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ACAB | ♠️ | A teacher, student, writer, and opinionated reader. Responsible for cleverpun's Critique Corner. | Donate via Ko-fi

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Four Year Anniversary Special: cleverpun's Critique Corner — If You Came to Conquer/Inexcusable · 9:06pm Jan 14th, 2016

Last year, to celebrate my three year anniversary on the site, I wrote a long, meandering blog post looking back on all the writing I had done. It was an interesting exercise, though its experimental nature perhaps limited its utility.

Today, in honor of my four year anniversary on this site, I present a special edition of my critique series: I’m going to critique one of my own stories. The story of mine that I consider my best on this site, to be specific. Just because it is one of my better pieces of writing, however, doesn’t mean it is without flaws. Quite the opposite. Writing something semi-good is not a reason to stop improving, but rather an incentive to strive for greater and greater heights.

As writers, it is crucial to detach ourselves from our work, to (make an attempt to) look at it objectively. Self-reflection and analysis are just one tool available to authors, but they are no less important than any other type of criticism. If nothing else, I hope this post illustrates the value of self-critique.

With that out of the way, let’s begin.

Review Index

Format Breakdown

Today’s review is of a duology of stories. By the author’s own admission, the sequel doesn’t stand very well on its own, so I’ll be reviewing them as a single entity.

Title: If You Came to Conquer, Inexcusable
Author: cleverpun

Short summary: A long time ago, Nightmare Moon defeated Celestia, and all of Equestria went extinct as a result. After being alone in a dead world for so long, she turns to Discord for help to try and fix her mistakes.

She successfully travels to an alternate timeline, and kills and replaces her own past self. Yet, the charade can’t and doesn’t last forever. She reveals herself to Celestia, and neither pony takes it very well.

The Title/Description: If You Came to Conquer’s title is a reference to a song, and it has only a tenuous thematic connection to the story. I’m assuming the author chose it for its aural appeal over clarity. Inexcusable sounds generic and bland, but at least it has an actual connection to the story.

The description of the first story doesn’t really offer much information about what makes it unique; it makes the story look generic. The second story’s description feels longer than it needs to be; the important part is the final sentence and the rest builds up for far too long.

Genre(s): Drama, Alternate Universe, Character Piece, Headcanon Delivery

What does this story do well?: This story’s first strength is its characters. Since a lot of focus is given to Princess Nightmare Moon and Princess Celestia, it is important that their characters stand up to scrutiny. Both of them display strong emotions and restrain themselves as the situation demands. Their actions feel informed by the situation, rather than dictated by the plot. When placing characters in such an odd situation, it is important that their behavior maintains verisimilitude, and that is true of Princess Nightmare Moon and Princess Celestia.

This also extends to the secondary characters. Discord in particular (in both his incarnations) does a good job of explicitly needling the characters, yet subtly manipulating them at the same time. He feels like he is masking his motives, but his exact motives aren’t made explicit. It fits his show characterization, but still adds new ideas to his portrayal.

Cadance has an even smaller part, but also feels like a good extension of her show self. She is understanding and patient, but isn’t afraid to rebuke Celestia when warranted (once explicitly and once more subtly). Twilight is sort of glossed over, but she has a small part so it’s not really a big deal.

The characters help sell the story’s second strength: its scenario. The narrative focuses on a somewhat complicated situation. In the first story Nightmare Moon won, and the eons of loneliness that resulted caused her personality to merge with Luna's personality. She then travels to an alternate timeline (the show timeline) where the original Luna was in the middle of being corrupted by darkness. She kills Luna, and replaces her. The second story switches to Celestia’s perspective, and deals with the emotional fallout when the events of the first story are revealed.

Despite the fantastical elements of the plot, it feels like a “real” situation. The characters react to it with appropriate degrees of emotion, and their inability to figure out the exact mechanics of it helps fuel their reactions. It’s a bit melodramatic, but given the scale of the events it still has verisimilitude.

The story has a few recurring themes, and they are embedded into the narrative well. They are also used to contrast the two main characters, Princess Nightmare Moon and Celestia. In particular, the idea of identity is present throughout. Princess Nightmare Moon has a fractured identity, and her actions are all attempts to cling to or reaffirm her identity. Celestia’s arc is partly about realizing that her identity isn’t quite what she thought it was (and that it doesn’t connect to her sister as much as she thought). Discord (ironically) acts as a foil to them both. Despite having so many incarnations, and despite being a “chaotic” entity, he is the most sure of his identity. He even comments on these aspects of both characters in-universe.

There are other themes like personal mistakes, the nature of lies, and relationships, and no doubt many others. They help to define and contrast the main characters, but are not so blunt as to overwhelm the reader or sideline the other elements of the story.

Because of all this, the story’s final strength is its ability to provoke discussion and interpretation. As the comment feed shows, a variety of emotions, reactions, and speculation were present among readers. There are people who identify with Celestia’s emotional turmoil, and others who call her a bitch. There are those who take Princess Nightmare Moon’s motivations and comments at face value, and others who question her mental stability. When it comes to the characters actions, there are proponents of both sides who say they were justified. The story offers enough evidence and enough non-evidence for all this and more, and I think the abundance of comments and reactions is a good thing.

Where could this story improve?: This story’s first problem is the structure and pacing of its plot. Certain chapters don’t add much to the story. Chapter 2 of the first story feels extremely bland, and the interaction between the characters lacks the realism and interest of other parts of the story. The content of their discussion feels like a checklist rather than a natural conversation. Chapter 4 of the second story feels repetitive with the second chapter, and again it lacks the naturalism of the other parts of the story. In stories this short, every word matters and spending these chapters on poorly paced and poorly delivered ideas is very noticeable.

This is made worse by the rapid pacing of the duology. It adds up to ~12,000 words, and many of the scenes feel rushed as a result. Celestia’s conversations with Cadance/Twilight and just Cadance both escalate quickly and it cheapens their content. This could be said of perhaps every conversation except the first one (since it receives the most words). In a story that deals with such intense emotions and events, the rapid escalation makes everything feel cheaper.

As a result of this, character motivation is another of the story’s weak points. While I complimented the character’s emotions and theming above, their motivations can be muddled. Celestia’s intense reactions, Princess Nightmare Moon’s mental instability, Princess Luna’s interactions with The Nightmare, and other elements are not adequately explained or hinted at. The author even wrote an entire blog post trying to justify the way Celestia acts in this story, and that sort of headcanon should have been in the story. The story has such a breakneck pace that many of the important finer details are lost in transit.

Relatedly, another issue with the stories is clarity of plot; while I complimented the scenario above, there are a number of commenters who were clearly lost by the mechanics of it. One of the major rules of writing is “if the author needs to explain it, then it should probably be in the story.” This is exacerbated by the author’s seeming reluctance to offer concrete explanations. The story and author are both so enamored with allowing multiple interpretations that the story doesn’t adequately explain several of its key points or mechanics.

The final expression of this is the story’s inconclusive ending. The second story was a response to the first story’s lack of an ending, but it ends on a similarly vague note. Some of the commenters say that this is the only way the story could have ended, because of the decision Celestia makes. Others note that Celestia’s decision holding indefinitely is stretching belief. While this is perhaps another expression of the story’s ability to be interpreted many ways, I think the author could have added more and still kept that property.

The author actually planned a third part of the story, but by their own admission their planned plotline was inorganic and silly. Since the author has retired from fanfiction, the story must be taken as complete, even though it ends a bit sooner than it should. Even one additional chapter that gave better insight into how events progressed would have helped the story feel more conclusive. How that chapter could’ve or should’ve looked, however, I can’t say.

In a single sentence: A story that tackles an interesting idea and presents its characters well, but moves too fast and doesn’t commit to a conclusion.

In Conclusion: This story has flaws and strengths in equal measure. I think that as a story, it caters to a particular audience: one who likes stories intended to provoke discussion as much as to entertain. It also appeals to those who like melodrama that is still somewhat grounded, that feels real.

I personally enjoy that type of story, and the story’s popularity shows others did too. Ultimately, however, that type of story is not for everyone. For those who like such stories and can forgive some very pronounced flaws, this may be worth your time. For those who don’t, this is not one of those genre-transcending pieces that will change your mind.

Writing is a tricky hobby. Even authors who are inexperienced can create enjoyable works, and even authors who know what they are doing can create bad entertainment. One thing I like to say, however, is this: 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.

I’m flattered that so many people enjoyed and continue to enjoy the stories I have posted here. One should never let success, however large or small, go to their head, though.

Always remember: You can do better. I can do better. Anyone and everyone can be better. The moment one stops trying to improve, stops trying to develop and grow and learn, is the day they become a bad writer.

Thanks for reading. As always, comments, questions, counterpoints, and insight are welcome, and discussion is encouraged.

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