If you think back to your time at school, I bet you’ll be able to recall a favorite teacher.
For those who are lucky enough to have had the experience, special teachers can make all the difference in one’s growth and development.
Sadly, many people stop learning with age. For most people, this is merely a shame. For writers, it can be fatal.
Failing to open our minds to new ideas can cause our creative energy to become stale. We become devoid of inspiration and may even see writing as a chore.
Thankfully, I recently came across MasterClass. I saw online that it was possible to learn from my personal writing hero, Malcolm Gladwell. I then discovered there were a whole host of other epic teachers on offer, such as James Patterson and R.L Stine. I ended up devouring the wisdom.
Today, I’d like to share four of my takeaways from the legendary writers I was lucky enough to learn from.
RL Stine – Draw Upon Your Emotional History
For horror fans of a certain age, the Goosebumps series by RL Stine will always be fondly thought of. It was genuinely gripping, spooky, but age-appropriate horror fiction.
RL Stine teaches a full MasterClass on writing for younger audiences, but includes many valuable concepts that would benefit writers with audiences of any age.
One of Stine’s gems that truly stayed with me is his suggestion of drawing upon your own emotional history to give authenticity to your character’s actions and motivations.
Stine, or Bob, as you’ll soon think of him if you take the course, explains how his own childhood fear provided the emotional fuel behind many of his words.
I’ve since brainstormed some ways this principle could be applied to writers of any age or type:
- Often, your characters will face risky, intimidating, or even downright dangerous situations that provoke them to feel intense fear. If you haven’t been in the same exact situation, you can still draw upon your own experience to convey emotional truth for your characters.
- Most stories will contain a love element of one type or another. Even action or horror genre tales will often contain a love subplot to one extent or another. Drawing upon your own romantic background, in terms of the thoughts you had, and the feelings you felt, will help your own emotional scenes to ring true.
- As much as we might like to think of ourselves as pretty chill people, most of us get annoyed or even downright angry from time to time. In fact, I’d be astonished if there hasn’t been at least one time in your own life you’ve felt absolutely furious. Draw upon these memories, in as much detail as possible, to make your characters’ anger believable for readers.
James Patterson – The Power Of Persistence
James Patterson is the bestselling author of all time. His prolific output, the principles of which he shares in his MasterClass, is part of the reason for this, but his persistence is another pillar of his success.
In fact, learning to get back up after the sucker punch of rejection is a crucial skill for many writers. A lot of people are too thin-skinned to bounce back after rejection. They forget the principle that Rome wasn’t built in a day.
James Patterson, JK Rowling, and countless other authors have been truly persistent, and so should you. You don’t need to be a major league author to show persistence in your creative pursuits though. Some of the ways authors of every type can apply this powerful principle include –
- Persisting when inspiration doesn’t strike. There’s kind of a myth that writer’s block is this uncontainable force which can’t be stopped. In fact, many writers spend a heck of a lot of time complaining about their writer’s block, often by writing about it! Instead, aim to make writing a non-negotiable habit. Persist even when it’s tough. Can you imagine if people in any other occupation on Earth stopped trying when they didn’t feel inspired?
- Persisting when your book falls flat. I don’t have hard data on this, but I imagine that many authors stop writing when their first book fails to meet their expectations. I get this. Books are truly labors of blood, sweat, and tears. Not to mention the social pressure that comes with releasing one. In the words of Tony Robbins, “there is no failure, only feedback”. Learn the lessons and get to work on the next book.
- Persisting through critical reviews. As much as you might think of yourself as tough, bad reviews hurt. Mine certainly have. However, it’s important to take them in one of two ways. Either take them as useful feedback on where to improve. Or, if they are out and out hateful, realize that the person who wrote them was probably having an awful day or may be in a dark place.
James’ course is also excellent if you are looking for tips on outlining your book. He uses his own process and real examples to bring his outlining concepts to life.
Judy Blume – Crafting Character
You’ve probably come across countless pieces of advice about crafting character if you’re a fiction author. In fact, it’s one of the most common topics out there. However, I can safely say that Judy Blume added a level of depth to crafting characters that I hadn’t really come across elsewhere.
I’ll be honest – I didn’t grow up reading Judy Blume! A lot of people in my family did though, and I’m all for learning from people outside my realm of familiarity.
Blume’s MasterClass was packed with writing craft gold, and I feel writers of all types will benefit from taking it.
One tip that particularly stayed with me was her emphasis on crafting character, and the means to go about that. Some ideas for applying it included:
- Having your character write a letter to you. Judy talks about this as a practical exercise to help you inhabit your character’s state of mind and outlook and bring them to life outside the context of your story. JK Rowling actually did something similar. She created rich, detailed, emotional worlds for each and every character from Harry Potter which transcended the boundaries of the story itself.
- Imagine how your character would react in another story. This is something I came up with, based upon Judy’s suggestion. If you’re writing a fiction character, insert them into a scene in your favorite novel or movie. Not only is this fun to do, it’s a creative way to imagine how they’d be in a different context.
- One memorable thing. If you think about most people you don’t know particularly well, you’ll probably realize that there is one thing in particular that stands out about them. By giving your characters a signature trait, they will become memorable in the eyes of your reader.
Malcolm Gladwell – The Small Things Truly Matter
As I stated earlier, Malcolm Gladwell is truly one of my writing heroes, not to mention an overall source of inspiration and interesting information.
If you’re familiar with Malcolm’s work, you may know that the subtitle to his book ‘The Tipping Point’ is ‘how little things can make a big difference’.
This subtitle is truly hammered home during his MasterClass. Some of the ways I think the principle applies to authors include:
- Consider the Pareto principle. I’ve spoken about this before right here on Adazing, but it’s worth repeating. An Italian economist named Pareto discovered that 80% of a society’s wealth is typically held by 20% of its population. Since then, thinkers such as Gladwell and Tim Ferriss have popularized the Pareto principle and applied it to many different areas of life. As an author, for example, you might get 80% of the ROI on marketing from 20% of your tactics, or might get 80% of your social sharing from 20% of your fans.
- The snowball effect. One book that has always stayed with me is ‘The Snowball Effect’ about Warren Buffet and his investment philosophy. In a nutshell, small changes add up over time. Imagine writing 1000 words per day all year. That’s enough for 3-5 full length novels.
- The way we do anything is the way we do everything. There is a popular myth in society about ‘the big break’. The lottery ticket, the chance discovery, the single moment it all comes together. Reality is a lot less glamorous. If you’re willing to walk the long, hard, dispiriting road, you can feel good about finding success at its end.
MasterClass Writing Lessons – Final Thoughts
I hope you’ll find an idea in this article to take with you and use to improve your own writing life. If I apply even a fraction of what I learned, I’m very confident my own writing will improve hugely as a result.
The chance to learn from masters of this quality rarely comes along. Don’t miss out.