Le mot juste

In the recent round of edits that my editor Karen completed on Dark Streets she pointed out a recurring tic in my language that I hadn’t noticed. In my descriptions of London at night I used the word ‘obsidian’ to describe the Thames no fewer than three times in the first dozen chapters.

There is nothing like edits and rewrites to focus you on your writing style and repeated themes, and this sort of thing is to be expected, but it got me to thinking about why this word in particular? Why ‘obsidian’? Is this just happenstance, or is there something about the word that goes deeper than that.  At the risk of gathering enough navel fluff to knit a sweater I thought I’d dig into it a bit.

Let’s be clear at the outset that it’s the perfect descriptive word for the river at night. I want to convey that it’s black, but has a faint sheen. I want something a bit exotic, but also of plain meaning.  Obsidian is volcanic glass, and at one time it would have flowed, so describing the river as obsidian extends some meaning beyond the obvious. At slack tide the river seems hardly to be flowing at all and at night, in my London at least, it looks like a solid sheet of black glass. This is the world of Dark Streets, after all, and the river is a sort of dark street that winds through the city, a street paved in obsidian. Or something of that sort.

In any event, it carries multiple layers of meaning in a way that other words can’t.  Black, dark, Stygian, bituminous, other words don’t really cut it, each for its own reason.

As to reasons other than it being entirely apposite, there might be something in my past that explains my affection for the word. In high school I studied geology, and was very taken by the language of rocks. Out of the three ways that rock is formed, volcanicity is the most interesting to the teenage mind and I loved learning about pahoehoe, volcanic tuff, basalt massifs, and underground magma reservoirs. Geology is about physical material influenced by physics and the elements over time, and it is filled with interesting words, quite a few of which are in common parlance but many of which are novel to the everyday ear.

Then there is the influence of the writers who have most impressed me over the years. From the age of about 15 onwards I devoured everything I could find by Michael Moorcock, who was then and is now one of the finest genre and literary writers to come out of London. I was especially taken with his fantasy work and I think it’s there that I picked up a penchant for words like obsidian. It features in a number of his works, including the Elric series, and there is a story in the Eternal Champion sequence titled ‘Phoenix In Obsidian’1.

More than the immediate obvious meaning of the word, it carries an extended meaning in my personal literary psychogeography.  This may be a false memory, but if I remember correctly there’s at least one end-of-all-things Moorcock story that has a protagonist standing on the black sand coast of a weary ocean watching the molasses-thick waves lap at his feet. I might be mixing that up with Jack Vance’s ‘Dying Earth’ series of short stories, but the influence on my associations with the word is there, nevertheless. When I hear ‘obsidian’ I think of those things. It’s a word that speaks to me not just of a vitreous darkness, but also of time.

So where am I going with this, other than to wonder where the words come from and why we obsess around some particular words? Not very far, and if you’re feeling like you might have to reach in really high to grab my ankles and pull me out of where I’ve gone, it’s probably time I stopped.

It’s merely this: the choice of the correct word in the correct place is the essence of writing. Sometimes you realize that there is too much of a good thing and you have to choose not to use the correct word and find something almost as precise. I wonder if Marlow would have told the story of his travels in Africa sitting on a boat bobbing on the piceous Thames?


1 Mike has other writing tics with respect to favoured words. ‘Sardonic’ is one of them, as anyone who has read Elric and Jerry Cornelius will testify.

Going Underground

In the spirit of my previous post I spent some time last night talking with Karen, my editor, about realistic goals in terms of my current works in progress. If you’re dropped by here before you’ll know that I have a cyber-drawer full of material in various stages of completion, and my original overly-ambitious goal was to publish two novel-length stories by Christmas.

I’ve been at this game a little while now, and I have a better sense of what’s likely versus what I’d like. What seems realistic now is to aim to have Dark Streets ready and published before Christmas, and then do the rewrite on Shadow Paths in the New Year. Patience and persistence are the name of the game here. They’re not qualities that I possess in any great measure, but more or less anything is achievable is you keep the end in mind.

It’s back off to near future London, then, and the darkest corners of that city’s underworld. To get myself back in the mood I popped over to Bradley Garrett’s website and took a look at some of his fantastic pictures of abandoned and hidden places.

© Bradley Garrett

Dark Streets is set in multiple locations around London, some real, some imagined, and one of them is a disused Underground station. The picture above of Aldwych is one of many London images that Garrett has on his site and does visually what I had in mind when I wrote one of the early chapters of my story.

If you know London at all, you’ll know that Aldwych is in the heart of the city and there’s something fascinating about this underground world that used to echo to the feet of thousands of commuters now lying dormant and empty beneath the feet of those same people. What I was after for Dark Streets was the feeling of a secret place, abandoned and in disrepair, below the streets of the city. Anything could be happening down there and no-one would ever know.

Here’s another of his Underground images:

© Bradley Garrett

Great stuff. Ghostly and compelling. Pop over to his website and take a look at his other pictures. The nighttime shots of London, and the pictures of Battersea Power Station are among my favourites. I was also pleased to see that he’s been to my current post-apocalyptic fave city, Detroit, where he captured some great images of some really interesting abandoned buildings.

If the London that I’m putting together in Dark Streets conjures for the reader even a fraction of the atmosphere that Garrett has captured in his photos, then I’ll be very happy. To which point, now that I’ve fed my imagination I’d better give it some exercise.

I’m going underground.

A Writer Writes. Always.

Writing here on my website today I’m surprised by the passing of a month between my previous post and this one. I shouldn’t be. Life has been busy in the interim – family members have moved homes, work has been very demanding, and there has been the usual plethora of autumn activities. It’s been a very lively time.

What frustrates me about the gap in time is that despite my own best reminders to myself and my urging of fellow writers to “write every day” very little of it has been filled with writing.  I used to laugh at Billy Crystal’s exhortation to Danny DeVito in ‘Throw Mama From The Train’ that “A writer writes. Always”.  It struck me as being somehow trite or stating the obvious, but like most clichés it’s also a truism.

Here I am a month down the road with a large stack of editorial comments and revisions to review and incorporate into rewrites, and chapters screaming to be written. I had an ill-formed notion that somehow I was going to be able to complete both of my current works in progress by Christmas. After all, I’d written them once. This was only going to be about editing and revisions, right?

Well chalk one up to experience. I’m more sanguine about the speed at which I can move. I know one thing very clearly, though. I have to follow Billy Crystal’s advice.

Hopefully my output will be a little more sophisticated than the pop-up classic ‘Momma, Owen, and Owen’s Friend Larry’.