Recently I have begun to believe that the current near-banning of description in fiction is leading to more boring books— one I’ve recently read is nearly all dialogue, without the minimal descriptive tips that would make it possible to visualize the speakers and their setting.
I mentioned that I believed that the tide against description would have to be turning soon in a couple of writers’ groups on Facebook. I got some recommendation on books to read to help my descriptive powers. One was Rebecca McClanahan’s ‘Word Painting’, a book I already own and consider worthy. But another was Mary Buckham’s ‘Writing Active Setting: The Complete Guide’.
Now, my normal way to judge how-to-write books is to see how successful the author’s writing has been. Bonus points to anyone whose fiction I already read— like Lawrence Block, Orson Scott Card, James Scott Bell, Randy Ingermanson. Miss McClanahan’s work I had not read before purchasing ‘Word Painting’— but she was published by Writer’s Digest Books and her bio says she is a published poet, that she has won respected prizes, and that she has taught writing for 25 years.
Miss Buckham, on the other hand, though she claims to be a ‘USA Today Bestselling Author’ on her book cover, was a name I didn’t know. Worse, though her book claimed a publisher— Cantwell Publishing— it looked self-published. And as if the author were trying to hide that fact.
For someone who is trying to teach us how to write, her own writing in the book does not inspire. She has an odd habit of capitalizing words that should not be capitalized— Setting, Back Story— and she does this consistently. Though perhaps ‘Setting’, capitalized, is code for description of setting? Since Miss Buckham seems to be a member of the description-is-boring brigade.
I must admit that I have not managed to wade through Miss Buckham’s prose to the end. I read 1/3 and also bits and pieces of the rest. My impression is that Miss Buckham has repeated a lot of the writing rules that circulate among unpublished writers, such as ‘show, don’t tell’, and run on from there. I don’t believe that she has much real qualification to be a writing teacher.
On the good side, Miss Buckham has given many, many examples of descriptive writing from books on the best seller lists. Curiously, the book gives no hint that she has obtained the proper permissions for these quotes. But she does quote them, and then explains them, perhaps to death.
She never gives us an example of her own deathless prose, so I cannot judge whether she herself has any great degree of proficiency at descriptive writing or ‘active Setting’. But I do believe she does not currently have the skill or the background to be an effective teacher of others. Since there are many, many better books out there for writers, I’d suggest reading one of those instead.
However, if there are others out there who have read Miss Buckham’s book and feel it DID help their writing, I’m glad to hear it and I would welcome you to tell your story in a comment.
The Bible-Quran Challenge is Coming!