Wednesday, February 29, 2012

6-Star Reviews Part 41: Changing Octaves

To read the story, click the image or follow this link

When I was studying voice, we used to have a saying: "Sing like no-one is listening.  Practice like they'll show up in ten minutes."  I imagine there's a way to tweak that so that it relates to fanfic authors, but it's not coming to me.  Oh well, sage advice regardless.

Pen Stroke's Changing Octaves, after the break.

Impressions before reading:  Two Pen Stroke stories in a row, eh?  Thankfully, this one is a lot shorter--I have nothing against long stories, but it's obviously a lot easier for me to keep up the reviews if they're spaced out a bit.

At the risk of offending her legions of admirers and shippers, I've never really been a fan of Octavia.  Of the gala quartet, I thought the sousaphone-playing pony was much more interesting from a musicological perspective, and I really dislike the fandom personality Octavia's acquired (not helping: there's a lot of really, really bad Octavia x Scratch stuff out there.  Yes, there's a few good comics and fanfics as well, but those ponies when combined seem to be a magnet for mediocrity).  Still, I'll be the first to admit that bowties are awesome.  And I've found Pen Stroke's characterizations to generally be very strong, so I'm optimistic that this will be an interpretation of her character that I can enjoy.

Oh, and this story was written in response to a challenge by one of the blog runners at EqD, Cereal Velocity.  I don't think that's likely to impact my enjoyment one way or the other, but I felt I should note it.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  When Octavia finds her old contrabass while moving, it brings back memories of how she first began the study of the instrument--and how much she hated it.

Thoughts after reading:  After reading the document, I found that Cereal's challenge was issued on June 15th, and this story was posted on the 16th.  Let me start out by saying that it is absolutely incredible to think that this story was written in a single day.  However, that is not the criteria I'm judging this story by; I'm judging it by the standards I set for any fanwork held by its readers (as shown by star ratings) to be the best of the best.  And by those standards, there are some significant problems.

As with the other Pen Stroke stories I've reviewed, this one had fairly regular word errors.  Unlike those works, the writing here was uninspired and ploddy.  I have no doubt that this is the result of the speed with which the story was put out--his other stories (that I've read) all show unquestionable competence in this field.  They do tend towards simplicity in both word choice and sentence construction, but rarely do they devolve into dull and sometimes tenuously connected litanies of facts, as in this paragraph:

"Octavia swallowed, eyes moving to the sheet music positioned just near her face. The instructor, a much older pegasus, gently pressed his nose against a metronome sitting on a nearby table. Octavia was currently at her instructor’s house, set in a small little room meant specifically for the instruction in such instruments. It was decorated with a bunch of musical posers, had a chalk board that currently only had dusty smears on its surface of old lessons that had been erased."

Indeed, based on what I've read of his I believe one of the author's strengths is the way he never lets the narrative bog down, even when it stretches out to novel length.  Sadly, that talent was not evident in this story.

I didn't find the portrayal of Octavia's practice sessions at all believable.  I have yet to meet the music instructor who would tell a beginning student, "If you can't handle this then you have no hope of playing this instrument," and I know a lot of music instructors, good and bad.  And the advice and techniques are clearly written by someone without any musical background.  "Play it again, and watch out for the sour notes," is supremely useless information.  The literary equivalent would be for an author to send his work off for editing and to receive only the following note in response: "Nice try with this story, now rewrite it without the bad parts."

On the other hand, I came to suspect over the course of the story that Octavia might not be the most reliable narrator.  I'm quite certain that this isn't the angle Pen Stroke was going for, but when Octavia talked about how she never had time to see her friends anymore, because she wasn't allowed to do anything all day but practice her instrument... well, I've heard that from voice students before.  The "endless practice" they're whining about, however, is the ten to fifteen minutes a day which I suggest they spend warming up and looking over their music.  To be fair, ten minutes can seem endless when you're young, but it's hardly the death sentence some students make it out to be.  I found I enjoyed the story a lot more when I viewed it this way; Octavia's parents suddenly become very reasonable authority figures who want their child to have a well-rounded education, viewed through the lens of said child (who'd like nothing better than to sit at home and play video games all day instead).  Moreover, this view of Octavia as an unreliable narrator makes the ending less ambiguous and more clearly happy, and may even explain the unbelievable teaching methods--I may not know any instructors who would tell a beginning student that they're hopeless, but I know plenty of students who've managed to hear the words "you're hopeless" while in lessons, or who decide on their own that they're hopeless when their instructor doesn't praise them as often as their parents/friends do.

Speaking of the ending, if Octavia's memories are taken at face value it actually becomes a little disturbing.  Without going into detail (though the story is predictable enough that I probably couldn't spoil anything if I wanted to), it appears to validate her parents' decision to force her to study to the exclusion of all other activities an instrument she hates.  For me at least, this brings up unpleasant parallels to the Olympic programs of the former USSR (or modern China, according to many reports), where children are forced from a young age to devote all their training and attention to a single pursuit.  The mental and psychological scars this can leave on a child are obvious, and make Octavia a truly pitiful figure; a pony who never had any choice but to play contrabass, and who had to either learn to enjoy it or going insane from the pressures of her situation.  As I said, these problems vanish if we assume that Octavia is an unreliable narrator and that her parents weren't forcing her to study her instrument to the exclusion of all else, but it throws a very grim twist onto an otherwise slice-of-life story.

There are a couple of musical links in this story--both are to the songs which are literally playing as the characters are listening/performing.  As I've mentioned elsewhere, I find this less distracting than "mood music" links, but I still feel they're unnecessary even at their best.  That said, it's Beethoven and Schubert--if you want to argue against the quality of their compositions, good luck.  Also, there's a link to the Wikipedia article on contrabasses near the start, for anyone who doesn't know what one is.  I'd like to imagine that this is a completely useless intrusion since everyone knows what a contrabass is, but I fear I'd probably be quickly disabused of that notion.

Star rating:   (what does this mean?)

In some ways, I think this rating is unfair.  After all, how many authors could write something nearly as good in a single day?  But time of completion isn't something I'm judging, and when compared to the other 6-star stories I've reviewed this one simply doesn't stand up.

Recommendation:  If you like Octavia, don't know much about music technique or educational theory, and want to see what a great writer can do when on a very short deadline, you should definitely take a look at this.  But if you want to read one of the top fanfics in fandom, look elsewhere.

Next time:  Carousel, by Vanner


  1. I think for writing, the closest adage I can come up with is, "Write like it's the greatest story in the world, edit like it's the worst."

    The unreliable narrator angle is interesting in this review. I haven't read the story myself, but I wonder if that could be utilized as a tool for improving the reading of poor fics in general. I'll have to try it out the next time I tell an author their first-person story is out of character or otherwise unbelievable.

    So yesterday, I found out there are currently 142 6-star fics on Equestria Daily.

    ...I, I'm sorry. D:

    1. I used the technique when dealing with Littlepip's romance subplot in Fallout: Equestria. Instead of believing that she had actually met her one true love, and they cared for each other so very very much, I figured she was just a silly girl with overblown romantic notions in her first reciprocal relationship.

  2. Wait, Octavia HAS a character? In the larger fandom, I thought she was just a blank that people think is just "cool." And I've never wanted to read the fanfics that have Octavia with Scratch in any capacity, since it just strikes me as a stupid combination. For Pete's sake, character's who weren't in the same episode shouldn't be fandomed into being best friends forever! It just isn't proper!

    Also, I like the brass pony better too.

    1. It's more like they meet each other and then they fall in love or something.

      I think Allegrezza started the trend, but I could be wrong.

    2. Yeah the reason they are usually shipped is because the fan ideas surrounding both of them happen to make excellent foils to one another, so they are a blast to read/write

    3. Vinyl is another one who I never understood the fans giving her a persona.

    4. I think the Vinyl Scratch Tapes, more or else, cemented the two together and whatever fandom personality they have (enough that Cereal made mention of such personality in the writing guide he put together). It was to them, what Progress was to pre-eclipsed Luna.


Not that I really like that, frankly. Once a background/fandom character gains a popular fanon personality (or even a gimmick, I'm looking at you Lyra), the number of acceptable alternatives dies out and there becomes a sameness to all works with said character. Ironically, the most popular of such characters actually has avoided this for the most part, so I can at least be thankful that we haven't killed out most avenues for interpreting Derpy, for now.

    5. Octa/Scratch is an interesting one. To me, it always rested on the same basic premise that the RariJack ships have: that their 'personalities', as they have become almost universally accepted, are so completely different that they have to work! Because who doesn't love tension stemming from a fundamental difference in values in a relationship?

      As a result, there is an unbelievable amount of terrible fiction out there featuring those two. Of course, to be fair, there are some better pieces, but those are few and far between.

  3. Speaking of Pen Stroke, are you planning on reviewing Past Sins?

    1. I can't be bothered to work out how to look up the order, but I'm interested in Chris' take on Past Sins too. It's one of the few I read early on when Fallout: Equestria left me wanting more. I didn't take all that well to Past Sins, so...

    2. I will be reviewing Past Sins. I haven't counted the number of posts out or anything, but I think it's still a few months away at my current pace. To be honest, I'm kind of intimidated about reviewing it; not only is it absurdly long, but so many people have such strong opinions about it that I'm certain I'll offend half of the people who come here no matter what rating I give it. Oh well, should be fun to see the reaction when I finally get to it.

      Actually, I've got a few highly anticipated stories coming up pretty soon. Simply Rarity is one I'll be reviewing within the next week or so, and It's a Dangerous Business, Going Out Your Door and The Vinyl Scratch Tapes are both coming up in about a month.

    3. ooh! Simply Rarity!
      I think that's actually the first ponyfic I truly read and enjoyed. It led me to check out more pony fanfics!

      And it made Rarity best pony in my headcanon.

    4. Ahh, Simply Rarity. The one fic that I will blindly recommend to anyone, regardless of their personal tag preferences. It's going to be interesting to see if my memories of it hold up to scrutiny.

    5. Darn. I'm going to have to phone up everyone I know and tell them to go and give Somewhere Only We Know a five star rating so that it can get bumped up to six stars and get a review here. lol

      I'm still completely baffled how that one is teetering at 4.8 yet the mediocre Rest Stop story managed to get a 6.

      Do you ever plan on reviewing some of the extremely well-known stories in the fandom that have gotten close to six stars but haven't quite made it? Through the Eyes of Another Pony and the aforementioned Somewhere Only We Know come to mind. They're both at 4.8 (which is higher than some of the current 6-star stories are rated); TtEoAP is nearing the 5k comment cap; and despite being a one-shot, Somewhere Only We Know has close to a hundred and fifty comments.

      I'd be very interested to see a balanced review of these stories.

    6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    7. I had the wrong post in this spot, so here's the correct one:

      Showing how little of a life I have beyond college, I actually counted how long it was till certain stories (even marking it on a calendar) and I estimated (with the unreasonable assumption that there's a review every M-W-F and without considering completion of a story expect for the no longer existing Midnight Crusade) that Past Sins will be on the 21st of May. So June basically.

      Quite frankly, I look forward to that review and won't complain amount the star rating or anything unless Chris just writes complete drivel. I have my opinion of Past Sins and all I'll say is it that it was an interesting concept that was executed like a Summer Blockbuster that's pandering for an Oscar.

    8. When does It's Always Sunny in Phillydelphia get reviewed on that schedule?

    9. April 27th at earliest, so early May most likely, Bob.

      "won't complain amount the star rating"

      Should be "about" not "amount"

  4. I'll admit, I wasn't too much of a fan of Octavia to begin with. I couldn't see why she of all the musicians at the Grand Galloping Gala seemed to be the most popular. It was only until I read 'Allegrezza' that I properly started to like her. But one of the best characterisations she's been given (in my opinion) is in 'Octavia takes the Bus'. It's incomplete at the moment, but it's really good all the same. Very introspective.

    Also, very honest review. Just maybe a little bit harsh and looking a bit too deep in my opinion.