Bottom of the Barrel – Not so Broken

Ladies and gentlemen of the #TeamProtag gang, welcome back to another exciting episode of Bottom of the Barrel, otherwise known as “I’m taking time away from Splatoon 3 for this and I can already feel the withdrawal kicking in”.

For this next thrilling installment of what I’ve come to realize is going to inflict legitimate physical pain upon me on a regular basis, we’re going to be looking at one of the relatively recent works written by an author named “Salya Darken”. Now, Salya Darken is in fact a fan-fiction writer and there is a lot of bad fan-fiction I could’ve chosen for this analysis, but I instead decided to deep dive onto their website (which is linked to on their profile) and ended up finding an actual original story there written just a few months ago by the name of “Not so Broken”. Not so Broken is supposed to eventually be the first book in a series known as “Trust in Others”. If you’re curious why those titles in particular, I couldn’t tell you since the first three chapters don’t make it clear whatsoever.

Salya Darken has had a profile on since about 2006 and claims on their profile page to have about 8 years’ worth of writing experience. That’s actually not quite right, since if they started writing fan fiction in 2006, they should actually have a bare minimum of 16 years’ worth of experience and are more than likely an adult—who, might I add, mentions in their profile that their ultimate goal is to either write or draw for money. This whole charade is not purely for the sake of creative expression. If what’s written in their profile is still accurate, they have no job and—in their words—“no life”, leading me to believe most of their time, effort and energy is spent writing and drawing (though the only artwork from them I saw was the piece pictured on their profile page which isn’t flattering and looks like something off Deviantart). But you know what? That’s fine. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with trying to pursue a career in those respective fields at all. But to have any success in those particular fields, your work has to meet a certain quality standard. The solution for most successful writers lies in practice, and many of them will tell you that no matter how many lectures you listen to or how much advice you get, practice and practical application of knowledge onto the paper is the only way you’ll truly improve—in the wise words of Brandon Sanderson, “You kinda just have to git gud”. And yet, today, I’m here to tell you the tragic story of how 16 years’ worth of practice can be absolutely fucking wasted.

I want you to understand that almost every writer, whether professional or hobbyist, has been in this position before. My old reviews and stories are absolutely embarrassing, but they were also extremely important milestones of growth as both a writer and a person. Getting better is about perspective—realizing what it is about your old work that needs changing, and taking the necessary steps to improve upon it. In general, I’d say the theme of this whole review is that stagnation and laziness are the death of creativity and personal growth. Maybe I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to improve upon myself and my work without having it ruthlessly scrutinized, but that still does not excuse this author’s complete and utter lack of self-awareness and total inability to self-reflect. I don’t want to have to tear people down like this to wake them the fuck up and make them understand that they suck, you know—I would much rather everybody just write good material for me to enjoy in a non-ironic way! The whole reason this experience was so painful is because I know how much time and effort spent on it has wasted away for 16 fucking years in an endless echo chamber!

Alright, enough beating around the bush. Not so Broken is one of the most singularly awful stories I have ever read—in fact, it’s actually somehow worse than RWBAY Extinction because at least that story had the basic foundation of something compelling. It has absolutely no substance, nothing happens in it, and it reads like it was written by a fucking anime-obsessed preteen. RWBAY Extinction butchered its English in such a way that made it seem like the writer was illiterate, whereas this reads as if the writer knows English but thinks “big words” make for good storytelling, except that their bar for what defines “big word” is so low that it’s literally beneath the ground. There are so fucking many repeated descriptors for actions taken in these chapters over, and over, and over, and over to the point where it becomes absolutely fucking infuriating. “Softly” or “lightly’, pick one of the two and I can almost guarantee you it’ll show up within the next few seconds of reading, if even that long. Half the time it doesn’t even make sense. How in the fuck do you “lightly” growl? That’s not a “light” action, it’s an aggressive and harsh one!

The overall feel of the writing here is incredibly stiff, odd and unimaginative with tons of really bizarre word choices and terrible sentence structures, confusing the reader and forcing them to try and decipher shit like they’re reading lines of an ancient script. There’s absolutely no tension, drama or suspense, it’s a straight-up play-by-play with zero emotion behind it whatsoever. This is made worse by the fact that not only is organic storytelling taken out back by the writer and executed with a fucking shotgun (despite the total lack of explanation regarding any background details of the overall fictional world here or even the specific settings in which the moment is actually taking place), but also the fact that nothing happens! What’s the plot of the book here? I don’t fucking know! You tell me! It’s 3 chapters worth of two characterless anime caricatures walking around pouting, shopping for books and incestuously flirting with eachother with zero context as to why, where or what the hell is going on and also it’s apparently supposed to take place in a fucking academy because of course it is except that 80% of what’s written here is pointless fucking flashback! Literally the only reason the reader even understands the two twins are supposed to be vampires is because it’s written in the synopsis for the book, yet doesn’t make itself evident in the actual narrative! There’s even a part where the text tells you to “look at the photos above” like a shitty fantasy novel forcing you to constantly double check its appendix or some shit—listen, and this goes for any aspiring fantasy writers or anybody interested in worldbuilding. You should not have to tell your reader to refer to external materials in order to understand important aspects of your story and its setting. Those things should be organically introduced within the narrative itself. Mistborn is a great example of that, especially considering it can be classified as something of a dystopian dark fantasy—slowly discovering secrets about the world in which it takes place and deciphering its mysteries is a hugely important part of the story and the reader’s overall experience. You go in knowing absolutely nothing and come out like “holy shit that plot twist was crazy, I never expected this character to be the actual hero referred to in X prophecy” because it’s all explained to the reader in a way that’s engaging, plot relevant and seamless.

Another really terrible aspect of the play-by-play script here is that the writer doesn’t understand one of the biggest advantages a novelist has—the internal monologue. Movies and shows cannot give you a constant window into the central character’s thoughts, but a novel can. Instead of telling the reader the actions a central character is taking, tell the reader what that character is thinking. Tell the reader how that character perceives the world and the people around them through their own unique perspective. “3rd person perspective” does not mean the story is written as if from the perspective of a fucking floating camera only capable of recording events without knowing the thoughts of the people involved within them. If you do write a book like that—which this author seems to have somehow achieved—the end result is that the reader has no emotional connection to anything happening in the story. This is your secret weapon! This is your opportunity to engage the reader even when writing an intro without anything exciting going on—if there’s no external conflict, introduce an internal one! Make a point to the reader about why they should be interested and promise them a satisfying payoff!

Because the story is so lacking in organic storytelling or worldbuilding, it feels like it takes place in a featureless void or within an extremely generic set piece. The whole thing is supposed to be set in an entirely fictional universe called Aesylus which contains vampires and demons and magic and shit, except that none of that takes the spotlight. Instead, time is wasted chronicling absolutely frivolous and unnecessary bullshit while only the briefest and most uninteresting of mentions are made regarding the setting. What is the city of Nightcrest like? What are the cultural norms within its society? Why are ‘marks’ important and what do they do? Are they unique to vampires? How common are vampires in this world? If a parallel is being drawn here between the gods Raine and Seth and the twin protagonists of the book, does that have something to do with the marks changing? Why does any of that shit matter and why the fuck are we spending time on a flashback where the main character spends 20 minutes silently buying books instead of answering any of these questions?! No, instead we get a single sentence telling us that the bookstore is run by a cat lady who’s actually a cat demon from the planet Gaia that came to Aesylus after mating with a vampire, full fucking stop, end of segment. I’m sorry, did I miss the part where that is supposed to make any sense to me or have any plot relevance?!

I understand that we’re talking about a measly 3 introductory chapters here. But regardless of whether or not the story is complete or we’re reading an introductory segment, one of the most important parts of a story is the very beginning. This can be applied not just to novels, but any narrative medium—anime, movie, book, comic, manga, TV show, you name it. If you don’t hook the reader in during those first few pages, they won’t have a reason to keep turning them. It doesn’t matter how much better your story gets or how much is explained later on; you need to have a strong opening in order to maintain your audience’s interest. If the first two episodes of Re:Zero were just Subaru grocery shopping the whole time and doing nothing else, you’d probably drop it! And you know what, I’ll give them this; Salya Darken makes an attempt here to try and open on a strong line, but it falls absolutely flat; too much effort is spent describing the main character’s appearance in a boring way, and the actual opener of “wandered around the school of darkness” doesn’t work in combination with what comes before or after it (not to mention “wandered” has been confused with “wondered”). An easy example of a good opening line would be the very first sentence of Mistborn; “Ash fell from the sky.” It’s simple, powerful and immediately sets the tone while making you interested in the universe within which the story takes place. If you’re looking for something a little bit more similar to what Salya Darken is trying to do, look no further than the first sentence of Mistborn: The Alloy of Law: “Wax crept along the ragged fence in a crouch, his boots scraping the dry ground.” Immediately the scene and the tone are set, the first line used in order to have the main character take action; and of course, you’ll notice that Wax is described only as Wax, as opposed to Not so Broken’s opening line during which Raven is described as “A young female with long black hair with long bangs and dark blue eyes”—please for the love of God do not do this if you’re trying to write an intro sequence, I beg of you. Not only is the line describing Wax doing something, it’s describing him do something interesting as opposed to just wandering about. There’s an immediate sense of tension and suspense!

I mentioned during my review of RWBAY Extinction that I didn’t actually have any issue with the message the story was trying to send the reader, but here things are a bit muddier. Firstly, the really creepy incestuous flirting going on between the male and female protagonist—both of whom are supposed to be relatively young—is extremely cringey and awful and I fucking hated it, it’s a terrible anime stereotype that shouldn’t be adapted into this format or any format, for that matter. It sucks when anime shows do it and it sucks when Salya Darken does it here. Not only is it bad, but it exposes that part of the problem here lies with not just the poor writing ability of the author, but the author themselves. I’ve been watching a lot of RPG horror story videos from my guy CritCrab recently, and a running theme you often notice among the creepy weeaboos featured in those stories is that while they may actually be fans of shows that are well written and compelling, they completely fail to understand the actual point of those shows and instead focus only on their most surface level aspects, kind-of like how One Punch Man became popular among people who had no idea that its whole premise was to parody shonen anime. They like the dark and edgy characters featured in those shows because of how “cool” they are, not because they have depth or personality. Now, I can speak from experience here because I was once an edgy misanthropic teenager too; misanthropy will stop you from writing a good story. Nothing good will come from trying to write a narrative in which your protagonist is a “misunderstood” loner who does everything in their power to appear edgy and mysterious, totally lacks any compassion for others and has a generally negative outlook on humanity as a whole; at least, not if the person writing that narrative is that way for real, even if only in part. Raven is established as being an antisocial full-on fucking Goth chick; everything she owns is black right down to her books and her laptop, and the books she reads are—gasp—dark fantasy novels because of fucking course the writer just had to insert that into the fucking story. And this chick has the gall to complain about her brother trying to, and I quote, “Control her designs”. Translation: “It’s not a phase mom, this is the real me!” Way to trap yourself in a prison of your own making, ironically stripping yourself of all individuality by conforming to a ridiculous stereotype. If you really don’t want anybody else “controlling your designs”, try thinking for yourself and reflecting on your actions sometime, it’ll change your whole fuckin’ life.

I’m starting to rant at this point but to be honest I just can’t help myself. For as badly as I want to try and be constructive, I know all of this is inevitably doomed to fall on deaf ears. I think it’s probably more frustrating to see this kind-of superiority complex when you’ve been through it yourself—watching an adult essentially fail to grow up and succumb to the various hardships of life you’ve overcome is fucking maddening. I’m not harping on the gothic aesthetics because I dislike the gothic aesthetic, I’m harping on them because the protagonist of this story’s singular character trait is “goth girl loner”. I’m harping on it because they—and most likely the writer by extension—see themselves as being better and more intelligent than everyone else. There is a striking lack of humanism in the narrative because the writer has written it from the top of their lonely fucking pedestal, acting as though they’re above the rest of humanity. And you know, maybe saying that is a stretch, but I just can’t help but get the feeling it’s the case—it’s a pretty common trend among these sorts of bad fan-fiction writers on the whole. To be perfectly honest, the whole “edgy phase” is not something that you really outgrow entirely. I still like some of the same “edgy” things I liked when I was a teenager, but there’s a marked difference between liking something just because it fits your image and liking something for real. Elfen Lied is a great example of something I liked when I was younger because it tried so hard to be edgy, violent and melodramatic and I now absolutely fucking hate with a passion. In terms of trying to write from the perspective of a character whose worldview and general outlook on life is different from your own, one of my favorite breakdowns of this topic is from a video by Brandon Sanderson called “How Do I Write Characters with a Different Belief System?”, which has this absolute gem of a quote:

“I believe we arrive at truth and accommodation not by presenting weak arguments, but by presenting our best arguments. It’s through really thinking about and investigating the best thoughts and the best arguments that we will arrive at truth, not by presenting the weakest arguments different from the way we think, and then saying ‘Well of course it can’t be that!’, which is what I see happening in the political spectrum a lot. I think we would get further if more people would say ‘This side has a really good argument! Let’s engage with that argument rather than picking the weakest argument that I can make on their behalf and then writing a political cartoon about how stupid they are.’”

Brandon Sanderson

I honestly don’t have anything more to add, please go and watch the aforementioned video if you’re at all interested in this particular topic, Brandon Sanderson is such an awesome dude and incredibly skilled writer, I straight up simp for this man. Getting back to the review, it is clear that Salya Darken simply does not have the same humanistic empathy and understanding for others that Brandon Sanderson possesses, and it seriously hampers their ability to write a compelling story. And look, I’m not saying that the author is an inherently bad person. I have a tendency to give people the benefit of the doubt and assume the best of them; you could say my general outlook on life is that most people you’re likely to meet are good at their core. But regardless of whether the author has it within them to be a good person or not, the question is whether or not they can capitalize upon that potential. Evil is born from negligence and, like I said in my Domestic Girlfriend review, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. If you never stop to question the goodness of your actions, you’ll end up being the bad guy regardless of whether or not your heart was in the right place.

You know, we do this for the sake of fun and edutainment, but it’s sad. Moreso than anything else, it’s sad because the problem with a lot of these novels is not necessarily a lack of creativity, but an inability to make the audience care about what the author has created in the first place. No matter how vivid and alive things might seem in your head, none of that will translate onto the page if you don’t make the effort to write something compelling. I respect the effort which has likely gone into creating the universe of Aesylus, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there was far more to it than I ever got the chance to see and experience as a reader. Passion is all well and good, but at the end of the day none of that passion will be evident unless its end result is a positive one. Passion projects fail all the time for this very reason. One of the biggest things I like to do when I write is read the first draft aloud before I make corrections to it (although I’m also pretty anal about proofreading as I go); it’s really useful as a way to easily tell when there’s a mistake or awkward moment in the script which needs to be corrected in order to sound natural when spoken aloud. It’s far too easy to fall into the trap of writing dialogue or narration that sounds robotic or inhuman, which can easily pull your reader out of your story—or, in my case, my listener out of my review. When it comes to writing a fantasy story, another big thing I often see is a really interesting world with a ton of creativity and passion behind it wasted on a story that was created solely for the purpose of showcasing that world. I’ve watched this happen to people I know and it is not pretty.

So, what’s the moral of the story here? I’d say that beyond anything else, my advice would be that practice does not mean just sitting down in front of a keyboard and writing. There’s so much more than just the act of writing itself which is absolutely essential to making a compelling narrative, and failing to grow and change while ignoring all advice and tunneling your way further and further towards a slow death could very well result in a situation like this one, in which 16 years of effort and energy are flushed down the god damn toilet. As far as advice for Salya Darken is concerned, look for second opinions. Quest out of your echo chamber and see what other people outside your usual circles genuinely think of your work and of you as a person. Learn to be empathic and understanding. Learn to use constructive criticism in order to improve yourself. Remember that the world isn’t against you and the circumstances of your upbringing are not an excuse for misanthropic behavior. And, of course, you may want to put some effort into brushing up on your grammar and formatting (for the record, “turned” does not mean what you think it means).

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s almost 10 AM and I need to take a nap, also the constant Brandon Sanderson references will only get worse trust me

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