Recently I was approached by the people from Masterclass, a brand new online learning hub which features courses in different areas of the arts and sport, taught by world-famous masters of their craft–such as Dustin Hoffman for acting, Serena Williams for tennis–and James Patterson for writing. Masterclass asked if, as an experienced author, I’d be interested in checking out the course and seeing what I thought. I did some research, discovering Masterclass to be a start-up based in San Francisco that had debuted only a month ago–in May–and that it was themed around the concept that some masters in their field are also great teachers, and love to impart the knowledge and experience they’ve gained. I liked the idea and was also, I admit, curious to hear what the world’s highest-selling author had to say about his ways of working, so using the gift code provided, (the whole course costs $90 US normally, which seems very reasonable considering what you get) I set up my account, logged in and began exploring.
First of all, I want to write about how the course is structured, and then move to a discussion of whether it works, and for whom. There are four parts to the course: firstly a series of 22 videos in which James Patterson talks about different aspects of the craft of creating fiction: raw ideas; plot; creating characters; successful outlines; research; writing dialogue; building chapters, how to write good endings, editing, and much more, through to post-creation issues such as titles, marketing–and of course getting published! There are also a few more personal themed-videos: one where the author recounts his own personal journey to publication and success; one where he rather amusingly recounts his brushes with Hollywood; and one on the experience of working with co-authors. The videos vary in length between 3 and 14 minutes, depending on the complexity of the theme, and all of them feature James Patterson talking directly to the camera, in a chatty, conversational style, truffled with anecdotes, examples, tips and pithy sayings(a favourite of mine: Passion and habit are key to a successful writing career). Secondly, there is a 72 page downloadable and printable workbook which is designed to complement and expand the videos, recapping on each theme, and providing practical exercises for students to complete on their own. The workbooks come in two versions: one which includes the very comprehensive outline Patterson wrote for his novel Honeymoon(which can be used in assignments) and one without the Honeymoon outline. Thirdly, there is a section called ‘Office Hours’ where the author answers questions video-recorded or written in by students(of course these are selected as otherwise it would be all too easy to become overwhelmed). Within this section also is a series of video critiques by Patterson looking at selected class assignments and how students have handled them–for example, he looks at a whole lot of potential book titles that have been sent in, and says whether he thinks they work, and why they do or don’t. Finally, there is a discussion facility on each theme, where students can interact with each other based initially on a moderator’s discussion question(he’s called a ‘community builder’ on the site) and exchange ideas, opinions and experiences.
So all in all, a very comprehensive structure. It’s well-thought out, very well presented and produced, easy to access and streamlined to work through. James Patterson has a direct, lively and unpretentious manner on camera which is very engaging, both in the main videos and in the critique snippets, and he’s generous with his practical tips and advice. As well, the workbook is thorough and has plenty of interesting exercises, and it’s also easy to download and print. As a self-directed course, it is worked through at your own pace, and it’s clear from the discussion boards that students have approached it in different ways, with the majority watching each video one at a time, and working on each associated exercise one at a time, while a few others report watching the whole series of videos right through, then going back and working through each individually. It’s also clear from the discussion groups and comments that it is mainly unpublished, aspiring writers who are taking the course–which of course is not a surprise–and the atmosphere seems friendly and collegial. As you might also expect, given the fact this is a very new course, there are lots more comments on the earlier videos than on the later ones.
So, that’s how the Masterclass is structured. Now,to the issue of whether it works as a creative writing course. A few years ago, in a writing class I ran, a student asked me to give her my ‘formula’ for writing publishable novels, and when I told her there was no such thing, she was most put out, saying, ‘I suppose it’s got to stay a secret for you published authors, doesn’t it?’ Nothing I could say could convince her otherwise. Well, that little story is relevant to this–if you think that after taking this course, you are going to be a best-selling writer like James Patterson, that he has some ‘secret formula’ he is going to let slip, then you are going to be disappointed. Never does he say anything approaching the notion that ‘if you write like me, you too will have a bestseller’ (and he does not imply at all that there is only one way to write a novel, incidentally) This is certainly not a training module on how to be a megastar author! One of the interesting things, for me, about listening to Patterson’s videos is just how similar his advice and tips on craft are to the kinds of things I tell participants in my own writing workshops. His observations on marketing, book titles and covers have the added advantage that before he became a full-time writer, he worked in an ad agency–but even so, many writers have done that and not risen to such bestseller heights. Seems to me that at least the reason for his first big hit is as much a mystery to him as to anyone else. Anyway, no-one, however skilled, can actually teach you to write books guaranteed to be publishable, let alone big sellers. But the right presenter can show you the building blocks of good writing. They can show you the ways in which your spark of inspiration can grow into something real. They can teach you to be both more realistic and paradoxically, more ambitious. And they can give you new ways of looking at things, inspiring you by their passion for the craft, and the practical and imaginative tips that can help you build on the strengths you already have and build your confidence as a new writer. And the contact with the real live experience of writers only previously met through giant gold embossed titles on their books can also be a major boost. When those writers are as practical and down to earth as James Patterson, that is an added bonus.
So if it doesn’t attempt to bottle that Patterson gold for eager treasure-hunters, what does the course aim for, and what does it do for writers of different skill levels? The aim, I think, is quite simply the same as with any creative writing course: to upskill, inform and inspire. And for aspiring and emerging authors, I think it works well. The advice and tips presented in the videos work in real life(though I never do as detailed and comprehensive an outline as Patterson does, and never will, I know it works for many people). The craft discussions are interesting, as are the personal experience stories. Only one video for me did not feel like it really ‘hit the spot’–the one on working with a co-author, which as well as Patterson, features grabs of interviews with two of his co-authors, Maxine Paetro and Chris Grabenstein. Of course, co-author arrangements are not unknown in the publishing world, particularly in series, but mostly these are partnerships of equals, such as the husband and wife team who are collectively thriller writer ‘Nicci French’. This isn’t exactly the case here–which is not to say there’s anything wrong with it, it just means it’s too far outside most people’s potential experience to be really useful in a writing course. (And I must say that the discussion threads on this theme bear out my point). However,if you see it as a sidelight glimpse into Patterson’s methods, his way of extending the genres he works with, and a look at what it’s like to work with such a big name–it is interesting enough in itself. Plus both co-authors appear to have had a good time!
The workbook material is well-thought out, with a suggested viewing schedule, lots of ideas for extra writing tips and tricks, recaps in bullet point form of themes in each video, space for notes, and lots of mini-assignments which are varied and fun to do. (There’s also a screen-based exercise on editing which I found quite illuminating.) Meanwhile the ‘Office Hours’ videos give useful insights and concrete examples of critique, and the discussion boards enable people to express their opinions and share their own methods with fellow students.
When we move from the aspiring author to the published author, the value of this course really depends on how experienced that person is. Some of the comments on the discussion boards certainly did feature observations by writers who’d published more than one book(but mostly self-published). And of course you can always learn more. But for writers experienced in the mainstream publishing world, the course does not really give any information we don’t already know. However, I’ve always found the way other writers work fascinating, and that is certainly the case here. It felt a bit like listening to an ‘In Conversation’ presentation at a literary festival, but aimed squarely at writers, not readers. It’s very much about talking shop; and most writers enjoy that. As I mentioned before, Patterson makes many interesting observations on craft: for instance, dialogue is important because it clearly displays the interactions between your characters; know your genre, not so you can imitate what’s been done, but so you can avoid imitating; choosing point of view(whether first or third person)depends on whose point of view makes a scene the most interesting. And ‘take that cup of joy’–as he puts it in the Getting Published video–enjoy your writing victories, no matter how small, don’t obsess about the negatives. Of course the comeback might be that it’s easy for him to say, given the fact of his immense success and fortune, but it’s good advice for any writer, and in my own opinion may in fact be one of the most important elements in building a publishing career of any staying power.
How does the online experience compare with face to face? Clearly, face to face has many advantages, including the pleasure of working with like-minded people in real time and space, and the excitement that’s generated when a prepared theme veers into unexpected discussions that, for both tutor and students, shed new light on the matter. But to be realistic, very few people are ever going to have a face-to-face workshop series with high-profile authors like James Patterson; and if they did, would have to pay a great deal for the privilege. This is a way of democratising and globalising the process, so that aspiring writers from all over the world can have the opportunity to have the next best thing: a good, well-designed and interesting online course, presented by a world-famous author, and available at a very reasonable price. Online learning can be extremely effective, as I discovered when, prior to a visit to Russia three years ago, I took an online language course called Russian Accelerator, which turned out to be the best language course I’d ever taken. In a few months, I went from just being able to say hello and goodbye to being able to hold all kinds of basic conversations, read street and other signs, and write small anecdotes and stories–becoming proficient to the extent that I was the spokesperson for our family group in Moscow! That course also worked through videos, audios and written exercises, and like this one, was self-directed, and worked through at your own pace–though there was more ‘real’ interactivity in that I could send recordings back to my tutor, and be sure to have them marked and commented on. Of course the success of language learning can be measured, as it were; the fact I could get by well in non-English speaking Moscow being that measurable result.
In arts learning, particularly in writing, results are more difficult to measure, at least immediately. The effect builds up over time, as aspiring writers grow in confidence and knowledge and become more experienced. And the way James Patterson’s Masterclass course has been designed and structured shows that a great deal of thought has been put into giving the best possible opportunity to students, within the limits imposed by the combination of online delivery and the impossibility of giving personal feedback to every student. And technically, as I mentioned earlier, the experience is first-class: the website is easy to access, navigate and use; the course elements are clearly delineated, and the workbook downloads easily. As well, it’s very easy, if you want, to join in discussion on the student boards after each video, and to create video or written questions which are then submitted for possible selection by James Patterson. (I have no idea though how selections are made). And once you’ve paid, you have ‘lifetime access’ to the course, so that even after you’ve finished it, you can revisit it as often as you like.
So all in all, would I recommend this course to aspiring authors? The short answer is yes. The long answer is that as long as you don’t expect the brush against major writing fame to turn you into a best-seller too, then you will not only find much useful information in this course, you will also have a lot of fun.