7 Things You Will Need When Writing a Book About Surviving Cancer

September 8, 2020
Danielle Ripley-Burgess
Danielle Ripley-Burgess

Danielle Ripley-Burgess is a two-time colon cancer survivor first diagnosed at age 17, an award-winning communications professional and the author of Blush: How I barely survived 17. She writes and speaks to encourage others that faith can survive. Also, she bakes a really good chocolate chip cookie. Follow her blog at DanielleRipleyBurgess.com or connect on social media at @DanielleisB.

An author and two-time cancer survivor offers fellow writers some advice on what they’ll need to know if they’re considering writing a book about surviving cancer.

My friend Dustin is surprised I kept the note he slipped me while in church over a decade ago. I can’t recall what prompted it, but I vividly remember looking down the row and seeing a torn corner of bulletin with a scribbled note making its way toward me.

“You should write a book. Seriously.”

I had just been diagnosed with my second colon cancer at age 25 (my first diagnosis came at age 17). To cope, I started a blog. He had been enjoying my posts and encouraged me to not only keep writing them, but to go for a bigger project: a book. He was one of many who encouraged me to become an author.

It took more than ten years, but I followed through on the insistence of putting my life stories into a long-form book. I’m now a proud memoir author. I know I’m not the only person who has survived cancer and felt the urge to write about it. This is a common reaction amongst those who’ve faced a life-threatening situation and it’s a great way to find purpose in light of the pain.

Both survivors and caregivers have powerful stories to tell and I believe the world needs more hopeful and inspirational stories. I encourage all aspiring authors to do it: write a book! Our stories help make the disease real for people. They’re powerful.

Because I’m fresh out the gate on the publishing process, I wanted to offer fellow writers some advice. If you’re considering writing a book about surviving cancer, here are seven things you’ll need.

Encouragement to write

I kept Dustin’s note, as well as emails, cards and voicemails I had received containing similar encouragement. If you’re planning to write a book, gather this at the start. It will help you get going, and it will sustain you as you face the inevitable writer’s block. Encouragement from readers is fuel for writers. And yes, the world does need another inspiring cancer book, it needs yours.

A great line editor

To publish a book, you typically have three options: self-publish, hybrid publish or traditionally publish. Unless you’re well-known and/or famous in your field, have a massive social media following, or happened to pen a viral post, it’s unlikely that, as a new author, you’ll get a traditional publishing contract. (You might but keep your options open!) Thankfully, there are several options and ways to publish. For your book to appear professional and easy to read, you’ll want to get a line editor involved. Hybrid publishers will insist on them and even if you self-publish, budgeting for line editing services is well worth the investment.

A line editor is the first editor you want reading your rough draft. His or her job isn’t fixing your grammatical errors and typos, that’s for copy editors and proofreaders. A line editor makes sure your voice is clear, your narrative flows, and your story is complete. All great books have a great line editor behind them.

A documented history

To pen a book, you’ll need lots of content — like around 50,000 words if not more. To squeeze out that many words, I highly recommend gathering as much documentation about your cancer experience as possible. For my memoir, I pulled from journal entries over 20 years, email updates, printouts from doctor’s visits, lab reports, and even my dad’s daily planner from 2001. All these things helped me create a timeline, which turned into an outline. This historical record didn’t only verify the accuracy of my book, but it served as a springboard for memories.

Even if you haven’t journaled, blogged or kept a calendar throughout your cancer journey, it’s likely that you’ve sent texts or posted updates on social media. All of this is very helpful if you want to write a book. Find ways to archive it now.

Self-compassion

Writing can dig up a lot of feelings, which can make for a great day or a painful day. Go easy on yourself as you start writing your book. Expect several hills and valleys. As I worked on my memoir, the words would flow on some days. On others, I felt totally stuck and lost in a sea of pain. I struggled to make sense of my messy rough drafts. At times, I lacked the perseverance to keep returning to my manuscript and flirted with the idea of never finishing. Just know that this is all part of writing a book and remember to give lots of compassion to yourself. Facing cancer takes a lot of patience, and so does writing about it.

A dedicated writing space

Almost all writers can tell you about a space, or a handful of spaces, where they get their best writing done. Usually they’re spots infused with creativity and silence. I personally have a list of several locations I visit to focus my mind, get inspired, and write. If you’re going to write a book, be intentional about finding a writing space, and visit it often.

In addition to a physical location, it’s also important to make space on your calendar to write. Pencil it in, just as you would a doctor’s appointment or coffee with friends. Your book won’t write itself; you’ll need to make time for it. Finding space is critical to getting it done.

Other cancer books

The best writers are also readers. As you begin writing your book, read a few other books, especially cancer books, to help you find your own voice. What details about your illness do you also want to share? What would you rather keep private? Are you going to take a funny or lighthearted tone, or do you want to be more serious and emotional? These are important questions to ask yourself.

There’s not a “right” way to write a book about cancer, and many authors have done it. Get a feel for how you’re similar and different to other authors by reading their work. It will help you have confidence in how you want to tell your story.

Emotional maturity

Writing a book about your cancer experience will put you up close and personal with your emotions. The most compelling stories include not just facts and timelines of a cancer experience, but the feelings it evoked. Writing this out can be challenging, but it’s also incredibly healing. When you dive into your emotions and process them, you’ll find even more strength and maturity.

You’ll need this maturity as you walk through the publishing process. Being a writer requires thick skin, as rejection letters, tough editing and critical reviews also come with making your story public. But, the process of writing a book will strengthen your emotional health and give you everything you need to tell a great story and inspire your readers.

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