Neil Gaiman, the author of Neverwhere, Ocean at the End of the Lane (my fav), American Gods, and many other novels, recently did a Master Class on fiction writing. Below is a summary of the lessons I learned from his class. He did delve into the craft a bit, which is why I started the course, but what I really learned is the psychology an aspiring writer must have.
1. Readers are not writers.
“You always have to remember when people tell you something doesn’t work for them, they are right. It doesn’t work for them. You also have to remember that when people tell you what they think is wrong and how you should fix it and they’re almost always wrong.”
This is an excellent point that I’ve seen Gaiman make before. He is right because most people have good taste when it comes to experiencing stories.
And why wouldn’t they?
Everyone in the world has a wealth of experience hearing, reading, and or watching stories. But only writers have experience creating them.
So when it comes to experiencing a story, most people can point out when it isn’t working, but only the experienced creators can tell you why it isn’t working, and even then, they might be wrong. At the end of the day, as Gaiman says himself, you need to tell your story, not someone else’s.
2. Don’t get crippled by perfection.
“You cannot fix nothingness.”
This is probably my biggest obstacle. I often get so disheartened by my inadequate skill that I have difficulty moving forward or even summoning the courage to write. It’s understandable of course. As I explained in the previous point, I, like most people, are experts in experiencing stories.
But my craft is nowhere near the level of my taste. And when I try to write, I sometimes get bogged down by rewriting the same paragraph again and again. And if I can’t get it perfect, then I get discouraged and give up on the entire thing. Other times when I do get it to where I do think it is perfect, it has eaten up so much time that progress is a slow crawl.
The fact of the matter is, finishing things is what moves you forward. Spending five years to write 100 bad stories will improve your craft far more than spending five years to write “one perfect story”.
3. You are going to be rejected.
“The trick is to ‘go on.’ Write the next thing. Write the next thing. Write the next thing.”
Getting rejected sucks, and it is so easy to give up when it happens. But it happens to everyone, and the people who keep going are the ones who end up succeeding.
I’m guilty of being one of those people who believed their stuff was magic and would instantly lead to success, only to be demoralized when things didn’t work out. Now I believe rejection is just part of the process.
Life goes on. The writing goes on.
4. Short stories are a great way to learn the craft.
“You can have an idea for something. You can it out. You can succeed or you can fail. The important thing is you wrote something. The important thing is you learned something.”
Short stories are small commitments that take less time and energy to finish. I’ve started several novels. I’ve finished zero. I don’t read short stories often and I’m not very interested in the format, but I’ve been able to finish two of them, and I’m now working on my third. Forcing myself to finish them is just easier. I started with a flash fiction piece under 1000 words, my second was 4000, and now my next one is likely going to be around 12,000 words. It’s like going to the gym and building up your endurance and in the process, you learn proper form and technique.
5. Make many mistakes and learn from them.
“Your job is to get the bad words and bad sentences out.”
Trial and error and the process of doing is the way to become good. Gaiman really advocates writing as much as possible. Not only will you improve upon your craft, but you will discover your unique voice that might be hidden in your first tens of thousands of words.
If you’re interested, you can sign up for Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass here (non-affiliate link). I do recommend the class for aspiring writers, especially those that need a kick in the butt. Those who already work semi-professionally will likely not get as much out of it.