By BRUCE DENNILL
In My Best Worst Year – A Breast Cancer Story, Alison Tucker gives us an authentic account of her experience, offering insights and advice for others who might one day face the same diagnosis. Readers accompany her through her highs, empathise with her lows, and are amused by humorous anecdotes along the way. Through the generous support of family and friends, she has amassed a collection of practical tips for both patients and supporters, which she shares with open-hearted honesty.
How do you know when an idea is worthy of developing into a book? With songs or other shorter formats, you can get to a point of knowing if something will work relatively soon, but getting several thousand words into a manuscript and then deciding it’s a waste of time is far more frustrating.
As a marketing consultant, I am sensitive to identifying consumer needs and meeting them with insight-led ideas and products. In this case, my book was inspired by my own personal experience with breast cancer and the strong need that I experienced personally and that I witnessed in others. It all started with a social media “Daily Gratitude Diary”. I initiated this to keep myself upbeat during the long haul of chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment but soon discovered it was having far-reaching and unanticipated consequences. It was not only moderating my attitude; it was demystifying cancer for others and providing support and tips for patients referred to me by family and friends. This prompted me to start writing about my experience and learnings so that I could share relevant sections with others, depending on where they were at in their treatment protocol. It was my way of giving back, of gratitude for having had a positive cancer experience and for all the amazing support I had been fortunate to have. I never referred to it as a book for fear of failure though. Book or not, it would be put to good use. Then … boom! … Tracey McDonald Publishers offered me a publishing contract and my purpose was amplified, providing me with greater reach to make more of an impact and difference.
When you do decide that a theme or story is worth exploring, how do you go about unpacking that?
The themes I cover are all based on first-hand experience, coupled with the input and feedback of others I encountered during my experience. I was fortunate in that I had my gratitude diary I could revisit to help me unpack themes. By considering the extent of the likes and loves and the comments, I was able to see what resonated strongly. For example, hair and the loss of hair is an emotive point. It took great courage to finally post a picture of my bald head and I could tell by the outpouring of love and support that, that is a topic that fascinates patients and others. There are also so many angles about hair loss to cover. From the fear of losing it to the surprising feeling of liberation when losing it. From the preoccupation with losing the hair on your head to the almost more devastating impact of having no eyebrows and eyelashes! Then there’s wigs and turbans and hair for going out in and hair for exercising in, not to mention the preoccupation with trying to grow hair and ending up with hair nothing like your pre-cancer hair.
Research: how much do you do, and how detailed is it?
I was researching long before I wrote my manuscript. Dr Google was my go-to dude right from when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer. Some patients prefer not to research or read anything about their illness and treatment, but I was an information junkie, reading and researching everything that felt relevant to me and my circumstances. There were times when I was working on the manuscript where it was necessary for me to research further so that I could provide a more balanced point of view. For example, I needed to be more aware of the different types of breast cancer, not just the type that I had. Google makes it easy to do research these days, but one does have to ensure one is using reputable sites with reliable information.
How much planning do you do before beginning in earnest? Do you have to know where you’re going to end up before you start?
I am a planner and pride myself in being quite organised – typical Type A personality! I am also used to writing debriefs and putting together strategy ‘stories’ for clients so I used my business skills and experience for the purposes of my book. The overall themes of gratitude, positivity, tips, and inspiration were givens from the start as they were core motivations for writing in the first place. For the more detailed content, I started by developing a high-level outline or flow. I then populated it with key topics to be covered in each section and included links to my Gratitude Diary posts that I could refer to. As part of all of this, I had a great session with two friends who were pushing me to write my story. We brainstormed the topics, and this helped me identify what would be interesting to others and to structure it all. It also helped jog my memory as I still had a good dollop of what is commonly referred to as ‘fuzzy chemo-brain’ at that stage!
If the hundreds of memes about writing are to be believed, sitting down and actually putting words on a page is perhaps the toughest part of the job. What are the distractions you battle with the most when trying to work?
I first started trying to write my manuscript on a holiday in Thailand. I wrote five pages, but drinking cocktails on the beach ended up taking precedence! Okay, it was not all about those cocktails. I did not have an adequate table and chair in my bungalow and the light outdoors was too bright on my screen to work down at the beach. When I got going the following year though, I worked like a demon. I was disciplined and, knowing that I am the type of person that gets what I measure, I recorded my number of words each writing day to monitor my progress. Most of my writing was done at a tiny little table in the corner of my lounge at a time my office was being gutted and renovated. The only real distraction I had was my cat, Kimba, who regularly competed with my keyboard for my hands in search of a cuddle.
What’s the weirdest or craziest way you’ve found to avoid meeting a deadline?
I am unimaginative when it comes to excuses for deadlines! I prefer to under-promise and then over-deliver and seldom miss a deadline. Having been on both the client and the consulting side, I know that missing a deadline for my client has a domino effect in their business and that my job is to make them look good in their business so deadlines are something I take seriously. I am also a problem-solver so if there is something that could get in the way of meeting a deadline, I am more than likely to address it before it materialises.
Daily goals: what, for you, is an acceptable daily target, in terms of wordcount or the quality of what you complete, be it a sentence, a paragraph or a chapter?
I wrote around 2,500 to 4,000 words on a writing day. Given that my chosen style was what I would call ‘conversational’, the writing flowed relatively easily and the fact that it was my own personal story probably also helped. The plot and the characters were known to me before I even started writing too, of course! I would start each writing day going over the writing from the previous writing session and editing that before turning my attention to the section I planned to write on that day. The advice I was given was to write until I got to the end without agonising over every single word and fiddling with the manuscript as I went along. That worked for me.
What have you found are the best ways to get this done?
- Choosing ‘writing days’ and making them count.
- Exercising at the start of the day, before settling down at the keyboard.
- A good lot of self-discipline.
- Measuring progress – in my case the number of words.
- Having an outline and getting a sense of satisfaction from ticking off sections.
- Coffee. More coffee.
If writing books is not your full-time job, how does completing a project fit in with your other duties?
As a consultant, my clients took precedence over my writing. I had no writing deadlines, just desires as I did not have a publisher at the time I was writing. In my diary planning, I labelled my days as client days or writing days, depending on my projects and responsibilities. Writing the book was not a commercial initiative or a money-spinning one, it was a charitable one. As such, I needed to protect my business and my income, and my client work was my priority.
Marketing new books – print or digital: what fresh ideas do you think could be introduced to the process to make new work more accessible and appealing to both new and established readers?
Paper is difficult and costly to move around. Digital books, on the other hand, open new markets up for local authors with social media presenting an easy way of targeting and reaching these broader audiences too. COVID-19 has also forced us to think in fresh new ways and, despite the devastating effect of the pandemic, it is driving innovative thinking and approaches. Who would have thought that you could hold a successful virtual book launch with people attending from across the country, or even the world in the comfort of their own homes … probably in their slippers as I have been in some that I have attended! Having said this, book marketing is a new space for me, so I am learning by experimenting and I am enjoying the little wins and learnings along the way.