Sunday, June 12, 2011

Critiquerly Interview with Author Sherry Thomas

(Or, If the Old Doesn’t Go, the New Doesn’t Come)

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned how thrilled I am to play a small part in the Crits for Water campaign, where authors and agents donate critiques to raise money for people who don’t have clean water. My tiny role is to interview some of these generous agents and authors—people dedicated to saving lives. And let me say, thrilled doesn't cover it. Honored. Humbled. Yep.

And today, we’ll meet historical romance author Sherry Thomas who has donated a three-chapter critique that is up for auction on Monday, June 13th. She’s witty, she’s wise, and she’s classy.


Lisa Kleypas calls Sherry Thomas “the most powerfully original historical romance author working
today.” Her books have been on best-of-the-year lists of both Publishers Weekly and Library Journal.
In 2010, RWA honored her work Not Quite a Husband with a prestigious RITAÒ award.

Her story is all the more interesting given that English is Sherry's second language--she has come a
long way from the days when she made her laborious way through Rosemary Roger's Sweet Savage
Love with an English-Chinese dictionary. She enjoys creating stories. And when she is not
writing, she thinks about the zen and zaniness of her profession, plays computer games with
her sons, and reads as many fabulous books as she can find.
You can find out more about her on her website, her blog, or Twitter.


NAE: After a writer gets back an in-depth critique, what would you recommend in terms of a review/revise process?

ST: Everyone’s process is different, so I can’t recommend, but can only describe my own process.

I read through all the major issue comments first, sometimes several times. And if necessary, I speak to the critiquer (agent, editor, partner, etc.) so as to better gauge how strongly they feel about certain issues.

For example, recently, my agent read a manuscript of mine, which she loved, but then she pointed out that there is a “potential plot flaw” in the third act. I am rather dense, so “potential plot flaw” reads to me as “we might have a issue, we might not.” But in talking to her, I realized that “potential plot flaw” means “Houston, we have a problem.”

After I have understood all the major issues, I sit on it for a bit, if I have the luxury of time. And even if I don’t, I still do the same. The subconscious is a writer’s greatest friend. But the intricacies of a story needs time to percolate through the subconscious, to come out the other end as ideas and fixes.

In the above example, I rewrote, from scratch, about 2/3 of the third act. (I am a huge fan of revising from scratch. Don’t hold on to the already done if the already done isn’t working. Room for improvement is infinite, but you have to be willing to chuck stuff to make that room. The Chinese say, “If the old doesn’t go, the new doesn’t come.”)

Once I have the structural problems fixed, then its on to interior decoration, i.e., the prose, the details, and all the little things that elevate the story to the next level of reading experience.

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

ST: Develop the ability to see what the writer’s strengths and objectives are. In other words, I wouldn’t worry so much about romantic connection early on if the book is intended as a mystery. And I wouldn’t insist someone begin a book in media res if it is clear that s/he has a voice that can carry a more leisurely narrative.

When I critique, my goal is to help the writer get where s/he wants to go, rather than leave my imprint on the story. That’s what my own stories are for.

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

ST: I read it once. And then, I’ll sit on it for a few days, just like with my own work. After that I’ll read it again and this time comment as I go.

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

ST: Grab-me-ness. I don’t want to read a book. I want a book to carry me away. Plot, characters, emotions, prose—any one of the above done particularly well will suck me in, although all of them done well together will ensure that I stay there.

So during the time I sit on it after the first read, it’s usually for my subconscious to give to me, in words, where the book needs improvement in pulling me in and making me stay. Is it pacing? Is it something wonky with the set-up? Are characters acting in a way that makes me scratch my head? I will address everything that gets in the way of my reading experience.

As for grammar, unless the mistakes are egregious, I leave it to the copyeditors.

Question added by ST: Which critical advice do you take and which don’t you?

ST: The short answer is that I am willing to make almost all the small changes and almost all the big changes.

Because my critique partner is so much better at grammar than I am—she’d worked as a copyeditor at one time—I always take all the grammatical corrections she gives. And because her prose is a thing of beauty, I follow her advice on sentence structure. And if she says this paragraph needs to have more impact, I see what I can do to give it that additional impact.

Or, for example, when my editor wants me to add a few sentences here and there for the sake of clarity.

So those are the small changes.

Big changes are when someone says flat out that this story is not working for her. Usually it is editors/agents who will tell you this, because their reputation depends on your work and because they are in a position to tell you so.

At this point you will need to ask yourself whether you trust this person. I trust my editor and my agent completely. I know they have loved my work in the past. I know they want to love this one just as much. And if given all that, they say, nope, it’s majorly not working, then I am willing to dig deep and make the big changes.

It is on the medium-size, scene-level changes that I very much use my discretion. If I like the advice, I’ll use it. If I think it doesn’t accord with my vision for the story or my taste, then I feel free to ignore it.


Thanks, Sherry for the spectacular interview. Love the “grab-me-ness” aspect that you look for when you critique—to be carried away. It’s what I hope for in any novel I read.

Don’t forget to check out Sherry’s Crits for Water auction on June 13th, where a lucky bidder will win a three-chapter critique. And for those of us dying to read some of Sherry’s work, HIS AT NIGHT looks amazing:

No comments:

Post a Comment