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!

Book Review: Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn

Happy October everyone! It’s the first Wednesday of the month which means it’s book review day. Today’s pick: Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn. This book came out in 2001 and I first read it back in college. It made a deep enough impression on me that I recently recommended it for a book group and reread it a few weeks ago.

About the story:

Ella Minnow Pea is an epistolary novel, meaning it’s composed of letters from one character to another. Ella lives on the fictional island of Nollop, located off the coastline of South Carolina and named after Nevin Nollop who has been immortalized by his creation of a phrase using all 26 letters of the alphabet, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

What’s unique about this island is that due to poor infrastructure, they are isolated from the modern world. There aren’t computers, internet, email, or even telephone service, although those on the island know all these things exist. To communicate long distance, they are limited to letters and the occasional telegraph. Because of this, they’ve developed a love and passion for the written word and a unusual eloquence.

When letters begin falling off the memorial statue to Nevin Nollop, the island Council deems that it is a divine mandate from Nollop himself and they must stop using those letters in everyday speech and the written word. This also means those letters drop out of use for the remainder of the book. With each loss, the island falls deeper and deeper into totalitarianism as the Council works to eliminate those who would use the illegal letters.

Ella finds herself fighting to save her friends and family from being banished off of the island, a task that grows more complicated with new letter’s loss.

My review:

As a lover of artful use of language, this book delights on so many levels. Ella tries so hard to maintain her eloquence and love of language, even as each letter is taken away. The resulting linguistic gymnastics are impressive to say the least. It made me wonder if I could do the same. I tried it with the letter “m” thinking it would be easy. In a 15 minute sample where I tried my best to be careful, three “m”s still managed to find their way in.

There is also the element of satire about an overreaching government seeking punitive punishments for violators of the new rules as well as what happens when a society must adapt to censorship. For me, this felt almost Orwellian and brought back of not-so-fond memories of the discomfort of being forced to read 1984 in school, mixed with a touch of Lord of the Flies. However, Dunn encapsulates this satire inside the story of those trying to live the new rules and because their story shines stronger than the satire, it makes it much more palatable.

By the end of the story when only handful of letters are left, the text becomes almost unintelligible. Letters are swapped out for phonetic matches and to understand what’s being said, the reader almost has to say the syllables out loud. For me, it brilliantly demonstrated the frustrations of the main characters as they struggle to communicate.

In all, I found the book delightful and both a fun and profound read.

Recommendations:

I recommend this book to those who love a good play on words and appreciate vocabulary and wordsmithing, as well as those who love seeing how a society can go wrong. Those who love word puzzles will also get a kick out of seeing how each character manages to avoid using banned letters. It’s also a charming story of making the best of a hard situation that doesn’t dwell on the ugliness that could be found there.

I would not recommend this book for those who want an easy read. It is not. From the deeply vocab-u-tastic wordiness at the beginning, to the almost alien constructed language nearing the end, this book is challenging. I also would recommend those who are sensitive to political misuse of power to steer clear as this book might be triggering.

I give Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea 4.5 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 Amazon, Goodreads, 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!