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MasterClass is an online service featuring lectures by eminent figures in various fields, with access available either through purchase of an individual lecture series or a subscription to the site as a whole and everything it has to offer.
In this article, I’ll be looking at Neil Gaiman’s lecture series on the art of storytelling, but we’ve also covered MasterClass lecture series by Dan Brown, Judy Blume, and James Patterson, with more reviews to come.
You can click here to see the full syllabus on the MasterClass website (opens in a new tab).
What’s in a MasterClass?
A single MasterClass includes a series of lectures by an expert in their field, accompanied by a practical workbook that adds ‘homework’ for each lesson and access to ‘office hours’ in which the lecturer interacts with a few student questions from early purchasers of the class. MasterClass lectures are exclusive to the platform and are unlikely to ever be accessible elsewhere.
In the case of Gaiman’s specific MasterClass, the individual $90 purchase (or $180 all-access subscription) gets you nineteen lessons that collectively last just under five hours, as well as a ninety-four-page workbook assembled by MasterClass to complement Gaiman’s advice.
So, that’s what you get, but is it worth your money?
Neil Gaiman is one of the most significant genre authors of modern times and, more than anyone else currently on MasterClass’ roster, particularly qualified to teach the art of storytelling. A complete list of Gaiman’s qualifications would be excessive, but MasterClass’ own workbook does a good job of summarizing why he’s the man for the job.
Today, as one of the most celebrated writers of our time, his popular and critically-acclaimed works bend genres while reaching audiences of all ages and winning awards of all kinds. The Graveyard Book is the only work ever to win both the Newbery (US) and Carnegie (UK) Medals, awarded by librarians for the most prestigious contribution to children’s literature, and Neil’s bestselling contemporary fantasy novel, American Gods, took the Hugo, Nebula, Bram Stoker, and Locus awards, as did his young adult novel Coraline. The Dictionary of Literary Biography lists him as one of the top ten living postmodern writers. Born in England, Neil lives in the United States and taught for five years at Bard College, where he is a Professor of the Arts
…In graphic novels, Neil’s groundbreaking work Sandman, which was awarded nine Eisner Awards, was described by Stephen King as having turned graphic novels into “art.” …His many honors include the Shirley Jackson Award, Chicago Tribune Young Adult Literary Prize (for his body of work), Comic Book Legal Defense Fund Defender of Liberty award, and an Honorary Doctorate from the University of the Arts, one of the oldest American universities dedicated to the visual and performing arts and design. Neil also has an honorary degree from St Andrew’s. In 2017, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, appointed Neil Gaiman as a global Goodwill Ambassador.– Neil Gaiman Masterclass Workbook
Part of Gaiman’s success is just how prolific he’s been as an author – a valuable skill to learn on its own – but it’s also fair to say that much of his creative output has been about stories and how to tell them. Works like Sandman and American Gods are explicitly about how stories are told, which means that Gaiman isn’t just used to writing hugely successful stories, he’s also built his career on a conscious dissection of how to do so.
If you’re beginning to think that Gaiman sounds a little overqualified for a series of video lectures, you’re now in the headspace I was occupying when I started his MasterClass. It’s not that Gaiman is some sort of untouchable Author God, but he is a true expert in his field. Far more than any previous MasterClass lecturer, Gaiman is a wordsmith, and so while Dan Brown can teach his subscribers about how to absorb readers and James Patterson is an expert on thrillers, Gaiman is truly here to lecture on how to tell stories.
In this way, the prospect of being taught writing by Neil Gaiman is a little like learning to cook from a Michelin star chef. Yes, they’re unquestionably an expert – even if you don’t like their output, you have to admit they know their craft – but having come so far, do they really have the ability to return to the basics and teach you what you need to know?
This was the question I had of Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass, and his introductory lesson made me worry even more. It’s become a trope of MasterClass lectures that writers who are excellent at one thing begin by telling you they’re going to explain the whole of writing. The commercial benefits of this claim are obvious, but it’s never yet been true, and trying to make good on it as a promise has a tendency to direct authors away from the specific areas in which they’re most knowledgeable. It was no surprise, then, that Gaiman begins his lecture with a similar promise.
What I’m trying to do in this class – and I am going to mix my metaphors outrageously, here – is I want to teach you, first of all, how to find the toolshed. I want to take you down to the toolshed and I want to show you some of the tools that are hanging on the walls of a writer’s toolshed… So I want to take you into a lot of the nuts and the bolts and the hoes and the dibbers and the mousetraps and the doomsday devices, and I want to walk you through that safely, and have you coming out of that gloriously garbled mess of metaphor with, actually, a rather better idea of how to write than you had when you started.– Neil Gaiman, ‘Introduction’
What was surprising was that, over the course of five hours, Gaiman actually came through.
Gaiman covers the usual bases in his lecture, with lessons titled ‘Finding Your Voice,’ ‘Developing the Story,’ ‘Dialogue and Character,’ ‘Descriptions,’ and ‘Editing.’ His advice is characteristically whimsical – he’ll talk around a point until he’s satisfied he’s driven it home with the right metaphor – but intensely practical and even modular in its approach.
By this, I mean that Gaiman’s MasterClass isn’t the wise but mercurial five-hour rumination I feared. In fact, he specifically lives up to his promise of showing the viewer individual writing tools: he instructs authors to have a ‘compost heap,’ he differentiates between ‘sherbet lemons’ (small details there to please the reader) and ‘figgins’ (small details that look like sherbet lemons but which will actually be relevant later), and he has a rack of ‘funny hats’ ready to keep varied characters distinct.
One of the things I learned – I think I may have learned it from Dickens, or I may have learned it from Jack Kirby, but whoever I learned it from, possibly even from A. A. Milne – when you have a lot of characters walking around, you need to help your reader, you need to just give your reader a hand, and one of the ways that I’ve always liked to do that is what I call ‘funny hats.’ …You give your character something that makes that character different from every other character in the book.– Neil Gaiman, ‘Dialogue and Character’
But by far the most useful tool that Gaiman brings to the table is his own writing. If you’ve read our previous MasterClass reviews, you’ll know that this is something I’ve considered a mostly untapped strength of the MasterClass model, albeit one that’s being slowly unearthed by each new wave of lecturers.
While advice from authors is great, the thing they’re truly in the best position to do is explain their own work, offering up proven material as a practical guide to their viewpoint and style. Gaiman does this brilliantly and frequently, with multiple classes dedicated to case studies of his own writing.
In ‘Short Fiction,’ Gaiman does the work of expanding his own short story into a longer work by using the rules and tools he’s just explained – a lesson that makes use of his unparalleled insight into his own process. There are lectures about writing available everywhere, so for MasterClass to be worth your time (and money), these are the moments it needs – moments that can only come from exclusive time spent with experts.
This is MasterClass justifying its own format, but there are two more measures that have to be applied to any source of writing advice. The first is whether that source gives the usual good advice.
If you’ve pursued writing advice in any form, you’ll already be familiar with the most common nuggets of wisdom that everyone passes around. You need to know the rules of your world (even those that aren’t made explicit in the story), you need to understand showing and telling, and you need to be able to write to the reader’s senses. Gaiman shares all of these, as well as advice for authors to try rewriting fairy stories and thinking like a journalist.
There’s always a tiny part of you as a writer who metaphorically, or really, is standing there with a notebook, just taking notes. And it can come out in the worst times; it can come out in the worst moments of your life. You can be there, in the hospital, and your friend or your loved one is being wheeled away, and you can go, “Okay, what does this place smell like? How are they behaving? How do I feel right now? How do these people feel right now?” Because, one day, you’re going to be writing fiction, and you will need that moment. You’ll need the way that the lights, that the cars, glint off the broken glass and the blood on the asphalt one day, to make a story true.– Neil Gaiman, ‘Worldbuilding’
There’s a lot of value in this; it’s good advice, and Gaiman delivers it in a way that helps it stick, but it’s also advice you can find for free in lots of places (in fact, we’ve covered everything mentioned so far). So, yes, Gaiman definitely gives the usual good advice, and he does it well, but for MasterClass to be worth your time and money, he also needs to be giving unusual good advice.
If you’re following the shape of this review, it won’t surprise you that Gaiman clears this hurdle, too. Of course, almost all writing advice can be found in multiple places – it’s a craft we’ve been studying for thousands of years, after all – but there are new ways of giving good advice, rare perspectives from which to give it, and real value in occasionally going against the consensus.
And that’s the kind of place where you just go, “Yeah, I’m gonna describe it.” There’s no reason not to. There’s no reason to ‘show, don’t tell,’ whatever that actually means, when you want to tell somebody what a city looks like. Tell them!– Neil Gaiman, ‘Descriptions’
On multiple occasions, Gaiman disassembles common writing advice in order to show authors how to ‘cheat’ in a way that turns the theory behind good craft into something more practical.
I will scene set, I will set a scene for people, I’ll describe a person, I’ll describe a gate, I’ll describe a grave, but what I will do is assume people generally know what a tree looks like, what a house looks like, what a door looks like. So, what I’ll try and tell them, while I’m describing, is what makes this a little different, what makes this memorable. And it doesn’t have to be very big. It can be a fairly small image; it can be a tree that looks like a clutching hand trying to grab the clouds, and suddenly you know why that tree is different to all the other trees, and it evokes emotion.– Neil Gaiman, ‘Descriptions’
By taking this approach, Gaiman may not be saying something you couldn’t hear anywhere else, but he makes the advice personal – the kind of thing you can use right now, rather than just another theory to reflect on.
The worlds that we build in fiction, they’re soap bubbles; they can pop really easily, but they seem really, really solid. Anything you can say that makes them feel real, that buttresses them, that gives credibility, you then assume that the author could tell you everything else. It goes off in all directions, but that one little moment of reality, that one thing that seems to be absolutely true, gives credence, and gives credibility, to all of the things that you don’t say, to all of the bits that are really just misty smudges in the background, but then somebody looks at them and goes, “Ah, but, I’m sure, like this thing here, all of those misty smudges in the background, if we move in, are actually going to become craggy mountains, and each mountain will be different. And you know, of course, that they aren’t; they’re just smudges in the background, but that’s okay, because the one mountain that we visited was real, because it was informed by you and a mountain. Or just you, and a very big hill, and an imagination.– Neil Gaiman, ‘Worldbuilding’
That’s not to say that Gaiman’s advice is perfect. In ‘Research,’ he advises authors to behave like ‘a smash-and-grab robber… You are going to put that brick through the window, then you’re going to reach in and grab everything you need and run away and use it.’ The broader point – that you shouldn’t dedicate years to research when a few compelling facts will do – is sound, but there’s a hint here of the worries I had for Gaiman’s lecture as a whole; advice that means one thing to a best-selling author but could easily be misapplied by someone just starting out.
While much of his advice deviates from the norm, Gaiman is also careful to credit his sources. He attributes multiple concepts to author Terry Pratchett, and his ‘Rules for Writers’ lesson builds on advice from other authors in a way that opens up Gaiman’s own learning process to the viewer.
With the usual advice put well, the unusual advice frequent, and the unique promise of MasterClass’ format met, Gaiman’s lecture series is easily the best MasterClass I’ve reviewed so far.
As usual, the workbook accompanying Gaiman’s lecture is neither a deal maker nor a deal breaker. Technically ninety-four pages long, it adopts the usual MasterClass style of a lot of blank space, a lot of bullet-point lists, and multiple exercises with lots of space for your own writing. Take out the quotes from the lecture you just watched and the recommendations for further reading (which are often useful) and there isn’t much left that adds to your actual learning experience.
While it’s a part of the lecture, Gaiman’s ‘Comics’ lesson won’t be relevant to most viewers, but if this is your area of interest, it comes in at only a little under half an hour, comprising a significant tutorial that touches on craft, the reality of publication, and breaking into the industry.
Finally, the MasterClass community is as good an online space as any in which to make writing contacts and perform some low-level networking. If you’re not a social-media native, the comments and community available on MasterClass are a great way to make contact with other writers in the same position, and Gaiman’s lessons attract a wide range of engaged authors.
Is it worth your money?
Nabbing Neil Gaiman was a genuine coup for MasterClass, and the lecture he delivers is one of the first to truly deliver on the promise of a ‘masterclass’ for writers, as opposed to writers of thrillers or writers of horror. While Gaiman’s writing and approach won’t be for everyone, his MasterClass lessons are comprehensive, wise, and elevate excellent content with memorable delivery.
When the MasterClass began, I doubted Gaiman’s ability to assess the nuts and bolts that the average author needs but, while it took a little while for him to really start labeling tools, he succeeds, and you’ll leave his class with at least a couple of tools you won’t find elsewhere.
So, yes, Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass is worth your time. Whether it’s worth your money is a matter of your personal budget, but I will say that if you’re definitely willing to spend the price of admission on good writing advice, this is the place to spend it. If you decide to try Gaiman’s MasterClass, share your experience in the comments below, and try our Judy Blume MasterClass, James Patterson MasterClass, and Dan Brown MasterClass reviews to see which other lecturers have something worthwhile to teach you.