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? I 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.’ 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. This 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. 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 sun, 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.
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?’
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.
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.
I chose the title of this post partly because of Pat Barker’s classic trilogy set during the First World War. Along with Sebastian Faulks’ ‘Birdsong’, it is responsible for my interest in the period, and gave me the context that I needed to dramatise the events of ‘Summertime’. Every author owes something to the books which they have read, and these are mine.
But I chose the title for another reason, because it feels like my life is regenerating. The past 9 months of cancer treatment have been all about destruction, of the invading cells trying to kill me, and their evil progeny. Cutting and poisoning are the weapons, and they are oh so horribly, mercilessly crude.
My last chemo treatment was Nov. 6th. Several choir members joined me in the hospital for an informal concert for the patients and staff. We belted out our favourite numbers and I nearly tore the drip from my chest in my enthusiasm. Nurses danced around the corridors. It all helped to take my mind off waiting for the final blood result, which was necessary to insure that my immune system could cope again with the drugs. Suffering from a nasty cold, I hoped that my valiant white cells could multi-task. To stumble then, on the 12th treatment, was unthinkable.
The bloods came back normal again. Saline, pre-meds, paclataxol went in. For the last time.
I was done. Cooked. Marinated in cancer-killing chemicals. When I surfaced from the worst of the effects, I rejoiced in my good fortune: for my wonderful husband, for the skill of the medical team who saved me, for the astounding support of my family, friends, and choir. And for the agents who believed in me, and the publishers who saw something in my book worth sharing with the reading public. Through it all, I have felt cocooned by so much love, like being wrapped in a huge, warm duvet.
Come December, the first reviews of the book started to appear. The publicity team unveiled their plans. As I struggled to my feet, the magic was happening. Strangers were reading my words, words that I wrote to shine a light on something which I thought shouldn’t be forgotten. I visited the publisher and together with the sales and marketing team we watched a documentary about the Labor Day hurricane. Although everyone in the room had read ‘Summertime’, they watched rapt, open-mouthed at the destruction depicted on the screen.
The first copy of the hardback arrived two days before Christmas. I held it in my hands, mesmerised. It was everything that I hoped it would be. The cover design perfectly captured the mood of the book, and I loved the little sketch of a conch shell on each chapter opening. It looked substantial, and most of all, real. In my bald helplessness, barely able to climb the stairs, I was like an infant again. It felt like a new life was starting. I savoured the moment and thought: no matter how many other books I write, it will never be like this again.
At the same time, the first fuzz appeared on my scalp. I took it as a sign. Eyelashes signalled a return. I was astounded by the body’s capacity to heal itself. I imagined that I could feel the repairs happening inside, as millions of cells woke up and got to work, fixing themselves.
We passed the solstice, and headed back towards the sun.
And now, 10 days before publication, things are growing again, some visible and some not. Physical and mental stamina, which have been low for so long, are increasing. Scars, still livid, have begun to fade, likewise the dread which has been my constant companion since my diagnosis in May. I no longer look like a peeled egg: I have the same amount of head fuzz as a Marine recruit, and baby eyebrows have appeared. I can feel tingles of hope, and its flashier cousin, optimism, like blood returning to a numbed appendage. The tips of bulb shoots are emerging from the earth in the pots outside the door.
Regeneration. It’s about forward, not back. The damage is in the past, quickly healing over now.
I can finally say good-bye to 2014, the most extraordinary, wonderful, awful year of my life.
Everyone knows that having cancer, or any serious illness, changes a person.
No shit, Sherlock.
But now that I’ve had cancer twice, I’ve been pondering how the experience has affected my writing. My second course of chemotherapy for breast cancer ended five weeks ago. I’ve begun to recover physically, and contemplate Book 2. I can’t write yet, but I can think about writing. And that, as you will see, is a fairly momentous statement.
My first bout of cancer was in 2009. It came out of nowhere, with no family history or risk factors. I found the lump myself, during dinner one night. (Check yourselves, ladies and gentlemen. And then check again.) A few years previously, I had written two contemporary women’s novels, the first of which was about a group of ladies who all had breast cancer (oh, the irony). Neither was published.
During treatment—surgery, chemo, radiation—I clung tightly to my normal routine and kept my head down, waiting for it to be over. I continued working in my publishing job, I socialised, and I kept singing in three local acapella groups. All of these activities gave me great comfort and solace. But I stopped writing. Completely. At first, I blamed the physical debilitation, but eventually I realised that it was more than that. I had lost my facility with words. I had lost the urge to tell stories, something which I had done since the age of six. It was like they had excised the writing centre in my brain along with the tumour. It was profound but unfixable, or so I thought, and resigned myself to it while I raced to embrace ‘normal life’ again. I trained as a vocal leader and started a community choir. Music became my creative outlet.
And it isn’t until now, five years and another round of treatment later, that I have begun to understand why.
It takes an enormous amount of confidence to write—in yourself, in the value of your words, and the idea they will one day find an audience. For me, it also requires confidence that there is a future, and that I will be part of it. Writing is a long-term commitment, one that I couldn’t make any more. Some writers, especially in later life, are comforted by the idea of a legacy that will outlive them. That wasn’t true for me. It seemed premature and, frankly, melodramatic for an unpublished author.
Having cancer did more than shake my confidence in the future. Until the age of 46, I’d suffered no trauma on this scale before. I had struggled, sure, had some tough years like everyone else approaching middle age, but nothing like this. It felt like a betrayal from the universe, which had seemed pretty benign until then. It made me doubt everything that I had assumed about my life. If this could happen—with no warning, no reason, no medical explanation–what else was out there?
And yet ‘Summertime’ exists. So what changed?
The answer is simple: I found my story.
In 2010 I stumbled on the real events which inspired me to write ‘Summertime’. For the first time since my diagnosis, I felt the glimmer of a stirring of something that I thought was gone forever. Here was a story, a magnificent, tragic and—most perplexing of all—unknown story. I felt compelled to be the one to tell it. And my writing was different. More serious, in a good way. Like I had finally grown up.
And then the universe decided to show its dark side again. In May this year, just a few months after the excitement of the publishing contracts, a routine mammogram detected another tumour, in exactly the same place as before. The second time has been worse than the first, in terms of treatment and prognosis—and betrayal, because the treatment failed last time. But that now seems like a mere squall in comparison. This recurrence has been like a hurricane ripping through my life.
And yet, and yet…although I’ve still got a long way to go to recover physically, something is different this time. Despite all the horrors of the past six months, the writing centre didn’t get ablated. Of course, it helps enormously that I have wonderful support from the publishers of ‘Summertime’, and encouraging reactions from readers so far.
But it’s more than that. The ‘beast’ in the title of this post isn’t cancer. That’s gone…we think…but no one can be sure. The beast is the fear. Some days it whispers, some days it shouts. I now see that writing is my way of shouting back: I’M STILL HERE!
This post is the first serious thing that I’ve tried to write since my diagnosis in May. The wheels are creaky, but they are turning.
‘Summertime’ is titled ‘Under a Dark Summer Sky’ in the US (June 2015), and ‘Sommerstorm’ in Norway (Feb 2015). Other editions will appear in Germany, Holland, Italy, and France.
I am a writer resident in the UK but originally from Florida.
My second novel, ‘At First Light’, is available to pre-order in the UK. Inspired by real events, it is an epic love story and unsolved murder, set in 1920s Key West, Florida. This is a companion story to ‘Summertime’ but the books can be read in either order. It will be published in hardback on 1 June 2017.
I did it.
Key West, Florida, 1993. When a Ku Klux Klan official is shot in broad daylight, all eyes turn to the person holding the gun: a 96-year-old Cuban woman who will say nothing except to admit her guilt.
It was me.
1919 Mixed-race Alicia Cortez arrives in Key West exiled in disgrace from her family in Havana. At the same time, damaged war hero John Morales returns home on the last US troop ship from Europe. As love draws them closer in this time of racial segregation, people are watching including Dwayne Campbell, poised on the brink of manhood, struggling to do what’s right.
And then the Ku Klux Klan comes to town…
It was me. I did it. Here is my story.
Inspired by real events, At First Light weaves together a decades-old grievance and the consequences of a promise at dawn on a dark day in American history.