Friday, June 29, 2012

Guest Review: Background Pony (C.1)

(Background Pony can be read here) 

[Now, a story review by Inquisitor M!  You may recognize him from his regular comments on this blog.  I'd say more, but 1. He doesn't have any published stories (yet) which I can link you to, and 2. He wrote his own bit to go above the page break.  So without further adieu, I cede the stage to him.  -Chris]

By Order of the Inquisition:

A Chapter 1 Review of Background Pony

Well the Chris is away, so I get to post stuff to his blog. I had a few ideas, but with the number of short stories that have come up lately, one thing stuck out that I wanted to talk about: the beginning. Rather than have me wax lyrical about what I think makes a good opening to a story, I would like to do a review of the first chapter of Background Pony, by short skirts and explosions, and see if my comments can spark some discussion.

The WHY: I generally dislike short stories. They just don’t sit well with me, and I’m even talking mainstream works that are generally held up as being excellent. There have been a few that have lit my fire in my life, but I’m talking count-on-my-fingers kind of few. Usually, a bad to mediocre short story feels to me like either an underdeveloped idea, or a good idea that needed another 10-20k words to flesh it out. Some of you may have seen me describe this feeling as, “having the concept balanced on my nose, and then beaten into my skull with a cricket bat.” Too short, but rarely sweet.

“Ahh,” you say, “but, Scott, this isn’t a short story.” True enough, but that brings me to what really made me appreciate this for the work of art that I think it is: it could just as easily be a short story as an opening chapter. It had me by the balls, and it knew it.

The WHAT: Lyra Heartstrings is, literally, our background pony. It’s a spin on the idea of background characters in the show, where Lyra is actually enchanted/cursed somehow to be forgotten by every pony she meets.

The HOW: Background Pony immediately jumps into a first-person journal entry. In essence, it sets up its main character, Lyra, with a concise and powerful portrayal of her inner drive. It asks fundamental questions about the nature of life and music, and proceeds to happily answer them with confidence. Since it is politely framed as the character’s personal view, this doesn’t feel overly restricting, or unnecessarily challenging in terms of beliefs or sense of reality. It also tells you, in clear terms, where the character is as the story starts, and pulls on your heartstrings (sorry) before the narrative even gets under way. Further, the word use and writing style are simple and snappy in such a way as it doesn’t relate to the story so much as the character. You don’t have to care about Lyra from the show to immediately have sympathy for the character presented.

The main narrative remains in first-person, but it’s very convincingly done. To me, at least, it really feels like someone recounting a tale (even if it is in absurd detail), and drives home the empathy for the character at every turn. Each encounter speaks volumes about the trials and tribulations of Lyra’s current life, but never slides into melodrama, and does a wonderful job of giving insight into how the character has gained a new perspective from her experience. It’s also up-front about everything, yet has a scope that allows the reader to wander off into the implications and ramifications of her position, which I think must be a hard balance to achieve and I tip my hat to it.

I do have to acknowledge one oddity here: Lyra’s name is always coloured green. It’s very distracting and I can’t imagine why this is the case. As the only genuine complaint I have, I can let it slide...just not quietly! Oh, and it says ‘I could care less,’ when it means ‘I couldn’t care less’. Grrrr... [I could care less.  -Chris (sorry, I couldn't resist)]

The meat of the chapter is a conversation with Twilight Sparkle. Here we find all the best elements of Groundhog Day as Lyra knows Twilight in fine detail, yet our favourite adorkable [As long as I'm making a habit of butting in on people's posts, I nominate "adorkable" for the dubious title of so-called word most in need of expurgation from all forms of communication.  -Chris] unicorn needs to be convinced that they’ve even met before. To do so, Lyra goes into excruciating personal detail about Twilight, and because the narrative is so flowing, it doesn’t ever feel like a writer simply wanting to make up backstory for a character. Again, the available empathy and believability for both characters is exceptional, and the story itself is heartwarming and chilling at the same time. Further, the author again lays all the details out in plain sight as the ponies discuss Lyra’s curse, so you get the feeling of knowing where you stand, without ever getting to feel like you know where you’re going. I am exactly where the author wants me, and I love that.

Then you’re hit with the inevitability of their conversation being forgotten, and that really drives home Lyra’s situation because you, as the reader, have just invested several minutes of your life reading it. The characters are so vividly portrayed in so few words that it snared me and made me feel every high and low, and they flowed in quick but comfortable succession. With a final, yet relatively subtle, meaning-of-life ending, and an evocative last two lines, I say again: it has me... by the balls.

Summing up: The story really could end there and it would be a life-lesson and bittersweet exploration of a character all rolled into one, executed with flowing and evocative style. It tells you everything, but it answers nothing. Yet, the whole story is over 190k words and still going. I refuse to read it all until it’s done, but rest assured, I will...

Rating: If isn’t 6-Star material... then I’m clearly an idiot and know nothing. You be the judge.

Give it a read, if you’re so inclined, and let me know what you think. Otherwise, feel free to share your favourite opening page/chapter for discussion.

Scott ‘Inquisitor’ Mence - out.

[In all seriousness, I'm glad Scott pointed me to this one.  I read the first chapter, and enjoyed it enough that I downloaded the rest to date to bring with me on the trip.  I doubt I'll have time to read it, but it's always nice to know my "to-read" list of ponyfics is in no danger of drying up.  -Chris]


  1. Just since it was brought up, this bears mentioning: The colored text seems minor and distracting now, but it actually does turn out to be somewhat important later on--or, at least, the purple text does. That doesn't show up until something like... chapter five or six, though? Its importance wasn't really knowable until the most recent chapter (11) either. The color gimmick is used rather sparingly, though, save for one major exception that justifies fimfiction having a "dark background" option.

    I usually read on a black-and-white Kindle, so all of that had been lost on me until I happened to read 11 just as it was uploaded on my actual computer. At that point, I had to go back and scan all the previous chapters to see if I'd missed anything in hindsight, and I had.

    1. Good to know! I read fic almost exclusively on my old Kindle and would have missed the colored text thing, too.

      Like Inquisitor M, I read the first chapter and decided to put off reading the rest until it's finished.

    2. I've been reading on my iPad and using "Reader" mode, which reflows the text and smashes the colors flat. I hadn't even realized I was missing something!

  2. Well, I just knew our local Inquisitor would make it up here eventually.

    And you know what? Thanks to you, I finally gave up and read Background Pony. That is, the first chapter of the story. And it was good. Great, even. Don't know if I'll ever finish it, but it's good.

    The hardest part of any story is the opening. You have only a few short paragraphs with which to capture the reader's attention and make them want to finish your story, and it's all-so-easy to lose them. To Background Pony's credit, it immediately avoids a lot of the tired cliches and recycled lines just about every other fic out there abuse and instead takes time to actually introduce Lyra. As a result, we want to know more about her and her situation, and thus delve deeper into the story.

    That's what makes openings and first chapters so difficult. For much of the public, those first few sentences are all they will ever see. A story might be so good that it cures cancer and has the solution for world hunger by the end, but if that first chapter is painful to read nobody will give it a second glance.

    I would give specific examples, but...I really don't have any. The weird thing is, even when a first chapter hooks me in, I find that it pales in comparison to the rest of the work. Even with fanfiction, the first chapter is always just an introduction, a pilot to get the audience interested, and as a result rarely holds up on repeat readings. (And before anyone jumps down my throat, I'm talking about fanfiction. Published literature is something else entirely.)

    BTW, I now hate you for making me read Background Pony. I hate you so much.

  3. Oh man, since EqD switched to Intense Debate, I've actually forgotten what I was using for blogger stuff. Custom name/URL combo it is!

    Any of you who are being blown away by Background Pony would do well to look into the author's other works. He's, in my very humble opinion, the uncontested champion of the fandom. He's somehow able to take the purplest paintbrush you ever did see and still make something worth reading. He's the one and only author in the fandom that's made me shed actual tears.

    I've been reading this blog for a pretty long time now, but haven't bothered saying anything because nothing needed to be said. Either Chris or someone in the comments would get pretty close to my opinion, or I wouldn't have read the thing, so I had nothing to say. This is important enough to break that silence. Everyone who's had the misfortune of missing or overlooking skirts' work owes it to his or her self to correct that.

    1. Well I'll take that to mean I've chosen well then :)

    2. You have. I sometimes have trouble shutting up about how much I love this guy's stuff. Ask my friends!

      On another note, hi people who comment here! You guys are an alright bunch with generally pleasant dispositions and valid opinions/defenses thereof. It'll be fun to see what happens to my only eligible story when it shows up here.

    3. Don't worry. I'll be having mine picked apart by this bunch soon enough. We'll see how that goes!

      - On that note: If anyone wants to do me a pre-read over the next 2-3 of weeks, drop me an email to

  4. I think Background Pony really hit its stride in chapter III (Foundations). It captures the triumphs and challenges of Lyra's curse, shows interesting growth and change, and really hooked me. If the story has a weakness at all, it's when we're not focusing on Lyra. Conversations between non-Lyra ponies tend to feel long winded. short skirts and explosions has a knack for believable dialogue, but lacks the ability to simultaneously aggressively trim it down to keep things moving.

  5. "If isn’t 6-Star material..."

    Please tell me this was intentional.

    1. Nah. It's just what happens when you write the review on the last day before Chris goes on holiday :(

  6. Good story. Good story indeed! It suffers a little from skirt's usual problem where it takes him a very, very long time to move the plot along in any sort of substantial way, but honestly, I enjoy the prose enough that it really isn't a huge issue. It's unique and it's special, and I'm enjoying it a lot!

    And Chris? What's wrong with adorkable?! As hybrids go, this one's efficiency as an adjective for Twilight is fantastic!

    1. Oh, no, I agree with Chris. I was happy to use it in a semi-ironic way, based on it's apparent popularity. I wouldn't mind if it's use was ruled to be punishable by eternal tickling, though.

    2. I'm with Mystic. I don't see anything wrong with the word in itself. Granted, it's being misused quite a bit lately, but "adorkable" is the victim here. It's like the pit bull of the English language

      *cue Sarah McLachlan*

    3. Problems with adorkable:

      1) Simple overuse. Call me reactionary if you must, but I maintain that a proto-word's overexposure is a valid reason to dislike it. Maybe not a deep or meaningful reason, but a valid one.

      2) Aural effect. -rk is a patently ugly sound as pronounced by most Americans (and others who use the American r), and words that use this sound (shirk, lurk, pork, birkenstocks, etc., but not compounds like undercover, which space the r and k sounds) are aesthetically unpleasing for this reason. While not as universal as the sinister associations of the sibilant s (alliteration unintentional but pretty darn nifty), the American -rk is generally understood to be an ugly sound (Tokien used the word orc precisely because of its "phonetic suitability," and whatever one thinks of him as an author, his grasp of the English language is beyond question).

      3) Meaning. "Dork" as an insult carries, to me and many other speakers, approximately the same weight and meaning as "dick" (which is literally what it means in any case). That is to say, a dork is an unpleasant, even repugnant, person (though it seems to me that "dick" is generally used to describe a person who acts unpleasantly when they should know better, while "dork" carries the implication that they're too dumb or incompetent to realize how terrible they are). It seems that in some circles, "dork" is now being used as a harmless near-synonym for nerd or geek, but that's not how I'd use the word, nor how I'd expect the people in my immediate social circle to identify it. So "adorkable," aka. "A cute person who is repellent and unpleasant to be in the company of," clearly resonates a little differently with me than with someone who reads the meaning as "a cute person who's a bit of a klutz/wears glasses/knows how to use a computer/whatever." And I certainly wouldn't call Twilight (or anyone else from the show, except maybe some of the tamer villains) "adorkable."

    4. I hereby suggest we change the word to "nerdorable". It hasn't been used ever, sounds better, and more wholly captures the meaning which "adorkable" pretends to.

    5. And I suggest that anyone who uses either word (or invents another one to replace both) be strapped to a chair and be forced to listen Vogon poetry. Second time offenders shall be prevented from watching the third season, forever.

  7. I only recently got pointed towards this blog by InquisitorM, so I'm obviously a little late to the party here, but I still think I need to say one or two things.

    I really liked the first chapter of "Background Pony". It made for a nice, sad character impression. Unfortunately, shortskirtsandexplosions then fell into the trap of drawing the story out ever further. That might still have turned out for the best, but his (I presume, correct me if I'm wrong and SS&E is actually female) tendency to waffle on endlessly about even the most mundane things, while perfectly suited to one-shots, becomes tiresome after a while. If I want endless redundancy, I go play a Hideo Kojima game or read a Robert Jordan novel; it's not what I go to pony fanfic for. Which is why I unfaved "Background Pony" around chapter 4 or 5. There's "slow", there's "glacial", and then there's "SS&E tempo".