Writing Masterclasses: A Review (Part Two)

It’s been a year since I signed up for a Masterclass.com membership, and I’m not renewing, so I thought it was high time I put together my final thoughts. (You can find Part One linked here.)

During the past twelve months, the platform has had a facelift (new logo and branding), they’ve added new instructors, and diversified the range of instructors they’re working with.

As with part one of this review, I’m going to be focusing on their writing content, so I cannot speak for other areas of the site, but having a mostly white, mostly male roster of ‘masters’ was something I had previously criticised, and I’m glad to see the imbalance is starting to be addressed.

New teachers include Roxane Gay, Walter Mosley, N.K. Jemison, Amy Tan, Salman Rushdie, and Issa Rae. Shonda Rhimes is on there, too but––unless I’m mistaken––her content’s not actually new, just newly recategorised under the writing section (both her and Issa Rae’s courses straddle the line between writing and filmmaking).

I initially set out to watch all the writing content that Masterclass had to offer, but after 315 video lessons consumed and 16 classes completed in their entirety, I’m actually pretty burned out on advice, especially when so much of it is the same, or at least in agreement (I’ll get onto notable exceptions in a minute).

I’m not renewing my membership in the first instance because of the price point, but being burned out on the content is the other big reason.

I’m worried that this will come across as arrogant, but I don’t think the platform has anything else to teach me. At this point, I’ve been writing for over ten years and have attended a lot of courses and workshops, not to mention read a lot of articles and books on craft, and so a lot of the things covered in the classes aren’t new to me. I’m not saying that I know everything there is to know about writing and cannot possibly learn anything more ever, because of course not. And I don’t mean it as a criticism of the classes, exactly, because a lot of people will find all that information put together in a single place incredibly useful, I’m just not sure that I’m their target audience.

To me, the concept of a masterclass is for someone who’s already doing a thing and wants to get even better, but a lot of the lessons I think are actually better suited to beginners, or people not long started out on their exploration of the craft. Other people’s mileage will undoubtedly vary, but that’s my personal feeling on the matter.

Speaking of personal feelings, I really didn’t gel with a couple of the instructors. Namely, Malcolm Gladwell and David Mamet. While watching video lessons from pretty much everyone else, I nodded along and knew exactly what they were talking about. But these guys… I confess to ranting at length to both my husband and online group of writing friends about them.

For illustration purposes, I have picked out three pieces of Malcolm’s advice that I not only fundamentally disagree with, but am genuinely baffled by anyone who does––yet these people do exist. I googled it, and he has some fans highly praising his teachings, so maybe it’s just me. See for yourself.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Writing Advice:

• When researching, look for irrelevant information you might never use.

• If your piece starts out with a question, don’t feel the need to answer it. Go on a tangent for three thousand words, then tell your reader you never did solve the problem.

• Great stories don’t have to be satisfying. An unsatisfying ending is sometimes what makes them great.

Regarding point two: If he’d said open endings can be great, which I think is perhaps what he meant, then I’d have seen some merit to the statement. I personally don’t think they should be used all the time, but they can be effective sometimes, sure. Except that’s not what he said. He specifically said ‘unsatisfying.’

…am I mad for hearing that and just thinking… what? Seriously?

Beyond these points, I didn’t feel like Malcolm had a lot to offer. (Besides a rambling anecdote about ketchup, for some reason?)

He seems like a really genuine guy, and I’d probably have a pleasant cup of tea with him in some post-pandemic bizarro world where we’d cross paths, but it’s fair to say we don’t see eye to eye.

That’s fine. I can live with it.

David Mamet, though… *takes deep breath*

He actually, actively pissed me off. Not just because he was saying things I disagreed with, but because he has this attitude that anyone who disagrees with him is an idiot and doesn’t know what they’re talking about. When, dude… have you seen the other masterclasses? They’re preaching some different sh*t.

An example: David said “there is no such thing as character,” and backstory is a waste of time. Another thing he doesn’t like is exposition. Or narration. Or “obligatory” heartfelt scenes. On one breath he says dialogue isn’t important… and then he says good dialogue is poetry, which feeds the soul.

Compare this to Judy Blume (oh, Judy! I actually fell in love with her over the course of her videos, not gonna lie).

She said she doesn’t really know what plot is, which perhaps is yet another odd statement on the surface, but she’s real about it. About not being a perfect author. About this only being her experience, and it maybe not applying to others. She got visibly choked up in a few spots and you could just feel how much she loves telling stories.

“Character is everything,” she says, and “backstory is interesting.” She is SINGING MY SONG! (Screw you, David!)

Margaret Atwood clears up the discrepancy when she said, “Which comes first, character or story? There is no such thing as first, because a person is what happens to them.” See how that thought works together with Judy’s?

Mamet later recommended watching movies with the sound off, then made a sweeping generalisation about most of them being awful.

He likes the gaming magazines his son reads, because they’re––according to him––written terribly.

“I don’t know what my process is…” he says, “but if you want, I’ll make something up.” And “Who cares?” he keeps asking.

“Me!” I kept wanting to scream at him, because Masterclass is pretty expensive. You’d be a fool to invest your time and money and not care. And so, yes, it makes me angry to think that he doesn’t. That he’s happy to just stand there and make stuff up, when the stuff is overwhelmingly negative and contradicts a lot of the teaching from the other writers, as I’ve said.

But I don’t want to leave this review on a sour note, or give him any more of my attention (lest I be accused of being overly negative myself), so I will instead say that most of the writers on Masterclass are great. I watched videos from all of them, even if I didn’t complete the serieses of a few.

My overall conclusion is that a newbie writer would likely find a subscription an amazing resource––so long as they take some things with a pinch of salt, and they can afford it.

Interviewing my Audiobook Narrator

To celebrate the release of the audiobook version of my debut novel––Full Term, a Young Adult Contemporary––I have the great pleasure of interviewing my narrator, Eleanor Acquah.

I found Eleanor via ACX, Amazon’s service for linking independent authors and audiobook producers. I typed in my preferences (a female English voice who could speak casually and do a couple of accents) and then scrolled, hoping to find someone who had the same background as my main character.

Eleanor immediately jumped out, A. because she had a good audio sample, and B. because she was one of the few black people on the site. My main character, Mya, is half Ghanaian, and as it turned out, Eleanor has Ghanaian heritage too. It was important to me to cast a person of colour in the role, where possible.

Here’s what she had to say about it all:

Can we start with you telling us a little about yourself?

I live in South London. I am a family support worker and have been working in this field for 18 years. I love spicy food and shopping!

What made you decide to narrate audiobooks and how did you get started?

From a young age, I was always doing impressions of the people around me; at the age of seven whilst watching TV, I had a lightbulb moment and wanted to be a voice-over when I was older. I have always had an interest in TV production and I actually wanted to be a camerawoman but choose the career path of helping people as it appealed to me. The voice-over was always in the back of my mind so decided to do it on the side for experience and to earn extra money. My first gig was doing jingles for a Christian radio show Omniscient Radio. When I got the message from Ellie about Full Term, I was in shock as most of my experience was from radio and projects for young people and animation. I had auditioned for audiobooks six years ago without success; thankfully my profile was still active!

So, Full Term is your first full audiobook. How do you feel it went? What did you learn? Anything you would do differently?

I feel it went okay, I was just so happy my audition went well, I just wanted to read! I learnt that producing an audiobook is not just about reading; it’s about trying to get the right pace and essence of the characters; the editing is a long process as you have to take out the breaths, listen to the playback whilst listening and reading along to ensure all of the words are said. If I had to do it again, I would ensure that the requirements to record are set prior to recording! And extra padding in my recording corner in my bedroom as the neighbours upstairs can be noisy.

Was there anything about the story that drew you in?

What drew me into the story was Mya could of had the baby at school considering she didn’t tell anyone about it. As I support children, young people and stories like this are very familiar to me. I actually have a young mum on my caseload who is in a mother and baby unit.

Do you have a favourite character?

Mya. I love her inner thoughts and her determination and she wants the best for Emma.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I am keen to find out what happens in the second instalment!

Thank you so much to Eleanor for answering my questions, and of course recording the book in the first place! If you would like to buy a copy, it’s available on Amazon, Audible, and via the Apple Store.