Today’s story had no problem soaring to a feature.
It’s Not the Wings
[Slice of Life] • 6,144 words
Twilight is almost used to being an alicorn now. She’s accepted that unexpected change, and is even happy about it, most of the time. Her magical abilities have grown by leaps and bounds, and she’s starting to enjoy the freedom offered by flight. While she can’t imagine ever being as good as Rainbow Dash, anypony with reasonable standards would by now consider her quite competent in the air.
But despite her growing enthusiasm and confidence, there’s something that she has neglected to deal with. Something that’s bothered her at times ever since the transformation, but kept getting shuffled down her list of priorities. Fortunately, she knows just the pony to talk to for help, and she won’t let nervousness and self-reliant rationalization hold her back anymore. The latest of Pinkie Pie’s parties provides a perfect pretext for a conversation she should’ve had months ago.
FROM THE CURATORS: Don’t let It’s Not the Wings’ description fool you — the real draw here runs deeper than Twilight’s inner fears. “At first blush, this looks like an alicornification headcanon fic — you know, the kind where the author dives into what being an alicorn really means, how Twilight’s grappling with it, all that jazz,” Chris said in his nomination. “But it’s really not. That element of the story is an accent to its true focus, which is Twilight and AJ having a friendly, semi-serious chat of the sort that friends have.” That’s what drew the most attention from our curators, such as Present Perfect’s praise: “I’ll always support a story about ponies being good friends with each other.”
By itself, that core strength was enough to win most of us over. “This fic is almost notable for how little happens, and yet I can’t help but love it,” Soge said. “There is something organic and hypnotic about their conversation that just drags you in.” And over and over again, our praise kept returning to the way this explored its central friendship. “It’s a bit ramble-y in all the right ways, capturing the feel of a conversation while still being an enjoyable read,” Chris said, and Present Perfect agreed: “The diversions only buttress the realism of the dialogue.”
What sealed the deal was the story’s approach, keeping a strongly show-like tone and a very pony moral. “This could have gone in many different zany directions, and yet the fic is focused in a way that makes it really solid and rooted,” Soge said. Chris summed it up elegantly: “If I had to pick one word to describe this fic, it would be ‘comfy.'”
Read on for our author interview, in which Tallinu discusses inspiring presumptions, prehensile manes, and Occam’s Pink Razor.
Give us the standard biography.
My early childhood was spent in a series of small towns in the Pacific Northwest, with a couple of cats, a younger sister, and parents who had to work very hard to make ends meet. I was one of the oddest of the odd ones out at the small-town elementary school I went to for several years. I had next to no ability to understand other people, and I was too smart for the classes I was in, for the other students (with predictable results), and even for some of the teachers — although a few of them were wonderful.
I was the sort of kid who had to know how everything worked. A large series of volumes titled “How it Works” (yes, really) saw a lot of use. Dad would fix our cars, and I’d watch and hand things to him. I’d ask Mom hard questions, and she’d bring home books from the library, read them with me, and attempt to explain what it all meant, from stars and planets to atoms to how the brain works — the latter being a pretty tough subject when you’re four years old and don’t have much background in biology (and especially when we don’t have a full understanding of it even now)! And I was introduced to the fascinating world of computers and programming around ages six to seven.
I ended up homeschooled for several years (until we finally moved to a bigger city) after a fifth-grade teacher literally picked me up and held me against a wall while he yelled at me, because after finally being given more advanced work in fourth grade, I was so bored with his endless series of practically identical busywork math worksheets that I could do in my sleep that one day I turned one in with a “zero” for every answer. (This was apparently an unforgivable act of disrespect in his eyes.)
I eventually went to an unusual high school where classes were in the afternoon and evening, and after that I made a number of attempts at working or getting a college education, but for various reasons never quite managed to complete any sort of degree. The only class I’ve outright failed was, ironically, Writing II (the academic kind, not creative writing).
I’ve spent much of my life struggling with anxiety (resulting in panic attacks and, indirectly, depression) which responded only minimally to medications even before I developed an allergy to them. (It played at least some role in that failed class, for example.) And that’s all I’m comfortable talking about in public on that subject.
After I realized early on that my chances of becoming an astronaut and exploring space were (and for at least another decade are likely to remain) effectively nil, I decided I wanted to be (among other things, and at various stages of my life) a computer game programmer, an engineer so I could build cool robots, and (eventually) a science fiction writer. Those three are still pretty much at the top of the list, in no particular order.
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
It actually came from a series of novels I was reading a couple decades ago. I lacked a satisfactory handle at the time, and it was something unusual that I liked the sound of. I’ve used it almost exclusively ever since, in a number of places, and I’ve found that it’s rare for it to be already taken by someone else (although it has happened a few times).
Who’s your favorite pony?
It’s difficult to pick just one! There are things I like about pretty much all of them. In terms of fanfiction, I generally care more about how good the story is and how well it portrays whichever characters it uses than I do about which characters in particular are in the spotlight. I like seeing them struggle and grow, and I really enjoy it when they’re given convincing opportunities to overcome their challenges and shine. And I don’t necessarily mean that in a “putting the smackdown on the villain of the day” sense.
That being said, bonus points if it happens to be Twilight, Rarity, Luna, Celestia, Discord, or Trixie doing the shining. (I could go on, but the differences between their individual rankings are small at best, and my order of preference has shifted over time.)
What’s your favorite episode?
This is another case where it’s hard to pick. Part of that may be because I’m less attached to the show itself than I am to all the great fanfiction that stretches the boundaries and explores situations that might not or could not ever appear in a family-friendly cartoon, and part of it is that a number of episodes have moments that just make me cringe and groan (and sometimes put it on pause and come back later once the overwhelming dose of “ohgodwhyyoudothat” has had a chance to fade — a couple of good examples that come to mind are the terrible decisions in “Lesson Zero” and “Tanks for the Memories”).
I generally prefer episodes that are connected in some way to the broader storyline, rather than just being filler. I’ve always been a fan of Discord episodes too, and I’ve always thought that the majority of the ponies give him far too much grief for his more harmless antics, especially since he tends to put things back the way they were once the joke is over.
What do you get from the show?
I’ve mentioned that I’m more invested in the fanfiction than the show itself. The show is a useful baseline, and it does have its own charm, but on its own I don’t think it could really hold my interest very well. I hadn’t even started watching any of the show until after I’d started reading my first piece of fanfiction, and that happened sometime around the end of season two. I think it was Past Sins — or at least, that was one of the first major ones I read. Others quickly followed. It wasn’t until I’d been captivated by some of the great storytelling to be found online that I turned to the original show to get a better idea of the characters and events these tales were based on, and when I did, I was pleasantly surprised. Despite being intended for young (and primarily female) audiences, there was some actual substance there, enough to explain why so many people were hooked on it.
I think one of the things I do really like about the show is that there always seems to be this thread of hope and optimism running through it. Even when the show is focusing attention on a character’s flaws or poor decisions, there’s usually (at least by the end of the episode) this sense that they can learn from their mistakes, change for the better, and grow as a person. Even some of the villains grow, and it doesn’t necessarily require a blast of the magic friendship laser to make them ‘see the light’ — just consider the character arcs for Discord and Starlight Glimmer.
We can’t expect things to be that easy in the real world … but then again, “nothing worth doing is easy.”
What do you want from life?
To make it better. Preferably for as many people as possible … but you gotta start somewhere, right? No matter how big you dream. Work on your own life, do what you can for those close to you, and keep your eyes open for ways to make a difference, even little ones … and if ever the chance comes along to do something bigger, grab hold and don’t let go.
Why do you write?
Reading science fiction (and fantasy) has always been a big part of my life, even from a pretty young age. Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven, David Weber — there are just too many to list, or even remember. All of them have had some influence on me, great or small, presenting worlds and ideas that you could almost believe were real, or might one day become real in some respect. Most stories set in the future, even those with darker or cautionary themes, have at their roots a certain necessary presumption that we will get there — that humanity will survive, learn, grow, and accomplish big things.
I’ve always found that hopeful (or cautious) optimism to be inspiring. But for the first couple decades of my life I had no confidence in my ability to put words together in an interesting and worthwhile way, despite encouragement from family and friends. It seemed like there was a vast, bottomless gulf between what my own imagination could come up with and what I saw in the published novels that made up the majority of my reading material.
Then I gained access to the internet, and began uncovering a wide range of interesting stories “published” there, ranging from amateur to surprisingly professional. And then I spent some years participating in a rather unique online roleplaying community, which let me start exercising my own creativity in an environment where I didn’t feel like I had to be perfect, and received positive feedback in the form of random unbiased people expressing enjoyment of and a desire to continue those conversations or adventures.
I started keeping track of any interesting ideas I had, and actively trying to generate new ones. Many of them were inspired by other stories I’d read online, and at least one was a sort of crude fanfiction (though I didn’t know that term at the time). None of these unfinished early learning experiences have seen the light of day, although there are a couple of concepts I wouldn’t mind revisiting someday when I have the experience to do them justice. But you can’t improve without first doing, no matter how poor those attempts seem.
For me, writing has been a journey of self-improvement (one that certainly isn’t over). I try to hold on to that feeling of hopeful (but cautious) optimism, not just for the world, but for myself: the idea that one day, perhaps, I might dream as big as those who have inspired me with their own dreams. Perhaps one day I’ll write novels for a living, and wouldn’t that be grand! Or maybe writing will remain a hobby, and I will have found my way into something greater still. Who can say?
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
One of the things that I find most disappointing in a story I’m reading is when it looks like there hasn’t been any attempt at editing or proofreading — when you can hardly find a single paragraph that doesn’t trip you up with one or more errors, big or small. There have been some cases where it was so bad that it ruined my ability to enjoy an otherwise unique and interesting tale. And it can give the impression, undeservedly, that the author doesn’t really care about the story they’re trying to tell — or at least that they don’t care enough to be willing to put more effort into its presentation.
My advice is to make sure that each story’s presentation is as polished as possible. Proofreading and editing are not optional luxury features — not if you want people to really understand what you write, and get the maximum enjoyment out of it. And while it’s true that you should get as much help as you can, particularly when you don’t have a lot of experience yet, you can’t rely entirely on other people to do those jobs for you. It’s your story, and you need to be willing to put in the effort it takes to learn how to make your prose shine — and be willing to apply that knowledge.
That takes more effort for some people than for others, especially if issues like dyslexia are a factor. Sadly, I’ve run into a few people who seemed to view such problems as an excuse to not even bother trying to improve, instead of finding ways to deal with or work around their problems (even if, in the end, they still had to rely on someone else who could reliably catch errors they couldn’t).
But for most people, I think it’s mainly a matter of spending the time and effort required — and spending that time effectively. “Working smarter, not harder.” Learning to recognize problems that appear frequently in their work, as well as getting used to the process of reviewing and correcting until it becomes a habit, something you just do automatically, instead of a chore.
I’m fortunate enough, and have enough experience reading, that I generally have little trouble with spelling or grammar, and by now I usually find it fairly easy to catch most of the errors I do make … but it does still take work, and I can’t claim to be perfect. I’ve still had other people point out mistakes I’ve missed or places where I should make changes for one reason or another. No matter how good you are, advice, suggestions, and feedback from a number of different perspectives are always valuable, and can help you improve not just one story, but all your writing. Whether you’re firing off one-shots or writing a longer story or series, learning how to smooth out the imperfections and apply that coat of polish will make a difference in how much (and how many) people read and enjoy what you write.
A few tips that might help (but do remember that I am not a professional writer or editor, just a halfway decent amateur):
Don’t feel pressured to publish the moment you think it’s done. Give yourself time to clear your head, and come back to read it again later with fresh eyes. Maybe work on the next chapter(s) until you’re far enough ahead that you’re sure you won’t need to make any large changes to what’s come before. (Having a bit of a buffer like that can be handy for other reasons, too.) And you can also use that time to get more third-party opinions and corrections. On Fimfiction.net in particular, the largest number of views, likes, and favorites seem to happen shortly after initially publishing a story or chapter (at least in my experience), especially if it sees enough activity to get bumped up into the feature box. Going back and editing something that’s already published after a week or more can still be worthwhile, but having those changes already in place when you initially publish could potentially make the difference between getting featured (and a big spike in views) or not, or between getting a favorite or just getting a like. (But procrastinating for months before finally publishing, like I did with ‘Wings’, is taking it a bit far! *wink*)
Read the sentence you just wrote, re-read the whole paragraph when you finish it, and read it again after you make any changes, until you’re sure it all fits together properly with no missing or extra words. Read through an entire finished chapter several times, taking breaks in between, and read it aloud at least once. You might be surprised at the number of errors reading aloud can catch.
Try writing sentences, paragraphs, or even entire scenes in several different ways. Then decide which approach you like best. If nothing else, it’s good practice, and you might come up with fresh inspiration in the process.
Don’t rely completely on spelling and grammar checking software, since they can sometimes flag perfectly correct words as errors, or miss errors because they happen to be a correctly spelled word even though that word doesn’t really make sense in that context. And when making use of spell-checker suggestions, make certain that the replacement does, in fact, make sense.
Make notes of the types of errors frequently found in your writing, so you have a better idea what to look out for (or to ask others to check for). For example, if you have trouble with homophones (lots of people do!) you might make or look up lists of them, and of common phrases involving them, to help you avoid mixing them up. Some other common issues involve shifts between tenses and first or third person perspectives.
Always assume there are errors you haven’t caught. Find people who can catch those errors, and do your best to learn how to better recognize and correct them yourself.
When you do get people to help you out, make sure to treat them with the respect they deserve. Taking their help for granted or reacting badly if they tell you something you don’t want to hear are good ways to lose access to an invaluable resource — a volunteer editor is under no obligation to continue the relationship, and they have their own lives and difficulties which can interfere. Be understanding, work around them where possible, and if necessary, just seek out additional (or replacement) help to pick up the slack.
Readers noting corrections in their comments can also be a valuable resource — these tend to be the sort of people who care (and probably liked what they just read) enough that they’re willing to take an extra few minutes out of their day to help make something a little bit better for the next reader who comes along. And in my experience it’s pretty rare for them to actually intend any insult or other unkindness, even when something they wrote could be perceived that way.
Finally, when reading someone else’s writing, try exercising all your editing skills — maybe make a game of it, and tally up how many errors you can catch. Extra points for the subtle ones, or the ones you have the most trouble with!
What inspired “It’s Not the Wings”?
A lot of times, ideas come to me in the form of specific scenes, generally involving dialog between two or more characters. I can’t remember the exact details of my starting point in this case, but I do remember it was one of those: A situation that seemed like it would be interesting to explore, based on the idea of Twilight’s struggles to get used to her new body and new powers. A sort of “what-if” thought experiment, based on an idea common in the fandom, that being an alicorn is more than just being a unicorn with wings — that alicorns have access to the magic of all three pony races, turned up to eleven. And the idea that for somepony like Twilight, flight and pegasus magic might not be the most difficult aspect to come to terms with, despite being the most outwardly apparent change (which led directly to the title of the story).
The rest followed from that premise, save for the party setting, which was the result of a bit of brainstorming regarding situations that might give Twi a good excuse to have a chat with AJ despite being nervous about asking for help. (I don’t think Twilight likes admitting that she doesn’t understand something – just look at her frustration over Pinkie Pie.)
As an author and a fan, what draws you to the idea of earth pony magic?
Primarily, it’s something that I haven’t seen a lot of exploration of, save for the rare stories that put significant focus on it. The show hasn’t given us a lot of examples or any explanations of it. To the best of my knowledge, the only time we see anything overt is in “Winter Wrap-up,” when Applejack appears to make a seed sprout in a matter of seconds. Aside from that, we sometimes see tails used as prehensile limbs (or manes, if you count Mane-iac and Nightmare Moon), which should be impossible without magic, and there’s AJ’s applebucking, which at very least would be highly implausible without it. The show doesn’t really go into detail about how any form of magic works, but at least with unicorns and (to a lesser extent) pegasi, we have a lot more examples of what it can do. With earth ponies, there’s very little to go on, and as a result, their magic is an area ‘ripe’ for fanfiction authors to fill in the blanks.
It’s not just earth pony magic, though. I love exploring how magic in general might work in a world like Equestria, and how the different forms might relate to each other. I could probably write quite a few pages on my own ideas of what can be done (and the why and how of it) by unicorns, pegasi, earth ponies, changelings, and so on. That’s something I’m exploring as part of a story I’ve been quietly working on for at least a couple years, and if I ever manage to finish it and get it out there for people to read, it’ll be interesting to see what people think of that.
Pinkie sense: an aspect of earth pony magic, or something that’s just Pinkie Pie?
I can see (and have seen) this going in more than just the directions you’ve listed! On its own, or taken together with her other unusual abilities, I’ve seen explanations involving chaos magic, or that she’s actually a unicorn (with an “ingrown horn”), a draconequus, or even a Creature From Beyond.
But as fun as the more outlandish theories may be, let’s apply Occam’s Razor. I think you can come up with a serviceable explanation involving very unusual applications of earth pony magic (and perhaps generic pony magic) as influenced by her special talent and her element. In other words, her focus on entertainment and humor, driven and/or enhanced by her cutie mark, has led to and allowed her to do some very unusual things, from what we see portrayed as “cartoon physics” to pulling items out of nowhere to exhibiting what seems like a limited precognition that manifests in a similarly unconventional and often humorous way.
I do think it would be hard, if not impossible, for any other earth pony without a very similar special talent to match what she can do, even if it is “merely” a different way of applying that magic. (Cheese Sandwich might be a useful comparison there, but I can’t remember enough details about his appearances to be sure.) In any case, I think there is definitely some degree of uniqueness involved, something about being Pinkie Pie which is essential to her abilities, whether or not they are primarily or entirely powered by earth pony magic.
Talk about the challenges of writing a story that’s essentially just a couple of mares standing around talking.
Avoiding “Talking Heads” is the most obvious issue, and I doubt I’ve managed that entirely. Then again, I’m not sure that’s possible. There’s probably a balance to be struck between failing to describe what else is happening besides just speech, and throwing in so many extraneous details that they distract from the conversation and make it harder for the reader to maintain interest. I did my best to make use of body language, movement, and expressions in a way that would mix fluidly with the dialogue, and to ensure that there was enough scene-setting that a reader could fill in the rest so it wouldn’t seem like things were taking place in a featureless void, and at the same time wouldn’t surprise the reader with bits of description that didn’t match what their imagination had initially conjured up. (The latter is something I always find quite annoying.)
Another issue, perhaps the biggest, is that it’s hard to have any significant plot encapsulated within a single conversation. I believe it’s possible, particularly if the conversation is more of an argument or the story takes place across multiple conversations. But this issue with plot is definitely one of the weakest points of the story. “Slice of Life” is highly applicable here, and I’m just glad that people have found it enjoyable despite that weakness. As it stands in ‘Wings’ (if you haven’t read it yet, this next bit could be considered minorly spoilerish), there’s not a lot of build-up even if you count Twilight’s explanations; the conflict (what there is of it) is mostly internal to Twilight, and the majority of the story involves her explaining those problems as part of the process of starting to resolve them, a task which isn’t even fully completed within the bounds of the story.
It really would work better as an early chapter of a longer story, in which the situation is set up from which additional events could unfold, but sadly my muse has been uncooperative in that regard.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I was blown away by the amount of positive attention ‘Wings’ received. Didn’t expect anywhere near that much interest, given the problems I and at least one reviewer have pointed out, so it really made my day. My week, even. And now this, which is the first time I’ve done any sort of interview. Hopefully anyone finding it on this site will enjoy it as well. I think that’s something I can at least be cautiously optimistic about!