Want to improve your short story writing skills? In this Joyce Carol Oates Masterclass review, we explain what you can learn and if it’s worth it.
Keeping a reader’s attention is important if you’re interested in writing novels or short stories. If you can develop this skill, you’ll soon build a following of loyal readers and fans.
Unfortunately, this skill isn’t easy to master. It takes effort, dedication, and time. Some authors spend their entire lives learning how to write an engaging story but fail to publish meaningful work.
However, Joyce Carol Oates has a Masterclass where she shares the knowledge she’s gained over the past 60 years of publishing best-selling books. If you’re interested in writing and publishing more short stories, this class on the principles of writing short fiction can make your writing journey easier.
Who Is Joyce Carol Oates And Why Should Take Her Masterclass?
Joyce Carol Oates is an American author and novelist born on June 16, 1938. Ever since she was young, she loved reading. Her favorite childhood book was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Oates says, “I would say almost dogmatically that you can't be a writer unless you're reading all the time and reading with purpose.”
At age 14, her grandmother gave her a typewriter and she wrote short stories after returning from school. During this time, she also signed up to write for her high school newspaper.
In 1963, Oates published her first book titled With Shuddering Fall. Since then she has published over 58 novels, novellas, and several short stories. Some of her famous pieces include:
- The Falls
- Black Water
She has received awards like the National Book Award, O. Henry Awards, and the Jerusalem Prize.
From 1978 to 2014, she was a creative writing professor at Princeton University and is currently a visiting professor at the University of California, where she teaches short fiction.
She’s someone who’s been in the writing industry longer than most of us have been alive. This gives her a level of understanding and expertise that most other instructors don’t have.
Who Is This Masterclass For?
Her Masterclass is a must-watch if you’re into fictional writing. It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner, intermediate, or advanced writer. You’ll learn important tips and techniques in this Masterclass that’ll take your writing career to the next level.
If you’re a nonfiction writer who’s looking to get into the world of fictional writing but don’t know where to start, then her Masterclass is a helpful starting point. Other Masterclass courses that can help you transition to fictional writing include;
- Neil Gaiman's Masterclass
- James Patterson’s Masterclass
- Margaret Atwood’s Masterclass
All these courses, including Oates’ Masterclass cover the basics of writing fiction like drafting a solid outline and creating compelling characters.
What Is Joyce Carol Oates’ Masterclass Like?
Masterclass.com offers 14 high-definition videos that are 3 hours and 32 minutes long. These videos are:
- Introduction: 04:07
- Principles of Writing Fiction: 21:49
- Journals: Observing the World: 16:43
- Ideas: Exploring Ideas and Darkness: 11:55
- Structure and Form: 17:46
- Ideas: Writing the Familiar: 12:02
- Form Study: Miniature Narrative: 12:04
- Form Study: Short Monologue: 08:10
- Story Study: “Where are You Going, Where Have You Been?: 15:47
- Reading and Studying Writing: 10:10
- The Writer’s Workshop: “Indian Camp”: 12:21
- Revision Workshop: ”Labor Day”: 25:43
- Revision Workshop: “Near Death”: 28:24
- Closing: 04:05
You also get access to four revision workshop PDFs. This contains helpful notes and homework that’ll help improve your fictional writing skills. There’s also a PDF class workbook included.
How Much Does Her Course Cost?
To get access to her Masterclass, you’ll need to buy an annual all-access pass from Masterclass.com for $180. In my opinion, this all-access pass is better than buying each course separately since it’s more affordable.
If you’re learning from someone who’s been writing bestselling novels for the last 60 years, then you bet that you’ll walk away from this Masterclass with quality and useful information.
When taking this Masterclass, there were a few important lessons that stuck with me. Some of these include;
- Focus on critical characters
- Only write about pivotal events
- Write your first draft as fast as possible
- Sharpen your tools of observation
- Write at odd hours
- Capture your daydreams
1. Focus On Critical Characters
There are lots of books that have too many characters. These might still be engaging novels, but it’s difficult to build rapport with several characters at once. Think about it like a movie.
Would you watch a movie where there are several different main characters and each has its storyline? It’ll get boring real quick.
When teaching her students, she’ll ask them what’s the purpose of these characters. If there isn’t a clear purpose, then toss them out.
A helpful trick that I learned from Oates is to think of all the characters in your novel as paid actors. If you’re paying these characters, you won’t hire more than what’s necessary.
Your book needs to have a few characters that your readers can build a connection with. But if they can’t even remember someone in the book, how will they get to know them?
2. Write About Pivotel Events
Oates uses the example of when she started writing her novel titled Blonde. This was a book about the life of Marilyn Monroe. When researching this novel, she found out Monroe had two miscarriages and grew up in several orphanages and foster homes.
But Oates believed it would be unwise to write about all Monroe’s experiences. Few people would’ve been able to keep up with that storyline.
Instead, she wrote about one miscarriage, one orphanage, and one foster home. This made the book more appealing since it’s easier to read and follow.
When you’re writing a novel, only focus on scenes that’ll move the story forward. If you’re writing a short story, focus on the climax of your character’s lives. The one or two events that are most important to your characters.
If a particular scene in your book doesn’t move the story forward, then toss it out.
3. Burn Through Your First Draft
I’ve always used this technique to burst through a writer’s rut. But I still see a lot of writers that complain about always being creatively dry.
In her Masterclass, Oates proposes a simple solution. Write your first draft as fast as possible. Get into that famous flow state, and stay there for as long as possible.
Don’t focus on how good your writing is, just write. You can always edit later. This allows you to transport ideas from your head to a piece of paper or document.
Oates suggests that if we’re writing a short story, to complete it within a day. This gives you a feeling of power and accomplishment and your story will be more engaging to your readers.
If you’re experiencing writer’s block, sit down in a quiet room without any distractions, and start writing. It doesn't matter how terrible and uncreative you think your writing is, it’s better than doing nothing.
4. Sharpen Your Tools Of Observation
Sharpening my tools of observation is a new technique that I learned from Oates. Some people call it journaling, and it’s an easy way to get new ideas for your novels.
Oates travels a lot and she has a fast-paced lifestyle. Sometimes it’s difficult to relax and absorb all her experiences. This is where journaling comes in. It's a form of self-expression and it allows you to capture memories in your day-to-day life.
Jot down the places you visited, what your reaction was, how the people behaved, and even rough dialogue between other people. After doing this for a few weeks, you’ll start forming different ideas for your novel.
Maybe you’ve written yourself into a corner. If you have a journal, you’ll be able to put ideas together from your daily life and use it to continue your story.
When I first found out about journaling, I thought it was a waste of time. But after I learned about this from Oates and found it’s a way to generate new ideas, I decided to give it a shot.
It felt like I could combine two or three ideas on each page of my journal and use this new idea as a starting point for a book, blog post, or short story.
According to Oates, another benefit of journaling is that it’s almost like a time machine. If you journal for a few years or decades, you can look back at how your life was. This evokes nostalgia but it can also help with brainstorming ideas.
Oates says, “Writers are like cooks. They keep everything in the refrigerator and put it all in the casserole. What doesn’t go in for dinner tonight, well, it’s gonna show up next Sunday.”
5. Write At Odd Hours
I’ve always been a believer in writing first thing in the morning and I still am. This is when you’re freshest and sparkling with ideas. It’s also the time where you have the most willpower so you’ll be able to sit down for a few hours with few problems.
But Oates introduced me to a new idea. It sounded like a bad idea at first, but I had to try it. She suggests writing when you feel tired, sick, or late at night.
This writing tip might sound crazy, but if you’re feeling creatively dry or you’ve written yourself into a corner, this can help. She likes writing when;
- She’s tired.
- Before she goes to bed.
- She’s feeling sick and feverish.
When you wake up the next morning feeling better and more energized, start editing. You'll surprise yourself to see how creative your story is.
6. Capture Your Day Dreams
We all daydream. It’s normal and it often happens when we’re bored and there isn’t much to do. Oates encourages us to use these daydreams to our advantage since they can create creative stories.
She encourages her students to take a walk, run, or bike ride and allow their mind to wander. Don’t think about the writing problem you’re facing.
When you come back from your walk and sit behind your desk, you’ll find that your problems are far easier to solve. This is because when you go for a walk, you allow your conscious mind to take a break and let your subconscious deal with the problem.
Joyce Carol Oates Teaches The Art of the Short Story: Is It Worth It?
Although it wasn’t the most exciting Masterclass, I learned a lot about generating new ideas and hooking my readers. The homework is also helpful since it gives you a better understanding of what she’s talking about.
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Joyce Carol Oates Teaches The Art Of The Short Story
The Bottom Line
Joyce Carol Oates has over 60 years of writing experience. Every writing problem that you’re facing right now, you can bet that she has found a solution to it. Her course is also full of writing gems that’ll take your writing skills to the next level.
- Engaging teaching style
- Ideal for new writers
- Useful writing exercises
- Similar to her college courses (only an issue if you’ve taken them!)
- Oates doesn’t offer a step-by-step process
- For fiction writers only