Into the Deep End
Malcolm Carvalho is a graduate of the 2021 Odyssey Writing Workshop. He writes science fiction and poetry. His work has been featured in several literary journals and magazines, including 365 Tomorrows, Kitaab, Bengaluru Review, and Muse India. Most recently, his poetry has been featured in the anthology A Letter, A Poem, A Home. He blogs at www.grainsofthought.wordpress.com. He also facilitates poetry workshops, and performs improv comedy in his adopted city, Bangalore
When I came to Odyssey, I had made a small list of the skills I wanted to work on. I wanted to focus on creating stronger characters and better plot resolutions. I wanted to know what I was missing in my stories.
By the end of the first week, I knew I would learn much more than what I had expected. I would learn of the common pitfalls that writers could fall into – the protagonist walking leisurely to the heart of the story, scenes that did not have a significant bearing on the character, irrelevant worldbuilding detail that did not affect the plot. I would learn about the elements that make fiction more engaging – stronger openings, motivated protagonists with clear goals, a stronger causal chain of events, a consistent POV and a bunch of other insights that went into my frenetically scribbled notes.
Over six weeks, Jeanne helped us break down the art of fiction into smaller elements –setting, plot, POV, character, theme, style, genre. Every day, we assembled for the online classes, from varying time zones in the US, Denmark, India and New Zealand, and absorbed every bit we could from Jeanne’s lectures and the weekly class from the guest lecturer. I must confess, before Odyssey began, I was skeptical how I would hold up attending the online classes while being based in a different time zone. I’d want to believe I surprised myself with my resilience, but equal credit goes to Jeanne’s preparation. She kept us engaged with her organized notes and handouts, and her passion and enthusiasm made the evenings fun.
Of course, it was not all just fun. Honing a craft involves a fair bit of rigorous work, and Jeanne challenged us to do just that with the daily journal entries. The exercises focused on strengthening specific writing muscles and varied around the elements of fiction. The sharing and peer feedback about the exercises often sprung up new ideas. Our daily work also included critiquing each other’s stories. This helped me examine my own writing more critically, and I also picked up skills from the other students. Some of us even wrote stories inspired by the submissions we read during these critiques.
Reading each other’s work also fostered a stronger sense of community as we learnt more about our writing styles. We soon made our own inside jokes and quirky quotes as the classes progressed. I’m glad that our little group has retained this sense of community even beyond the workshop. We celebrate each other’s victories and push ourselves during our struggles.
Throughout the Odyssey journey, Jeanne piloted us through nuances of the writing craft. She was forthright yet sensitive in her critiques and helped identify strengths and weaknesses in our work. I believe she may have also uncovered some of our blind spots – this is certainly true for me. She was ever present, ready to answer our queries during the lectures or in the one-on-one meetings, and even arranged brainstorming sessions when we were stuck with our story ideas.
Through six weeks, I consistently wrote to deadlines, discovering insights and stretching myself – writing 3000+ words in a day, for example, which was a first for me. A looming deadline occasionally made me anxious, but Scott, our resident student supervisor, would patiently listen in and help me look at the situation more calmly.
Odyssey has definitely made me more aware of the nuts and bolts of the craft. My time at Odyssey didn’t magically transform me into a better writer; I doubt any workshop or program can do that on its own. But it empowered me with the tools I need to write stronger fiction. Before Odyssey, I could vaguely sense when a story had something missing. Now, I can identify the missing stuff more clearly.
Like Jeanne would often say at Odyssey, the editor brain evolves more quickly than the writing brain. I’m sure the latter will catch up soon, with regular practice.