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Ask the Agony Editor: Don’t try to write a literary masterpiece until you’ve conquered the clarinet

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Dear Agony Editor,

Brian FrancisFor the past seven years, I’ve been working on my debut literary masterpiece. I’ve attended workshops and courses. I have sought feedback from friends and fellow writers. I’ve completely torn apart my manuscript, only to rebuild it and tear it apart time and time again. But the book is not coming together. I’m tired of bashing my head against the wall. Is it time for me to give up?

Signed,
Seven-year Itch

Dear SYI,
Good lord. Your debut
literary masterpiece? You’ve certainly put a lot of pressure on yourself. Why do aspiring writers feel they have to knock it out of the ballpark their first time at bat? Before you start composing for the orchestra, how about mastering one instrument first? I recommend the clarinet. It’s portable and great at parties.

You’re obviously frustrated, but here’s what I’ve learned over the years: It’s hard to write when you’re too busy bashing your head against a wall. I think you need to step away from your manuscript and take some time to figure out if this is the book you’re meant to write. Case in point: when I first started out, I wrote stories I thought I was supposed to write. And who could blame me – all those years I spent in English class, studying the masters. Talk about a tough act to follow. Which is fine, but do we all have to be Shakespeare? I wrote stories that were based on what I was told made a good story. But my stories sucked. I was writing what my idea of a literary masterpiece was, rather than giving myself permission to write what I wanted to write about, and screw what other people thought. I have a hunch you might be doing the same, SYI.

Ask yourself if the book you’ve been working on for seven years, the book that you can’t seem to get right in spite of all the feedback and tear downs, is really your book after all. There might be another story inside of you. And maybe that’s the one you need to start paying attention to.

Brian Francis is the author of Natural Order and Fruit. He teaches creative writing­ as part of the International Festival of Authors.

Have a question for Brian? Email info@quillandquire.com.