Reference Desk #14 — MasterClass

MasterClass is an online learning platform. They split their courses into about ten different high-level topics, and one of these topics is writing. If you’ve been on the internet at all in the last couple years, chances are pretty good that you’ve seen a few ads for MasterClass. I’ve certainly been seeing these ads for ages, and while they sometimes caught my interest, I always balked at the price. However, I also noticed that the roster of instructors they were advertising was getting more impressive over time.

As you’ve probably guessed by the title of this post, they finally got me. I decided to subscribe and see whether it’s worth the money or not.

Big Names and High Production Values

MasterClass wears its business strategy on its sleeve. They get extremely well-known celebrities in a given field to make a series of instructional videos, and then they charge an all-access subscription fee for the platform. All of their marketing banks on these big names drawing people in. Of course, it’s perfectly fair to note that these celebrity creators may be great at what they do, without actually being very good teachers. On the other hand, this is a risk you run with almost any class. At least if you’re familiar with what they’ve made, you have some idea whether you’ll appreciate what they can do.

In the “Writing” category, MasterClass currently has twenty courses. The instructors span a broad range of genres and formats, including fantasy and sci-fi (Neil Gaiman, N. K. Jemisin); kid lit and YA (R. L. Stine, Judy Blume); thrillers (James Patterson and Dan Brown); screenwriting and TV (Aaron Sorkin); and nonfiction (Malcom Gladwell).

Along with the high-profile instructors, MasterClass really leans into the production values. Each instructor appears to have one or two custom-built sets that they teach from, to set the mood. The sections of each class are split up with little musical interludes and graphics or video snippets that lead into the title card. The overall effect is something like a well-produced documentary.

If your main goal is to mainline great writing advice directly into your brain as quickly as possible, you may not care about these little flourishes. Personally, I found it immensely soothing to get to sit in a cozy little private study, shelves packed with books, while grandpa Gaiman gave me advice about writing.

My Experience So Far

At the time of writing, I’ve watched the Neil Gaiman course, and I’m about halfway through the N. K. Jemisin course. My experience is based on that. Other courses maybe structured differently.

What I’ve found thus far is that these courses are very conversational. They’re a bit like getting to have an extended talk with a great author. They are not focused on exercises or activities. As far as I can recall, Gaiman suggested only one or two exercises throughout his series. Jemisin suggested several in a section on world-building, but these pretty quickly fell off in favor of general advice. If you’re looking for very hands-on, workshoppy courses, you may find the videos to be less interactive than you’d like.

However, alongside the video instruction, each course also includes a downloadable workbook. From what I’ve seen so far, these workbooks aren’t really referenced in the videos at all. In fact, it was only as I was digging around the website to write this post that I found them. The workbooks are supplementary material that follows what was talked about in the videos, and may be better for those that want a workshop feel. Now that I know the workbooks exist, I’m inclined to go through them as I watch the videos. You could just as easily watch the videos first, then dig into the workbooks.

The length of the video series vary from course to course, but a typical length seems to be 2-5 hours. For example, Jemisin’s course is a little under four hours, and Gaiman’s course clocks in just under five hours.

In addition to the web app, MasterClass provides mobile apps. I’ve spent more time watching (or listening) to the videos on my phone than I have while sitting at the computer. The app does its job well enough, although I find it a little annoying that it always seems eager to show me new videos, when I usually want to go to my bookmarked list or pick up where I left off on my current course.

The Downsides

The biggest hurdle for some people is going to be the price. I realize that it’s a privilege these days to have a comfortable, steady income. MasterClass advertises $15 per month, but that’s a little misleading, as they only have annual subscription plans. The most basic plan will make the most sense for most people, at $180 per year. There are more expensive plans, but the only additional features you get are offline viewing on mobile, and the ability to watch on more than one device simultaneously. These don’t strike me as worth the additional money unless you’re looking for some kind of corporate team subscription.

The other thing that may turn people off the platform is the amount of content. Although MasterClass has a lot of big, recognizable names, they do not have a broad selection. Other platforms, like Udemy, boast tens or hundreds of thousands of courses while providing far less curation — pretty much anyone can create a course, and user have to rely on user ratings to sort the good from the garbage. Those platforms necessarily use a pay-per-course purchase system.

If you’re only interested in a single genre or format of writing, you will probably only have a couple of classes on MasterClass that match your interests. The all-access subscription is an inherently better deal if you’re paying that price for ten or twenty classes that you’re interested in. If you’re only interested in one or two classes, that subscription fee starts to seem significantly worse.

Is It Worth It?

This is a question that you’re going to have to answer for yourself by browsing the site (and depending on your finances, possibly checking your bank account). Look at the instructors and see how many classes interest you. Look into the other categories and see if there’s anything good there. The big advantage of the Netflix-style subscription is that you can watch as much as you want for the same flat rate.

Personally, I’m excited to watch the courses that pertain to sci-fi, fantasy and suspense. After that, I plan to branch out into other genres and styles. While I may not be writing a screenplay any time soon, I’m interested in hearing what an expert like Aaron Sorkin has to say about the topic.

So far, I’m pretty happy with the courses I’ve watched. Having tried some other learning sites through my day job, MasterClass has some nice quality-of-life features and general polish that is lacking on other platforms. However, if you don’t care much about aesthetics, you might be miffed that some percentage of your fee goes toward these shiny bits instead of more content.

At the very least, I think it was worth the initial fee to try the platform for a year. The real test will be when my subscription comes due. I may post a little follow-up at that time, when I decide whether to keep it going.

How to Write a Book Description

As I prepare to publish Razor Mountain, my serial novel, I have several side tasks to tackle. One of these is the book description. You might know this as the back cover or the book blurb.

The cover art and description are usually going to be your first (and often only) chance to catch the interest of a potential reader. The blurb isn’t the most important thing — the most important thing is to write a great book — but the blurb is the first thing. You have to convince your potential reader to start reading before they can see how great your book is.

Don’t think of the blurb as a simple summary. It’s a sales pitch. The blurb’s only job is to get a person to open the book and start reading. After that, it’s up to your story to keep them hooked.

Short and Compelling

Most writers don’t have a lot of experience crafting book descriptions. It can be a daunting task. If you’re writing a novel, it’s usually because you have a story that you want to explore over a lot of words. A luxurious amount of words. But there’s no such luxury to be had in the blurb. So the overarching idea of crafting a blurb is condensing and cutting that huge story into a few sentences that give the feel of the story and help sell it.

For Razor Mountain, I’m looking at services like Wattpad and Tapas as places built to publish serial fiction. Wattpad doesn’t limit the size of the book description, and Tapas has a limit of 2000 characters, which is quite a lot. A typical back-of-the-book blurb or Amazon description is in the neighborhood of 100-250 words, which equates to about 1/3 to 2/3 of a page, double-spaced.

The real limit is the reader’s attention span. We live in a world where we aren’t just competing with thousands of other books and stories, but all the other forms of entertainment available at the click of a button.  We’re competing with Netflix and TikTok too.

In a great recent conversation about book openings on the Writing Excuses podcast, they told the story of an author who planned to throw away an unsolicited ARC they received, but got caught up in by the back cover blurb on the way to the trash can and ended up reading the book. That’s how short and compelling the blurb should be.

Resources

One of the best ways to get started is to find good examples and deconstruct them. What is the description actually telling you about the characters, plot, or conflict? What kind of language are they using? Does the description pull you in?

My first step was to pull books I love from my bookshelves. These are books that I’m already familiar with, so I can evaluate what bits of the book actually make it into the blurb. I have also been cruising Amazon’s most popular books and reading descriptions. Many of these are books that I haven’t read, so I have to strictly look at how the description makes me feel. Do I want to click the “buy” button by the time I’m done reading?

Ultimately, if you want to craft a great book description, you should read a ton of book descriptions. Like learning a new language, immersing yourself in this stuff is the best way to get into the right mindset for writing a blurb of your own.

It’s important to know what genre(s) you’re targeting, and look at similar books. If you have a list of comp titles, that’s ideal. You’ll quickly notice that certain structures are common in the blurbs for particular genres.

On the other hand, don’t limit yourself solely to your chosen genre. You may find that a blurb structure common to another genre happens to work for your story. Just make sure you’re not inadvertently posing your book as a different genre — you don’t want excited readers feeling let down when they realize what they’re reading is completely different from what the blurb advertised.

Of course, I’m not the only person who has ever tried to figure out what makes for a great description. It’s also worth looking at the analyses other people have done. I was able to find a few good articles on the subject:

What’s In a Blurb?

You’ll notice that a lot of these articles claim to have the secret recipe (or “handy formula” or “step-by-step” guide). That’s great click-bait, because we all want to believe that there’s a simple and straightforward process for these things. Unfortunately, this is art, baby.

As is so often the case when it comes to writing, it can be unnecessarily limiting to treat a rigid recipe as the gospel truth and refuse to deviate. However, there are a few elements that are so common in a book description that they are almost obligatory. If you’re not touching on them, you should have a good reason why.

Hook(s) – This is a sentence or tiny paragraph at the start (and sometimes also at the end) of a blurb. This is straight up ad copy. It’s clickbait for your book. It should be surprising or shocking, exciting or unbelievable. A hook at the start of the blurb is a foot in the door, designed to get the reader to read the rest of the blurb. A hook at the end, on the other hand, should be the stinger — the summation of the blurb that compels the reader to immediately flip the book over and open it to chapter one.

Character(s) – If you have a single protagonist, especially with a first-person POV, they should feature prominently in your blurb. If your book is focused on the conflict between protagonist and antagonist, the antagonist should be prominent as well. However, if you have a large cast with multiple points of view, you may have to pick one character to focus on in the blurb, or lean more heavily on the overarching plot.

Plot & Conflict – Unlike a full summary or synopsis, you do not need to reveal the whole plot. What you need to do is reveal an important conflict or source of tension. If you have big secrets and exciting reveals, you can drop hints, but don’t give them away. Show the reader why they’ll want to keep reading. What is the challenge the characters will face? What will the consequences be if they fail?

Examples

Let’s look at some examples from my bookshelf.

The Martian, by Andy Weir

A MISSION TO MARS. A FREAK ACCIDENT. ONE MAN’S STRUGGLE TO SURVIVE.

When a dust storm forces his crew to evacuate the planet while thinking him dead, astronaut Mark Watney finds himself stranded on Mars’s surface, completely alone.

Armed with nothing but his ingenuity, his engineering skills — and a gallows sense of humor that proves to be his greatest source of strength — Mark embarks on a dogged quest to stay alive. But will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

  • At 86 words, this is a pretty short blurb. This is partly to make room for seven glowing quotes from major reviewers and authors. But it also reflects the story, which is a suspenseful sci-fi thriller.
  • The fact that it’s a sci-fi story comes through in the first four words.
  • You may or may not like the all-caps sentence fragments that form the hook here. “One man’s struggle to survive” reads a bit cliché to me. But there’s no question that this alone is a fair summation of the book, and it pulls me into the rest of the blurb.
  • The book has a single protagonist in Mark Watney, and that comes through clearly here. The bulk of the book is him, alone, on Mars. It’s told from his POV, and it’s a strong POV. His gallows humor is a selling point.
  • The conflict is also laid out clearly. He’s trapped, alone, on Mars. His crew thinks he’s dead, and he has to survive. This is the question that’s going to keep us turning pages.

Soul Music, by Terry Pratchett

When her dear old Granddad — the Grim Reaper himself — goes missing, Susan takes over the family business. The progeny of Death’s adopted daughter and his apprentice, she shows real talent for the trade. That is until a little string in her heart goes “twang.”

With a head full of dreams and a pocketful of lint, Imp the Bard lands in Ankh-Morpork, yearning to become a rock star. Determined to devote his life to music, the unlucky fellow soon finds that all of his dreams are coming true. Well, almost.

In this finger-snapping, toe-tapping tale of youth, Death, and rocks that roll, Terry Pratchett once again demonstrates the wit and genius that have propelled him to the highest echelons of parody next to Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams, and Carl Hiaasen.

  • This one is 133 words, but about 30 of them are spent putting Sir Terry Pratchett on a pedestal among literary greats, not on the story. Which is a good selling point, if you can get it.
  • The genre is again pretty clearly defined as quirky fantasy by the strange names and the personification of Death.
  • The book is equally split between two protagonists, Susan and Imp, and this blurb dedicates a paragraph to each.
  • What it doesn’t do is delve too deeply into the plot. We only get a hint of the conflict for each character. Susan’s heart goes “twang.” Imp is unlucky that his dreams are coming true. Almost.

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

Shadow is a man with a past. But now he wants nothing more than to live a quiet life with his wife and stay out of trouble. Until he learns that she’s been killed in a terrible accident.

Flying home for the funeral, as a violent storm rocks the plane, a strange man in the seat next to him introduces himself. The man calls himself Mr. Wednesday, and he knows more about Shadow than is possible.

He warns Shadow that a far bigger storm is coming. And from that moment on, nothing will ever be the same…

  • Word count: 97. While this back cover has only one quote next to the blurb, it is from Stephen King, and the remainder of the space is dedicated to young, slightly goth Neil’s dreamy stare, which seems like reasonable use of the real estate.
  • This blurb focuses tightly on the protagonist, Shadow. Things haven’t gone well for him, and now they’re going worse.
  • From Mr. Wednesday’s strange name, and the implications of his impossible knowledge, we can guess that this is some sort of relatively down to earth fantasy. This description is the least clear about genre so far. However, that may be reasonable, as the book itself lives mostly in the mundane real world, even when there are gods involved.
  • Again, we get the start of Shadow’s story, but not much detail beyond that. We can presume that Shadow will have internal struggle with the death of his wife and the bad things in his past. All we know about the more external conflicts of the book is that trouble is on the way, and Mr. Wednesday seems to be involved.
  • Here we see a closing hook (although “nothing will ever be the same” feels a tad clichéd to me). The blurb ends with ellipses, explicitly suggesting that the reader can continue this thought by opening the book and reading on.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill

“There is magic in starlight, of course. This is well known. Moonlight, however. That is a different story. Moonlight is magic. Ask anyone you like.”

Every year, the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as an offering to the witch who lives in the forest to keep her from terrorizing their town. But the witch, Xan, is really kind and gentle. She shares her home with a wise Swamp Monster and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon. Xan rescues the children and delivers them to welcoming families on the other side of the forest.

One year, Xan accidentally feeds a baby moonlight, filling the ordinary child with extraordinary magic. Xan decides she must raise this girl, whom she calls Luna, as her own. As Luna’s thirteenth birthday approaches, her magic begins to emerge with unpredictable consequences, just when it’s time for Xan to go collect another child. Meanwhile, a young man is determined to free his people by killing the witch. And a volcano, dormant for centuries, rumbles within the earth…

  • The opening paragraph is the hook here, set in a different font and color. In this case, we’re getting a quote directly from the book, to give us a feel for the prose. Just like The Martian, this hook uses short sentences, some just fragments, to pull us in. Interestingly, these sentences don’t appear all together in the book. There’s an extra paragraph in the middle that has been left out to achieve this punchy, staccato effect.
  • At 170 words, this is the longest description we’ve looked at. That extra word count affords it the opportunity to include the three main characters and quite a lot of plot.
  • Xan gets the most words, Luna gets fewer, and Antain (merely “a young man” here) gets the least. As far as I remember, this roughly matches how much of the actual book each of these characters appear in.
  • This blurb wears its genre on its sleeve. It’s clearly fantasy, and details like the witch and the Perfectly Tiny Dragon suggest that there’s no small amount of whimsical fairy tale here. The mention of leaving a baby as offering every year, on the other hand, suggests that there’s some classic fairy tale darkness as well.
  • The blurb finishes with a building-up of tension by stacking conflict on top of conflict. First, there’s Luna’s magic and its unpredictable consequences. Then Xan is away while it’s happening. Then the young man is introduced, and he wants to kill Xan. But wait, there’s more! A volcano, set to erupt.
  • Once again, there are the ellipses at the end, inviting us to open the book and find out what happens next.

Next Time

I’ll be continuing to talk about book descriptions later this week. I’m taking all this analysis and putting it into action as I craft a book description for my serial novel, Razor Mountain.

Do you have a favorite book with a great example of a back-cover description? Post it in the comments!

Learning from Great Hooks

The “hook” is the opening of a story: the handful of sentences where a reader is willing to completely suspend judgement and open themselves up to a new world. It’s called a hook because it’s the author’s opportunity to reel the reader in. To grab hold of them and refuse to let them go until the story is done.

Hooks are among the most daunting things to write. A hook needs to pull the reader in, but it’s also a promise of what’s to come. If the hook captures the reader’s interest, but does it in a way that’s at-odds with the rest of the story, it will feel like a betrayal. A bait-and-switch.

Today, I want to look at hooks from a few books I like and see what I can learn from them. How are they structured? As a reader, how do these introductory sentences pull me in? What do they promise about the story to come?

Travel Light, by Naomi Mitchison

It is said that when the new Queen saw the old Queen’s baby daughter, she told the King that the brat must be got rid of at once. And the King, who by now had almost forgotten the old Queen and had scarcely looked at the baby, agreed and thought no more about it. And that would have been the end of that baby girl, but that her nurse, Matulli, came to hear of it. Now this nurse was from Finmark, and, like many another from thereabouts, was apt to take on the shape of an animal from time to time. So she turned herself into a black bear then and there, and picked up the baby in her mouth, blanket and all, and growled her way out of the Bower at the back of the King’s hall, and padded out through the light spring snow that had melted already hear the hall, and through the birch woods and the pine woods into the deep dark woods where the rest of the bears were waking up from their winter sleep.

This lovely rush of words is only five sentences. Most of them start with conjunctions, making it feel like one long, breathless run. So much is happening.

It’s clear from the first few words that this is going to be a fairy tale, and that’s further confirmed when we see that being able to turn into an animal is treated as no particularly impressive feat. We can also tell that this is no light and fluffy fairy tale. It begins with the almost casual cruelty of the king and queen.

This opening also makes it clear that this girl is the protagonist, and she will not be living a normal life. In this single paragraph, we see her lose her birthright, saved by a bear-woman and brought to live in the woods. It’s hard not to be curious about what will happen next.

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, by Neil Gaiman

You ask me if I can forgive myself? I can forgive myself for many things. For where I left him. For what I did. But I will not forgive myself for the year that I hated my daughter, when I believed her to have run away, perhaps to the city. During that year I forbade her name to be mentioned, and if her name entered my prayers when I prayed, it was to ask that she would one day learn the meaning of what she had done, of the dishonour that she had brought to my family, of the red that ringed her mother’s eyes.

I hate myself for that, and nothing will ease that, not even what happened that night, on the side of the mountain.

This opening starts in the second person, drawing the reader in by including them in what seems to be conversation in progress. A conversation with us.

We start with a few fragmented sentences, already waist-deep in mysteries. Where did you leave him? Who is he? What did you do? The daughter clearly didn’t run away to the city, so what happened to her?

The viewpoint character is already being defined here. He’s someone with strong emotions – a fierce temper that more or less caused him to disown his daughter, and his shame when he discovers this still unexplained truth of what really happened to her.

Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.”

“That’s what you said about the brother.”

“The brother tested out impossible. For other reasons. Nothing to do with his ability.”

“Same with the sister. And there are doubts about him. He’s too malleable. Too willing to submerge himself in someone else’s will.”

“Not if the other person is his enemy.”

“So what do we do? Surround him with enemies all the time?”

“If we have to.”

“I thought you said you liked this kid.”

“If the buggers get him, they’ll make me look like his favorite uncle.”

“All right. We’re saving the world, after all. Take him.”

Starting with dialogue puts us in the action immediately. It also tells us that whoever these two disembodied voices are talking about is probably important to the story. Dialogue like this, without tags attributing it to a character, is a dangerous choice because it can be disorienting to the reader. In this case, it works because we don’t have to care about these two speakers, only the information they’re conveying really matters.

The first sentence sounds like standard Messiah fare, but it’s immediately subverted. We understand that the target of this discussion is being observed and tested (in a very invasive way), and his brother and sister were subjected to this treatment as well. These voices are willing to be cruel to him if it’s required to make him into this messianic figure and save the world. The stakes of the story are already being established on the first page.

There is a little mystery here as well. What are the buggers, and why does the world need to be saved?

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has — or rather had — a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

It goes on like this for another page and a half of prologue, which meanders right into the first chapter. I found it hard to pick a cut-off point.

To me, this is the most interesting example we’ll look at today. It doesn’t introduce any of the main characters, or anything about the situation or setting (beyond Earth in general).

It does tell us that it’s science fiction, it’s not going to take itself seriously, and it’s going to be looking at everything from a rather skewed and unexpected viewpoint. In fact, what it’s really introducing is the the author’s incredibly distinctive voice and tone. If you’ve read Douglas Adams, you’ll know that his narrative voice is almost a character in its own right (even if it isn’t from an actual character’s perspective). This series includes plenty of chapter-length digressions and asides, and is undoubtedly better for it.

In short, the story can afford to wait a bit, because it’s so damn entertaining to just listen to what Adams has to say.

Give it a Try!

I’d encourage every writer to do this exercise with some favorite books. One of the wonderful things you’ll discover is the sheer variety of forms that a hook can take. You don’t need to feel forced into a formula — there are a plethora of ways to pull readers into a story. By analyzing the hooks of stories you love, you might discover some great ideas you can apply to your own stories.

Review: Art Matters, by Neil Gaiman

Art Matters is a quick read, with few words and many pictures. The pages are small. But it is not a little book.

It contains four short essays, the words all hand-scrawled in capital letters alongside Chris Riddell’s lovely little sketches. The format is raw and straightforward. Neil’s tone here is conversational, even a little conspiratorial, as he lays out things he firmly believes about words, the creative process, the importance of fiction, libraries, and reading – not just as an escape, but as a force for fundamental good in the world. He makes his case compellingly.

“You’re finding out something as you read that will be vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this: the world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”

The illustrations enhance the text in subtle ways, sometimes drawing attention to particular words and phrases, sometimes adding a little more meaning than the words would have alone. There are many little Easter eggs for those who have followed Neil and Chris’s other work, and there is just the right mixture of deadly seriousness and whimsy, putting me in mind of Shel Silverstein’s best work.

The book is good, in part, because it is so small. You can comfortably read the entire thing in a sitting, or a single section in a few minutes. It’s not a great epic, to be traversed over many too-late nights of “one more page.” It’s a plate of tasty morsels, to be savored for a few minutes at a time, again and again over the years, until it weaves itself into your mental fabric.

“Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be…was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal. And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain.”

The best section, “Make Good Art,” is the largest and final portion of the book. It was originally a commencement speech Neil gave in 2012. You can watch him give it here (although without illustrations).

“Make Good Art” is a bit biography and a bit advice from an excellent and successful writer. It contains enough wisdom that every time I read it I take away something useful. It’s a good refresher, a palate cleanser, and a reminder of what’s important.

In short, it’s a great little book.

“Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do…make good art.”