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Margaret Atwood is one of the most well-known writers in the world. Her career as an author began in the 1960s when her first collection of poetry, Double Persephone, was published. Her first novel, The Edible Woman, was published in 1969, and it was followed by several other works of fiction and poetry.
I have been writing since the age of four years old, but once I reached adulthood, I found it hard to call myself a writer without feeling silly or embarrassed. When I saw that Margaret Atwood was another expert with a course on the MasterClass website, I knew I needed to take it and try and get some of my childhood confidence back.
Did Margaret Atwood’s MasterClass help me get some of my confidence back?
Is this course any good? Would it be right for you?
I answer all these questions and several others in this review.
Here’s a quick rundown of everything I’ll be covering in this review:
- What You’ll Learn:
– How to Structure your novel
– Telling a story and narrative points of view
– How to bring characters to life through details
– Creating compelling characters
– Crafting dialogue
– The business of being a writer
– Detailed descriptions of crafting a narrative
– Learn from an experienced and widely-respected author
– Practical advice about writing
– The course title is misleading: the course’s focus is specific to writing novels and is not a general creative writing course.
- Who this course is for:
This course is for anyone interested in writing fiction and anyone interested in writing a novel. If you’ve been struggling with writer’s block or are having trouble getting started, this course includes helpful advice and anecdotes from Atwood’s career to help you get started.
Margaret Atwood’s course is worth taking. This course offers you tremendous insight into doing research and putting together a manuscript as a writer. She provides valuable advice about creating compelling characters and generating ideas. If you are interested in learning more about writing a novel, developing characters, and putting a manuscript together, then this course is for you.
About the Instructor: Margaret Atwood
In addition to being an award-winning author, Atwood is also a literary critic, teacher, environmental activist, essayist, and inventor.
Her early works of poetry ponder human behavior and celebrate the natural world while criticizing and condemning materialism. In Atwood’s novels, themes like a new beginning and role reversal recur, and the women’s lives in them are centered on seeking a relationship with the people around them and the world around them. For instance, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), one of her best-known novels, is a carefully constructed narrative about a woman living in sexual slavery in a Christian theocracy seizing personal power. The novel has since been adapted into a TV series that she co-wrote.
Some of her other works include The Edible Woman (1969), Surfacing (1972), Lady Oracle (1976), Cat’s Eye (1988), The Robber Bride (1993), and Alias Grace (1996).
Atwood has numerous awards in her time, including the Booker prize twice in 2000 and 2019, respectively, the Franz Kafka Prize in 2017, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in 2020.
She has been writing for over 40 years. While you may have some reservations or doubts about joining this course, rest assured that you will not regret signing up for it!
A Detailed Look at Margaret Atwood’s MasterClass:
Margaret Atwood’s MasterClass is packed full of anecdotes from her career, helpful writing advice, and straightforward explanations. These are the features of the MasterClass:
- Three hours and 43 minutes of video footage, broken down into 23 videos ranging from about 5-15 minutes each.
- A 92-page long workbook, complete with all the lessons and advice shared in the course
- Writing prompts and assignments at the end of each chapter in the workbook.
(screenshot taken from the MasterClass website)
Like any other specified course, such as jazz music or sushi-making, structuring an online course on creative writing is challenging. Atwood’s MasterClass is one that covers a great deal of information in quite a short amount of time.
As you go through the course, you’ll soon realize that the workbook provided accompanies each lesson perfectly. It includes several assignments, advice, and tips that will help you get started with creative and fictional writing and external resources to go through that will help you achieve your creative writing goals.
In each lesson in the course, you will also learn how to structure a novel, develop characters, capture the interest of your readers with a compelling beginning, and make sure that they are interested until they reach the final page. The workbook exercises will offer you prompts, revision tactics, and new ways to hone your craft and writing.
In this article, I will include a few of the assignments mentioned in the workbook to give you a sense of what to expect from it. I will also be dividing the course into different categories. This process helped me navigate through the various lessons a lot more easily, and I found that it helped me feel more confident when approaching some of the writing challenges.
- Lessons 1-6: Plot and Narrative
In this section, you are introduced to Atwood and the process of getting started with writing as a writer. She begins the course by encouraging you to find your path and overcome obstacles as a writer as she shares her story and writing journey. Next, you’ll learn about what makes a strong plot and how to create a multi-layered narrative, as she uses well-known narrative techniques to illustrate her point. Finally, you’ll learn how to choose the right point of view to tell your story and how this has the power to create a specified impact on the readers and their perception of your work. The last lesson in this section is a case study, where Atwood discusses single and multiple points of view in her work.
- Lessons 7, 8, and 9: Creating Characters and Writing Through Roadblocks
Now that you have moved on from building a plot and crafting a narrative, Atwood offers a series of tools to help you create nuanced and well-developed characters that you know by heart. In the eighth lesson, she also shows you how to create compelling characters while also discussing how gender plays into our expectations about different characters. Finally, in lesson nine, she shares advice on writing while overcoming challenges like writer’s block or constant interruptions.
- Lessons 10-13: Dialogue, Imagery, Prose, and Working With Time
As you move through the classes, you’ll find that Atwood is sharing advice for the different building blocks of writing a story. In lesson 10, she teaches you how dialogue can be used to reveal the story and characters while also sharing the importance of making your dialogue authentic to the time and place in which your narrative takes place. Next, you’ll move on to sensory imagery and prose style in lessons 11 and 12, respectively. Atwood uses The Handmaid’s Tale to talk about her approach to imagery, showing that the more specific your details are, the more likely you are to engage your readers. The lesson on prose style and texture deals with baroque and plainsong, two types of writing that differ significantly from one another. She cites Ernest Hemingway and Angela Carter as two examples of how the two styles vary. In the last lesson of the section, Margaret cautions you to be careful when approaching time; she also advises you to keep your readers engaged without compromising the integrity of your story.
- Lessons 14, 15, and 16: The First Five Pages, Middle and Ending, and Revision
This next section focuses on the importance of starting a story strong and the value of making your first five pages as compelling as possible. Next, she teaches you her approach to making sure that your readers are engaged through the middle of your story and book while also discussing the benefits of open and closed endings to your story. In the final lesson of this section, Atwood discusses the importance of revision and how it’s an opportunity to look at your work with fresh eyes and consider alternative possibilities.
- Lessons 17-20: The Novel, Speculative Fiction, and Research
At you near the end of the course, Atwood delves into her approach to writing speculative fiction. She shares her ideas and tips on how to create a world and generate ideas in this genre. Lesson 19 continues the lesson on speculative fiction; this is a case study lesson that looks at The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood shares a first-hand look at the research, materials, and ideas contributing to this work of fiction. In the 20th lesson, she talks about researching and getting the details right when writing historical fiction. Accurate information adds to a story’s believability; she emphasizes this point while teaching you how to avoid letting your research slow you down.
- Lessons 21, 22, and 23: The Act of Being a Writer, and a Conclusion
In the final section of the course, Atwood shares inspirational stories from past and current writers to encourage you to continue your writing journey. The two last lessons of her MasterClass deal with the business side of being a writer, from finding an agent to getting published. As the course comes to a close, Atwood shares some parting words.
Now, let’s take a closer look at Margaret Atwood’s MasterClass in Creative Writing.
Lessons 1-6: Plot and Narrative
As I went from one lesson to another in this MasterClass, I realized that Atwood’s lessons are nothing more than building blocks contributing to the larger project that is a story or novel. The process of breaking the lessons down into these sections helped me navigate each “building block” much more quickly.
The first two lessons in the MasterClass open with what the focus of the course is going to be: Atwood will focus on the novel, its possibilities and what it can do, lessons she learned writing her own novels, and how to stay motivated during the writing process. You will realize that no matter what your skill or experience level is, by the end of the course, you will have built a toolkit of writing skills and techniques, strategies to begin and finish a novel, and resources that will help you put a completed manuscript out into the world.
In lessons three and four, titled ‘Story and Plot’ and ‘Structuring Your Novel: Layered Narratives and Other Variations’ respectively, Atwood dives straight into what makes a story a story. Something must happen for it to become a story, because otherwise, you’re simply describing a routine. As a writer, your job is to know what the building blocks of your story will be to put your plot together. She suggests thinking of the building blocks as a Lego set that you take apart to build your plot and write a story. Next, she moves on to the story’s structure, citing frame storytelling in One Hundred and One Nights and the layering of the narrative she used in her novel, The Blind Assassin. She encourages you to begin with a straightforward chronological structure and work your way up to more complex variations. The process of discovering the best structure for your story is hands-on. By expanding your frame of reference through reading and observing the work of other writers, you get a better sense of what direction you could take your story in. An excerpt from One Hundred and One Nights is provided at the end of the fourth lesson.
Here is the assignment at the end of lesson four:
“Think about some of your favorite books and spend a few minutes writing in your notebook about how they are structured. What choices did the author make that fit the story they told? Were there perceivable narrative layers that complicated or illumined your sense of the plot?”
You have reached the end of the first section in lessons five and six, titled ‘Who Tells the Story: Narrative Point of View’ and ‘Point of View Case Studies.’ In the fifth lesson focused on narrative voice, Atwood encourages you to let your material guide your decision when trying to figure out who or how many characters will act as your narrative voice. She suggests devoting some time to thinking about the risks and rewards of different point of view strategies by considering which characters are best suited to narrate. This chapter ends will Atwood’s reading recommendations; they are various books with stories told from different perspectives, such as Jane Eyre, Madame Bovary, Lolita, Mrs. Dalloway, and The Turn of the Screw.
The point of view case study lesson is an extension of the narrative point of view lesson. Atwood discusses the use of multiple points of view in her novel Alias Grace and why she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale from the first-person perspective. When working with a narrative voice, Atwood encourages you to experiment with different modes of narration, such as changing point of view strategy from first to the third person, or vice versa, as this can unlock the story. By experimenting with these different modes of narration, you’ll eventually come to find the manner that feels most comfortable for the story that you’re telling.
Lessons 7, 8, and 9: Creating Characters and Writing Through Roadblocks
After moving on from beginning a story and structuring the narrative, Atwood talks about the process of creating characters and writing through obstacles that may arise when you least expect them.
Lessons seven and eight are titled ‘Bringing Characters to Life Through Detail’ and ‘Creating Compelling Characters.’ As the titles suggest, these lessons deal with bringing characters to life. As a writer, your job is to learn about your character by observing their interactions with the world around them. Just like real people, they have hobbies, pets, histories, and obsessions. So, you must understand these aspects of your characters to understand how they may react to various situations and events that they will encounter. In Atwood’s work, she makes a character chart on which she writes their birthday, world events that could be relevant to them, and in this way, she keeps track of old they are in relation to each other and how old they were when these fictional or historical events occurred. The end of lesson seven includes two printable worksheets that will help you in developing your character.
To get a better sense of how to go about Atwood’s character development process, you could try out this assignment from the end of the seventh lesson:
“The character chart, modeled after Margaret’s, will help you understand characters’ relationship to one another and to historical moments relevant to them. Therefore, it will likely be most useful once you have at least a few chapters of a novel draft, and a sense of who populates the world of your book.
If you are just beginning a longer story or novel project, permit yourself not to know the full cast of characters yet, or even what era your story unfolds in. At this stage, you may want to keep the chart nearby as you draft, filling it out as you go with the characters you know best, and adding as you learn more about your fictional world.”
When trying to create a compelling character, Atwood suggests digging into the deeper layers of the character’s personal history. Your character/s need not necessarily be likable, but they must grab your reader’s attention.
The last lesson of this section is titled ‘Writing Through Roadblocks.’ It deals with creating a sustainable writing practice that works for you, wherein you fit writing into pockets of time that work best for you.
Lessons 10-13: Dialogue, Imagery, Prose, and Working With Time
The next set of building blocks deal with the sensory elements of storytelling and the process of working with time.
Lessons 10 and 11 are titled ‘Crafting Dialogue’ and ‘Revealing the World Through Sensory Imagery.’ In the lesson on crafting dialogue, Atwood advises you to know what your characters are trying to get from one another or what they are trying to avoid; this should reflect in the inflections of their speech and guide what they do or do not say. You must also keep the setting and time of your story in mind so that your characters’ speech reflects the idioms and speech patterns of the time period.
Next, in lesson 12, titled ‘Prose Style and Texture,’ Atwood stresses the importance of honing your prose style; this is because it depends on what effect you want to achieve. You must decide what tone you want to set or what feelings you want to evoke. The language you choose must reflect the kind of story you want to tell. Choose the details carefully by making sure that they are meaningful.
In the final lesson of the section, ‘Working With Time in Fiction,’ Atwood talks about circular and linear time, the two main ways of viewing time. She advises you to signal to your readers how you will be moving through time in your story, such as using a direct timestamp or through sensory detail, such as what clothes your characters are wearing or how they speak.
In my opinion, this section is one of the most essential parts of her MasterClass. When writing fiction in the past, I’ve found that I tend to give the sensory details less importance and move through time in ways that are not clear to the reader. This section is full of helpful advice, as indicated in the assignment example provided below:
“This exercise allows you to practice narrative time leaps and to explore the consequences of “long time” (a mode of fictional time that covers a lot of ground—decades or more) on events.
- Select an event you’ve written about in a story, exercise, or longer work in progress.
- Now fast-forward one of the characters involved 30 years into the future, and have them recount that event in retrospect.”
With lesson 13, you’ve come to the end of this section.
Lessons 14, 15, and 16: The First Five Pages, Middle and Ending, and Revision
Once you have figured out the plot, characters, and how you want to use time in your book, it’s time to start solidifying your writing. Lesson 14, titled ‘The Door to Your Book: The Importance of the First Five Pages,’ deals with precisely this. She encourages you to write drafts to discover what the beginning of your story or novel will sound like. Atwood also recommends studying the works of authors like Herman Melville, Charles Dickens, and Mary Shelley to observe what it is about those works that make you want to continue reading. In the workbook, this chapter is followed by Atwood’s original beginning of The Handmaid’s Tale that is now a part of the book’s second chapter.
Next, she moves on to the process of writing the middle and end of a story in lesson 15, titled ‘Writing the Middle and Ending.’ The middle is often the most challenging part of a story to write, but getting past this hurdle is the most important thing. As a writer, you need to figure out how to maintain your reader’s attention and keep them interested in the story.
If you want to take this part of the writing process further, you could try out this assignment given in the workbook at the end of this chapter:
“Think about the books, movies, and TV shows with endings that were especially memorable or moving to you. What about them struck you? Were they twist endings? Did they leave you wondering for weeks? Did they offer resolution (a “closed” ending) or raise new questions (an “open” ending)? Did they feel surprising, or inevitable, or both? What can you learn from them and apply to your own work?”
In the last lesson of this section, titled ‘Revision: Seeing Your Work Anew,’ you are entering the editing process. Atwood shares two pieces of advice. One, don’t choose a spouse or someone with gatekeeping power in the publishing industry, but try and find a nonwriter instead. Two, read your manuscript aloud because your ear will catch awkward parts that your eye often will not. She also suggests going through each line with a fine-toothed comb because the final editing stages are about detail and texture. By going through your work slowly and carefully, you can look for errors and read each line in isolation.
With this, you’ve come to the end of section four.
Lessons 17-20: The Novel, Speculative Fiction, and Research
The 17th lesson of the MasterClass, titled ‘The Novel and the Shifting Sands of Genre,’ is devoted to discussing the novel and the shifting nature of the genre. Atwood believes that genre is a concept created by publishers and literary critics, but it’s not necessarily a valuable one designed for the working writer. For her, not knowing or thinking about the genre of your book can be more helpful because it allows you greater freedom to stray from the expectations of the genre. As a writer, your job is to simply make your book the most compelling work that it can be, within its own set of rules.
In lessons 18 and 19, titled ‘Speculative Fiction’ and ‘Speculative Fiction Case Study: The Handmaid’s Tale,’ respectively, Atwood deals with speculative fiction which, as she defines it, “deals with possibilities in a society which have not yet been enacted but are latent.” If speculative fiction is something you’re interested in writing, one way to come up with a plot is to take an idea from current society and move it further down the road. She then looks at The Handmaid’s Tale, sharing the inspiration, research, and iconography of the book.
Finally, in the last lesson of this section, she stresses the importance of conducting thorough research to keep your reader interested and engaged. However, your research must be presented in a way that does not seem like it is research. Your details must be accurate and convincing, and believable as well.
Lessons 21, 22, and 23: The Act of Being a Writer, and a Conclusion
In the last lessons of the course, Atwood shares some parting words about being a writer. While the act of writing is thrilling, it is also a difficult path to go through, and you must remember that not all books sell.
When you are in the process of trying to get a book published, try and share it with a wider readership through publication. Figure out what you want from the book and what readers you want to share it with, then choose your publishing resources carefully.
In the last lesson of the MasterClass, Atwood shares some parting words and expresses her gratitude.
What I Liked About Margaret Atwood’s MasterClass
These were the things about this MasterClass that I enjoyed, listed below.
The Organization and Structure of the Lessons
Margaret Atwood’s MasterClass was exceptionally well structured and organized. I’ve been writing fiction for the past few months, but I’ve struggled with maintaining discipline and a sense of structure when approaching my writing. I never wrote with a goal or any kind of structure in mind, but the organization of these lessons has given me a better understanding of approaching fictional writing.
The order of the lessons begins with simply getting started as a writer, moving gradually into coming up with a plot and developing characters, and ending with editing your work and finding a publisher. I found that even though Atwood shares a lot of advice and tips, it does not feel like she is assaulting you with information or help, but rather, advice that blends with her teaching.
The course builds quite gradually, and the assignments and exercises at the end of every chapter in the workbook provide you with the chance to stop and digest the advice or information shared and put your knowledge to good use.
The Pace of the MasterClass
The lessons in the course are paced in a way that won’t make you feel like you are being force-fed vast chunks of information in a single lesson. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, each lesson acts as a building block that contributes to the larger structure that is a story or novel. Each lesson is paced in a way that delivers information at a reasonable pace, without making you feel like you’re learning too much or too little at once.
Margaret Atwood’s Advice
If you’re a seasoned writer, there may be a chance that some of her advice feels basic or underwhelming. However, if you’re just starting as a writer, her advice holds a lot of weight, and it can force you to reevaluate your work at times when you may not have considered doing so. For example, you may think that you have a good understanding of your main character, but they may not understand what you’re trying to say when an outsider reads your story. However, Atwood encourages you to use the printable worksheets to develop your characters fully by fleshing them out and learning more about them. Creating a character is one thing, but making them compelling and engaging is something else.
Margaret Atwood’s advice can be applied at any stage of the writing process; this is what I appreciated most about it.
The Visually Pleasing Workbook
The workbook accompanying Atwood’s MasterClass is both helpful and visually pleasing to look at. I didn’t feel like I was reading a textbook or informational brochure, but a storybook full of practical advice.
The Audio and Video Quality
This particular point is something that I appreciate about MasterClass in general: their videos are impeccably shot, and the audio quality is top-notch, primarily when relying heavily on visual and auditory senses for a music course.
What I Didn’t Like About Margaret Atwood’s MasterClass
The only complaint I have about Atwood’s Masterclass is that its title quite misleading. I was led to believe that I would be learning about creative writing in general, but Atwood’s focus is on writing novels. If you’re searching for a course that teaches you creative writing, this particular course is not necessarily for you.
Who is Margaret Atwood’s MasterClass for?
Atwood’s MasterClass is for both beginners and experienced writers.
Her method of instruction is easy to understand, and it does not matter how much writing experience you have, as long as you want to write. Unlike a course that teaches electric guitar or jazz music, this course focuses on something that anyone with an idea can do, which is writing.
Just like other MasterClass instructors, Atwood does not spoonfeed or start from the very basics. Instead, she shares practical advice, tips and tricks, and suggestions that you can apply to your writing practice.
I will share a small piece of advice with you: maintain a notebook throughout the course, as it’ll help you keep track of assignments and shared advice.
MasterClass Pricing: How Much Does This Course Cost?
MasterClass has two payment options.
You can buy the course individually as a gift for $90, or you can pay for an entire year’s All Access subscription to MasterClass for $180 a year, billed at $15 a month.
In my opinion, the yearly subscription is a great bargain because you get an all-inclusive pass to some of the world’s leading experts on a variety of topics. For example, you could learn Science Fiction and Fantasy writing from Hugo Award-winner N.K. Jemisin, Music Curation and DJing from Questlove, or Voice Acting from Nancy Cartwright.
For the amount of information you get from these experts, $15 a month is a great price, especially if you can find a few classes that you like.
Alternatives to Margaret Atwood’s MasterClass
If a course in creative and novel writing isn’t something you’re interested in, MasterClass has several other writing courses available.
You can learn Fiction, Memory, and Imagination from Amy Tan, The Art of the Short Story from Joyce Carol Oates, or Writing for Television from Shonda Rhimes. If you have purchased the All-Access Pass, you can take all of these courses one after the other!
If you’re considering investing in an online learning platform, you could consider Skillshare.
Skillshare is free for 14 days after creating an account in terms of the cost, and Skillshare Premium is free for seven days after creating an account. Once your free trial is over, Skillshare Premium is $8.25 for the annual membership, with $99 in total for one year or $19 per month. Kathy Fish, a writer, and teacher conducts a Skillshare course called ‘Fast Flash Fiction: Writing Tiny, Beautiful Stories.’ Additionally, Sabaa Tahir, a writer, teaches a course called ‘Writing Authentic Fiction: How to Build a Believable Character.’
Suppose you want to purchase a course individually. In that case, you could also consider ‘Writing Your Masterpiece (Fiction, Memoir and Novel Writing)’ on Udemy, taught by Joeel and Natalie Rivera, and Julie Tyler, or The Foundations of Fiction (Writing Mastery), conducted by Jessica Brody and Joanne Rendell, also on Udemy.
Is Margaret Atwood’s MasterClass worth it?
The short answer is yes, it is. However, when it comes to something like writing, everyone’s opinions are different. I scoured the internet to find a few reviews. One Reddit user enjoyed the course but felt that the course is not worth buying individually.
Review by Reddit user ARMKart in a writing subreddit:
“Inspiring and interesting, especially if you’re a fan of her work, but nothing earth-shattering or extremely practical. Some parts were slow, but others were awesome. Some of the masterclasses are the type I want to sit and take notes on because they overflow with info. Her’s was more something I liked to watch while I was cooking if that makes sense. Basically, I actually really loved it, but it’s not something I’d tell writers they will necessarily gain all that much from. It’s awesome if you have the membership, but probably not worth buying just the one class.”
Learning writing online can be challenging, but Margaret Atwood’s MasterClass contains advice that will help you regardless of how much or how little experience you have as a writer.
In this review, I covered the features of Atwood’s MasterClass, what to expect from the course, and who will benefit from it.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Margaret Atwood’s MasterClass a good gift?
A single class costs $90, and an All-Access Pass costs $180. The second option would be better because you get access to over 90 different courses taught by leading experts in the industry for one year.
How long is the Margaret Atwood MasterClass?
Margaret Atwood’s MasterClass is three hours and 43 minutes long, divided into 23 lessons.
Can I get a refund if I don’t like the MasterClass?
If you are not satisfied with the MasterClass and want a refund, you are eligible for a refund if your annual membership was purchased through the website within the last 30 days. Click here for more information.