Friday, 27 July 2012

An Inside View from the Paris Writers Workshop 2012 - Writing the Novel

A fellow Parisian writer (Dimitri Keramitas) attended this year's Paris Writer's Workshop (PWW 2012), participating in the 'Writing the Novel' sessions led by Samantha Chang. I asked Dimitri to do a guest blog on the week long course on novel-writing, and below is what he has to say...

A writing workshop is an essential way for the budding or even veteran writer to ramp up his skills to a whole new level. Creative writing classes and writers groups are valuable tools, but don’t compare with the concentrated energy of a good workshop, with its many diverse participants, seminars, and panel discussions. They’re an excellent way as well to make contacts among professionals and other writers.

I recently attended the Paris Writers Workshop, which was excellent this year, and couldn’t help noting some ideas about what we should put into workshops, and get out of them. I’ve attended the PWW before, usually with a fairly finished piece of work. This year I decided to bring a novel that I’d just started, of which I’d completed only a handful of chapters, and was interested to see how that would work. The PWW was held at the American University’s site in a Left Bank (but plush) neighborhood in the 7th Arrondissement. Scores of participants (all English-speakers) came from the world over, with a wide variety of age and experience. (In the novel class the range in age was from 30 to a very youthful 77!)

The seminars at the PWW run for an entire week: three hours a day, every day. The format is ideal for writers who want to have their work discussed in depth. On the other hand, scheduling only allows for one seminar to be chosen. Other workshops permit several classes, but each may last only one session. That may be congenial for the beginner who wants to discover several genres. The first method is more appropriate for someone with experience or who has already written something substantial. This difference must be considered by the would-be workshopper if she wants to avoid disappointment. At this year’s novel seminar, no one seemed to have a finished manuscript, but most had written a good part of the novel, in addition to having a fairly detailed synopsis.

While the format of a seminar can be found on the workshop’s site, it’s not as easy to evaluate the person leading the seminar. Seminar leaders tend to be writers as well as instructors, but often the writers are not household names. Even if the writer is well-known, even if he or she is a genuinely brilliant writer, that doesn’t make for a good writing teacher. The only way to know for sure is to get the opinion of someone who’s already taken a class with the person. The novel seminar at this year’s PWW was taught by Lan Samantha Chang, who is not only a distinguished writer (Inheritance, All is Forgotten: Nothing is Lost) but director of the Iowa Workshop. The heavyweight credentials were persuasive, and happily everyone in the class was delighted with her teaching abilities and warm personality.

There was some discussion in our class about what exactly we wanted from the workshop. It came down to three approaches: fiction theory; classroom brainstorming and discussion; and guided discussion and close analysis by the instructor. Certain participants were forthright about communicating their preferences to each other and to the instructor. (Why not—you’re paying for it.) Theory about technique and form can help give writers a clearer, less impressionistic grasp of what they’re doing. As a lit major and long-time student of literature, this didn’t interest me too much. As for classroom discussion, listening to the feedback of intelligent writers is invaluable. I once attended a workshop where an uncommunicative instructor left the bulk of the input in the hands of the students (not the most desirable situation). But even in the best of cases, too much diverse amateur opinion won’t give a writer the boost she needs.

Samantha Chang had a balanced approach, combining all three approaches. She covered aspects of theory (for example, linear vs. non-linear narrative), and used an essay on fiction by Elizabeth Bowen to bounce off ideas. There was a lot of spirited, but always civil, class discussion as well. But it was Samantha’s guided analysis that was most useful (even when analyzing someone else—one colleague said she’d learned most from the comments on my piece). I found her stress on dramatizing scenes very helpful, as well as the idea that every scene must contain some sort of significant action (not limited to a physical deed), that the scenes must advance the story.

Aside from the format and instructor, there is what you bring to the seminar. I have three novel projects in varying stages of development. One novel is finished and has been workshopped before. It may still need tweaking, but I’m already shopping it around. I considered bringing this novel to the PWW, but decided that I wanted more out of the workshop than fine-tuning. (One can risk over-editing a finished novel, or even worse having the work called into question.) My second novel hadn’t reached the end of its draft and earlier sections needed extensive re-writing. I felt that it wasn’t presentable enough. In the end, I chose a project that I’d started only recently. I was able to deal with certain issues and make key decisions, before it was “too late”. For example, I’d planned on changing the P.O.V. from 3d person to 1st with the idea of making the narration more personal. Samantha and my co-workshoppers agreed that the 3d person narration was so close it was tantamount to the 1st person, and that an outright 1st-person narration might have complicated the social dimension of the novel, among other things. Better to realize that early on, rather than after completing a problematic draft!

In addition to the choice of manuscripts, this year at the PWW I made sure to think hard about my project and come up with a list of specific questions I wanted to ask the instructor and fellow workshoppers. In the past I’ve gone into workshops with a more passive approach, waiting for comments on my work. The first approach is, in my opinion, the more intelligent one. The PWW novel seminar also includes a one-on-one session with the instructor. It’s especially important to have precise questions prepared for such sessions. The instructor is typically pro-active during the session, but you can’t expect her to anticipate everything. It’s a shame to waste such an opportunity, and I made sure that I didn’t. 

For more info on PWW, here's the link:

Dimitri Keramitas is film critic at Originally from Connecticut, USA, he has lived in Paris for several years. His short fiction has been published in numerous literary journals. His story “The Art of Flight” won the Paynton Scholarship at the 2010 Paris Writers Workshop, and another, "The Grave Within", won a story competition at Strange Circle magazine. In addition, he  is a contributing editor to Movies in American History (ABC-CLIO). He has completed his first novel, In the Name of Destiny, which takes place in the world of Native-American casinos.

[I'll add that he's a damned good writer, especially for witty insights into contemporary society and its fringe institutions, and his neo-fictional characters' duplicitous behavior... Really hoping to see one of his novels in print soon!]

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