Book Review: Word Painting Revised Edition the Fine Art of Writing Descriptively, by Rebecca McClanahan

For November, and NaNoWriMo month for many of my fellow writers, I thought it would be appropriate to review a book that covers an important part of writing craft – description. There aren’t many books out there about this topic and indeed it would be a challenge to cover the subject in a way that didn’t sound just a little bit crazy. This book does an admirable job.

About the book:

In ten chapters McClanahan discusses different ways to approach the art of turning mundane descriptions into word paintings that grab the reader’s attention and helps feel part of the world they’re reading about. She explores using the different senses, how descrioption can help the reader understand character and setting, and using figurative language and metaphor. The book is thorough, insightful, and includes plenty of examples to help teach.

My review:

For me, the book was an excellent reminder of how much power lies in the perfect description. An evocative piece of description has the power to transport the reader to another place and time where they feel they are living within the pages and seeing and feeling the story through the eyes of the characters. A poor piece of description can do the opposite, pull the reader out of the story, confuse them, and make it hard to understand what is going on in the story.

Perhaps the most useful advice gleaned from the book is the importance of anchoring description deeply into the point of view of the person experiencing it. If the character is a baker, we want to feel the grit of the flour that has collected on the backs of his hands and reminisce of better times as we smell the comforting aroma of fresh bread.

Another thing that McClanahan does well is find hundreds of different examples to help solidify what she is trying to teach. Some of these are remarkable pieces of description that indeed transported me into the world of the scene. When I read them, it made me want to be able to do the same with my own writing.

Recommendations:

I recommend this to writers who feel they have the basics covered and are looking for a way to improve. This book is wonderful to help see different angles that can be taken in a passage of description and helps break writers out of old familiar patterns. It also shows how description doesn’t have to be long to be powerful.

I would not recommend this to brand new writers. While it’s full of important information, it’s also overwhelming with just how many possibilities there are in any given line of description. The best time to read this would be when a writer feels they have established their voice and are looking for ways to improve and deepen it.

I give this book 3 stars.


Psst! Jodi here. Did you enjoy today’s review? Did it help you decide if this book was for you? Cool, eh?

Guess what? You can do the same for me. If you’ve read Stonebearer’s Betrayal, head on over to AmazonGoodreads, or the book site of your choice and leave me a review.

It doesn’t have to be big and long like this one – a few sentences is perfect! Thanks in advance!

Writing Fresh

If your writing isn't as fresh as this orange, you better read this.

If your writing isn’t as fresh as this orange you better read this.

It’s writing Wednesday and today we are going to talk about writing fresh. Each writing conference I attend teaches me something new and sometimes these lessons profoundly change the way I think about writing. At this month’s LDStorymakers writing conference one of the most influential lessons I took to heart was also one of the simplest.

Write Fresh.

This idea was discussed by several presenters including the evening keynote Martine Leavitt. She spoke about her writing journey and how at times her life was so hectic that often her writing goal for the day was to write one perfect sentence that had never been written before.

Margie Lawson shared the same idea in her deep editing intensive workshops. She added ideas about how to use enhanced description and literary devices to keep the writing alive and also to make a greater emotional impact.

Both spoke at length about creating ideas and thoughts that hadn’t been seen before, about writing fresh.

The best way to learn about it is to try it. Let’s take a bland example and see if we can freshen it up a bit.

“Blake faced the gate and waited for the guard to let him through. He hated this place. It was ugly and smelled. If it wasn’t for the old crone, he wouldn’t bother coming. Somewhere in her addled head, she held the last clue to the resting place of his father.”

This example doesn’t let us feel what Blake is feeling, it simply tells us he hates the place. We know why he’s there, he is seeking his father’s body, but we don’t really care. Descriptions are minimal. We know he thinks the old crone is crazy, but that’s about it.

Let’s take the phrase “He hated the place” and let it sing. This seems like a perfect place to add a splash of backstory.

“Blake faced the gate and waited for the guard to let him through. The king’s dungeon brought back memories of dark nights in a cell not knowing whether he would live to see the sun. It was ugly and smelled. If it wasn’t for the old crone, he wouldn’t bother coming. Somewhere in her addled head, she held the last clue to the resting place of his father.”

Now the phrase “It was ugly and smelled” feels even more awkward and out of place. Not to mention that it gives the reader nothing to imagine. Let’s fix that. I think an alliteration would be nice here.

“Blake faced the gate and waited for the guard to let him through. The king’s dungeon brought back memories of dark nights in a cell not knowing whether he would live to see the sun. The smell of sweat and suffering oozed from the iron grates set in the ground. If it wasn’t for the old crone, he wouldn’t bother coming. Somewhere in her addled head, she held the last clue to the resting place of his father.”

I’m not crazy about the first sentence. If this was the opening page of a book I’d want it to have a stronger hook. It should instantly make the reader start asking questions.  I think the best way to handle this is to mix up some of the ideas of the first two sentences. Also, this would be a good place to add some sort of internal reaction.

“Blake faced the gate that led to the king’s dungeon and waited for the guard to let him through. The sight made him shiver and brought back memories of dark nights in a cell not knowing whether he would live to see the sun. The smell of sweat and suffering oozed from the iron grates set in the ground. If it wasn’t for the old crone, he wouldn’t bother coming. Somewhere in her addled head, she held the last clue to the resting place of his father.”

Only thirty-six words were added to change the somewhat dry original text to something far more interesting. Is it the most perfect example of adding fresh ideas? Nope. I’m not perfect and I pulled this example from the air. You could probably do much better.

In fact…

If you were to edit this text how would you have done it? What would you change first? What would you add? Let’s talk about it in the comments!

Keep it fresh people, and as always,

Happy Writing!