Friday, December 6, 2013


The title of this blog post notwithstanding, this is the slightly-delayed how-and-why-it-was-written followup to my new story, To Make a Spark.  If you haven't read that yet, I urge you to go check it out before diving into this post--I'd rather you read the story before you read this, all things being equal.  But, if you're ready for a little authorial explicating and blog title accounting-for, click down below the break.

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.


  1. My mother was a fish...

    I actually thought of Going Up while reading this fic, though I didn't comment on that earlier. Come to think of it, there's a bit of The Purloined Pony in there as well. I suppose whatever those three share is your authorial voice. How strange it should sound so different from the Chris I hear in your reviews...

    I feel a little bad now, 'cause Letters is probably my favorite of your fics I've read, and as you noted that's one of your less "pure" stories. I also have an easier time connecting that one to this blog. It's as though there are two of you!

    I have to ask: what's the point of disallowing "puissance"? That's pure Chris, if you ask me

    1. I have a long-standing hatred of the word "puissant," first sparked by a high school classmate who was trying too hard to be clever. Besides, the word has a greasy pronunciation that makes my teeth itch.

    2. It's just as well; although I'm rather fond of the word, personally, I consider it very much Steven R. Donaldson's word, and a big part of this exercise for me was not "talking like" my favorite authors--including co-opting their vocabulary.

  2. While I won’t attempt to veto your drawing the piscine conclusion from this exercise, I’ll will state that—in this situation—you could very well be both a fish and not a fish. I guess that would make you Schrödinger’s fish, but we’d have to wait for an interpretation to come in from Copenhagen before collapsing that particular waveform.

    Seriously, though, any stories written in a fairytale style will always remind readers of other fairytales they’ve read, even if one can’t be compared directly to another. In fact, the opening parts of your story reminded me of an old tale myself (unfortunately, I can’t remember the name and my Google-fu has failed me); one about a farmer who grew three (perhaps more) perfect figs on a single stem and set out to gift such a miracle to his laird, only to run into the usual conflicts requiring his generosity along the way. While the story that popped into my head has a four-beat progression like your own, To Make a Spark is, at its core, so fundamentally different from it in content, context, and tone, I really can’t compare the two: Ultimately, yours simply reminded me that the other existed, and nothing more than that.

    That doesn’t change the fact that AugieDog just HAD to go and drag Thurber into it (nice goin’, AD :-| ), but after giving Many Moons a read, I’m having difficulty seeing any true similarities to Spark, and thus leave it to Mike to provide specifics.

    Now to the important stuff: I definitely found some Chris in this story; earmarks of your personal style that I missed in other reads because they’d been overshadowed by my perception of others’ styles and tones. Dots were connected. Lines drawn. Oh, there you are, right there! Good on ya, Chris: this story is a beautiful thing by way of its humanity, gravity, and the little subtleties discovered throughout, and honestly, I believe that going the fairytale route was the perfect choice.

    To gush a bit, I really liked that you chose to have Cadance as a pegasus rather than a unicorn, as it led me to imagine that the true power of her talent lies in her voice, diminishing her in-show demonstration of “spreading love” by stopping a couple’s bickering through horn-foolery as a very minor example of her capability, and sparking the idea that magic is secondary to her nature. Some depth of character lacking in the canon pretty-pretty-pink-princess can be gleaned from that. I also liked that Cadance’s self-doubt went out the window when she recognized what the ponies she sang to needed to hear, only to return after each encounter. Adds an angle of grace that works well in this setting. Then, of course, there’s Cadance’s encounter with Celestia. Not “the Princess who needs to smile,” but a pony named Celestia who needs to get a massive weight off her chest. Well paced, well worded; it resonated. Again, I say good on ya, Chris.

    This was a damn good read, and I would have no qualms about having this interpretation of Cadance exist in my personal pocket-dimension Ponyverse, providing you don’t mind me adopting her as head-canon.

    I do have one nit to pick, however:
    A mark of her gift for revealing the beauty which lies within the heart of every colt and stallion...”
    Did you mean “every mare and stallion,” or should we report you to the nearest militant feminist group? (Insert troll face of your choice here.)

    1. Women have no beauty in their hearts. That's why true romance can only exist between two men ;p

      I'd assumed Chris made Cadance a pegasus because that was Lauren's original conception of the character

    2. I thought Cadence was originally just a unicorn.

    3. Hm, the only Faust quote I found regarding the race change doesn't state what Cadance originally was. Apparently Crystal Heart Spell stated she was a pegasus

    4. You know, I don't think I am ever going to read that book. Can't possibly say where I got my belief about Cadence from, though, not that it much matters anyway. First Cadence, then Twilight. One can only hope the insanity is over...

    5. Faust said she was supposed to be a unicorn before Hasbro decided they needed a new pretty pink princess and free Celestia for off-white duties.

    6. AugieDog just HAD to go and drag Thurber into it

      It has ever been my gift:

      To somehow find exactly the wrong thing to say in most situations. Looks like it's yet another trait I uncomfortably share with the Prince Blueblood I write about in my Clandestine Corps stories...

      Having been the instrument of Chris's fishification, though, I find that I don't have much to offer in support of the Thurber echoes I'm hearing. It's just that both stories are about unhappy princesses and the efforts of those around them to make them happy again told in the manner of a classic fairy tale. Thurber tells his in a drier style, filling it with his usual wry humor, while Chris appropriately goes straight to the heart, touching emotional places Thurber never even tries to reach.

      But that's all I can offer. Except that I'm sorry I made Chris turn into a fish.


    7. Let me start by saying that, although I was better than 99% sure you'd be happy with the finished product, it was still a palpable relief to hear you say so, WTFHIW. This commission stuff is stressful! In any event, feel free to insert anything you like about my take on Cadence into your headcanon--ideas are meant to be shared, after all.

      One of the things that bugged me most about Cadence in the show is that it's so easy to read her power as "Cadence makes ponies fall in love with magic," which is... disturbing, is probably the right word for it. I wanted to write something faithful to the show, but which emphasizes that what sets her apart isn't that she can force love on others, but that she can remind others of what they love, and why they love... and why that love is important.

      I'm very happy with how this came out, and I'm glad that you are, too. Thank you!

      (Oh, and send the militant feminists after Cadence's mom, not me; she's the one who mixed her expressions and left an entire gender out in the cold!)

  3. First, I think your mission was doomed to fail from its start, except for the possibility that people wouldn't bother commenting on the writing style at all. It's natural for people to search for commonality with other things (how often does a commenter say, "This is thoroughly your own style and not like anything else I've ever read" unless they're very well-versed in your work). And isn' that part of the purpose of such comments anyway? To say, "If you liked this, you'll probably also like that." So while I appreciate the direction that stipulation pushed you, I think it's rather haphazard whether actually satisfying it would have happened, and ultimately I don't think (and your own attitude seems to reflect this as well) that it matters what response you got, since you satisfied the spirit of why it was posed in the first place.

    This got me thinking about my own writing, though, and whether I have a style. This came up a bit earlier as well--if people aren't aware, Wanderer D has started posting simple "how to" guides for different genres (I know some people hate that term for story tags, but there it is), in which he asks two different writers for their takes on how to construct a good story of that type, writers who, in his estimation, have different styles. For the [Sad] tag, he asked me and NickNack to contribute, and as I wrote there, I don't know that I have a style or process that I follow. It's more that I keep in mind what traps to avoid.

    So you've really made me think. What are my influences? I don't read that much, and when I do, it's mostly sci-fi/fantasy series (Earthsea, Dragonriders of Pern, Dune, Shannara, and Discworld, which I'd characterize more as comedy), so it's actually very few authors, and for some reason, I don't like sci-fi/fantasy pony stories much, some I'm not getting it from there, insofar as writing style somewhat follows genre. I don't read much ponyfic beyond what I review, and I don't pick up styles there, since they don't mirror the way I think, though I do get some concepts ("Man, if he'd only taken the story in that direction, it would have been fascinating. Hey, I should take that tangent and write it!"). And of late, I have been taking the tack of trying my own hand at stories that I see done badly so often. I figure I rage at authors enough about them that I should put my money where my mouth is. So far, I've tried the Lyra/human one and the epistolary story, with arguably mixed results.

    You've definitely given me something to think about, Chris. I think my writing is recognizable from a mechanical standpoint, but not necessarily in sentiment or theme.

    1. I knew going in that I was probably going to "lose" the challenge--I know firsthand how easy it is to make comparisons to other works when reviewing or commenting (and in many cases, it is a convenient shorthand). But what I was hoping was that I wouldn't get multiple "you really captured ____'s style" or "this is great, it's just like _____." Having dodged that, I feel like I did exactly what I hoped to (at least, on that particular front).

      And authorial "style" is something I've been turning over in my head for a while now. It makes me wonder: if I posted a story anonymously, would someone who's read my other fanfics be able to look at it and say "this guy writes like Chris?" Whether they would or not, I wonder if they could--and what, if anything, it would say about me as an author in either case.

    2. Toward authorial style, I assume you're aware of what happened with LOEG. Skirts's story was largely ignored because its presumed author didn't have near the name recognition, while the story presented as his fluorished with an audience that didn't recognize or care about the difference in style. He has such a following that people should be familiar with his style, and yet nothing different happened, just because he had his name stamped on it. I'm not sure you could get many comments along those lines, because fanfic authors rarely seem to notice.

  4. Two words: Golden Goose.

    I actually kinda thought it was a crossover when first reading it.

  5. I love the bit about having to leave out "puissance". I dare say your next story should be full of that word, to make up for it!

    >present pisceic

    Not only are you a fish, but so, it would appear, am I. Or at least I have a previously unknown seapony cousin.