A few years ago, when I decided I needed a crash course in professional writing, I started reading as many writing theory books as I could get my hands on.  There was one piece of advice that tended to get on my nerves: when you’re writing, every word is a choice.  To me, it sounded just a tad melodramatic.  I mean, really.  How many different ways can you say “It was foggy.”?

But then, I started reading more critically and realized how wrong I was.  The difference between a mundane sentence, a chilling sentence, or even a funny sentence can be the matter of a word or two.  Fog covered the city sounds pretty bland whereas Fog smothered the city is more ominous and Fog choked the city could, in the proper context, be chilling.

In THE HAUNTING OF ALAIZABEL CRAY (HAC) by Chris Wooding, precise word choices set the tone and build the suspense in the story.  The author continually reminds the reader of how risky it is to live in London.  Even when nothing particularly violent is happening, Mr. Wooding doesn’t let up on the tension.  Consider this sentence from chapter 11:

There was no fog tonight; the torrential downpour had torn it to tatters and it had retreated to the hollows, lurking in the thin shreds around the cold graveyards and derelict wasteground.

I had to re-read that sentence to figure out if it was describing the weather or a vicious animal attack.  By giving us a description of the weather that echoes the horror and violence of London, we are primed and ready for the attack that is going to happen in just a few pages.

Mr. Wooding also uses words in his descriptions that are reminiscent of blood and bleeding.  It really adds to the icky, ominous tone of the book.  When the author describes a character imagining a sunset, it is written:

…she’d stood and watched the last of the day bleed out of the sky….

When he describes the poorest district in London, he writes:

The city of London has a secret heart.  It is a clotted thing of crumbling stone….

When he describes one of the many disgusting monsters he writes:

…a clot of darkness that bled along the walls and path of the sewer….

I could keep going.  The bloody reminders are everywhere.  At every opportunity, Mr. Wooding makes a descriptive choice to have everything–the weather, the buildings, even the darkness–shadow the violence and gore in the city.  And it works.  The tone of this book is dark, dark, dark.

I’d also like to touch on a point that I’ve mentioned more than once: Mr. wooding dedicates a huge amount of his writing space to description.  And, while I stand by my assessment in earlier posts that it really slows the pace, it’s also another choice that I believe contributes to the tone of the story.  The story is set in alternate-history, Victorian-era London.  Writers of this time include Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and the Bronte sisters.  These are not sparse writers.  Charles Dickens spends more than a page at the beginning of A TALE OF TWO CITIES telling the reader that the story takes place in a time like any other time.  So, in terms of the style of the day, Mr. Wooding’s book is actually pretty reserved.

So, that’s THE HAUNTING OF ALAIZABEL CRAY by Chris Wooding.  This was my first steampunk and I hope I find more in the same genre that are just as enjoyable.  I’ll see you on Friday.

The scaaaary artwork is by Shain Erin (seriously, this artist makes constructs really messed-up dolls that are icky and awesome.  LOVE it.) and I found it on flickr.