Every aspiring author wants to be known for writing an epic story. Yet many of us will never get there; not unless we do the deep, hard work and lean into our craft. That is why it is so important to start with the right foundation to launch our novels forward.
Over the past few months, I’ve been obsessed with an idea for a new novel and have been hunting for ways to get started better. As a result of my searching, I’m going to share two tips essential for an epic story.
Don’t be a criminal
Having an idea for a novel is so exciting. It’s a new world, and it can be whatever you want. It can be so tantalizing in fact, that you dive right in and start your first chapter before you even know how the novel is going to end.
But that is a crime. And I’m guilty.
In the past, my approach to novel writing has always been what I call “verbal vomit.” I get an idea, half-bake a plot in my head, fall in love with the characters, then I’m so excited about their development and reversals that I dive into writing.
The result? A finished novel perhaps, but with weak scenes, plot loopholes and character inconsistencies. That is why my editing process takes so long. Instead, I want to save myself time and effort, especially on the backend of creating my manuscript.
So this old dog is learning new tricks.
Speaking of editing, what about Immolation?
Where — you might ask — did those new snippets of Shadowblade: Immolation go? Oh, they’re still around. In fact, I finished editing the novel before I decided to take a break from it. Yeah I know, that doesn’t make much sense. What more do I need to do, if the manuscript is complete and edited?
Like I already mentioned, oh so much.
I came across these two essential tips for an epic story after spending countless hours slaving over my manuscript. It’s not that my work isn’t good – it just isn’t epic yet. So I put Immolation away until these two tips are firmly ingrained habits.
Two tips essential for an epic story
Create an outline for your entire novel
An outline? ugh, that sounds so college-English-class’esk. And I always got a low grade on my outlines.
Perhaps it’s because I like to work backward. I know the general idea of what I want to write, but connecting all of the dots beforehand is drudgery. So I’d write the paper, clean it up, then outline it.
Even though I pulled out A’s with this process, a few-hundred-page novel is a lot different than a 10-20 page research paper. And speaking from experience, writing a novel without an outline has left me stalled more than once.
In her book, Page-Turner: Your Path to Writing a Novel Publishers Want to Buy, author Barbara Kyle likes to call an outline a “storyline” — because you are creating stories about people.
There are several things an outline should be, and others it shouldn’t. At its core, the outline should be a roadmap for your story. It talks about what happens — nothing more or less. With all of the novel events listed out, it will help prevent stalling between scenes. In short, this is not the place to go into detail about backstory, or even intricacies of individual scenes. Barbara says to leave that kind of information in your character profiles.
Ultimately an outline is a working tool. It will change as your story (and research) progresses. It is a good place to try out ideas, to keep the ones that work, and get rid of the ones that don’t. That way, you don’t sacrifice hours (and dozens – or hundreds – of written pages) trying new things.
Do your research
I can’t stress this one enough. Nothing is more frustrating than coming across blatantly inaccurate details in the middle of a story.
Look at it as becoming an expert in the field you’re writing about. If you want a character to be a professional kayaking guide, go and read books about kayaking. (And don’t just stick to nonfiction – check out what other fiction authors have written as well.) Watch movies and documentaries, do interviews, maybe even take a kayaking tour yourself. As writers, we create out of our experiences, so we need to experience – literally or vicariously – what we are writing about.
Now if your story is a fantasy or science fiction, I think it’s especially important to read what other adults have written. In part to get ideas, and in part to avoid duplicating what had been written. Always strive for fresh.
I love how Donita K. Paul did this in Dragonspell. She took known fantasy concepts and remade them into something original and totally hers. Paired with her ability to drop you right into the story – without pages of narration explaining everything – you become fully immersed in the world she created. All because she is the expert.
Another note about doing your research, it’s not just for the big things. A few months back I read a novel where a character took a commercial flight into the Greeley, Colorado airport. In short, I’m intimately familiar with Greeley. Yes, they have an airport. But it is for private, small aircraft only. No commercial flights at all. That one detail derailed my experience with the entire story.
Now I pray for peace and hope you always have mellow readers who don’t care about details like that. But to do your craft well, I implore you to prepare for war; do the deep research so you can successfully entertain the experts.
And here’s a bonus tip
Until your outline and research are done, don’t start actually writing your story yet.
That’s right. It sounds ridiculous to me too.
Barbra Kyle cranks out a novel a year, and says she spends about four months planning an outline and doing the research before she writes a book. She calls actually writing the story the “decorating” portion of building a house. Playing with words is fun, but without a proper foundation, it’s not going to be structurally stable.
Delaying writing until you have a roadmap and all your facts straight might feel like torture (after all, you’re just so pumped up get started!) but don’t worry — it won’t kill your creativity.
When to use the two essential tips for an epic story
In short, these tips can help any project, old or new.
Personally, I’m going to keep my Shadowblade novels on the back burner and cultivate the two essential habits on a whole new project. Why? Because working on something smaller (I’ve already got two-and-a-half Shadowblade novels written) will set me up for success. Then I’ll go back to Ramona and Caleb.
So that’s my battle plan. Hopefully, in those little spurts of time between professional mom- and wife-ing, something epic will result. (Granted, I might still give myself the guilty pleasure of writing a few scenes here and there.)
As a writer, how do you outline your stories? And as a reader, do you appreciate an author doing their research? Comment below!
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