Friday, December 9, 2011

Mixed-Quality Writing: Why It Frustrates Me to No End

Once more, I'm going to take advantage of this blog to blow off a little steam.  If you're just here for reviews, they'll be back next week as normal.  But if you do want to know what's eating me (fic-wise, anyway), I've buried my thoughts beneath the page break.  See you there.

This is going to be about MLP fanfics eventually, but I'm going to need a while to get there.  Just bear with me.

Steven R. Donaldson is one of my favorite authors.  If you have never read his most famous works, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, I urge you to go down to the library/bookstore and pick up a copy of the first volume, Lord Foul's Bane, at once.  His Chronicles are often credited with defining the anti-hero in modern literature, and are probably the most important/beloved books in the fantasy genre this side of Tolkien.

Being a fan of his, I've read his other works as well.  Not all were equally good, of course (his first two mystery novels are pretty shaky, although the later ones are much better), but I never regretted reading any of them.

Then I encountered his science-fiction quintet, the Gap cycle.

I nearly quit reading after the first book, but I pressed on (out of respect for the author more than anything else).  As I kept reading, the story seemed to improve, but I never really enjoyed it.  Eventually, I put my finger on the problem: I hated all of the characters.  Morn, Angus, Nick, even the supposedly more benign Min Donner or Vector Shaheed--I just couldn't bring myself to care about any of them.  Every single person in that series is so unlikable, for so many reasons, that I found myself resenting fact that I was spending my valuable time reading about them at all.

Now, plenty of stories have one or more character who's inherently unlikable.  Sometimes, it's even the protagonist (see Donaldson's own Chronicles for a classic example).  There's nothing wrong with that, of course; it helps build conflict, which is a necessary ingredient to any story.  But when everyone, even the minor characters, are just brutally disgusting, it becomes awfully hard for the reader to tolerate.

As I said, the story seemed to get better as it went along.  Not because the cast became more likable; no, I'd have just as soon the narrative abandoned them entirely.  But the universe Donaldson put them in was absolutely breathtaking.  His descriptions of the Amnion, their culture, and their biochemistry made them one of the few truly terrifying alien races I have ever had the pleasure to read about.  The politics and bureaucracy which swaddle Earth in later books are fascinating to see unfold.  And the way he writes about future tech, space exploration, and FTL travel in general ring true in ways few sci-fi books manage to, yet never devolve into overly-technical ramblings.  In short, the world-building in the Gap cycle is extraordinary.

Once I realized that, it made finishing the books both easier and more frustrating.  I realized that I really didn't care about the story; who the "winners" and "losers" are doesn't much matter, when everyone is equally despicable.  Instead, I read them all to find out more about space travel, piracy, and the ever-present threat of     the Amnion, and I enjoyed those parts immensely.  I just wished that so much of the story hadn't been about, well, the story.

In professional writing, it's rare (in my experience, anyway) to find a book that is incredibly successful in one aspect of its writing, yet stupifyingly terrible in another.  Although any book will invariably have its strengths and weaknesses, seeing really massive differences in quality between different aspects of the story are uncommon.  But in fanfiction, it's not at all unusual.  Amateur writers as a group are more likely to produce inconsistent or mixed-quality works than professionals, for a variety of reasons.  From absence of skill or experience to lack of editors who can help shore up a writer's weaknesses to plain and simple apathy on the author's part, plenty of fanfics end up with wild gaps in quality between world-building, technical prowess, characterization, etc.

As a reader, I find this one of the most frustrating things imaginable, because (just as I did with the Gap cycle) I can rarely resist the urge to read such stories, even when I'm not enjoying them.  A fanfic that's terrible on all counts I can quit after a few pages and forget all about, but one that's only terrible in one or two areas is much harder to give up on.  I'm sure I'm not the only person who has trouble putting down an otherwise good story with one or more poorly done elements, though perhaps it irks me more than others.

I could name plenty of examples in the realm of pony fics, of course, but I don't think it would be fair to the authors in question if I just threw their stories in a list.  Instead, I'll mention one particular (and well-known) fic as an example, and allow myself to expand upon it a bit: Cloudy Skies's Within and Without.  I dragged myself through all 22 chapters of Luna being deliberately obtuse, Twilight being unconscionably creepy, and some of the most annoying secret-keeping in all of fanfiction (there's a difference between creating a sense of mystery and just dicking your readers around) because woven throughout the story is one of the most interesting and engaging histories of Equestria I've ever read.  Absent that, I'd have probably found the story dull but unremarkable, and given up on it after a chapter or two.  Instead, I read the whole thing, and was left feeling vaguely upset that I "wasted" my time on it, even though I enjoyed the world-building so much.

And it doesn't only frustrate me because I "had" to read something that I didn't like--well, didn't like aspects of.  On top of that, I'm left unsure of how to express my feelings about the story.  If I'm asked if I'd recommend Within and Without, what am I supposed to say?  One one hand, the towns and cities which Twilight and co. visit are vibrant and alive, and the griffon city is among the best realizations of that race which I've seen from this fandom.  On the other hand, the way that the Trixie arc resolved was not only thematically unsatisfying, it was downright insulting (if any of you readers want to disagree about that bit of the fic, feel free to tell me why I'm wrong in the comments; I'd actually kind of like to hear from someone (anyone?) who didn't think it abominable).

Like I said, this has sort of been on my mind since finishing the Gap cycle.  Stories with a mix of really great and really terrible elements are apparently my kryptonite, forcing me to spend my precious time on this earth doing something I don't enjoy for no reward.  And the worst part is, it's not the author's fault--well, it's their fault for not writing something better, I guess, but they aren't forcing me to read their stories from start to finish.  No, the only person I have to blame is myself.

So, yeah.  I don't really have a point here, but I just wanted to talk about how frustrating I find this kind of thing.  Good stories with badly done elements (or more rarely, bad stories with superbly executed elements): exponentially more frustrating than fics which are merely awful.


  1. This is why:

    I gave up on Past Sins at about chapter 6. The idea was interesting, but the structure of nearly every individual scene made me screech to a halt with a grinding of teeth and imagine how I would've written it differently.

    Like you say, I can't blame the authors: it'd be like blaming shrimp because I don't like the way they taste. But it got to be so frustrating, I finally skipped to the last chapter just to see whether everyone lived happily ever after or not, then moved on.


  2. I don't know whether I should be alarmed or not that of all the fanfics to single out, you picked the one that provided me with the greatest inspiration to write my own.

    I can't say that the Phoenix component was resolved to my satisfaction...or Luna's justification for her secrets...or Rarity's Blueblood obsession.

    I don't know. I felt like the characters and the world were painted in a wider swathe of colors than I had seen in other fics, but maybe that's just because my standards are low? Who knows!

  3. I found within and without quite gripping. It has a slow pace, partially because it focuses on a style I absolutely adore: leaving things unsaid for the reader to figure out.

    The story is a web of foreshadowing and hints. Following them can be difficult: one technique that challenged me is regular references to small but important details that occurred just outside my short term memory. An exchange will occur, then later a character realizes a detail that was briefly mentioned had additional significance: I find myself having to double back and curse my inattentive speedreading.

    So, I think it really is really really good, but you have to work a bit to enjoy it. I got more out of the second readthrough than the first. Which suits me wonderfully, but isn't every ones cup of tea.

    Now, master authors like terry pratchett can layer these kinds of hidden treats and meanings, while still keeping the surface text engaging and accessible. I pick things up when re-reading his novels in much the same way, but you can also give the book to a child and they'll enjoy the hell out of it.

    Some of that difference with cloudyskies work is due to category: terry writes comedy and satire, within and without is something quite different.

    The rest, however, is definitely a difference in skill. Filing all the gaps and pleasing multiple different audiences is am arduous task, and within and without is very focused, in comparison to the better discworld works.

    So, I do technically agree with your criticism; I just don't set the bar high enough for even published authors, much less amateurs.

    Within and without is a tale to be savored at leisure. It isn't a hard read, but your enjoyment of it is likely to suffer of you don't take your time.

  4. I totally understand how you feel when it comes to reading stories like that. Especially Within and Without--I gave up on it so early on that I didn't see the world-building soon enough to be sucked in the way you were.

    I only just now discovered your blog, as it was linked from EQ Daily, but it's a decidedly fascinating one, especially hearing from a much older fan of the show than I am, because your experiences in understanding writing lends itself to a way of looking at things that those of us who are much younger can't hope to reach without gaining similar levels of experience. In other words, I treasure your insight.

  5. The main reason I singled out Within and Without is because it's a pretty good fic in a lot of ways, and one which is/was quite popular. Examples work best if people know what you're referencing, after all. And as I observed, there were some things about the story that I liked quite a bit--enough to keep reading, anyway. That's precisely what made it so frustrating!

    And Kyronea, thank you for the kind words, but you're making me feel old. As if being in this fandom doesn't do that to me enough already. *sigh*

  6. First of all, I'm liking your blog. You have a quite engaging way of reviewing things.

    Secondly, I know what you mean. I'm probably echoing a person who has commented above me, but I would have to say 'Past Sins' was the same. It had good character building, and an intriguing storyline, but the scenes just seemed so... jarring. I wasn't able to just read straight through without having to rethink every paragraph.

  7. To add to this conversation, I would ask a question. Which elements of a story carry more weight for you? Personally, I am, through and through, a sucker for storytelling. Some fics that I have absolutely loved, others would not touch with a ten foot pole. Though, looking forward, I truly hope that authors learn from past mistakes; strengthening thier weaknesses while not loosing sight of what they do best.

  8. Hah, this made me think of one fic in particular: Shaman (can't remember the author). I'm pretty sure it's a star-6, in which case, you may not want to read my thoughts on it lest they taint your own reading.

    Your analysis of W&W reminded me of this story to a T, though. I found the story of Zecora's relationship with whoever she was having a relationship with to be utterly uninteresting; I skipped large portions of plot in favor of reading about the anthropological musings on zebraic culture. This story stays with me specifically for the reason given as to why she speaks in rhyme; it was a phenomenal detail and I've never seen the like, though many have tried far less convincing methods to explain it. And yes, it's very maddening, because I can't in good conscience recommend the fic since I didn't enjoy it... Yet it stays with me, and I reference it often for that reason.

  9. While I certainly didn't feel my time was wasted, I agree with a few of your points. The Trixie arc falling flat and a bit with Luna's obtuseness.
    That said, I really though Cloudy did an wonderful job keeping the whole cast relevant. Too frequently in a story that involves the Ponyville 6 you end up with 1 or 2(sometime more!) being completely unnecessary. Overall I really enjoyed how he built Luna and Twilight's relationship and found the conclusion quite satisfying.