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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.

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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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Writing Life

Review: Judy Blume’s MasterClass

After completing the Margaret Atwood MasterClass, I was excited to begin another of their writing courses. The Judy Blume class was an obvious pick, as I fell in love with Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret as a child.

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.

My first piece of advice to those who are considering a MasterClass.com All Access Pass is to try not to compare the courses. Though other reviews have written about the formulaic nature of the classes, you will be much happier if you take each one on its own merit. In my previous review, for example, I praised the documentary quality of Atwood’s class. While Blume’s class is certainly well-made, it does not have some of the fancy transitions or atmospheric qualities that Atwood’s does.

Another area where the Blume class differs from the Atwood class is the accompanying workbook. Where Atwood’s workbook feels much like a college syllabus, Blume’s seems a bit more simplistic. This isn’t necessarily bad. The exercises are basic but helpful, and are certainly a way to dig deeper into Blume’s work. The workbook includes a letter from Blume at the beginning which makes up for any shortcomings. Her encouragement, support, and friendly encouragement to “read, read, read” are touching. Some writers, though, may wish for a more varied reading list or more challenging assignments.

Blume discusses her process in detail, and fans of her work will enjoy the inside look into the development of her books. One of the main topics of conversation is her notebook– she keeps a new one for each book. Though the class could benefit from more peeks into these notebooks, Blume’s discussion of how she uses them is fascinating and educational. I did find myself wishing for more technical details about writing, as much of her advice feels specific to her own work or style.

Blume also discusses creativity, censorship, and the struggles she faced writing about sensitive topics openly in books for young readers. Her tone is no-nonsense but cheery, and is inspirational for any writer facing fear about the reception of their own work.


Course-takers will likely find themselves more interested in one half of the class or the other. The writing advice is more geared toward beginners, whereas the later lessons apply more toward those with at least a bit more experience. My favorite lessons of the class came near the end when Blume discusses working with editors, querying agents, facing rejection, and the book marketplace. When so much writing advice is focused on just getting words on paper, it is refreshing and encouraging to hear from such a master about these post-first draft topics.

A lesson on Blume’s own career journey is also fascinating. She shares her early forays into creating felt children’s decor and the idea that creative people often just need some kind of creative outlet. As a mom to young children, I was inspired by Blume’s ability to jump start her writing career as a young mother.

The Judy Blume MasterClass is a worthy investment for fans of Blume’s work, and particularly those who aspire to write for young people. All writers can benefit from witnessing her bravery and determination. If you are looking for an intermediate or advanced craft course, this is probably not the MasterClass for you. If you are looking for a feel-good experience that leaves you feeling ready to go for your writing goals and face any challenges to it head on, you’ll enjoy Blume’s class.


Particularly touching is the emotion Blume displays when talking about her own career and characters. Blume’s gratitude and love for those who shaped her career, for the stories that flow through her, and for her readers are palpable. I found myself moved to tears by her closing, in which she discusses her own bookshop and promises to show love to the books of the writers taking the class.

Take this class ready to think deeply about young people and the kinds of books they deserve, and to feel inspired to follow your own creative dreams.

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Review: Margaret Atwood’s Master Class

When Masterclass.com offered me an all-access pass, I was thrilled! I’d had my eye on the Margaret Atwood Teaches Creative Writing course for a while and was so excited to take it! Atwood is a legend, and especially as a woman novelist, a role model.

I was not disappointeded– her Master Class is an amazing opportunity to glimpse her creative process and hone your craft.

This being my first Master Class, the first thing I noticed as I began the first of the 23 video lessons was the production quality. The videos are much like short documentaries and include music, photos from Atwood’s life, drawings, and visuals of her books as she speaks about them. These are no simple tutorials, but rather high quality mini films.

The next thing I noticed was Atwood’s laugh. Equal parts wise, mischievious, innocent, and reassuring, her thin lipped grin accentuates her cheeks in a way that makes it impossiblle not to smirk with her. It appears at the best moments throughout the course, when Atwood imparts wisdom that feels a bit conspiratorial. I loved it.

Things slowed down a bit then, and it took me a while to ease into the flow of the course. As I watched the first two lessons, the information felt basic, not unlike other writing courses I have taken before. I wondered if the course would just be several videos of generic writing advice and frankly, felt a little disappointed.

As she began lesson three, on story and plot, though, I realized that the issue was not the course but rather my expectations. Since finishing graduate school in 2011, I’ve approached learniing from a pragmatic standpoint. I want information, steps, and practical tips. Much of this Master Class, though, is more like my liberal arts background. Atwood discusses a technique and then suggests examples of literature, everything from her own work to classics to modern works, that you can read to get a sense of that technique.

I quickly realized that this was not a Ted Talk, meant to expose a quick secret to improve my writing, but rather a channel for deep study and contemplation, guided by, that’s right– a master. Once I understood this, I fell in love with the course– I hadn’t realized how much I had missed this kind of learning– the reading and discussing kind.

Further into the course, Atwood does get into those technical, more straightforward details, so those who really are just looking for that will be happy too.

The class workbook, with a chapter for each lesson, is a fantastic addition. The PDFs summarize the lesson and offer exercises and readings. The student discussion area is active and supportive, though at the time I took the course, it seemed Atwood had not yet responded to any questions submitted in the “Office Hours” section.

Really, I’d suggest taking this course at least twice– once to take it in, to get a feel for it, and then again more slowly, taking the time to do the assignments and the suggested readings, as if you were taking a college level course.

I finished the class a few days ago and already, after a chat with my editor this morning, I’ve thought, “Oh, I need to go back to the lesson on descriptive prose. And the one on switching points of view!” These are lessons you will return to again and again as a writer.

In her farewell video Atwood tells us, with one of her signature smiles, that she is nearing the end of her trajectory. She hopes her class is a way to collect and share the knowledge she has learned over her career. I am so grateful to get to learn from her.

 

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