USA Today Bestseller – Mary Buckham has just released her new book: Writing Active Setting – The Complete How-To Guide, which is a combination volume of all three of her Active Setting books. I am one of those extremely lucky people on her team who had the opportunity to read and review this guide for her. I first met Mary when I took a number of her writing courses, which were loads of fun combined with a heap of learning. Yes, they were tough going, but I think that I am now a better writer after studying under her tutelage.
So, in celebration of the release of this wonderful writer’s reference guide, I thought that I would snaffle the opportunity to interview Mary on her Active Setting method, and what makes her a leading expert in today’s writing world.
- What prompted you to write about setting?
As I worked with writers all over the world on their own manuscripts I kept seeing folks struggling with how to use setting without killing their pacing. Time and again the same mistakes kept cropping up—setting description that wasn’t moving the story forward, that created chunks of narrative which slows pacing, missing setting so characters were free-floating in space—and the list went on. I started teaching Active Setting both online and in live workshops and could see immediate improvement in writers understanding and use of setting on the page.
- Active Setting and World Building – what are the key differences?
Most writers think of world building in reference to fantasy or sci-fi stories, the creation of a whole new universe. In both these genres readers expect setting details and will allow pacing adjustments to be drawn deep into the world of the story. But I feel every story needs to create a clear context for the events of the story. The reader who is able to smell the scents of Bangkok in a Romantic Suspense, or hear the slap of waves against a Viking ship in a Historical or experience an earthquake in Christchurch in a contemporary story, is more involved in these stories than in stories where the setting details are so vague as to be non-existent or layered in a heavy-handed manner. In my opinion all setting, whether it’s describing a future city on a distant planet or having a couple walk down a village lane, should and can be active.
- What do you find different between writing fiction and non-fiction? Which do you enjoy most?
Non-fiction writing requires a stronger analytical focus, a left-brain dominant function that is very detail oriented right from the beginning. Fiction writing forces a writer to get out of their own brain and into the brains, experiences, emotions of their characters. It is more right brain driven, emotionally exhausting (if you’re doing it well) and liberating (how many lives we get to live on the page). I find that writing both styles helps keep things fresh and interesting. I choose to write fiction earlier in the day when I have the most energy to expend on the page and non-fiction later in the day as a way to release the emotion and shift my focus. I guess I enjoy both and feel they keep me on my toes!
- What real places have you been that have struck you so much you included them in your work? How did you describe them?
I love to travel and have been fortunate to have visited and lived in very different locations. When I attended college/university I specifically chose to spend one year each at four different universities to experience four different environments (setting) in some depth while studying. First year was in Seattle, Washington (north western coast of the continental US) which is a vibrant, exciting city of four million people. Second year in Honolulu, Hawaii which is very Eastern oriented. Fourth year in Florence, Italy and last year in Washington, D.C. before I went off to London to get married. What I learned, that translates so well to my writing, is that details matter. Honing in on those details can make a Setting come alive. We must write so that the person who has never been to the world of our story can experience it while the person who may know the story setting well feels at home.
- What advice do you have for a writer trying to make a dull setting interesting?
*** If you’re finding that you’re writing dull Setting it’s a clear sign you’re not writing it actively. Get deeper into the POV of the character to see if the setting you have on the page is necessary? Have you used sensory details to create a more well-rounded setting? Ask yourself what is the intention of your setting? Make sure it’s necessary for the reader to experience that particular Setting at that point in the story and then make sure the details enhance the flow of the story vs. stop it. There should be no boring setting but there can be lazy writing.
- As a writer and a reader – I often skim-read over descriptions because I just want to get back to the story – What’s your ideal description length at any one time?
Depends on the story needs and the intention of the writer. A woman’s fiction novel may require more setting description because it’s a metaphor for what a character is feeling, a thriller may need less because the setting acts only as a vehicle to show action and conflict. A scene of a story where a character is feeling isolated may need more setting to enhance the emotional tone of this particular scene, another scene in another story may need only enough setting details to indicate the passage of time and location and nothing more. First draft write what you as the author might need to create the world of your story then revisit during the revision process to see where you can tighten, enhance, elongate, maximize setting to show emotion, conflict, back story or characterization.
- When I’m writing the first draft of a book, I’m pretty light on my settings, and I don’t fully realise until I’m in revision mode and correcting everything. What’s one piece of advice you could give me to strengthen this weakness?
I don’t see this as a weakness at all. You know what’s missing on the page and adjust as you revise. It’s part of
your process. Some folks are light on dialogue, others forget to put any clothes on their
characters (that would be me) but as long as you catch it in the future drafts you should be okay. I also think that the more you think in terms of active setting the easier it can be to add it into initial drafts. As with any element that deepens the reader’s experience—emotion, deep pov, active setting, powerful dialogue, body language—it doesn’t matter whether you add first draft or last, as long as you get it on the page.
- Which book has a setting that you think really stands out as part of the story? Which authors do you love reading for their use of Active Setting? (Just in case we feel we need to read some live examples of how Active Setting enhances the reader experience!)
In the WRITING ACTIVE SETTING books, I use a variety of genres and different authors’ work as a means to show wri
ters that active setting is not just for action adventure stories. So there are tons of book titles and authors to choose from the
bibliography at the end of each and all of the books.
Because writers are readers first and foremost I think we’ve all found books that resonate for us individually. Any time you’ve read a book that puts you deep into the world of the story, take a second and then a third look at it (after you r
ead for enjoyment). Study it because that author understands and uses elements of active setting. Also study those authors that are not masters at setting (they are probably darn good at something else—characterization, emotion, conflict, premise—because they are published) and look for where you as a writer wished there was a little more clarity, a hint more detail, a stronger sense of place, so you’ll know what to look for in your own work.
The really amazing thing about writing active setting is that once you understand how to use the concepts it can take your writing to the next level in the blink of an eye. Don’t trust me, trust what other writers have said in their comments at Amazon and Goodreads. Most of us have not been trained to maximize setting so either we ‘get it’ or we don’t. I wrote the WRITING ACTIVE SETTING books so no writer has to stumble through or beat themselves over the head because they don’t ‘get it’. It’s not rocket science. The craft techniques can be learned.
And so – that concludes the questioning time for Mary. I hope that gave you HUGE insight into just how awesome using Active Setting actually is. Here are all the links to connect with Mary, and buy her work if you would like to. (I strongly suggest buying the Complete How To guide in hard copy for your Writer’s Reference Shelf! ~I can’t wait till mine arrives!)
Mary on Amazon
Mary of Facebook
Mary on Goodreads