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Are you following Chuckfinley? If not, why not?
His latest post on the different ways one can grow as a writer is (he said understatedly) highly thought-provoking. Go for the post, stay for the discussion in the comments section, with other insightful folks like Bad Horse and Titanium Dragon offering dissenting views. Just watching the debate will raise your author IQ by five points.
1w, 4dWriteoff; bookshelves16 comments · 137 views
1w, 6dFull moon, 2 a.m.37 comments · 245 views
The post I had hoped to make tonight:
"Hi everyone, great news! I finally kicked writer's block's plot and pushed out the last few words of yamgoth's commission, which leaves Hard Reset 2 topmost on my stack, and I've got some great ideas to charge forward into the next arc with. I know I've been silent, and avoiding questions about the story, but that's because I wanted to come back with progress to report and now that has occurred! etc., etc."
Instead, I got a text message midway through tonight's RCL reading, and ended up talking all night with my best friend over homemade tomato confit, consoling him over his breakup with his partner of seven years.
At least I had some good insight to offer. Did I ever mention that, this February, after eight-plus years of marriage, my wife and I separated?
(… no? Uh, then I guess you heard it here first.)
2014 has … to put it bluntly … been a shitty year for me. This spring (you may recall, because I did post about that here) I also had the vasculitis scare, aka the "Spotted Gimp Legs Of Potentially Cancerous Doom". Somewhere in among all that, I had a nervous breakdown at work, amid a failed migration project and severe doubt over whether the fiber project we'd been chasing was ever going to happen. Health, money, relationships: what wasn't breaking all at once?
(Answer: Ponyfic. Thank the stars for all of you folks.)
The good news is that — despite all of that — I'm actually doing okay! The separation was totally amicable and drama-free, and I've had half a year to adjust to living by myself and rediscover my perspective on "divorce does not make you a failed human being". It wasn't cancer. My last vasculitis flare-up was in midsummer, and given that I've had several triggering events since then without seeing the Return of the Dots, I might actually be as over it as I'm going to get. My boss was totally understanding, and took me down to part-time for a while at no loss of salary, and I'm still working with him to find an optimal schedule. We just announced our fiber launch event, because it's about as certain as it's going to get without the check being literally in our hands. I picked myself back up on the migration project and have brought it mostly to completion, along with getting to play miracle-worker by resurrecting our billing system into the cloud (a task nobody, including me, thought was possible) after the server's motherboard locked up.
Summer was about changing my routines and healing. Three evenings a week went into Ultimate Frisbee league — and some much-needed physical exercise — and some of my other leisure time started going into cooking, what with trying to find ways to use up the produce from a farm card I got in website work exchange. After Everfree, I stayed in Seattle with friends for a week for a much-needed vacation. I've been filling in time around the edges with anime and video games, because there's sometimes no substitute for giving your brain a break.
And tonight, when my best friend was wading through an eerily similar pile of shit, I was able to look him in the eye and state firmly, it gets better. Six months in, the house is still too empty and I'm still having some strange physical symptoms (like these weird low-blood-sugar overwhelms where I'll be sitting there doing okay, and then suddenly want to curl into a ball and burst into tears; but if I drink a little Gatorade and do some deep breathing, it passes quickly enough), but I'm at peace with where I am.
Looking back on all that, though, no friggin' wonder that my horsewords dried up this spring. I had a bit of a buffer on HR2 that carried me into May, but the new words dried up around the time that everything fell apart. Thank goodness for the Writeoff Association — otherwise I wouldn't have gotten anything out since then.
So, are things gonna happen? Yes. I won't make promises as to how quickly, because historically A) I'm a slow writer and B) my follow-through on long-term projects has been absolutely wretched and C) HR2 is already the longest single work I've ever written; but it's on top of the list. I continue to see new followers trickle into it at a surprising rate — despite the story being untouched for five months — and I know it's worth doing, and I know I've got cool places to take it.
I didn't really write this to apologize for HR2, though (as much as that feels necessary). This is more a general status update, spurred by tonight's realization of just how far I've come. I hope the season's finding you well, also.
4w, 1dREVIEWS: September Writeoff18 comments · 234 views
Kind fillies and gentlecolts: Again we come to that time when yr. humble author sloughs off said humility like a molted carapace, rolls up his metaphorical sleeves, and digs into the 23 24 stories produced for this month's writeoff. (There's a bonus review at the end, of a story that was written for the writeoff but not submitted.) The theme was "There Is Magic In Everything", and as usual, you can find these stories here, over at writeoff.me.
Opinions in the review thread seem to vary, but I personally found it one of the strongest writeoff rounds I've entered. My "hugbox" score (the mean vote I assigned to the stories) was almost a full point higher than usual, and that was after weighting my votes to normalize the scores. This is going to result in a great crop of stories when they start trickling in to FIMFiction! Join the Writeoff Association group if you want to get notifications when the stories get edited and posted.
Now that this is done — and now that I've splurged on the latest Humble Bundle and gotten some Papers, Please in; really, take some writing time off to play it, because it's a fine, fine game fraught with moral choices and excellent atmosphere and gameplay you've never seen anywhere else — it's time to get back to writing. I haven't gotten a single word out this week, but it's time to change that.
Reviews below the jump.
REMINDER: I've given "HITEC" scores on each of the stories, which are explained here.
1. Love Call
First Impressions: Two thousand words of poetry, even if it doesn't rhyme, is an awful lot. Props for audacity. (Nitpick: "orchelimums" are katydids. Are they making writing-plates out of crushed insects?)
Thoughts: If you're writing an unconstrained form like non-rhyming free verse, poetry is absolutely going to be made or broken on your wordplay and imagery; the entire reason to write a poem instead of prose is to slow the reader down, call attention to your language, and force deeper textual engagement. So when it misuses "whence" in the first stanza, and puts "sword with two blades" rather than "two-edged sword" in the second stanza, I'm going to be in for a long 2,000 words. And when the third stanza dives straight into bleeding heart imagery, it becomes a painful slog — "unrhyming, unmetered teenage-gothic angst about unrequited love" is the poetry equivalent of making your ponyfic an HiE self-insert where the character with the author's name becomes the seventh Element of Harmony. Then the ice and fire metaphors just keep piling up on top of each other.
I got my hopes up with the "Addendum" and its inversion of Ozymandias, but what I expected to be a short and punchy postscript turned into an almost complete repetition of the original poem.
I feel bad for saying this, but there's nothing I enjoyed about the piece. I sincerely applaud you for pushing your boundaries, and the competition's boundaries, with the poem; I really want to see people taking chances here and expanding our horizons as authors and as readers, and I'm glad you did this rather than write something "safer" and less ambitious. But you were fighting against the hurricane headwinds of the three-day deadline and the 2000-word minimum, which are insane handicaps for what you were trying to do (and I'll bet money that the entire second poem was written in a desperate attempt to fill space). Beyond that (or more likely due to that), it didn't feel like this made any use of the poetic form. There needs to be something in the language to justify the use of poetry over prose — rhyme; meter; clever alliteration; fresh and startling metaphor; unexpected imagery (instead of talking about the chill of ice, what about its taste?); insight about the human pony condition … take something that works in quick flashes or concentrated brushstrokes, and layer them on until you've painted your words, rather than taking a repetitive monologue and throwing line breaks in.
I'd like to see what happens if you take the same core idea and the same choice of poetic form, and then throw this entire thing out and redo it from scratch. Forget wordcount — don't even shoot for 1000 for FIMFic publication; make it exactly as long as it needs to be. (If it were me, the idea would probably fill 200 words or so.) Forget the deadline. Chew over each line like you're trying to crack a bone for the marrow inside. Let your mind wander in fields of metaphor, and when it comes back, see if it picked any flowers. Then take the giant mess of resulting words and throw half of them out until everything pulls in a single direction (unlike my bone-gnawing and flower-picking metaphors above). I believe you can do this concept justice, but this isn't it.
2. Stallion Whose Name I Forgot
First Impressions: In media res opening, several references to memory, bizarre quest premise: I'm calling a final plot twist of existential shenanigans, though if this level of writing holds up I probably won't mind the reveal.
Thoughts: This did what I want stories to do — sucked me in and held me there. Blatant symbolism was blatant, but struck an excellent balance between pulling it all together and playing up its otherworldliness. I really appreciated the significance of a blank page as the question (I know that feel), and the other elements were well-chosen. I was pretty confident throughout that this was set in some sort of Twilight-didn't-exist AU and the flashbacks were spooling out alternate!Rarity's life without Ponyville, so it was a pleasant shock to have that connect to canon so squarely, and I like the backstory you present (even if the timeline of it seems weird). Thematically, everything fits so well together that I'm having difficulty offering non-nitpicky suggestions for improvement; just take a final line-editing pass for some minor nagging language issues. Well done.
First Impressions: Right off the bat: As an American, I'm used to seeing those sounds represented as "tick" and "tock". It's also bizarre that they would rip the doctor from her work with a sky-is-falling meeting only to make her wait for over half an hour. This is a deeply dysfunctional organization.
Thoughts: First, this needs some attention to editing; I think there are translation issues here from a non-native speaker. The rough writing quality was a constant presence. I'll try to factor that out of my scoring.
The core idea here would make for a pretty cool AU, and a lot of effort clearly went into the construction of the human world paralleling the Equestria simulation, but there were a number of elements here which either worked against the presentation or were downright strange. The biggest is Dr. Selena, which (if it somehow hasn't been mentioned yet) is the name of the Greek goddess equivalent to Luna. She doesn't play Luna in the story, not even a little bit, and every time you reinforce her role as Celestia it increases the cognitive dissonance. The late reveal that Selena's daughter is Twilight — which I missed at first, because Selena's first name bugged me so much that I didn't remember her last name until I went back and reread — is also problematic, because in hindsight it turns the board meeting disturbing. She's so passionate about saving the project — while never once mentioning, or even thinking about, her personal stake — that it calls into question the mother's love that's crucial to your final scene.
You've really got something juicy with Sunset Shimmer's role, but the more I think about the specific choices you made for it, the more that they bug me. You're trying to have it both ways with her — she's a success story because she awoke early with great test results (even if the benefits were short-lived), and she's cited as a main reason to keep the project going, but it was a "desperate attempt" and a "horrific failure." Your core premise is that they're trying to bring children out of comas because being stuck inside them is leading to developmental disabilities — even if there are side effects, waking up early solves the problem!
And I think that gives you a way to really amp this story up with a surprisingly minor change. Sunset Shimmer is what makes this project stand out — and in order to keep their funding, it was reported as a success. The board didn't call Selena up to kill the project (and it's not an emergency meeting, merely an unexpected one); they called her up to greenlight it. Everyone's smiles and champagne; they're ordering her to use her awesome new method to shock everyone in her test group out of their comas, because everyone wakes up with great test results, yay! But the problem — and what Selena didn't put in her reports, and what she doesn't dare admit at the public meeting — is that, as you describe, they had to alienate and traumatize Sunset inside the simulation in order to get those results. Suddenly, Selena's lie comes back to haunt her, because she's being ordered to use "Project Nightmare" to leave lasting scars on hundreds of children including her daughter (and I think that should come out early so it can raise the stakes of the story, rather than being a weird ending twist). Now Selena has a moral conflict, and her desperate attempt to help the children stop the Nightmare — and leave them inside the simulation, where they're still stuck in the rut — has moral weight and bittersweet consequences. It also makes the board meeting feel more realistic, because right now "we don't like your project that wakes children up early with great test results because ponies" feels pretty thin.
Finally, if you do rewrite it, put some specific effort into working the exposition in more smoothly. There are several awkward "As You Know" speeches (and a few places where the information is repeated; e.g., given that Selena summarizes the end of the board meeting to her assistant, you can cut away after the vote is taken without losing anything). A few paragraphs of pure exposition, like the one about the terrorist attack, are perfectly fine if there's no better way to work them in; look through "Mark of Destiny" as a reader and see where its exposition feels natural and where it feels awkward/gratuitous/underexplained, because it's trying to do a similar thing to your story, and you can learn from others' mistakes. (Mark's author: Vice versa.) Maybe instead of telling us that Sunset Shimmer was a failure, you can show us a scene where she's polite and charming and witty to the board, and then a total sociopath in private? Or maybe a dialogue between Selena and Samantha (who really should be the one named Selena, since she triggers NMM.zip), in which Samantha is happy and wonders why Selena's not celebrating, and Selena's secret comes out.
4. And Yet...
First Impressions: Kudos for opening with scent. Underused in descriptions.
Thoughts: Owing to a little bit of jumping around, this ended up being the last fic I read, and it was a great little palate-cleanser to wrap up the competition. Overall, I think the anecdote format works in its favor, though I am disappointed that the stories don't seem to share a continuity (at least, I'm having trouble squaring Lyra's with Spike's). It may be the single strongest use of the prompt that I saw this round — really thoughtfully chewing on the idea from several angles, and giving a sense of "everything" that none of the other stories did.
The stories themselves are a bit of a mixed bag. They're pretty exposition-heavy, but that's unavoidable given the compressed format, and I think the exposition works in your favor here, keeping each individual scene from getting overly bogged down before you can jump to the next idea. Scootaloo's would have been stronger if we didn't have a show episode that did something identical with Dash and Rarity. Spike's was good. I like the message of Lyra's, but it felt quite out of place with the others. Fluttershy's wasn't particularly memorable, but then I'm not much of a Slice of Life fan, and the message was nice. #savetree was savetreeful. But they were overall heartwarming! (Which reminds me, I think your final sentence is, ironically, stronger without the exclamation mark than with it.)
First Impressions: I think I'm suffering from Poet-Traumatic Stress Disorder: when the first paragraph of a story makes a point of introducing Zecora, I have to stop, take a deep breath, and do that Twilight-and-Cadence chest-salute thing. :(
Thoughts: Well, it's not the worst Zecora rhyming I've seen, but it definitely could use some basic lessons on rhythm. I think the other reviewers covered that.
There was another way in which this story really rubbed me the wrong way — and here's where I stop a moment to swat the itch on the back of my neck, and hoist my protest sign high enough to show that I'm still devoted to the cause, but not high enough to feel awkward or overenthused. Was "CeeCee" a direct reference to Cecil Rhodes? Because taking a story where "Zebrica" is explicitly an Africa analogue (the zebras' language is Swahili — good job on that, by the way), and then having a single whitey pony there who is developing the gem trade, is bursting at the seams with unfortunate implications. The diamond industry is basically the textbook example of unethical business practices; never mind the hundred-year monopoly, price fixing, and the wholesale creation of artificial demand, it's an industry rife with child and subsistence labor, which has a history of colonialism, apartheid, and environmental devastation, and in more recent years has had problems with funding wars. I'm not a hardcore SJW, but CeeCee and his implication of Equestrian imperialism are singlehoofedly ruining this story for me. I won't hold that against you in scoring, but please think about the messages you're sending.
Speaking of imperialism — cultural or otherwise — Twilight's got a wince-worthy case of privilege in this one too. "The days around the spring equinox are considered a very personal and valuable time. It's considered a little rude for a zebra to ask someone to do something that might intrude on their time with their families," Twilight lectures Applejack, literally five paragraphs after she says "I'd hate to be imposing, but would it be okay if the girls and I came with you this year?" It's okay when she does it.
(Cripes, four hundred words and I haven't reviewed the story yet. Sorry about the rants, but these things really stuck out after Slippery Slope and Mark of Destiny primed my brain for social justice issues.)
What else? Well, Applejack at least sounds like Applejack in this one, but sugarcube I reckon her accent's a mite thick y'all. There were some typoes, but not bad enough to be distracting. The teleportation scene impressed me as much as it did Twilight. When the zebras aren't talking, it's pretty fun reading. The ending ceremony was unquestionably cool, and appears to be at least partially based on a real song (along with the proverb used); I love little bits of authenticity like that! I think reading through the ceremony was my favorite part of the piece, so it did at least close strong.
6. Three and a Half Seconds
First Impressions: Apple Bloom contemplates pastacide. And, yeah, it is weird that we have two submissions starting with the same three words.
Thoughts: This is a prime example of why I try to avoid other reviews until I'm finished with mine — because here I didn't, and I knew the big spoiler going in, and that's not something you can ignore as you're reading. I won't say that it ruined the story for me, but it really flattened out all the mystery and crawling horror of the first two-thirds or so. It also hampers my ability to usefully offer feedback on how well the reveal worked, though my best guess is that I would have pieced it together around the scene of examining the catheter, because it was clear there was something going on, and Apple Bloom's mysteriously handled bodily needs were a massive clue.
I'm not convinced it handles its central premise quite as well as Stallion Whose Name I Forgot, because I'm not sure all of the symbolism pulls in the same direction here. There's the house party with all of the guests; there's the lengthy conversation with Applejack (whose voice is a bit generic, but acceptably Jacky) and Fluttershy; and then everyone disappears. Is that supposed to symbolize the presence of people in the hospital room? Because it doesn't, at least not at the time of the ending; it's ambiguous whether the entire story takes place in three and a half seconds, or over a longer period, but the lines really blur between what's happening strictly in her head and what's reflecting reality, and I prefer the thematic tightness of Stallion. That having been said, this is still a strong story.
Finally, I highly urge you to consider ending the story after "…Apple Bloom said". The giggle just feels strange, and the grin tells us nothing that the earlier "love you" didn't. An open-ended finish here is the stronger choice.
7. Just One More
First Impressions: Great first line, very hook-ey. Though reading the next paragraph or so, I have to question the use of present tense. Its major benefit is to bring an immediacy and closeness to the story, so when you're establishing a strong narrative voice that's talking abstractly about other ponies' day-to-day lives, you're making an awfully curious choice.
Thoughts: That choice of narrative voice feels like an ongoing experiment, with mixed results. There are a few moments of neat narrator snark, and as the story sweeps into the core of its tale, that choice of present tense kicks into high gear. But at other times, it feels like a distraction, and it also makes the occasional lapse into past tense stick out all the more. Notice that when it's really singing along at the end, interjections like "Oh, look at this" are coming from Twilight's POV? That's where that present-tense immediacy reinforces your effect.
It was about halfway through when I connected the dots of Twilight's grass-draining and the title, and a little chill crossed my heart, because I knew exactly where the story was going. It nevertheless pulled out a little kicker right at the ending, with that last line having a really effective level of implied menace in the new context of ticking off the remaining obstacles to her rule. From the innocent beginning, I wasn't expecting it to out-dark Oubliette, but it did, and that's impressive.
HITEC: 20-20-15-25-20. I'm wavering as to which category the tense issues fall into, so I'm going to ding Technical even though it's edited well.
8. A Light in the Dark
First Impressions: Making the opening paragraphs exposition does produce something of a narration effect, but if you're doing that you generally want to establish the narrator as a strong voice in the story, and I don't think you're trying to do that here. Also, I think Nightmare Night's supposed to be a Halloween-analogue, not a Solstice-analogue (Hearth's Warming Eve), though canon isn't 100% explicit on that and I really shouldn't nitpick if you're doing that to set up a point.
Thoughts: It was interesting reading this back-to-back with Dawn, because on the surface they're pretty similar — largely a single asymmetric dialogue focusing on Celestia being Celestia-ey. This is a much stronger story, though. Pre-S1 Celestia has secrets to keep, and that ratchets up the tension marvelously when Twilight stumbles upon awkward topics, in a way that Dawn and its sisterly banter doesn't manage. Its opening worldbuilding is both fresh and poignant. I think it would be stronger (especially for post-writeoff publication) without the explicit naming of the prompt, but I can see why you did it. The final scene, and Luna's talk, isn't the first time I've heard the idea of reinterpreting "the stars will aid in her escape", but it's well played here. Most of my critiques here feel like nitpicks, so just tighten up those tiny things and you've got a winner.
First Impressions: Ah, filly princesses. Combining the things I hate and love most about MLP fanfic. Otherwise, the opening isn't giving me much to go on.
Thoughts: I don't think I'm going to say much that others haven't said, so I'll keep this brief.
Gotta say, this certainly does the research. From everything I can tell, this nails the EME, though seventeenth-century linguistic norms is an odd choice of plot point. It's also a strange effect to have such meticulous use of archaic language mixed in with a number of garden-variety typos; I suspect this was submitted right at the last minute. There's some excellent dialogue in here, but it starts to drag because it's all a single unbroken scene, and the dialogue isn't really pointing toward anything; in terms of a traditional story structure, with a conflict and a resolution, the resolution that you've set up is for a conflict that the dialogue exposits but doesn't establish. Celestia explicitly decides to address the Council's rudeness by bringing Luna uninvited — not by trying to raise the sun on her own; developing her power that way was essentially an accident, and so it doesn't have any impact on the meandering conversation of the remainder of the story, and the meandering conversation offers nothing except for the joy of the writing (which, admittedly, was good).
Overall, the core idea is nothing I haven't seen before, but the story's full of rich tidbits. There's some powerful writing in here, but in order to be strong it needs to connect all the dots.
10. Friendship is not Magic.
First Impressions: Story titles, in general, do not contain punctuation unless you're going for a specific effect — like "…But Whose?" specifically being inflected as a question, and an implied continuation of the prompt name. Ending with a period here is unnecessary; you're not writing a sentence. Moving on: the early paragraphs are yet another trudge through snow. Strange how that's been such a recurring theme this time around.
Thoughts: I nearly spit out my drink when Twilight's broken horn was casually mentioned halfway through the story. Was that something you decided to add in halfway through writing? There's no clue of it in the first scene, despite an explicit discussion of why they've decided to visit the dragon; Twilight makes the journey sound like a generic quest for knowledge, not a desperate attempt to repair the thing most integral to her life.
Despite some weird moments, though, this generally feels epic. The avalanche was a lot more compelling than the passive cold of the other arctic journies (though Spike's minute-long fire-blast felt over the top), and there were some fine subtle touches selling Ferros' alienness. His introduction of his true name is one of the most memorable paragraphs of writing of this entire competition, and his literally being the mountain was a cool twist. Great use of the prompt, too, even if I found Twilight's answer about magic weirdly OOC in its prosody. Overall, I like this despite its stumbles.
11. Magic in the Earth, Magic in the Air
First Impressions: Twilight technobabble. Some kind of device test. Sure, let's do this.
Thoughts: You know how Pinkie Pie, Discord, and Zecora are famously difficult to write well? This competition is convincing me that Applejack needs to be added to that list. Seriously, there are an inordinate number of stories about her here, and all but … two? … I've run into dialogue or narration that's made me wince with its un-Applejackness. I don't mean to pick on this story, because AJ only gets a single line here, but when that single line is "Don't you worry, sugarcube. We will deal with that miscreant," with its unused contraction and two-dollar word, it sticks out like a sore thumb.
Nitpicks aside, I liked this story all out of proportion to its quality. That must sound like damning with faint praise, but I mean it as a compliment. It runs on pure, shameless Rule of Cool; there's no reason any of it should work, but it comes up with fun ideas for every one of its audacious additions, and when it's at its best I don't care that it makes no sense, I just sit back and enjoy the craziness. If it were more consistent about its characters, it could have unexpectedly wowed me. Flim and Flam, for instance, were done particularly well. But with random moments like Applejack's line and Scootaloo's Cockney accent and I don't even know what to make of Maud, my inner editor was gritting his teeth. It made up for this with more cool ideas than I know what to do with; the gadgeteers and rock-throwing teaming up while Sweetie Belle does some sort of insane musicbending is shamelessly glorious.
Soarin' felt entirely gratuitous. He came in too late to have any impact, and you're already adding him to an ensemble cast that all needs their moments of glory. With another few thousand words, and if you'd had him show up earlier than the final boss battle, he could have been properly worked into the adventuring party. As it was, it just felt like he detracted from establishing the characters you'd already chosen, and threw off the dynamic of the existing trio (CMCs, FlimFlam, and Maud).
I think the story behind the villain also needed more exposition. I'm willing to buy that Celestia planned it all along, but there's no clue as to why, and if you're going to lampshade that such an insane team-up was by explicit design, there needs to be a reason why each of them was individually needed. What did each of them get out of it? Because, make no mistake, it was done for their benefit; Twilight's lesson would have been the same no matter how the experiment went wrong.
Ultimately, a rather ambitious story, and while it had a lot of issues, it was an enjoyable read.
First Impressions: Sad Apple Bloom, cheery Pinkie. The "pear tart" line is pretty cute.
Thoughts: When Pinkie Pie challenged AB's motives, I thought we were going to rehash the Luna/Pinkie "Friends Forever" comic, but fortunately this veered off into its own thing pretty quickly. There were some great one-liners, like the P-in-phenomenal jab, and it's good to see Berry Punch being used in a non-cliché role. Fermentation as necromancy is just downright brilliant. Really, I must have gone into this grumpy, or I wasn't looking forward to yet another CMC story, or something, because I kept wanting to pick it apart — and yet everything it did won me over little by little. That said, some of the magic talk doesn't fully land for me — I have no idea if Cherry Berry is a reference to something in S4 canon I missed, and I don't feel like the idea of "negotiation" is explored at the level I'd have loved to see. In some ways that's no problem at all — when the ending leaves you desperate for more, the story has done its job — but in others it's tougher; both Pinkie's refusal to teach AB and Berry's discussion of negotiating from a position of power heavily imply that AB's dabbling in Things Ponies Aren't Meant To Know, and that sets up a real cognitive dissonance with the light-and-happy ending (and their setting her loose to go try it) that I'm not sure you intended. A little more exposition would not only push my worldbuilding buttons, it would also solidify the ending. Regardless, this unexpectedly snuck into my top contenders.
13. Applejack Goes To Magic School For Some Reason
First Impressions: The big advantage of a "Pony Does X" title is that you can set expectations before a reader even clicks the story. "…For Some Reason" doubles down on the self-awareness of the absurdity of the premise in a way that pushes my happy buttons. Sight unseen, I'm really hoping this lives up to its title.
Thoughts: Happily, it did. Some of this round's stories built up to a twist; some of this round's stories kept throwing out swerves like driving on a mountain road (I'm looking at you, Mark of Destiny); but this one set out all its audaciousness up front, taking a completely absurd premise it deliberately never explained, and then played the entire story completely straight to pull laughs out of the cognitive dissonance. It is, to steal Benman's turn of phrase, "the good kind of predictable," thanks largely to the excellent writing. Watching the gradual disintegration of Twilight's sanity is fun, and the way she struggles with it, gives in, and learns a genuine friendship lesson is very, very pony. And in contrast to many of this round's Applejack stories, her voice is done well throughout.
The one complaint I'd have is that, in the scene where AJ's accidental ruse is uncovered, Twilight's ultimate reaction is fairly sedate; there was room there for a more climactic blow-up, especially given the denouement, and it might have worked better as a cutaway to let your readers' imaginations fill in the blanks of exactly how badly Twilight would explode. Regardless, this story's cleanly in the top tier.
14. Parental Attachment
First Impressions: Scootaloo and parents at a school open house. Based on the title and Cheerilee's forced grin, I'm guessing this is a Scootorphan subversion of some kind.
Thoughts: After reading Those Rumors 'Round Town and its lengthy rumor-mill brainstorming in the last round, I didn't think I'd be saying this, but: this one managed to pull out a Scootorphan twist I didn't see coming. It definitely inhales from the ol' crack pipe to get there, but not in a completely ridiculous way, and it's clever enough in setting up the mystery that half the fun of reading it was the guessing game along the way. At first I figured there was some sort of mirror-pool style direct magical intervention, but with their odd behavior and specific knowledge, I started thinking there was some sort of changeling replacement thing going on; that was only reinforced when I figured out the sugar thing before the text explicitly noted it (which made me feel all clever), and I finally concluded the reveal would be that Scootaloo had been turned into a new changeling queen and was trying to mentally control unruly drones. I was a bit disappointed at the actual reveal, but I wasn't far wrong, and the reveal does justify the title. Extra points for the incorrect vampire guess, which was absurd, out of left field, and yet completely logical in a way I hadn't even considered.
Overall, it's well-paced (though a bit repetitive in the tiredness and sugar-snack hinting), with a consistent build-up and good writing. I can wish for more exposition or worldbuilding to tie it all together, but no major complaints.
15. Mark of Destiny
First Impressions: Human in Equestria. Beer-drinking video gamer. Wait, is the main character's name Mark? Hoo boy.
Thoughts: Huh … wow. I literally do not know where to start — this is three four? stories in one, and I can't even figure out whether to be frustrated or awed at its kitchen-sink construction. This katamaris through a storm of clichés — humans are bastards except for the sincere protagonist, the misunderstandings with the Mane Six, the HiE redeeming himself with applebucking, the Weighty Choice Only He Can Make, and the second-person ending — then subverts and reinterprets half of them through collision and contrast, but plays just enough of them completely straight that I can't even tell whether it's meant as deconstruction. There were a few small details that landed heavily, like Lisa's unironic joy about being in a new world three sentences before giving directions relative to a Starbucks, and I think it's at its strongest when it's hitting that cultural commentary. While the pivot into more traditional HiE wish-fulfillment keeps the story from drowning in bleakness, it also kicks the legs out from under what feels like its core anti-imperialism message — but at the same time it gives some weight to the Discord/Twilight choice. While the ending scene redefines chutzpah with its blatant reader-bait, it also totally pivots on that wish fulfillment and recontextualizes the title pun, demolishing the author-self-insert effect it's spent 8000 words pretending to be leading up to. Overall, there's a lot to like, but this is throwing out so much to think about that I'm not sure the story wants me to like it, if that makes any sense.
I wonder if this wouldn't have done better in the Most Dangerous Game contest.
HITEC: The scale's falling down on this one due to the story's density. Is "Idea" low for the human/pony clichés or high for its dystopian look at superpowered cultural appropriation? Is "Execution" high for how it sells its bleakness before pivoting to a necessary hope spot, or low for not sticking to its guns with that darkness? I'm going to throw my hands up and say 15-20-30-20-15.
First Impressions: The idea of Twilight and Big Mac having a semi-adversarial doll sharing program is sweet but a little creepy. Though it does make me hope that the title refers to somepony's brilliant master doll-stealing plan rather than a vision thing.
Thoughts: Gotta say, as bizarre as I initially found it, I was kinda disappointed when this fic left the doll-sharing thing in the dust. Twilight's Not Getting It — especially the almost-exploding-a-tree bit — was so very her, but Applejack's characterization just generally felt strange. ("I certainly know that I didn't advocate this" was a major offender, along with her laughing at Twilight's uncomprehension. Yikes. And when she was stumbling through her explanation to Twilight and Twi was calling her out on not making sense, I sympathized a lot more with Twilight than I suspect I was supposed to.) There were one or two good AJ moments — the end was one — but generally, I enjoyed the parts of the fic without her, and struggled through the parts with her.
I'm ambivalent about the moral. Throw out what AJ actually said and cut to the core of what she was trying to explain — that life is precious, and that it's in experiences rather than math — and it's perfectly reasonable and even a little profound. But taking the story at face value, that we should appreciate it because it's improbable, leaves it feeling incoherent. It might have helped to signal more clearly that she was flailing through the explanation and that was yet another of the explanations that she was throwing Twilight in order to break her viewpoint and get to see things differently. Or maybe it could work better to not ever have anything AJ says convince her, and it's only when she stops trying to comprehend it and simply appreciates it that she actually understands.
First Impressions: The first story with a Magic card name. From the first few lines, I'm guessing Tirek in Tartarus.
Thoughts: Where this really works is in the twist — the ending is remarkably effective at taking the darkness of the long, slow torture and turning it into a much blacker and entirely different sort of dark. Bonus points for the moral ambiguity of it — Discord's point makes sense, as reprehensible as it is, and I'm totally sold on it as something he could do.
Where this doesn't work has been covered by other reviewers; while Tirek's internal monologue is erratically brilliant, it doesn't fully land. While there are a lot of elements that sell his descent into madness, there's some combination of his actions and his core lucidity that makes it a hard sell, and (nitpicky though this sounds) the emphatic punctuation really doesn't help that. (Discord's Monty Python quote didn't bug me as much as it did some of the others, and that's because the others don't react to it as an MP quote — it feels very much like him to break the fourth wall as an in-joke, and for nobody else to even realize it's happening — but it does stretch out a bit long.) Like "Jade Songbird" this is in that category of good-but-not-top stories that I think did its thing really well, but I had to appreciate it in hindsight.
18. For the Best
First Impressions: That first sentence keeps slapping me in the face. I can parse it grammatically, and I understand all of its component pieces, but something about the way it's stated keeps me slamming into a wall of words. "Princess Celestia didn't remember anything about the day she realized she needed Ponyville" maybe?
Thoughts: The core of this story is Celestia and Granny Smith's conversation, and (along with some of the other reviewers) I have to marvel at it; not only is that a rare pairing of characters handled well, it's also awesome to see Celestia need (and accept) someone's advice without it feeling like the author handed her an idiot ball that only their plucky mortal hero can solve. The moral is reinforced in the final scene, which ties the story up well. This is pretty solid throughout.
My major criticism: The second scene is pleasant enough Twijack, with some well-done character-building and true-to-life wedding-planning micro-crises, but I can't shake the feeling that it was wholly unnecessary. Don't get me wrong, it's not bad writing, but if it had been 100% removed, I don't think the story would suffered; the micro-exposition at the end adequately introduces all of the problems introduced in the scene, and slimming the story down (and removing the scene where the viewpoint switches) would have enhanced the focus on the central theme.
19. Daring Do and the Jade Songbird
First Impressions: Pulp adventure! Cool. "Precocious filly companion!" Uh-oh.
Thoughts: I was all ready to go on a rant about proper use of OCs when I reached the end and you hit me with the recontextualization bat: she's imagining herself into the story. Suddenly, literally everything that I'd hated about the story made sense. When I skimmed back through, I could only admire the subtle ways in which everything aligns for the stinger, especially the deliberate lack of dialogue. That's a marvelously sprung trap, there; be proud.
The bad news is that I disliked the story until that stinger, and that leaves a hollow feeling behind my ultimate appreciation of your cleverness. I think, oddly, you were being too subtle. I never picked up any clear signal that there was cognitive dissonance that the ending was intended to resolve; the story was a little too faithful to its pulp clichés (there were multiple places where Daring's wings should have been able to render her challenges meaningless); and the OC was so obviously superfluous and flat that on my first read-through I had to content myself with nitpicking the story apart as I went. While the lack of dialogue was ultimately crucial, it felt like it made the story drag; you'd be well served by brainstorming to see if you could spring the same stinger in a different fashion that lets you tell the tale a bit more dynamically.
20. The Color and the Silence
First Impressions: Shades of Faulkner. It's amazing how something so simple as that title and the inverted structure of the first sentence can make it feel so literary. Definitely grabbing me.
Thoughts: Alas, it stayed literary just long enough to hook me in that opening paragraph, then went back to more mundane (though solid) writing. This was overall enjoyable, and you've definitely got a cool idea at its core, but I wasn't satisfied with the story, and you may or may not want to do anything about that. I think what's happening here is that narratively you are telling a story in the time-honored horror and/or sci-fi convention of "take an innocent situation, peel back the skin, and look beneath the surface to the cosmic horror below"; that's a fundamentally usable structure, and Lovecraft et.al. got a lot of mileage from it. But structurally it doesn't feel to me like that sort of story. The nature of the tower is shown pretty early (or at least as much of it as we're ever going to get), so you're not building up to a reveal. That sets your story up with more of a traditional progression of plot (introduce conflict, lay out stakes, resolve conflict), but it doesn't ever resolve anything about its central question, and Celestia doesn't make any big decisions … well, okay, she does, but the decision she makes is to preserve the status quo by acquiesing to the thing, which isn't very satisfying. Is it meant as a character piece? You certainly get some mileage out of Celestia's guilt and dread, and I liked the look at her day, but all the hanging questions about the nature of the Tower rob center stage from those digressions.
I'd have liked it more if there was more resolution to those questions — and it would have addressed the structural issue, since you'd be building up to that rather than an unrelated climax we already know the significance of — but YMMV.
21. The Sweetest Water
First Impressions: Fairy tale!
Thoughts: This is a pleasant enough little fable on its own merits, though it would have been a lot stronger at ~1200 words. There are several lengthy sections which feel copy-paste repetitive, and while that's faithful to the genre you're emulating, I found myself several times skipping past large chunks of text and just picking out the few words that had changed. The reason fairy tales are structured the way they are, with so much repetition, was as a mnemonic aid for verbal storytellers — if you designed this specifically to be spoken aloud (especially to children), it might be fine, but I can only give you the impression of an adult reading it on a screen.
I appreciate that the Equestrian mythology was so integral to the tale and the moral, though that does make the timeline a bit odd; he lived in the long-forgotten past but it's explicitly set after Sombra and implicitly set after Luna's banishment. The pools were pretty clever and felt Equestrian. I'd have liked to have seen more depth to it, but I can't fault it for that given what you were trying to accomplish.
First Impressions: Arctic changelings? … Flutterponies. Wait, are flutterponies insects? Did you mean "Breezies"? (Nitpick: it should be "their carapaces"; they each have one.)
Thoughts: I'm so confused as to who the main characters are. I know nothing about G1 and missed the Breezies episode, but it does seem intuitively weird to me that you'd have insects living in the arctic North, and there's several references to them having an emotion-sense even though they're not changelings. Queen Rosedust is apparently from G1, but beyond that I struck out doing web research, so I guess there's a lot I'm missing here.
Beyond that, the story could use a major edit pass; there's lots of verb-tense stumbles and some typoes. I like the technology of the sonar and warming crystals; there's also promise in the worldbuilding linking G1 and G4, though I can't help but feel that either I'm missing something big or else it could have stood to be further developed. (Are the changelings Glitter Dust's descendants?) The story arc itself is serviceable, though I don't think the put-the-flashback-in-the-center structure is doing you any favors — it turns the talking-with-the-queen scene from story into background exposition, so you interrupt the central conflict (surviving the snow) for a lengthy info-dump.
23. Tumbling Down the Slippery Slope
First Impressions: Slightly overwrought opening sentence had me thinking for a moment that there was something exceptional about the fact of two things happening at once. Once recovered from my confusion, the premise seems interesting.
Thoughts: The narrative voice in this is a delight to read, and the humor hits with admirable consistency. I think it strikes just the right balance of fourth-wall breaking; I kept expecting an overt Tumblr name-drop which to your credit never came (except in the title), and was braced for a painful Feghoot of an ending which to your credit never came. Lines like "high enough to show that we were still devoted to the cause, but not high enough to feel awkward or overenthused" are right in that magical sweet spot of witty, hysterical and matter-of-fact. Overall, even as the first story I've read this is gonna be a super-strong contest contender; it feels like the sort of story I'd evaluate for the RCL, and that's certainly an auspicious start to my reading. What's holding it back: The journal-entry ending is played way too straight; in a piece so hilarious, I think you want to close on a punchline to reinforce the story's core hilarity. Also, take an editing pass for narrative voice, and polish lines like that opening to make AJ's tone more consistent (seriously, saying "April the Twenty-First" is so Rarity).
Bonus: Foreign Complications
(It was apparently written for the prompt but not turned in on time, so got published to FIMFiction instead.)
First Impressions: Since it's on Fimfic, I get to judge based on cover art and description instead of the first few lines. Whee! Nice cover art, which I'm sure has nothing to do with anything, and I'm sure the description summarizes the story: Twilight gets raked over the coals in her first diplomatic meeting. I have no idea how this is going to connect to the prompt.
Thoughts: I spent a lot of the story fighting off cognitive dissonance. Some of it is the story doubling back on its narrative: "The Taurian Kingdom is our friendliest neighbor … [Solis is] a very kind individual once you warm up to him," Celestia says to put Twilight off of her guard, and then after the screaming is over and we learn that she's lied to him about Luna, "King Deus Solis is one of the most troubling leaders I’ve ever had to work with." This feeds into a deeper pattern of borderline-insane Celestial incompetence; the core premise here requires Celestia to be so remarkably irresponsible that it strains disbelief to think that Equestria could have made it this far. I mean, she's leading a nation where the power of friendship has repeatedly, demonstrably saved the world, where Honesty is one of those very same Elements of Harmony that she's wielded herself, and she's lying to their closest ally about her sister? And she's pushing Twilight into diplomatic meetings with not even enough prep time to answer important questions? And she doesn't have contingency plans for coal shortages? And she never points out that in the main example Solis cites for his change of heart — Tirek's return — throwing an army of millions of minotaurs at him would have just resulted in millions of sucked-dry minotaurs and a totally unstoppable villain?
It's too bad that this portrayal of Equestrian politics is so completely ridiculous, because Solis does make a few good points. (The changelings' invasion really was a catastrophe; though, again, given that they can imitate anything and destroy forces from the inside out, having a minotaur army there wouldn't have helped a whit.) And Celestia's single good point of the entire story, the bit about her inability to use her solar powers as a diplomatic threat, is a really good one. I like the idea that Luna's return had diplomatic fallout far beyond Equestria's borders. Now if only we could get the princesses behaving like the wise, long-lived rulers they are.
There's flashes of some excellent writing here, but with the mess of the core premise, I'd have scored this about a 3.5 (before normalization — i.e., near the bottom of this round's stories, but this was a strong round, and it wouldn't have done quite as poorly against more typical competition).
There was just so much well-executed stuff this time around! I gave up and top-loaded my scoring. These shared my typical first-place spot:
13. Applejack Goes To Magic School For Some Reason
23. Tumbling Down the Slippery Slope
Rounding out my "top three" (i.e., tied for the next spot):
7. Just One More
8. A Light in the Dark
2. Stallion Whose Name I Forgot
Great job, everyone!
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You know the drill: Writeoff. You've got about 48 hours left to finish your 2000- to 8000-word story at this point, but don't freak out about missing the first 24 hours; Friday was a workday for most of us (including me), so the scramble to write something is just beginning.
Prize update: Yamgoth is donating prizes (for the second time in a row)! To fit the "Magic In Everything" theme, they're Magic: The Gathering cards.
A number of great writers (and myself) have declared their intentions to enter already, possibly including Bookplayer. I was drawing a blank on the theme, but chewed it over for a few hours and think I've got an idea I'm happy with. Allons-y!