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.


Cat said...

I think that it's ok to throw out some ideas on how a problem could be fixed. The hard part is if the critiquer feels insulted if I do it differently or if I disagree.

Marybk said...

I think it's OK to do things differently or to stand your ground, Cat. Your critiquer's job is to let you know when something didn't work. If you review their comments and make your own determination, then, it's a beautiful thing in my book.

I think that when the critique styles don't match, though, as Kevin pointed out in his case, then it's time to move on to a different group.

Anita said...

First of all, congrats Kevin on your wonderful agent! Sounds like the two of you are very compatible. And Mary, excellent job w/the interview as always.

Kevin, excellent and savvy advice on critting. Read like a reader first. I think we should print that on t-shirts and have it be a required critique uniform. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts.

Marybk said...

T-shirts! Fantastic idea, Anita. Maybe I'll have some made up. "Let voice flourish" is another key phrase to include on these shirts. ;)

Kevin Sheridan said...

Thanks Mary for this great opportunity! I love answering questions and networking with other writers!

Thanks Anita for the feedback! And Now that it's out, I need to copyright "Read like a Reader" :)

And Cat, I agree, sometimes it is helpful to get input, but in this instance the input was more "I know more than you" kind of input. It's really all in the delivery. Caitlin has DEFINITELY proposed some solutions every once in a while, but she does it in a way that allows me to take it or leave it, not like a she knows more than me. It's a creative process, and the writer should be the creator. It's your world - live in it!

Thanks again everyone!

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed this interview. Very helpful info!

Marybk said...

Hey, just saw you snuck in here, norma...glad you found it helpful.

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