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Traditionally, a “magnum opus” is defined as the greatest work of a master with many works. Mythcreants doesn’t subscribe to such nonsense, so we have another definition. It’s a writer’s first love, a huge sprawling epic that they hope will become a masterpiece. If you’re on your first novel, that novel is the first in a series, and you haven’t written lots of short stories, you are almost certainly toiling away on a magnum opus.

Attempting a magnum opus is an incredibly common way for fiction writers to get started. There are probably several reasons for this.

  1. Writing is a time-consuming and difficult endeavor, so it takes strong motivation to break in. Falling in love with a magnum opus gives us that motivation.
  2. Because it’s our first work, we probably did a lot of daydreaming before we finally put it on paper. The more an idea develops in our heads, the more elaborate it grows.
  3. When we start, we can’t tell how big our ideas are. We also haven’t learned how to simplify and consolidate our stories. That means our projects are likely to be overly large and complex.

When Mythcreants does content editing, many of the writers we work with are in the magnum opus stage. So if you’re in that position, I have six tips to give you the best chance of a successful first novel and a strong start to your writing career.

1. Get Ready for Years of Revisions

You’ve no doubt encountered the myth that great writing comes from artistic geniuses with inborn talent. According to this myth, you don’t have to take any classes on fiction writing; just put pen to paper and pour your heart out. Then you only have to wait to be discovered.

We’re told this lie over and over again, but it’s not remotely true. Fiction writing works like any other field of knowledge, except the educational materials are much crappier. But by the time many of us learn this, we’ve already written a first draft. That’s equivalent to locking ourselves in the basement and trying to build a liquor cabinet based on gut feel, when we haven’t taken a single carpentry class.

When we take into account the ambitiousness of these projects, the inexperience of the writer, and the lack of education, it’s no surprise that few magnum opuses end up on a bookshelf. However, “few” isn’t the same as “none.” If you’re tackling a magnum opus, you probably love your story so much you’re bleeding ink.

If you want to get your first book to the finish line, you need to be prepared for the amount of work that entails. You’re probably not looking at giving the prose a little polish, or cutting a few scenes, or rearranging a few chapters. You may need to overhaul the whole story from top to bottom. You might have to axe half of the material, including several important viewpoint characters.

Before you send it to us for editing for the first time, be ready for the big changes you’ll have to make. Then, if you can afford it, come back for a second or even third content edit. If you are not willing to give your book an overhaul, we’ll still help you to the best of our ability. However, your story will probably never be strong enough to impress an agent or fly off the shelves.

If you want to speed up your revision timeline, you can:

  1. Get editing or other assistance as early as possible. Every minute you spend futzing with your draft could be wasted time before you have a professional look at it. You might waste weeks on scenes that have to be cut anyway, or you could be missing the forest for the trees.
  2. Outline your story. Using an outline allows you to perfect the overall structure before you spend time writing a full draft. If you already have a draft, make an outline based on the draft. Then you can get feedback on the outline and revise the outline. If you write a strong outline, you can finally draft the story without worrying that it will need a complete overhaul.

Putting in years of revision doesn’t mean you won’t leave your magnum opus in the trunk* someday. But as long as you’re motivated to put the work in, you still have a chance to make it successful.

2. Learn to Let Go

While motivation is the upside of passion for a magnum opus, the downside is unwillingness to let go of any part of it. That’s a big problem, because doing revisions involves changing things. Also, it’s going to involve cutting.

Your magnum opus is too complicated. Novels are big, but you can still only fit so much in there. That’s because readers have to use their precious brainpower keeping track of whatever you put down. Simplifying your story will probably be essential to make it into something your audience will not only understand, but also love. That means letting go of extra characters, plotlines, places, and more.

Trimming may also be necessary because story elements are mismatched. Once writers get more experience, they realize that new bits of inspiration should be channeled into a new story. But writers working on a magnum opus often throw in whatever’s new and shiny. The result is a collection of miscellaneous elements that clash with each other, feel disconnected, or both.

The difficulty and necessity of letting go is why writers use the phrase “kill your darlings.” You’ll need to sacrifice something you’re fond of, simply because you’re fond of too many things. Your story can be anything you want, but it can’t be everything you want.

Decide what is most important about your story and prioritize. When Mythcreants does content editing, we spend some time asking the writer what elements of the story they truly care about. Some clients have told us these questions alone were more valuable to them than the feedback they got from their previous editor.

If you lose motivation to work on your story once an element is removed, that’s when you know it needs to stay. If you don’t lose motivation, the elements that are most important to you have been preserved. With less important things out of the way, you can focus your attention on what really matters.

3. Don’t Sacrifice Book One for Book Two

When we do an edit on a magnum opus, we inevitably have conversations that go something like this:

Editor: This character is underdeveloped and doesn’t have any role in the plot. I recommend simply cutting them.

You: But that character will sacrifice themself to motivate the protagonist in book two!

Or…

Editor: You can explain this plot hole by saying the villain doesn’t know the hero has the magic gem.

You: But in the secret backstory revealed in book five, readers will find out the villain planted the magic gem on the hero.

Or…

Editor: Vampires feel out of place in your space opera setting. Since they don’t drink blood during the story, you can simply make them a light-sensitive alien species.

You: But in the final book, the love interest will be unwillingly turned into a vampire. The protagonist will have to stake them in the tragic conclusion.

To the writer of a magnum opus, the first book is just the warmup for the epic events that will happen next. But when it comes to the success of the whole series, the first book is by far the most important. Book one can succeed if book two is a failure, but book two won’t go anywhere unless book one gets off the ground.

Just getting your first book into shape is an immense challenge, and this is partly because the rest of the series will drag it down. Every aspect of the story will be under countless constraints as you try to keep changes from disrupting your other plans. What’s more, you probably made all these plans without knowing anything about storytelling.

Have you noticed that sequels are usually not as good as a first installment? This is true for both books and movies, and it has a simple cause. The constraints placed on sequels by the first book limit the storyteller’s options. But at least in those cases, the future is left open. If the first book has to fit the detailed plans of an entire series, working on it will be like writing a prequel. Actually, it will be worse, because most prequels aren’t intimately connected to later books. Such a project would give an experienced professional a run for their money.

If you want your magnum opus to succeed, you’ll have a much better chance if you keep the contents of future books flexible. Having a general idea of the direction you’re taking the series is great. But trying to preserve every cool moment you’ve thought of in every book will probably send the entire project to the trunk. If you let those moments go, you’ll have the chance to dream up cool new moments instead, and the entire series will be stronger for it.

4. Know Who You’re Writing For

Every magnum opus writer hopes their book will be read by all eight billion people on the earth. Or at the very least, have as many fans as the biggest megafranchise they can think of. At Mythcreants, we do recommend broadening a story’s appeal where possible, but that doesn’t mean a story can appeal to absolutely everyone.

Many of your story choices will favor some audiences over others. If you write lots of cute scenes where characters have tea, you’re appealing to a tension-sensitive audience that wants some feel-good reading. If you write scenes where your protagonist has to hurt themself or loved ones to succeed, you’re appealing to an audience who wants a dark and intense experience.

How you design and depict your characters also matters a great deal. Supergenius child characters will appeal to kids, but they may not appeal to adults. Your love interest and romance dynamics will likely be most attractive to people of a specific gender or sexual orientation.

If you don’t think about the audience you’re writing for, you’re more likely to make clashing choices that will end up alienating everyone. Putting fluffy scenes and edgy scenes in the same book will not go over well. A work with a queer romance and conservative messaging will be a hard sell. So consider:

  • What general demographic are you aiming for the most? Black preteen girls? Gay men in their 30s–40s?
  • What genre does your ideal reader love? If you don’t know what subgenre of fantasy, scifi, etc. you’re writing, researching that will be helpful. I recommend consulting multiple sources, since definitions differ.
  • What tone do they enjoy? Are you giving your audience empowerment and wish fulfillment or delivering hard truths with snark to make it go down easier?
  • What political alignment are you aiming for? Ultimately, all stories are political. Your audience will be able to tell what your values are.

None of this means your work can’t be a breakout hit that goes beyond your target audience. But if you want it to get there, you’ll need a core group of enthusiastic fans who’ll spread the word. You won’t get those fans unless your novel stays consistent about whom it’s trying to please. So keep a core group in mind, and when you’re looking for beta readers, recruit those people whenever you can.

5. Study, Study, Study

To make your magnum opus successful, you need to build those storytelling skills. While the learning curve for novel writing is more like a cliff than a slope, Mythcreants is here to help. Believe it or not, I can tell which editing clients have read our instructional articles. I can’t tell precisely which articles they’ve read, but I can tell which general subjects they’ve studied the most.

The problem with an educational blog is that most people only read what they want to know about, not what they need to know about. For instance, does my recent series on information management seem boring to you? I’m sorry about that, but since your magnum opus is so complex, you’ll need it.

Universities can make students learn foundational subject matter and not just the fun stuff, but most creative writing programs aren’t teaching squat. That means the onus is on you to give yourself a well-rounded education.

To help you out, I’ve put together some places to start for each subject area.

You can browse all of our topics here.

6. Have an Affair With a Short Story

While you may feel bad about cheating on the love of your life, I assure you it’s for the best. If you only work on your magnum opus, you’ll miss a wealth of opportunities to develop as a writer. Ultimately, those opportunities will benefit your magnum opus too.

Short stories offer a place to experiment without committing long term. If you’ve never tried writing in first person, a short story will give you the chance. By the time the story is over, the novelty of trying a new perspective will have worn off. That way, you can make an educated choice about how you’d like to narrate your magnum opus.

Similarly, shorter stories are an outlet for new ideas that don’t fit into your magnum opus. If you watch a Marvel movie and get excited about writing a superhero story, write a superhero novelette instead of adding superheroes to your cosmic horror series. That will definitely benefit your series.

Most of all, a short story gives you the chance to practice storytelling free of the constraints on your magnum opus. If you decided to take up running, you wouldn’t run a marathon on day one. Instead, you would slowly build your stamina with shorter runs. Storytelling is the same. You deserve a clean slate where you can make story choices without worrying you’ll create ten plot holes.

Working for years on a magnum opus can make writers feel like a failure. If all you ever know is your magnum opus, you’ll probably blame yourself whenever you get stuck. A short story will allow you to discover how you can write when you have more freedom. After you finish a short story, you’ll get that sense of accomplishment you aren’t getting from your magnum opus.

After writing a few short stories, you can confidently go back to your magnum opus and say, “It’s not me, it’s you.”


You’re in good company. Many, if not most, of the established writers you know started with a magnum opus. And while the few that made their grand vision successful will be overrepresented in the published world, many others have attempted magnum opuses you’ve never heard of. They’re in a trunk that’s collecting dust in the corner.

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