Thursday, April 02, 2009

Evaluating Masterclasses - Part 1

This is the second essay from my NAW Professional Development Portfolio. Comprised of two parts, it is my personal view of the masterclasses I have attended - which means it is not a reflection of the quality or content but my perception of how useful those masterclasses have been to me and my learning:


The masterclasses have covered a wide range of discussions and skillsets. But, I have found that many aspects of these discussions have been rhetorical, anecdotal, or statistical in nature. Only a few have had practical analysis.

A second issue hinges on the timeliness of a masterclass and where the student is (in their own head). A student involved with reassessing their style or troubled by how exactly they should weight the pace of their narrative is not going to find a talk on the current trends and necessities of submissions to agents of any relevance – which does not diminish the quality of the talk itself. It does mean that areas of perceived irrelevance may lead to the listener overlooking an important message about core skills. Furthermore, much of what has been said that was not of a statistical and set-in-stone nature may be thought of as a one-off or very personal situation for the speaker.

The masterclasses I’ve observed may be categorised into one of the following types:

  • Anecodotal inconsequence (this is how I did it)
  • Informative rhetoric (this is how it is)
  • Practical applicator (this is how you can do it)
  • Skills implementation (try this for yourself)

However, there is always a message of some significance in every masterclass. While the categorisations above don’t necessarily make one more important than another, I have ordered the categories, as I perceive them, from least to most effective. The practical applicator and skills implementation types are more applicable to my current needs and mindset, which are: choosing scenes for their appropriateness and relevance to a story and maintaining brevity by avoiding irrelevant description that does not further the action or narrative.

Talks and classes falling into the category of anecdotal inconsequence may enthuse one listener but bore another. Their topics and situations are not directly replicated by, or transferable to, the circumstances of the students – but are unique to the speaker and their subject.

Barry Turner was one such speaker, whose positive and affirming discussion opened our course in January 2007. The encouraging tale he told of his own introduction to media and onwards into writing was interesting but indicative of the time at which he started out – the launch of television and radio. It had little or no significance other than anecdotally. Again, this by no means diminishes what Barry had to say for his “carpe diem” boldness really excited the students.

The next masterclass was the polar opposite of Barry’s. Jim Crace talked us cautiously through our intended directions and interests and mulled over the difficulties of our labours of love. His was a very sobering discussion, making it clear that we needed to be the passionate ones about our work, that we aren’t guaranteed success, and that some people may have the inclination to write, but not the ability. It ended somewhat bluntly with his admission that he would, in two books time, stop writing altogether! What were we to make of this? Do writers have a self imposed shelf life, only so much in themselves to lend to paper?

The different stances of these two speakers seemed to say far more about their outlook on life, their journey to publication, and successes or setbacks than they did about the audience’s own future endeavours. In Jim’s case this had a greater sense of realism given his interest in the education of new writers. Whatever their positions, cynical realism or intrepid optimism, perhaps both messages were affirming and bookend every masterclass and lesson that followed: encouragement to strive for what we want to achieve matched alongside (not against) our egos stripped of all naivety. That this may be a good thing does not necessarily mean they were of any proactive assistance to the studying writer.

Working for a library service I have attended several author events and talks (Tracey Chevalier, Jodi Picoult, Salley Vickers, Colin Dexter, Lionel Shriver, Freya North, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, Ann Widdecombe). All were pitched at a readership level, with interests in the writers’ origins and the concoction of characters and plot. The anecdotal inconsequence never focused any deeper than biography or research, i.e. never touching on the elements that comprise a certain paragraph: on changing subjects, using a metaphor to infer a character’s point of view, or relating a memory that provides synchronicity to the unfolding scene.

The anecdotal inconsequence of Catherine O’Flynn’s masterclass was symptomatic of those other writers. She has an innate ability to write without consideration for how she does it. She has a set routine that she maintains but she doesn’t appear to worry over the disparate skills necessary to juggle the creation of a story. As with the other writers her talk never entered into deep discussions on the complexities of maintaining reader interest, while levelling their narrative for clarity, pace, action and dialogue.

The masterclasses have covered a number of subjects, from self publishing to the expectations of an agent to the operations of the Times Newspaper. We have been handed the broad canvas of the industry’s workings as well as views of the many doorways that might provide access. However, I am reminded that, short of being a celebrity, the only thing that truly sells a manuscript to an agent or publisher is the manuscript, and thereby the talent of the writer – everything else is decoration. In my particular case – a single-minded view to becoming a novelist – the decoration, aside from being informative, is irrelevant. Counter to this is the argument that these masterclasses are meant to refocus my attention and reinforce the lesson that Jim, in particular, went to great lengths to explain: no-one can do it but me.

Though, again, that is not to diminish the masterclasses, since all the speakers that have taken the time to prepare and discuss their subjects with us have been supportive and they have been open to students contacting them at a later date.

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