Friday, March 22, 2013

Plastic Men, or: Present Day Chris Reviews Middle School Chris

Having already written the blog post requested by Present Perfect, I now turn my attention to the one which WTFHIW generously bought through the Las Pegassist auction.  Here's the message he sent me:

On an article topic for you, Chris, how about this: Take a trip down memory lane by digging through your personal story archive and write a review of an old story of yours—be it years or even decades old—and take the opportunity to consider your own growth as a writer as you’ve both aged and gained more experience. The older the story the better, and if you stumble across one that you were particularly fond of back in the day but had practically forgotten, that’s better still.

Well, I found some of my middle school-era creative writing, and... well, let's just say it's a good thing WTFHIW paid up front and that I have a healthy sense of obligation, because I'm really not looking forward to sharing what I've unearthed.  Click below the break if you dare.

If we don't count school assignments, my creative writing hobby first began sometime in sixth grade.  Not coincidentally, that's around the same time I started playing AD&D--both are exercises of the imagination, after all.  My first forays into the hobby, as you might expect under those circumstances, were basically attempts to retell adventures that had taken place in our games, but I quickly expanded beyond that.  When I got WTetc.'s request, the first story that came to mind was an unfinished vampire novel I worked on for a few months in eighth grade--I feel obligated to point out that this was back before vampires were "cool"--but after raiding some old storage boxes, I found not it, but a notebook with a few short stories in it which probably dates to about eighth grade (I can't find a date on it, but it's got some french assignments in it that look middle school-y), which would mean I most likely wrote them when I was 14.  I chose from it the story in the most obviously finished state, we are.  I'll write up the review in my usual format, though obviously it's not getting a star rating or anything.

Oh, and feel free not to click the link.  I typed out the story into a google doc (it was handwritten--even after I got into fanfiction in high school and started posting stuff online, I assiduously hand-wrote everything through to final draft status before typing and posting it, a habit I didn't forgo until ponies), and have carefully preserved all the errors, technical and conceptual, of the original, but I promise it won't bother me if you decide not to look at it.  Like, at all.

...Okay, here we go...

Plastic Men, by Chris

Impressions before reading:  Ohgodohgodohgod...

I'm not looking forward to this.  I suspect that's natural; I was a pretty normal middle-schooler, and "pretty normal middle-schooler" is not a descriptor typically associated with stellar writing.  Then again, neither is "pony fanfic author," so maybe I should try to stay positive.  This is clearly a second or third draft, so at least it should be coherent.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  The "through her eyes" tale of an unnamed child in an unnamed country, in the midst of a war.

Thoughts after reading:  Let's start with what self-congratulation we can muster: the recurring motif of the star isn't bad, and it provides a level of narrative cohesion which most stories by young writers lack.  Also there aren't really that many spelling errors, for a 14 year-old working without spell-check!  Okay, so I hadn't quite figured out "explane" yet, among many other things, but I was a pretty atrocious speller in my childhood, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that my memories of going to dictionaries as I edited weren't entirely fabricated.  That said... well, it's a far cry from perfect.  

I can see a lot of similarities between this story and my ponyfiction, conceptually.  For one thing, I've always liked to experiment with different narrative devices--in this story, I was attempting to write from the limited perspective of a young child.  For another, I am and was pretty darn blunt with my morals--look at Letters from a Senior to a Junior Changeling for proof that I don't really go in for subtlety, at least when it comes to a work's central theme(s).  And for proof of that first comparison too, I suppose.

As should probably be expected, middle school me did those things pretty poorly, though.  While I was happy to see that, even at that age, my vocabulary was in good shape, I clearly had no idea how to mesh that vocabulary with a child narrator.  Trying to portray her (I'm going to give myself kudos for being a 14 year-old boy willing to try to write a female protagonist) as naive and simpleminded requires deft word choice, which was generally absent here.  Although words were generally used properly, there are some atrociously hackneyed phrases bandied about in this story; "my tears mixed with the ancestral rains of sorrow" physically hurts to read, even more so knowing that I'm the one who wrote it.

As for the bluntness of the story... I don't hate that it's an unambiguously anti-war story.  I could even handle the narrator's father's rants, in principal if not in practice.  But Plastic Men frequently strays outside of the scope of its narrator's mentality, essentially butchering the conceit in favor of demagoguery.  Add to that the lack of any serious portrayal of an alternative viewpoint (Mom is said to be a patriot, but the story never presents any character who even tries to justify the war, or the sacrifices it requires.  This may be comprehensible from a narrative standpoint, but it reeks of condescension, all the more so coming from a 14 year-old whose greatest tribulation was that nobody wanted to sit with him on the school bus), and even a message as uncontroversial as "war is bad" quickly begins to rankle.

That last point is probably the thing that bugs me most about my story, because it's obvious that I broke one of my present-day cardinal rules of storytelling: never use an emotionally charged event or scene as a story catalyst without seriously and honestly considering how your characters would respond to it, and without making a sincere effort to understand that response yourself.  There is a transparent falseness to this entire work; it's obvious that the narrator is nothing more than a convenient tabula rasa on which I could inelegantly try to project whatever emotion I was trying to evoke.  After glancing through the folder, this story wasn't even my worst offender on that front; I cringe to think that I was ever self-absorbed enough to believe that simply announcing that a character was crying ought to inspire a genuine emotional reaction--indeed, ought to inspire anything other than disgust with the author--in a reader.

In conclusion:  This story is terrible.  If I came across a ponified version of it while surfing FIMfic, I would react with scorn.  It would be easy to excuse it as being "just" something I wrote when I was young, but that doesn't hold water for me: there are plenty of middle-schooler ponyfic authors, and while it's true that most of them are as self-absorbed and unskilled as I was (no offense, most middle-school ponyfic authors), there are some out there who can tell a decent story without being condescending or preachy.

But in a way, that's also kind of comforting.  If I'm not yet a (insert your favorite author here), I think most people would agree that the stuff I've written in the last couple of years is worlds better than what I was doing a decade and a half ago, and that's with only intermittent writing practice during the intervening time.  That tells me that quality writing doesn't have to be the exclusive domain of those who have some innate gift for the craft; after all, if the guy who wrote Plastic Men can eventually learn to string a halfway decent story together, so can anyone.  And it does offer a bit of perspective on some of the more atrocious examples of fanfiction which dot this fandom.  Some of those authors are just arrogant idiot kids like I was, and while that doesn't make a bad story any better, it does provide a ray of hope; as long as there's a desire to improve, there's nothing that time and effort can't fix.


  1. I was planning to make a joke about middle school you's writing still being better than mine, but then I read it. I think mine might be just a tad better. It's hard to believe you wrote that. Like you're human or something

    The earliest stories I remember writing (not for school) were a short piece about Barney and sequels to The Nightmare Before Christmas and Jurassic Park, which I also drew covers for. There was also a Bobby's World/Little Monsters inspired project I wrote for school, which I still have lying around somewhere. They were all worse than Plastic Men, but I was also only half your age

  2. Oh man. The best part was when you mentioned my name. :D I love that part. (God, I am an egomaniac.)

    This post makes me want to search back through my own middle and high school writings, which are doubtless equally terrible (I have a long-running history of using power sets in place of character attributes, not to mention attempting to be 'deep'). Not to mention now I want to read your story and ponify it. With appropriate rejiggering of the plot, of course.

    1. "When I was a filly, I remember how the Princess would take me to a toy store on the corner of the block two down from the castle..."

  3. Hey hey hey hey hey. I actually enjoyed it in a small way! I'm a sucker for naive narrators, I liked how just enough detail was given for the reader to get what was going on - and no more - and I liked the twist. Last paragraph killed it though. Your 14-year-old you deserves commendation for decent plotting and correct, albeit bluntly wielded choice of narrative device - more than I can say for myself. >_>

  4. Man. It seems like so many people were much more into writing than I was prior to this fandom. It's not that I didn't enjoy creative writing. On the contrary, it was quite fun when we were given something like that as an assignment in school, and if we had that as an option, I always chose it. But those opportunities became fewer and fewer as the years went on, and I never took it upon myself to do such things in my free time, except for jotting down some notes for a story idea once and never following through. So after high school, I never wrote a story again until a year and a half ago, when I started writing ponyfic. And what I did write back then was quite short. I'm a huge fan of conciseness and rarely wrote anything longer than three or four pages, so it's been a learning experience to tall more expansive tales with MLP and actually give enough meat to make the story immersive in addition to interesting.

    I didn't read the story, Chris. I don't know if that will make you happy or not, but I didn't need to. We've all been there.

  5. Oh man, I remember writing stuff exactly like this when I was a kid.

    Well, actually I don't. My crappy stories were absolutely nothing like this in either style, content, tone or intent. But my point still stands. I remember being in this phase. Though that said, all my fiction writing school projects still got good grades. Lower expectations for a child, I suppose. They honestly weren't that good either.

    Brought some of those old ideas back for later stories though. I've always said I get my primary inspiration to write from my nightmares, and there's nothing quite like giving life to my younger self's macabre creations, to have them terrorise characters I'm writing in the present. It makes me nostalgic.

  6. I'm not scorning Plastic Men as much as you are Chris. Not really sure why.

    Alas, this prompts me to take a trip down memory lane as well. I always sucked at writing and every attempt at it was met with low grades. I think that's mostly because I was never able to put own more than a couple paragraphs. Lack of imagination I suppose. One exception being on what I think was my ACT test. It was some sappy story about mistrust in a couple and I got a good grade for it. I found it absolutely baffling because I absolutely abhorred the stuff and still do. I must've gotten some sap for romance grading my test.
    I also remember frequenting the creative writing club in high school. I didn't learn anything from it though, as I did nothing but listen to others read the stories they wrote, which is fine and dandy but now that I think about it, some critical review would've been awesome.
    School did teach me well of the technical part of writing. Grammar, punctuation, and spelling are things I like to think I've always excelled at (though I don't make the best example in these comments) but when it came to fiction and the like, the lessons kept flying over my head. I do believe it was not until I found this blog that I really started understanding the nuances of creative writing. Then again, I never tried all that hard. But that's one reason I keep coming back here. I love learning! Creative writing is just one thing though, perhaps I should now track down blogs about persuasive and informative writing and whatever else.

    1. I had the same problem with regards to length. I'm not a detail oriented person, and my writing reflects that. Characters exist in white voids, apparently nude

      Pretty sure I took the same test you described. They were just testing it at the time, so it didn't affect my overall score, which was very lucky for me. I either got the lowest score possible or something very close to that

  7. Wow, that was...not good. I like that you were trying to go for something with meaning, but it suffers from the same issue many young writers run into: a lack of detail and emotion. There's really no feeling from it, no sense of what the narrator is going through. There are attempts, but they are so stock and flatly delivered that they simply don't work. That doesn't even include the spelling, grammar, and general writing issues.

    And yes, I have many, many shameful things in my past. Fortunately, none of them are still around, and the only two I can clearly recall were from elementary school. One was a one-page story about cops looking for a monster, then killing it in one sentence by shooting it. The other was an adventure story I wrote for creative writing, a chapter at a time, with an explorer investigating a temple, nearly getting killed by a creature inside, and ending with him rescuing Santa Claus. No, I don't know what the hell I was thinking.

    Still, thank you for being brave enough to risk embarrassment by revealing your horrible early stories. Personally, I think that every early piece is something that shouldn't be looked back on in total shame, but instead regarded as a sign of how much you've progressed since then.

    And if that doesn't help, there's always booze.

  8. . . . [Q]uality writing doesn’t have to be the exclusive domain of those who have some innate gift for the craft; after all, if the guy who wrote Plastic Men can eventually learn to string a halfway decent story together, so can anyone.

    As true as that is, Chris, I don’t think you’re giving yourself enough credit, and I can’t help but feel that you didn’t take as much of an opportunity to reflect on your own growth as you could have. While Plastic Men is bad and you may feel embarrassed to have been the one who wrote it, there’s no real reason to feel that way. I’m with InsertAuthorHere in that older works should be viewed as signposts on one’s road to improvement, and you’ve provided ample proof that you’ve most definitely improved in the fifteen-or-so years that have passed since this one story was written. Even though I’ve stated elsewhere that I’ve had some particular trouble with your fics, “halfway decent” isn’t a workable description of your stories. . . . They’re good, which is the best target any author can shoot for at the end of the day, especially if they’re self-conscious to a degree and hold a desire to restrain their own (foolish) pride.

    On the general subject of bad stories, ever since coming up with the idea I forced upon our host, I’ve been searching for examples of my own past shame, hoping to find the one which marked my very first foray into fanfiction (even though I didn’t know fanfiction was a thing at the time). It was a “rage fic” on the original Battlestar Galactica series from the ‘70s, wherein Apollo bets Boomer he can get Muffit (the robot daggit) to maul Starbuck on command. (I absolutely hated the Starbuck character in that show, the smarmy bastard.) I didn’t find that story, and what’s worse is that I suspect it (and most of the early junk I wrote that should still physically exist) may be in the possession of my ex-wife, which puts it well out of reach. Even though I don’t have it in front of me for confirmation, I can guarantee everyone that it was infinitely worse than Plastic Men on a variety of levels.

    However, since the truism of “you can’t delete something from the Internet” holds water, I do have something terrible to offer after all, and what’s worse is that it was written a little over two years ago: The Succession of Fire, a short story about . . . Well, I don’t really know what the hell I was going for here. I’ve described it as a mood-piece done completely wrong, but I don’t even think that works as a description, and I’m not going to offer any excuses. If anyone decides to take the plunge, feel free to laugh at the monkey. ;-)

    1. Well, I'm laughing, but not because it was terrible. Granted, it's no Memories, but it's better than some of the stuff Chris has reviewed, and I'd probably give it about a 3 on EqD. I loved the concept at least, and would love to see you take another crack at it

      Now, if you want to see terrible, you should look at something I wrote last year for one of EqD's flash events. It's a prime example of why one should be prepared to kill their babies. I wasn't, and ended up cutting more important parts just to rush the premise in before hitting the word limit! Add to that some grammar and dialogue mistakes... well, this is bad even for me

    2. WTFHIW:

      I suppose the reason I have trouble seeing this as a guidepost rather than an indictment is because Plastic Men isn't just a story that reflects poorly on its author's writing ability or literary decision-making; it reflects poorly on the author as a person. It shows a level of self-absorption and pretentiousness which, if (sadly) hardly atypical, certainly would suggest that the author was annoying and tiring company to keep at best, and a pompous ass at worst.

      Since I'm that author, and for all that I've matured I'm still the same person now as I was then, it's hard to see it as a signpost rather than a shackle. "As long as you're still Chris, this is (part of) who you are" is the message I come away with, and while there's a certain kind of comfort to that (if it weren't true, it would mean that "Chris" had ceased to be, replaced by some adult stranger whose only connection to him was a shared history--THAT is a terrifying thought!), it does lead to the uncomfortable conclusion that I was a rather unpleasant person at one point, and that that's a part of who I am today. Not a terribly happy thought, that, but there's nothing for it but to continue trying to rise above myself, eh?

    3. Chris, you may find this interesting. I was immediately reminded of it after reading that second paragraph, though it took me awhile to find

      For what it's worth, I don't think you came off as THAT bad. Just a kid who still had some growing up to do

  9. It is nice to remember that I am all too frequently comparing myself with authors who have been writing for a long time. School was a complete joke and a whole two decades ago, so virtually everything I know now is self-taught or picked up from Chris and Pascoite over the last year.

    Honestly, I think it's not unfair to say I'm doing a pretty awesome job so far, but it's often hard to look at it that way and I try to always keep that in mind whenever I review, critique, or otherwise leave an opinion on a story. i mean, it's almost always the same core problems I pick out time and time again, and it feels downright weird to comment on them when I didn't have a clue about it not all that long ago.

    Sadly, the only piece of work I did many years ago never made it on the internet, and has long since been lost. I will always wonder just how ridiculously unjustified my fond memories of it are, given how utterly useless I was the first time I presented something to Chris! :P

    Interesting times, my friends. Interesting times.


    1. Pretty sure I've only read one of your stories so far, but it was pretty decent. So yeah, I'd agree that you're doing an awesome job. By the way, I never heard back from you about that fic. Are you no longer interested? It's OK if you're not, as I've run into some financial difficulties anyways (though not so bad that I'd have to renege!)

    2. I had a lot of stuff going on, and to be honest, I completely forgot about it. I have some practice work to do which will keep me engaged for a while, so I'll give you a shout later when things calm down.

  10. Man, I know this feeling. I went back and reread the first fanfic I ever wrote a couple months ago. Two hundred thousand words worth of a Lion King alternate timeline fic, centered almost entirely around original characters. The horror was almost physically palpable at times.

    And yet, contrary to this review, at times I found myself shocked by how much it actually DIDN'T suck. True, the narration was spacey at best and offensively purple at worst, and for some reason I thought it was a good idea to write it all in first-person and keep switching perspectives all the time. At the same time, though, the OCs were inexplicably competent and multifaceted (though mainly because I spent 80,000 words worth of the story delving into the personal histories of two of them), and separated from those aforementioned subplots and a few other chapters that really showed my ignorance of the concept of "pacing", the meat of the plot featured some creative set pieces and some potential for great dramatic tension.

    It was this odd mix of clearly amateur storytelling mixed with an uncommonly precocious storyline and cast, and instead of cringing at one chapter, I ended up rereading pretty much the whole thing. Shows what nostalgia glasses can do to you sometimes, I guess.