Wednesday, September 6, 2017

First Sentences in (Fan)Fiction the 22nd

I can't remember if I've done this before, but over the weekend I had a thought; what if I looked at some first sentences from a blind sample of fanfics I haven't actually read, instead of evaluating stories I've already read and reviewed?  So I started from the top of the "recently published" list on FiMFic's front page, and worked my way down it until I got tired of this exercise.  Well, more or less; I left the mature filter off, but I skipped over the clopfics.  I suppose first sentences matter for them too, but I've just got no interest in *glances at stories list* Fall of Equestria and maybe diapers?  Though thankfully, no Fall of Equestria with diapers.

So head on down below the break, to see what I found when I ventured into the world of effectively-randomly-selected fanfiction!




As a reminder, the first sentences here are being judged as first sentences, using my patented HEITSIBPMFTSIATRAEMTCR ("how effective is this sentence in both preparing me for the story I'm about to read, and encouraging me to continue reading") scale.  On that scale, a five equates roughly to "immediately evokes a specific tone, prepares the reader for the rest of the story, and encourages me to continue reading," a one is "makes me less likely to continue reading," and a three is "a perfectly adequate first sentence, which neither inspires great excitement or great dread."  For each story, I'll give the title with a link to the fic in question, along with the story's genre tags and short description.   
Note that, as part of my ongoing tweaking/developing of these posts, I'll be taking a fairly liberal definition of "first sentence," so some "sentences" may be two (or more!) sentences long; "first complete idea" might be more technically accurate, but it's not as catchy. 



Equestrian Royal Intelligence, by ThePegasusinBlack 

Genre tags and short summary: Adventure Dark Drama How do you think the princesses know what is going on everywhere?

The first line:  "Corporal Star Dasher, will you defend the princesses until the very end?"

"I will."

"Will you defend our homeland, our great country, Equestria?"

"I will."

"Will you perform your duties to your best abilities, and fight to defend the greater good?"

"I will."

"Then I pronounce you the commanding officer of the Equestrian Royal Intelligence, or ERI for short. Please rise First Lieutenant Star Dasher," Princess Celestia said, her voice unwavering.

My thoughts:  Okay, so that's a really generous definition of a "first sentence," but I felt like I needed to include at least the first four lines to give the appropriate effect, and then it felt silly to cut off when I was already two-thirds of the way through the swearing-in.  Anyway, it's a thoroughly unexceptional but unconcerning opening until the very last paragraph; through there, I'd be on board for a weak three, on my one-to-five scale.  But Celestia awkwardly dropping some acronym exposition (and the very definition of an "as you already know" statement, too!), plus the poor comma-ing, are pushing me down to a one.  It's far from the worst opening I've ever read, but it definitely "makes me less likely to continue reading."



A Draconequus's Destiny, by TheOnlySaneDraconequus

Genre tags and short summary:  Adventure Romance Comedy Human Went from being a twenty-something human, to a Draconequus who's just trying to get by in a strange and crazy world. I also happen to find my destiny in life.

The first line:  I dreamt of fire, and shadow. I also dreamt of rainbow-colored apples dancing up some stairs that were made of jellybeans, singing “La Cucaracha.”

My thoughts:  Looking at that bit I put in "the first line" all by itself, I'd call this a middle-of-the-road two; I don't like the comma after "fire," and I feel like calling out La Cucaracha by name takes this to a less whimsical place than it ought to be, but the general "serious, immediately undercut by ridiculousness" structure is competently executed.  The stuff immediately on either side of the quoted bit puts me much more on edge (among other things, "the first line" is taken from the opening paragraph, which appears to be a four-sentence prologue helpfully marked "John's P.O.V." before the story proper begins ("Third-person P.O.V.")).  So if I was actually taking in the story as presented, I wouldn't be too impressed... but for just "the first line," a two seems fair.



What the sun is cooking, by Anonymous Writer

Genre tags and short summary:  Comedy Anthro Random  Celestia joins a wrestling federation, shenanigans ensue.

The first line:  A thunderous roar echoed throughout the arena. The screams of the crowd were so passionate they united into a single ground-shaking cry. The blinding flashing lights served only to add to the spectacle unfolding in the arena.

My thoughts:  Again, we have a situation where the first line outpaces the totality of the opening (it's never a good sign when the first chapter's title dubs it a "prolouge").  But the bit I'm evaluating isn't bad by itself; it communicates setting and energy well.  It is a bit repetitive, and on that note I dislike the repetition of the word "arena," but it's still a solid two.



Popcorn, by Popcorn Pony

Genre tags and short summary:  Horror Mystery Thriller A small town pegasus accepts a task much larger than herself. Can she complete her task or will the pressure prove too great?

The first line:  The pony stopped to catch it's breath. It breathed over and over again, but continued to become increasingly dizzy. The pony fell to its knees, then to its stomach. Its panicked eyes looking around, weakness completely overtook it's body.

My thoughts:  Between the its/it's confusion, the repetitive phrasing, and the emotionless accounting, this is a clear one.  Frankly, I don't think there's anything here that needs expanding upon, so... onward!



The Pretty Pony Princess of Earth Bet, by Baran3
Genre tags and short summary:  Adventure Crossover I have been sent into the Worm setting as my Alicorn OC, Silver Dawn from Equestria.

The first line:  Two beings spiral through the starry void. As they approach their chosen world, they shatter, and countless shards seed that world and its alternates, taking root in the mind of the desperate and the broken, giving them power beyond mere humanity, at the cost of constant conflict.

My thoughts:  This is a very telly opening, and one which does nothing to invest the reader off the bat.  There's not just no hook, there's also not enough context for the reader to be intrigued by the telling itself.  These could be sentences that exist in a good story, but as an opening, I've gotta go with another one.




The Castle, by Silver Swirl

Genre tags and short summary:  
 Cadance has just found out she is a distant relative to the Princess. She has just discovered her true heritage as a winged unicorn, but there is just a few problems. Cadance had has no clue how to be a Princess or control emotions

The first line:  Cadance sat in the dirt. She was different, she was strange compared to every other pony in her village. Her parents were Earth ponies, everypony was a Earth pony except Cadance and travellers.

My thoughts:  There's a bit of grammatical/technical work to be done; probably not unexpected from an author whose bio states, "I am not the best at grammer and writing, so please."  Yes, it ends right there, period and everything).  I do like the very first sentence in a vacuum--it's a nice, hook-y start--but the author doesn't turn around and do anything with Cadence sitting in the mud, so it feels like a wasted opportunity.  Yet another one.



My Little Sister, by StoryWeaverKP

Genre tags and story summary:  Dark Alternate Universe Crossover Big Mac is supposed to protect his Little Sister, no matter what. In the ruined underwater city of Canterlot, he means to do just that.

The first line: “The Purpose of our lives is to be happy” The Dalai Llama

Wait? How did Big Mac know that quote, or who the Dalai Llama was?

My thoughts:  If I squint, I can see what the author was aiming for here--the appearance of an quote-open, which reveals itself to be part of the story proper.  But the formatting here is atrocious, and the specific presentation feels like every bit the non-sequitur it is, rather than a clever reveal.  One more one.



*****

So, the moral of the story is--in case you needed any reminders--the stories I review are significantly better than a random sampling of ponyfiction.  My usual first sentence reviews skew heavily towards two and three stars; this round ended up being mostly ones.

18 comments:

  1. Aw, c'mon, Chris, you're supposed to read the fics too, so you can tell us if your first impression was on point or not! :V

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    1. Or stab yourself with a dull knife, whichever you enjoy more. 9_9

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    2. I know I always look forward to my Sunday morning stabulations. :V

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  2. Ouch. Tough crowd you are for anyone who wrote these stories. I don't tend to think about opening sentences or hooks a lot, but I guess my brain does, so I should too.

    I checked the stories these opening lines are from out of curiosity. And interestingly enough, the issues you point out in the opening lines carry through the first chapters of these stories. No, not just the technical issues. That's a duh, but other issues as well.

    For instance, in "The Pretty Pony Princess of Earth Bet," the telly, impenetrable style remains exactly the same. In "My Little Sister," the writing is actually decent, but the formatting makes it nigh unreadable. "What sun is cooking" has repetition issues in the construction department that coarse through the writing. It's as if the residual dramatic effects of these sentences echo through the stories, and on that note, it's remarkable how much you can say about an author's style by looking at the first few lines of his or her story. That's a thing I've never thought about.

    I could spend hours parsing this sentence: "It breathed over and over again, but continued to become increasingly dizzy." And that may not even be an overstatement. How's "continued to become" for an action predicate? Or the evocative quality of the phrase "over and over again" as of breathing? And I know, I know, this is low-hanging fruit, but it's just so fun and interesting to parse. Sentences like this are like cotton candy to me, because of how easy they make it.

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    1. This is why pre-readers can reject a story after reading only one chapter. At worst, it's wholly indicative of the rest of the story, and at best? It's still a bad first chapter, and needs rewriting.

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    2. *course And yes, people who submit their stories to EQD and complain upon rejection probably don't realize how much a seasoned editor can glean, not only from a chapter, but from a few sentences. Figure that.

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    3. Yeah, open quotes can be tricky. I think I frustrated a few pre-readers in my early days with the disconnect until I learned how to offset and credit them. What is worse, they squat right there at the top of that first chapter where you're trying to set a tone for the entire story. Sometimes, it's best to skip the intro quote on that first chapter totally unless you have one humdinger of a setup.

      [hr]
      “I was born old and foolish. It was a great timesaver.”
      — Starswirl the Bearded

      [hr]

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    4. Professional agents and publishers typically ask for only the first ten pages of a manuscript when looking for new work/authors. That's more than enough for them to pass judgement.

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    5. @Georg Felis: Tricky indeed, especially when you're trying to integrate them into the story at-large, as this author tried to. I'm thinking about whether I should take a knack at fixing that opening sentence, but I'm not even sure of the quote as situated in the context of the story. It seems to have nothing to do with anything.

      Whatever, let's: "The Dalai Llama once said, 'The purpose of our lives is to be hap––' wait. Big Mac stopped. Where did that come from? Who's the Dalai Llama?" I think I butchered the original version pretty badly, but I hope this would still be in line with what the author wanted.

      That is a humdinger.

      @iisaw: Do tell. That feels like something I should've known about.

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    6. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    7. Col. Waffle: Well, I've only had experience with a few agents, but that's they way they did it. Ten pages and then they'd either ask for the whole book or send a rejection. Editors would read the whole thing before pitching it to their publishers, but the final decision would be made by someone who often didn't read the whole thing. Again, my personal experience with smaller sci-fi publishers, so it may not be universal practice.

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    8. *crack, which is the best drug by the way

      @iisaw: I did a little digging around the interwebs. Apparently, submission guidelines vary widely between agents. The first fifty pages or three chapters seem to be a common default policy. Another common one is ten pages, or a single chapter. I saw several agents specify a guideline somewhere between 5 and 15 pages, so that's in the ball park of 10 pages. In general, I guess it depends.

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    9. "In general, I guess it depends."

      Makes sense. That's a pretty good comment for darned near anything!

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  3. I think I enjoyed the concept of the last one more than you, but looking through need to agree heartily with the assessment of the formatting. Beyond the issues with the first sentence itself, there's the inclusion of the chapter title as part of the text, which made sense in the Gdocs days, but not on Fimfic when it's right there above it as a site feature.

    The arena one was in a way particularly disappointing, because a marked improvement is possible with just a couple deletions:

    A thunderous roar echoed throughout the arena. The screams of the crowd were so passionate they united into a single ground-shaking cry. The blinding flashing lights served only to add to the spectacle unfolding in the arena.

    Granted, that messes up the flow a bit, leaving three consecutive sentences that feel very similar, but a little more tweaking brings it to:

    A thunderous roar echoed throughout the arena as the screams of the crowd united into a single ground-shaking cry. The blinding, flashing lights only enhanced the spectacle.

    Not perfect, but it's tighter and less repetitive while keeping all the information (on the assumption all of it's necessary).

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  4. Writing up an improved first sentence would make for an interesting read next round.

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    1. You seem to be laboring under the impression that I'm a good writer.

      Still, that'd be interesting to try next time.

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