If you came for a solidly built Alternate Universe fic, today’s story delivers.
If You Came to Conquer
[Alternate Universe] [Dark] [Drama] • 5,959 words
Nightmare Moon won. She defeated Celestia, broke the Elements, banished the sun. This all happened a very long time ago. So long ago, that she has had plenty of time to change her mind.
Of course, fixing our mistakes is never so simple, and never without consequences. Even with particularly potent help.
FROM THE CURATORS: “This is an intriguingly crafted AU whose version of Nightmare Moon feels entirely plausible and whose Discord is quite solidly done,” Horizon said when nominating this fic. “The story feels appropriately sparse and mythic, but what makes this worthy of the Library is the meditation on forgiveness.” It quickly caught our attention on multiple levels. “‘Nightmare Moon won’ is one of the oldest AU cliches there is, but cleverpun manages to use the idea to good effect here,” Chris said, while AugieDog brought out the superlatives early: “The scene at the end of chapter one is about as devastating a thing as I’ve ever read in a pony fanfic.”
But while our reactions to the story cited different strengths, one thing on which we all agreed was how powerfully it developed its premise. “Just when you think you’ve seen the big reveal, everything escalates to another level,” Present Perfect said. “And that ending, wow.” Chris agreed: “The ending is the clear highlight to me, nailing that ‘surprising when you read it, obvious in hindsight’ effect that a good twist aims for.” Meanwhile, Horizon praised how thought-provoking it was: “The story’s climax is effective horror that brings up some significant moral questions.”
And while the story worked powerfully on its own merits, several of us felt that it was best appreciated as part of the trilogy which it spawned. “‘Conquer’ is a nicely twisted idea presented in a nicely twisted way,” AugieDog said, “but I would call the two sequels required reading, since they complete the story arc in such a wonderfully tidy fashion.” Horizon agreed: “Continuing to read the sequels is very much worth your time.”
Read on for our author interview, in which cleverpun discusses blanket patterns, awkward melanges, and B-grade splatter films.
Give us the standard biography.
Twenty-seven years old, Bachelors of Arts degree in Early Childhood Education, currently employed as a preschool teacher. In my free time I like reading, video games, board games, and recently got into Magic: The Gathering. I used to play guitar but gave up. I also do occasional longform reviews of fanfiction.
I pay far too much attention to little details. The sound that leaves make when you step on them, those slightly fuzzy blankets that hold a pattern when you move your hand across them, stuff like that.
I guess I’m also a writer. They assigned me to Creative Writing in high school, and my initial skepticism eventually gave way to aspiration. I started with original fiction, then went to fanfiction in order to practice, and am now trying to return to original fiction. I’m currently working on a story to submit to a magazine, but not at the pace I would like. I’ve collected about 4 rejection letters so far, and I hope to reach 8 before summer.
A collection of mostly superficial details: that’s pretty standard, right?
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
My old email was “insertjokehere”, and that took entirely too long to type. It’s supposed to represent a placeholder for your own clever pun. People ended up mistaking me for someone who uses/has clever puns, though.
On some sites (like Steam) I use “neverclever”, which perhaps describes me more accurately.
Who’s your favorite pony?
Going purely off the show, it would be Rarity. She has the most fleshed out personality and the most mature conflicts (at least in the earlier seasons).
Going off writing and reading fanfic, it would be Luna and possibly Celestia. The show gives us so little about both of them, that there’s more room to explore and headcanon is easier to accept. I guess you could say that about any character who has a large fanfic presence, though, even the main six.
What’s your favorite episode?
“Sweet and Elite”. It was the first episode I ever watched, so I suppose it has a special place in my heart.
I had heard a lot of buzz about this reboot of some children’s show, and I happened to be awake one Saturday morning to watch it. “Sweet and Elite” was the episode that premiered that day.
Even without that bias, I think “Sweet and Elite” encapsulates the show very well. It is optimistic and idealistic, but in a genuine way. It has a moral that even adults can sometimes forget.
My favorite song is the “Smile Song”, for similar reasons.
What do you get from the show?
I think that the show’s strongest quality is (or was) its attitude. It’s idealistic without being disingenuous, optimistic without being naive. The characters and their conflicts have a lot of verisimilitude and applicability, which isn’t as common as it should be in children’s media.
I stopped watching the show after season four, because I felt these qualities had started to wane/lose emphasis. Or perhaps it just became more repetitive.
What do you want from life?
Enough money to pay the bills, a job that I can look forward to, and family and friends I can count on.
The opportunity to help others improve themselves, and to improve myself in the process.
Getting paid for a story wouldn’t hurt either.
Why do you write?
Because my muse is pushy. As Robert Hass once said: “It’s hell writing and it’s hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written.”
TVTropes describes nascent ideas as Plot Bunnies: they gnaw and nibble at you until you do something about them, and they breed very quickly.
I think both the quote and the concept describe my relationship with writing rather accurately.
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
Writing is so subjective that any advice I give is not going to apply to everyone. Things like narration, dialogue, and even punctuation are going to vary from story to story. But I think that the most important lesson I have learned as an author is twofold. Learning to accept criticism, and learning when to ignore criticism, are two skills that will always serve a writer well.
All criticism has value, and accepting it politely and graciously is important. There are also times, however, when criticism is accurate without being applicable to the story at hand. Read all the criticism you receive. Digest it and embrace it. Think it over very carefully, and decide whether it applies to your story or not. Take what makes the story better and use it. Take what doesn’t apply and save it for another story or chapter. Accepting no criticism and accepting all criticism can be equally destructive extremes.
There’s a quote by George Will that I like to tell writers: “The pursuit of perfection often impedes improvement.” There’s another thing I like to add to that: the difference between a good writer and a bad writer is not how well one writes. The difference is that one is willing to improve and the other is not.
No matter how or what you write, always strive to do better. Examine the criticism you receive, try new things, reflect on your writing. Someday you’ll look back on the writing you did now and think to yourself: “Wow, I’ve really improved since then.” And that’s the most a writer can ask for.
What drew you to reexamine the story at the very center of Friendship is Magic?
If You Came to Conquer actually began from a very simple idea: I wanted to complain about the standard depiction of time travel, where everything fixes itself and things turn out just dandy. I wanted to write a story where time travel isn’t intuitive or easy, and where the characters misunderstanding how it works creates problems.
Obviously, the story grew beyond this concept. It gradually became more about the characters than any specific temporal shenanigans. I think a little luck was involved in creating engaging characters and portraying their relationships.
I suppose I chose Luna because she is the character with the most room to reinterpret. I think that Luna and Nightmare Moon were and are natural targets for distortion and reexamination. As mentioned above, we know so little about Nightmare Moon, Luna and Celestia’s history together, and countless other details. It is what makes them intriguing to write about. The fact that Nightmare Moon was the centerpiece of the series’ first episodes — that she was the most “iconic” villain to that point — didn’t necessarily factor into it.
Perhaps, in another timeline, If You Came to Conquer was about King Discord replacing his younger self instead of Nightmare Moon. Perhaps it was Empress Celestia, or Queen Twilight Sparkle, or countless others. The broad concept and themes aren’t fundamentally specific to any one character or relationship.
Did you plan out the trilogy that begins with “If You Came to Conquer” before starting to write, or did it develop more spontaneously?
Most of my writing tends to be an awkward melange of inspiration and planning. Some scenes or characters will spring forth from my subconscious, fully formed and itching to be written. Then everything else I have to outline and discuss with my editors. I also let characters write themselves whenever possible: sometimes a little improvisation can make a character seem more alive.
This trilogy was no different. Some parts were more spontaneous and others were more planned. As mentioned above, the story grew out of a very specific notion, but it certainly evolved beyond that.
Things like the climax in the first story, Celestia’s reaction in the second story, and the final confrontation in the third all involved a fair amount of preplanning, rewriting, and edits. The third story probably required the most planning and adjustment in general.
Other things happened a bit more spontaneously. The character(s) of Discord (both versions) occurred without much effort on my part. The idea for Nightmare Moon’s original sister returning sprung forth of its own accord, though in a somewhat different form from the final version. (You can find that initial version in my scraps collection.)
Its nature as a trilogy, however, was definitely not planned. I split it up into multiple stories because I was skeptical of my desire to finish it, and I wanted the option to leave it aside without canceling it. It just kept on growing beyond its initial parameters. That’s why the middle story feels so transitional and incomplete when taken on its own. I suppose that’s what I get for trying to give my insistent muse the runaround.
Talk a little about the challenges of [Dark] ponyfic.
Only a little?
I think the most important challenge of Dark fanfic is very simple. Dark fic needs to be believable. Not necessarily in the sense that it must match real life, but in the sense that it can’t stray too far from the show. This is especially tricky with ponies, since their world is (by and large) fairly saccharine.
The best Dark fic doesn’t rely on blunt shock value or gimmicks. It extrapolates on the things we already know. It represents canon without its E rating or network censorship. It holds up a mirror to the universe and characters we know, and casts a little bit of darkness and shadow on them. It doesn’t change things enough to make them unrecognizable, just to make them the tiniest bit more sinister and dangerous.
This is the biggest challenge of Dark fic, and it is why so much Dark fic isn’t good. There needs to be subtlety. Buckets of blood and rusty knives don’t make things dark by themselves; it’s the context around them. Anyone can write a B-grade splatter film and slap some ponies into it, but that defeats the point of using ponies in the first place. If a reader can read a Dark story and think to themselves “I could see this happening in the show”, then it has done its job.
Of course, there are different tolerances for this, and that’s another challenge of Dark fanfiction: knowing your audience. Willing Suspension of Disbelief is important to all fiction, but especially to Dark fic. The farther one strays from the universe, the more one distorts the characters, the more likely it is that the mood will collapse under its own weight.
The Conquer trilogy adheres to these ideas, in its own way. Dark things may happen, characters may die, but the story tries to contextualize all those things. All the murder and mutilation is there because it makes sense for the characters to do that, not as an R-rated spectacle. And after all is said and done, the characters solve their problems in a very FiM sort of way: with discussion and forgiveness.
The little “postscript” you wrote in the comments section of the third story: does that reflect your actual thoughts on the final outcome of the series?
Oh yeah, that. I mostly wrote that on a whim. I actually began writing a proper continuation (covering what happens in the ruined Equestria), but I ended up not pursuing it. Perhaps I’ll post it in my scraps collection someday.
I think that a good story should let the audience decide what it means and how it ends. It should have a conclusion, of course. It shouldn’t leave the audience hanging without some answers. But it should also ask questions and spur discussion.
I think that the Conquer trilogy ended at just the right spot. There’s enough there to lead the reader, and the story offers some definitive answers about what happened and why. There’s also a lot, however, that is left open for speculation. What happens to all the characters after the story ends is something that each reader will have to decide for themselves.
Personally, I hope the characters have a happy ending. I like to think of myself as an optimist, and I want everything to turn out okay for them. Just because they managed to get over the major hurdles, however, doesn’t mean they don’t have a lot of work left to do. I do think that they have the power and the patience to earn a happy ending, eventually.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’m sorry my answers were so short.
In all seriousness, thanks to the RCL for all their hard work. Curating a fandom as large as ours is no easy task, and you’ve done a great job of it.
If any of my responses seemed interesting, then I would point readers to my blog. I make quite a few posts covering everything from writing advice, to worldbuilding exercises, to general musings. I’ve posted about some topics mentioned here, like Dark fic, and more hypothetical things, like what a pony video game controller might look like. I try and make posts that spur interesting discussion, even if my ideas aren’t always presented perfectly.
Further, if there’s any questions or answers or burning confessions you have, my inbox and comment feeds are always open. I try my best to read and respond to all PMs and comments that come my way. I also do story critiques by request.
I think that covers everything. Thanks a lot for having me!