Image: Matthew Loffhagen
If you’ve seen any online ads recently, chances are that you’ve at least heard of MasterClass. Even if you haven’t, you might have seen headlines about the online learning service that offers comprehensive lectures from a genuinely stunning list of experts. Martin Scorsese teaches filmmaking, Samuel L. Jackson teaches acting, Steve Martin teaches comedy, and best-selling authors Judy Blume and James Patterson teach you how to write.
That’s the pitch, anyway, but savvy students need to know a little more before they invest their hard-earned money in a series of lectures. As always, we’re here to help, with our in-depth review of MasterClass.
In terms of what you get for your money, the idea of MasterClass is that you’re gaining access to a series of lectures given by recognized experts. These lectures are intended to tell you what you need to know to succeed in their field, whether that’s cooking, tennis, or writing novels. These lectures are broken down into manageable lessons to which, for a single, upfront fee, you’ll have lifetime access.
The lectures come with follow-along documents – workbook pages that offer exercises based on the video content – and ‘office hours’, in which the lecturer will sometimes address a few student questions or engage with some selected results of the workbook exercises. Though useful, these office hours are intended as responses to trends that arise in the early student body (questions many are asking, or common themes from their work), and it’s unlikely you’ll get any direct access to your lecturer.
Rounding things out is the MasterClass community, which encourages students to engage in structured discussions following each lesson.
Though Judy Blume’s lectures were recently added to the site, the initial draw for authors was James Patterson’s masterclass on writing, and so I’ll mostly be talking about what’s offered by his lectures. There are other products on MasterClass which authors might find useful, and some lectures may differ from Patterson’s, but the general structure of what’s on offer remains the same.
The first thing to say about Patterson’s lectures is that he’s arguably the authority. As the class literature itself takes pains to point out, he’s currently the best-selling author in the world. That mantle might shift depending on your metrics, but when Patterson says he can tell you the secrets of writing commercially successful fiction, he’s not kidding around.
In approximately four hours of video content, Patterson attempts to do just that, covering everything from editing and plotting to working with a co-author and the rigors of getting published. Patterson structures his lectures on the timeline of writing a book, aiming for a complete picture of the writing process while still paying particular attention to key ideas such as creating characters (lesson nine) and building a chapter (lesson twelve).
MasterClass like to tout their students’ ability to study at their own pace, but Patterson’s lectures seem intended to be watched in close succession – if not one immediately after another then certainly not weeks apart. While the subjects break things up nicely, insights aren’t even across the classes. Patterson takes a congenial approach – the viewer is very much in his company – and sometimes gets to a point slowly or through a personal anecdote. That doesn’t mean the content isn’t there: lesson four, on plot, begins with a rapid fire list of excellent advice that outshines all the preceding episodes combined.MasterClass offer a unique product that can’t be found anywhere else.Click To Tweet
The videos are slickly produced and Patterson is an amiable teacher. With MasterClass’ clear intent to recruit the crème de la crème, you might be worried that some lecturers are only in it for the paycheck. If they are, Patterson isn’t among them, and, apart from the office hours videos (recorded on webcam, and therefore giving a nice feeling of one-to-one involvement), all the media is of the highest standard. This is, in all regards, a high-quality product, and one that isn’t available anywhere else.
Is MasterClass for you?
Patterson’s advice is consistently on the money, and his lectures lay out his ideas with examples from his own work. What he has to say is definitely advice all authors should hear, and you won’t leave one of his lectures wondering what point he was making. The information is there and it’s clearly delivered.
With that said, not all the content is essential, or even useful. Lesson 18 is about titles and book covers which, while something authors should consider, isn’t Patterson’s area of expertise, but more something he’s able to discuss. Lessons 20 and 21 are about personal stories and his experiences in Hollywood – it’s interesting stuff, but content from a series of lectures by James Patterson rather than a series of lectures on how to improve your writing.
One of my initial worries about MasterClass, and Patterson’s writing lectures, was that the content would engage too freely with the fantasy of writing – the act of actively imagining what being an author would be like, rather than learning the skills and doing the work to become one. There is an element of this to some of Patterson’s lectures, but not to an unhealthy or unhelpful degree, and generally in aid of contextualizing Patterson’s advice as part of his own experience.
This experience is a double-edged sword as, while Patterson shares plenty of advice that applies to all authors, he likes to zero-in on the thriller genre when providing examples. The examples are cogent, and he is a noted thriller writer after all, but the class is writing a bestseller, not writing a thriller, and authors who work in other genres may feel they’re having to unpack and apply Patterson’s advice in a way that’s more the teacher’s job than the student’s.
In fact, if Patterson’s advice has a weakness, it’s that it tends to be retrospective. When looking for an example, he’ll seize on his own work and show you how and why the device in question works. That can be compelling, and he can hardly be expected to write a new thriller on the spot, but it means that you never truly see the project before the vital piece of advice. There’s little sense of what each story was like prior to the device in question, so you get great, clear advice and plenty of proof that it works, but less sense of the nuts and bolts. In an advert for his own MasterClass lectures, Aaron Sorkin boasts that he’ll be ‘breaking’ the first act of a television episode, and this kind of forensic approach is absent from Patterson’s lectures.
If you want to follow along as someone charts the process of writing, Patterson’s masterclass may not be what you’re after, but it does have lasting value. Patterson is insightful and thorough, and the advice he imparts is the kind that will guide you for a long time and still influence your writing years later. You’re unlikely to get the ‘Eureka!’ moment that brings your project together, but there’ll be a lot of good choices down the line where you wonder why you made the right call and realize that you’re applying Patterson’s wisdom.James Patterson shares the type of wisdom that will influence good decisions years later.Click To Tweet
What’s difficult to quantify, however, is how much of this wisdom you can only get from Patterson. The deluge of great advice which begins lesson four is fun, but it’s also the advice that most great writers will offer. ‘Don’t write a single chapter that doesn’t propel the story forward’ is fantastic advice that many authors need, but it’s also advice that you can find for free on YouTube.
That’s not to say that there aren’t unique moments in Patterson’s lectures. The moment when he reflects on the gender breakdown of his readership, and how that knowledge influences his content, is identifiable as advice handed to you by an author who consciously writes bestsellers. All advice is available from more than one source, but Patterson has a few nuggets like this that carry particular weight, and are presented in a useful context unique to his lectures.
Finally, there’s the workbook. This is presented as a PDF document wherein practical exercises are used to build on Patterson’s lectures. Here, the course goes a little more in-depth, even taking a slightly more forensic approach by including an outline of one of Patterson’s novels. Though exercises aren’t marked, fellow students’ work is included and critiqued to give the learning process some back-and-forth. Despite this, the workbook is on the short side and, when considered alongside the rest of the course, is unlikely to be enough to change your experience of what’s on offer. Any course of this nature should have some form of supplementary material to help students engage with the main content, and that’s what’s provided – it’s not insubstantial, but it also doesn’t add substantive value to the course proper.
Is MasterClass worth your money?
To answer this final question, it’s important to know what ‘your money’ means. At the time of writing, lifetime access to one series of lecturers is $90.
That’s quite a price tag, and whether it’s justified ultimately depends not so much on the content of Patterson’s lectures – which is sound – but on how effective those lectures are as a method of delivery. What Patterson has to say isn’t, for the most part, revolutionary, and there’s no specific insight that makes this the ultimate resource for aspiring authors. The forensic detail I mentioned earlier is lacking; this is a bestselling author sharing his thoughts and opinions on good writing, but it’s not being on an accomplished author’s shoulder as they craft their next book, or even spending time with them as they truly scrutinize and dissect their successes.
It’s unreasonable to penalize Patterson’s lectures just because he’s offering fantastic advice and that fantastic advice has generally also been given by other great authors. Of course it has: it’s what you need to know. Patterson’s lectures aren’t full of fluff – it’s all good stuff – but they also don’t break the mold. Stephen King’s On Writing contains similarly illuminating advice but for a fraction of the cost, which makes it hard to sincerely declare Patterson’s lectures the masterclass.
It’s certainly a masterclass, though, and this is why its value lies in its delivery. These are the things authors need to know, but they’re also things that can be hard to absorb if presented in the wrong way. There are other ways to find them but, if a well-structured series of lectures by a respected author – supplemented by workbook activities and an active community – sounds like the style of delivery that will resonate with you, the price of purchase is easily justified. Likewise, if you intend to write thrillers, or adjacent genres such as police procedurals or mystery fiction, this is probably the ideal delivery system for what you need to know. Finally, the convenience of the short lectures and no-pressure schedule shouldn’t be understated; if you’re struggling to find time in the week to further your authorial education, this may again be the type of delivery that lets you actually take such vital information on board.Part of finding great advice is finding the type of advice that will stick with you.Click To Tweet
The ideal form of Patterson’s lectures would have dug deeper into his process. As is, the MasterClass model seems capable of producing something that justifies its price tag, but Patterson’s lectures don’t quite make it. This equation changes if you’re able to share access with others – if you’re working with a writing partner or have another way of splitting the cost, Patterson’s masterclass quickly becomes a great deal.
If you feel this is the type of delivery system that will work for you, or if the high charge doesn’t give you pause, I can recommend James Patterson’s masterclass as a fantastic resource. For its price, however, I’d expect it to be the best. It fails to clear that admittedly tall hurdle, but what’s notable is that it could have – more extensive supporting materials and a shift in focus from Patterson as a celebrity ‘get’ to his process as an author would make all the difference.
I can see MasterClass producing superlative resources for authors in the near future, and I’d suggest that authors keep an eye on its slate of current and upcoming lecturers to spot someone who specifically speaks to their area. Until then, however, James Patterson has a lot to tell you about writing and a compelling way of doing it, just not so much that $90 wouldn’t be better spent on the equivalent books, magazine subscriptions, and real-life classes that cover the same area.
Update (Dec 4, 2017): Since the original publication of this article the Judy Blume MasterClass has been released and MasterClass have introduced the All-Access Pass giving you access to all MasterClass classes for $180, including writing classes by James Patterson, Judy Blume, David Mamet, Shonda Rhimes and Aaron Sorkin.
You can find out more about resources like these with 10 Online Creative Writing Courses For Every Kind Of Writer and 6 Brilliant Pieces Of Online Media For Writers. Have you tried MasterClass? Let me know about your experience in the comments.