Words and Pictures

I am a writer resident in the UK but originally from Florida.

My novel ‘Under a Dark Summer Sky’ was published in the US by Sourcebooks Landmark on 9th June.  It has been published with the title SUMMERTIME in the UK by Orion on 15th Jan. 2015. Editions have been published in Norway, Italy and Holland, with France and Germany to follow.  All enquiries about other rights should go to Tina Betts at Andrew Mann.

First chapter of the Audiobook

Pinterest board of photos relating to the book

All photographs on this site are my own, please leave a comment if you are interested in reproduction rights.

Note that the book is published in the US with the title, ‘Under a Dark Summer Sky’.

SummertmeNEW UnderDarkSummer_090414C

I Lost Part of the World

This piece was written five days after major brain surgery.


It started, as often happens in big disasters, with something small.


A grey dot appeared in my left visual field one day in early June.  I am a novelist, putting in a lot of keyboard hours, and this dot hovered over my left index finger as I typed.  It moved with my eye.  About the size of a pea, it was—annoying, in the way, as I worked to complete the changes for my editor on my second book.  All my energy was devoted to optimizing each word, each phrase, each image.  I had no time or attention to spare this grey dot.

I was also having the worst sinus headaches in my long career of sinus headaches, taking the usual meds, as one does with chronic, familiar pain.

‘It’s a floater’, my friends said, ‘everyone gets them.  Nothing to worry about.’ (A floater is an innocuous, transient defect in the eye, which usually looks like a squiggle or a dot.  Irritating but harmless.)

A week later, after a thorough examination, my optician concurred.  ‘It may last a long time, but clear up eventually. If it changes at all, then go straight to the eye clinic.’  She gave me a leaflet.

The grey dot turned brighter, shimmery over the course of the next month.  I thought it meant that the floater was healing. The headaches abated, but never completely cleared.  A feeling of increased pressure developed inside my skull, an unpleasant addition to the standard sinus face pain.  The final book manuscript was approved, and we started looking at possible cover designs.


One day, when my husband was on a business trip on another continent, the vision in my left eye was repeatedly swamped by bright, jagged, colourful patterns and flashing lights.  Panicked now, I went to the eye clinic where, after a thorough examination, the ophthalmologist pronounced that there was no floater, no defect in my eye at all.   He said it sounded like a classic ocular migraine, very common, often comes on in middle-aged women.   Harassed, in a hurry, he told me to get my blood pressure checked, and showed me to the door.

‘But,’ I said, ‘I also have this shimmery kind of…deficit here. When I look at you, your left eye and cheek are blurry.  What’s that about?’

At no point had anyone asked about my medical history, but here it is: I have survived breast cancer three times in seven years.  The most recent was only three months previously, involving my second mastectomy in two years. I sent the manuscript for ‘Isle of Bones’ to my editor the day before the surgery.

Looking thoughtful, the ophthalmologist returned to his seat. ‘Come back in two weeks for a visual field test.’

Those were busy weeks, involving the Marlborough International Jazz Festival, where I was both a performer in an acapella sextet and conductor of a fifty-strong community choir.  The shimmery vagueness in my vision had enlarged, making it difficult to choose my performance outfit.  In the mirror, the left side of my face was pixelated, indistinct, and very disconcertingly mobile. But I sang thirty-two songs from memory, unaccompanied, in close harmony (click here for sample), struggling to make out the starting notes on my list.  The pressure inside my head increased, and I alternated ibuprofen and paracetamol all day.

At home, I took to covering the left lens of my reading glasses with kitchen foil, because my right eye worked better alone. My husband barked with laughter at my distinctly nerdy pirate look.  Using the laptop became more difficult, because I missed the beginning of each line of text on the screen.


By the time of the visual field test, the ocular migraines were occurring every other day, in response to bright light.  Not only did I have difficulty making out words, there were other, more subtle changes.  I get sent a lot of books to review, and found that nothing held my attention. If I sat down for more than ten minutes, I fell asleep.  Everything felt like a huge effort.   My thought processes seemed to have shifted down a gear, requiring careful planning of even simple tasks:  pick up knife, chop onion, put in pan.  I went on a singing course, which I do every year, and had to move my finger along the stave to follow the notes.

The visual field test revealed that I had perfect vision, but no perception in half of my left eye and part of my right.

‘So the problem is in my brain,’ I said to the ophthalmologist.  I have a Biology degree. For many years, I was the Neurosciences books editor for Oxford University Press.  I understood the implications with agonising clarity.

‘Yes, it is called scotoma,’ he said. ‘This is caused either by stroke, atrophy, or tumour.  You need an urgent MRI.’

This was the first time that my cancer history came up.  While waiting for the scan, I prayed that I had only had a stroke, because it would heal, and they would give me drugs, and it would not happen again. But I had no risk factors for stroke, or anything else.  I had received the gold standard of conventional treatment for all three diagnoses. Following the first one in 2009, I sanitised my lifestyle and diet to the point where there were Tibetan monks with more risk factors than me.

The ultimate terror for every cancer survivor is to hear that it has metastasised, survived all the cutting and burning and poisoning to seed itself in other body systems.  I also knew that the brain has its own, separate plumbing system, totally impervious to all the heavy chemo drugs that I had been given previously.

I had lived with this threat for seven years, but never, ever imagining that I would actually have to face it.

The MRI revealed a 4cm tumour in the right occipital lobe, the area at the back of the brain which controls visual perception for the left side of both eyes.  On the screen, relative to the rest of my brain, it looked the size of a walnut.  The normal brain tissue had deformed around its bulk, accommodating the invader, giving it room to grow…and grow…and grow.  That was my dozy immune system again, asleep at the wheel.


The neurosurgeon took us through the procedure.  The single thing in my favour was that the tumour was accessible, right inside the skull.  He was confident of removing it all, leaving me no worse off than I was at present, and a big question about how much of my lost perception would be recovered.

But neither of us, nor my husband, actually appreciated that the tumour had affected far more than just my vision.  Both reading and writing exhausted me, as did following lively conversations and complex ideas.  I had to stare at my fingers on the keyboard in order to type, rather than allowing words to flow from brain through hands to screen.  My memory, already under assault by menopausal hormones, shrank to goldfish capacity. My visual experience of the world became fluid, unstable.  In the mirror, when I passed a finger across the left side of my face, it completely disappeared, then reappeared beside my left ear.

In the days before the surgery, I noticed changes in my gait.  I lurched on rough ground.  With huge exertion, and a large dose of steroids to control the brain swelling, I maintained an outward appearance of normality.

And then I started losing words.

There can be no worse fate for a writer.  Language has always been for me an infinitely large treasure chest, full of colour and sparkle, instantly available to my mind, with effortless enjoyment.  The copy-edits came through and I managed to check them with 180% screen magnification.  But when I tried to read my book again, instead of glittering like jewels in a pool of clear water, the words jumbled.  I had chosen them individually, over the course of a year, judged how the light struck them, the shadows they cast, how they sat among their neighbours, shuffled them around endless times, before committing them to their settings.  All to make the best story possible, the experience that the reader expects and deserves.

They fled from me, all 93,909 of them.

My own words.

My words.

Horrific and strange though this was, terrified as I was of the surgery and its consequences, I felt mainly a dull, almost disinterested despair, like a bystander to the slow destruction of all that was me.  It was as if the tumour had dulled even my ability to produce emotions.  All our plans, all my ambitions, which had seemed so tangible so recently, just…evaporated.  I would be dependent, a burden, cut off from everything that gave me joy or pride or satisfaction.  The future, which had been opening before me like a flower, closed in my face like a fist.

I lay in the golden August sunshine of the garden and wished for a swift end to my life.

This whole process of decline, from the appearance of the grey dot to the removal of the tumour, was astonishingly fast.  It took exactly eight weeks, with the most dramatic deterioration in the final two weeks.

However, the improvement after the operation was far more dramatic.

I woke from five hours of microsurgery, alert and chatty.  I tried a little sing, to check whether the intubation had hurt my throat.  I read the signs on the recovery room walls.  I read the nurses’ name badges.  I told them all about my books, offered to sign copies for them.  Pumped full of painkillers and steroids, I recognised the familiar elation which follows survival of major surgery, but it was more than that.  The pressure inside my head was gone.  One day later, an MRI scan showed that the brain had closed over the space occupied by the tumour.

On day two, I was able to read blocks of text again.

Over the next forty-eight hours, the pieces of myself began to reassemble: the visual deficit remained, but the contours of my hospital room seemed more…stable.  I had conversations with visitors about things other than the hole in my head.  I started to take an interest in the world again.

The best thing for my recovery, advised the surgeon, was to ‘read and write a lot.’  Having expected just the opposite advice, prepared for a long, audio-only convalescence, I felt my spirit return.

I was discharged on day three, and provided my husband with a running commentary on Brexit and the US election all the way home from the hospital.  The words were there again, within reach again, and so were complex thoughts and ideas.

On day four, I was able to use the laptop without staring at my fingers.  I no longer had to plan simple actions with meticulous care.  My muscles obeyed me, my memory was back to its ordinary menopausal crapness.  I completed a load of admin tasks, tiring but error-free. And, in the mirror, I passed my finger across my left cheek as before.  It did not disappear, but neither was it completely visible.  Rather, it flickered in and out, in and out, through the former area of blankness, like a film on slow speed…as if the missing pieces of my world were trying to splice themselves back in.

As a child of the 1970s, I had only one reference point for this experience: ‘Star Trek’.

And on day five, I woke up with the first line of this piece in my head, asking to be written.  The words flowed again, from my brain, through my hands, to the screen.

This is still only the beginning of a long, long road.  The steroids are still controlling the post-operative swelling and giving me an artificial sense of well-being. There is radiation treatment to follow, which will reverse some of the vision improvement—hopefully, on a temporary basis.  It could take up to a year to determine how much visual recovery is possible.

And there is, of course, the far, far bigger question of when…if the next metastasis will occur.  There is no medical explanation for why this happened—therefore, no way to prevent it.   I have not yet begun to process this, needing to shield my healing brain from all of that for now.

But I can read again.

I can write again.

I can think again.

I am me.



This is dedicated to the team of immensely skilled, compassionate professionals at the Neurosciences Unit of the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford.

Pheasants, Farmers, and Phalluses: The Prime Writers on Research

Have you ever needed to know how it feels to twist the head off a pheasant? Or skin a squirrel? Have you ever wondered what the slang word for ‘penis’ was in the 1920s? Have you ever been curious about how much rain falls in an average Oklahoma winter?

These and other arcane subjects have all featured in the Prime Writers’ research efforts. Research is not just for writers of historical novels. Unless you’re writing a memoir, some research is necessary—and even for a memoir, some fact-checking will be required. That’s just another name for research. Even if you’re writing about the future, you will want to find out if something is plausible. Continue reading “Pheasants, Farmers, and Phalluses: The Prime Writers on Research”

My Therapy: Swimming with Manatees

It’s way too-early-o’clock on a chilly December morning in Crystal River, Florida.  The weak winter sun has barely peeked above the horizon.  Banks of wispy mist hover over the cypress-brown water around our boat.  Everyone is quiet, subdued.  Sleepy.  We anchor in a shallow area and I slip carefully into the water.  Fins and mask on, I go in search of my favorite, fattest sea-going mammal.

Manatee, Crystal River, Florida

I don’t have to look hard, or at all, in fact. A nose breaks the surface, then disappears. There they are, beneath me, parked up in the river like RVs at an underwater camp site.  They sleep on the white sand of the bottom, and only need to bob to the surface for air every half an hour or so.  This is their refuge, from the cold of the ocean, and from their only known predator:  homo sapiens.  The Crystal River stays a constant 70F all year round, fed by springs which pump tens of thousands of gallons of pure, fresh water into it every day.  Winter is the best time to see them in large numbers, as during the hot months they roam the coast. Continue reading “My Therapy: Swimming with Manatees”

Here, There, and Nowhere

As an American author, living in Britain, writing a novel about Florida, I am accustomed to existing in a semi-chronic state of dislocation. I have a mid-Atlantic accent which sounds to Brits like I’m right off the boat from Appalachia, but to Americans is pure Downton. Although 35 years of living in the UK have also modified my behavior and my spelling, and added a second passport to my collection, people here still often ask me if I’m having a nice visit. Americans try to enlighten me about ‘how we do things in the US.’

I belong, in effect, nowhere. Continue reading “Here, There, and Nowhere”

The Greatest Tragedy You’ve Never Heard of – And Why We Should Remember

Hurricane memorial1


Like most Americans, I was ignorant of the history of our involvement in WWI until a set of random events set me on the path to discovering an episode so shocking, so unbelievable, that it seemed at first to be fiction.  But it is not.  The events described below did happen, but have been forgotten by all but the locals of the area.  On so many levels, this is wrong—not least because the events carry some very instructive lessons for us today.

They happened in Florida, where I was born and raised, not in some unpronounceable Belgian town. A group of desperate, destitute WWI veterans, the grimy face of a war that the country wanted to forget, changed the course of US history.  They helped to bring down one President and damaged his successor. And yet, in America today, it’s as if none of it ever happened.  Appalled by my ignorance, I wrote ‘Under a Dark Summer Sky’ to dramatize the events.  On this, the 80th anniversary, it seems like the right time to reflect on them, and what they mean for America today. Continue reading “The Greatest Tragedy You’ve Never Heard of – And Why We Should Remember”

Homeward Bound

In just over a week, I am setting off on the most important visit that I have ever made to my FL, to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the Labor Day hurricane on which my book is based.   While I’m there, I am fortunate to be taking part in some truly splendid events.  I’ve never done this before, so I’m both excited and nervous – excited to return to my home state as a published author, nervous of my debutante book’s first real ‘coming out’ in the US.  Many thousands of people in Europe have already read the book, but it was only published recently in my home country, so this is special.  I’m hoping to capture as many of the moments here, as I go, so watch this space.

My travels start in Tampa, where I grew up and went to school. My first stop is the WFLA Channel 8 TV studio on 2 Sept. to cook live on camera. In this whole crazy year of being a debut novelist, this is truly the most bizarre thing that I’ve been asked to do!  I will be making authentic key lime pie and kick-ass mint julep cocktails (click here for recipes).

That evening, I will be the guest of the fabulous Seafood Shack in Cortez, FL, thanks to my old school mate Liza Adler Kubik, for a literary dinner featuring four of the area’s top chefs.  Each one will cook a course inspired by food in the book, and I will keep the diners entertained with readings in between.  It’s all in aid of the Coastal Conservation Association, which is a cause very close to my heart.

The next day, I am off to New Orleans for a brief visit, to do a reading at the lovely Octavia Books.  It has been ten long years since hurricane Katrina, but for anyone living there it must seem like only five minutes ago.  I’m privileged to play a small part in marking the occasion.

On my return to Tampa, the wonderful Oxford Exchange is hosting a literary lunch on 5th Sept.  I’ll be interviewed by Matt Bolton from the American Meteorological Society about the book, while people enjoy coconut shrimp, ceviche, and other tropical delights.  A signing will follow in the store.

Next it’s time for the real reason for the trip.  I will be heading for the place which has been so much in my mind since I started writing the book in 2010:  Islamorada, in the FL keys, which the Labor Day hurricane destroyed 80 years ago. On 8th Sept., as part of the hurricane anniversary commemorations, I will be interviewed by Keys Discovery Center Curator Brad Bertelli about writing historical fiction.  It’s a huge honor for me to be there for this occasion, and definitely the high point in the whole experience which started five years ago with the question, ‘Why has no one ever written a novel about this?’

I will leave for Miami the next day to sign some books in a few stores and do an interview for the local NPR station before boarding the return flight to London.

I feel tired just writing it all down, but my health has improved a lot in recent months, and I know that it will be energizing as well.  And I SO love meeting existing readers and sharing this story with new ones.  My only regret is that there will be no time for swimming with manatees on this trip.  That would have made it perfect.

Off to pack now…



Back from the Abyss

11167803_10206675738680997_4268186619984933061_n I’ve written before about recovering from cancer, but I have just had the most unexpectedly healing experience, 100ft below the sea.  My husband and I have been keen scuba divers since we met, and aim to indulge our love of the underwater world once a year if possible.  Last year was different, of course, because of my second diagnosis in May.  We have just returned from our belated honeymoon, which was planned as a dive trip like the ones we have loved in the past.  Although I used to love diving, so much about me had changed.  Diving is physically demanding, and I had done no exercise at all for almost a year because of my cancer treatment.  A series of infections had dogged me through the winter and into spring.  I could not remember how it felt to be healthy. Treatment only finished 5 months ago, and I was still in the really vulnerable, fearful stage. On arrival at the dive centre, I felt ridiculously anxious, close to tears at the thought of donning the gear, and heaving myself out of the water at the end.  I felt fundamentally changed by my second cancer experience: hesitant, incapable, weak and geriatric and frail, not quite human, and definitely unfeminine. I had developed an unhealthy dependence on my husband.  The old me was gone, the independent, self-sufficient person who others usually leaned on.  I was reduced, in every way. I just wanted to go home, to the only place where I felt safe. And then there were the scars, and my rearranged anatomy resulting from the mastectomy.  One of my back muscles has been repositioned as part of my reconstructed breast, leaving me weak on the left side.  The scar on my back resembles a large, deep shark bite.  How, I wondered, will I cope with the stares?  And the chemo has pushed me into the scatty, forgetful phase of the menopause, when I do really stupid things, like putting my credit card in the trash.  I have to think about everyday tasks very carefully, and diving requires great mental stamina to remember all thie technical information that keeps us alive down there.  What if I had a scatty moment, a long way below the surface? 11146242_10152845190782759_24632093409838953_nI slept badly the night before the first dive, stomach churning through anxiety dreams.  We were on the boat early next morning, everyone chatting in happy anticipation. The sun was hot, the sea was calm, but it took a huge effort of will not to run back up the dock and shut myself in our room.  My husband had a quiet word with the boat crew, who were helpful without making me feel self-conscious.  The dive leader briefed us on the first site with a whiteboard drawing.  ‘And over here,’ he said, indicating a jagged line, ‘is the edge of the abyss.  We don’t go there.’11026293_10152857287807759_7916662661810616221_n And then we were in the water, sinking down into the blue.  I remembered the routine:  clear mask, equalise ears, check air gauge, watch the computer.  My breathing slowed.  I felt buoyed by the salt water. We toured the reef and the beauty overwhelmed me like it always did.  I swam, engaging muscles that I had not used for almost a year. I forgot about my aches and pains, the ones that whisper constantly, ‘It’s come back.’  After we surfaced, I handed my heavy gear up to the crew from the water.  No one remarked on my scars.  I began to relax and thought, ‘I’ve got this.’  On the second dive, I started to enjoy myself.  And when I came out, I handed up only my lead weights and climbed out wearing the rest.  I expected to be exhausted, and I was, but after some rest and food, ready to do it again the next day. FB_IMG_1430114086256This set the pattern for the week.  Every day, I grew stronger, more confident, until I could climb out with all the gear on, including the weights.  The staff stopped offering to help.  I did 3 dives on each of the last 2 days – including a very long, unplanned swim – and still felt OK.  I had some scatty moments, but the important thing was that I corrected myself.  We dived on the wreck of the SS Kittiwake, which was fascinating but challenging, with some difficult, confined spaces inside.  I coped just fine.  Stamina, so long absent, made a welcome return.  I slept deeply and woke without pain.  By the end of the week, I wasn’t fearful any more.  For the first time in 321 days, I felt healthy.  Sitting beside the pool each lunchtime, still in my dripping swimsuit, ravenously hungry, with the sun on my shoulders, I felt like the old me again.  Ready for adventure. 11156386_10152857288112759_6276574868182804156_n Cancer is a thief.  It robs us of confidence, energy, and optimism.  It steals our dignity and – yes – life expectancy.  It takes away our very identities and turns us into patients. It shrinks our horizons, until we only feel safe in our homes.  After my first cancer experience, I rebounded pretty quickly, although it was still a year after treatment before I could dive again.  This time, I felt much worse, and we were diving only 5 months after treatment finished.  Some people thought that it was too soon – and I suspected that they were right.  But I am so glad that I wasn’t sensible this time.  Everything about diving seems unnatural:  we put on a thick rubber suit under the burning tropical 11169964_10152857277022759_7517996136575232244_nsun, we weight ourselves down with lead and rely on 100 year-old technology to breathe in a medium not designed for us.  It is so, so easy to die down there, and yet it’s where I feel most happy, most at peace, and very much at home. Diving gave me back a lot of what cancer stole from me.  It made me feel strong and capable again.  Helping the new diver in our group, I was reminded that my knowledge and experience of over 200 dives has value. Diving returned my body to me.  It made me feel normal.  It showed me that I can master my fear when I choose. I have been to the edge of the abyss, but I’m back.


Behind the Wizard’s Curtain: Reader Input and the Work in Progress


I have recently spent quite a bit of time with readers of my debut novel, ‘Summertime’.   Aside from the sheer miracle of their existence (it has only been two months since publication), it was also very illuminating to see the book through their eyes, this thing which had only lived in my imagination for so long.  The characters were as real to them as they were to me, their lives and struggles just as interesting.  I had to keep reminding myself that it was my book under discussion and not someone else’s.  I’m not sure that this thrill will ever wear off.

The experience started me thinking about the role of the reader in the writing process.  For debut authors, who inhabit the mystical Land of No Expectations, friends and family are commonly the main sounding boards.  We need validation, confirmation that it’s not complete twaddle.  However, this can be fraught with tension when the writer has a close personal relationship to the reader.  The reader desperately wants to like the work, but may not.  The author’s confidence is more fragile than a faerie wing, and can easily be shredded by exchanges like this (all real, by the way):

Author:  Did you like it?

Reader:  I liked your other book better.

Author:  Never mind.

Author:  What do you think?

Reader:  I’m so proud of you!

Author: Yes, but what did you think?

Reader:  You’re so clever!

Author:  Never mind.

Author:  Have you read it yet?

Reader:  It’s not my kind of thing.

Author: In what way?

Reader: Sort of, all of it.

Author: Never mind.

My husband read four drafts for me, and friends read some of it, but I needed more objective—and less emotionally fraught—feedback.  (Full disclosure:  I have worked in academic publishing for almost 30 years, where my job was to get new book ideas assessed by specialists in the field.  I then used their feedback to make the case for publication.  I may still have this habit.)

No one is more objective than a stranger. So while writing ‘Summertime’, I posted my first two chapters on a feedback site for writers, www.youwriteon.com .   The response was tremendously helpful, not least in confirming that the opening of the book was grippy enough to continue.  And the community’s comments even convinced me to re-think one of my minor characters and turn her into a headliner.  It was a safe, closed environment with a lot of rules in place to prevent abuse, and I would recommend the experience to other new writers.

Technology has transformed the author/reader relationship, democratised it.  Before the internet, the only way to interact was in person or by letter.  It was all very formal, with reviews the province of serious publications.  But now the barrier has shrunk, become permeable.  Bloggers get their reviews into circulation instantly.  It’s possible for readers and authors to communicate at every stage of the process, from the genesis of the idea, to the story outline, to the draft manuscript.  Readers can follow their favourites on social media.  There are lots of options for authors to ‘crowd-source’ opinion (and funding) online.

I hear my fellow authors gasp, ‘But why, by Odin’s beard, would you want to?’

And that’s a very good question.

As I began working up ideas for book two, and wanting to share them, I started to wonder if I was just this needy, exhibitionist weirdo (entirely possible). Did other writers feel the same?  Or would it seem like pulling back the Wizard of Oz’s curtain, revealing the workings of something that should never be exposed?  Would it differ between new and established names?

So I sounded out some fellow authors at different career stages to find out a) whether they solicit reader opinion while writing and b) who they use.  The results were very interesting, and worthy of serious study by someone with a sociology degree.

There is a wide diversity of opinion amongst my fellow debut novelists about who should see the Work in Progress (WIP). Not surprisingly, several relied in general on family and friends.  S.D Sykes (‘Plague Land’) says, ‘I have a small group of trusted readers—my husband and grown-up children.’  Likewise, Fleur Smithwick (‘How to Make a Friend’) relies on her nearest and dearest for the first pass.  And Jo Bloom (Ridley Road) says, ‘During the 3 years that it took me to write, I never really showed it to anyone other than my husband.’

And then there are those who produced their first book during a structured program.  Karin Salavaggio (Bone Dust White) and Sarah Louise Jasmon (‘The Summer of Secrets’) took part in a Masters writing program, and hence had a lot of peer group involvement.

Claire Fuller (‘Our Endless Numbered Days’) is part of an informal writing group.  She says, ‘They read my first-draft scenes and chapters, no matter how rough, and the input I receive is invaluable.’  Beth Miller (‘When We Were Sisters’) concurs:  ‘They saw the first novel in bits, and then all read the final draft.’  Antonia Honeywell (‘The Ship’), says, ‘I have three close and trusted writing friends with whom I exchange work in progress and that’s invaluable in helping me shape and hone my stories.’

There seems to be a definite shift in approach when moving from first to second book.  There is more reliance on editors and agents, less on ordinary readers, and more trust in one’s own judgement.  Karin Salvalaggio says, ‘No one read my second novel until it was finished, and I think that it’s far stronger for it.’  It’s partly about protecting that ‘precious vision stored in the subconscious’, as Rebecca Mascull (The Visitors) says.  It is so easily damaged, especially in the early stages.  Rebecca feels that it’s about the writer’s growing confidence and professionalism, rather than not valuing others’ opinions any more.  This is true for SD Sykes, amongst others, who sums it up as, ‘I know what readers expect…but essentially I write for one reader:  myself.’

It was very interesting to compare the opinions of the debut novelists with some more established writers.  Liz Fenwick (her third book, A Cornish Stranger, is out in paperback in April) has both a critique partner and a beta reader who see everything as the writing progresses.  She also shares passages with friends on her Facebook author page.  She says, ‘I trust my crit partner and beta reader in so many ways.  They will tell me what works and what doesn’t, which is especially important when I’m too close to the work to see it.’

Essie Fox (her third book, The Goddess and the Thief, was published Dec 2013) takes exactly the opposite approach.  ‘I love to discuss the origins and developments for the inspiration of characters, places and themes of my novels once they have been written…but while actually writing I tend to be silent.’

Finally, I asked Julie McRobbie, who is both my oldest friend and one of my WIP readers for her opinion of the experience.  She said, ‘Reading early chapters and drafts and talking with Vanessa during the writing of ‘Summertime’ has given me an insight into the way that an author approaches a book. This has helped me to see more in some of the other books I have read recently, whilst making me more appreciative of a well-crafted tale.’

It’s been very informative to ‘consult my fellow wizards’ in this matter.  Now, as I leave the Land of No Expectations, I do so with a greater appreciation for how my debut novel has affected readers.  Their views and questions are mixing in my brain along with the ideas about plot, character and setting.  I have a feeling that I will still want to pull back the curtain as the next book takes shape, which has more to do with my personality than anything else.  But if I do, it will be with more confidence, more control, and more assurance than before.

After all, as Rebecca Mascull says, ‘what is the point of writing if you don’t want to show it to anybody?’

Second Book Syndrome: Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

A Case Study by Dr S Lapyurself


As a specialist in this field, I see many cases of 2BS, which has affected the author population for hundreds, even thousands of years.  There is evidence that even Plato was afflicted after he released the first of his Dialogues.  It is said that he spent several months afterwards wandering the hills of Athens, muttering, ‘But what should I do next?’  Like many authors since, he opted for a sequel.  Today, 2BS is extremely prevalent in the debut author cohort.

Patient VL

The 51 year-old woman presented with the classic signs of 2BS:  agitated, sweating, clutching an empty chocolate digestives packet in one hand, and her first book, ‘Summertime’, in the other.

In the case of VL, the diagnosis was confirmed once she described her symptoms:  sleeplessness, scribbling plot ideas constantly, accosting strangers who looked like interesting characters, staring anxiously into space for long periods, and obsessively reading reviews of book 1.  She reported increased appetite, especially for carbs and ‘anything with cheese’, and an overwhelming affinity for hot chocolate.

This is one of the worst cases that I have seen.


Our job as medical professionals is to instill in the sufferer the confidence that they will be able to write another book, and that people will read it, and that there was nothing magical about the first book which cannot be repeated.  This is the approach that I took with VL.  In common with many sufferers, she complained of crippling self-doubt and an almost pathological envy of ‘those bastards who write series’.

The only cure for 2BS is to write another book, which is what has prompted certain researchers in the field to call practitioners like myself, ‘Money-for-old-rope Merchants’.  This is both unkind and unfair.  Through a long and expensive process of talk therapy, patients like VL can eventually recover and live something approximating a normal author’s life.   By that, of course, I mean that they can be restored to spending their days staring at the laptop screen, talking endlessly about people who don’t exist as if they were real, and drinking many cups of tea.

And if this approach doesn’t work, then I give them a good, hard shake and remind them that it’s just writing, just putting one word after the other.  It’s not sodding brain surgery.