Bottom of the Barrel – RWBAY Extinction

Ladies and gentlemen of the #TeamProtag gang, welcome to the Bottom of the Barrel. I decided that would be a good opening line while brainstorming this review and realized “bottom of the barrel” would be an amazing name for all my future fan-fiction reviews, you’d better like it or I’ll use my connections with #LizardSquad to take over your Twitter account and expose you.

Alright, all jokes aside, I’ve had the desire for a while now to go “fan-fiction dumpster diving”, looking for some of the most obscure fan-fiction out there and reviewing it. While this sounds like a great idea, I definitely had some initial reservations about it. Firstly, this is not my area of expertise. I actually don’t do a lot of reading, and I certainly don’t have much experience in critiquing novels. For the most part I’ve stuck to anime reviews over the years—occasionally discussing video games and not much else—so the prospect of reviewing a novel is a bit daunting for me. Still, I think it’s a good opportunity to gain experience critiquing and deconstructing the medium (and more importantly, a lot of the fan-fictions I’m reviewing will be pretty easy to tear down).

The other main issue I considered was that critiquing bad fan-fiction is a little bit too easy. I’m pretty harsh with my anime reviews when I don’t like a show because I know the people behind it are professionals and should be able to take some serious criticism of their work, but the idea of bullying amateur fan-fic writers didn’t really sit well with me at first. When it comes down to it, there’s nothing wrong with wish-fulfillment—many bad fan-fictions are written by children who can be reasonably excused for their poor writing skills and could potentially grow up to be skilled novelists for all I know! So, a few rules:

  • If you’re an adult posting something publicly on the internet and promoting it, you are open to fair and constructive criticism of your work.
  • If you are charging a premium or boast about being an extremely skilled writer, you are open to fair and constructive criticism of your work.
  • If your work is private and you’re writing solely for the sake of your own personal fulfillment, you’re all good!
  • If you’re not an adult—particularly if you’re open-minded about improving your work—you’re all good!

I’m fully aware not everybody wants to be criticized, but the truth of the matter is that publicly sharing your work with others as a functioning adult means it will be and should be criticized. I don’t say this just to excuse being an asshole—I want the goal of these reviews from this point onwards to be not shaming people for writing bad fiction, but instead helping you to understand how to write something compelling and avoid falling into the traps we will inevitably end up discussing. Full disclaimer: I am not a novelist, I am a critic and what I say should not be taken at face value. Always remember to think for yourself and form your own opinions.

Alright, enough messing around! For the debut episode of Bottom of the Barrel, we’re going to be reviewing a fan-fiction written by the author “GhostHaloRWBY”, titled “RWBAY Extinction”. Essentially, RWBAY Extinction is a RWBY/Call of Duty crossover fan-fiction about the members of Team RWBY joining up with Adam Taurus in order to fight aliens… no, I’m deadly serious, really.

Let’s talk about GhostHaloRWBY himself. I actually discovered this man and decided to read RWBAY Extinction because my best friend took the same college class as he did. Before you start pointing fingers, there was no covert operation to reveal this man’s private info. No, he willingly shared all of his social media pages and fan-fictions with all of the other members of his class entirely unprompted, practically urging them to look him up online and actively promoting himself by doing so. We are talking about a full-grown adult who presumably is at least in the process of absorbing college-level education—hell, the last chapter of RWBAY Extinction was written only a year ago! If you were paying attention to the rules laid out earlier, that’d mean I have full authority to sit down and deconstruct exactly why RWBAY Extinction is terrible.

Firstly, let’s look at GhostHalo’s profile bio. He describes himself as being a fan of Bakugan, Avatar, Legend of Korra, RWBY, Pacific Rim, Red vs Blue, Venom, and Titanfall. Given that the fan-fiction we’re discussing today is a Call of Duty crossover, we can pretty safely assume he’s also a fan of that license. Also included in GhostHalo’s bio is a list of his favorite ships and crossovers, but I want to skip over those and focus instead on why exactly GhostHaloRWBY loves fan-fiction, according to him. Written at the very top of his bio is a statement professing that GhostHalo’s love for fan-fiction stems from the ability to “create any story of any form”.

One of the biggest problems I see from a lot of amateur fan-fiction writers is rigid conformity to the story they are writing a fan-fiction for. There’s often an over-focus on trying to preserve the integrity of the original source material, making sure characters resemble their original counterparts as closely as possible and trying to keep everything faithful to the story the original writers were trying to tell. In essence, a lot of fan-fiction is less about trying to take something and use it as a vehicle through which to tell a new and unique story, and moreso about sticking to the original incredibly closely while making only the smallest of changes. The nature of the changes made and things added or removed varies between writers—crossovers exist because people want to take two things they like and bring them together, but rarely is common sense used to determine what exactly the endgame of combining those two licenses would actually be. Long story short, the trap I see here that GhostHaloRWBY is falling for has to do with his creativity being stifled by the source material he’s pulling from. Instead of taking the aspects of it that he likes and using their potential in order to tell a story that’s unique and interesting, he’s trapped himself in a box limiting what he can actually do, concerned more about making something accurate to its origins than compelling in-and-of itself.

This mindset is born from fanaticism—essentially, obsessive enthusiasm. Particularly in the case of RWBAY Extinction, we can see that instead of trying to tell a story new and interesting, GhostHalo has opted to take the same basic plot structure and message of RWBY and shamelessly parrot it, attempting unsuccessfully to imitate what he believes made RWBY great because the story being told here is not born from his own creativity—it’s an unoriginal homogenization of the RWBY and Call of Duty franchises with very little to justify its existence, made for what seems to be the sake of the author inserting himself into them via the character of Adam Taurus. Now, self-inserts are not inherently bad—State of the Meta is a fantastic example of a really damn good self-insert fan-fiction and you should go read it if you haven’t already. Nonetheless, the primary reason why this particular subgenre fails so often is because the writer does not want to depict themselves as being weak or flawed; in essence, the vast majority of self-insert fiction is essentially the most pure form of wish-fulfillment that there is. Perfectly okay if you’re writing something just for yourself, sure, but it hardly makes for an interesting story to tell an audience. As an adult, most of the time I’m not particularly interested in seeing a character be “cool”—rather, I want to see a character overcome their flaws, grow as a person and act in a way that feels human. One of the biggest weaknesses of a book is that it is not a visual medium—no matter how well you describe the cool actions a character in your story is taking, they’re nothing more than words on a page. Fight scenes in movies and animated television shows are fun because we get to see these high-octane events actually unfolding on screen—novels are not capable of emulating that same level of intensity, nor are they capable of making action scenes progress at nearly as quick of a pace (at least not without those fight scenes becoming extremely flat like the ones here in RWBAY Extinction). Even if your fight scene is really well conceptualized and choreographed, that can become its own form of flaw, ending in a fight scene that is overly convoluted and drawn out. Intense moments don’t really work when they are explained ad-nauseam with incredible detail to avoid confusing the reader, kind-of like how jokes aren’t funny when they have to be explained. The trick with writing a good fight scene in a book is that it has to be less about the physical actions of the people involved within it, and more about the inner struggle and conflict of the characters taking part in it—focus less on the motions everybody is going through, and more on what they’re thinking. That’s one of the major advantages provided by a novel—you’re not limited only to character dialogue like you are in a movie or television show! Take this passage from the first book in the Mistborn trilogy, for instance:

“Vin scrambled to her feet—fear shocking her, screaming at her, making her move. She dashed toward the nearest archway, uncertain if it was the one she had come in through. She clutched Kelsier’s coin pouch and burned iron, frantically seeking an anchor down the corridor.
Must get away!
She grabbed the first bit of metal she saw and yanked, tearing herself off the ground. She shot down the corridor at an uncontrolled speed, terror flaring her iron.
She lurched suddenly, and everything spun. She hit the ground at an awkward angle—her head slamming against the rough stone—then lay dizzily, wondering what had happened. The coin pouch… someone had Pulled on it, using its metal to yank her backward.
Vin rolled over and saw a dark form shooting down the corridor. The Inquisitor’s robes fluttered as he dropped lightly to his feet a short distance from Vin. He strode forward, his face impassive.”

(Sanderson, 2006, p.250-251)

This is a great example of how to write fight scenes like these effectively. Brandon Sanderson focuses on highlighting Vin’s urgency and terror, emphasizing how helpless she feels and contrasting that against the Inquisitor’s cool, calm demeanor—she’s freaking out, whereas the aggressor is totally in control. That simple dynamic is far more compelling for the reader than a dull play-by-play; it’s no longer just a physical conflict, but a psychological one. Of course, there’s a right and a wrong way to do this—when it comes to anime, it’s often a major point of contention when an action scene pauses so that the characters can talk at eachother for an extended period of time. That sort-of thing feels ridiculous and kills any sense of intensity or urgency.

One other major thing I want to touch on is pacing. Something a lot of unskilled writers don’t grasp is that the pace of a book is an illusion; if you wanted to write a story one sentence long, you could. In that same vein, you could write a thousand page long novel during which only a single, excruciatingly detailed and drawn out second passes. The key is to find a happy medium and keep things consistent while making sure to retain your reader’s attention. If a reader feels like what they’re reading is unfulfilling and the story is not progressing, they won’t have a reason to keep turning the page. In the opposite extreme case of a book that progresses so quickly that progression feels unearned and meaningless, the reader is left unsatisfied—and if the pacing of your story isn’t consistent, it can create severe whiplash for the reader. Progression in a story in-and-of itself is a nebulous thing, because what constitutes progression is different for every book and often takes many different forms in a single story. More often than not, it’s not nearly as simple as a straight line going from start to finish—if you’ve ever heard the term “plot threads”, that’s essentially what I mean but extended to more than just the overarching plot (character development and individual character arcs being a good example of another form of story progression). The main thing you want to do when setting up a story is try and make it clear to the reader what exactly constitutes “progression” in your book—if somebody is under the false impression that the meat of your story is nothing more than a diversion and focus has been lost on what they consider to be the core plot, they’ll be frustrated and feel like nothing of consequence is happening.

This might seem like a lot to get into when you consider the actual writing that I’m critiquing here. Let’s be real; the vast majority of readers can immediately spot why RWBAY Extinction is so bad. It’s plagued with terrible grammar, punctuation and formatting, demonstrating the writer’s fundamental lack of ability to properly utilize the English language in their narrative. But while those flaws are undoubtedly glaring, egregious and extremely obvious to anybody reading them, I want to focus less on that and more on the deeper reasons why all of this stuff is so bad in the first place. Pacing is a major issue here; transitions are sudden and extremely jarring, fight scenes are unemotional and all quickly pass by the reader at a blistering pace, totally lacking any sort of impact as a result—yet there are random sections throughout the narrative where suddenly excruciating and entirely unnecessary amounts of detail are used to describe such things as the character’s outfits ad-nauseam. A lot of this has to do solely with the author’s terrible fundamental language and writing skills—not to mention several extremely important aspects of the universe in which the story takes place are simply not explained because you are expected to already fucking know them. Seriously, what the fuck does it mean when Adam “uses blush”? You are simply supposed to understand this as if it’s basic common sense!

RWBAY Extinction is an extremely short, simple story about how Adam bonds with the various members of Team RWBY by joining them in an alien extermination mission, and that fact makes the startling lack of competency here more disappointing than it would otherwise be. It’s not like Icarus flew too close to the sun and lost his wings—this is a cut and dry plot about killing aliens which should’ve been extremely easy to write, not an ambitious project. Most of the actual meaningful character interaction here involves Adam’s conflict with Weiss Schnee, who he dismisses as being a piece-of-shit because of her ties to the Schnee Dust Company (something which you would only fully grasp if you had actually seen RWBY). The vast majority of what’s written here is dedicated to fight scenes that completely lack any sort of emotional weight, so when important things happen during those action scenes they breeze by you all of a sudden and the supposed “character development” which is supposed to come from them doesn’t feel even remotely earned. Characters make complete fucking 180s in their opinions or personalities in seconds because there simply isn’t time; or rather, it feels like there isn’t time because of how poorly paced the story has been by the writer. Emotional outbursts just happen without sufficient buildup because the writer decided that they needed to happen even if they weren’t justified—and it certainly doesn’t help that the aforementioned “meaningful” character development of Adam and Weiss is extremely simplistic and exists only because the characters themselves have been written extremely poorly, defined only by the most surface-level aspects of their personalities. And look, the problem is not that I have an issue with the message the author is trying to convey—the idea of preaching understanding and equality is fine. Rather, the issue stems from how little effort has gone into making that message convincing. The whole thing is just so utterly unoriginal and thoughtless—and that loops us all the way back around to what I mentioned at the beginning, about GhostHaloRWBY himself loving fan-fiction because of the so-called freedom it grants him to create any story he can imagine. In reality, it’s the opposite—one of the biggest weaknesses of fan-fiction in specific is that you are limited by the property which you are transforming. A good writer knows how to take an existing work and make it his own, whereas somebody like GhostHalo without an original bone in their body simply copies everything about that work while making only small and ultimately poor changes to the narrative, making something that’s about pure wish fulfillment and completely lacking in substance. Do keep in mind that when I talk about fan-fiction writers being limited by the properties they’re transforming, it’s not at all the same thing as a novel being professionally adapted into a movie or television show as is the case with most anime—in that scenario, you want to adapt the source material as faithfully as possible, using the strengths of the medium to enhance it. An easy good-vs-bad example in this regard would be Re:Zero vs the Halo TV show (granted, the Halo TV show is bad even when considered separately from the franchise it’s supposed to be a part of).

So what advice would I have for GhostHaloRWBY? First and foremost, their biggest problem is their fundamental lack of writing ability; before trying to write anything using the various bits of advice I’ve given throughout this review, I’d highly recommend they focus their efforts on simply learning how to write in a manner that is grammatically correct, formatting their work correctly and using proper punctuation. Believe it or not, good grammar, punctuation and formatting are essential in writing a story readers will find compelling—shocker, I know (and before you try to expose me, I’m fully aware that my reviews don’t always stick 100% to proper grammar, that’s an intentional stylistic choice). Aside from that, I strongly urge GhostHaloRWBY to sit down and try coming up with their own unique ideas. If their passion is born from the desire to create something totally unique to them, maybe they should try writing just a novel instead of unnecessarily limiting themselves to fan-fiction. I would suggest they seriously think about why they like the things they like, and maybe consider whether or not a novel is the best medium through which to express their enthusiasm for those things. On a bit more of a personal note, people often say that life is too short to worry about what other people think, but I believe that sometimes listening to what other people say and seriously considering their advice is an extremely important facet of personal growth. There is nothing I respect more than somebody who can take constructive criticism and use it to improve themselves—and you know, I understand my respect is not something most people are looking to fish for. Nonetheless, I encourage the author of RWBAY Extinction to do some serious self-reflection. Get other opinions on what you do and seriously consider them—don’t let yourself be blinded by stubborn pride or unwillingness to change.

Anyways, yes I’m aware I just preached to some random guy on the internet named GhostHaloRWBY, if you’ll excuse me it’s now 8:30 in the morning and I’m tired. Also I tricked you into reading the divine text of my lord and savior Brandon Sanderson, get pranked bye

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