There’s an interesting conversation on Twitter going on, mainly between webcomic artists, about working on a magnum opus right out of the gate. Many of the comments don’t necessarily dismiss the idea of writing an Epic Epic of Epicness, but they don’t recommend it if you’re just starting out. And if you do want to write it, then you’d better be aware of what you’re getting yourself into.
Me, I blame being a kid of 80s tv and movie culture, when ridiculous bombast was de rigeur. I also blame my mid-90s stretch of reading multiple Stephen King books (the ones like The Stand and others that can also be used as doorstops and paperweights). I didn’t just want to write an exciting novel, I wanted it to be EPIC. Something big and exciting. Because it was what I knew, thanks to Red Dawn and Die Hard and Rambo and Schwarzenegger and wrestling and pretty much anything Russell Mulcahy ever directed (including those Duran Duran videos). I refer to my first completed novel as the Infamous War Novel deliberately because it’s over the top epic in idea, if not scope or length.
When I started writing True Faith in 1994, it was very much the same. My ex-gf and I had even come up with a detailed timeline that would encompass multiple novels. This was going to be a multi-book, multi-year project. Then in 1997 when I started The Phoenix Effect, it too was to be a big story in a big universe.
Which brings me to the Bridgetown trilogy…
See where I’m going with this?
It seemed that with every project I started, it would end up being a Magnum Opus. I even used that as an excuse to say that I was incapable of writing a short story or coming up with a one-book novel idea, because I had no idea how to think small. It took a good twenty years of my life from origin to finish for the Bridgetown trilogy to see the light of day. And that is precisely why, by 2016, I was already committed to writing smaller projects. I knew I could write solo stories; I just needed to learn how to do it.
Writing a magnum opus is very tempting to a lot of writers. It’s the lure of rich world building. It’s the lure of stretching your creative muscles. It’s the lure of creating something huge that will blow away the competition (or at least the minds of your dedicated readers). We often try to convince ourselves that it’ll be a blast, that the long years of toil will be worth it at the end. Even if it gets released and falls flat, it’ll have been worth it.
I don’t regret spending all those years working on the Bridgetown trilogy, because I learned a hell of a lot from it. I don’t mind the fact that it took significantly longer than expected for me to get where I wanted in my career. But sometimes I wonder where my writing career would have been, had I dialed it back a bit (okay, A LOT) and worked on less epic projects over the years. If I’d written standalone stories, maybe even honed my short-story writing chops back in the 90s instead of that one-and-done half-assed attempt. Would I have made it professionally? Would I have had more books out at this point? Would I have gained a significant readership? Maybe, maybe not, who knows.
But at this point, that’s all conjecture. Right now I’m doing what I want to do, and that’s writing, and that’s all that matters.
I’d say my own response to whether or not one should start their career on a magnum opus is the same as many others: if you think you can pull it off, and you’re willing to dedicate all that time to it, then go for it. It’s a worthy goal and it is fun, if time-consuming, and a lot of its success really does rely on luck. But be aware that it’s not an easy-in to the field. It may be a bestseller, or it may fall flat. I won’t say avoid it at all costs…just know what you’re getting into!