Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Neil Gaiman's 'The Art of Storytelling' Masterclass Course Review

   I used to be quite an arrogant writer. Not in the sense that I was boastful or believed my work to be amazing, but rather in the sense that I thought all I needed was time and practise. I thought there was nothing I could be taught, so I never wanted to waste my time on writing courses because I believed I already knew all there was to know and that I didn't need the training - especially when an average writer's workshop cost £400+ online and even more in person. Why would I spend money to be taught things I'd already learned?
   Well, when I was about 21, I realised that it wasn't arrogance. It was fear. I was afraid of taking a writing course and being told I was doing everything wrong. I was afraid that everything I'd already spent 9 years learning and practising was wrong. And I didn't have £400 to spend on a writing course.
   So, I ended up floating around with that insecurity sitting right upon my shoulder, and it got worse when I sent my first submission to agents and publishers - my 23rd finished story - only for it to be rejected. I gave up writing, then, for about 6 months. It was only an insatiable passion that drew me back, and I decided then that I wanted to learn after all, regardless of the fear.  But I still had no money, and whenever I looked at the courses they were always technical - how to plan, learning genre, even learning how to use punctuation. There was little storytelling in it, it was just technical writing that, in some cases, even featured classes in the curriculum for journalism and things like that. It just seemed either too vague or filled with things I genuinely could already do.

   Well, I continued to write and to submit over the 7 years that followed that realisation because I refused to let it cripple me, and I knew I'd gradually learn as I continued to write and continued to read others' work. But money never changed - I had a good year in my Etsy shop at Christmas in 2017 when I probably could have afforded one, but my husband and I had a £500 wedding (no, there are no zeros missing) the following spring and had to set aside for a honeymoon (which we're having later this year). But even then, I'd not found any courses that appealed to me.

   But, a month after being approved to write for Frenone's tarot story book this year, which itself was a massive achievement, I saw mention of a class taught by Neil Gaiman on Masterclass called 'The Art of Storytelling' for £85. My heart leapt into my throat.
   I'd never heard of Masterclass before so I did some digging to make sure it was legit before giving it any serious consideration, but it all checked out.
   Put simply, it was an online school taught by masters in their fields; classes without fees, aside from the one-off payment of £85 which gives you eternal access to the class for the rest of time (unless you choose to pay the yearly £170 subscription fee to get access to all the various creative classes on Masterclass for the duration of the subscription). There are no deadlines, no feedback, and no certificate of completion. All you get out of it is the knowledge, and exercises to help you apply it - in this case, writing exercises.
   But, at the end of the day, it's the knowledge you want. Unless you're a doctor or a specialist, a certificate is an affectation. And it's Neil Gaiman, someone who knows what he's talking about as both a madly successful writer who works in both fiction and fantasy, and as a professor of creative arts at Bard College, New York. Even without feedback, I trust his word and his teaching over some nameless professor with a certificate on the wall and who may well be biased to one genre or another.
   I think I gave it about an hour's thought. But it was already late in the evening, so even with my decision made and my husband urging me to go for it, I still didn't sign up until the next day.
   Then, on February 1st, I dipped into our savings, paid the fee, and began.

Picture admittedly taken on April 18th for the purpose of this post, hence the green beyond and full notebook.

The Course's Structure
   The course consists of 18 classes (and 1 introduction), all of which involve a video of 8 to 28 minutes in length, and a worksheet. The videos are filmed beautifully for Masterclass as though it's a one-on-one lesson. Neil Gaiman sits in a chair in a lovely library and talks to you with a lovely, soothing, writerly voice second only to David Attenborough. He gives you his thoughts on the subjects, which he laid out himself, and talks about how he does things, how other writers he knows do things, how you shouldn't do things, and he's extremely honest and open about it and his experiences, complete with anecdotes.
   He talks sometimes about how frustrating writing can be when the words just won't come out, he talks about the difficulties in planning, and the beauty of it, the joy of worldbuilding and about characters 'talking to you', and that you should listen to them, even have a conversation with them sometimes if you're stuck and see what they say back. It sounds crazy to people who don't write, and even a few writers might scoff at that, but it works. Characters take on a life of their own if you've made them correctly.
   After the video comes the worksheet, which summarises the video and also imparts more wisdom and knowledge, as well as reading suggestions (both stories and technical), and then goes on to offer two types of activities - 'writing exercises' to be done right then, and 'for your novel' exercises so that you can apply what you've learned that day to whatever project you're personally working on. Some classes will have multiple of each, others will have just one; some will take a long time, others won't. But there are no deadlines - you can take as long as you'd like to complete it, and revisit it as many times as you'd like.
   There is a student hub wherein you can find help and feedback from other students on the course, because you submit nothing to be reviewed by Neil or by anyone at Masterclass. It just doesn't work that way, which, I think, is its only failing - you can't know for sure if you've really understood. But if you did submit, it would be a lot more work on their part (because, no doubt, it wouldn't go straight to Mr Gaiman), and that would certainly jack up the price and put the knowledge from the whole course out of reach.

What Are The Lessons?
   There is a list of the lessons on the sign-up page so you can see what you're getting into before paying, but, put simply, these lessons don't cover punctuation, paragraphing or any technical writing stuff like that. It's about storytelling. It doesn't focus on genre, either, so it's all perfectly viable to every fiction writer of every kind. It's all about how to tell a good story, in writing - including comics.
   There is only one lesson on comics, but it's the longest at 28 minutes. I admit, I have no interest in comics - I don't read them, or even watch movies about them (and yes, I am aware that there are more comic book genres than 'superheroes'). They're just not my thing, and I find them difficult to appreciate. I have the Avatar: The Last Airbender library editions, but I get through that 250 page thing in about half an hour. I just don't know how to read them, and I know that it's lost on me. But, having paid for the course, I decided to watch the video in case there was a relevant pearl of wisdom, then I read the worksheet (though I admit I skipped the writing exercise this one time). There was nothing in there for me, but I did glean some kind of appreciation for the complexities of writing comics. I never thought it was similar to writing a book in the slightest, but even so, there's more to it than I thought.

   The most valuable lessons, for me, were the final few: 'Responsibilities As A Writer', which started with an anecdote that I found, frankly, terrifying, and drove home the point I'd already surmised for myself, and 'Writer's Rules', which covered a little bit of how to submit to publishers and agents, and about striking a balance between humility and the arrogance of a 7-year old to ensure that, when a rejection comes through, you don't roll over and die with it but instead accept that it wasn't perfect while being stubborn enough to keep going and write something that they can't possibly reject. These were all things I needed help on, and while I still feel I need more, I'm a bit more confident with it now.
   The 'Short Stories' lesson, too, was both valuable and pertinent, because I'd never had to write them before this year with the tarot book. And since then, I've suddenly developed an interest in them because I've learned how to write them. Or the theory of it, anyway. 'They're a whole other beast', another writer told me while discussing the tarot book. The lesson came a little late, since I'd already written and submitted one of my two stories to Frenone by that time, but the second - longer and more important, since it accompanies the image of the front cover and summarises the entire tarot deck - benefitted from the lesson hugely. If I'm asked to rewrite the first, I'll be happy to, because I think I could do a much better job now.

How Did I Follow It?
   The classes seem short, but don't be fooled. They're immensely informative. You could technically do them in any order, but some of the writing exercises refer back to previous lessons, and I was doing them chronologically anyway.
   I would do two lessons a week, watching the video first, then reading through the worksheet until I reached a writing exercise which I would then do in a designated notebook, and then continue reading the worksheet until I got to the end, stopping at writing exercises along the way and making note of 'For Your Novel' sections along the way. Then I turned to a fresh page and made notes from the worksheet (and the video sometimes, if there was something in there that I wanted and wasn't quoted). Oh, and the video player has subtitles, so you don't have to miss anything.
   I always left a few days between lessons, and listened to the video again the following day to recap. This changed towards the end when the lessons became less practical and turned towards editing advice and things like that (yes, there's even a class on editing your novel), at which point I did the final three lessons in one day, but I truly feel I absorbed everything given, and making notes helped to ensure that went in. And, if not, I can recap over every single bit of it whenever I need to. One of the few benefits of a video-teacher rather than a human.

   No one is above this class. It's as cheap as rather expensive chips, amazing value, taught by a master who knows his trade and how to teach, and has zero time constraints. I knocked it out comfortably in 7 weeks. I could have done it in 10 days if I'd worked morning and afternoon, but I didn't want to rush. The longest any class took me was 4 hours (lesson 8, 'Story Case Study 'March Tale''), but I was king of distracted that day.
   No, you may not have even £85 lying around, but if you write fiction of any kind, I urge you to consider this class. I was smiling when I finished the last one (and crying a little bit, 'cause I'm cool) and while I was already doing so much of this before the class, all I could think was "I gained so much from this."

Personal Note
   Above all, while I learned a lot, there was one thing I took away from it that I was shocked by: I'm not doing anything wrong at all. There was nothing at all he said that came as a revelation - but there were suggestions on how I could take what I was already doing and make it better. And that means that the nagging insecurity has vanished in a puff of smoke, after I've spent 7 years trying to beat it down with a mallet every time I mention my writing and try to put it in front of someone, knowing I'll never get anywhere otherwise.
   I am now a lot more confident in my skill, and I've learned enough that I think, most crucially, I might be able to approach literary agents and publishers with the information they want. When they ask for my influences, they're not asking "what's in your bookcase?" They're asking "what's in your heart?" And now, I can tell them. And I can write a logline, I can write a more concise synopsis, I can also tell them that, now, I have taken a writing class and I am prepared to learn and to grow.
   I still doubt they'll take my manuscript, but at least I'll know how to approach them now. And I know every writer would feel the same after taking this class.

This post has not been sponsored, endorsed, encouraged or any of the like by anyone tagged, linked or mentioned in this post. I discovered the course on my own, bought it on my own, and took it on my own. All opinions are my own, photographs are my own, and screenshots were taken on my own.
I just really, really think you need to know about it.


  1. Thank you Kim for your sharing your thoughts and insights. It's been a long time since I wrote anything or published anything semi pro and pro. The world has changed, when I had to to switch over to mundane life. This the first time, I have posted to anyone and its nice that I wanted too. You are refreshing. I hope you go far, later it will be hard to answer questions to other inspiring writers you know. :) I hope you have or will get a writer's group to further your career. Thank you again. Judy

    1. Thank you so much for this comment, Judy ♥ I hope you'll write something again some day! Everyone has something that needs to be heard, be it story or insight.
      And thank you very, very much for your well-wishes ^^


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