It’s an average day here at the Royal Canterlot Library, but today’s feature definitely isn’t an average story.
[Adventure] • 52,517 words
Wake up. Go to work. Save Ponyville from unimaginable horrors beyond time and space. Have lunch with your PFF.
Ditzy Doo lives in a different world than her fellow ponies. She sees things nopony else can see — like higher-dimensional spatial anomalies, fae creatures, and eldritch abominations. And she uses what she sees to solve problems that other ponies don’t even realize are problems.
But this time, Ditzy may have bitten off more than she can chew. Something very unfriendly is trying to enter Equestria through Ponyville’s Town Hall. An earth pony with an hourglass cutie mark has taken an unhelpful interest in Ditzy. The Princess’s personal student has grown suspicious. And, most irritating of all, her alarm clock radio is acting strangely.
Ditzy must race against the clock to save Ponyville — a clock that keeps playing the same song over, and over, and over …
FROM THE CURATORS: This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a story about the secret life of the pony we know as Derpy Hooves/Ditzy Doo, but Alarm Clock did so many things right it couldn’t help but stand out from the pack. “There’s the outlandish callouts to the show,” Present Perfect said. “There’s the ridiculously well-placed fandom tropes. (‘I emptied your fridge’ as a significant plot point? Inconceivable!) There’s a wonderful character in Derpy (an early standout moment was her fretting over being unable to handle power). There’s good use of time and dimensional travel, and the fact that never once did I feel lost in the story. It was exciting and funny in all the right ways.”
If those elements sound like familiar Derpy/Ditzy cliches, prepare to be surprised. “This upends half of Derpy fanon while justifying the other half,” Horizon said. “The whole first chapter is about giving her a reason to be in Fluttershy’s henhouse during the ‘Find a Pet’ song, and shortly thereafter is a chapter centered on foalsitting her friend’s daughter Dinky. Doctor Whooves plays a prominent role … as a foil. Nothing connects where you’d expect it to, but it all works.” Chris agreed: “Meta Four takes plenty of gentle passes at fandom standbys, but never in a lazy or immersion-breaking way.”
That’s all the more impressive given the wild ideas the story throws at us. “This is honest-to-goodness magical realism crossed with My Little Pony,” Horizon said. “It hedges its bets somewhat in the chapters where Ditzy is trying to bring normal ponies up to speed, but when she’s fortunetelling for the fia or moving her hoof fjothward, the story is gloriously unapologetic about its oddness.” That was aided by a fine touch with characterization and setting. “Everypony in here just feels right,” JohnPerry said. “For all the upending of fanon and interdimensional weirdness going on in here, this still manages to feel like Ponyville at the end of the day.”
Ultimately, though, Alarm Clock was just a joy to read. “This is the most fun I’ve had reading a fanfic in a while,” Chris said. “This story shows how you can write a clever story, an engrossing story, and even a dramatic story, all without taking yourself too seriously.”
Read on for our author interview, in which Meta Four discusses villain malapropisms, Gallifreyan baggage, and how to rescue a story from a two-year hiatus.
Give us the standard biography.
I’m a dude. 30 years old. I got my Master’s degree back in 2011, and I’m currently working in research related to biology and public health. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to settle down in one place longer than five years. When I started writing Alarm Clock, I lived in Nebraska; now I’m in Texas.
I got into the show in 2012, during the break between seasons 2 and 3. I had seen colorful cartoon horses plastered all over the internet in the years before, and it piqued my curiosity. Then I found out that a friend, whose tastes I really respected, was a fan, and that convinced me I needed to give the show a try. My plan was to give the show five episodes to win me over; I wound up bingeing the entire first two seasons in one weekend.
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
Back when I was in high school, I wrote this script for a Star Wars parody. It was flawed in that the actually good parts of it were the parts that had nothing to do with Star Wars. One of them was a bit where the villain invents the malapropism “metaphoragizery” (noun: the act of creating a metaphor). When I started posting on internet forums, I wanted a username that was as much a special snowflake as I was, so I pulled a name from my unpublished scribblings and called myself Metaphoragizery. Bouncing around the net, I used variations on that name for different communities, and now I’ve settled on the abbreviation Meta Four as my primary online handle.
Who’s your favorite pony?
Twilight Sparkle. I can relate to her neuroses and her fear of failure, and I admire her love of learning.
Outside the mane six, Maud Pie. I just have a soft spot for stoic female characters.
What’s your favorite episode?
“It’s About Time”. Best Pony and internally-consistent time travel? HELL YES
What do you get from the show?
A lot of laughs. Enough optimism to counteract the melancholy movies and music I enjoy. Genuinely heartwarming moments, stemming from characters that feel like real people, not from the writers shoving cute clichés in my face. I have complicated feelings about the fandom as a whole, but I’ve interacted with some great people thanks to the show. And I appreciate that there’s always something to read or talk about, even during the lulls between seasons.
What do you want from life?
I want to start a family, listen to good music, and leave this world a little bit better than it was when I arrived.
Why do you write?
C.S. Lewis said once, “I wrote the books I should have liked to read, if only I could have got them. That’s always been my reason for writing.” I don’t think I can improve on that.
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
In short: Quit waffling and just write. Plan, but don’t plan too much. Read a lot. Don’t make the mistakes I did. Find good pre-readers.
The most important thing is to write. Not thinking about what you want to write, not telling other people about what you plan to write, but actually writing. (In fact, talking about your story plans is a dangerous temptation. Sharing ideas gives you quick and easy endorphin rush. It’s just a pale imitation of the pleasures of bringing a story to completion, but many would-be writers settle for the pale imitation because it’s so much easier.) What helps me is to make a daily habit of writing for my stories. It doesn’t matter if I can only squeeze out a single paragraph, nor does it matter if all my words that day are garbage that I’m going to completely replace when it comes time to edit — all that matters is that I keep that forward momentum. I can’t force inspiration to come, but by consistently writing, I can be ready to take advantage of inspiration when it does come.
Don’t publish a first chapter without knowing how your last chapter should go, and don’t ask a question in a published chapter without already knowing the answer. Otherwise, you’ll be like those TV show writers who introduce a big, season-long mystery to a show, then disappoint the viewers with a solution they pulled out of their asses. On the other hand, don’t be that “writer” who spends so long making sure their story plan is perfect that they never get around to writing it. If anything, planning out in microscopic detail can be counterproductive, because you’ll get new ideas as soon as you start writing — the story and characters will try to wriggle off in their own direction while you try to pin them down — and some of those ideas will be better than what you planned.
Read a variety of stuff: published works, fanfiction, non-fiction, in any and every genre. If you only read in the same genre you’re writing, you lose perspective and put yourself in the middle of an echo chamber. Try to learn something from everything you read — whether it’s a lesson in what to do, or what not to do. (TV, movies, comics, video games, etc. can also provide insight into plotting and developing characters, but for obvious reasons they’re not going to be as helpful on the issue of constructing prose.) When you expose yourself to enough good prose, it will start to creep into your own writing. And more often than not, finding your own voice as an author is not a matter of trying to write like no one else in the world, but about taking influence from other authors and synthesizing those disparate bits into a unique whole.
Check out the sordid tale in the “What challenges did you face while writing this story?” question, below. I’m sure there’s some kind of lesson in there, but I’m not totally sure what it is.
As far as pre-readers … I know my story would have been crap without my pre-readers’ feedback. But I just lucked into finding other writers, willing to read my stuff, whose approach is different enough from my own that they can find holes and mistakes that I never considered. I didn’t do anything special to find them, so I don’t have suggestions for how you can find your own. Sorry.
What was the inspiration for Alarm Clock?
All kinds of things! To start with, the central premise — that Ditzy’s eye condition is a superpower, not a disability — was something I had seen as a brief joke several places. Off the top of my head, in PONIES the Anthology, in Sereg’s fanfic An Earth Pony’s Guide to Magic, and in some image macro whose source I’ve completely forgotten. I knew there was a lot of story potential in that concept, and when I couldn’t find a fic about that, I felt called to write it. (I’ve since discovered there actually are a few other fics with that premise, but they pull it off enough differently that, had I known about them back then, I probably would have written Alarm Clock anyway.) I started brainstorming reasons why Ditzy’s powers could explain her strangest cameos from season 2, and the story just grew from there.
As for inspiration for specific elements: Tom Siddell’s webcomic Gunnerkrigg Court, and to an extent Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next book series, introduced me to the joys of starting off as a seemingly random stream of of bizarre events, before eventually revealing that all the disparate plot threads are connected. The Hellboy comic books and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell convinced me that fairies could be scary enough to fit right in with Lovecraftian horrors. And the aforementioned An Earth Pony’s Guide to Magic reminded me that I could reference Doctor Who without doing a full-blown crossover — saving myself from shoving all that Gallifreyan baggage into Equestria. And a guy by the username Perpetual Lurker made me completely rethink the popular fanon about Ditzy Doo. (More on that later.)
This is a fairly interwoven story; a lot of elements that are introduced early come back into play later on. Tell us about the process of constructing that framework and how you tied it all together.
The funny thing is, I didn’t initially plan it that way. Imagine I were a sculptor, and I decided to make an abstract art piece. So I hammered a bunch of iron chunks into random shapes, without any sort of plan, and set them next to each other on a table. Some art critics walked by and said, “But what does it mean?” I didn’t have an answer for them. So I took those iron pieces home, and that night, I pieced them together like a jigsaw puzzle and wound up with a working internal combustion engine. That’s how this story came together.
My first plan was for a surreal slice-of-life thing, where Ditzy fixed extradimensional problems and didn’t think any of it was a big deal. The events of the first two days would have happened mostly the same, only with zero foreshadowing for the Town Hall subplot, and the (relatively) small bit of property damage in the cold open of “The Last Roundup” would have been enough to stop the monster summoning. And then the story would have ended there, with Ditzy’s place in life more-or-less unchanged. After I wrote the first few chapters with this plot outline in mind, I got some pre-reader feedback, and it basically boiled down to, “This is amusing, but nothing seems to fit together. Where the heck are you going with this?” The answer, of course, was “Nowhere,” so I thought for a while about whether that was a good enough answer.
With a sudden bolt of insight, I realized that the plot thread about monster summoning could be a big enough threat to drive the entire story. And that all the other plot threads could be repurposed as tools to help Ditzy defeat the monster — or as obstacles to make the defeat more interesting.
Once I had that central plot arc planned, I worked backwards. I considered all the characters and plot devices that were important to the second half of the story, and if they weren’t already established in the first half of the story, I found ways to insert them. Constable Peeler’s an example of that: initially, I just needed a police pony for a scene at the climax, then I went and gave him earlier scenes so he’d feel like an organic part of the setting rather than a talking plot device. Similarly, I had to establish the spatial anomaly on Town Hall sooner — and those establishing scenes spun off into Twilight Sparkle’s entire subplot, which I immensely enjoyed. Though in a few cases, a character’s only important scene was early in the story, but I worked them into another scene later just so they wouldn’t feel like a dangling plot thread. Bon Bon is an example of that.
Honestly, I’m making this sound a lot more logical than it actually was. My plotting is very intuitive. I write something because it feels right, then I come up with a post hoc explanation why I wrote things that way, then I edit and rewrite bits to better fit my retroactive plan.
This story simultaneously incorporates and upends a lot of fanon tropes. How did you go about balancing the more familiar fanon concepts with your unique take on these characters?
For the most part, I didn’t consciously think about it in those terms. I just worried about what was good for the story I wanted to tell, what was internally consistent, and what fit with the actual episodes of the show.
Since I’m spilling dirt about my earliest plans for Alarm Clock, here’s another confession: I originally did plan on Ditzy being a mailmare and Dinky Doo’s mom. I was having second thoughts about it, however, because I didn’t think I was up to writing well about single motherhood, nor was I looking forward to doing research about how post offices work. As providence would have it, Perpetual Lurker posted an argument on the TV Tropes forum that completely changed how I thought about the issue. Unfortunately I can’t quote him, because that thread got deleted, but his point was: if you approach the episodes themselves with an open mind, and just extrapolate from what you see in the show, you can reach conclusions that are 100% canon-compliant, yet wildly at odds with the popular fanon. And his conclusions that stuck out the most to me were (1.) there is more evidence for Ditzy’s working in weather patrol than for her working in the postal service, and (2.) there is more evidence for Dinky’s being Carrot Top and Written Script’s daughter, than for her being Ditzy’s daughter.
As soon as those thoughts penetrated my brain, I saw the sky above open up, and I heard golden trumpets and a choir of angels. You see, my aim for this story was to add to the canon, not to contradict it. I wanted a story that could, theoretically, play out just off-screen of the original episodes. So extrapolating from the episodes, like Perpetual Lurker suggested, dovetailed perfectly with my goals. And that would also help my story to stand out a bit from the ocean of other stories about Ditzy, which was a definite plus.
But I’m not opposed to tropes and memes per se, so I worked in the ones I liked where I could. I approached them the same way I approached my other in-story shout-outs (and, man, I crammed in a lot of those). My philosophy is that a reference or shout-out ought to be subtle: you’ve succeeded when the readers unfamiliar with the object of your reference don’t realize you’ve made a reference at all. The example that sticks out in my mind is in one of Warren Hutch’s Screwball Trilogy stories. Button Stitch wakes up in a strange bedroom, and the first words out of her mouth are “This is not my beautiful house. Well, how did I get here?” On the one hand, she’s quoting lyrics from “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads. On the other hand, those words still make perfect sense for somepony to say in her situation, even if David Byrne hadn’t written them first.
That’s what I was aiming for with all my references, including references to fandom tropes. Since Ditzy’s love of muffins has some basis in canon, I could use it — though her being a muffin connoisseur (rather than an indiscriminate muffin vacuum) better fit the personality I imagined for her. “Ditzy emptying Carrot Top’s fridge” came from a fan work (the Carrot Cake Storybook), but it was easy enough to reconcile with canon — and then it wound up being a huge plot point.
And then there’s Dr. Time Turner Hooves. I honestly don’t remember how or why I decided there had to be time travel in this story, and that he had to be the one doing it (other than An Earth Pony’s Guide to Magic being an inspiration). I think my logic was that I already had a ridiculous blend of other genre elements (Lovecraftian monsters, fairies, and wormholes, oh my!), so I might as well throw in time travel, too. Because I love time travel, even when it doesn’t make any sense. And why invent an OC time traveler when there’s already a canon character with a timepiece stamped on his butt?
But I don’t think I ever considered going full Doctor Who, for a few reasons. First of all, I wanted time travel itself to be the focus (at least of that subplot). I wanted a time traveler who’s willing to abuse the hell out of his access to time travel. And from the few episodes of Doctor Who I’ve seen, and from the Doctor Whooves fics I’ve read, The Doctor is just not that kind of time traveler.
Second, in order to shove Friendship Is Magic and Doctor Who together, you have to break the rules of at least one of them. The only canon time travel in Equestria is the stable time loop variety. It’s consistent. Whereas time travel in the Whoniverse constantly contradicts itself — to the extent that the best explanation The Doctor can offer is, “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually — from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint — it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly… timey-wimey… stuff.” I don’t mean that as a slam against Doctor Who (after all, the Thursday Next series, which I love dearly, is every bit as ridiculous when it comes to time travel), but the Equestrian approach better fit the story I wanted to tell.
And, on some level, I wanted my story to stand out a bit from all the other “Doctor and Derpy” stories out there. And maybe, just maybe, remind a few readers that there’s a wide world of time travel fiction outside Doctor Who.
Were there any challenges you ran into while writing this?
As far as stuff inherent to the story itself: I love stories that plunk the reader into the middle of some brand new setting (hundreds of years in the future, some fantasy realm, or wherever) and trust the reader to figure out how the setting works just through context clues. I wanted to do something similar with Alarm Clock and minimize exposition about Ditzy’s extradimensional shenanigans as much as possible. It was a tough balancing act, providing enough information that readers weren’t completely lost, while still leaving enough unsaid to make readers piece the clues together themselves — and making sure that I dropped those clues in a naturalistic way, not in a “I am stopping the story to give you information. Please remain seated until the infodump comes to a complete stop” way. I didn’t get that balance right on my first try, and if my final version succeeded at all, it was because I had great pre-readers who let me know when I was being too unclear.
But that wasn’t the biggest challenge. No, I was my own worst enemy when it came to writing this thing. If you look at the publishing dates on the individual chapters, you can see there was a two-year hiatus in between “Demolition Derpy” and “I Am the Eggmare”. There’s a bit of a story behind that hiatus. You see, I started off publishing the Alarm Clock serially. Once several chapters were up, I submitted what I had to Equestria Daily. They turned me down, and I don’t blame them — that first published version suffered badly from word cruft.
So I decided to go back over everything I’d published so far and whip it into shape. I had the EQD feedback (this was way back in 2012, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, and EQD pre-readers still offered detailed feedback on stories they rejected), and I had pointers from the pre-readers at TV Tropes. A lot of pointers. The sheer magnitude of this editing job suddenly struck me, and I handled it almost as well as a certain purple unicorn dealt with the prospect of failing her mentor. I looked at the entire task and let myself get intimidated, rather than just focusing on the edit in front of me. And I was attached to my old prose, so I debated each edit far more than I should have.
It didn’t help that, in real life, I’d just been downsized from my job. I found work at a restaurant to pay the bills while I looked for another job that was actually relevant to my degree. But the restaurant work had irregular hours, which completely threw off my writing habits. That left me in a state where I only ever had time to write when I lacked motivation to do so — and I only ever had motivation when I lacked time to use it. It was pretty bad.
As Alarm Clock’s hiatus stretched longer and longer, I felt more and more guilty for leaving my followers hanging. And in that guilt, I recognized the same trap that had ensnared so many authors before me. Namely: countless abandoned fanfics, after a few months or years of unannounced hiatus, see their the author suddenly pop back in with a new chapter, or just a blog post assuring readers that they’re still working on the story … and then the story dies for good. Because that unfinished story is a huge source of guilt and stress for the author, so the “I swear it’s not dead yet!” gesture is a way to relieve that stress. And, ironically, the stress relief helps the author to not feel so bad about walking away from the story. I decided then that my best bet to avoid the trap — to see this thing to the finish — was by maintaining complete radio silence. I would work on my story. I would publish nothing, I would post zero blogs, until all the early chapters were fully revised and the last chapter was ready for publication. I would feel guilty about the readers who wondered if my story had been abandoned, and that guilt would be a good thing, because it would spur me on to keep working.
Of course, that made my work look even bigger and more monolithic than it already was. But at least it kept me from giving up on my story.
Eventually, I did find a better job, and with it, I regained a semblance of structure to my days. I still couldn’t deal with the revisions on the early chapters, so I plugged away on the new chapters, just to get back in the habit of writing. Slowly but surely, I got my mojo back. One scene gave me a nasty writer’s block, and to bypass it, I took the drastic (for me) measure of skipping to a later scene, and only going back to write the troublesome bit after the rest of the chapter was written. And that actually worked. Finally, I finished the end of the story, and I had enough confidence to fix the beginning. By this time, it had been years since I’d written these chapters, so I could approach them much more objectively. What little attachment I still felt for my old prose, was easily outweighed by my impatience to be done with the story already. So I felt no remorse as I hacked away at those old chapters, bit by bit by bit, until at long last the army of edits that had assailed me was but a mountain of corpses at my feed. The nightmare was over! I was finally done with the story!
I’m honestly not sure if the way I did it was a good idea or not. On the one hand, I came closer to giving up on the story than I would have preferred. And I doubt the people who started reading in 2012 particularly appreciated that two-year break. But on the other hand, if I hadn’t taken that break to edit the old stuff, I might have wound up publishing a story I was half-satisfied with and decided, “Eh, that’s good enough.” As it is, I made something that I can be completely proud of, scars and all.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Nah. I’ve rambled too long already.