Tuesday, June 10, 2008

To Be a Critic and Author of an Idiot's Guide

Today, I have Cynthia Greenwood, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Shakespeare's Plays." Cynthia discusses being a theater critic in a shrinking market, how she found her publisher and the process of writing a book in the Idiot's Guide family. The Big Book Giveaway continues today. Click on the word "comments" and ask Cynthia a writing-related question by 5 p.m. CST today. If I randomly draw your question, Cynthia will answer it on the blog on Thursday and you'll win a copy of her book! It's easy - and I even cover the cost of shipping! So, it is completely FREE!

Tell us about yourself.
I am an arts journalist and critic, as well as a consultant. As a freelancer, I began writing on a variety of subjects in 1990. I did some news reporting on juvenile crime, for example, and I wrote about education, business, and other topics. During the nineties I also taught literature and composition at Wharton County Junior College full-time, before I left in 1998 and began working on my own. I live in Houston, and I'm married to a district court judge who shares my passion for novels, nonfiction books, and plays. We are also avid playgoers. At home we have two extremely spoiled cats.

Tell us about your new book, "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Shakespeare's Plays."
The new book is a comprehensive guide to Shakespeare's more familiar, popular plays - 20 of them, to be exact. It aims to assure readers that Shakespeare wrote his plays as entertainment, as works to be watched, heard and enjoyed. (Most people are introduced to Shakespeare in school, where dissecting his words on the page can be very frustrating.) I wrote the book for a broad audience: students of English and drama, teachers of Shakespeare, actors, theatre critics, playgoers, and the general reader who may feel as if he or she may have missed a lot when studying Shakespeare in high school and college. What makes the book unusual, I think, is that it focuses on the essence of plot and language, supplemented by original commentary by directors and actors who regularly stage the plays. It takes you behind the scenes with theatre people, suggesting that there are a variety of ways to interpret the plays. Using tips about good stage and film adaptations, the book encourages you to see the plays in performance, whenever possible.

How did you get interested in the performing arts?
I've come to the performing arts as a young student of piano and as a reader. I've always enjoyed reading plays, ever since I started reading classics by Miller, Ibsen, Wilde, O'Neill, Shakespeare, etc. in college and grad school. Also, Houston has a fantastic theatre, ballet, and opera scene; many arts presenters here are internationally renowned. So I've always taken advantage of that. I started reviewing opera, ballet, and other musical stage works for the Houston Press in 1998. Later I branched out and began filing news reports and features on prominent musicians, interesting and controversial productions, and the city's major arts presenters (Houston Symphony and Houston Grand Opera, for example.)

I've heard that being a critic is getting tougher, due to the shrinking markets - and being a theatre critic provides even fewer markets. Have you found it necessary to broaden your niche, or just develop a better platform within the same one?
I've never written exclusively about the performing arts. It just happens to be my principal passion. When I stopped reviewing for the Houston Press, I freelanced for arts editors at metropolitan dailies and eventually saw some of those markets disappear, as my editors assigned less and less. My arts writing is subsidized by steady work for a great client who essentially regards me as an employee. I review for the markets that still make assignments and seek new ones, of course. I also write regular reviews for BlogCritics, an online magazine.

Did you come up with the idea for your book, or was it presented to you? Tell us about that.
Yes. I came up with the idea and had an opportunity to pitch it to an editor at the ASJA conference in New York. She was very receptive. I spent several months researching and writing the proposal, which was accepted more than a year ago.

How was it working on an "Idiot's Guide" book, and is there a particular formula you must follow?
It was challenging and satisfying, largely because book writing allowed me to explore my subject in-depth, which better suits my mindset and my academic background. In terms of the content itself, you don't follow a formula for the Idiot's Guide books. There is a scheme for the layout - prescribed chapter lengths and ways of organizing the material to make room for sidebars, but there is complete freedom in how you write and present your material. If there is one chief requirement by the editors, it is this - the book must be an entertaining read. And while my book is aimed at college-level and secondary-level students studying difficult Shakespearean masterworks, it remains accessible and engaging. At least, that's what many readers are telling me so far.

How did you find your agent? Or, if you don't have one, what is the advantage of that?
I didn't have an agent. Instead, I worked with an attorney specializing in intellectual property and she helped me review the publisher's contract and negotiate a few changes. This process worked very well for me. I have a very experienced attorney whom I trust. In the future, I will seek an agent if I have a novel or a nonfiction book that is harder to sell on my own.

How has the publisher assisted in marketing your book and what have you had to do yourself?
The book just came out last month so the publisher and publicist have been busy since February. They send out a newsletter listing the book, review copies to major media and pre-publicity markets, press releases to coincide with the release itself, and pitches tied to viable dates like Shakespeare's birthday. They have assisted my efforts in whatever way is possible. In turn, I have worked up my own publicity plan and plan to market the book to different segments over the coming weeks, months, and years. They continue to support my efforts at pitching reviews and promotion in general.

What's next for you?
As the book is released, I take the time to re-connect with my contributors in the Houston theatre community, as well as local playwrights who are very supportive. I am gathering information for new book proposals and promoting the book heavily. I'm also taking the opportunity to write about Shakespeare and his plays whenever I can. I also continue my research and study of of Shakespeare's works, and keep up with scholarly and popular works about him. And I continue to review books and plays by other authors.

And now Cynthia is awaiting your questions...


Blogger Thomas Pellechia said...


Just yesterday I finished my author review of the Complete Idiot's Guide to Starting and Running a Winery (Nov. release date).

I agree with your assessment of working with the publisher and editors. In fact, I think they display a great amount of respect for authors. It was refreshing.

I had some trouble sticking to the formatting regimen, but that's me--loose and un-controllable...

What did annoy me, however, was the attitude of the technical editor.

The CIG publisher asks authors to recommend a technical editor to check facts, which is of course a good idea. But the guy I recommended didn't seem to understand either his role or how to read...he critiqued not only the book but the CIG format--every so often he corrected a technical fact.

I wonder if you had a similar or better experience and how you handled it.

Thomas Pellechia

7:48 AM CDT  
Anonymous Sandra Beckwith said...


What a wonderful idea for a book! It seems like something that would make a great gift for high school and college students.

Can you say anything about your next book idea? I'm curious about whether you could do a CIG to another famous playwright or huge literary figure.

Regardless, congratulations! I'm sure this book will do very well because you're supporting it.

Sandy Beckwith

8:21 AM CDT  
Anonymous Suzanne Franco said...

Wow! I never thought of myself as a "Shakespeare" kind of girl ... but a version for idiots I could get into. LOL

It sounds great for my kids too.

Thanks for another great interview Kerri and thanks to Cynthia for sharing. *SmiLes* Suzanne

8:35 AM CDT  
Blogger Audrey said...

Dear Cynthia,
What do you think of contemporary theories that Shakespeare's works were written by a woman, like Robin P. Williams' Sweet Swan of Avon?

9:48 AM CDT  
Anonymous JustinS said...

Hi, Cynthia.

I can't get the idea that some things shouldn't get the Complete Idiot's Guide treatment out of my head. I buy what you said about Shakespeare, that his stuff was originally meant for entertainment. That's fair, and I can see the need and justification for a CIG to his works.


Do you worry at all that this could lead to CIGs for other authors/pieces that might be better left alone, that people might, instead of reading and appreciating the original works, just learn the gist from the CIG version and be done with it? Or am I just a pretentious and/or elitist ass for worrying? (My mom would say the latter, so don't feel like you need to be nice answering.)


10:05 AM CDT  
Blogger Tom Dulaney said...

Two schools of thought seem to prevail in writing critiques of the arts. One takes the route of functioning strictly as a reporter, telling readers how audiences reacted to the performance, describing the performers and the play. And adding a personal observation on the "enjoyability" of the production.

The other route seems to favor application of a huge amount of background knowledge and training, casting the critic as a judge, jury (and, often) executioner of the work.

Which, do you feel, best serves the needs of the general play-going or moving-going audience?

Tom Dulaney

11:26 AM CDT  

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