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How Writing Jennifer Strange (Quite Literally) Saved my Life, a guest post by Cat Scully

I did not know that I was dying.

In early summer of 2018, all of my symptoms pointed to bronchitis, or at worst, a particularly bad case of pneumonia. You see, people in their early thirties aren’t thinking about heart failure. It doesn’t even enter their possibility radar while typing their symptoms into Google one more time.

It started with a map. At the time, I had just come off designing dozens and dozens of different maps since Labor Day weekend, which bled through the fall months, barreled right on through the winter holidays, and spilled over into spring. Then, around mid-May, I received a map note from the author and publisher I couldn’t read. I tried to process it over and over, but the words melted every time I tried to read them. I had been fighting a terrible cold, coughing and sneezing and unable to breathe, so my husband carted me off to the doctor I had stubbornly refused to visit until the map was done. Gotta keep pushing, I thought. I can rest when I’m done.

The urgent care took a look at my symptoms and assessed it was bronchitis, gave me the typical prescriptions, and sent me home. Weeks went by with no relief. I finished the map but my husband had to read aloud every email that came across my inbox. I was tired, I thought. Why weren’t the pills working?

Smash-cut forward to the middle of June, and I’m face down on the floor of the shower unable to lift my head. I have to instruct my six-year-old son how to work my phone to call my husband at his office and tell him to come home. We fled to the hospital, both children in tow, and the ER nurses took one look at my CAT scan and confirmed their worst fears – I had heart failure. My heart was floating at around ten percent, and it wouldn’t be until weeks later in a genetic counseling session in Boston I would find out I had a genetic mutation prone to enlarging the heart when triggered by severe stress. I thought it had to be a joke. How could someone in their early thirties in possession of a health file so thin people had trouble finding it suddenly get heart failure?

I spent two weeks in the hospital removing sixteen pounds of fluid and wrestling with the fact I still wasn’t published. I had written a grand total of three novels over the course of five years. The first was sent to a publisher and my agent and I were waiting to hear back. I rested up, convinced I wouldn’t let my dream of publishing be pushed aside again. Three days after returning home, I got the call. The editor loved Jennifer Strange and wanted to publish it next year. I cried, maybe harder than I’ve ever cried. After five years, three agents, a slew of rejections, and almost dying, I was getting published. I couldn’t have known then what would happen when I sat down to write again. Symptoms in young women with heart failure aren’t as well documented as cases in eighty-year-old men. I didn’t know what was coming.

Jennifer Strange

After a few painful weeks of learning how to walk and a new salt-less diet focused on shrinking my heart, I sat down to the computer. It felt good to open my book with the knowledge it was finally going to print. As soon as I opened the file, the words floated into each other again, and the space between letters squashed and collapsed in lava lamp waves. I couldn’t read. It seemed back then an impossible thought, not being able to read. A writer writes. A reader reads. I was an author with a book getting published, not someone who struggled to connect sentences together. I closed my laptop. I thought all I needed was a little more time. It took months of processing and a dear friend telling me the work was basically illegible for me to finally face the truth—It wasn’t just that I couldn’t read. My mind could not connect the letters to the memories of what those words meant. 

We pushed back the book by another year, with everyone hopeful one more year of healing would help. I was the only one not convinced. I sat listening to audiobooks, wishing and hoping I could write again. It wasn’t until late 2019 that my heart improved enough to write again, and my symptoms of memory loss lessened enough to string together a sentence. Reading was a slow and painful process requiring total concentration without any interruption of sound or kids yelling for yet another packet of fruit snacks. I had to work at reading again, the same way I had to learn how to walk and then run and then jog on a treadmill.

Every revision of Jennifer Strange got easier, and by the time we got to producing the advanced reader copies, it still wasn’t perfect. I kept learning how to read as I pushed through posting on Netgalley and then sending more focused drafts each time through multiple revisions between my launch of early copies to July of my publication date. As of writing this blog post, my heart is at forty-five percent, healed enough I can sit and read a book, though interruption requires up to an hour of recovery to be able to read again.

I never thought I’d have to relearn how to read to publish a book, and I think even beyond Jennifer Strange as I move into book two in the series, my memory and ability will only improve. It seems to every week. This desire to write, to publish, and then repeat is a quest worth pursuing. Despite everything, I think having this book and my fierce desire to finally see it in print, flaws and all, healed my heart and saved my life all at once. It’s worth it to keep going, despite all the downfalls and weird left turns. I still have to read my books aloud, and audio books are easier than reading physical copies, but I found a method that works in a world post-heart failure. Ultimately, that’s all that matters.

I want to share my story not to scare, but to inspire writers who might be questioning if going forward is worth it after yet another rejection letter. The quest to publish is worth packing your bags and journeying out your front door into the great unknown. Jennifer Strange saved me, and I hope you find that your book might save you too.

Meet Cat Scully

Cat Scully is the author and illustrator of the young adult illustrated horror novel series JENNIFER STRANGE, with the first book releasing July 21, 2020, from Haverhill House Publishing. Cat is best known for her world maps featured in Brooklyn Brujas trilogy by Zoraida Cordova, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, and Give the Dark My Love by Beth Revis. She works in video game development for the Deep End Games, working hard on their next title. After five years as a mentor in Pitch Wars for middle grade and young adult fiction, she is a core editor for Cornerstones Literary, focusing on editing speculative fiction for adult, young adult, and middle-grade markets. She lives off Earl Grey tea, plays a lot of Bioshock, is a huge Evil Dead fan, and plays the drums with her musician husband. She lives outside of Boston and is represented by Miriam Kriss of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency.​

About Jennifer Strange

Jennifer Strange

Fifteen-year-old Jennifer Strange is the Sparrow, cursed with the ability to give ghosts and demonic spirits a body-a flesh and blood anchor in the mortal world-with the touch of her hand. When a ghost attacks her high school and awakens her powers, her father dumps her unceremoniously in the care of her estranged older sister Liz, leaving only his journal as an explanation.

Drawn to the power of the Sparrow, the supernatural creatures preying on Savannah, Georgia will do anything to receive Jennifer’s powerful gift. The sisters must learn to trust each other again and uncover the truth about their family history by deciphering their father’s journal…because if they can’t, Jennifer’s uncontrolled power will rip apart the veil that separates the living from the dead.

A fast-paced and splattery romp, fans of Supernatural, Buffy, and Evil Dead will enjoy JENNIFER STRANGE – the first illustrated novel in a trilogy of stylish queer young adult horror books with big scares for readers not quite ready for adult horror.

Cat Scully’s illustrations bring the ghosts and demons of her fictional world to eerie and beautiful life, harkening back to the style of SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK and Ransom Riggs’ MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN.

ISBN-13: 9781949140064
Publisher: Haverhill House Publishing LLC
Publication date: 07/20/2020
Series: Jennifer Strange #1
Age Range: 13 – 18 Years