Friday, October 26, 2012

6-Star Reviews Part 112: Allegrezza

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

Story (review) time!  Below the break, Coffeegrunt's Allegrezza.

Impressions before reading:  My immediate reaction to a shipping story starring Octavia and Vinyl Scratch is a negative one; aside from being a dramatically overdone storyline, TaviScratch holds little inherent appeal to me, and a disproportionate number of such stories are really poorly written (if we take ponyfiction generally as a baseline for what a "normal" ratio of well written to poorly written fanfics looks like).

But, that certainly doesn't mean that this particular story is poorly written.  In fact, I've been led to believe that it's one of the codifiers of TaviScratch as a subgenre, along with The Vinyl Scratch Tapes.  I previously reviewed the first season of that and enjoyed it far more than I thought I would going in, so I'm hoping for another better-than-expected outcome here.

I won't lie, though: I'd feel a lot more positive going in if the last sentence in the story's description weren't a run-on sentence ending in a direct appeal to the reader.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  A chance trip to a less than reputable bar leads Octavia, classical musician and  notorious prude, to make the acquaintance of Vinyl, a professional DJ.

Thoughts after reading:  "Write what you know" is common bit of advice for authors of all stripes.  Obviously, this doesn't mean that you can't write about a subject which you aren't an expert at, but it points to an important truth: when you choose to put a great deal of emphasis on a subject with which you are not personally familiar, and do not then take the time to familiarize yourself with that subject at least insofar as it relates to your story, there is a very good chance that you'll end up putting something in your story which is unusual, irregular, or simply wrong, as regards that subject.  And while that "something" may not be obvious to every reader, it will be to those who are more familiar with the subject than you, our hypothetical author.

As it happens, I'm reasonably well-versed in both classical music and in whiskey, two subjects about which Coffeegrunt writes at length (albeit I'm mostly a scotch drinker, while Octavia's tastes seem more eclectic).  Based on my personal experience, I found the alcohol descriptions perfectly adequate--either the author knows a bit about whiskey, or she did enough research (firsthand or otherwise) to write a simple but nevertheless convincing description of Jura whiskey.  On the music front though, I was disappointed.  While there was clearly some work put into the linguistic side of things (use of musical terms is reasonably good throughout), frankly silly things like a functional, playable lyre made of pure gold, an apparent confusion of lyres and harps, or at least of the musical functions of which each are capable, and the idea that a professional cellist would allow a string to wear almost to the breaking point before replacing it (she was playing on this nearly-frayed string in a major performance!  Think about how that must have sounded) are as disappointing as they are unrealistic.  I suspect readers without a significant musical (or at least, instrumental performance) background will be far less bothered by these inclusions, if they notice them at all, but for myself, it rendered parts of the story positively cringeworthy.

On the positive side though, the description of burning one's tongue on a fresh-from-the-toaster Pop Tart is clearly inspired by personal experience, and as someone who's experienced that pain myself, I can attest to the believability of that particular scene.

Writing was a weak point throughout the story.  The previously alluded-to run-on in the EqD description was sadly representative of the writing throughout.  Story breaks occurred at seemingly random intervals; sometimes they represented major time skips, while on other occasions they were placed right in the middle of an exchange of dialogue.  While story breaks are usually almost invisible to the reader, the strange and inconsistent way in which they were used made it hard to keep track of the passage of time in some places.  Bizarre phrasings and misused words ("Lyra and Bonbon stared at the subtle wisps of smoke diffusing from Octavia's heated temperament") belied the seemingly impressive vocabulary used throughout.  While plenty of writers work wonders with prolific vocabularies, I would always rather see an author restrict him- or herself to a relatively simple word set, if the alternative is to have that author repeatedly stumble over the difference between "prolific" and "prolithic," as was the case here.

The comic aspects of Allegrezza are where the story is strongest.  Although mostly absent for the first few chapters, Coffeegrunt shows a knack for Douglas Adams-inspired asides and witticisms in this story.  A few fall flat, particularly those that rely on fandom references (a brief tangent involving Lyra's obsession with humans stands out as a particularly unfunny example), but plenty of others shine.  One thing I will absolutely say for this story: the humorous bits regularly did made me smile.

Still, these can't hide what is unquestionably the greatest flaw of the story, and that's the lack of rhyme or reason to many of the events which drive the plot.  To cite one of the earliest examples, Octavia and Vinyl, who do not at this point even know each others names, end up sleeping off an alcohol-filled (for Octavia) night together.  When Octavia awakes, after ascertaining that nothing unprintable happened between the two of them and exchanging a few more insults, she precedes to... invite Vinyl to dinner.  Why?  I'm not sure.  Octavia simply declares, apropos of nothing which Vinyl said, that she's an excellent chef, and when Vinyl comments that her special talent seems to be music-related rather than culinary in nature, Octavia proceeds to give Vinyl her address and offers to prove her skills (yet unchallenged) by preparing a multi-course meal for the two of them.

This kind of poor synchronization between action and setup/explanation is distressingly common to all parts of the story, unfortunately.  Characters alternately fight and become friends for no believable reason, or pull 180-degree mood swings absent any clear justification.  Needless to say, these kind of untraceable, apparently nonexistent impetuses made the romance upon which much of the story rested seem at best implausible, and at worst completely inexplicable.  And when a shipping story can't make a convincing case for its shipping, that's obviously a major problem.

Star rating:  ☆ (what does this mean?)

By design, my 1-star designation covers a lot more ground than my higher ratings.  The assumption with these reviews is that EqD's 6-star tag should (in theory) mark the best stories in the fandom, and so a single star from me represents anything below "a quality work by general fanfiction standards, but definitely not something I'd list among the best examples ponyfiction."  In other words, a 1-star rating here can mean anything between "has some redeeming qualities and areas of competence, but marred by multiple significant flaws" and "despicable tripe."

This story is definitely in the former category.  While I didn't particularly enjoy it, and while there's frankly a lot of things wrong with it, Allegrezza is far from dreck.  Unfortunately, it's also far from inspiring.

Recommendation:  This might be a story worth reading for die-hard fans of the TaviScrach ship, but I suspect most others will find it unremarkable at best.

Next time:  Eternal, by Device Heretic


  1. I read Allegrezza when I first got into the fandom, and reading your review really made me realize how much the "new-fandom" goggles coloured my experience of it. Thanks for bringing us all down back to earth!

    On the other hand, now I'm kinda worried about how all the other fics I read back then will hold up to goggle-less hindsight. I remember being absolutely blown away by Eternal and loving it to the point of rereading it several times.

    Can't wait to see how you tackle it. As always, I look forward to your next update!

    1. Haha, yeah, I'm right there with you.

      Chris has managed to continue his trend of "Everything Drakmire liked when he came into the fandom is poorly written."

      Will be very interesting to see about Eternal.

    2. I guess I'm lucky in that regard; most of the stories I really liked from my early days were either well-received by Chris, or I had already gotten disillusioned with them before he reviewed them.

    3. See Chris! Evidence for my article right up there. ^

      Swaying opinions like a master spin-doctor, you are.

      Anyway, speaking of, your thoughts on Eternal are very, very eagerly awaited.

    4. So Drakmire, just out of curiosity, are there any beloved stories from your early days in the fandom which I DO like? Hey, at least now you have someone to commiserate with when you reflect on your poor taste and/or the "stick up my rump," to borrow a turn of phrase from the fic in question.

      Mystic, you know perfectly well that I use my opinion-warping powers only for good. Look, why don't you go re-read Within and Without? Maybe you'll feel better after enjoying one of your favorite fanfics :)

    5. Hey, Within and Without is still in my favourite list! Haha. Just because you changed the way I see certain parts of it doesn't mean I no longer love it unconditionally! ;)

    6. The only difference Chris' review made to me is that Within and Without is now a slightly [i]guilty[/i] pleasure.

    7. I can never remember which code this damn blog uses.

    8. Haha, yeah, there are. It's not really *everything*, but then, I suppose it depends on when you want to call an end to my early forays into fanfiction.

      Celestia's Teeth, Fallout: Equestria, Dangerous Business, Off the Edge of the Map—these are all things that I read pretty early on and liked that seem to have done well under scrutiny.

    9. The 4 earliest ones I can accurately recall are Getting Lucky, Joshing, The Dread Chitin and Cupcakes.

  2. I'm actually a casual fan of Octavia/Vinyl, and I still found this story very flawed. Of the two codifiers, I'd say "Vinyl Scratch Tapes" is still superior, even with its mood swings and contrived drama. Still, I agree with your review. It's not a fantastic story, but I've read far, far worse.

    I'm really interested in your opinion of Eternal. I read it once before, and thought it was just okay, but so many others seem to think that it's the greatest Celestia story ever written. I can't wait to read your take on that beast.

    Also, thanks for making me even more terrified for when you review My Little Alicorn. I am so screwed...

  3. I've played cello for half my life, so I have some definite opinions on this one.

    First, I fully agree that CoffeeGrunt should have stayed far away from describing music, because it's obvious he doesn't have a clue what he's talking about. It's obvious he's not trying to convey musical ideas, and just doing so incompetently, so much as he was trying to- actually, I don't have the slightest clue what he was trying to do by using words he clearly doesn't know the meaning of. Maybe to sound fancy to other readers with no classical background? It came off as somebody trying to write about something they knew nothing about and hadn't bothered researching at all. The first sentence contains a misuse: bows don't have strings, they have hairs (hairs don't fray so much as snap, but that's specialist knowledge). Strings refer explicitly to the wires that you also see on guitars, and string player is as likely to interchange the two as you might interchange pen and pencil. I've compiled a list of musical mistakes made in the story.

    These mistakes are the result of two systemic flaws. The first is laziness: about half the errors could have been avoided by looking up what words meant and cursory readings of a few wikipedia articles. The second is faking knowledge on about a topic combined with laziness. Insofar as this is a shipfic, the entire thing could have occurred with CoffeeGrunt pretending to know anything about classicalish music. It would've been better for him to just not try to write as if he did. Alternately, he could've found himself someone with musical background. An alert second-year violin student could have made nearly all the criticisms I made, and any experienced classical instrumentalist, even not a string player, likely would have gotten all of them. If anyone reading this would is writing something with Octavia and would like to consult,

    Similarly, I have problems with the chapter titles. If the rest of this story were 4-5 stars on Chris's scale, the author had impressed me with their knowledge of things classical, and there were broad thematic things happening throughout the text, I could accept the use of 'Concerto' to say something about the nature of the VinylTavia relationship from the reader's perspective. Seeing as none of these are true, and 'Concerto' is coupled with the latin-based numbers, it seems a pretentious gimmick which falls flat.

    At first the alcohol thing bothered me. The elite classical musicians I know are disproportionately unlikely to drink. This happened because we're all student musicians, meaning we have to practice so much that we don't have the time/energy to drink (I'm not a pro musician, nor will I be, but I play with quite a few aspiring musicians, and to keep up does require a commitment that makes alcohol not a thing I do either). However, it used to be that professional classical musicians would get drunk before performances to mitigate performance anxiety (we have better drugs for that now). So, I'll give CoffeeGrunt one there. It definitely bothers me how alcohol-centered the story is, but the amount most people around me (mostly university students) also bothers me, so I'll give that a pass.

    1. The pony-portmanteau (ponymanteau?) that CoffeeGrunt bothered me. It can work quite often: Stalliongrad comes to mind as one that falls very nicely. Even some used in the story (eg Beethoven) aren't horrendous. But, honestly, Mozcart? That is a truly disgusting name. It seems like every character not already named came as the result of ponymanteau, and I found the results distasteful. Most people seem mostly accept the rule "if it fits well, go ahead, but if not, then make up an original name." For instance, we have Octavia instead of Yo-Yo Mare. I think that CoffeeGrunt overstepped the bounds of ponymanteau, and too much seems too forced.

      And then we have the 'ship. I could spend pages explaining why I had trouble believing it, but I won't. However, I think it's obvious that CoffeeGrunt went from new couple to one true love forever without showing how that happened. Seeing as this is a shipfic, this is a significant problem.

      There were a few nice moments - Vinyl and Bon-Bon at the GGG - that were quite excellent, and I thought maybe that Chris would give this story 2 stars for this. In the end, I agree (as usual). There are some good things here, but the flaws are too significant to be considered anything but 1-star among 6-star fics.

    2. Mr. Reitz, that is amazing! However, I feel the need to point out that the second to last sentence should read "due to nerves." Using "do" in place of "due" is a pet peeve of mine that extraordinarily common. I've become convinced that most people have only heard it spoken or misspelled (which isn't to say that's the case with you). Other than that, great work. Those mistakes - especially the "song" one - would've bothered me too, had I read the story, and I'm not even a musician

    3. Ah! A fellow music enthusiast! I don't do it as my job, but have been a classical musician and composer for over 25 years. I've served as a musical advisor on several stories, most notably "Silence is Bittersweet" (at least from chapter 3 on). You might enjoy a 600-word short I made for a write-off, in which I seriously indulged in musical jargon, even though knowing the terminology isn't required to follow the story. In fact, you may be one of the few who would understand the title.

      I can excuse it if an author lightly touches on a subject that's outside his experience and doesn't quite get it right, but if it's in depth or critical to the plot, there's really no reason not to ask for help or do some research.

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  5. On the subject of writing what you know, I've long thought that we would better serve new writers by changing it around to "know what you write". In other words, if your writing isn't coming from experience, have it come from research. Or go out and experience it before writing about it!

    On the subject of TaviScratch, that is absolutely one of my least favorite ships. I like their fanon personalities -- the carefree layabout vs. the uptight up-and-comer, a sort of ur-LyraBon with a total music focus -- but I've always thought that they work better as friends, rivals and roommates. I honestly cannot see a pony as classy and concerned with appearances as Octavia tends to be deigning to let herself fall for a roustabout like Vinyl Scratch. Granted, one can always change their personalities as they see fit, background characters and all, but for the most part, these 'codified' Vinyl and Octavia simply do not work together. In my mind, anyway. And I can't help but think that your comment about the cooking goes along with that.

    1. I agree on the type of relationship depicted in many TaviScratch shippings is unrealistic. They MIGHT work as f***buddies, but even "friends with benefits" is stretching it because while our romantic tastes may lead us to odd places, making friends is often more defined by our personalities than finding romantic partners. (Unfortunately.)

      Then again. The single most irritating thing about this ship is how fanatically adherent to the standard fanon interpretation of these 2. I mean the beauty of using backgrounders is the open for interpretation characterizations. You know basic things about them like gender, race, cutie mark, career, and associations, but the rest is free to define.

  6. Surprised to see such a low rating here. I've never read it, but I see people recommending it to me all the time and raving about how good it is. I'm guessing those early fandom goggles above commenters have mentioned are widely used.

    Though I liked Coffeegrunt's take on World War Z with ponies.

  7. I always seem to find myself enjoying Octavia and Scratch fics - not for the shipping (which I wish was slightly less prevalent), but just because the dynamic between those two characters has led to some pretty entertaining writing.

    That said, I recall feeling a touch underwhelmed by Allegrezza. I'm not going to lie, I enjoyed it, and I was likely willing to give it more credit when I first read it, but the thing I remember is that it just seemed to drag on too long. It started out pretty strong, and that beginning kept me going, but it just couldn't seem to really carry on with its plot very effectively. I still think it's a good story, but not one of the best.

  8. I'm going to be clear about how feel about Allegrezza right now. It is the only fanfic I can say I've ever hated.

    The best thing I can compare Allegrezza to is 'That Guy.' Let me quote Jon Tron to show what I mean.

    "You're officially that guy, you know the one. You go to the bar, he's like 'this suit is officially a Giorgio Armani, my dad knows him'"

    This story tries so hard to be cultured that it almost comes off to be condescending. Let's take one of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy references for example. Mid chapter, the author pretty much copies the 'miniature star fleet eaten by a small dog' gig. There was no reason for it. It did not serve any purpose to the story nor did it really serve as any form of comic relief. It is just thrown in there just to say 'hey, I know who Douglas Adams is.' After reading the comments, it also seems the musical references and the references to spirits are a similar case.

    I am going to have to agree with Chris that Allegreza's biggest problem is pacing. None of it feels natural. It skips around, breaks flow just to use a reference, and somethings in the chapter nothing of importance happens. It just feels in limbo a lot of the time. I can kind of see that CoffeeGrunt wanted to spend that time developing the characters, but I think it didn't work. It just feels like nothing is happening. I like my stories to have... stuff (for lack of a better term) going on.

    CoffeeGrunt shows potential in Allegrezza but he needs direction as an author. A little bit of direction would have made the story much stronger.

  9. Hmm, and now comes the moment when I feel like a bit of a jackass for making a piece of music loosely inspired by this fic... Oh well.

    I'm pretty sure this was the first OctaScratch (whatever you want to call the ship) story I ever read and I really liked it upon the first read. I do admit that the shipping was pretty contrived at times, but I often used to overlook details like that in those days and just enjoy the story anyway. I also admit that this fandom does need to put OctaScratch aside as a ship now, it's been done to death. I might feel differently if I read 'Allegrezza' now, but it's not as if I regret reading it or anything.

    CoffeeGrunt is a pretty cool guy, and I think we're fairly good online friends. He's admitted that if he had the time then he would go back and change a lot of things about this fic, and that he just started it as a random idea and never expected it to become popular or even be taken too seriously. He does like a lot of music but he's just not a musician himself, which probably explains the musical errors despite the story partially being centred around music.

    1. Although inconsequential to the review or the writing, since you mention CG in the context of online friends, it might be worthwhile to note that CG is female so that you use the correct pronouns, hehe.

    2. Well how about that, I just went to his/her DA page to provide a link for you. But as soon as I got there, clear as day, I saw: 'Female/United Kingdom'. I'm not sure if that's serious or not but thanks for pointing that out to me, at least. I at least know for certain that (s)he was male before, if nothing else.

  10. I think this story has something in common with a lot of other shipping fics: The ship feels so natural to the author, so right, that the author doesn't put any effort into the emotional mechanics of how the relationship started and grew. Failing to to so, in this case, is almost criminal because Octavia and Scratch are nearly blank slates. One is a DJ, one is a cellist; that's all we really know.

    The author could play against type, add fascinating personality quirks, or nearly anything imaginable. Just walking unconvincing, cardboard characters through their paces to prove a predetermined point is a complete waste of time.

    Why is this fic so popular? I can only guess that it's because fans of any particular OTP will support the ideology rather than the quality of a story if it agrees with their tastes... and OctiScratch is hugely popular.

  11. I think the comments have summed everything up nicely for me.

    Arbitrary shipping is probably my single biggest turn off. That is to say, finding an excuse to ship two characters, rather than actually having a good idea for shipping two characters.

    There's no need for me to say more, and there's no way I'm ever going to finish reading the fic to just see if I was wrong.


    1. P.S. I'm going to be disappointed if I don't get in at least two arguments over Eternal.

    2. You've got me curious now. I've never read that story. What's your take on it?

    3. But...

      But arbitrary shipping is the entire point of shipping!

      "How can I make these two ponies kiss?" It's like a challenge that's issued every time a new one shows up on screen!

    4. Danny,

      I'll leave the bulk of my commentary for after Chris's review, but Eternal is in a long list of very well written ideas that just don't qualify as actual stories in my mind.

  12. I tried to read this story before your review, to see if my opinions would match the reviewer's without being unduly influenced. I don't think I got past chapter 5 or 6. I don't remember much from this story, except that I nodded in agreement with Octavia that Ja- uh, Buck Daniels is not much better than swill. Otherwise, all I remember is that this story is somewhat grammatically inadequate and completely unremarkable.

    Chris really has an imposing task; while it's a pleasure to read the 4 or 5-star fics, more often than not it seems you end up having to read the less enjoyable works. I never thought about this challenge inherent to a reviewer before: for every 5-star story, there's probably 5 1-star stories. I don't think I could ever review stories because of this. I'd only ever want to recommend the good stuff and just ignore the rest. Providing feedback for both good and bad stories is a very impressive accomplishment.

    1. If you look at his star ratings definitions, it's not really that unpleasant.
      His 1-stars are more or less EqD 3 stars.
      1: OK
      2: Good
      3: Great
      4: Hnnngh
      5: I Came

  13. I haven't read this one.
    The only fics I've read with these 2 are Shipping and Handling and Lyra's Quest.

    I am REALLY looking forward to your review of Eternal.

    As it stands I have not read a single thing by Device Heretic.