My Neil Gaiman MasterClass Review (2020): How Good Is It?

Posted 02 May 2020, by

Brendan Brown

(This review contains affiliate links which means we make a commission if you sign upat no extra cost to you. However, it is an honest review about my personal experience with the Neil Gaiman MasterClass).

“In my class, I’m going to tell you that stories are important. I’m going to tell you what stories are. And then I’m going to tell you how to build them.”– Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass is for anyone interested in learning the art of storytelling from one of the very best.

Many of us have been spending weeks at home in isolation. In these circumstances, it can be hard to find that spark of creative inspiration. This class—with its gentle and meandering pace, actionable advice, and eminently likable instructor—is a powerful antidote to COVID-induced malaise.

In this Neil Gaiman MasterClass review, I’ll answer common questions about MasterClass in general and Neil Gaiman’s class in particular.

I will let you know what to expect from the class and give my honest opinion about its strengths and limitations. By the end of this review, you’ll know if this masterclass is right for you.

Let’s get started.

Who is Neil Gaiman?

neil gaiman masterclass review

Neil Gaiman is an absolute legend, the author of multiple novels such as Coraline and American Gods and comic book series The Sandman.

Gaiman has created some of the most compelling worlds I’ve ever entered as a reader. Even in just 100 words, he has a knack for provoking emotion and shifting perspective.

A remarkably versatile writer, Gaiman has written for both children and adults, crafted film scripts, and created comics.  For the past several years, he has been a professor at Bard College in New York’s Hudson Valley.

His enthusiasm for teaching shines through in his MasterClass. It’s no wonder that he’s one of the most beloved authors working today.

What is MasterClass?

MasterClass is an online educational platform featuring courses from world-renowned experts: Garry Kasparov teaches chess, Penn & Teller teach comedy, and Gordon Ramsey teaches cooking. You get the idea.

Your instructor is someone who not only is a true expert in their field, but who has also risen to the highest echelon, often becoming a household name along the way.

You can read my full MasterClass review here.

How much does MasterClass cost?

MasterClass costs $180. This fee gives you access to the entire MasterClass platform for one year.

The platform is very strong in creative writing, featuring classes by Joyce Carol Oates, Dan Brown, R.L. Stine, Margaret Atwood, Judy Blume, and others in addition to Neil Gaiman.

The site also offers classes in categories such as Culinary Arts, Sports and Games, Film and Television, and Lifestyle.

When your one-year membership ends, you’ll need to renew it to retain access to the platform and its video lectures. You can cancel your membership if you do not want to renew for another year.

MasterClasses generally come with accompanying workbooks in PDF files; you can simply download these workbooks to your computer if you want to keep using them once you end your subscription.

What does Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass involve?

 

This MasterClass has the following components:

  • 19 video lessons.
  • 94-page workbook.
  • Access to Community discussions.

Let’s break that down.

Each video lesson is about 10 to 15 minutes long, adding up to 4 hours and 48 total minutes of video. Topics include “Developing the Story,” “Worldbuilding,” and “Humor.”

The videos are simple and have a familiar feel: Gaiman sits in a booklined room and seems to speak directly to you, transmitting his personality and good humor through the screen. He has a slow and pleasant speaking style that accompanies you through his stories, insights, and advice.

You can bump up the video speed to 2x if you’re short on time and seeking maximum efficiency. But in my opinion, this class is best when you allow yourself to meander through it. Give yourself time to reflect on what Gaiman is saying.

The accompanying workbook is an excellent resource. Again, make sure to download it to your computer so that you have it forever. I can definitely see myself returning to some of the tips and exercises in it for years to come.

Each workbook lesson corresponds to a video lecture, summing up the relevant concepts, then adding exercises for you to complete.  These include both writing prompts and reading exercises. To get the most out of this class, you’ll need to put in the effort and take the exercises seriously.

As an example: In a lesson on character development, Gaiman prompts you to fill in a questionnaire on behalf of your character. Imagine yourself into your character’s mind and answer questions about your attitude toward money and your relationships with family.

Finally, there’s the MasterClass Community. This feature lets you interact with other students in the class and even swap feedback on drafts and writing exercises. From what I’ve noticed, the community for Neil Gaiman’s class is quite active.

Structure of the class

What can you expect to learn? And how is the class structured?

Lesson 1 is a brief general introduction to the class and your new instructor.

Lessons 2-5 cover fundamental aspects of writing and the importance of developing your unique voice and message. How do you use fiction (a “lie”) to convey a deeper truth? What kinds of stories do you want to tell? How do you want to tell them? What kind of voice feels most natural to you? These are the kinds of topics covered here.

Lesson 6 is a case study with a focus on story and plot.

Lessons 7-8 cover short fiction and prepare you to write innovative, unforgettable short stories.

Lessons 9-14 move through specific topics such as dialogue, descriptions, and humor to help you hone these essential components of a good story.

Lesson 15 is on comics: I don’t have any personal experience with comics, but found this lesson incredibly fun. Sometimes trying something completely new and different is a great way to spark your creativity.

Lessons 16-19 turn to the writing process; you’ll learn how to overcome writer’s block, as well as how to manage your time, edit your work, and make steady progress as a writer.

Overall, I found the class well-organized. It proceeds in a sensible order if you follow it straight through from beginning to end, but you can also cherry-pick individual lessons as you like.

And while you can binge-watch the entire class in one ambitious afternoon, I strongly recommend that you don’t.

You’ll get the most from this MasterClass if you truly slow down to absorb each lesson, complete each reading and writing exercise in the workbook, and engage with other writers, whether fellow learners in the MasterClass Community, a local writing group, or a friend.

Neil Gaiman MasterClass review: What I liked

There are so many things I enjoyed about this MasterClass:

First of all, Neil Gaiman is a delight. He has a lovely, conversational style that I find captivating. The class is intended to improve your storytelling, and if nothing else, you’ll learn by example as you listen to Gaiman spin stories about his own experiences.

The Neil Gaiman MasterClass is a fascinating insight into the creative process of one of the world’s most successful living authors.

A couple lessons take the form of case studies in which Gaiman explains a specific technique by demonstrating it in his own work. I appreciate these lessons because it’s almost as if he’s walking me through the process step by step.

For example: I know (in theory) that it’s important to create complex, believable, memorable characters—but I sometimes fall short of that goal. Gaiman’s lesson gave me a deeper understanding of how to write characters and equipped me with concrete tools to bring my characters alive.

The class gets the balance right between inspiration on the one hand and concrete advice on the other. Inspiration by itself is important but not sufficient—I might feel momentarily inspired to write a novel, but that inspiration fades quickly if I don’t have a clear idea of my next steps.

That’s where Gaiman comes in. He’s a remarkably inspiring figure, but he also makes sure to follow through with actionable advice.

The workbook is a great feature of the class. It offers a deeper dive into the concepts covered in the videos, points you to additional resources, and contains numerous writing exercises.

For instance, in one early lesson, you’ll practice infusing your writing with honesty by describing a deeply embarrassing moment or a time you regret. The workbook structure ensures that you make steady progress through the class.

There are also reading exercises. I love these because they force me to slow down and become a more perceptive reader instead of speeding through a text as quickly as possible.

For Gaiman’s reading exercises, you’ll read a variety of authors and make observations about their voices and stylistic choices, develop a stronger grasp of how they subvert reader expectations, and identify the major dramatic questions and social contexts underpinning their works.

Though this MasterClass is most relevant to fiction writers, I think it could apply to a wide variety of people.

We all tell stories all the time, often without even realizing it. Many of us—journalists, historians, bloggers, and more—rely on stories for our livelihoods. There’s a real value in honing your skill in storytelling, one of the most fundamental human skills.

Finally, MasterClass boasts excellent production values. Gaiman sits in an idyllic room surrounded by books, and more than once I found myself wondering whether he had been the one to pick them out.

The intimate, cozy setting makes you feel as if you’re in a one-on-one meeting with him. Filmed at Byrdcliffe Art Colony in Woodstock, New York, the class exudes a calming yet creatively invigorating atmosphere.

Above all, this class made me excited to write. Despite the general malaise generated by the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been feeling refreshed and energized, ready to get up and write about new ideas every day (well, most days, anyway).

Some of the most compelling lessons

Neil gaiman masterclass review lesson

In this section, I’ll give two specific examples from the class to give you a clearer, more concrete idea of what to expect.

Lesson 3: Build your “compost heap”

As Gaiman explains, inspiration can strike from anywhere, at any time, from even the most surprising of sources. In addition to drawing on your own life experiences, you can draw valuable inspiration from other writers.

Prolific and imaginative authors such as Gaiman often have one thing in common: They love to read. Gaiman enumerates some of the authors whose work was formative in his own creative development, such as James Branch Cabell, Ursula K. Le Guin, and P.L. Travers.

He encourages you to develop a “compost heap” of your own, a space in your writing journal full of the things that interest and inspire you.

Lesson 17: Think of writing as an “explosion”

I love this way of thinking about the writing and editing process. Gaiman compares writing to an explosion: You can think of your story as something that has burst onto the page, and only once it’s done exploding can you walk around it and see how everything turned out.

Allowing this explosion to happen is essential, no matter how messy it is. After all, you can’t clean up something that doesn’t exist. Let the explosion happen. Get that first draft out of your head and onto the page. Then you can observe, change, and edit.

These are just two ideas of the many contained within this MasterClass.

Gaiman has a flair for explaining concepts clearly and compellingly. Sometimes, he tells me things I’ve heard before—this isn’t my first writing class after all. But there’s something refreshing and even reassuring about his delivery.

Neil Gaiman MasterClass Review: The drawbacks and limitations

As much as I enjoyed this class, I should take a moment to highlight some of its limitations.

First of all, the MasterClass Community is not quite the same as an in-person writing class. It’s less personal.

MasterClass has made some efforts at community building, and it’s possible that enforced social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic will prompt more people to participate in online communities. But for now, I’d characterize the Community spaces as hit-or-miss.

That said, I’ve been generally impressed with the quality of the Neil Gaiman MasterClass community, which offers a moderate level of engagement and encouragement. Some learners have used the community to swap drafts and garner feedback.

In addition, you should bear in mind that completing this class and making the most of it requires self-discipline. If you’re already an independent learner, then a self-paced online class is perfect for you.

However, if you struggle to stay disciplined in the absence of external accountability, then you may have more difficulty. I’d recommend taking the class with a friend and agreeing to a schedule to keep each other on track.

Finally, as with any MasterClass, you shouldn’t expect much (if any) interaction with the instructor.

Gaiman sadly (but not surprisingly) doesn’t have the time to provide personal feedback on my homework. So, anyone looking for real feedback or the chance to ask questions in office hours should instead consider taking a more traditional class or joining a writing group.

Other MasterClasses for writers

As I mentioned above, MasterClass features an impressive roster of writers. If you finish Gaiman’s class and are eager for more, or if you’d like to sample lessons from other instructors, the following MasterClasses may be of interest:

Margaret Atwood Teaches Creative Writing

As might be expected, Margaret Atwood’s class covers much of the same ground: how to structure a plot, how to develop your characters, how to write dialogue, and so on.

Nevertheless, she and Gaiman each have their own distinctive styles, and in my opinion it’s well worth going through both classes in full if you have a strong interest in creative writing.

I especially enjoyed Atwood’s lessons on speculative fiction (including a case study centered on The Handmaid’s Tale) and on research and historical accuracy.

Check out Margaret Atwood’s class here.

R.L. Stine Teaches Writing for Young Audiences

I read so many Goosebumps books when I was a kid…It was almost unreal taking this class and hearing directly from the man responsible for all my old nightmares!

The R.L. Stine MasterClass is perfect for anyone who wants to learn about creating a spooky atmosphere, combining horror with humor, or really connecting with your audience through fun and engaging prose.

While Neil Gaiman has his “compost heap,” R.L. Stine has “the idea store”—both classes are excellent for boosting you out of a creative slump!

Check out the R.L. Stine MasterClass here.

Joyce Carol Oates Teaches the Art of the Short Story

Dive headlong into the world of short fiction with this MasterClass from Joyce Carol Oates—who has written literally thousands of short stories.

I love this genre and its tendency to showcase innovation, playfulness, and wit. Oates structures her course roughly the same way she organizes her undergraduate fiction-writing courses at Princeton, which she has taught for years.

Like Neil Gaiman, she has obvious experience with and enthusiasm for teaching that really comes through the screen. You can expect most lessons to include multiple writing assignments; take them seriously, and you’ll soon get into the habit of regular writing and produce tons of short stories of your own.

Those are just a few examples! MasterClass also has offerings on poetry (Billy Collins), mystery and thrillers (Dan Brown and David Baldacci), dramatic writing (David Mamet) and humor (David Sedaris). You can learn about writing from Judy Blume, Malcolm Gladwell, and James Patterson.

If this COVID lockdown lasts long enough, I’ll probably get through them all.

And why not?

My verdict: Is Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass worth it?

Thank you for reading my Neil Gaiman MasterClass review.

Do I think the class is worth taking?

My answer, as you can probably tell, is a resounding yes.

Neil Gaiman’s class is full of actionable ideas, insight into the life of a writer, and practical encouragement, along with a hefty dose of creative magic. He acknowledges that there will be hard times, and he gives you the tools you need to get through them.

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