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Writers and Language

Don’t you just love a great writer’s use of language?  The things that make up voice and style; from the most minimalist prose of say, a Hemingway, to that surfeiting sort of opulent writing of a Pat Conroy, to the inimical magic of Cormac McCarthy.  And can’t you pick it out just about anywhere, the sounds and cadence and flow putting your mind immediately into sync with a great author? 
Language usage changes from what’s in vogue, with new words and made-up ones and trendy slang. But the great writers make it all their own, no matter in what time or place they practice their craft.  And all of it just tweaks me.

Try the beginnings of Richard Ford’s newest, Canada:  “Our parents were the least likely two people in the world to rob a bank . . .  although, of course, that kind of thinking became null and void the moment they did rob a bank.”  Okay, I’m in.  Not just from the pregnant implications but the way in which Ford’s accessible prose draws me into the narrator’s world.  

My breath always stops a bit when I read: “I grew up slowly beside the tides and marshes of Colleton . . . I was born and raised on a Carolina seas island and I carried the sunshine of the low-country, inked in dark gold, on my back and shoulders,” from Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides.  Although some critics describe his language as ostentatious, I never get that feeling, even when he zeros in on the deepest of emotions, which in themselves call for a reaching ache that some folks find too much.  But he makes my heart sing, especially in this passage from My Reading Life:  “My mother hungered for art, for illumination, some path to lead her to a shining way to call her own.  She lit signal flares in the hills for her son to feel and follow.  I tremble with gratitude as I honor her name.” 
Can’t you just feel it? 

The way a writer hooks words together is in large part her style, her signature, the thing that sets her off from all others writing at the time and hopefully, into perpetuity.  One’s way with the language, whether timorous or bold, sets the tone for a story that is hopefully carried throughout.  And oft-times that use of language changes from book to book, all in the service of the story and characters, but still and yet you find echoes of the same.

Cormac McCarthy’s stories run the gamut of plots through his always Literary works, but you can always ascertain his touch whether you love or hate him.  There are differences in his language usage from The Border Trilogy to No Country for Old Men to The Road, each book having a sharp focus uniquely its own.  Sometimes when I read him I must simply stop, my heart catching in a place I didn’t know existed deep within, and pay homage with gratitude that such words exist. Such a passage causes this from The Crossing:  “They were running on the plain harrying the antelope and the antelope moved like phantoms in the snow and circled and wheeled and the dry powder blew about them in the cold moonlight and their breath smoked palely in the cold as if they burned with some inner fire and the wolves twisted and turned and leapt in the silence such that they seemed of another world entirely.”  

Do you have a certain sound to your language when you write? Something your reader can “hear” in the prose and recognize as being from you?  Something that sets your own heart ablaze when you re-read it for the fiftieth time? If so—send it to me. There is very little in this world I love more than great writing.


Award-winning author and editor Susan Mary Malone has four traditionally published books to her credit (fiction and nonfiction) and many published short stories. A freelance editor, forty-plus Malone-edited books have now sold to traditional publishers. You can see more about her, and what authors say about working with her, at:

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  1. I love your selections, Mary, and, like you, the flow of words in a writer's voice is vital to me. But you pose such a challenge. Who among us dares proffer a selection from our own writing as worthy of being on the same web page as "great writing"?

    I do think I have a certain voice as a novelist, one built on cadence and abetted, perhaps, by reading aloud--which I do with every paragraph I write. Still, I feel unqualified to advance any as particularly resonant, so I will turn to a couple that my wife flagged as favorites from my most recent novel, The Rosen Singularity.

    "It was the fights that most surprised Rosen: fiery volcanoes of searing words, rivers of resentment, and floods of cold anger. Nothing in his experience had prepared him for the intensity of Jeannine’s heat or cold—or his own."

    And her favorite line of dialogue from the same book:

    "I don’t envy my sisters. They have the house and the three children each and busy lives, but I know how empty their lives are. I decided long ago that I would rather come home to an empty house than to an empty life."

  2. Hi Larry,
    I do hear your voice! And great dialogue here. Not only is the sentiment and prose married well, but you get so much done with a few simple lines.
    Good job!

  3. Really liked the lines from your book, Larry.

    After those I hesitate to offer mine, but here is a couple of lines from one of the short stories in my collection, The Wisdom of Ages:
    Watson had never treated Samson like most white folks did, the “good ol’ boy” routine that never quite covered the slight hesitation as white flesh met black in a handshake. Watson never hesitated as a man or a friend, and the memory creased Samson's weathered face in a smile.

  4. I love this post! Since our bylines aren't at the top, the whole time reading it I was thinking, who among the BRP contributors is so closely aligned to my taste in writing? Fun to find out at the end, Susan.

    Here is a sentence my agent particularly likes from my novel Dance of a Fallen Sparrow, now out on submission:

    "I’d known dancers who would fill their lungs with smoke, their veins with amphetamines, or the sink with the meal they’d just swallowed rather than gain a pound."

  5. I'm wondering if our monthly contributors should just have a byline with a link to a longer bio under the tab at the top of the page. Or not. A byline and footer are a bit redundant and thus the choice of just the signature as it gives a more direct linkage to the author (should readers be interested in editing services, books, and just generally more information that they would be inclined to spend time Googling). Perhaps we can discuss at the office, in our spare time. ;)

  6. I don't know if I succeed, but I want my writing to sound clear and spare. Simple even, but with a hint of elegance. So any idiot can understand what I'm saying. I also like complete sentences and should aim to achieve that. LOL. And may I never begin another sentence with "and". Okay, going back to my corner now.

  7. Maryann and Kathryn--I LOVE your lines here! Just wonderful. And love that our tastes run so parallel :)
    Dani, your sentiments are hilarious.
    I'm proud to be amongst such a creative group!

  8. I think I prefer the "plain" in my own writing, although hopefully that doesn't mean it's dull and lifeless. I try and not worry about voice too much and just let it occur naturally, but I do love that the wider you read, the more blending and better of a mixture you get in your words.

  9. My writing is pretty simple. When I read my own writing, I can hear myself in my head. It's so important that our readers are able to connect with us on that level.

  10. Is there a reason for the red letters in "marshes" and "Colleton"?


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