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The next time you want to write comedy mixed with a thoughtful moral lesson, today’s story is a great one to take a page from.

princess-of-booksThe Princess Of Books
[Comedy] [Slice of Life] • 17,954 words

Celestia had a problem. Somepony wrote a novel about Nightmare Moon’s rebellion. This made Luna quite unhappy, and unfortunately for her sister, Luna has not yet gotten the hang of modern traditions like freedom of speech, the abolition of the death penalty, and not bothering Princess Celestia when she’s trying to sleep.

Fortunately, Celestia also had a faithful student, one who is now a Princess with an ill-defined portfolio and perfectly capable of dispensing justice by the laws of both today and one thousand years ago.

Now Twilight Sparkle has a problem.

FROM THE CURATORS: We found The Princess Of Books not only entertaining, but exemplary on two levels.  The first was how its tale of remedial Lunar education felt remarkably faithful to the show itself.  “Though the comedy tag certainly fits, it isn’t laugh-out-loud, but it is a rather masterful mixture of light humor and show-tone slice of life, with just a hint of going beyond the show’s boundaries in ways that make sense,” Present Perfect said. “It’s also an excellent look at Twilight adjusting to her role as a princess in ways that mirror what we’ve seen in season 4, despite having been published prior to it.”  Part of that excellence was its well-roundedness: “It includes all of the mane six without feeling bogged down,” JohnPerry said.

Its other exemplary feature was, as Horizon put it, “the story’s core maturity” in its examination of the issue of censorship (which remains all too relevant in our own world). “It’s refreshing to find a story with a strong moral that doesn’t overplay its hand,” JohnPerry said, and Chris agreed: “The lesson at the end was a great mix of blunt, important, and thoughtful.” Amid all its silliness, it treats its characters and their decisions with respect: “Twilight’s presented with several easy outs, any one of which could have plausibly worked given the conceits of canon, but refuses them and stands on principle, to everyone’s immediate discomfort and ultimate benefit,” Horizon said. “Aside from Luna’s early anachronistic wrath, everyone acts reasonable, and the different sides of the conflict are all presented as having legitimate reasons driving their actions.”

Those conflicts end up escalating into a climax and epilogue that “made me want to stand up and cheer,” Horizon said, and Present Perfect agreed: “The ending is rather unexpectedly epic.”

Read on for our author interview, in which anowack discusses meta-goals, mythological gifts, and mixing morality and grins.

Give us the standard biography.

In real life, I’m an exceedingly boring software engineer, who works for a company you’ve probably never heard of in a small town you’ve probably never heard of maintaining programs that you will almost certainly never use.

Here on the Internet, I’ve been writing fanfiction for over a decade, a lot of which is terrible.  My first significant effort was a Sailor Moon story — proving I was obsessing over girls’ cartoons long before it was cool — which, for reasons that no doubt seemed a good idea at the time, was largely about a mostly male counterpart team to the Sailor Senshi showing up and getting into counterproductive fights with them.  I like to think I’ve gotten slightly better since then.

In any case, I somehow stumbled across the TvTropes page for AestheticB’s The Immortal Game, which managed to interest me enough to click the link over to FimFiction, which sent me down the rabbit hole that inevitably resulted in my watching three seasons’ worth of cartoon ponies, reading at least a couple million words of fanfiction about those ponies, and ultimately writing some myself.

How did you come up with your handle/penname?

First letter of my first name followed by my last name.

… I already said I was “exceedingly boring,” right?

Who’s your favorite pony?

If I had to pick … well, I have to say Twilight Sparkle or they’d take away my geeky introvert card, right?

But really, one of the reasons I fell in love with the show is that it’s got a great cast of characters that’s more than the sum of its parts.  I like the Mane Six as a group at least twice as much as I like any individual pony.

Which is probably a good thing for a show about friendship.

What’s your favorite episode?

That’s a tough one.  If you look at it objectively, I’ve probably watched “Magical Mystery Cure” more than any other episode, but a lot of that comes down to those catchy songs.  “The Return of Harmony” is probably my favorite of the two parters, and there’s all the first season classics like “The Cutie Mark Chronicles” or “Dragonshy” or…

Right, favorite episode.  Singular.  Hmm…

You know what?  I’m going to say “Hearth’s Warming Eve,” which is the only episode that, after watching for the first time, I turned around and watched again immediately afterward.  I was expecting to hate it, because Christmas episodes are typically terrible, but it was actually a lot of fun, with a big batch of intriguing world-building as a bonus.

And presenting the founding of Equestria as a mythologized ritual play is possibly the single biggest gift the show has ever given fanfiction writers, because it gives us a common base to build on while providing a built-in excuse to alter it however best fits our stories.

What do you get from the show?

Entertainment.  It’s a good show!

Fanfic ideas, more than I could ever write.

And, of course, access to a truly amazing quantity of fan material, more than I could ever read/watch/listen to.

What do you want from life?

Let’s go all meta on this one: to get to a point in my life where I have a good answer to that question and am confident about getting whatever that is.

Why do you write?

Because I can’t read or watch anything without asking “what if?”

Because as much as it can be like pulling teeth to get a handful of paragraphs written sometimes, when the words are flowing it is glorious and I love it.

Because how else am I going to share how awesome my red-and-black alicorn stallion OC is with the world?

What advice do you have for the authors out there?

My gut reaction is to tell them to find someone who actually knows what they’re doing and ask them for advice instead.  But that’s really dodging the question, so:

Learn to take criticism, identify what’s useful, and act on it.  “The Princess of Books” originally was just three parts, without the epilogue.  In my head as I was writing it, once Twilight had made her decrees the story was over, it was clear what would happen next, and there wasn’t anything interesting left to say.  As it turns out, I was absolutely wrong about all three of those things, and without the closure the epilogue now provides I feel the story would be far weaker.  So I owe a big “thank you” to all of the umpteen people who suggested I write an epilogue.

Something that impressed us all about this story was the handling of the moral. What compelled you to write a story dealing with freedom of speech?

Honestly, I stumbled into it backward.

To the best of my recollection, the earliest version of the idea that became “The Princess of Books” was about the Mane Six going to see a play or opera in Canterlot about Nightmare Moon’s rebellion, being horrified at how mean it was to Luna, only to learn that Luna herself was the playwright.  I iterated on a couple versions of that, including switching from a play to a novel, and reversing the original concept so Luna was complaining about the story whitewashing Nightmare Moon’s crimes.  But none of those ideas were really coming together very well.

After taking a break and coming back to the idea, I finally realized that a big part of the problem with these earlier versions of the story was that there wasn’t any real plot, much less conflict.  All I had was the characters sitting around and talking about a play or book, and I’m not a good enough writer to make that interesting.  Everything was much too passive.  I needed something to actually happen if the story was going to be anything but pure boredom.

I separately had some vague ideas for using “Princess Twilight Sparkle holds her first court” as either the introduction or backdrop to a story, so for a while I’d been pondering what that might look like in the back of my head.  The next time I returned to those thoughts, Luna suddenly stormed in, demanding that the author of Nightmare Moon be executed, and I realized that I finally had an actual story to tell.

Why use Luna as the recipient of this moral? And how did you manage to make her seem sympathetic even while she’s clamoring for someone’s execution?

Since I’d started off with the idea of a story about a story about Nightmare Moon written by Luna, she always was going to be an important character.  However, one of the other weaknesses of those earlier iterations was that Luna actually wasn’t one; she never changed or grew in those versions.  So I’d say it was less picking her as the recipient of the moral and more finding the right moral for Luna.

As for keeping her sympathetic, it helps a lot that this fandom has a bottomless well of love for Luna.  A character that the audience is predisposed to sympathize with can get away with a lot that the likes of, say, Prince Blueblood never could.  Beyond that, the most important part was probably to make sure that the story always treated her as a good person (or I suppose I should say pony) who needed to be corrected and not as a villain who needed to be stopped.  She’s not evil or immune to reason; she’s legitimately upset at what she sees as a deliberate insult to her sister and operating under a cultural context where her demands are probably an overreaction, but not completely beyond the pale.

I hope that it’s clear by the end of the story that, if Twilight had actually had a chance to have a calm conversation with Luna over tea, the matter could have been settled perfectly peacefully.

Did you have any challenges mixing comedic elements with the more serious moral thrust of your story?

Actually, not really.  I don’t even remember consciously weighing that balance when writing the story, which I have to admit sounds kind of insufferably arrogant now that I’m writing it out.  Looking back,  I think what I subconsciously did was to have the comedy largely happening around the more important issues I was dealing with, while those issues themselves were always treated seriously.  And then really lucked out that my gut sense of how to draw that line wasn’t terribly off.

That post-hoc analysis aside, I think without those comedic elements the story would come off as rather flat and overly preachy.  I certainly hope that “The Princess of Books” isn’t introducing the concept of freedom of speech to many of its readers, and I don’t consider anything I have to say about it terribly novel or controversial.  If I tried to expound on the moral without the comedy, I’m worried I’d be bored to death, much less the poor readers.

You manage to have all of the Mane Six (as well as a bunch of other characters) contribute to the story without it feeling bogged down. How do you balance all those different characters in a fairly short story such as this?

With great difficulty.  Okay, that’s a little facetious, but it is hard, and I haven’t found a magic bullet to make it any easier.  (Going back over the story before this interview, I winced when I noticed Pinkie Pie vanishes for the rest of the scene after reacting to Luna’s initial appearance in Part One.)

The best I’ve been able to do is to keep a list of all the characters in the back of my head and try to make sure each one has a chance to show off his or her… well, character before the end.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that they all have to get a lot of screen time.  Fluttershy is only barely in “The Princess of Books” if you start counting words, but she gets the short bit early on where she derails Luna’s rant, which — hopefully, anyway — has a big impact.

This is one of those areas where writing fanfiction is very much a set of training wheels, since I don’t actually have to introduce most of the characters.  In the first outline of “The Princess of Books”, the author of Nightmare Moon was an original character, but I didn’t have any strong ideas about him or how to make the other characters (and therefore the reader) care about this random pony.  I couldn’t make it work, so I cheated by making him Twilight’s father.  While Twilight’s parents are basically non-characters in canon, it still gave me an easy hook to build off of and provided an instant reason for Twilight and her friends to be personally concerned about his fate.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Since I’ve spent about a half-hour staring at the blank space under this question, half-starting answers, and then deleting them, I’m going to say: apparently not.

Any insight this might grant into why my writing speed nowadays tends to be more usefully measured in words-per-month than words-per-day is entirely accurate.

You can read The Princess Of Books at FIMFiction.net.