nothing to distinguish it from every other "sad Luna" story out there--then it's not a snowflake, it's just an undifferentiated glob of slush. And nobody likes getting pelted in the face with sleet.
Those are the five qualities that spring immediately to my mind, anyway. If you're a regular fanfic reader, I'm sure you can think of plenty of fanfic authors who fill these criteria; I can name half a dozen without straining. You'll also note a few things I didn't include on the list: popularity (a better bellwether than some would like to admit, but unquestionably flawed), for example. And there may be some that I didn't think of. But after giving the matter a bit of thought, I'm prepared to call this at least a tentative proposal for what guidelines I would use, if I were to try and identify The Best Author in the Fandom.