"Keep working on a plan. Make no little plans. Make the biggest you can think of, and spend the rest of your life carrying it out." Harry S. Truman

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Workshop with Uma Krishnaswami

Those who know me, especially my writers friends, know that Uma Krishnaswami is waaayy up there on my list of favorite people in the whole wide world. Any writer who comes into contact with her is taken by her unique, in-depth teaching style, her warmth, her wisdom and humour, and most of all, her great patience and generosity.

I don't quite remember how I came to know about Uma. Most likely, I was searching the Internet for multicultural books and resources. Anyway, I read Chachaji's Cup and loved it. And I checked her website, and saw that she was available to critique manuscripts. The fact that she is originally from India, where I'd come to live, seemed like the last sign I needed to get in touch with her.

I sent her Ifeanyi - my independent boy who now also goes by the name of Amadi - and that was truly a new beginning for me. I was blown away by the depth of her critique! I'd had that same story critiqued before, but no one had gone through such great lengths to actually help me understand the structure of story, the importance of finding its heart, of focusing on a theme, and on the character, too. I mean, we can all read about story arc a million times, but if you are kind of slow, like me, it will take you ages to actually grasp the concept, or you might grasp that concept, but still struggle to translate it into your own writing.

Uma recommended that I take her online advanced workshop for children's writers, and I did. The format is perfect for people like me: we all post one work in progress every two weeks, and the other participants in the workshop critique it. Then, Uma comes in and wraps up with her own critique, usually drawing on what's been said by the others and developing it further.

One of Uma's great tools, in my opinion, is the way she approaches the critique process. She insists that we step back from the text to look at the big picture. No line editing, no comments on the structure of a sentence, on the choice of a word, as these are things that may not even be found in the manuscript, in the end. That distance forces us to think in terms of story theme, story arc, voice, character. I've found it particularly enlightening, even though I still struggle sometimes to think along those big picture lines. It is so much easier to comment on word choice, on the flow and rhythm of a sentence.

So we are to focus on what works, and to say why. And this is preceded by a + sign.
+ I loved the way you show us your character's trepidation by describing her sweaty hands.

And we are to focus on what raises questions, and this is preceded by a ?
? I didn't understand why your character suddenly starts jumping around the bush. Was she bitten by a bee? Is she allergic, maybe? You might want to give us some hint beforehand.

And we are to focus on what needs fixing, what gets in the way of the story, and these comments will be preceded by a * sign.
* You switch POV at the end of the chapter. As your POV character leaves the scene, in pain and in shock, she cannot possibly know that the bee is still hiding in the bush, snickering happily because she finally managed to sting her.

No - sign used, as Uma says that what appears to be a minus to someone might actually be the seed of an idea which can be developed into something else. By using the - sign, we can give the writer the feeling that he's better off forgetting about this idea all together, when in fact, said idea might still be used, transformed, and in the end help push the story forward.

Finally, we are to give our overall impression. What is this work really about?

I'm currently participating in my third online workshop led by Uma, and once again, I'm learning something practically every day. Plus, it forces me to write. So, for those who love the process and want to learn from the best - Uma has since joined the faculty of the M.F.A. program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College - I highly recommend her classes and workshops.

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