Stop Writing That Epic! Why New Writers Should Start Small

A new graduate from the Mechanical Engineering department at Miskatonic University wants to get his career going. So he has to decide what he’s going to design first.

He decides to build an aircraft carrier.

Never mind that this is one of the most elaborate, complex pieces of machinery conceivable—the graduate has decided that he’s capable of designing and building something immensely huge and complex, just like the guys who have been doing it for thirty years.

This sounds insane, but it’s exactly what a huge number of novice writers do when starting out their careers. Instead of starting with something manageable—Ray Bradbury famously advised writing short stories for several years before even attempting a novel—new writers often decide that they’re capable of producing a twelve-volume epic saga with hundreds of characters.

Long-form Fiction is Different

Why does this happen? Part of the problem is that many writers have already spent years writing—schoolwork, college essays, blog posts, articles, emails. We’ve all spent time telling stories to our friends—ghost stories as kids, you-won’t-believe-what-I-heard stories in high school, and so on. It’s easy to let oneself think that these skills can translate to writing long-form fiction.

But they don’t. Structuring a novel-length narrative is its own skill that takes years of practice to master. Creating complex, realistic, interesting characters is a separate skill; so is writing clean prose that flows easily. As in any profession, one should master the basics before attempting the complex.

It doesn’t help that most successful books appear to have sprung fully-formed from the author’s forehead. We don’t see the years of toil involved; just the completed project, and it seems like something that could have been thrown together in a couple of months. We begin to think that we could be that successful, if we just put our minds to it for a little while.

Honing Your Craft

Another confounding factor are novice successes: those new authors whose first book, an epic thousand-page literary monolith, becomes a critically-lauded success. We need to keep in mind that those authors achieved a combination of luck (hitting the zeitgeist just right, which so far nobody has ever been able to do reliably), and, well, luck (having an innate talent for writing). Trusting your success to luck is, to put it mildly, unwise.

The fact is that most successful writers spent many years practicing their craft before you ever heard of them. No sane person would expect grand success early in their writing career, or that their first attempts would be comparable to any of the great works of fiction that we all know and love. (Of course, if we were sane, we wouldn’t be writers.) We should all make apprentices of ourselves at the start.

Do you agree that new writers shouldn’t attempt epics? If not, can you name an example of a newbie author writing an epic that turned out well? (Christopher Paolini doesn’t count.)

Benjamin Clayborne would find it splendid if you were to peruse his blog, or to check out his novel Queen of Mages on Amazon.

Benjamin Clayborne

Benjamin Clayborne is an author of fantasy fiction (and occasionally science fiction) who lives in Los Angeles with his family. He enjoys reading, writing, long walks on the beach, arguing on the Internet, and referring to himself in the third person. He hopes you enjoy his writing, but his ego is strong enough to survive it if you don't.
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Ricker88
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Ricker88

Hehe…”Christopher Paolini doesn’t count”.

WyrdMystic
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WyrdMystic

Personally, i’m a big advocate of writing what you want to write. If it’s an epic, why not? The only way of finding the motivation to write is to go with what you feel is right. Also, don’t forget ‘epic’ does not mean ‘long’. A 3 book series of 300 pages each can be even more epic than a four book series of 600 pages each. The last thing I would say is…absolutely know the rules before breaking them, but remember all the advice you get is just that…advice. Don’t be afraid to hit out in your own way, find your own style. Scout amazon. ‘Look Inside’ all those epic fantasy books from famous authors. Then count how many stand out, how many you remember the name of afterward, how many openers are structured in a truly unique way. The rest…those others you can’t remember after clicking ‘back’ – they all followed the rules, the formulae, the tropes, the cliches, the same mix of sentence structure that has itself become repetitive, the same metaphor etc etc etc. Then read the opener to Gormenghast or another epic that truly stands out. PS – Terry Brooks. Took him seven years, but Sword of Shannara was his first full work.

WyrdMystic
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WyrdMystic

And a quote from Mr Brooks himself –
I find it much harder to write short stories than long fiction. I feel cramped by the lack of space and the dictates of the form. There is considerable difference in long and short fiction disciplines, and I am not good with the latter. I hope not to have to do many more of them, but you never know. I must have written Indomitable anywhere from four to five times, each effort different. Give me a five hundred page sprawl as an assignment any day.

David J. Duncan
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David J. Duncan

Wish that authors would remember to develop plot and characters before attempting a complicated story. Build a base, let the characters go and see what happens. Too often authors forget that it’s the characters’ story not theirs.

Kerry M Tolan
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Kerry M Tolan

Yeah, sweat blood and time to produce a six hundred page opus that nobody wants because you didn’t understand the basics. Not so great a plan. Another vote for starting small.

Rusty Bender
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Rusty Bender

Further, your asking for an example of a newbie author writing an epic that turned out well is unclear. Are you asking for a newbie epic that turned out well or a newbie author who turned out well who wrote an epic as his first book? Who knows how many great writers wrote bad epics as their first novels who went on to write great books afterward? While only some writing is good for the reader, all writing is good for the author.

Rusty Bender
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Rusty Bender

Write! If you want to sell a successful commercial book then plan it out. Don’t write an epic. Consider what is trending; what styles and subject matter is selling. Consider having follow up novels ready so you can sell a trilogy if you have a hit. However, if you want to be a writer, then write. Write short, write epic, write poems, write everything. Writers don’t focus on the destination, they concentrate on the path.

Nancy Hansen
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Nancy Hansen

No, I totally disagree. First of all, as primarily a fantasy author, I gave up trying to sell short stories. There was a dearth of mediums at the time accepting them, and those few that did, wanted big names on the covers and not mine. Had I stuck just with writing shorts, I’d never have seen print. Secondly I learned a whole lot more about the business of writing from working on that 850+ page monstrosity that became my first completed novel. I never sold it as is, but the 4 years that it took to write were well spent, and I have no regrets. I learned a lot about marketing with it too. Every rejection slip stung like crazy, mainly because I had NO IDEA what was wrong with my writing. The mainstream fiction publishing industry was a cruel teacher of economics—get known or get out. Fast forward to 2011 when I chopped my big book in rough thirds, rewrote the first section to be more action heavy and offered it to a New Pulp publisher. It became the company’s best selling book for many months, and led to me having my own author imprint. If I didn’t have that huge body or work and the experience of writing a novel, I wouldn’t have been ready for that golden moment. Bottom line is: Write what you have inside you, and ignore the naysayers.

Ravana
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Ravana

Pay close attention to what those people whose first project was an epic are saying: in most cases, they spent years—decades, even—writing it. If you’re satisfied with spending years writing one thing, that’s your choice. The problem with having an epic as a target is that most people who begin them never complete them. Shorter works allow you to complete them, polish them, circulate them, receive the feedback a writer so desperately needs, possibly see them published—all while working on that epic. Yes, they require different skill sets in terms of plotting, character development, world building, pacing. However, there’s one absolutely crucial skill common to both, and that’s polishing your ability to write, *period*: your diction, vocabulary, sentence structure, paragraphing, use of dialogue… the list goes on. You are passing up the opportunity to get this practice, learn what works and what does not, if you choose to avoid writing shorter pieces. And the satisfaction of seeing complete works, especially if they make it into print, will help motivate you to persevere in the longer ones.

Michelle Gent
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Michelle Gent

Star A Raven don’t let this piece discourage you, it’s only one person’s opinion.
I wrote a story. I wrote and wrote and wrote and then it was finished. I asked someone at Gollancz advice on publishing it. At 170,000 words it was too big. So I cut it in half and edited it. I sent it off to her by email and waited.
I had done everything that she had asked of me and I had to email her to remind her about it. 6 months after I had sent it, she replied with:
“It’s not what we’re looking for…”
I accept that Gollancz have a lot of other submissions coming in so I took back control of my book, put it back together and self published it at 196,000 words. Is that classed as an Epic? I’m on the 4th book in the series now and the reviews are astonishingly good I’m pleased and proud to say.
This was my first attempt at writing. I have had nothing published before of any note.
Rather than listen to experts in the field of writing, listen to your Muse and never ever ever allow anyone to discourage you. xx

Debra L Martin
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Debra L Martin

Patrick Rothfuss wrote The Name of the Wind as an epic novel. He pulled out some of it, submitted it and won a writing contest. Once he had won, it caught the eye of his agent and the rest is history. He writes the *longest* epic fantasy novels I ever read. So I think newbies should write what they feel passionate about because without the passion for the project whether it’s long or short, not much writing will get done.

Antonio del Drago
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Antonio del Drago

@Debra L Martin As others have pointed out, Rothfuss did a lot of writing before starting Name of the Wind.  While it was the first book that he had published, he had been practicing his writing for many years before that.

Dakota Frank
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Dakota Frank

I would not count Eragon as i think it stinks.

Elizabeth Lang
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Elizabeth Lang

I love how people try to prove their ideas by pointing out the exceptions, as if exceptions make the rule.

Patrick Rothfuss’s epic was only his first published. He did a lot of other writing besides that one during his time in university in which he studied ENGLISH. So to refer to Rothfuss’s epic as if it was his first and only writing and he didn’t need anything else to hone his skills…

JRR Tolkien…honestly… Do people not find the facts before using them to ‘prove’ their points? Any cursory reading of his bio will tell us that Tolkien did a lot of writing, many of which were never published, YEARS before he attempted The Hobbit and that The Hobbit was NOT written as an epic. It was a single, stand-alone story. THEN he wrote LotR.

Just because people only remember their first famous epic, does NOT mean that it was their first attempt at writing.

My first published book was an epic. But it was not my first writing project. It was just my first published book. I have been writing short and long pieces, non-epic ones on amateur sites for years, honing my skills and learning my craft, because I do believe that there is wisdom in walking before I can run. I don’t consider it some scaffolding or hampering of my art to be asked to have a bit of experience before attempting something major and complex.

But that being said, I do think some people are gifted enough that they can write an epic the first time out and succeed. The other 99% may try and won’t succeed, but any writing will be valuable experience.

Lars van Weert
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Lars van Weert

Patrick Rothfuss comes to mind. I see i’m not the first to mention him, but he is worthy of another mention.

Miles Milliken
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Miles Milliken

Margaret Mitchell (“Gone With the Wind”) , Frank McCourt (“Angela’s Ashes”) , L. Frank Baum (“The Wizard of OZ”) , H.G. Wells (“The Time Machine”) , Harper Lee (“To Kill a Mockingbird”) , all first novels

Antonio del Drago
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Antonio del Drago

@Miles Milliken First novels?  Yes.  But were they the first stories that they wrote?  That’s doubtful.  I suspect that all of the authors listed above spent a lot of time practicing their writing before attempting something of considerable length and complexity.Benjamin isn’t saying that new writers can’t produce novels. Rather, he’s arguing that new authors would do better to practice by writing shorter, less elaborate pieces before attempting something epic.

AmandaEdling
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AmandaEdling

I believe trying to write an epic as a new writer is fine.  The problem I see with writing an epic is not so much about being new to the craft but being taken seriously by publishers and lit agents.  Most want to see proof of your writing history before they will even consider reading a manuscript (short stories, magazine credits, etc).  An epic by an unknown is unlikely to get seriously looked at.  I suspect there are great epics out there that will never see the light of day simply because the author doesn’t have the resume that will convince a publishing house to spend the time reading it for consideration.  Only authors with true business savvy (which unfortunately most writers need a little help with) or inside contacts (it’s always about who you know) are going to be able to sell an epic read right out of the gate.

ray thor
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ray thor

@AmandaEdling      I think all your points are well taken. If Shakespeare or many of the classic writers tried to publish their works today their talent would probably be overlooked and lost forever. But ebook self-publishing gives authors a chance to write whatever they want, including lengthy epics. I wrote a mystery thriller that is somewhat of an epic. The storyline spans one hundred years from 1888 London to 1998 Palm Springs. It received good reviews and is available on KINDLE Bookstore by RAYMOND THOR  .Maybe they will turn my epic ebook into an epic movie.  Click on link:http://www.amazon.com/gp/search/ref=sr_nr_i_0?rh=k%3Araymond+thor%2Ci%3Adigital-text&keywords=raymond+thor&ie=UTF8&qid=1344014633

AmandaEdling
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AmandaEdling

ray thor Best of luck.

Antonio del Drago
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Antonio del Drago

Everyone,You are welcome to disagree with the content of this article.  However, rude and insulting remarks will be removed.   Please be respectful towards everyone, including those whom you may disagree with.  Thank you.

DaveSivers
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DaveSivers

@realjtk People write what they want to write. If that’s epics, that’s the craft they’ll have to hone. Short stories are a different skill.

realjtk
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realjtk

@DaveSivers I’ve seen a lot of people call short stories a training ground for novels. Would you disagree?

DaveSivers
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DaveSivers

@realjtk Short stories are a different form of fiction – they’re not a ‘short novel’. One can develop useful skills for the other, but…

DaveSivers
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DaveSivers

@realjtk … suggesting you must do one to be able to do the other is a bit like saying you must ride a motorbike before driving a car.

realjtk
Guest
realjtk

@DaveSivers Agreed, I think they’re apples and oranges. I also think there’s a much smaller market for short stories than for novels!

jodiethirkill
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jodiethirkill

@realjtk Peachy, is it ready yet? Very excited (and, quite frankly, growing inpatient)

realjtk
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realjtk

@jodiethirkill Is what ready, Steaky?

jodiethirkill
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jodiethirkill

@realjtk the novel!!! And, happy Friday!

realjtk
Guest
realjtk

@jodiethirkill Happy Friday! The novel isn’t done yet, I’m afraid, I need to rewrite the beginning. How’s tricks?

Stryker Milburn
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Stryker Milburn

David Clement-Davies of ‘The Sight’ and ‘Fell’

Marc Davies
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Marc Davies

It is good advice for the average writer. Too many people fail because they take on too much. But some people have the skill to do it and don’t need this advice. But it stands true for 99%

Meg Anderson
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Meg Anderson

I believe that, if it’s a story that inspires a writer, they should work on what ever get’s their imagination going. Whether it’s an epic, a duo, or a single novel. I know I’m a new writer and I’m working on a trilogy.

StevenJPoore
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StevenJPoore

@asgavin @mythicscribes *not* epic? with 150k packed & subbed, and 90k of the sequel done, *now* you tell me…. 😀

Noah Sutton-Smolin
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Noah Sutton-Smolin

Writers should pursue what we are passionate about writing. It’s irrelevant what type of literature we choose; writing is a personal adventure.

Your definition of turning out well is not mine. A novel that turned out well is not one which sold thousands of copies. A successful novel is one which is meaningful to the writer, and one where the writer achieved their personal goals.

Roberta Oliver Trahan
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Roberta Oliver Trahan

This is overly generalized (and cynical) advice. A book starts with a story idea, not a scaffold. Of course all good writers take the time to hone the tools of their craft – but where and what and how you create is an individual process. It there were a “right” way to achieve success as a writer, someone would have patented it and we’d all be best-sellers :).

robertatrahan
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robertatrahan

The term, “Epic”, especially in Fantasy fiction, generally refers to the scope and context of the story – not the volume of it. Every writer, novice or otherwise, should write the story that most inspires them. regardless of its complexity (or length). Speaking from personal experience – as a novelist and a writing instructor – whether form follows function or the other way around is of no real consequence. We all have to start somewhere – what does it matter if your first attempt at fiction is a short story or a ‘monolithic’ ? No writer I have ever heard of published their very first draft of anything- at least not successfully. Not even Christopher Paolini.

Jennifer Stigge
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Jennifer Stigge

I am a new writer working on a series of three books about three sisters. (time travel Scottish romance). You should write whatever is inside you waiting to get out. First of all, I write stories for myself, hoping others will like them.

Star A. Raven
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Star A. Raven

I don’t agree with this at all… 🙁 And darn it, it’s really discouraged me… :'(

Tom Austin
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Tom Austin

I think it depends on the nature of the epic, but specifically why the writer is making it an epic. Is it an epic just for the sake of writing an epic? In that case, it would be a bad idea. Does the writer just have too many ideas to fit into one story, or even in short stories? It all really depends on a case-by-case basis, accounting for the writer and the story itself.

Amber Ramzy
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Amber Ramzy

It sounds like a good idea, but I think some beginning authors can be as Epic as they want if their story is awesome enough! I wonder how many huge authors started out Epic & did fantastic?

Robert Eubanks
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Robert Eubanks

When I write, my story has a story that needs to be told and I tell it till the story ends. Might it be Epic or a short story. Once I am finished, I look at it and decide what I need to fix it to become great.

Kacheri Joe Bodily
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Kacheri Joe Bodily

Jk rowling?

John Wong
Member
John Wong

@Kacheri Joe Bodily JK Rowling started writing when she was 5 and didn’t get published until she was in her 30s. I wonder how many short stories and failed novels she has stuffed in the bottom drawer of her desk destined never to see the light of day.

Jessika Mathews
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Jessika Mathews

People should be free to write whatever they’re inspired to write, whether new or old, epics or short stories. That’s how one hones their skill and grows.

ray thor
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ray thor

I started out by writing short stories.  I also wrote an anthology of short stories for my grandchildren and young adults.  In the beginning, however, I wrote a long story because it seemed to write itself … I just couldn’t stop.  It is called BLOODGUILTY (a thriller-chiller medical mystery).  It has many ingredients:  cloning, genetic engineering, organ transplants, mind transplants, and Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes (from 1888 London to 1998 Palm Springs).  It is a combination of historical accuracy and fiction.  It also got very good reviews.  I believe a writer becomes a little obscessed with the telling and has no choice but to write it and hope for the best.  Are we not artists?  BLOODGUILTY is available on the KINDLE Bookstore by RAYMOND THOR. 

JohnHanson
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JohnHanson

All fiction projects are bloody difficult. Coming from a software development background, I can tell you that any large project is more likely to fail, and the reasons are simple: we cannot know all our requirements in advance. Plot, character, style, and however else you want to categorize words become huge topics. We writers have thin skins at times, and frustration can shelve a project before it’s lived out enough life. This is the likely end for any new writer’s work. Even the best writers cannot tackle them in one sit-down, and that’s the main thing we new writers need to learn. It’s an iterative process. I am writing either an epic novel with literary chracters or a literary novel with an epic setting. I haven’t decided, and I don’t really care. It’s my story, and I’m writing it. I’ve written a fast 100k word dump, and I’ve gone trough it almost completely a second time. I’ve also spent lots of time on teh first third in edit number 2. Much re-writing and refining has landed me at 110k. It’ll probably end up around 120k, but it may demand even more. I plan on professional advice before I tackle it further than edit number 2. I’m lacking client feedback.

tkcuvelier
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tkcuvelier

I actually agree with Kriley97 in that a writer should write whatever story is in them. When I was 15, I began writing an epic novel. After putting together 32 chapters, I forgot about it. Now at 36, though I still plan to write that novel eventually (though obviously from a more grown-up perspective–I laughed myself silly when I re-read what I’d written at 15), I find myself more intrigued by the stories of the individual characters than by the epic novel’s storyline. So that’s what I’m writing right now–shorter stories about the characters lives rather than the epic adventure. One of those stories is turning into a novella (at 10,000 words and still going).  To sum up, writing shorts is great but I’ve found that the story itself often dictates what it will become–novel, novella, or short.  

tkcuvelier
Guest
tkcuvelier

I can actually identify with this article quite well and I actually agree with Kriley97 in that a writer should write whatever story is in them.  When I was 15, I began writing an epic novel.  After putting together 32 chapters, I forgot about it.  Now at 36, though I still plan to write that novel eventually (though obviously from a more grown-up perspective–I laughed myself silly when I read what I’d written at 15), I find myself more intrigued by the stories of the individual characters than by the epic novel’s storyline.  So that’s what I’m writing right now–short stories about the characters lives rather than the epic adventure.  Will I ever sell them?  Well, one can only hope.   

kriley97
Guest
kriley97

I understand where this is coming from and while this might be decent advice, I feel even better advice is “write the story that is within you”. It would be ideal for a writer to start with short stories or a novel that is rather limited in scope, but the author should really write their story, no matter how epic it might be.

ElspethCooper
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ElspethCooper

Hmm. Short stories require a very different skill set to novels. A lot of people think shorts are an easy way to hone craft, but being able to write a polished, engaging 1,500-worder is nothing like the same as developing multiple points of view, showing character growth over time, building complex relationships or handling a larger cast.I’d be reluctant to say start with shorts as some kind of blanket piece of advice to all new writers, because not everyone has the skills for it or wants to develop them. Me, I can’t write shorts for toffee (the only one I was ever successful with had a 10k ceiling and I used every last word of it – I’m happier on a bigger canvas). It’s a useful thing to try as you’re finding your niche, but I dread to think of some novice writer beating their head against the short story for years thinking that ‘I must sell shorts before I can write that series that’s been burning a hole in my soul since forever, cos it’s the rules’.Is it hell. There are no rules. You will find your own way to write, with your own voice, and for some people that will be through shorts, for others it will be by writing the story that won’t let go, that keeps them up at night, that sees them sneaking off with notebook and pen when they really should be doing something else, like work.But there is no ‘one true way’. There’s the way that works for *you*, and so what if it doesn’t work for everyone. Personally, I always advocate writing from the heart. Writing that soul-fire story will keep you going through the tough bits, and keep the joy alive in the process. Why shouldn’t you learn to hone your craft as you go, as long as you’re prepared to accept that it likely won’t be the first thing you get published? If the ideas are sound, you can always rewrite it later.

robertatrahan
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robertatrahan

ElspethCooper – well said. 

ElspethCooper
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ElspethCooper

robertatrahan As a newly-published writer of epic fantasy, two books into a four book series, I felt I was quite well-placed to comment!

robertatrahan
Guest
robertatrahan

ElspethCooper robertatrahan – As a debut epic fantasy author  myself, I couldn’t agree with you more :).

Philip Overby
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Philip Overby

I don’t think trying to write an epic is a bad idea. Give it a try and see how it goes. However, I’m more of the opinion that trying a stand-alone novel first is a better idea.

W.k. Trail
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W.k. Trail

Terry Goodkind comes immediately to mind, though I must admit that his books aren’t great now that I’m no longer 15.

mithrilwisdom
Guest
mithrilwisdom

Definitely agreed. Jumping in at the deep end usually results in a would be author writing a tangled mess that doesn’t go anywhere. Like you said, honing your craft first is the best way to go.Jamie @ Mithril Wisdom

Katie Smith
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Katie Smith

Although the article does make some good points, I will have to stick to my guns on this and disagree. Why should new writers be herded into a particular way of writing? Shorter storys are easier to handle, yes, but that doesn’t mean they should be the be all and end all for new writers. Write what you feel most comfortable. If it’s shhort, so be it, if it’s longer than your arm, so be it. Don’t worry, be happy 😀 x

Jason Toney
Guest
Jason Toney

Why shouldn’t Christopher Paolini count? He was a newbie who wrote an epic and it worked out – very well, in fact.

Ashley 'Damei' Thiessen
Guest
Ashley 'Damei' Thiessen

How else are they going to learn to write epics if they don’t attempt them? 😛

Ashley 'Damei' Thiessen
Guest
Ashley 'Damei' Thiessen

However, I feel the need to point out that just because a specific author’s first PUBLISHED works may have been epics, that doesn’t mean that they were born writing them.

Shawn Enge
Guest
Shawn Enge

I start off writing a short story then it blossoms like a fungus into something bigger. What I plan to do is write a bunch of short stories and link them together eventually – well that is the plan 😉

Charmaine Quinlivan
Guest
Charmaine Quinlivan

Just because a writer has been published before doesn’t mean they have all the skills and talent to write epic

Legends Born: Book I of History's Shadow
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Legends Born: Book I of History's Shadow

I think the story is already there and it’s the writers job to scribble it down. Maybe a noob shouldn’t set out to write an epic, but if that’s the story you’ve got to tell, who am I to put a word count on it?

jaletaclegg
Guest
jaletaclegg

Short stories are MUCH more difficult to write well. I’d agree that newbies shouldn’t attempt to market multi-volume epics, although that’s exactly what I’m doing and it’s working for me. Just signed the contract for books 3-11. But I did get lucky. And I’m going small press.My advice would be to write what you love, then write more of it. Don’t expect to sell your first, second, third, fourth, or even fifth completed novel. Those were practice. Depending on how fast you learn and how much innate talent you have, book six might be good enough to market. But don’t rely on your mom to tell you how good it is.If you really love epics, go ahead and write them. Just be aware that it will take you years to write them well enough to be publishable.

Feo Takahari
Guest
Feo Takahari

I think this advice applies much better to game designers than to writers, since it’s a lot harder to debug every line of code in a gigantic program than it is to rewrite every bad turn of phrase in a gigantic book. I suppose I’d warn new writers off of attempting trilogies, if only because of the potential burnout that comes from getting two books into a series while never having published anything, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with starting off by trying to write a standalone novel.

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