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S2/E12: Neil Gaiman Teaches the Art of Storytelling (MasterClass)

Updated: Aug 2, 2021

I am seriously loving this MasterPass and this challenge that’s actually holding my feet to the fire so that I have that little bit of extra accountability to get me taking these classes!

Because, what if it had taken me longer to get around to taking Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass?! It would’ve been like putting off the ability to see a new color or hear a new kind of music. That’s how Neil makes you feel. Like you’re discovering things. That’s the overall feeling I got from this course, the awakening of the eyes-wide-open, fully-alive kid inside, who too often has to sit quietly while I manage the logistics of being a grown-up, a mom, a wife, etc. You know, much the way his writing makes you feel.

Like I said about Joyce Carol Oates MasterClass (and could’ve said about David Baldacci’s for that matter), how can you pass up having Neil Gaiman teaching a MasterClass in your living room, on your daily commute, or while you’re chopping vegetables for the evening dinner?!

In case you haven’t ever heard of Neil Gaiman, here’s a thumbnail sketch. You’ve heard of the expression “triple threat” maybe? Neil laughs at such a low bar. Pretty much if it can be written, he writes it: short fiction, novels, graphic novels, comic books, film, television, and just for kicks throw in some audio theatre and some nonfiction. Why not?

And did I mention that he does this for multiple audiences? You can find Neil Gaiman’s work in both the adult’s and children’s sections. And he does it all well. He’s taken home the Hugo, the Nebula, the Bran Stoker, the Newbery, and the Carnegie. In fact, he’s the first author to ever win the Newbery Medal (US) and the Carnegie Medal (UK) for the same work (The Graveyard Book). If you haven’t read The Ocean at the End of the Lane (one of my favorites), you should. In 2013, the British National Book Awards gave it the top honor. Or maybe check out his comic book series (The Sandman), which was awarded the Eisner Award. Understandable since the Los Angeles Times described it as “the greatest epic in the history of the form” and which Stephen King declared had turned the graphic novel into art. You can catch his work on tv (American Gods, Good Omens) or on film (Coraline).

It probably will surprise no one familiar with his work that Gaiman’s MasterClass is a little more philosophical and laced with a fair amount of whimsy and humor. While he spends a lot of time on things like sources of inspiration, finding your voice, and a writer’s responsibilities, but he still covers the nuts-and-bolts of storytelling, with sessions on things like worldbuilding, descriptions, dialogue, character, and editing. And there is a nice section on “the rules for writers” that has some juicy stuff on both mindset and the business side of writing.

Three Things

1. Be Honest When You’re Lying. While at one point Gaiman says, “What you’re doing is lying, but you’re using the truth in order to make your lies convincing and true.” What he means by this is that the underlying message, the heart of your story must be true. Last week Robin Knabel reviewed Consider This by Chuck Palahniuk and mentioned that Chuck also pushes us “to go there” into the spaces that make us uncomfortable in how true they are. Or as Neil Gaiman says, be “more honest than you’re comfortable with,” because “all fiction has to be as honest as you can make it.” It’s what people connect to most in your story. He urges you “to be willing to do the equivalent of walking down a street naked…and be able to show too much of yourself.”

2. Be Consistent, Be-Be-Consistent. B-E-Con-sist-ent! For someone who’s known for being exceptionally good at inventing entire worlds or adding an imaginative twist or lens to this one, it would seem to be counterintuitive that he would be such a stickler on this point. Except it actually makes perfect sense. If you’re asking the reader to come along with you on a fantastical journey, get the details right. Know the “rules” of your world, and be loyal to them. Know the details of your world, even if you don’t use them all (you won’t). And getting your real-world facts right both builds your credibility and anchors the reader so they can take on the unfamiliar elements of your story. People will notice if you change the rules or get a fact wrong and it will diminish the experience you’re creating for them.

3. Rules for Writers. Towards the end of the class, he says that he’s always followed a version of “Heinlein’s Business Rules” when approaching publication. Neil’s (Adapted) Rules for Writers are: 1) You have to write. 2) You have to finish what you write. 3) You have to send it out to someone who could publish it. 4) Refrain from rewriting – except to editorial request. 5) When it comes back, send it out again. 6) Then start the next thing.

*Today’s hack comes in the form of a bonus quote: “You always have to remember, when people tell you that something doesn’t work for them, that they’re right. It doesn’t work for them. And that is incredibly important information. You also have to remember that when people tell you what they think is wrong and how you should fix it, they’re almost always wrong.”

Here’s the weekly quotation. I like this one in particular just because in the face of the Neil Gaimans of the world, writing and/or putting your work out there can be daunting:

You can fix dialogue that isn’t quite there. You can fix the beginning of something. But you cannot fix nothingness, so you have to be brave. You have to just start .” Neil Gaiman in his MasterClass, “Editing”

This class will take you around four hours, during which time you will feel like you have somehow found a magic door back to your own uninhibited childhood creativity. Like usual, what Neil Gaiman has to tell us is far, far beyond what I could summarize here. I would 100% recommend this class to any fiction writer, but if you’re a speculative fiction writer, I think you should strongly consider it.

There are two ways to access a MasterClass.

  1. Individual classes cost $90 each and you have access to them forever.

  2. The all-access pass costs $180 annually ($15/month) and gives you access to every class. Other categories of classes besides writing include classes on film/television, music/entertainment, culinary arts, business/politics/society, sports/games, design/photography/fashion, science/technology, and lifestyle. It’s important to note that you don’t get access to them once you cancel your subscription.

I hope this was helpful to you! Next week I’ll be applying this same approach to another Creative Live Class: Design Systems that Fuel Your Creativity by Srinivas Rao. Remember, right now, CreativeLive has a $15 coupon for both of us!

Until then. . .

Happy writing, people!

Check out some of Neil Gaimans’s work mentioned in the class:

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