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Today’s story presents a uniquely Equestrian interpretation of a singularly brilliant sleuth — and there’s more at stake here than a mystery to solve.

magician-detectiveThe Magician And The Detective
[Romance] [Sad] [Crossover] [Adventure] • 14,685 words

To Holmes, she is always the mare.  In his eyes she eclipses the whole of her sex, and fills him with admiration and loathing.  Whether she in fact stole the Starry Night was ultimately beside the point.  What mattered to Holmes was that he had been matched at his own game, by a mare; that it had not been altogether unpleasant; and that she had caused him, however briefly, to turn his keen and unflinching gaze upon himself.

FROM THE CURATORS: “If this were just one of Doyle’s Holmes stories, it’d ‘just’ be good,” Chris said — but this story goes well beyond that, and impressed us enough for a rare unanimous approval.

Beyond the mystery, there’s also a deep deconstruction of both MLP’s and Doyle’s characters, which brings them to life in a way few stories manage.  “It’s got so much to say about its characters I think in some ways I’m still processing it,” Horizon said.  Chris added, “The interpretation of Trixie really sells it for me.  She deftly walks the line between sympathetic and antagonistic.”

The twists of the final chapters also spurred high praise.  “The phrase Tour de Force gets tossed around far too often, but I’d absolutely describe this fic’s end as such,” Chris said.

Read on for our interview, in which Bad Horse discusses interactive literature, Sherlock Holmes’ class consciousness, and a writing tip well worth repeating.


Give us the standard biography.

There’s a lot of overlap here with my Vault interview, so check there for bio and penname story.

Who’s your favorite pony?

Twilight is best pony, and Applejack is sane pony, but my foolish heart belongs to Fluttershy. Pinkie was interesting, but is being murdered one scene at a time for sight gags.

What’s your favorite episode?

Most episodes before “Canterlot Wedding”, plus “Sleepless in Ponyville.” “The Ticket Master” / “Suited for Success” / “Best Night Ever” three-parter has three good master storylines that each handle one third of 6 parallel stories. I don’t think I’ve seen that structure before. The Rarity “Someday my prince will come / My prince is a jerk!” plot is my favorite of those.

What do you get from the show?

The cute characters & outstanding animation helps. Look what they do with camera angle, focus, blurring, and other tricks. The music varies wildly, from great to awful, and never really nails the prosody, but still ought to win some Annies. (MLP has never been nominated for an Annie in any category, which damages the reputation of the Annies more than that of MLP.)

But the content matters more to me than the presentation. It’s charming and funny without being mean, cynical, or stupid, and without relying on good guy vs. bad guy scenarios. (The bad guys never win…) Lauren Faust balanced the main cast against each other very well; just throw any two of them together, and story happens.

It has characters I care about. I don’t know why that’s so hard, but it is–I can count the other Western TV shows with characters, plural, whom I care about, on one hand: the Andy Griffith Show (so sue me), MASH, Star Trek, Cheers, and Buffy. Admittedly, I don’t have a TV. But even if I list the shows I like, very few have characters I care much about. Not Get Smart, not Monty Python, not X-Files, not Seinfeld, not South Park, not Dexter’s Lab, not True Blood, not the Powerpuff Girls, not Thirty Rock, not the Big Bang Theory. There are some with one character I care about: Gilligan’s Island, Samurai Jack, Monk, every Sherlock Holmes show, Doctor Who, Phineas and Ferb (Dr. Doofenshmirtz), Fawlty Towers (Manuel), Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends (Wilt).

Anime seems to do this better than Western TV shows. We Westerners categorize shows: Comedy, Drama, Action, Romance. And then we make shows that do only that one thing well, plus maybe having one sympathetic protagonist.

Western literature is about characters overcoming obstacles while each struggles with their individual character flaws, which each person must overcome for themselves. Eastern literature, so I’ve read, is more about group cooperation and characters learning (or failing) to fit into their roles in society. Both cultures buy into the deeply-erroneous idea that humans, society, and other things can be perfected.

In Europe in the middle ages, each person had their place in the Great Chain of Being, and virtue consisted in perfecting the degree with which one fulfilled their social role: the Ring-Giver, the Just King, the Virtuous Knight, the Holy Priest, the Good Wife, etc. In the East, Confucianism taught similar ideas. The main competing idea in the West was the Christian notion that Jesus embodied the one true perfect human ideal. In the East, it was the Buddhist bodhisattva. But the idea that virtue is a personal matter never gained currency in either place. In the West, it appeared in mystics and other heretics, usually to their disadvantage.

Under any of these four dominant ideologies it would make sense, then, to believe that each individual can be described completely by an ideal and a list of flaws (deviations from that ideal). I think this is the hidden assumption behind the advice to make characters distinct by giving them flaws. I think that’s one reason our TV shows are dominated by characters who can be summarized by their flaws. That doesn’t make for lovable characters.

MLP is a blend of Western and Eastern traditions, in that it emphasizes group cooperation, but without sacrificing individualism. But it denies that there is an ideal person—each of the Mane 6 has a different ideal self they strive toward, a personal ideal rather than a social role, and there is never any suggestion that one of these ideals is “superior” to another. Rather than calling deviations from the norm “flaws”, it shows how different traits that manifest as flaws in an isolated individual can be strengths within the group. I’m tempted to call it “yin fiction”.

Making Twilight an alicorn therefore betrayed a core concept of MLP:FiM, turning it into just another Jesus/Buddha narrative.

What do you want from life?

Sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. Friends, family, love, and children. An interesting career. Respect. Exhilaration. Good health, clean air, quiet neighbors, land enough for a stable and a pair of horses, and high-speed internet. Immortality and/or world domination.

Why do you write?

I answered this at length in a guest blog on One Man’s Pony Ramblings.

  • I write to prove to myself that I can still feel.

  • I make up characters to represent the people I’ve loved, admired, and pitied, and I try to tell their stories as best as I can figure them out. Bruce Sterling wrote a short story called “Dori Bangs” because he was troubled by the early deaths of Lester Bangs and Dori Seda. It ends like this:

Dori Seda never met Lester Bangs. Two simple real-life acts of human caring, at the proper moment, might have saved them both; but when those moments came, they had no one, not even each other. And so they went down into darkness, like skaters, breaking through the hard bright shiny surface of our true-facts world.

Today I made this white paper dream to cover the holes they left.

  • It gives me the kind of feeling that religion gives other people, of being in contact with something bigger than myself, something transcendent, that shows what is good and bad and right and wrong. But the “sacred” flows out of me, not into me, contributing to something all humans are building collectively. In that way it’s more like science.

  • It’s the only hobby or job I’ve had that people have respected me and expressed gratitude to me for. (Well, other than music, and breaking the copy-protection on video games.)

  • I can’t seem to stop.

What advice do you have for the authors out there?

Stop writing. It’s foolish. It will earn you neither fame nor fortune. Before his contract for “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”, Tim Powers had to turn down guest-of-honor invitations at conventions because he couldn’t afford to go. He told me his retirement plan was “a trailer park, beans, and rice”. When Joan Vinge, a famous science fiction writer, got the contract to write the script for Lost in Space, she had to take out a bank loan to buy a word processor.

Go into non-dead art forms like music, drawing, or acting. A story that gets read by 10,000 people is a phenomenal success. A song or video that gets 10,000 hits is a flop.

If you really can’t stop writing, you’re a writer. Sorry.

Revise.

You don’t have to know what you want, but don’t lie to yourself about what you want. Don’t say you want only to express your vision, then complain that you don’t get enough views.

Revise.

When you see another writer do things you can’t, also notice the things you do that he can’t. When your favorites list has a hundred stories on it that all seem better to you than most of your own, count how many stories those authors wrote that didn’t make the list.

Revise.

Most literary authors are prima-donnas who think they must ignore everyone else’s advice in order to maintain the integrity of their visions. This is stupid. If their vision is so weak that it’s driven out of their heads and forgotten when they let any other thoughts in, it isn’t strong enough for a story. If their judgement is too poor to discern good advice from bad, neither can it discern their own good ideas from the bad ones. Learning when and how to take advice is just another writing skill. Get input on your stories. If you can’t stand rewriting an entire story, get that input before you write the first draft.

Editors are not there to proofread your story. Fix your spelling and grammar before you show it to them.

Don’t worry if you have poor spelling and grammar. Unless you have dyslexia, you can learn spelling and grammar. You probably can’t learn grammar just by reading stories, but you can learn it by studying grammar. (If you have dyslexia, ask for advice from other authors with dyslexia. They exist.)

Revise.

Study science. Without a firm grounding in economics, political theory, evolutionary theory, and psychology, you’ll screw up a large number of stories because you’ll give your story problems bone-headed answers that wouldn’t work in the real world (“vampire bat preserve”), or build your story around a simple-minded and appealing theme that is wrong (“Everything old was good; everything new is bad”, “Only love can prevent war”). Guns don’t kill people. Stories that lie about the world kill people. Slavery, World Wars I and II, and the Holocaust happened because people told compelling stories in which they were good things.

The hell of it is that no one other than yourself will ever know or care whether the stories you write confront the real world, or take refuge from it in socially-condoned wish-fulfillment. The market rewards stories that make people feel good about themselves (even if only by comparison to others). The Pulitzer Prize and Nobel committees were not chosen for their ability to distinguish reality from dogma.

Revise.

Read books that motivated people to do crazy things. Have you read the Bible (front to back), the Koran (maybe not the whole thing, it’s literally mind-numbingly repetitive, but that’s sorta its modus operandi), and Mein Kampf? Why the hell not? If your God and “the most evil man in history” each wrote a book, what could be more important than reading them?

Revise.

Revise.

Revise.

Read books on writing, but not too many, as you could continue reading books about writing full time for the rest of your life without ever writing anything. Writers’ Digest books and magazines are a good place to start, but they only go so far, and are biased towards commercial fiction (the kind that might be made into a movie). Critical literary reviews and Cliff’s Notes address theme. There’s very little advice on the things in-between low-level mechanics and story formula, and the birds-eye view of theme. Advice on tools and tricks that don’t apply to every story, on tradeoffs, and on challenges that lack clear answers, are rare. Read my blog for half-baked thoughts on such matters. tvtropes.org is also worth visiting.

People like simple answers like “Show, don’t tell,” or “Eliminate adverbs”, but a cursory examination of great stories will show this advice is sometimes wrong. Good authors and beginners both violate those rules, but differently. You should go through a long apprenticeship in which you follow all the rules and formulas, and then a journeyman phase in which you learn how to break them. When you think you’ve finally learned everything, you’re ready to start unlearning. Another indication that you’re ready to break rules is that you spend most of your writing time not on looking for the one thing to do next, but on examining alternatives and making compromises between them.

Read some books on scriptwriting. They’re more formulaic, but more aware of the audience than novel writers are. Scriptwriters don’t get respect, and that’s good in some ways.

Revise.

When writing a crossover, how do you decide what source material to keep and what to alter for the sake of your story?

The toughest decision for this story came when I wrote a scene where Holmes wanted to use violence to stop Trixie. Doyle’s Holmes was too much of a gentleman to have done that. That was the point of no return in making my Holmes racist and bitter. As to why I did it, see my answer below to why my Holmes is flawed the way he is. It grew naturally out of putting Holmes in Equestria, and provided the core of the story.

Some people complained that my Trixie is too competent. That was because Holmes is supremely competent, and Trixie had to match him. That dynamic came from the Holmes story; the characters needed the traits from that source to make that dynamic still work.

So for this story, my answer is, “Keep the material, from whichever source, that the story requires.” But the story developed from the characters, so… it’s a chicken-and-egg thing.

What Sherlock Holmes stories (Doyle’s or otherwise) are your favorites?  What lessons can they teach us about storytelling?

I like stories where Sherlock takes the law into his own hands. This is where most other great fictional detectives fall down. If someone is as much smarter than the police and the authorities as Holmes is, and yet hands every case over to the authorities, you have a limited number of possibilities:

  • He believes that despite the authorities’ ineptness at solving crimes, they will suddenly become ept when administering justice.

  • He believes that justice is not an optimization of outcomes against some standard—in other words, an intellectual activity—but something defined by divine right (e.g., Father Brown), or the outcome of elections, or maybe some highly-elevated kind of feeling or taste.

  • He is an idiot savant who is brilliant at crime-solving, yet merely average when considering matters of justice (e.g., Monk).

  • He is a coward.

  • He does not care about justice.

None of these are acceptable for Holmes. He must circumvent the legitimate authorities when he believes they will do wrong, or his character has no integrity.

Doyle’s stories are compact. They jump back and forth between showing and telling, and you can use them to study what should be shown and what should be told to keep a story short and energetic. Characters often narrate, and what they say and focus on reveals their character at the same time that it reveals the plot.

Without spoiling too much about the ending, why did you choose to make your Sherlock flawed in the way that he is?

I need to spoil the ending a little bit, but a story that isn’t worth reading if you know the ending, isn’t worth reading if you don’t know the ending.

Doyle’s Holmes often takes cases from members of the upper class, and they look down on him for being a commoner while he looks down on them for being stupid. Holmes can never enter the upper class himself. This is one of the tragedies of which he is himself conscious, and which fits with his contempt, often expressed ironically, alternating with descents into drug abuse and self-loathing. So it seemed to me that Holmes had to be an earth pony interacting with unicorns.

So he’s a member of a semi-oppressed racial class, and everywhere he looks, he sees the unicorn race dominant. We know humans in this situation often develop an inferiority complex about their own race. Holmes is so smart that he can’t doubt his race’s capacity for intelligence, but he is too smart to satisfy himself with stories about doing things “the earth pony way”. He lives in a society ruled by another race, and no matter how smart he is, he’s still left with the fact that they are magical beings and he is not. I imagine that would feel like being a black American who is smarter than every white he meets, but believes blacks have no souls and sees proof of it daily. He is a pony obsessed with justice whose own existence proves the world is unjust. So this class consciousness bites harder into my Equestrian Holmes than into Doyle’s.

(Only in ponyfiction can a white guy write a story about race.)

So without any planning on my part, I had an earth pony with a racial inferiority complex pursuing a unicorn of the opposite sex for doing an activity usually done by earth ponies. I don’t remember when I realized this would figure strongly in the ending, but I know I had to go back after the story was “finished” and add lines to almost every chapter to foreshadow it, and that’s where Holmes’ flaw came from. I couldn’t have worked it in if I’d published any chapters before finishing the whole thing.

There’s a significant amount of artwork embedded in this story.  What role does multimedia play in prose storytelling?

I don’t know. I loved the drawings in many books I read as a child—the Narnia chronicles, The Wind in the Willows. But I’ve never felt pictures were lacking in a book that didn’t have them.

I hired an artist, DracosDerpyHooves on deviantart, to do the cover, and she asked for so little money that I commissioned several drawings. I had only just discovered that you could embed images inside fimfiction stories. I don’t think I’d seen anyone do that, so I wanted to do it first, and take it to an extreme. I wanted one drawing per chapter, and hoped this would make the story more enjoyable and draw more views. I can’t recall any comments about the drawings, and the story didn’t get many views for something on EQD, so I’d call it a failed experiment.

I’m more interested in “multimedia and prose” in the world of interactive fiction. Where can we go with computer games like Final Fantasy and Half-Life?

The first step is to stop calling them “games”. Once I was working on an online multiplayer strategy roleplaying game with a bunch of guys in Boston, and the team split up at the end of the initial design draft over an apparently simple question: Should the players have a ranking ladder? Half the team said, Of course! Competition is the whole point of the game! The other half was horrified, and said, Absolutely not! Encouraging players to win rather than roleplay would destroy the experience! The funny thing was that we had agreed on every detail of gameplay, without realizing we had two completely incompatible notions of what “playing” meant.

Interactive literature can’t be a game that you play to win! That would be interactive commercial fiction. Literature has sad stories and tragedies. You don’t say you’ve “lost” at the end of The Grapes of Wrath. Literature can at most be a “game” in the sense that SimCity or The Sims are games. It requires a reader who’s already been trained on linear literature to understand what a story is, and to get pleasure from cooperatively creating a story rather than from making everything work out well for their character.

The next step is to get LARPers into writing interactive fiction, or computer game designers into LARPing. Everyone in the LARP world understands this win vs. roleplay dichotomy, because LARPs and LARPing groups divide strictly into those who play to win (generally LARPs based on table-top roleplaying games) versus those who play to roleplay (e.g., Intercon and the Live-Action Roleplayers Association, or roleplaying games like Call of Cthulhu, Paranoia, My Life with Master, or Toon, which can’t be won). Like bad currency, LARPers who play to win drive out LARPers who play to roleplay and create stories (because the LARPers who play to win always win), so they must be kept separate. The second kind of LARP writers have much more experience and adeptness than computer game designers at designing long interactive stories that give players freedom and purpose without enabling them to destroy the story—although this often relies on having players who’ve been trained not to try to win!

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Nnnope.  eeyup

You can read The Magician And The Detective at FIMFiction.net.

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