In the past week, I've read two articles by editors bemoaning the lack of respect for language exhibited by would-be writers in their query letters and other correspondence. Their opinions echo my own, but I'll go one step further. I don't like to see language abused by writers in any format, including email and discussion boards.
Good writing, on the other hand, so enthralls me that I can become drunk with the words. I'm serious. When I come upon finely crafted literature or journalism, I can't get enough. Like an alcoholic with drink, I continue reading until I pass out, book in hand or lap. When I awake, I usually have to backtrack a few pages to refresh my memory of what I read previously because I push myself to continue long past my ability to retain the information.
Last week I had my first experience "listening" to a novel. I've listened to countless nonfiction audio books, but never fiction. We borrowed Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones" from the library for entertainment on a recent trip to Sarasota. The drive there and back to Fort Lauderdale wasn't long enough to hear the complete story, so we listened to the balance while Hurricane Katrina tore across South Florida.
"The Lovely Bones" is a compelling story, riveting the reader from the opening paragraph to the conclusion. Sebold's careful, precise use of language is brilliant. The story is told in the first person by a 14-year-old murdered girl who watches her family and murderer from heaven as they progress through their lives after her death. Because she is dead and watching the action from above, she also enjoys the advantage of the omniscient voice; she knows everything about everyone she sees below. Yet, there is little narrative description. Almost everything the reader needs to know is revealed through the characters' actions and dialogue.
The following is an excerpt from an author interview done for powell.com in July 2002.
Sebold: Voice is really key to me, so when I drift away from voice, that's when the writing begins to sound tinny or dry; it will start to sound wrong to me.
I'm compelled by language, so there are days for instance where if it sounds flat and dry I try to find something else to do that will help the book. That often means going to poets and reading poetry. That's my fuel tank. Voice and language is primary, and everything comes out of that.
(The entire interview can be read here.)
How powerful is good writing? "The Lovely Bones" enjoyed American hardcover sales of nearly three million copies and became an unprecedented international bestseller, with translations in 36 languages.
Writing is an art. Producing a masterpiece takes discipline and practice.
Even if you never intend to publish your work, words are all you have to communicate your message. Cherish your words. Take care to punctuate your thoughts properly. And practice the elements of good writing in everything you write so you can be proud to sign your name at the bottom of the page.