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Review: Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass

The child looked at the calendar on the wall, swinging, as if by some invisible breeze. There could not have been a breeze, though. All of the room’s windows and doors were closed, and the air smelled musty and stale, like laundry left too long in the washer.

Still, the calendar flapped like the wing of some great white bird. Three MasterClasses, she thought. I’ve managed to learn from three masters this year.

It was Neil Gaiman, though, the most recent of her teachers, who imparted the sage wisdom that struck the child so deeply—Give people what they want, he advised. But do it in a way they do not expect.

****

This is just some of the fantastic advice in Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass, and the reason, I’m sure, that I wrote and then erased five different openings for this review before deciding I needed to do something different—something more worthy of what I got out of the class. You have to know your genre and its conventions, Gaiman says, before you can play with them. And then play.

But don’t worry! I’m done playing and am here to tell you everything you need to know about the class and to help you decide the answer to the question you undoubtedly came here for: Is it worth it?

There was some Twitter controversy when the class was first released, as Gaiman retweeted some requests for money to take the course. Some felt this was self-serving. A world-famous author asking other people to help give him more money? How dare he! Why didn’t he just pay for them all himself?

I’ll ask folks who felt this way—do artists not deserve to be paid for their art? Should they stop making money for their creative efforts once they’ve reached a certain status? As Gaiman replied to those who criticized him, he has plenty of free advice for authors available online. He’s not withholding his wisdom for the wealthy. This class is a piece of his creative work, he deserves the royalties from it, and if part of promoting that work is helping people connect to access it, I see no problem.

Another of the critiques which arose was of the value of the class itself, and here is where you may find my experience of the class valuable.

Like other MasterClasses, the course consists of several videos (nineteen, to be exact), covering topics including “Sources of Inspiration,” “Descriptions,” and “Dealing with Writer’s Block.” I found all of the videos interesting, even the one on comics, which, though I read, I have not tried to write.

Gaiman is fascinating just to listen to—his voice is low and conspiratorial and watching him really did feel a bit like sitting at the feet of a very encouraging master. He also speaks verrrrrry slooooowly. Luckily, MasterClass gives you the option of increasing video speed, and I found 1.25x to be perfect.

Some of the lessons are particularly inspiring. “Truth in fiction” inspires you to dig deeper into the hard emotions that create good writing. The lesson on worldbuilding teaches you to anchor your fictional world in real details and to let characters discover the world’s rules by bumping up against them or using them to their advantage, a take on the classic “show don’t tell” rule that made a lot of sense to me.

There are also plenty of practical tidbits—in the lesson on humor, for example, Gaiman explains that funny words have the most impact at the end of a sentence. In the video on description he says you should “tell” when you need to, and teaches how to give your characters need “funny hats”—unique ways for your readers to tell them apart.

To be fair, there are bits of the videos that feel a bit self-indulgent. Gaiman, as other MasterClass teachers do, uses several examples from his own work. These are sometimes relevant to the topic at hand, but other times feel less so. For example, in the video on overcoming writing block, Gaiman suggests giving oneself a deadline and then shares an anecdote about a short story anthology he contributed to. It was the submission deadline, he says, which inspired him to finally get serious about a story that wasn’t working and to figure out how to fix it. This specific example is a cool insight for fans about a bit of his work but does little to actually teach one how to impose a deadline on oneself. He makes up for this with further advice about writing the next thing you do know.

Other case studies, including one on The Graveyard Book, are more relevant.

Gaiman also does what feels like a good bit of name dropping during the course. Sometimes this seems like homage to those who have inspired him, but other times sounds a bit braggy. Overall, this didn’t bother me terribly. He’s earned it.

The workbook is what sets this MasterClass apart. In my review of Judy Blume’s course, I said that the exercises seemed either advanced or basic, and that students would likely find themselves drawn to about half of the lessons. This workbook solves this dilemma. For many of the lessons it contains both a “Writing Exercise” and a “For Your Novel” exercise. You can choose whether to do a simple exploration of the topic Gaiman discusses or to apply it directly to a work in progress. I found this incredibly useful, and sometimes ended up doing both.

Some of the exercises are pretty standard, but others have a unique twist that make all the difference. For example, the exercise for the Finding Your Voice chapter suggests you write a passage imitating the voice of an author you know. I’ve done similar practices before. However, the exercise doesn’t end there. After imitating, it suggests writing the same scene, this time in your own voice. I had for the first time, after completing this, a clear picture of what my own voice as a writer sounds like.

So, is the class worth it? If you are a fan of Gaiman’s work, I say absolutely. You’ll feel like you’re spending time with the author and digging deeper into his writing. For casual fans, or even just writers looking to improve their craft, I still say yes. The workbook, especially the voice exercise, and the lessons on Truth in Fiction, Finding Your Voice, and Worldbuilding alone would be worth the cost for me, and the rest are an engaging bonus.

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