14-Day Picture Book Challenge Day 3 – Picture Writing and Word Painting – How to Write Descriptively

Day 3 Challenge  – 14 Day Picture Book Challenge –

Part A: Read Jane Yolen’s description of the setting in her book Owl Moon and after you have reduced the words significantly, rewrite it — without losing the power of the initial words.

Part B: Rewrite the Setting of Your Picture Book.

In another post, I describe my own approach to writing as intuitive.

My Intuition Actually Wrote My Debut Picture Book, The Donkey’s Song, I Just Typed

I Call My Writing Style: Picture Writing

Please allow me to explain. When I am writing, I close my eyes, and I simply type, describing what my mind is seeing, and that is how I wrote The Donkey’s Song.

I grew up in a Southern Baptist Church, and throughout my childhood, I heard the Christmas Nativity Story at least 10 times a year. Other than that, I was in at least 1 Christmas Pageant a year. [One of my earliest reality checks is that there was only one Mary in that story], and when I began writing picture books, something within me kept nagging me to write The Nativity Story.

For a long while, I resisted that urge. I had been told that picture books with any overtones of religion would never sell to a mainstream book market.

[Picture Book Tip #1 for Today – Don’t Believe Everything That Other People Tell You About Which Picture Books Will and Will Not Sell-  Also Remember that MANY people told Rowling that Harry Potter would never sell.]

But back to me and my Christmas story. Finally, I gave in and simply shut my eyes and began to type the words that described the images inside my mind of the Nativity Story. I recalled those images from the pictures that I saw in Sunday School, but hey! I was a child during the 1950s, and the Sunday School pictures weren’t great then, but I have always had a great imagination. When I was a tiny child, my mind began giving form to the Nativity Story. When I began writing The Donkey’s Song, I primarily recalled the images that I had formed long ago. To this day, I can still see the stream of scenes that sprang from my childlike fascination with the wonder of the Nativity. When I am picture writing, I look for inspiration among the images that have formed inside my head. I don’t look at the keyboard. I simply type. I free write, and I don’t stop free writing to edit myself along the way. I simply write and describe the pictures inside my mind. I am a stream-of-consciousness writer.

I tell you more about writing in a stream of consciousness in the following post:

14-Day Picture Book Challenge Day 2 – Write a PB First Draft in A Stream of Consciousness – What is Writing in a Stream of Conciousness?

What Is Stream of Consciousness Writing?

A person’s thoughts and conscious reactions to events, perceived as a continuous flow. The term was introduced by William James in his Principles of Psychology (1890).
  • a literary style in which a character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions are depicted in a continuous flow uninterrupted by objective description or conventional dialogue. James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Marcel Proust are among its notable early exponents.

Don’t Stop Free Writing to Edit

Picture Book Writing Tip #2 for Today: There’s a Time to Write and a Time to Edit – Don’t Mix the Two

Writer’s Block Is Probably Editor’s Block

Day 3 Challenge  – 14 Day Picture Book Challenge –

Part A: Read Jane Yolen’s description of the setting in her book Owl Moon and after you have reduced the words significantly, rewrite it — without losing the power of the initial words.

I challenge you to read Jane Yolen’s descriptive passage over and over again until you really have the scene deep inside yourself. And then I want you to rewrite it with about 1/4  of the words that she has used–or less.

Day 3 Challenge  – 14 Day Picture Book Challenge –

Part B: Rewrite the Setting of Your Own Picture Book.

Share your rewrites on Twitter, Facebook, or any other media where I might see them. I can’t wait to read what you write.

Owl Moon: Jane Yolen, John Schoenherr: 9780399214578: Amazon.com: Books

It was late one winter night, long past my bedtime, when Papa and I went owling. There was no wind.

The trees stood still as giant statues. And the moon was so bright the sky seemed to shine.
Somewhere behind us a train whistle blew, long and low, like a sad, sad song.
I could hear it through the woolen cap Pa had pulled down over my ears. A farm dog answered the
train, and then a second dog joined in. They sang out, trains and dogs, for a real long time. And when
their voices faded away it was as quiet as a dream. We walked on towards the wood, Pa and I.
Our feet crunched over the crisp snow and little gray footprints followed us. Pa made a long shadow,
but mine was short and round. I had to run after him every now and then to keep up, and my short,
round shadow bumped after me.
We reached the line of pine trees, black and pointy against the sky, and Pa held up his hand. I stopped
right where I was and waited. He looked up, as if searching for the stars, as if reading a map up there.
The moon made his face into a silver mask. Then he called: “Whoo-whoo-who-who-whowhoooooooo,” the sound of a great horned owl.
We went into the woods. The shadows were the blackest things I had ever seen. They stained the
white snow. My mouth felt furry, for the scarf over it was wet and warm. I didn’t ask what kind of
things hide behind black trees in the middle of the night. When you go owling you have to be brave.
Then we came to a clearing in the dark woods. The moon was high above us. It seemed to fit exactly
over the center of the clearing and the snow below it was whiter than the milk in a cereal bowl.
The owl’s call came closer, from high up in the trees on the edge of the meadow. Nothing in the
meadow moved. All of a sudden an owl shadow lifted off and flew right over us. We watched silently
with heat in our mouths, the heat of all those words we had not spoken. The shadow hooted again.
Then the owl pumped its great wings and lifted off the branch like a shadow without sound. It flew
back into the forest. “Time to go home,” Pa said to me. I knew then I could talk, I could even laugh out
loud. But I was a shadow as we walked home.
When you go owling you don’t need words or warmth or anything but hope. That’s what Pa says. The
kind of hope that flies on silent wings under a shining Owl Moon.

One last note:

In a way, my system of Picture Writing is a cousin to Rebecca McClanahan’s Word Painting. Both systems are attempts to capture what the eye sees with words. In my Donkey’s Song, I captured what my mind’s eye could recall from my memories. But while I am on the topic of Word Painting, I heartily recommend McClanahan’s book Word Painting.

Word Painting


Let Rebecca McClanahan guide you through an inspiring examination of description in its many forms. With her thoughtful instruction and engaging exercises, you’ll learn to develop your senses and powers of observation to uncover the rich, evocative words that accurately portray your mind’s images. McClanahan includes dozens of descriptive passages written by master poets and authors to illuminate the process. She also teaches you how to weave writing together using description as a unifying thread. Penguin Random House Booksellent book that helps writers create better descriptions – Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan.

This is the book that will help you find your style and voice as a writer. The author is so skilled at using words and getting the reader to dive deep when using description. The first chapter alone changed my life. She suggests you sit with an object for ten minutes to describe it. Look at it. Think about it. Think about what it means to you. Write about it with these thoughts in mind. Write it with a specific character’s thoughts in mind. These are the kinds of activities at the ends of the chapters. This book will spark your imagination and give you plenty of exercises to enhance and grow your skills. An Amazon Review

This book is more than a brilliant and instructive book about how to write description; it’s a book full of its own beautiful descriptions and, reading it, I have come to appreciate the power and beauty of the descriptive arts and what make good descriptions. An Amazon Review

Paint Masterful Descriptions on the Page!

Writing strong descriptions is an art form, one that you need to carefully develop and practice. The words you choose to describe your characters, scenes, settings, and ideas–in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction–need to precisely illustrate the vision you want to convey. Word Painting Revised Edition shows you how to color your canvas with descriptions that captivate readers. Inside, you’ll learn how to:

• Develop your powers of observation to uncover rich, evocative descriptions.
• Discover and craft original and imaginative metaphors and similes.
• Effectively and accurately describe characters and settings.
• Weave description seamlessly through your stories, essays, and poems.
You’ll also find dozens of descriptive passages from master authors and poets–as well as more than one hundred exercises–to illuminate the process. Whether you are writing a novel or a poem, a memoir or an essay, Word Painting Revised Edition will guide you in the creation of your own literary masterpiece.

Amazon Editorial Reviews


“There is no better book than Word Painting and no better teacher than Rebecca McClanahan to illustrate how memory and observation are shaped into language that is lively and alive. McClanahan offers brilliant and helpful examples of how sensory detail, intimate moments, characterization, atmosphere, mood, and metaphor combine to create poems, stories, and essays that lift from the page and soar into the reader’s imagination. If you want to be a better writer, you need to read this book.” —Dinty W. Moore, author of Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction

Word Painting is both a joy to read and terrifically useful, whether you are working on your first short story or your fifth novel. Eloquent, practical, and deeply wise, Rebecca McClanahan reveals how to move beyond flat description into writing full of music, color, and surprise, and then how to enliven character, setting, and plot. Brushstroke by brushstroke, note by note, she vividly demonstrates the ways technique leads to art and, most importantly, the way art teaches us to become ‘beholders’ of the world. By the time I reached the third chapter I was quoting whole passages to my students, having already taken copious notes for myself. This is a writing guide full of sense and sensibility, and a work of art in itself.” –Suzanne Berne, novelist and winner of the Orange Prize for fiction

“Rebecca McClanahan’s Word Painting: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively, Revised Edition is a specialized guide to mastering the art of evocative writing, from improving one’s personal powers of observation to crafting standout metaphors to seamlessly incorporating vivid descriptions into stories, essays, or poems. Enhanced with exercises, Word Painting is a superb self-teaching tool.” —Midwest Book Review

About the Author

Rebecca McClanahan has published ten books–of poetry, essays, writing instruction, and memoir–most recently The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change. Her work has appeared in Best American EssaysBest American PoetryThe Georgia ReviewThe Kenyon ReviewThe Gettysburg ReviewThe Sun, and numerous anthologies. McClanahan’s awards include the Wood Prize from Poetry, a Pushcart Prize in fiction, the Carter Prize for the Essay, the Glasgow Award in nonfiction, literary fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council, and a Governor’s Award for Excellence in Education. She currently lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, and teaches in the MFA programs of Rainier Writing Workshop and Queens University.

This book is an in-depth study of how to write an effective description. And there’s no single way of accomplishing the task. Though the author provides some basic “rules” such as avoiding filter words and passive sentences, most of the book takes a deeper look at descriptive writing, including but not limited to, how point of view impacts description, the use of simile and metaphor, establishing tone, and how to write active versus static passages. Numerous examples from well-known books illustrate each descriptive technique.

This is not a quick read, but it is thorough, and a good “textbook” for the serious writer. At the end of each chapter are numbered suggestions for both broadening and pinpointing a writer’s observational skills and for practicing the techniques presented in the text.