Whether you’re a writing veteran with dozens of published works or brand new and still wrapping your head around what ‘show, don’t tell’ really means, there is always more to learn.
I’m a big fan of masterclasses, not because I think I’ll discover some magical formula that’ll guarantee me writing success, but rather because I love learning about different creative processes and how I might apply one or two new techniques in my own approach. I absolutely do NOT believe that anyone needs to attend masterclasses in order to become a good writer, or even a better writer, but it’s something I enjoy so thought I’d share some of what I learned.
Since lockdown left me with a little more time on my hands than usual, I ended up working through four courses. Oddly, the one I think that taught me the most wasn’t even by an author or about writing books at all!
The masterclasses I ‘attended’ were by:
Maggie Stiefvater – an 8-hour seminar series about the way she crafts her novels
Neil Gaiman – on story-telling in general
Joyce Carol Oates – on the art of the short story
Crywolf – on song-writing and the creative process
Here are my biggest takeaways from each of these classes:
Lessons from Maggie Stiefvater
Mood. As Stiefvater says, this is where she starts. She suggests knowing the kind of book you want to write before you write a single word by asking how do you want your audience to feel reading it? By setting this emotional goal, you can develop characters, plot, and themes all with the intention of invoking those specific feelings.
I loved this because as a pantser-plotter hybrid writer, keeping myself focused on ‘mood’ helps me to better understand where I want my WIP to go without plotting out all the details.
Lessons from Neil Gaiman
In his advice about novels, Gaiman says that characters should get what they need, and not what they want. This wasn’t new advice to me but it somehow only really sank in when Gaiman used a few examples from his own work to illustrate this point. I think I’m sometimes a little too ‘nice’ at times and often hamstring the conflict in my books by giving the characters what they want without digging deeper to address what they really need. This is weakness of mine and something I’m working on.
In his advice on short stories, Gaiman says to consider a short story as the final chapter of the novel you didn’t write and… that kind of blew my mind. As someone who tends to overwrite short stories, trying to squish a novel’s worth of world-building and character development into 5000 words, this is something I really need to take to heart. I’m trying, but it’s not so easy getting this idea to work in practice.
Lessons from Joyce Carol Oates
“Don’t be boring,” she said, delivering this in her delightfully blunt way. And well, she’s right. I think writers can become boring by accident when they chase trends or try to write the type of story they think a particular editor/publisher wants to read. That’s not to say that there can’t be fresh takes on old tropes, but trying to write to trend sometimes feels like colour-by-number to me. I’d much rather try to subvert those trends and, you know, not be boring.
Something else that really made me think was when Oates said, “Your darkness has an audience.” This is such a powerful statement and one I hadn’t really taken to heart. I tend to self-censor a lot in my writing, thinking no one wants to read something inspired or influenced by my trauma, by my own dark desires or nihilistic thoughts, but you know what? I think Oates is right and I’m going to focus on not watering down my writing. If I end up writing something too personal, well, it can always languish on my hard-drive and never need see the light of day, but who knows what might happen when I stop trying to self-edit while drafting.
Lessons from Crywolf
And finally we get to the masterclass provided by the indie singer-songwriter-producer-DJ Justin Phillips, better known as Crywolf. I absolutely adore his music (his song Anachronism directly inspired my new YA book, By the Blood of Rowans, coming out later this year!) so when I saw he had put together a masterclass about his songwriting process and accessing the shadow-self through creative exercises, I knew I had to sign up.
There’s so much I could talk about there as he delved fairly deeply into the psychological and philosophical side of creativity and our intrinsic human need to create in whatever way appeals the most to us as individuals. Fascinating stuff. But it’s the way he uses free-writing to combat writer’s block and power-up his creative engines prior to starting a new project that really changed my life.
In his free-writing, Crywolf says to set a timer for ten minutes and just write – word vomit. Don’t try to write a story or anything coherent, just let whatever is inside of you pour out onto the page. You have to keep typing. No stopping, no pausing to think – just write for the whole ten minutes. His method says to do this every day for two weeks. I tried it and it was hard at first not to try and write something good, and to actually keep writing for a full ten minutes. By the end, I was switching off the alarm so I could keep writing as more and more stuff just poured out of me. This was incredibly cathartic and so inspiring. In fact, this exercise resulted in so many story seeds (a sentence, a single image or metaphor, a snatch of possible dialogue), some of which I have already used in stories that went on to sell!
If you are battling writer’s block or just struggling to find your creative groove, I strongly recommend giving this free-writing method a go. Commit to ten minutes a day for two weeks – I bet you’ll be surprised by what’s been building up inside you!
So there you have it – a few of my biggest aha moments. I hope you found them interesting, if not helpful. Everyone has this own method and everyone’s method is valid. There is no one way when it comes to creativity. Whatever method works for you, is the best method – but if you’re feeling a little stagnant perhaps it’s time to try something new. Whether it works for you or not, you’ll have learned something.
Do you enjoy masterclasses and learning about how others approach writing or other creative activities?
Xan van Rooyen
Climber, tattoo-enthusiast, peanut-butter addict and loyal shibe-minion, Suzanne 'Xan' van Rooyen is a genderqueer, non-binary storyteller from South Africa, currently living in Finland where the heavy metal is soothing and the cold, dark forests inspiring. Xan has a Master’s degree in music, and--when not teaching--enjoys conjuring strange worlds and creating quirky characters. You can find Xan's short stories in the likes of Three-Lobed Burning Eye, Daily Science Fiction, Apparition Lit, and The Colored Lens. Xan hangs out on instagram, twitter, and facebook so feel free to say over there.
Pronouns: she/her; they/them.