Onyx Orbs

Your tastes in reading will change throughout your life.  Never was I more forcefully reminded of this than in the onyx orbs debacle.

When I was seventeen, I read a story.  All right, I’ll admit it: I read a fanfiction.  Sometime, I might do a post about the pros and cons of fanfiction, but that’s not important today.  This story isn’t representative of all fanfiction.  Just one.  For the sake of kindness, I’m going to change its name to The Spinning Wheel.

The first time I read The Spinning Wheel, I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever read.  This was long before half a dozen re-reads of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber had made me sick of purple prose, and instead I was in love with the flowery writing.  I’d never read anything like it.  All this description!  All these metaphors!

When I finished The Spinning Wheel, I was still mesmerised.  ‘Why doesn’t the author write real books, too?’ I said.  ‘They’d be published in an instant.  They’d make a fortune!’

Fast forward a couple of years: I was in my third year studying Creative Writing at Winchester University.  Unsurprisingly, my course had a lot of required reading, and I was starting to feel burned out.  It wasn’t that I hated everything I had to read – I loved a lot of it – but I was desperate to read something just because I wanted to.  Because I liked it.

What about The Spinning Wheel? I thought.  I haven’t read that in years!

It was on the Internet, within easy reach.  No need for a library trip!  Perfect!  I opened it up and happily started reading.

I don’t remember exactly when I realised something was wrong, but I like to imagine it went like this:

It’s been an hour, the living room is quiet, and I lower my laptop screen and look up, feeling haggard and broken.  I meet my housemate’s eye.

‘Onyx orbs,’ I whisper.

She looks up from her own laptop.  ‘What?’

Onyx orbs,‘ I hiss, distressed.  ‘They just described his eyes as onyx orbs.’

And so they had.  If you’re not familiar with fanfiction, referring to eyes as ‘orbs’ is a common mistake, to the point where it’s a running joke.  ‘You know it’s bad fanfic when they describe the character’s eyes as orbs!’  No one’s eyes actually look like orbs.  If they did, it would be nothing short of terrifying.

Using some kind of gemstone to describe the colour of the eyes is another, separate, fanfiction sin.  The Paper Plane of Existence on Tumblr put it best:

describing eye colors isn’t actually v helpful as a description??? talk about the makeup smeared on the left side, the lines under their eyes, the sloppily cut hair obscuring their eyes from view, how bloodshot or sunken they seem in the face, how wide they go at the slightest sound, how glassy and unblinking they seem, how they’re always darting away

all of that tells me a bit more about the character than whatever shade of gemstone they most resemble, seriously

The Spinning Wheel took these two errors and combined them into one killer phrase.  It became a personal catchphrase for bad writing.  ‘Yeah, this is bad, but is it onyx orbs bad?’

I was shattered.  Thankfully, my housemate was a kind person, so she definitely didn’t torment me about it by, say, changing my desktop background to a picture of hundreds of black marbles, or sending me photos like this:

I still have no idea what’s going on in that picture, but I’m pretty sure I’ve had nightmares about it.

Some time later (around the time my housemate edited my coursework, replacing every instance of the word ‘eyes’ with ‘orbs’, to the point where she even changed ‘eyebrows’ to ‘orbbrows’), it occurred to me that coming across onyx orbs wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.  When I first read The Spinning Wheel, my knowledge of writing was average.  It was so average, I scanned over onyx orbs and had no idea there was anything wrong with it.

After three years studying writing at university, I’d improved enough that I didn’t just notice onyx orbs – I was infuriated by it.  I’d learned what bad writing looked like.  And if I could spot these mistakes in other people’s writing, I could make sure they never showed up in my own.

 And that’s the tale of how terrible fanfiction showed me how much my own writing had improved.

If you’ve ever re-read an old favourite (fanfiction or real book) and realised it was actually terrible, send me a comment!  We can all suffer together.

A Short Update

Apologies – there won’t be much of a post this weekend, because I’m currently waist-deep in my dissertation.  I am still reading books, of course: right now I’m halfway through World War Z, the first serious zombie story I’ve ever enjoyed.  I like my zombie comedies (Saun of the Dead and Zombieland are my favourites), but I’ve never been into real zombie flicks.  When I’ve finished it, I shall do a review!

In the meantime, tell me what you’re reading!  Do you like it?  Do you recommend it?

The Immortals

This is an exciting review, because I was actually asked to do it!  S.E. Lister was kind enough to send me an early reader’s copy of her new book, The Immortals.  I hope I’ll do her lovely writing justice.

I want to start with a confession: The Immortals is not the kind of book I would normally read.  The genre certainly is – when I read the first few words of the blurb, I was sure it was exactly my kind of book:

‘Rosa Hyde is the daughter of a time-traveller.’

Yes!  Woop!  Science fiction!  But there’s a twist: I usually read commercial fiction, and The Immortals is super literary.

For anyone who doesn’t know the difference, commercial fiction is the kind that’s easily dismissed as ‘just a story’.  It can have deeper meaning and beautiful language, but the main draw of the novel is the fact it’s a fun story.  Literary fiction, on the other hand, is clever.  It uses stunning language and lots of metaphor.  It’s the kind of thing that gets nominated for big, fancy awards.

I won’t say I don’t like or read any literary fiction.  To Kill a Mockingbird is literary and I love it!  I just want to admit up front that this is not always my forte, lest you think I am being horribly stupid when I (most likely) miss some of the finer details of Lister’s book.

Onward, then, to the cover!  This is the cover on the publisher’s website.

It’s very close to mine, minus a few, minor differences (Rosa’s dress is blue on my cover, for example).  Lister wrote to me and said my cover isn’t quite the final version, but I hope it’s close, because I love it.  It’s simple, it’s elegant … it’s literally everything I want in a book cover.  At the beginning of the book I enjoyed wondering who all those people were, and by the end I enjoyed picking out each individual character.  Kudos to you, cover designer.  Good work!

Okay, it’s time I got on to the book itself!  I’ll start with the thing I loved best about The Immortals: the language.  Lister has a real talent for making words just feel beautiful.  Every setting she described – and Rosa, as a time traveller, visits a lot of strange and wonderful places – was vivid in my mind.  I could feel the cold in the icy landscapes of pre-human history; I could see the dancing masks in Venice; I could taste the food in Victorian London.  When Rosa ate olives, I felt a craving for them so strong I almost put the book down to run out a buy them!  Even unpleasant places sounded romantic in Lister’s writing.

As someone accustomed to commercial fiction, this heavy, almost flowery writing was sometimes a bit tiring.  But if I put the book down for five minutes and picked it up again, I found myself grinning and re-reading sentences just to enjoy how poetic they sounded in my head.  It must have taken a serious amount of effort to write an entire novel in such vivid prose, and I respect that.

(Image from here)

The settings in the The Immortals – and there are many, from the frozen wastelands of pre-human history to a medieval castle to a Venetian carnival – benefit especially from Lister’s beautiful writing.  More than anything else, the settings drew me back, as I kept wondering where Rosa would travel to next.  My only complaint – as I’ve hinted above – is that, sometimes, the settings felt a little too romanticised.  I imagine a medieval castle, with little to no bathing or toilet facilities, would be pretty stinky.  A Venetian carnival would probably be full of irritating, boisterous drunks.  These grittier details were often skimmed over in favour of making each place – barring the pre-human wasteland – appear beautiful and mysterious.  Whether you prefer beauty or grit is down to taste.  Personally, I like a reasonable dose of both.

There was one only thing about The Immortals that I struggled to get on with: the main character, Rosa.

(Photograph by AlesanaCore on DeviantART)

Rosa was an odd character, emotionally unattached and, for the most of the book, lacking in any one exact goal.  This often made it difficult to root for her.  There’s even a line in the book, where Rosa asks herself, Have you ever truly felt any human emotion, Rosa?  I wondered if her cold personality was something to do with her being a time traveller, that perhaps their race was just like that, but the book insinuated towards the end that this wasn’t the case.  Perhaps this is all part of a greater literary theme that flew over my head, but I found Rosa a little frustrating to try and understand.

That aside, though, The Immortals was an excellent book.  S.E. Lister clearly did an enormous amount of research into every place and time period, and her writing style is mature and elegant.  Although the protagonist irked me a little, she didn’t stop me from tearing through this novel to the very end.  I sincerely recommend The Immortals to anyone who’s looking for a beautiful literary novel, with a fantastical twist.