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Octavia and Vinyl Scratch are fandom’s classic “odd couple” — and today’s story makes one of them even odder.

destination-unknownDestination Unknown
[Romance] [Alternate Universe] • 4,114 words

Two passengers on a train ride toward an uncertain future. One is a pony. The other only pretends to be.

FROM THE CURATORS: “A little bit of originality can take a fandom trope a long way,” Present Perfect said as we dove into this story, and he was right — Destination Unknown paid off on that promise in spades.  “Vinyl + Octavia is one of the fandom’s most cliché and mismatched pairs, and yet this is a real romance with genuine depth and emotion,” Horizon said.  “This story also made Vinyl more plausible to me as a changeling than as a pony.  It’s rich with little details like the source of her love for dubstep that show a lot of care and craft.  I really appreciate how it plays the two competing clichés off of each other to great effect.”

What sold us on this story was, simply put, the quality of its construction in a crowded field of fanon explorations.  “I think most folks will come away from it with better feelings about fanfiction than they had going in,” Bradel said.  “The execution here is much smoother than I see through most of this fandom.”  Horizon agreed: “This one is simply exemplary on execution.”

While Present Perfect thirded that statement, he went even further — finding the story unexpectedly winning him over.  “The writing is solid, and it’s far more melancholy than romantic,” he said.  “You won’t understand the full gravity of this statement unless you obsessively take notes on my fic recommendation journals, but it’s a ScratchTavia fic I actually like.”

Read on for our author interview, in which Pale Horse discusses crazy lies, dragon development, and following your heart while naked.

Give us the standard biography.

I’m a lifelong bookworm. I love to read, and I love to write. My fondness for both led me to study literature in college. My first job was working as a newspaper reporter; I thought it was a career that would allow me to earn a living as a writer and to perform a public service at the same time. But I was laid off when the economy crashed and all the newspapers started going out of business. I’m currently working at my local public library, but sadly, I don’t have a loyal dragon assistant to help me out. I’m also thinking of starting graduate school next year.

How did you come up with your handle/penname?

That was chiefly the result of a (probably misguided) attempt to come up with a horse-related pen name, in the spirit of the show. However, the name itself is a Biblical reference to the Book of Revelation. From the text, when the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse appear:

And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. (Revelation 6:8)

It’s a fairly recognizable literary allusion (as Horse Voice demonstrates to chilling effect in his masterpiece, Biblical Monsters), and I’m also a fan of the Clint Eastwood film Pale Rider, so I suppose I could have picked something worse.

Who’s your favorite pony?

I’m actually a Spike fan! That’s unfortunate for me, because the show’s writing staff have admitted that they don’t really know how to handle him, so he ends up doing slapstick for lack of anything else to do (count the number of sight gags in season 4 that involve him being slammed behind a door, or something). He has a lot of potential as a character, and I keep hoping that the writers will come up with an interesting way to develop him, but many of the issues he faces (being adopted/parental abandonment, for example) are probably too serious or dark for the show’s target audience, so I doubt that we’ll get to see him do very much.

What’s your favorite episode?

Probably Luna Eclipsed. Like Spike, Luna is a character with a lot of potential, and this was our first look at her after her all-too-brief debut in the pilot episode. Much of the personal history regarding Luna and Celestia remains a mystery, and one of the most attractive qualities a character can have is the potential for exploration, especially a sympathetic villain. What’s Luna like? What can she do with her magic? How is she different from Celestia? How exactly did she become Nightmare Moon? Was there a war? What was it like spending a thousand years on the Moon? People were hungry for details after Luna’s first appearance and were asking questions like these, and Luna Eclipsed gave us answers to some (but not all) of them. Fans love lore, and I’m no exception. Here’s hoping we get some more in the future.

What do you get from the show?

Friendship is Magic is the best show I’ve seen in years, either animated or live-action. It’s genuinely entertaining, which is more than I can say for a lot of the stuff that’s on television today. I can’t remember the last time I watched a series on a regular basis — every single week — because I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. It offers a rich setting, characters with depth, an art style that is both visually appealing and vibrantly colorful, a catchy musical score, and excellent voice work from everyone involved. It’s also an intelligent show that treats itself with respect, which is very important. If you don’t respect your own show, how can you expect your audience to?

But more than any of that, there’s the overwhelming sense of positivity. We live in an age of deep, pervasive cynicism. People are always talking about how the world is such a bad place, and how bad things are, as if there was no point in even getting out of bed in the morning. If FiM is nothing else, it’s a celebration of life rather than a condemnation of it, a reminder that joy and happiness and laughter can be found all around us, if we take the time to look. Its lessons are simple, but we’d do well to take them to heart. Love your friends. Forgive your enemies. Keep an open mind. Don’t judge people, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and don’t forget to smile, smile, smile.

What do you want from life?

Well, I want to enjoy it. Life is too precious — and far too short — to do otherwise. But I’d also like to help people, to make a real difference in the lives of others, and to hopefully leave the world a better place than when I came into it.

Why do you write?

Writers often describe their craft not as an occupation, but as a compulsion, and I think that’s true. Creative people are driven to create, regardless of little things like money or job security. It isn’t a matter of choice; we write not because we want to, but because we have to. We can’t be happy doing anything else. Speaking for myself, I’ve always loved telling stories. Magician Penn Jillette said that’s all life really is: a collection of good stories. I also believe that writing provides a measure of immortality that other careers don’t. We’re still reading Beowulf and the works of Shakespeare centuries after they were first written down because someone thought they were worth remembering. It would be nice to be remembered.

What advice do you have for the authors out there?

– First and foremost, read. Read deeply and widely. Read anything you can get your hands on, regardless of genre. If someone tells you not to read something (in the case of banned books or other controversial literature), then take that as a sign that you need to read it. Reading is the best writing instructor you’ll ever have, better than any class or workshop. It’ll teach you how words are used (and spelled), give you a feel for language, and give you a more expansive view of the world you live in. Knowledge is power.

– I’ve seen other writers respond to this question by saying, “Do something other than write.” This is well-meaning — but lousy — advice meant to send would-be authors on a more lucrative (and ideally more stable) career path. As I said, writers will be compelled to write whether it’s in their best financial interests or not; J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book while living on welfare benefits. If you really want to write, then by all means, write. You have my permission.

– With the above point in mind, I’d like to offer something a little more constructive than “don’t write,” and a lot less discouraging: don’t be afraid to do something else while you write. We all have bills to pay, but very few writers are successful enough to support themselves by doing nothing but writing. (Think of it as being like how many basketball players try out for the NBA versus how many actually get in.) It’s okay — in fact, it’s probably advisable — if you have a day job that earns you money and still allows you to write in your spare time.

You certainly wouldn’t be the first. Before he sold his first novel, Stephen King lived in a trailer while working as a high school English teacher. For extra money, he spent his summers working in an industrial laundry and his nights moonlighting as a janitor and gas station attendant. Mark Twain was an apprentice printer, riverboat pilot, miner, and journalist. I learned yesterday that writer Joe Schreiber (whom Star Wars fans may know as the author of Death Troopers) has held a variety of occupations, including pet-sitting, waiting tables, clerking at six different bookstores, and working in an office. Today he makes a living as an MRI technician!

They’re called “starving artists” for a reason. Be smarter than that. Take care of yourself and do what you have to in order to survive. You don’t have to be in love with it; you just have to tolerate it well enough to give your Muse some breathing room. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. A steady paycheck, health insurance, and vacation time are all good things.

– Don’t get hung up on mechanics and rules of grammar. They’re generally unimportant and don’t matter nearly as much as your English teachers would have you believe. We often remember the best stories for breaking the rules, not for following them. Being understandable and getting your message across is far, far more important than adhering to stuffy conventions that only hardcore grammarians care about in the first place. Substance is more important than style.

The “rules” of grammar are subject to change anyway, because the use of language evolves over time. William Strunk’s The Elements of Style was first published in 1918, and revised editions are still used in college writing courses. The last two lines of the book list examples of how to properly hyphenate and join certain compound words; none of those examples (with the exception of together) are still in use today.

– Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, don’t be afraid to try. You only get one shot at life, so be sure to make it a good one. In 2005, six years before he died of cancer, Steve Jobs said, “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Vinyl experiences change due to her race, and has changed because of her experiences with Octavia and music. Will running away really change anything?

Vinyl is jumping to conclusions based upon her personal experience. She’s a stranger in a strange land, and doesn’t look for help from Canterlot because she believes that Celestia would deal with her the same way Chrysalis would: harshly. From Vinyl’s point of view, she is an admitted spy, a member of a hostile army, and a turncoat. (She also has a history of feeding on Celestia’s subjects for sustenance, but hey, nopony’s perfect.) While she’s right about seeking aid in the Crystal Empire, as Cadance and Shining Armor would probably recognize that Vinyl’s relationship with Octavia has changed her for the better, she’s also not giving Celestia enough credit.

Vinyl Scratch, or DJ Pon-3, has a very solid presence in fanon. How did you balance her “usual” portrayals with your brand-new imagining of her character?

I think it’s a bad idea to accept a single depiction of a character as being any kind of “standard.” It’s like typecasting an actor: if you limit an actor to a single kind of role based upon their past performance, then you know that they’ll do a good job in that role, but you also deprive them of the chance to broaden their creative horizons and fully explore their own talent.

Take Derpy Hooves, for example. I’ve seen depictions of Derpy run the full gamut, from a mentally damaged imbecile to a bumbling klutz to an unsung genius to an otherwise ordinary pony with wonky eyes. None of these characterizations is inherently better than any other. It’s what you do with your premise — how far you can go with it, and whether or not you can hold your reader’s interest — that’s more important.

Who is Vinyl Scratch “supposed” to be? Is she a drug-addled raver? An unrepentant alcoholic? A half-deaf DJ? A sensitive artist? A unicorn? Lonely? Stupid? Blind? Gay?

The truth is that Vinyl isn’t any of these things. She’s a fictional character, and a background pony besides, with very little in the way of “canon” characterization. This means that writers shouldn’t just feel free to experiment with her, they should feel free to go crazy with her. Fiction writing is sometimes described as the art of lying, so go ahead, lie your ass off. Don’t be afraid to ask, “What if?”

Vinyl is whatever you want her to be. Make her an ace pilot. Make her a lottery winner. Make her a video game character come to life. Make her Vinilus Scrachenza, Vampire Lord of Ponyville, if it suits your fancy. Are you having fun with it? Is it interesting? That’s all that really matters.

Is Vinyl likely to solve the puzzle that is her Beloved?

By the end of the story, Vinyl and Octavia have been together for years, and have managed to figure each other out pretty well. Besides, once you tell your girlfriend that you’re actually a changeling, other secrets don’t seem quite so bad in comparison. That being said, they may still have a few surprises for each other. I’ve thought about adding an epilogue chapter dealing with their arrival in the Crystal Empire, but I think the story works better as a one-shot, and I wouldn’t want to cheapen it, especially after it’s gotten such a positive reception. Same thing with Insomnia.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A few tidbits about the story:

– The title, Destination Unknown, comes from this song on the Top Gun soundtrack.

– In the first draft of the story, which had several pages completed before it was scrapped, it was Octavia who was the changeling, not Vinyl. But this version of the story had a weak ending (Octavia and Celestia discussed her defection over a cup of tea, and then Octavia just sort of… went home afterward), and I was never happy with it. It wasn’t until I went searching for potential cover art on Derpibooru that I came across this lovely animation. That cemented Vinyl as the pensive, wistful changeling with a lot on her mind, and also provided a framing device for the story: a long train ride on a journey with an uncertain conclusion.

– Vinyl’s characterization was based in part upon Klackons, an alien species from the classic space-based strategy game Master of Orion II. The Klackons had a racial trait called “uncreative,” meaning that they suffered a penalty to their scientific research because—as an insectoid race with a hive mind—they had difficulty with concepts like innovation and original thought. I thought that changelings might be drawn to a field like art or music because it would give them an opportunity for creative expression, something they’d never had before.

– Thanks to the efforts of the gracious Illya Leonov, a dramatic reading of Destination Unknown is now available. If you liked the story, be sure to check it out!

– One last piece of advice: try to have fun, whether you’re writing, or just living. If you aren’t enjoying yourself, then you probably need to be doing something else. You owe it to yourself. As the great philosopher Richard Pryor said:

“You better have some fun, and plenty of it. ‘Cause when the shit over and you ask for a recharge, it’s too late. So all I can say is, keep some sunshine on your face.”

You can read Destination Unknown at FIMFiction.net. Read more interviews right here at the Royal Canterlot Library, or suggest stories for us to feature at our Fimfiction group.