I’m always of two minds when folks call in with this question. On the one hand, it’s really putting the cart before the horse. It feels best to advise people to focus on the writing first and not worry about getting it out there or whatever drama that might entail.
On the other, I get the impulse to be concerned. Many if not most artists want their work to be seen by the universe, and that happening centers on the work being special, unique, not like anyone else’s.
But whether I feel the question is warranted or not doesn’t much matter. My job—Gotham’s job—is to provide writers, new and not, a creative home, and to make everyone who wants ‘in’ feel comfortable making the decision to enroll and entrust us with their baby.
Now, bottom line, your work is legally your work as of its creation. Similar to the Poor (Wo)Man’s copyright of yore (actually people still do this), where folks mail themselves their own work, never to break the envelope’s seal, your computer date-and-time stamps what you’ve written just like the post office does. And it’s yours as of that date, that time.
But if you want an extra layer of comfort, here’s some stuff to keep in mind:
Beyond that, I will say that being a writer requires a bit of healthy ego. You have to believe that YOU have a singular story to tell, that your story is the one that needs to be told. And because of that, the likelihood of someone plunking down $400+ to take a class and poach someone else’s idea is slim. To pass off the exact words and characters and dialogue and conflicts as their own? Even less so.
Think of it this way: taking a writing class is a wonderful experience where you can get valuable feedback, learn from the brilliant and less brilliant writing moves your peers have made, and find your people. And writing anything, finishing a draft of ANYthing, let alone a final, publishable/producible draft, takes time, heart, brain, and more than a bit of moxie. Best not to cheat yourself out what is poised to be a nourishing step in your writing journey. And to put your energy into creating, not worrying.
It’s funny, when people ask this question, it’s invariably followed with:
“I know it varies person to person, but…”
As if there’s an answer beyond that.
And really, truly, there isn’t. Because everyone writes and reads at a slightly different pace. Everyone absorbs information at their own rate. And everyone has varying amounts of time to devote to class, which probably changes a bit week to week.
Plus, the time requirements are different for 10-week classes like Fiction I or Screenwriting I than they are for a 6-week class like Creative Writing 101. In-person varies from online. And in the 10-week camp, Level I vs. Level II makes a difference, too.
But, we hate giving non-answers to questions, so I always tell folks what they’re going to have to accomplish in a week, and let them figure it out from there.
So let’s do that.
In-person, NY classes:
Here’s what’ll be on your weekly plate:
There’s no real-time meeting of the online classes, but this is what’s on the agenda:
From the looks of it, the online classes require less of your time. Maybe. But maybe not. Depending on how you learn, you might read the lectures more than once. And writing up cogent feedback on your fellow students’ work takes time that giving feedback off-the-cuff in class doesn’t’. Does that all equal the same three hours that you’d spend if you were in class in NYC? I bet you know the answer…it…wait for it…varies person to person.
If I had to put numbers down on paper, I’d say (roughly, sorta, kinda, don’t quote me):
What happens if you can’t give the class that much time every week? That happens. We know our students are busy people and there are going to be weeks when class can’t be a priority. We just hope you’ll give it your all for the weeks you’re with us so you have the best experience you can possibly have. And if you want to talk through your options to find the best format or best time to take class, give a holler.
How many times have you tuned in to watch the first episode of a much-touted new TV show, only to say to yourself or anyone who’ll listen:
“Are they kidding?????”
Yup, many a misstep has made it to the small screen (Quarterlife, anyone?) And leave the writing-inclined among us saying “I could soooooo do that better!”
And with so many more outlets available than ever before – network and cable, streaming and web series, live-action and not – there seems to be more hunger than ever to get into the TV game.
But the great pilots, the truly great ones – The Sopranos, The West Wing, Breaking Bad, Arrested Development, Community – are incredibly hard to write. Not impossible. I mean, it’s been done, right? But so, so hard. You have to establish the world of the show, establish the characters, chart a long-term course, AND tell a mini-story that’s worthy in and of itself.
And you have to do all that while navigating the particular nuances of storytelling for the small screen, from story beats to weaving storylines together to ‘sitcom vs. drama’.
Which is why we ask that folks do take TV Writing I before TV Writing II/Pilot.
In TV Writing I, you learn the TV ropes by studying the greats and then by trying your hand at a script for one of those great shows that inspire you. You get a handle on this unique storytelling form, and maybe even put some already well-drawn characters into a situation you might put your own characters in down the road.
It’s plenty challenging to write a TV ‘spec’, but a whole lot more doable than jumping into the deep end of a pilot if you’ve never written for television before.
What scenario could you cook up for the characters in This Is Us to wade through? How about the folks in Black-ish? Or Bojack Horseman? Spend some time in one of those wonderful sandboxes. And then go off and create a sandbox of your own.
We’re happy to help at both stages of the game,
Back in 2008, we launched our Mentor Program. And boy did we learn something right away.
“Mentor” is a VERY powerful word.
Maybe it’s because the word connotes seriousness. Sober, important, literary (in our case) endeavors, involving elbow patches and pipes.
That image makes people feel like they’re really going to be taken care of, like they’re going to be welcomed into a dark-wood-paneled professor’s office and invited to learn the mysteries of storytelling at said professor’s knee.
Which, to a degree, is true.
And if that’s what you’re looking for our Mentor Program might be great for you. But maybe we have something else that might be better.
So I thought I’d break the whole one-on-one thing down for y’all to show the whole spectrum of offerings, and help you find the best fit.
In the Mentor Program, you buy a block of 12 or 16 hours, and ‘burn’ those hours in a variety of ways over time. Sure, the mentor reads your work, writes up feedback, meets (or chats) with you about suggestions or to just brainstorm. But expect targeted assignments, too. Reading assignments, writing exercises, whatever the mentor feels will help you move your project forward. And if you’re, say, writing a memoir or a novel and trying to capture, I dunno, a particular character relationship on the page, your mentor might have you watch a movie to inspire your prose. We like it when the Mentorships are creative and multi-medium, and folks dig that, too.
But if you have a draft of a piece—prose or script or poem or whatever—and what you want is feedback, Book or Story Doctoring is often a better choice. Because it’s one-on-one, you’re still getting the deep attention you might like about the word ‘mentor’, but it’s a one-shot deal not the developmental experience of a mentorship. And honestly, could be exactly what you need.
Of course, you can take any of our classes One-on-One, too. Whether it’s a 10-week workshop or a 6-week class, you can have the regularity of weekly meetings and the learning experience of a course curriculum, but tailored to your tastes, interests, and needs. We even offer a 3-hour One-on-One version of our Intensives, which are perfect if you’re in from out of town.
Yup, the word mentor IS power-packed. But you get deep, personalized attention whether you choose the Mentor Program, or another flavor of one-on-one services. There are lots of choices. And I’m here to help laser-in on just which one will help you most. So call!
There’s a quote I love:
No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man. - Heraclitus
I love it for lots of reasons. First, it makes it seem like I’m putting my Philosophy degree to good use, something that makes my mom happy in a way that my former career as an advertising copywriter didn’t (I can connect those dots for you; just email me and ask).
Second, it’s in line with my world view, that we and everything around us is always incrementally changing, allowing something new to happen every time we open our eyes in the morning.
And third, it comes in handy when students ask about taking the same class more than once.
If you buy Heraclitus’ premise, you can take Fiction I or Writing Scripts 101 or Memoir II again and again, because you’re a different writer every time you put finger to keyboard. You’re a different writer because the river has flowed, and you’re likely in a different place in your work than you were last term or last year, making the same lecture material – even the written lectures we post in our online classes – relevant in new ways.
Add to that the fact that new novels and picture books have been published, new films and TV shows have hit the screen, big and small, the world has evolved (or devolved) giving journalists and essayists fodder for new reporting and fresh opinions. And all of that will inevitably inform your writing.
Plus, your second dance with the same class will put you in contact with a bevy of new fellow students with brand, spanking new things to say about your work, and projects of their own that will open you to their stories that just might impact yours.
One thing I do always recommend if you’re going to repeat a class is to try it with a new instructor. That way, the ‘old’ material will be filtered through a new lens, shaking things up just a bit. But even if you want to have another go with the same instructor teaching the same exact class, there is a new experience to be had (says the gal who took Screenwriting II 19x with the same instructor back in the day. No regrets.)
Sure, if you’re ready for Fiction II after taking Fiction I once or for online Memoir II-B after taking Memoir II-A, go right ahead. My aim is not to put the kibosh on that plan. But know that you not only have permission to lather-rinse-repeat, but that we (and our pal Heraclitus) see the value in that choice.
I’ve worked at Gotham Writers for 20 years (miraculous, since I’m a wee lass of 29) and this is by far the easiest question to answer.
We don’t have one.
Now I know it sounds a bit like I’m selling snake oil when I say that. But absolute truth: our teachers are the best you’re going to find. Anywhere.
They go through a very serious vetting process because we know that we’re only as good as what happens in the classroom, and because we’re deeply invested in every student having a wonderful Gotham experience. And we’re internally small enough to check in on them regularly, addressing any concerns that come up, nipping even the tiniest problem in the bud.
So, what do we look for?
A unique, alchemic combination of teaching experience and writing success. Because there are tremendous writers who can’t teach worth a whit, and stellar instructors who can’t write to save their hides.
I mean, when you sign up for a writing class, you want someone at front of the room who’s faced the blank screen or page, experienced what you’ll experience, asked the questions you’ll ask, torn their hair out over word choice or character motivation, just like you will, and come out the other side published, produced, acknowledged.
But you also want someone who understands that teaching is an art all its own.
Being a fine teacher means being able to deliver inspiring lectures and come up with muscle-stretching exercises. It means managing time and keeping things moving, It means helping newer writers articulate exactly what they mean to say to a fellow writer about their work when they might not quite have the craft-vocabulary to do that. And, perhaps more than anything else, it’s about conveying passion, for story and character, for the written word and the writer’s life.
It’s not easy to find unicorns such as these. But we have about 120 of them on our faculty at any given time. And we couldn’t be prouder of that.
So who’s our best teacher? The teacher teaching the class you’ll get to most often over the six or 10 weeks of class.
Dana Miller is Gotham’s Dean of Students and Director of One-on-One services.
NYC Vs. Online Classes
I’m not a fan of the ‘compare and contrast’. And it’s not because I came up in the Montessori culture where no one is any better than anyone else., because I didn’t. And it’s not because I’m a Libra with a typical October-baby allergy to making decisions, even though I am.
It’s because you can’t compare Fujis with mandarins.
Or rather Fujis with a pie made from Fujis.
One is built from the other, but they serve different needs and tastes.
The in-person classes are classic. Classes like you remember them from grade school. You show up, same time, same place, every week, with other like-minded people and a (stellar) instructor, and you take class. You get the lectures, the discussion, the in-class exercises, and the critique of developing work in real-time, and you bond, mano-a-mano, right there in the room.
The online classes are made of the same fine stuff: lecture, discussion, writing exercises, critique. But they don’t meet at a specific time. You log in when it’s convenient, as many times during each week as you want, and your class unfolds flexibly, a bit at a time, instead.
And because you’re not sitting at your computer participating at the same time as everyone else, students get a chance to take class with folks from all over the country, maybe all over the globe, which is interesting and fun.
The teachers have the same credentials, whether they’re teaching online or in NY, and the goals are the same, too: a strong grounding in craft, feedback on your work, a safe stimulating place to bring your story to life.
So if you’re in or near NYC, you get the immediacy of the in-person experience. If you’re not, or you have one of those jobs where you can’t necessarily leave work on time every Monday or Thursday or whatever, you get the chance to take class with us on your time, and be a part of a global classroom.
It just depends if you feel like a great piece of fruit or an equally great piece of pie.
If you’ve taken a class like our Level I class before – where an instructor taught the basics like structure and character and description, using lectures and writing exercises and maybe some peer critique – then going right into Level II should be fine. We’ll want to have a chat to hear what that class was like, make sure it’s a match, but chances are you’d be good to go.
Thing is, a lot of folks feel like they should be able to leapfrog over Level I. Either because they’ve written stories before or because they ‘write all the time at work’ or because they went to college or are accomplished writers of another stripe. Or they think Level I is remedial or ‘babyish’ in some way. And nothing could be further from the truth.
Our Level I classes are substantive explorations of the inner-workings and underpinnings of what makes a story a story. And by breaking fiction (or screenwriting or songwriting or memoir or anything else we offer) into its component parts, you end up with a toolbox and a blueprint you can use to build YOUR story and build it well.
Think of it this way: you wouldn’t unclog a drain or make mushroom risotto without instructions and maybe a YouTube video. And just because you can make a mean chocolate layer cake doesn’t mean you can make a mushroom risotto that’ll get you on the Next Food Network Star.
Our Level I classes ARE those instructions. They are that video. And we’ve had published authors and professors and PhD’s and tv writers who started with Level I when investigating what it would be like to write something new.
Plus, learning the art of the critique is an education in itself, and Level I hones those skills so they’re sharp as can be for Level II, where critiquing your fellow students' work is the Tootsie Roll center of the whole experience.
So if you genuinely feel that Level II is the best first step for you, give us a call and we can talk it through. But don’t underestimate the brightside of beginning at the beginning.
Let’s see, our teen classes are definitely creative writing classes. Except for our Grammar for Teens, which we run from time to time in NYC they’re all about storytelling and are designed to help younger writers find and unleash their ability to create on the page.
So whether it’s Unbound, our general creative writing class that sharpens powers of imagination, observation, and description so that teens start looking at the world through a writer’s eyes, or True Story which has teens trying their hands at writing articles and short personal essays with an eye towards that all-important college essay, or Action which introduces them to the world of writing scripts—the goal is the same. Our classes are for teens who love to write. They give them permission to let go of the need for right answers and the grab for good grades and just tell stories. True ones and made up ones. Stories for people to read and stories for them and their friends to act out in living rooms and garages with their iPhones documenting the event.
But will that help with book reports and research papers? In subtle, indirect ways, sure.
The more you put pen to paper or finger to keyboard, the better all of your writing is likely to become. With practice and consistency and attention, the idea of writing anything becomes less daunting, less mysterious. And when you’re more comfortable doing something, that something tends to be better.
Plus, learning how to organize your thoughts when you’re mapping out a short story about twin sisters who save their school from a band of bullies, or an essay about your first political rally, or a one-act play about a dog that becomes mayor of a small New England town works the same mental muscles as organizing your thoughts about Jane Eyre for English class.
So yes, come take a Teen class with us and we wouldn’t be surprised if you reported back to us that your teachers were super pleased to see how much better a writer you’ve become since last year. But you can take the class just for fun, too. Because sometimes it’s okay to do something just for fun. We won’t tell.
This is always a tough one to answer because it can mean so many things.
It could mean that someone wants to write better stories/poems/scripts – in which case, we are bursting with classes to help. Depending on what kind of story you want to tell, any of our dozen or more Level I classes will fit the bill.
But more often than not, when someone says they want to ‘write better’, it means one of three things.
Good news! We can help, no matter what your I-want-to-write-better-message is.
To build writer-confidence, I suggest Creative Writing 101. Maybe you don’t know how to start, or you’ve tried but don’t like what you ended up with. Or maybe you want to start, but are shy about jumping in. Whatever the case, that’s the class to take. It’s a mix of general but substantive lectures and imagination-sparking writing exercises that don’t need to be shared with anyone but your instructor. You’ll slowly wade into the writing process. And what you learn will help in just about any scenario where you need to get words or thoughts on the page.
If it’s the mechanics of writing you’re after, take Grammar: The Basics. It gets into the nitty gritty of all the stuff you learned in school…and have promptly forgotten over the years. Subjects! Verbs! Adjectives and adverbs! Tenses, prepositions, punctuation of every stripe! You’ll get it all, and all of it will be presented in a fun, creative way, with interesting exercises and examples to make the kind of dry material anything but.
As for writing better at work, our Business Writing class teaches good practices – being clear, concise, specific, well-organized, efficient. But we have a special sauce. While for many, professional equals formal and stiff, we think the key to good business writing is to write like you. And that’s what we teach. Writing like a human being at work. Of course, you can’t email your boss or your clients like you’re writing to your college roommate. But colorful word choice or a phrase that’s quintessentially YOU or a bit of storytelling is more likely to connect you with your audience, while sounding robotic and cold is more distancing. Our class gives permission to loosen up…just enough.
So give us a call and let us unpack what you mean by “I want to write better.” We’re excited to help!
There ARE a lot of choices, aren’t there?
I like to think of our nonfiction choices existing along a spectrum depending on how far (or near) the writer is from the material she or he is writing.
On one end, Article Writing. Learning how to write articles for newspapers, magazines, or websites, print or digital.
Say you have a compelling story to tell. It’s not about you or anyone you know, or about something you did or experienced. But you think it’s interesting, and you think others will find it pretty interesting, too. You want to learn how to present ‘just the facts, ma’am’, but how to relate those facts with a storyteller’s flair.
We’re not talking front-page news here, but rather the story behind the story. Not “Hurricane Harvey Hits Texas” but how caravans of students from sororities and fraternities who had started at U of Texas/Austin just weeks before traveled to Houston to hand out water and offer a kind word to those who Harvey had flooded out of their homes. Article Writing I will break it all down for you, and help you report that story.
But what if YOU were one of those students, and wanted to tell the world what it was like to hand out that water and offer that kind word? Well, that’s the other end: Memoir Writing. The how to’s of writing first-person true stories carved out of the larger story of your life.
And in the middle? Essay & Opinion. Learning how to write about those do-gooding caravans of kids and opining on what you think that means about this generation of young people. So, not your story, but not neutral, either.
Of course, if you know you want to tell true stories, but you’re not sure what shade of true you want to pursue, take Creative Nonfiction 101 and you’ll get the whole Joseph’s Technicolor Dreamcoat of choices. A bit on article, memoir, and essay, but also profiles, travel pieces, and reviews in a tidy little 6-week exploration.
There are so many ways to go when it comes to creative nonfiction. And figuring out what’s right for you can be its own super-confusing narrative. Call us! We’re always happy to help. True story.
The message baked into that question: I want to write a novel but I’ve never taken a fiction writing class before and there’s nothing called ‘Novel I’, so what do I do?
And the answer: take Fiction I.
Because Fiction I is going to teach you the how-to’s of writing a piece of fiction, whether you’re wanting to write a short story or a novel.
The basics of fiction are the same for short stories as they are for novels: character, plot, point of view, description, dialogue, setting/pacing, voice, theme. So, by taking Fiction I, you’d be grounding yourself in what you need to build either type of piece.
I’ll let you in on a secret though: if you call our office, we’re going to nudge you ever so gently towards writing short stories first. Why? A few reasons.
One, it’s easier to learn the beginning/middle/end of the storytelling process working on something short than on something long. Novels have so many moving parts—multiple characters, long spans of time, often more than one location, sub-plots and story threads—and at the beginning, it’s enough to just understand the basic building blocks of making a story.
Two, it’s more…doable to craft something relatively short than it is to generate several hundred interesting, transporting, meaningful pages.
And three, there’s something very motivating about finishing something. Spoiler alert: novels take years to finish. But short stories take…well, less time than that. And, where it can be daunting, or even discouraging to go years without feeling the satisfaction of typing the words ‘The End’, think how energizing the opposite would be.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Writing a short story is not easy. Imagine the kind of skill, restraint, deftness it takes to bake the perfect cupcake. Writing ‘the perfect’ short story flexes those same muscles. But still, you’d probably have an easier time baking 12 perfect cupcakes for the school bake sale than a multi-layered wedding cake with frosting and filling and fondant ON YOUR OWN WEDDING DAY. Which is kind of what writing a novel is like.
I know, I know, you still want to write the Great Novel. But if you could craft a stand-alone short story around your novel-to-be’s main character, couldn’t that help you write that novel down the road? And build you as a writer in the process?
So, start with Fiction I. Learn your craft. Embrace the short story. Finish something. THEN take Novel II and tackle that big ole cake, with a confidence you’d never have had if you’d just jumped into the novel first.
That’s the long and the short of it. But, of course, give us a call if you want to talk more.
This one comes in all the time. And we get it. When people think of ‘creative writing’, most think ‘fiction’.
Maybe it’s because that’s what ‘creative writing’ meant in grade school.
I remember being in 4th or 5th grade and having a creative writing ‘module’ in English class. And the focus was on making things up. It’s possible there was a flip-book involved or some version of a group story-writing experience, where the teacher (Mrs. Slain? Mr. Terban?) gave us a premise and everyone added their bit. But whatever it was, it was about spinning stories from our imagination.
At Gotham, when we say ‘creative writing’, we mean something…broader.
Creative Writing 101 introduces what storytelling is whether you’re telling a true story or letting your imagination fly. The class uses lecture, discussion, and weekly exercises to teach stuff that’s common to all stories, like story structure and character. But it also sharpens powers of imagination, observation, description, so newer writers (or vets wanting to shake things up) learn to look at the world through a writer’s eyes and mine what they see for story ideas. And it lets you wade into the writing waters slowly, so you build confidence: no big projects, just a chance to try it all out and see where the heat is.
Fiction I teaches the how to’s of tapping into your imagination and writing short stories or maybe, down the road, a novel. It breaks this one particular kind of writing into its fundamental parts—plot, character, dialogue, point of view, etc.—using lecture, discussion, examples, and writing exercises. Plus you get the chance to work on a story or two of your own design and get feedback on it from the instructor and the group. And give your peers feedback, too.
So, once more with feeling:
CR101 = general storytelling, lasts 6 weeks, weekly writing but no major project.
Fiction I = specific, lasts 10 weeks, weekly writing AND yes major project.
Which is right for you? Give us a call and we can talk it through!
Dana Miller is Gotham's Dean of Students and Director of One-on-One Services.