By guest contributor, Sharon Bially.
Years ago I began fiddling around with a work-in-progress known, for lack of a better title, as My Life. It was all very preliminary: some vague thoughts about where the story might lead; some images of the main character — me — at a desk, alone, reading and writing. Foreign countries, foreign languages, a husband, children, loved ones, friends.
As I began to draft, the MC’s character emerged. Strong-willed, energetic and fast-paced, she thrived on connecting with others, being in motion and seeing results. A runner and yoga student, she also loved to swim, hike, ski, dance and sing. Not to mention that she was a sucker for a good, transatlantic romance, the kind where she could make love in French, learn to cook with an Italian flare and dream of a future straddling several continents, raising multilingual, multicultural kids.
The plot was character driven so bit by bit, those traits lent the story its shape. My MC learned French, studied International Relations (which her parents referred to snarkily as ‘international relationships’), found work in an international organization in Paris and met a European man. Not necessarily in that order. She made it through the long, dull, days at her job by stealthily scribbling down the outlines of novels before going home to run, then write some more.
Eventually she and her half-French, half-Italian boyfriend got engaged. They moved from Paris to Provence in the south of France where she could spend her days drafting her first novel. Everything seemed to be marching inevitably toward my early vision of an MC destined to live abroad and write.
That is, until my MC became anxious and depressed.
Looking back at early drafts of this WIP, it’s hard to know what triggered my MC’s depression. Was it her fiancé’s overwhelming angst about suddenly finding himself the sole breadwinner for a budding family despite a fairly precarious position as a small business owner? Or the utter silence of the days in Provence, disrupted only by the occasional scream of the mistral wind and the swallows’ calls at dusk and dawn? Perhaps it was the solitude, the complete lack of deadlines, colleagues, meetings and the satisfaction of getting results that someone else valued.
Still, compelled by the mantra “keep writing” my MC did just that. At times her dark mood — which persisted through draft after draft, through her wedding, pregnancy and early motherhood — provided creative fodder but more often, it left her mind paralyzed. Blank. Yet she plodded onward, even after her first novel was orphaned by an agent who signed it on but then left her job, and even when a new agent was unable to sell her second novel to a publisher. By her third novel the mere idea of agents and editors made my MC’s mood plunge to dangerous new lows, so she when it was finished, she self-published.
Like depression, self-publishing hadn’t originally been part of the plan for this WIP. By now though, the entire storyline had veered wildly off-track. Two years after getting married, my MC and her husband left France in search of a better environment for his business. They wound up settling in Boston, my MC’s hometown, which she saw as the sad antithesis of all things foreign and romantic. To help pay the bills my MC found a part-time job at a small PR firm that she juggled with raising a toddler and new baby. There was no money for travel, little time to read and even less time to write.
But in an odd plot twist I’d never predicted, the less my MC wrote, the better she felt! Embracing the idea of devoting less time to writing left her free to focus more intently on her job, which involved publicizing businesses and books. Digging for news stories in a company’s mission or between the lines of someone else’s manuscript and then seeing these stories published in articles or broadcast on TV gave her a buzz she’d never expected. So did getting that one call from a reporter to say, “Yes!” to an idea she’d pitched and then hearing the gratitude and joy in a client’s voice.
Energized by the fast pace and the satisfaction of producing results that other people cared about, my MC started getting up earlier and going to bed later to also make time for yoga and dance. Soon, this WIP was flying onto the page, writing itself of its own volition. My MC’s devotion to the job brought new levels of responsibility and excitement. The bigger paychecks this led to helped her husband feel calmer while enabling the whole family to once again travel overseas. Slowly, the images of a future straddling several continents, raising multilingual, multicultural kids that had inspired this WIP in the first place crept back into the storyline and at last, my MC discovered inner peace.
For the story to snap into place, however, a precious darling in the plot had go: writing fiction. Hard as it’s been to admit, writing simply doesn’t fit my MC’s true character. Nor does it jibe well with her love for connecting with others, for being in motion or above all, for seeing quick results. Although the process was excruciating, cutting fiction-writing out of the draft allowed the entire story to become lighter and clearer, more powerful. My MC was freed up to evolve and flourish for who she really is.
In the manuscript’s present version my MC still spends a lot of time at a desk alone writing, just as I’d always imagined she would. But instead of fiction she writes press releases, pitches, book descriptions, author bios, blog posts and reams of emails. She has rediscovered her passion for reading and has the immense privilege of reading advance copies of her clients’ books.
None of which is all that far from the initial vision that inspired her journey. It was just a matter of blocking out the noise telling me how things should be, trusting my characters and being willing to let go.
Sharon Bially is founder and president of BookSavvy PR. A lapsed fiction writer, she’s the author of the novel Veronica’s Nap, an active member of GrubStreet and a regular contributor to the popular blog Writer Unboxed.