Writing Masterclasses: A Review (Part One)

Recently, I’ve been taking part in online writing classes via Masterclass.com, and I thought it might be beneficial to others for me to review a little of my experience so far. So, here we go.

Overview

Masterclass is an online streaming service that offers video lessons in a range of topics from world-renowned experts with wealths of experience. There are over 80 courses, consisting of twenty lessons at ten minutes each on average. Topics are grouped together under Culinary Arts, Design, Photography, and Fashion, Film and TV, Music and Entertainment, Business, Politics, and Society, Sports and Games, Science and Technology, Lifestyle, and of course Writing.

The writing classes are what this review is going to focus on, as it’s the particular thread I’m pursuing.

In total, at least right now, there are 251 video lessons on writing from twelve different writers: David Sedaris, Joyce Carol Oates, Neil Gaiman, David Baldacci, Billy Collins, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, R.L. Stein, David Mamet, Malcolm Gladwell, Judy Bloom, and James Paterson. These cover storytelling, writing comedy, drama, mysteries and thrillers, writing for younger audiences, writing poetry, etc.

Features

As a streaming service, you can access Masterclass via pretty much any device with an internet connection. I personally use the site ‘in browser’ via my laptop, but there are apps for the iPhone, iPad, Android devices, and Roku (though I hold my hands up here and will admit I have no idea what that actually is).

As well as the main video classes themselves, there are semi-regular ‘Masterclass Live’ special, one-off lessons.

There is a community forum to discuss the teaching on offer, ask questions, and request feedback on work, though I’m not sure how well this is moderated. From the brief look I’ve taken, it doesn’t seem like the instructors themselves interact with this space at all. Continue reading

Tips for Working from Home

Seeing as a lot of people are working from home right now, for maybe the first time in their lives, and working from home doesn’t naturally suit all personality types, I thought I might offer some advice in the hopes it might help at least some of you. I don’t consider myself an expert in this, but I have been working from home for several years so I do have relevant experience. (Other people’s experience can and will differ. As with all advice, take the bits that work for you and feel free to ignore the rest.)

Your (Physical) Space

It may be that working from home really suits you (and your home) and you’ve been wanting to do so for a long time, but have never been given the opportunity before. The world as it is right now obviously isn’t ideal for anyone, but if it’s given you this small consolation, then at least there’s that.

My Husband Steve

For everyone else, it’s going to be a much bigger adjustment. So, here’s what I recommend: as much as you’re able, try and create a distinct area in which you work. This distinct area will vary depending on who you are, how and where you live – it might be a section of your dining room table. It might be a section of your couch. It might be your garden shed, or your laundry room, or a hundred other possibilities I don’t need to spell out. You get the idea.

The point is, whatever your little area is, it needs to be defined if you’re to have any level of success at this thing. If you have lucked out and already have a home office, garden shed, or spare room, you won’t need to worry so much about packing away your things at the end of each workday and setting them out again the next, but if you’re working at your kitchen table or in bed, tidying things away and putting them out again will be something you need to think about. Sure, it’s annoying and time-consuming, but it might actually work in your favour when it comes to setting a routine – something I’ll talk more about in a second.

So: Tip One – think about your physical space and how it might work best for you. This obviously gets trickier if you live with other people, especially if those other people are now trying to work from home as well. This is again something I will come back to touch on later. For now, think about what you need and how you might get it.

For some people, getting a lot of light behind them – i.e. sitting at a window – is what helps. Some people will prioritise structure over comfort, while others will be the other way around. There is no wrong way to work, so long as you respect your own needs and the needs of those around you. Continue reading

Writing and Mental Health

A couple of days ago, I asked people on my Facebook Page and Twitter timeline if there was anything, in particular, they’d like to see me blog about. One person said ‘writing and mental health’ and I thought, aha!

In the past, I’ve talked extensively about writing and about mental health, but I hadn’t as yet brought the two topics together. So, here we are.

Let’s start with the key facts, shall we? Writing can be tricky and mental health even more so. Put them both together and, well, things ain’t so simple.

Sometimes when I’m having a bad mental health day, I write a ton, and sometimes bad mental health means I can’t write at all. I find writing definitely helps my mental health, but if I find myself unable to do that thing that helps, what then?

Being completely real: if your mental health is super bad, picking up a pen isn’t going to cut it, you’re going to need help from outside yourself. On that note, I have a post about getting help and what that actually means linked here, and I have a post about counselling here.

But let’s assume, for the sake of this particular post, that your mental health is not so great but not exactly critical. If you’re already a writer, you may find accessing your creativity to be a bit of a struggle. In which case, I suggest switching things up. Usually write fiction? Try an angsty blog post, or a terrible poem. (I’m a big, big fan of both.) Usually a non-fiction writer? You could try creating something based entirely in fantasy just for the escapism. Either way, these words are for you. You can show people, if you want, but you’re under no obligations. If you’re in a sucky mood, allow yourself the freedom to have your words suck. Put down in text things that you could never and would never admit out loud. This can help even if you’re not already a writer, too.

One thing I find particularly useful is letters. I might write one addressed to my brain, or my body, my depression, or a specific place. Sometimes writing a letter to a person in your life will help, even if you never send it. The important thing is to get it off your chest so it’s not pushing you down.

If writing really isn’t working for you, try painting, or music. There is no one-size-fits-all here. One day, one thing might help and another it could be something else entirely. If you’ve tried writing in the past to lift your spirits and it didn’t pan out, what’s to say you shouldn’t give it another go?

If you have thoughts, anecdotes, or other tips to share, I’d love to hear them! Please leave a comment and please, please, talk to someone if you’re really struggling. You deserve the help you need.

Tips for Meeting the Love of Your Life

So, it’s coming up to Valentine’s Day and you might be wanting to have a little romance in your life. As a follow up to my last post, talking about my own potted relationship history complete with Happy Ever After, I thought I’d share my top tips to finding that special person for yourself.

These are specific to online dating, as that’s the method that ultimately worked for me.

1. Play the Long Game/Take Your Time

If you’re serious about wanting to commit to a long term relationship, you might need more than a few days lead-in time. Signing up for an online dating profile tonight, with four days to go until Valentine’s, might score you a date for the big day and you could be lucky enough to have said date with someone super right for you but, realistically, it’ll probably take more than that. More time, more energy, more searching.

I’m sorry if this bursts your bubble. It’s probably not what you want to hear, but you’ve waited all of your life so far already, right? What’s a little longer? If you want lasting results, it’s gonna take some time, but it will be worth it. (That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with just wanting a date and nothing more. If that’s your jam, go for it, but this advice isn’t really targetted at you.)

I was on (and off) online dating sites for years, not taking it very seriously at all, before I found one that worked for me. The one I stuck with was OkCupid, but you may find a different one that suits you better (bonus tip: do your research!). Even once I’d finally selected my dating site of choice, I was on there for so long that they actually made me on of their moderators.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Those years of being on the site were not entirely devoid of options. I would get messages fairly regularly, it was just that none of the message-ees suited me. This might also be your experience, but do not despair. Continue reading

Life Advice from a Thirty Year Old

Sylvia Plath was thirty-years-old when she died. This is a sobering fact I have only just learned, having googled her to directly reference her fig tree analogy.

When I lie awake at night, I often think of the fig tree she described in the Bell Jar. Of all of the opportunities and the paralysing fear over picking one of them.

Somewhat fittingly, I have started to write this post several times, each with a different slant, only to scrap my words and start again. I almost scrapped the idea in its entirety, worried that not being able to select and follow a narrative was a sign that the whole thing wasn’t going to work.

Here’s a fun fact: life has many narratives. That’s the whole point!

I always felt like the fig tree analogy spoke to a deeper truth but from my perspective now, as a thirty-year-old myself, I actually feel there’s a lie at the core of it: “Choosing one meant losing all the rest.”

NO!

Choosing means choosing and nothing more. You can change direction down the road.

Changing direction is normal.

Changing direction can be the best thing ever.

Turning down one opportunity might mean it is gone and will never be open to you again but for every turn-off you miss, there is a literal infinite number of others and THAT’S OKAY. In many cases, that’s actually fantastic. Revel in the freedom of this knowledge.

Missed opportunities are not the end of the world, friend. I wish to god someone had sat me down ten years ago and told me that. Continue reading

On Being Strong

There are many different definitions of strength. Most of them, I find, are inadequate. Strength isn’t the absence of fear or weakness, and it isn’t something purely physical.

I’m partially thinking about this because I’ve been rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer season seven, these past few nights, but also because strength is something I’m constantly striving for. I have to remember that being strong is also not the same thing as being hard on yourself. I mean, sometimes it is, but not all the time.

I’ve done a lot of hard things in my life so far – fought through a fair few difficult situations – and where I am now, I have more hard things in front of me.

I am fighting against my body and the medical condition I have to get pregnant.

I am trying hard to lose weight – something that even people without PCOS struggle to do.

I’m also trying to secure a publishing deal.

These are big things. A lot of people much better than me have spent big chunks of their lives tackling one or other of these. The fact that I’m struggling with them is not a sign of weakness. Or, maybe it is, but that weakness isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Sometimes, I gotta cut myself some slack.

I cannot be top of my game, doing my very best, all of the time.

Being strong is not an absence of weakness, it’s accepting the things holding you back – the things failing and falling apart – and going on, regardless.

I am both weak and strong. That’s okay. The same is true of all people, even slayers. I just need to remember that.

On Researching Contemporary Fiction

I don’t think it’s particularly big-headed to say I have a somewhat decent set of writing skills at this point – it is my job, after all – but world-building is definitely not something that comes to me naturally. This didn’t matter, I told myself, because I mainly write stories set in the real world in the modern-day.

Well, as you can probably guess, I was wrong.

I may have been basing my descriptions on places and things that already exist, but I don’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of stuff even I know fairly well. Like, I can picture a road I’ve walked down dozens of times, but I won’t necessarily know the name of that road because it hasn’t ever been relevant to me before. And the thing about characters is that, if done right, they take on a life of their own, which means things will be relevant to them that have nothing to do with you as a writer.

If you don’t want your reader to stumble over something out of place, sooner or later, you’ll have to look things up. Even if the real world is your source material, the reader probably won’t know which part of it you’re drawing direct inspiration from, so you’ve got to rebuild that world inside their head – not as big a deal as creating an imaginary empire from scratch, but still no mean feat.

In preparation for National Novel Writing Month last year, there were a series of Instagram inspiration prompts and one of them was ‘Last Writing Related Search.’ Displayed in the photo, below, is what was in my Google search history.

Yes, it was all research for my book, odd as it may sound.

Since then, I’ve actually gone even further, to figure out what subjects my main characters would have studied at G.C.S.E., what dates the exams would have been on, and plotted this info on a calendar next to the plot points of the book.

No one else is ever going to need this information, and it doesn’t end up in the book directly, but it certainly helped me get my head around timelines and pacing, which ultimately makes the book better. Continue reading

What Literary Agents Do For Authors

This post comes directly from my notes of the recent publishing conference I attended in Dublin. For more general info and advice from that event and another one I attended in Belfast, please click here

If you’re new to the world of writing and have heard people talk about trying to get an agent, you might well be wondering what these mystical creatures are and what they do. Well, wonder no longer, because I’m about to spell it out. And – spoiler! – it’s more than just taking a cut of authors’ earnings.

Agents are…

1 – Advocates

On the most basic level, an agent is a third party who can enhance (or engineer) an interaction between two other parties. In the literary world, they are the middle man (usually a woman, in fact) who brokers a deal between writers and publishers.

Can’t writers submit to publishers directly, though? Some of them, yes, but the ‘big five’ publishers (and their imprints, who make up most of the market) usually only take submissions sent via agencies.

2 – Buffers

Imagine the scene: you’ve managed to get a publishing deal all on your own, but something has gone wrong. Perhaps the publisher has chosen the most hideous cover. You’re upset and you have no idea how to communicate this to your publisher. You worry they won’t take your criticism well, or that they’ll change their mind, so you’re left with the choice of accepting a cover you hate or risk rocking the boat by being seen as difficult.

Well, with an agent, you don’t need to worry. They will have this conversation for you.

3 – Knowledgeable

These points are in no particular order but if I was to rank them, this would probably be first.

Publishing deals are complicated beasts involving the sale of rights in a number of regions and formats: paperback, ebook, and audio as well as film, TV, and stage. Got an agent? You don’t need to stress over the fine print of any of it! They know all about shifts in the market and changes to the going rate. Nine times out of ten, they will get you a better deal than you could on your own. Continue reading

On Taking Opportunities

It is my firm belief that success rarely happens on its own. There’s a huge amount of random chance involved in winning the lottery, but there’s always another key ingredient, too: buying a ticket.

Award-winning author Kit de Waal wrote a piece for the Bridport Prize website urging people to enter competitions. Lots of them, in various different shapes and sizes; paid and unpaid.

I found this advice as I was reading through this year’s website, preparing to put my work forward for a few of this year’s prizes (the Bridport actually being made up of a few different competitions: one for poetry, one for short stories etc).

Kit de Waal offered up five bursaries to people wanting to enter the flash fiction competition. I was eligible, I entered, and I won one of those five chances to enter the flashfic competition for free.

On top of this, I paid to enter the poetry competition and the short story comp.

Fingers crossed something comes of it. I’d love to be able to end this post with a big success story to perfectly illustrate my point, but I don’t think the pay off is the point at this stage. Success will come in time, I’m sure. If not with this competition then somewhere else.

I also think successes tend to build on themselves.

Once you’ve won an award for a short story (for example), you won’t necessarily find it easier to hook a literary agent for your novel, but it might help and, in the meantime, other doors may open.

All that’s in the future, though. The main takeaway message for right here, right now, is to try. And to keep trying. Continue reading

Letter to my Past Self

Dear Eighteen-Year-Old Ellie,

First things first, you change your name to Ellie. It’ll take a while for you to figure out, but the person you’ve been to this point isn’t the real you. More on that later. In terms of the name change, though, it’ll be easier for you from a practical point of view if you do it before you go off to university. Getting people to call you your preferred name is a lot easier when it’s the one you introduce yourself as.

And speaking of university… I know you’re excited, but don’t study forensic science, it will kill all of the interest you have in the subject. Also, you don’t have enough knowledge about politics outside Northern Ireland to study criminology. Come to think of it, you don’t have enough knowledge of politics inside Northern Ireland, either. I know you have a lot of strong opinions, but most of them are ill-informed.

The world is not as black and white as you think it is.

I know this is going to come as a pretty huge shock, but you will lose your faith. You will make your peace with that. I promise it’s not the bad thing you think it is. Honestly, the change makes you less of a dick. Religion, as you’ll find out, is mostly a tool used by privileged people to hate and oppress others. You won’t want a part in that once you’ve seen the damage it can do first hand.

Try and minimize your own personal range of damage. Don’t hate on your own gender, or those who make decisions differently to you. Learn to listen instead of arguing ­– you are better than the example that has been set for you.

You are not your mother.  Continue reading