Self Publishing,  What I Learned

What Cancer Taught Me About Dreams by Shauna E. Black

I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. Probably like you, I love books, and I’m fascinated with stories. I remember when I was about 10 years old smugly telling my little sister that someday I would write a NYT bestseller. Well. It hasn’t happened … yet. 😉

I’ve taken a lot of detours on my way to a writing career. Not only have I dabbled in various professions (film editor, graphic artist, voice teacher, office manager, teacher’s aide), but raising my family always takes priority for me—which made it hard to do any writing at all when my kids were little.

Still, after every metaphorical side alley, I always came back to writing. It was the one thing I never stopped wishing I could do successfully.

I used to have a hard time finishing a story. There’s a boxful of partial manuscripts in my attic. When I finally wrote “The End” on my first novel (before any of my kids were born), I sent it out to publishers only to begin the dreaded collection of rejection letters. I realized I still had a lot to learn about writing well.

Red Horizon by Shauna E. Black: My first novel that has still never seen the light of day.
My first novel that has still never seen the light of day.

Through the process of beginning a family, I joined a local writing group, attended a few writing conferences, made some author friends online, and knocked out a couple of short stories and more unfinished manuscripts.

Eventually, I completed a second novel, this time a middle grade western/fantasy mash-up. I won a free edit and got my first professional feedback. I rewrote and polished it. Then I sent the book out to agents and publishers. Again, it met with rejection. I think the worst blow was being flat-out ignored, as though my efforts weren’t even worth an acknowledgement.

Then I attended a class taught by Tracy Hickman at a writing conference in which I was introduced to the indie publishing revolution. The concept rocked my world: I could publish my own books and they might actually be considered legitimate? It was hard to wrap my mind around it. But before I could take any action on this revelation, I received a cancer diagnosis.

Tests the doctors started before the writing conference came back positive. I had stage 3 breast cancer, which means it had started to spread from its original location to other areas of my body. I felt like I was the victim of an ambush. The knowledge that cancer had been lurking in me for what must have been a long time crushed me. I felt hollow and shell-shocked. There was no way I could muster the creative energy to write.

So, I shut down everything I’d done to that point to build my writing career. I stopped blogging, I stopped attending my writing group, I stopped working on polishing my novel, or doing any creative writing at all. For over a year I battled cancer.

I received weekly chemo treatments for which I had to drive 600 miles round trip, each time. Then the chemo treatments changed to every 3 weeks, but the medicine was stronger and made me sicker. After chemo came the surgeries. Through it all, I tried to keep a mostly positive attitude, though I definitely had many dark days.

I felt like a member of the Borg whenever I got “plugged in” for chemo. Ha ha!
I felt like a member of the Borg whenever I got “plugged in” for chemo. Ha ha!

In the meantime, the writing world went on without me, and indie publishing really took off. A determination started to grow in me. Staring death in the face made me realize that if I didn’t grab hold of my dreams with both hands, I could very well lose my chance to turn them into reality. I didn’t want to leave this life without publishing at least 1 book.

I attended the same writing conference, where I’d first heard of indie publishing, a year later. My hair was just starting to grow back, and I was still a little emotionally unstable. 😉 One of the sessions I sat in on was Drawing Out the Dragons by James A. Owen. He talked about many of the struggles he’d gone through that strengthened him as he pursued a creative career. It touched me deeply. Afterword, I bought his book and hesitantly approached him for an autograph. I worked up the courage to tell him I was finishing cancer treatments. He was so kind and supportive! He told me: “You are strong enough to do this!”

He was right. Surviving cancer taught me that I was stronger than I ever imagined I could be. I dove back into writing with gusto! I completely restructured my middle grade novel, including changing the point of view and morphing and adding characters. I rewrote it from scratch, got it to a professional editor, and started preparing to self-publish it.

There is a huge learning curve to indie publishing. I studied everything I could get my hands on and tried to make wise choices as the day I’d chosen for my book release rushed ever closer. Each time I thought about making this book available to the public, my breath came short, and my heart skipped a beat. I was terrified of what I was doing, but at the same time I knew it was the right thing to do.

I’d like to say that book was a smashing success, but my inexperience tripped me up. I made a lot of mistakes (often financially steep mistakes) that made it impossible for the book to earn back its production costs, even though I sold quite a few paper copies. (I’m still trying to decode the secret marketing sauce that will make a book profitable.)

But the important thing is that I’m finally living my dream. After years and years of half-baked manuscripts and longing, of rejection letters and criticism, other people are now reading the stories I concoct in my little brain. And some folks even like them. 😉

So, I guess the message I’d like to get across with the story of my experience is this: don’t put off your dreams so long that they slip through your fingers. Muster the courage to take the steps you need to take, and don’t let fear or discouragement send you down side roads where you’ll get lost.

Writing is a tough business, but we writers have ink for blood. We’re not completely happy or truly fulfilled unless we’re creating stories, writing them down, sharing them with others.

And as you wend your way along the author road, don’t forget to surround yourself with writing friends. Having those cheerleaders beside you, those who’ve been in the trenches you’re in now, can make all the difference as you struggle over the hurdles in your way. And, hey, if you need a friend, I’m here.

I know you are strong enough to do this!

Shauna E. Black

Shauna smiles a lot. But her appearance can be deceiving. Like the legendary sirens of old, she enjoys luring innocent readers into the stories she creates and trapping them there. As a child, Shauna’s parents recognized her persuasive tendencies and moved her from the coast of Panama to the landlocked safety of Utah to protect innocent sailors. But she found other ways to beguile the unwary. Her home is sprinkled with enchanted wind chimes, spontaneous singing, and the enticing smells of fresh baked bread and cookies.


Want to connect with me? Send me an email at, or find me on FaceBook. My friends and I talk bookshop in my Black Diamonds FaceBook group. Or, you can join up with my eClub email list and snag some free books as my thanks for joining!

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