Highlights from Neil Gaiman’s Masterclass
I took the famous Masterclass. Here’s how it can help you too.
Neil Gaiman has created a name for himself beyond his numerous works. He is the eccentric inspiration for many aspiring writers. Although he has spoken about creativity in multiple interviews and his ‘Make Good Art’ speech, now all of his tips are organized and laid out for his fans to enjoy.
So, first off: Is the class worth your time?
The answer is yes.
This isn’t the type of run-of-the-mill content you’ll find on many writing platforms across the internet that seemed to regurgitate the same advice, like write every day, start the story with a bang, and avoid adverbs. Gaiman delves into the inner process of writing. Yes, a blog can detail a checklist of elements in a fight scene, and a book can dictate certain plot points you must have. But Gaiman’s stories are rich with themes, nuance, and emotion. If you’re interested in creating that as well, this is the class for you.
This isn’t a ‘color-by-numbers’ sort of lesson, which makes it appealing to writers with already some experience and a basic grasp of the story. This approach can still be very inspiring to new writers looking for ways to define their own writing process without someone rattling off what they ‘should’ be doing.
No matter what kind of writer you are, this class is enthused with Gaiman’s love and understanding of his craft. That in itself is inspiring, and he gives tips on how to capture inspiration and channel it into a story. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Masterclass was split into 15 sections. To give you a flavor of the masterclass, I will give you a personal highlight from a few of them.
In this section, Gaiman conveys the purpose of stories. They are part of us and we convey truth through them. Fiction is using “lies” to communicate truth.
“All fiction has to be as honest as you can make it. This, I believe.”
Readers will respond to honesty, so write about what is real to you. Become comfortable with the feeling that you’re exposing yourself. You may be surprised, but what may seem true but extremely personal to yourself can resonate with many others.
For example, Gaiman’s book Ocean at the End of the Lane was set in his own childhood environment. It was a book almost too personal for him to publish, yet he had many people approach him at book signings and say, “You wrote my life.”
How to get inspiration for a story
Neil Gaiman has an answer to the infamous question: “Where do you get your ideas?”
One word: Confluence. Two things coming together, whether they are experiences, ideas, what-ifs, etc. Keep a compost heap of everything you see and do and let it rot into a story.
How to write characters
Here is a clear instance where Gaiman’s intuitive writing approach differs from the classic character advice of “give them goals and physical descriptions.” His approach is to figure out how characters speak, then listen to their voices. He describes writing dialogue as a listening process. Once you begin listening to your characters, you will write things you didn’t even know were in your brain. Then, the characters and their decisions create the plot.
One way to listen is to “find the part of you that is that character.” Find that part of you that is a different age or another gender or a villain. Then don’t think of it as a part of you, think of it as that character, and ask yourself, “What would I have done?”
“Everything you could steal from the real world and smuggle it into fiction makes the world more real for the reader and much more importantly, more real for you.”
Take a walk outside, see the places you’ve been, then change them. Make them bigger or smaller or any other way they could be changed, but keep them grounded in reality. As you walk, keep mental notes for your compost pile. You should know more about the world than you tell. Then allow the characters to discover its rules as we figure out the rules in our own reality: through trial and error.
“Before you could be eccentric, you have to know where the circle is.”
Some writers may not like genres because they feel boxed in by them. But genres represent more than just a category; they are the readers’ expectations.
So know what kind of story you are building. Know the rules before you try to break them. Then you can play with the readers’ expectations. For example, note the differences between a cowboy novel and a novel set in cowboy times.
The bane of every writer’s existence. Except Gaiman’s. Although writer’s block sounds like it’s the will of the gods to stop writing, it really just means you’re stuck. So take a break and come back to the story and read it as if you’ve never seen it before. You’ll often find where you went off the rails and be able to recalibrate and continue writing.
Another way to power through feeling blocked is to set a deadline. A time crunch can focus you and force you to pick solutions.
How to edit and revise
Once you finish the first draft, let it rest for a while. Then print it and read it as you’ve never read it before. Think about what works and what doesn’t. Figure out what the story is really about. Then create a tighter structure around the real story and cut out anything that doesn’t fit. Editing is about making it look like you knew what you were doing all along.
Here’s Gaiman’s guide to sifting through feedback. If a reader says something isn’t working, they are usually right. If they suggest a way to fix it, they are usually wrong. That is often the reader injecting their own opinions on how the story should go. But don’t write their story. Write your own.
Other topics in the Masterclass
Other topics Gaiman covers is finding your own writing style, developing a story, short stories, writing descriptions, comics, humor, and his rules for writers. This last element is a step-by-step process on how to get published, something useful for novice and advanced writers. He emphasizes that struggling is part of the equation, as well as countless rejection. You are allowed to feel sad about these things but you shouldn’t give up because of them.
(Side note: I had planned to skip his class on comics since I assumed I would never, ever write in that medium. I watched it anyway because I wanted to experience the full Masterclass and enjoyed it thoroughly, more as entertainment than advice. A few months later, I got a job opportunity to write comic strips. Although I felt overwhelmed, I ended up falling back on the knowledge I learned in this class. So, thank you, Gaiman!)
At the end of the class, Gaiman discusses the responsibilities of writers. Understand what you are sending out into the world and be able to stand behind the messages in your books.
Neil Gaiman’s writing advice in summary
Here is Gaiman’s final takeaway, what he says to any aspiring authors who ask for advice:
- Finish things.
- Live. Your experiences will give you something to say.
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