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It’s time to learn the secret of what makes today’s story great.

gnosisGnosis
[Mystery] • 3,916 words

Life in Canterlot Castle is about more than just the Princesses. Many ponies spend their days working in the palace, toiling with their virtues unsung to keep life humming alone.

Meet Spot Shine, Aegis, Raven, and more. Take a glimpse through their eyes, even as Princess Celestia finds herself a bit under the weather.

Some knowledge must be earned, but remember: Some doors cannot be closed once opened.

FROM THE CURATORS: Like all good mysteries, there’s more than one layer to this carefully crafted tale.  “On the one hand, this is a great slice of life piece that shows us the day-to-day of Canterlot Palace from numerous perspectives, while also telling a story about Celestia falling mysteriously ill,” Present Perfect said.  “On the other hand, it’s a perfectly insidious mystery, the existence of which might not even occur to you until the final scene.”  The nature of that mystery, though, is something best left unspoiled.  “People should read the story before delving into commentary about it, because it will be more effective the less they know walking in,” the author noted.

Our experiences reading the story bore that out — despite how different they were.  “When I first read it, I didn’t twig to what was going on in the story until the second-to-last paragraph,” AugieDog said.  Horizon appreciated the story despite being aware of its twist from the original draft in the Writeoffs, and Chris picked up the story’s epiphanies only in hindsight.  “It’s a clever story, and although it might have been too clever for me, I don’t believe that it’s too clever for its own good,” Chris said.  “This holds up well to attentive reading, and still works when one knows/guesses the twist(s) from the start.”

There were several reasons for Gnosis’ strength on rereading.  “The character profiles are quite nearly strong enough to carry the story on its own,” Horizon said, while AugieDog praised its tone: “This story builds such a distinct feeling of dread that I was primed and ready, looking for some sort of reveal at the end.”  In summary, as Present Perfect said: “However you slice it, this is a really strong, clever story.”

Read on for our author interview, in which Morning Sun discusses cake bribes, butt words, and non-unlearnable revelations.


 

Give us the standard biography.

I got into the show midway through season one; internet avatars begat curiosity begat watching Episode 1 on Youtube. I still remember groaning when Giggle at the Ghostly began — and that moment of self-awareness from Twilight/Rarity? That, for me, is where I think I first got truly hooked. Since then, the years have just flown by — nowadays I do technology-things as a career and travel to a gajillion pony conventions because I love this community and everything it has created.

As for writing? I always dabbled a bit, but the Writeoffs are to blame above all else, which means it is Horizon’s fault, because his blogpost for the “Famous Last Words” round (and my entry was AWFUL for that one) was what got me to join up, and I’ve been doing them ever since.

How did you come up with your handle/penname?

You can blame Sunny Skies All Day Long for that one. I wanted something that sounded pony-like, and also evoked — well, hey, what do you know, this leads right into the next question!

Who’s your favorite pony?

When I first started watching the show, way back in season one, I liked everypony but if I had to pick I’d have chosen Rainbow Dash. Then, sometime in Season 2 or just after, I realized it had become Celestia. Someday, someday she will finally get in episode.

At the rate things are going, I expect it won’t be till Season 223.

What’s your favorite episode?

This is the hardest question here, by far. Like, I just made a list of contenders, and had 10 episodes come up. My single favorite moment in the show is probably the last few minutes of Crusaders of the Lost Mark, because I mean — well, I’ve been on this ride since near the beginning. Seeing the CMC get their marks, and what came after, it just was a powerful moment.

I also want to give a shoutout to Slice of Life for probably exploring more of Ponyville in 22 minutes than any episode ever has.

In the end, though? Friendship is Magic Part 1 & 2. It’s where it all started for me, and every time I see it it’s like beginning this journey all over again.

What do you get from the show?

Happiness. It’s simple, but true. As I tell people in meatspace when explaining ponies to them — FiM has this truly genuine positivity woven carefully into the world, something we are so often lacking in both entertainment and real-world affairs. Ponies helps reinforce my faith in all of us — to me, Equestria represents something to strive for, for all of us to recognize that we can each make the world a better place when we work at it.

I mean, it may seem sappy, but it’s true. The show makes me smile and feel joy, and at this point, it’s led me to meeting so many wonderful friends who’ve had hugely positive impact on my life. I look at me nearly 6 years ago and me now, and it’s been an amazing, wonderful journey.

What do you want from life?

The universe is an amazing place, and we are a flawed fascinating people who constantly make mistakes yet somehow keep moving forwards. I want to remain free to observe and take joy in the cosmic wonder that is life — for, oh, at least the next eight-hundred forty-seven quintillion years or so.

Why do you write?

I like to tell stories, and I like what I have at the end, even if getting there is usually really hard. When I get into writing flow, words are easy, but so often getting myself motivated is the hard part, which is why I like the Writeoffs — the deadline forces me to step up if I want to continue my unbroken streak.

Nowadays, too, I like experimenting. Gnosis, after all, was an experiment — I wanted to write a story you only got to read once. The words may not change, but on future readings that extra piece of knowledge suddenly means you are forever reading a different work.

At least, you are if I did my job right.

What advice do you have for the authors out there?

I’m shamelessly stealing from a Youtube video I saw once, but it’s true: Give yourself permission to write garbage. I’ve had writeoffs where I am close to the deadline, have zero ideas, and just say ‘To hay with it’ and let anything pop out. That’s where Approximately 2000 Words (Mostly!) About Butts came from, after all — I had zero ideas for the prompt, I was talking to Bookplayer, and when I said I kind of wanted to write something as stupid as 2000 words about butts, she told me to go for it.

So I did. Because the only way to get better is to practice. And it’s okay to write stuff that doesn’t work. Heck, it’s fun to experiment — yeah, it may not work, but if you understand why, that means you’re better prepped for next time.

What do you believe is the purpose of subtlety in a story?

One of the most powerful moments for me in any piece of media is a properly executed revelation. When done perfectly, it is shocking, yet it makes perfect sense, and all the little pieces from before fall into place. All the little actions you dismissed come together, and other actions you thought you understood take on new meaning.

It’s in some ways a game between author and reader; the reader wants to figure out what the author is up to, and the author wants to be able to play their hand at just the right moment for maximum impact. Be too obvious and you spoil the surprise; be too subtle and readers walk away confused. It’s a fine line, but so satisfying when it works.

This fic relies heavily on its cast of characters being diverse and distinctive. How did you plan your writing in order to accomplish that while devoting so few words to each?

Right, so, readers — if you haven’t read the story yet, do yourself a favor and do so now. I mean, you’re already clued in there’s something up, but past here be true spoilers.

 

(Spoiler space)

 

Read it? Okay, good, so — it’s about following the chain of infiltration. Each point of view shift takes us a little closer to Celestia, puts us behind the eyes of a pony who has more access to her, more ability to influence and interact. Once I had that chain in place, and how each link led to the next one, it then became in some ways a series of small vignettes. Who was this pony? What do they do in the palace? What is their relationship to Celestia, and how do they interact with the previous and next link in the chain?

Once I had all those pieces, each segment flowed naturally; I knew who they were, what their motivation was, and so they were able to come to life.

Talk a little about the process of achieving a balance between giving too much and too little information to the readers.

I keep starting this question trying to compare it to something else like stage magic or a scavenger hunt, but nothing feels quite right. Honestly, it’s really hard. Give away too much and, well — just look at how many fans of the show complain about twists being too obvious. Because, yeah, we like stories to surprise us and do it well. It’s why so many people loved A Canterlot Wedding — Chrysalis came out of nowhere, and it made for a superb villain reveal. At the same time, hey, the show is written for the target audience first and foremost, and basic twists can be entirely new and amazing to them.

But that applies to writing, too — there’s no perfect balance because your readership is diverse. So, part of it is knowing what audience you are writing to, or want to write to. Like, sure, you can go ahead and write something super subtle so nobody will reasonably pick up on it and then do a big obvious reveal where you show each piece to the reader, but to me that feels kind of cheap. I don’t walk away from that feeling I earned the revelation — and the revelations I like most are the ones that feel earned, which is why in Gnosis I never come out and say exactly what is happening.

It’s there, and I think once a reader is clued into the major reveal (Namely that Gnosis is about a slowly progressing Changeling infiltration), next time through all the little details leap out at you.

The first version, in the Writeoffs, shaded a little too subtle; there were readers who walked away not understanding what happened and so they didn’t like it. It got a very polarized reaction — people loved it or hated it, and it seemed to rock on whether or not they understood it. In the published version I added in a few more hints to try to make it leap out at the end without shoving it in the reader’s face, but even still there are people who it doesn’t click for.

That’s okay, though. Striking that balance well means you will have a few outliers on either side — those who need help even after they finish, and those who see it coming from early on. We all have different literary and media experiences, after all.

Like, easy example — Gnosis does not work at all if you don’t know a good chunk about MLP already, because it assumes you do and therefore never bothers to explain things that a fan of the show would already know. So there’s me limiting my readership right there, and I am fine with that because people who aren’t show fans are not my intended audience here.

Whew. That was a lot of words!

How do you maintain an atmosphere of uneasiness while not showing anything actually happening?

There’s a few factors I wanted to put in play with the story, and a lot of it is hinted at in my intro blurb on the story’s page. Gnosis in the religious sense is a sort of spiritual enlightenment — an understanding on this deep, fundamental level that is transformative knowledge. Once you learn, you do not get to unlearn.

So that was step one — the story was written to itself be a Changeling, a story you got to read once one way, and then you never, ever got to see it through innocent eyes again. Now you know what’s at the heart of it, and that means you are going to see the dangers lurking in the shadows, because your eyes are open and you know they are there.

So with that goal in mind, I worked to weave said dangers into the plot. Each segment is meant to have a bit of wrongness in it, something that should strike the reader as out of place. Some of it is more subtle — Warm Heart’s behavior being called out as off — and some of it is more overt, like characters saying one thing and doing another.

And as the story progresses, I make it more blatant things are out of place. The Princess passes out. Raven goes from concerned to dismissive. The doctor stops practicing good medicine and instead utilizes quackery. Each step along the chain, and the feeling of wrongness intensifies.

And not showing anything too is in service to that, because now I let the reader’s imagination loose to run wild — and who knows better how to frighten us but ourselves? As long as I’ve created just enough of a sense of wrongness, the reader’s own attempts to fill in the blanks then contributes to heightening the tension. But if they knew from moment one — well, it might discomfort them but it wouldn’t have the same power.

Afterwards, though? Afterwards, if the revelation of what went on did its job, then the second time through, as this time the reader is able to fill in the blanks with the actual answers, the story retains its hold upon them because they have already been taken in.

At least, that’s my hope. So tl;dr version: Give the reader just enough information to sense something is wrong, but not enough to quite figure out what, and let their own minds fill in the blanks; they will usually do a better job leaving themselves disquieted than you will.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

This was fun to do, so thanks for the opportunity! To those aspiring to writing: Really, go ahead and just spill words on the page. They don’t have to be good, and that’s perfectly fine.

And come join the Writeoffs at Writeoff.me. We love new faces over there! Lastly, I can be bribed with cake. Mm.

Delicious, delicious cake. Now I’m hungry and I have ice cream downstairs calling my name. Bye, and thanks again!

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

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