Thursday, March 31, 2011

Interview with Kevin Sheridan

(Or, Think Like a Writer, Read Like a Reader)

Mr. Optimism, AKA Kevin Sheridan, took a short break from his writerly schedule to share his views about critiquing. You can read about his optimism and many adventures in querying agents and editors on his blog, and landing his agent (Caitlin Blasdell) at Guide to Literary Agents here.

Kevin Sheridan is an author of screenplays, short stories, middle grade fiction,
picture books and young adult non-fiction. Someday he hopes to actually publish
one of those buggers. He’s also an actor and a musician, which means if he can’t
play the tune he can fake it really well.

NAE: Who, as a critiquer/beta-reader, have you learned the most from, and what did you learn from him/her?

KS: My agent, no doubt. She has the skills to delve deeply into editorial issues, but also step back and see the big picture. There were several continuity mistakes she caught, as well as many misspellings and misplaced commas. She also has a great way of pointing out the positives first, before she nails you with the “Oh by the way, the second half has to be rewritten” bombs.

NAE: What is the one piece of advice you can give to someone trying to develop his or her critique skills?

KS: Think like a writer, but read like a reader. Depending on where you are in the critiquing process, if you’re early on, just read and enjoy, or write down why you don’t enjoy. If it’s the second or third read-through, get tough. But make sure you remember you’re dealing with a writer who is exposing his/her self, so good things need to be found as well. Point out the best as well as the worst.

NAE: When you critique someone’s work, what is your process?

KS: I read it first through as a reader. I don’t ask myself any questions, but I write down the questions that pop up (usually in continuity or story telling). If I put it down for a while I mark exactly where I stopped and more importantly WHY I stopped there. A great book shouldn’t have any pauses. How many people hate Dan Brown because they couldn’t put his stupid book down and ended up staying up all hours of the night! (ME). Once I’ve gone through it like a reader, I may go through it again with a more critical eye. I say MAY because if it’s losing me or has too many holes or doesn’t hold my interest, there’s nothing else for the writer to fix but that. Spelling, commas, all that stuff doesn’t mean a thing (unless it’s so prevalent as to be annoying) if the story doesn’t work. If the story DOES work, however, the next time through I may pay more attention to sub-plots, lower level continuity, and character arcs. A great example of lower-level continuity is what Caitlin caught in my book. One of the characters from the revolutionary war didn’t care much about the revolution and thought America should remain British. Yet he named his horse Liberty. Not a big deal at the high level, but at a lower level – just didn’t make sense.

NAE: Is there one specific thing that you gravitate toward while critiquing?

KS: Story story story. And the story is about the hero’s journey. If I don’t get that, if I’m not excited about the possibility that this guy (or gal) is in a world of trouble to get out of, I won’t get past the first ten pages. Then I’m all about pacing. Someone once said pacing is simply the time between problems for the hero as they go on their journey. If there’s a looong time between problems, the story pacing is plodding. If there’s too many problems too quickly, the pacing is spastic and unreadable. Gotta be a good balance. Sometimes the problems get put on hold just so the reader can take a breath (a down scene, I call them).

Q Added by KS: What’s the best/worst critique you’ve ever received? 

KS: The best is my first with Caitlin – she did really tell me she really enjoyed the voices and the story but the second half has to go – it reads like a Text Book (ok, so I was a little excited about the history!). The worst was a writer’s group I went to led by a writer with a different critique style. Everything coming out of her mouth was a suggestion on how SHE would do it. Critiquing should minimize any proposed solutions. As Caitlin told me once – “I don’t know how to fix it – that’s your job. You’re the writer!” Leave the solution to the creative person, just point out what doesn’t work. This leader of the writer’s group did just the opposite: “I would do this…” and “did you think about that…” It’s my book!


Thank you, Kevin, for the insight on critiquing and finding the right critiquers for yourself.

Question for my blog friends: Do you read like a reader when you critique? I think I do unless something else in the writing distracts me, then it’s Game On.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Critiquing Your Own Tics

(Or, Growth Spurts)

You know that feeling, when another light bulb bursts on behind your creative genius, when something that one of your crit partners says to you that finally…clicks. It’s a new breath, a new way of looking at your writing and making it better. Maybe they told you that you’re protecting your protag too much, or your antagonist needs just a hint of likeability. Or maybe your fab crit group makes you realize that your theme weakens at the end, just when you it needed to strengthen. Or maybe you were (ugh) telling when you should have been (ugh) showing. And then you want to share this newfound knowledge with others, so the next twenty-seven several critiques you do, you focus on this area. Because really? Everyone should grow with you.

I think that the results of the Ninja Science Pie got me to think more about this topic, when three of our writer/critique friends fessed up: “I tend to crit things that I’m currently working on.” At first I thought, well, of course you do, but being the black-and-white scientist I am, that doesn’t answer my original question, “What area do you focus on (such as voice, plot, grammar, etc.) when you critique?”

But it did answer my question, because these writer/critiquers are developing, and the area of focus changes over time. If a new bulb begins to blink behind them, they not only embrace it, they share it. And the greatest feeling as a developing writer/critique is when you can pass your own growth onto someone else.

So here’s a question for you: What is your current growth spurt in writing/critiquing?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Interview with Guest: Anita Howard

(Or, Letting Voice Flourish)

Anita Howard has graciously come here today to talk about her views on critiquing. Anita and I met on the boards at QueryTracker. I immediately liked her for her positive attitude and for cheering other querying writers on with encouraging feedback. She recently told her story on how she decided among multiple agent offers here.

Anita Howard writes YA and adult literary fantasies with a romantic slant and is represented by Jenny Bent of The Bent Agency. Jenny has recently sent Anita's YA Alice in Wonderland spin-off to publishers and they're in the process of finding it a home.

NAE: Who, as a critiquer/beta-reader, have you learned the most from, and what did you learn from him/her?

AH: Okay, I have to cheat a little here. I can't name only one, because my crit gals are who I've learned the most from, and am still learning from today. We call ourselves The Divas; there are four others besides me. Each of us writes something different, so we use our individual fields of expertise to help one another craft more well-rounded and layered books.

Linda writes thrillers, and is our pacing and tension expert; she keeps the story moving along at a clipped speed and excels at finding ways to insert more tension or suspense into a scene.

Marcy writes mainstream literary, and is a voice queen. She has a way of honing in on each of our unique voices and keeping us on track. Plus she's a motivational speaker on the side and keeps us positive and upbeat about our WIPs and publishing journey.

April writes romance, so of course she's awesome at sexual tension and internal conflicts. She's also a particularly exceptional grammar and line editor.

Then there's Jenny. Like me she writes YA, but hers are a little less fantastical and more on the light paranormal side. She has a very literary voice and rocks at characterization, helping us inject emotional depth into our characters. She's also super-imaginative and is good at brainstorming when someone needs to come up with a unique twist.

NAE: What is the one piece of advice you can give to someone trying to develop his or her critique skills?

AH: Learn to differentiate between voice and story. Sometimes you might feel like something doesn't jive as you're reading along. But make sure it's actually something wrong w/the story itself and not just a subconscious bristle triggered by the prose.

Critting is not a place for subjectivity. Sometimes critters try to change the WAY their partners write. That happened to me in my first group and if I hadn't left, I would never have honed my voice into what it is today. My prose would've been stifled. It's best to concentrate on the things that aren't individual to us as writers. Plot, characterization, pacing, conflict, motivation, grammatical errors, etc. All of these are up for grabs. But leave the voice alone so it can flourish into what it's meant to be.

NAE: When you critique someone’s work, what is your process?

AH: I like editing as I go.

NAE: Is there one specific thing that you gravitate toward while critiquing?

AH: I have a good ear for dialogue, so that's something I pay close attention to. I'm also a very visual /sensory writer so I'm attuned to issues with setting. Aside from that, it's really a combination of all elements.


NAE: Thanks, Anita, for stopping by and sharing your responses with us.

Leaving your critique partner's voice alone is a fantastic point. We're not there as a critiquer to make the person into a clone of us. Let. Voice. Flourish. Also? Note how Anita felt compelled to named several people in the first question who’ve influenced her in various ways, which seems to go along with our Pie Post this past Tuesday. I love it when things tie together in a neat little bow.

Watch Anita’s blog for updates on her submission-to-publishers process.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Sampling of Critiquers

(Or, Having Some Pie)

Using Ninja Science, I gathered a sampling of 35 writer/critiquers, and asked about critique style. I based my hypothesis (using big scientific words now – feel free to zone out) on my own little critique circle. I have a fantabulous* set of critiquers who are each incredible at critiquing certain things, and I would have put money on my larger sample showing the same pattern.

And I would have won the bet.

Sample Data & Method: 35 total people responded to the question; 21 from Verla Kay’s Boards, 7 from the Flash Factory at Zoetrope, 6 from Write Stuff Extreme (private group), and 1 on an earlier blogpost. The question was posed open-endedly, so in some cases, the researcher (moi) had to interpret the data. I loved reading through all the answers, and admit that some of them made me think more about my own critique process.

Results: Charted in the pie graph below. Because I’m hungry. (I know. I missed Pi Day by a week. My apologies.)

We could probably debate whether some areas could be combined, but I kept 18 categories to show the variety of responses. With 35 people accounting for 71 total tallies, each person averaged 2 categories (though some reported four, some reported one). Writers/critiquers of shorter (flash) fiction were more likely to report multiple categories than those of manuscript-length fiction.

Discussion: I recently found out that one of my writerly friends had 10 (TEN) beta readers for her manuscript. If I thought that was overkill before, I don’t anymore. Especially since she now has a re-write request from a bona fide agent. My friend likely has a critiquer who covers almost all of the above categories. If she used 3 betas, odds are that she’d hadve missed out on some pertinent feedback. Even within a category, the answers carried different shades depending on the responder. Character/Character Arc (14 responses) referred to inconsistencies of character, character arc, strength and depth of character, likeability of character, etc.

So, I guess the follow-up question would be: How many critiquers/beta readers do you have read your work? And, how many do you think you should have review your work?

Next post: A Critiquerly interview with Anita Howard, a newly agented YA writer out on submission.

*Fantabulous is a real word, albeit slang, left alone by spellcheck. Critiquer is not a word, attacked repeatedly by spellcheck. Add it to your personal dictionary. I'm staging a protest. Details TBA.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Critiquerly Interview the First: INTERN

(Or, Shake Each Scene until it Bleeds)

NOT AN EDITOR is stoked to have snagged an intern for her first ever interview about critiques. Not just any intern. No. We’re talking *the* INTERN. Well, former intern who has gone on to bigger and better things. I love her posts--mixed with real information and a dash (or ten) of humor—such as this one

INTERN’s thoughts about critiques interested me not only because she’s worked at a publishing house and an agency, but also because she’s a once-inspiring-now-published author. And, you know, her unfaltering anonymity is uber-cool. Here's what she has to say about critiquing.

INTERN is a former publishing intern who now lives in a barn. 
She has published one book and is "working on" a "novel".
Who, as a critiquer/beta-reader for INTERN’s own writing, has INTERN learned the most from, and what did INTERN learn from him/her?

INTERN's most memorable experience of being critiqued was when a writer-acquaintance e-mailed her from New Zealand to say "this story was trash and you obviously don't care about being a writer".  It was breathtaking.  INTERN is not being sarcastic here—sometimes, you get too complacent as a writer and you need someone to say "what the hell are you doing?  you could be doing something really great and you're spending your time on this garbage?"  It's rare to find someone both discerning enough and bold enough to give you that kick in the pants.  (PS INTERN stopped writing such trashy stories after that experience).

What is the one piece of advice INTERN can give to someone trying to develop his or her critique skills?

Critique with an eye to the big picture, not the individual sentences (that can come later). There's no use quibbling over "azure eyes" versus "cerulean eyes" if the pacing's in shambles or there's no discernable conflict. When INTERN reads a manuscript, she is constantly asking herself questions: Does each scene have a goal?  Are the characters changing enough over the course of the manuscript?  Are the subplots developing and inter-tangling at an interesting rate?  Is it boring? 

Often, it's the big-picture questions that will help a person bring her novel to the next level, not the minor tweaks.

When INTERN critiques someone’s work, what is INTERN’s process?

INTERN is definitely a critique-as-you-go-er.  As she reads, she types notes furiously into a separate "critique" document. Once she's read the whole manuscript through once (and assembled 10-20 pages of notes), she goes for a really, really long walk and feeds some ducks or something while her thoughts brew.  Over the next day or two, she re-reads certain parts of the manuscript and slowly assembles her incoherent rants into useful, organized comments.  Then she feeds some more ducks. 

Is there one specific thing that INTERN gravitates toward while critiquing?

INTERN is a fiend for scenes.  She can't stand pointless or redundant scenes—and once you learn to recognize them, you can't turn it off.  Sometimes, authors will write three or four or a dozen or a trillion scenes that convey basically the same information.  If you can combine all the redundant, diluted scenes into a single scene, the result is often way more powerful. INTERN always asks herself, "What is this scene doing?  Why is it here?  Why are we making the readers read it?  How could we give it more impact?"  INTERN's motto is, shake each scene until it bleeds!

Question added by INTERN:  "Ahh, I just got my critique back and now I want to do so many revisions I don't know where to start!"

Take a long walk and feed some ducks.  Lock up your manuscript and don't let yourself touch it for at least a few days, lest you fly into a frenzy of massive plot overhauls and character changes that you will later realize you can't really handle. Getting a critique is like a fire drill:  Proceed in an orderly fashion!  Walk, don't run!  Don't panic!  OK, maybe panic a little :)


Word of Caution to my crit partners: Beware of NOT AN EDITOR coming down on your scenes.  Purchase gauze and Bactine, and possibly needle/stitching thread. You may thank INTERN for this newfound area of critiquerly wisdom.

And now, NOT AN EDITOR will resume using her real name. Or not.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Ninja Science First, Announcements Later

(Or, some of NOT AN EDITOR’s favorite things.)

So I’ve been skipping around the writerly forums asking a question: “What do you like to look for when you critique someone’s work?” This is my attempt to establish a baseline, of sorts, using ninja-like data collection techniques that would likely fall on the weaker side of scientific discipline. It’s only been a few days, but answers are slowly but steadily pouring in. I’m planning on gathering a few hundred or maybe a thousand more responses, tabulating the results, and reporting them here next week. Feel free to throw your own response in the comments below, if and only if you haven’t already done so elsewhere since we don’t want to make my head spin during tabulation.

Have I left you hanging in suspense? I’ll wait for your heartbeat to slow down. Okay, well, I’ll share some teaser responses in the meantime.

On plot:
My strongest point is plotting…I always go for the big picture first.

On Character:
Character first, second and fourth.

On Tension:
…It comes down to: how can things get worse?

On Writerly Development:
If I have a weakness I'm currently working on in my own writing, similar problems jump out at me most when I critique.

On, er, Multiple Personality:
I try to critique like a reader, and not a writer.

On Using Euphemisms and Legend Keys:
"I wanted more" means "You didn't say enough."
"What a wild ride!" translates to "I didn't understand a damned word!"

There are plenty of memorable responses that I could share, but then, I’d never get to my announcements. And I am so unbelievably excited about this news that it’s difficult for my ninja fingers to type without bouncing in my seat. *puts down Diet Coke¹*

~This shall be dubbed Announcement the First~
Without further, um, sips from icy cold cola: We, my critiquerly friends, are going to embark on some interviewesque discussions with fabulous critiquers/writers. Because after I traveled around several cyber-writerly places asking you "the question," I wondered how several other people, in particular, would respond to the same line of questions. People you may already know.

~Henceforth, Announcement the Second~
One guest interviewee is scheduled to visit our very own blog on THURSDAY. And in the spirit of our post a la suspense, NOT AN EDITOR will have to leave you hanging on WHO this fantastic, horrifically funny author/blogger is.

Although, I’ve given you a few clues already. Let’s see who picks up on them. But for those of us who need a few more hints: She’s hip. She’s gone through a career change. Her significant other is a computer savant. She took a break from blogging for a bit, and returned last week, much to the happiness of her followers.

Who is our very first, very honorable interviewee? Your guesses in the comments below.

~(Minor) Announcement the Third~
I believe we’ve founded a word, and I’m not sure how to make it official, other than announcing it here. The word, which I’ve used several times, is CRITIQUER. I can’t believe it isn't considered a word already, yet spell check twitches every time I type it. Please, use critiquer freely on all writerly/critiquerly forums and blogs. Not critique-er. CRITIQUER. Join me. Make it real.

¹(Caffeinated addiction of choice. Not coffee. It's never been coffee. Don't hate me.)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Writing Critiques Comes with Perks

(Or, why critiquing is like cupcakes.)
My blog readers have already suggested so many critique-writing blog topics, but I’d like to start with the benefits I've found in critiquing. And I don’t mean for the writer being critiqued. Oh, no. I mean the benefits for (me) the developing writer providing the critiques, because the perks are real and they’re writerly life-changing. Psh, it's not just the reciprocal reviews I speak of (although, that’s absolutely frosting whipped up so pretty on top of the double-chocolate cupcake of perks). Here are a few other bonuses that have snuck up on me during my writer-critiquer journey.
1.   Recognizing my own weaknesses: I don’t know how many times I started to comment on another writer’s work, and then forehead-palmed with this realization: I had the same writing tic. Repeated words used, er, repeatedly. Telling not showing. Choppiness. Clich├ęs. When you’re too close to your writing, it’s easier to see certain things through someone else’s work--a fundamental truth that goes beyond the writing world. But once the tics click (tongue twister) in your mind, you can go back and strengthen your own projects. And then you’re pastry—I mean, writing—is that much closer to being agent-ready.

2.   Discovering other techniques: Sure, you can discover effective techniques by reading published material. However, when you critique, you’re in a zone. As you find something that unexpectedly works, you are more likely to delve into it to let the writer know why the passage was so successful. And then, bam. You’ve acquired a tool you can use in your own writing.

3.   Exchanging perspectives: Reviewing a writer’s work whose style is different (e.g., genre, voice, pacing) is challenging, but critical in broadening your writing universe. It doesn’t end at the horizon of your computer screen or your WiP. Finding a critique partner whose mind works a bit askance from your own is eye-opening. Just as you bring a different personality in critiquing their work, they will to yours, seeing your project from angles you didn’t know existed. It’s a gorgeous, hand-crafted sprinkly on top of the cupcake kind-of-thing.

4.   Understanding the flip-side: It’s head-bangingly hard to come up with clear and positive ways of providing feedback that makes a valid point while explaining why it didn’t work for you, as a reader/critiquer. The more you critique, the more you understand how painstaking this process is, and in turn, you appreciate the gift that your critique partners give you. How closely they’re paying attention to your style. How many times they've read each revision. How they catch things that improve your work tenfold. How invested they’ve become in your characters. In fact, you may need to name a few characters after them. Just sayin.

5.   Finding amazing partnerships: We all know how difficult the road is to published writing success, and how many times your cupcake is returned to you with a “no thanks, I prefer cookies,” message. From that incredible, dream agent/editor. And the rejection sends you into darkness and misery. Who is it that picks you up from the pit of despair? It is your network of critique partners who know of your incredible efforts and who knew your cupcake while it was just a cup of flour in the bowl. And they’ll remind you how exquisite it is now. Krista wrote about her personal experience with this here.

Let me know some of the other benefits you’ve found while critiquing other writers. More blog topics are always welcome. And then, off with you crazy cupcake-yielding youngsters. Go critique something already.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Pilot Post: A Writer's Family

I read this remark today on one of the forums I frequent:
“What I love about writers is that we encourage each other and think there's room for all of us!”

Sure, the statement is fundamentally true, but that's not what struck me when I read it. What struck me is that it’s a sentiment that every plugged-in writer feels every time we ask for help from our community. We are each other’s biggest fans, cheerleaders, and marching band all in one. Once we’ve found our beloved critique partner(s), we’ve found family.

This blog is dedicated to my cyber family of writers. We’re not each other’s editor, but we provide editorial feedback so that our writer-cousins have a better chance at success. 

But when I first started out, not as a writer—as a critiquer, I didn’t know what the heck to say to another writer. Who was I to tell them that their story didn’t work for me? I tended to re-read their piece until I figured out what they meant, and then congratulated them for the intention behind the piece.

Helpful? Nope.

Now further into my critiquerly journey, I’m strengthening my skills and providing more helpful feedback.

Not An Editor will focus on the critique process for manuscripts, query letters, and any other piece related to professional writing. Guest critiques, common writing tics, and self-editing topics will each take turns in the spotlight on this blog.

Take a second to let me know what critique topics you’d like me to cover. Or, ask questions and I’ll research for an answer (grammar, structure, etc.). Hopefully, the journey of this blog will be one of critiquerly growth, which is just as important and very related to writerly growth.