I'll warn you, though--it's a long one!
To Make a Spark began its journey to existence some nine months ago, when WTFHIW (who's written a couple of stories that I've reviewed) won an auction in the Las Pegasist charity drive for my services, including (among other things) getting a story written by me. I was expecting to just get a prompt, maybe a simple outline, but Mr. HIW had something different in mind. Here's a bit from the e-mail he sent with my request (which he's given me permission to share):
...while I haven’t read your entire Pony repertoire, the items I have read all seem to contain some elements of other author’s works, including themes, and even general tones. This has made it difficult for me to recognize your tone; your particular fingerprints on each story, so to speak. While this may not be entirely fair to you—like I said, I haven’t read your entire catalog—it is a concern, especially for a writer that spends a lot of their free time reading. You know I’ve mentioned “traps” in my comments on your blog before, and this is one of them: A strong love for the writings of others can stifle the development of a given author’s own style. I’ve seen it happen with others, and I’ve seen your talent, but because I haven’t been able to open up one of your stories and say, “Yep, that’s Chris, all right,” I carry a small amount of worry along these lines.And so, he gave me a challenge: write a story about how Cadence became an alicorn, which was entirely a "Chris" story. No sources, references, or inspiration except the show and my own imagination; no pre-readers or editors; no using the word "puissance" (yes, he specifically forbid me from using that word); and if at all possible, no reading other stuff while I was working on the story, lest any insidious outside influences creep in. Seeing as this was a bit beyond a normal fic commission, he allowed that I could opt out if I didn't feel up to it.
Well, I'm not one to back down from a challenge, so I told him I'd do it (though, given that my job is very reading-intensive, I had to beg some flexibility on the last point). He told me to take as long as I needed to craft a story that was "all me," and I replied that I hoped to have something within a month or two.
I went through three complete re-writes, and several long breaks, before I came up with the fic you all have now had the chance to read.
I'll spare most of the details, but I will go through what was wrong with each of the three drafts that I completed and then abandoned altogether. The first, as I explained to WTFHIW in an e-mail after I put it aside, "[wasn't] a story about Cadence at all. Sure, the story was centered around her, and it explained how she got to be a princess, but she wasn't a character so much as a vehicle for exploring some of the ponies around her. I'd written a story about Twilight, and Celestia, and Shining Armour, and basically about anyone and everyone except Cadence. That's why my story felt so directionless: beyond the presence of an alicorn barely more developed by the end of the fic than at the start of it, there wasn't really any cohesive element to tie everything together."
So, I started over, taking some of the events from the first story but completely recontextualizing and rewriting them, and my second try wasn't nearly such a directionless muddle. Unfortunately, I completely blew the whole "no external influences" thing on that one. I was playing with the idea that Cadence was thrice a princess: so titled by royal birth, so assigned (to the Crystal Kingdom, that is) by merit displayed to Celestia, so alicornified by destiny. It literally wasn't until I was going on Google to see who it was who said, "some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them" (it's from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night) that I realized how hard I was failing at writing an "all Chris" story--from the concept on down, I was borrowing left and right.
This seems like a good time to interject that at no point was I trying to write a story which has only unique, never-before-seen ideas--that would be patently impossible, doubly so for a fanfic, and obviously isn't what WTFHIW was asking for. But there is a big difference between doing something someone else did because both of you could see that it would work, and doing something someone else did because you saw/heard/read it and it sounded like a good idea. From the concept level down, take two was brim-full of the latter, which was exactly what I was supposed to not be doing.
So then, I took the alicorning bit from draft, and started working to make it my own--and to make it stand alone. I count that as a third re-write because, well, I re-wrote it, but I didn't really spend much time on that before realizing that it wasn't going to work independently (the hyper-condensed version is that, along with Discord and some others, there was the draconequus Entropy, whose particular brand of reality-warping involved making things un-exist, whom Cadence defeats with the Power of Love™. There were some nice bits about it, but it didn't stand by itself (though it sounds a lot worse in one sentence than it did in a draft, to be fair)).
Which brought me to the current version, about which there's not a whole lot to say from a "changes along the way" standpoint. There was the usual mass of shifting words, phrases, and what have you, along with the expected mass of edits, but the big things (the general issues involving the three ponies Cadence meets along the way to see the princess, the events of the climactic scene, the ending) didn't really change much from draft to final form. And when that was all done, I sent the fic the EqD along with a request for no feedback and a straight pass/reject (the story's pre-reader graciously refrained from commenting on the story at all until after it had gone up), and when they decided to post it I sat back to see what sort of reaction it would garner.
You see, there was one more caveat in WTFHIW's request:
...if any readers post a review or comment of it within a week of its release that note a moderate to strong similarity to any other story you’ve read that is not your own (mainstream or fic), then the title of the next article you write on your blog has to be “I AM A FISH.”Well, when the story went up on FIMFiction it took all of ten minutes after going up on FIMFiction for someone to say it "is just like a fairytale," and another fifteen for someone to add that "whenever Cadence sang, [it] sounded a lot like other authors." But it wasn't until two days after the fic went up that AugieDog ruined it for me by saying that "Reading this: Made me think of James Thurber's classic "Many Moons."" Don't worry, Augie, I still appreciate the comment... but thus we end up with our present pisceic post title.
That notwithstanding, I do think I've managed to pull off this challenge: To Make a Spark is a story that's me through and through, from its style to its sense of morals to its tone, from its language to its worldview to its ending--although I know it's not for everyone, the last few lines of the story are one of the most "me" parts of the story, IMO--and even to some of the problems (redundant wording, say...). I think that every halfway decent piece of fiction can't help but tell its reader a little bit about the author, but this is, I believe, the most "me" that I've ever been, in a work of fiction.
I don't claim that this is my best story (or that it isn't--I'm terrible at judging myself like that), but I do think that, if somebody asked "what kind of stories does Chris write?" this is the one I'd point them too.
So, thank you to all of you who've read my story, and thank you especially to WTFHIW for his generous commission, impressive patience, and thoroughly educational (and enjoyable, if sometimes frustrating) prompt. I'm interested to know now whether this story felt any more personal to you who read it than my other stories. Even my most borrowing-filled stories have always felt personal to me (Letters from a Senior to a Junior Changeling is explicitly my take on The Screwtape Letters, but I definitely feel it has a lot of my own ideas in it, too), but To Make a Spark takes that to another level altogether. But even if it turns out that I'm the only one who can see the difference, I know that this has been a great experience for me as a writer.