Fight Like A Girl – BFS Nomination Giveaway!

This is one of the best anthologies I have ever read and I’m NOT saying that because I have a short story, ‘Silent Running’, in it. This powerful collection of strong women SFF writers brings a truly evocative and kiss ass breath of fresh air to the short story anthology. In fact, it’s so good it’s been shortlisted for a prestigious BFSA Award for Best Anthology! Yay! ūüėÄ #SoProud

Joanne Hall

As you might know from this post, Kristell Ink’sFight Like A Girl, edited by me and Roz Clarke, has been shortlisted for Best Anthology at this years British Fantasy Society Awards, and both Roz and I are going to be at FantasyCon to watch the ceremony. It’s been a great year for Grimbold as a whole, with eight nominations including artists (Sarah Anne Langton, one of the shortlisted artists, drew the FLAG cover). So as a celebration I’m going to be giving away a paperback of Fight Like a Girl on this very blog, and YOU could be in with a chance of winning!

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All you have to do to get your hands on a copy of FLAG signed by myself and Roz is to post a review (over ten words, please!) of ANY of the books from the Grimbold catalogue (you can find them listed on…

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The Chris Pratt Challenge – Changing Your Life!

I’m no Tony Robbins, the famous motivational speaker and all round ‘Can Do’ guy, but I’ve learnt a few things about motivation, will power, tenacity and trying to change your life over the last month. Warning: This is a personal post!

On June 16th I finally decided to turn my life around РI was fed up of being overweight, unfit, tired all the time and generally feeling like crap. Although I was a skinny kid, due to a pretty traumatic home life (ultra violent alcoholic father & a bullying brother), I started over-eating, the classic comfort eating. By my mid twenties I was fat and have stayed fat ever since.

Following a book launch for Anna Stephen’s HarperCollins debut –¬†Godblind (I was the illustrator who created the map), where¬†my appalling lack of fitness ended up with me being late for the event and turning up exhausted and in a sweaty mess – I vowed ‘Never again!’.

The next day I made a very public pledge to myself and the world to change my life, no matter how hard or how long it took. It’s true I’m an incredibly stubborn and tenacious person, but like so many of us when it came to my own personal goals, I always chickened out and gave up. NOT this time!

I called this life changing endeavour, The Chris Pratt Challenge. I chose Chris Pratt, not because I have a wee crush on the guy, it was actually more profound than that. He’s a public figure¬†but unlike most public figures¬†who seem to¬†have the luck and looks of a god or goddess, Chris Pratt has actually struggled with his weight like¬†us mere mortals. He’s been 21 stones (300lbs) in fact, and turned his life around losing 60lbs in 6 months to get the role of Star-Lord in the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise.

So, the Chris Pratt Challenge was born – to set a date in 6 months time to lose 60lbs and get fitter.

In truth I need to lose more than 60lbs and I know this will take me longer than just 6 months, but any life change requires a large kick up the butt, so this is mine. If I can lose 60lbs or close to it by December 16th, it will kick start the rest of my long term health and life goals.

The first month of the challenge has now passed and it’s been a huge success. Yay! ūüėÄ

Not only is there now a lovely support group on facebook, The Chris Pratt Challenge group, with 20+ members from around the world (and growing), but it’s been the start of something really special. All of it’s members are looking to either lose weight or get fitter/healthier or both, for hugely differing reasons too, but we’ve all been able to get together in this group and encourage and motivate each other. There are days when someone might slip with their diet, or hit a personal problem, and we are there for them every step of the way, giving them the support they need sometimes when no-one else is. It’s been the best mutually beneficial thing I’ve ever been involved with and has almost taken on a life of itself! ūüėÄ

For me, and one other member, we also have very important personal life goals we want to achieve but need to lose weight and get fitter to reach them, so again the group has been AMAZING!

As far as actual¬†results are concerned, it’s been incredible.

I started this endeavour 6 weeks ago on the 16th June weighing a massive 17st 12lbs (240lbs). I am now 16st 11lbs (225lbs). I have now lost just over a stone (15lbs) in 6 weeks, achieving¬†my first milestone of many hopefully. Although I can’t say there’s any massive noticeable change yet, though according to friends I do look slimmer, I’ve not only lost weight but I’ve also lost several inches¬†from¬†various body areas. Despite my CFS and Vesitibular Neuritis health probs, I have more energy than I’ve had for ages and I’ve also noticed that very slowly, bit by bit, my muscles which really haven’t been awoken or used¬†for twenty years, are slowly beginning to appear. Lol, I’m definitely NOT sporting a six pack but I have muscle aches after exercising where I didn’t have muscles before! ūüėÄ

My first 6 week statistics:

  • 15lbs lost + BMI: from 41.6 to 39.1
  • 5inches off midriff
  • 4 inches off waist
  • 3 inches off hips
  • 3 inches off thighs
  • 2 inches off bust
  • 2 inches off upper arms

So onwards and upwards from here, we’ll see what the next 6 weeks brings. The truly astonishing thing about all this though, has been the positive side effects¬†& knock on reactions it’s created, like dropping a stone into water, the ripples just keep going! ūüėÄ

By setting myself these goals, I’ve also¬†found myself setting other goals for the first time. Giving myself a deadline to complete a short story by, committing myself to write 10,000 words by the end of August on either my second and very long awaited sequel to White Mountain,¬†‘Darkling Rise’ (apologies to my Darkling Chronicle fans, I know I’ve been dreadfully slow with this second book but it is slowly getting there!) or on my other dark paranormal thriller, Ravenwing.

So¬†for any of you reading this, wanting to lose weight or get fitter/healthier or just wanting to change your life – you CAN do it! Join a support group like ours, dig deep and you’ll find resources you never thought were possible. Believe me, if someone like me who has a life long aversion to exercise and ‘healthy foods’ can start doing exercise and eating healthier foods – YOU CAN TOO! ūüėÄ

 

The best of luck to us all! ūüėÄ ‚̧ xxxxx

Fantasy Maps, Book Launches and Chris Pratt!

You only have an epiphany moment maybe once or twice in your lifetime – a¬†moment where suddenly you see yourself and your life in crystal clear clarity and the path you must take. Well, that happened to me¬†twelve days¬†ago at a book launch of all things and it was like a jolt of lightning to the senses.¬†The only frustrating¬†question that was left was why didn’t I do this years ago? Why¬†did¬†this take me so long?

As many of you know I’m an illustrator as well as a writer and back in February I was approached by HarperCollins to work for them as one of their official illustrators. Yippee! Since then it’s been an utterly manic year with very little opportunity to breathe between projects, but I’m not complaining, I’d rather be busy than struggling to find jobs. Amongst the illustrations I do for other people, it’s fair to say that fantasy maps are the most popular!

The highest profile illustration jobs I’ve done of late, were both fantasy world maps for HarperCollins and their HarperVoyager imprint and were both for exciting new authors called Anna – yes, it got a little confusing at times! ūüėÄ

The first was for Anna Smith-Spark and her stunning grimdark debut, The Court of Broken Knives, published 29th June 2017.

The second was for Anna Stephens and her highly anticipated grimdark debut, Godblind, published 15th June 2017.

It’s strange, from¬†the earliest age I’ve always had a fascination for all things map-ish. I’ve poured over geography books, old cartography records, maps, atlases and globes, learning about far flung places, exotic locales, topographical features and the geology of landscapes. That love of maps was fuelled further by fiction, finding immersive fictional worlds depicted in the maps of Tolkien, CS Lewis, AA Milne with E.H. Shepherd’s wonderful ‘100 acre wood’, even the Moomin map!

Maps have become so¬†associated with quality fantasy fiction that GRR Martin’s, Games of Thrones, inspired television series features nothing but an evolving¬†map in its opening title sequence!

My passion for maps has caused me to blog about this subject more than any other, check out these earlier map inspired posts.

For The Love Of Maps!

Mapping Your Fantasy

Mapping The Imagination

As the mapmaker for Godblind, I was lucky enough to be invited to the grand book launch of Anna Stephen’s debut at Waterstones Birmingham on the Thursday 15th June. Waterstones had reserved the whole of the second floor for this function – very impressive! So I trundled up to Birmingham where I’d arranged to meet my two fellow Grimbold Books gals, my publisher and writer friend, Sammy HK Smith and my writer friend and editor, Kate Coe, both of whom had sensibly taken the train.

A word of warning folks – NEVER drive through Birmingham at rush hour – total insanity! ūüė¶

Having left home at 4pm for this 6:30pm Book Launch event, I was sure I’d give myself plenty of time, after all Birmingham isn’t that far away. Sure enough, driving at my usual…ahem…speed on the motorway, I hit the outskirts of Birmingham at 5:40pm with oodles of time to spare. Yeah right. To my dismay, I was then in unmoving bumper to bumper traffic for over an hour! I couldn’t believe it, I was going to be bloody late!

Finally I got into the centre at 6:40pm, parked at the Bull Ring and walked briskly to where I thought Waterstones was. Despite looking at maps and asking about five people, I couldn’t find it. Panic set in, it was nearly 7pm, I was desperately late. As it turned out, I’d actually walked past the bloody place about three times. If you’ve ever been to Waterstones Birmingham (a 4 storey bookshop), you’ll know that the ground floor from the outside looks rather like a caf√©, all you can see are signs for coffee and snacks…ahem, though I seemed to have missed the rather large WATERSTONES sign above!

I raced inside exactly how I didn’t want to arrive, late, hot, bothered and basically a sweaty mess! Already exhausted by the walking and with feet which had clearly developed blisters, I knew I couldn’t manage the stairs so took the lift. The second floor button had been taped over so customers had to either get off on the first floor or the fourth, as they’d reserved the second floor for this event. Embarrassingly, what I didn’t know was that the glass lift was directly behind the event itself, with all the¬†chairs and audience facing it. So as I hit the fourth button, thinking I’d rather walk down a flight of stairs than up one, I was on full display to all as I went up. It was farcical!

The place was packed, I was the last and only late comer. Thankfully¬†my mates¬†had saved a seat for me. I’d missed Anna’s wonderful reading and had joined midway through¬†the Q&A session. I sat down wishing I was invisible, unable to curtail my copious sweating. I tend to sweat profusely when I’m nervous anyway, but add exercise and exhaustion on top and I was a melting mess! I quickly tied my hair up in the vain hope of cooling down. It didn’t work. As quickly as I moped my brow the sweat came back. I was dripping. ūüė¶

Anna very kindly asked if the illustrator/map-maker was in the audience and I timidly raised my hand. Sammy & Kate being sweet were pointing to me as well. I stood up and made some self-deprecating comment about being the late sweaty one then promptly sat down again. The event finished with rapturous applause before people lined up to get their book signed. I’d brought my hardback copy along, very nicely sent to me by the¬†Head of Fiction Art at HarperCollins. While I was queuing, Anna’s lovely Mum and Auntie came over to me to say how much they liked the map, which was so¬† sweet of them. The response I’ve had from people has been amazing! I reached Anna, who had been signing copious copies of her wonderful book and we chatted. She¬†is so lovely and I wish her all the success in the world, I’m sure the book will be a huge smash, I just wish I hadn’t been such a disgusting mess when I finally¬†met her.

BUT…this experience became the lightning bolt I needed.

After the event,¬†Sammy, Kate and I had a quick coffee and catch up¬†before¬†we walked Sammy to the train station. Every step hurt, my feet were absolutely killing me, I struggled to keep up, even though they were only walking normally, it was too fast for me. We said goodbye and then Kate and I¬†walked back to my car. I was done in. Anyone would have thought I’d just walked a marathon.

I got home a few hours later to find massive blisters the size of £2 coins on the sole of each foot. My thighs had rubbed together and generally I was just uncomfortable, painful and feeling awful. I was a total mess. It was then that I had my epiphany moment Рsuddenly for the first time in years I really looked at myself.

What the hell was I doing?

Here I am in my early forties, feeling as young and immature as ever (having never really grown up), but with a fat frumpy body that was falling apart just from a bit of bloody walking! I had had enough! Enough of feeling uncomfortable in my own skin, enough of being so unfit and feeling heavy, bloated and generally awful about myself, enough of wheezing after a few steps, enough of feeling like an ugly¬†blob next to my slimmer friends, enough of struggling to find¬†something I can wear often choosing to smother myself in tent like clothes to hide in, enough of being embarrassed in social situations because I was hot and overly sweaty or just felt like the odd one out, enough of having a bad body and bad body image…ENOUGH!

Yes I was once a skinny kid and before I gained all my weight (mostly through comfort eating as a means of coping with trauma), I actually had a figure to die for (34D bust, 22inch waist, 34inch hips), your basic hourglass figure and yes, the likelihood after years of¬†abusing my body of ever getting back to that is minus zero. BUT, that doesn’t mean I have to just settle for what I am now and give up on myself either! I have a personal life goal my close mates know about and if I am ever going to achieve it, I NEED TO LOSE WEIGHT and GET FIT NOW!!!!

That¬†daft incident at the book launch finally opened my eyes to what I was doing¬†to myself and to my life. It’s not enough to just sit in the same rut, day in day out, and let life pass you by as if you’re just a piece of flotsam on the current and not actually a part of the stream.

My epiphany was simple…I HAD to¬†change my life.

That’s where Chris Pratt comes in, lol, no not literally, well almost! Unlike other Hollywood types and famous hunks called Chris, like Thor himself Chris Hemsworth, Chris Pratt for all his money and fame is just like so many of us, a mere mortal who has struggled with his weight. That’s when inspiration hit. Chris Pratt had ballooned to 300lbs (21 stone) for his film role in The Delivery Man then had a life changing moment of his own when he was cast as Peter Quill, Star-Lord himself, in Guardians of the Galaxy (one of my favourite films).

To secure the role he needed to lose 60lbs in 6 months. THAT was my inspiration jump off point Рto give myself 6 months and a fixed date I could focus on (for the first time ever) to lose 60lbs or as much weight as I could! Thus The Chris Pratt Challenge was born!

The very next day I announced to the world, as a way of stopping me¬†from backing out, that I was doing this Chris Pratt Challenge, where I would check in every day to share my experiences of trying to lose weight, get fit and change my life. I¬†even went as far (for the first time ever) of weighing myself and going public with my weight. Not Chris Pratt’s 21stone but still¬†a massive 17st 12lbs! I was shocked I had gotten so big, but I was and am determined to change. No more yo-yo dieting, a permanent change.

My start date was 16th June 2017, the day after that fateful book launch¬†and¬†my¬†deadline date is¬†16th December 2017. I pledge to have lost a significant amount of weight, a life changing amount of weight by that date.¬†Not only am I eating healthy food now and not late at night, I am forcing myself to eat breakfast, which I haven’t done since I was 13 and…most unlike me, I’m doing something I haven’t done in over twenty years – exercise, in fact, I’m doing daily exercise! Starting off with a¬†negative value of fitness the only way¬†from here is up! ūüėÄ

I WILL do this, lol, I’m nothing if not a tenacious bastard! ūüėÄ

 

So, I am finally¬†changing my life…what are¬†YOU going to do today to change yours?

Good luck to us all! ūüėÄ xxxx

 

Making Hay with Neil Gaiman, Stephen Fry and Chris Riddell!

On Monday 29th May 2017, I had the good fortune to drive to the beautiful Welsh/Herefordshire border town of Hay-on-Wye and¬†its world famous Hay Literary Festival. The Hay Festival is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, so it felt like an extra special treat. My reason for going, apart from the fact that Hay-on-Wye is a book lovers paradise, was because I had tickets to see Neil Gaiman in conversation with Stephen Fry on the subject of ‘Mythology’, two authors and people I greatly admire and a topic I love and am a little obsessed with – a perfect¬†day out!¬†ūüėÄ

I’ve been to Hay and its festival many times now¬†but it always feels like the first time, that tangible sense of excitement and child like joy just stays with me every¬†time. I’ve been wanting to see Neil Gaiman for ages but somehow had¬†always missed him, often because I’d bought early bird tickets to see someone else before realising that Gaiman was appearing as well. As much as I love Hay it’s just too far to go twice in a week (every route there is fiddly as hell), and too expensive and booked up to even consider staying the night. Last time, I was¬†at the festival¬†to see Kazuo Ishiguro and his brilliant new book The Buried Giant and had once again missed Neil Gaiman. The irony was that Ishiguro was discussing the incredible snobbery he had encountered when he decided to write The Buried Giant, his first foray into fantasy, and how he had had no idea just what genre bias, prejudice and misconceptions¬†there was in literary circles about fantasy. In fact, Ishiguro had been so taken aback by the level of snobbery¬†towards fantasy that he ended up, with Neil Gaiman, writing a newspaper article about it!

So when the festival programme landed on my door two weeks ago and I saw Neil Gaiman would be appearing with another favourite of mine, Stephen Fry, it was a no brainer, I booked my ticket immediately.¬†To my delight, a couple of friends had booked up the exact same event so we were able to meet up and sit next to each other. A shout out to the lovely Roz Clarke¬†a brilliant fellow fantasy writer from¬†Grimbold Books (who’s not only a great writer¬†but is¬†an amazing editor as well as being a lovely person) and Heather Ashley, another lovely mutual friend and her fabulous fringed blue shawl¬†which I wanted to steal and two new friends I met on Monday, Ian Halverson and Amanda Beecham who was wearing the most gorgeous dress!

I drove to Hay hoping to avoid the predicted rain as well as all the poor squashed hedgehogs along the route. My accompanying soundtrack was¬†Soundgarden’s Superunknown album, made all the more poignant by the tragic suicide of its glorious frontman and all round poetic genius, Chris Cornell less than two weeks before. The track ‘Feels Like Suicide’, a track I had always loved now seems too loaded with meaning¬†and full of sadness to listen to. ūüė¶

I arrived a little late (as usual), just after 1pm. Note to all people travelling to Hay-on-Wye, don’t EVER go through Hereford, REALLY not worth it! Anyway, after a security check of bags (a sad necessity these days especially post the horrific Manchester attack the previous Monday) and the armed police that were patrolling the festival, I met up with the gang in the Food Hall. What made it more joyous, is that only Heather had been to Hay before so for Roz, Ian and Amanda this was all a gloriously new experience. We wandered¬†past the various tents, bunting and fluttering flags like Tibetan prayers to the gods, past the smells of barbecuing foods, coffee’s of every description, acoustic music, pan pipes, fiddles¬†and the general hubbub caused by the thousands of festival goers.

We grabbed a shuttle bus into town and started our¬†book crawl opposite Hay-on-Wye’s impressive ruined castle…by going to Shepherd’s Ice-Cream Parlour! Yes, ice cream came before books! ūüėÄ Shepherd’s is an amazing place straight out of the 1930’s with it’s curved glass fa√ßade, mosaic floor and caf√© chic vibe, but it’s ice cream…oh la la! The queues were totally worth it! Made from local sheep’s milk, for me, it’s the best ice cream outside of Italy. I was a little pig and had four scoops spread over two tubs! ūüėÄ

We began exploring Hay-on-Wye’s delights by visiting the famous¬†Richard Booth’s bookshop – THIS is the sort of bookshop you dream about, all creaking dark wooden floors and interior and several levels to get blissfully lost in. Having the will power of a gnat, I succumbed and bought my first of many purchases of the day!

We went on to Addyman’s Books, Mostly Maps and one of my personal favourites, Hay-On-Wye Booksellers. The magical¬†thing¬†about Hay-on-Wye, is that it casts a spell over you so utterly that you lose track of time even if you’ve only been in a few of its wonderful bookshops. Which is what happened to us. We didn’t even get the chance to meander around Hay’s largest bookshop, Hay Cinema Bookshop with over 200,000 titles! Suddenly it was 5pm and with our Neil Gaiman/Stephen Fry event starting at 5:30 in the main¬†Tata Tent, we had to move our arses. With the queue for the shuttle buses impossibly long we decided to chance walking the mile and a bit from the town centre to the festival. We made it in time and joined the expansive¬†queue – in¬†all my years of going to Hay, I’ve never seen a queue for anybody as long as that one! We eventually got into the Tent¬†and in my exuberance to grab five seats together I virtually trampled on this poor woman who had sat herself at the very end of a line of empty seats. Oops sorry! :O

The event started and to our amazement we had an extra treat, up on stage joining Neil Gaiman and Stephen Fry was Children’s Laureate and illustrator extraordinaire, Chris Riddell (a FB friend of mine and someone I am in complete awe of). Chris was on stage throughout actually illustrating the conversation on the spot! Amazing! I have no idea how he does it!

The conversation started with Stephen Fry asking Neil about how he first got into mythology, a subject they are both passionate about (Stephen Fry loves Greek Myths which he talked about a bit, whereas Neil Gaiman prefers Norse Myths – hence his new book, Norse Mythology). For Neil Gaiman it was Norse Mythology and its roots, not the Wagnerian Cycle stuff but the older original Eddas, tales of Odin, Thor, Loki and giant wolf Fenrir, of magic and cruelty, tricks and betrayal, that he loved so much. Certainly very inspirational stuff, no wonder Tolkien often plundered such tales for his own creations!¬†Neil spoke eloquently about Loki’s children, particularly T√Ĺr¬†and read a section of his new book, Norse Mythology, and how Odin had made the dwarfs make an unbreakable chain,¬†Gleipnir, and had tricked Fenrir into being bound up by it because they were jealous of his strength and power. I won’t spoil the end of the tale for those of you who are not familiar. ūüôā

Stephen Fry, as always, had a lovely relaxed style of questioning that made both men at ease, even under the intense stare of some 500 audience members and all the bright lights. Chris Riddell brought there conversations alive with beautifully drawn snapshots of both sitters and the various mythological characters they discussed, as well as some cheekily flamboyant moments of drawing hilarity!

The entire experience was utterly magical. I really wish I had brought a Dictaphone or something to record it all. It lasted just over a hour with some question and answer bits from the audience, including one girl asking if as writers did Gaiman and Fry ever feel like a God themselves? Clever question. Neil Gaiman replied “Yes, twice. Once when I was asked to write a Dr. Who script and I wrote… ‘Interior Tardis’, and once 30 years before that when I had to make Batman say something!” You can see the whole talk here.

Someone also asked if Gaiman would be interested in ever doing some Welsh Myths, like the Mabinogion…he didn’t say no! ūüėÄ For someone like me, who¬†ADORES any kind of mythology, but particularly Norse, Celtic¬†and ancient Sumerian tales (Epic of Gilgamesh), this whole event was simply edible! ūüėÄ

After it finished I did my usual gazelle sprint to the festival bookshop, to queue up for the book signing. Despite my stumpy legs and swift weaving through the crowds, there were still about a hundred people in front of us, including the annoying serial fidget who was sitting next to me and could keep still for ore than a few seconds, making my chair move so much I was getting nauseous! But, we still managed to secure a good place, seeing as the queue snaked behind me by at least 2 or 3 hundred people!

Despite aching legs and complaining feet we queued and queued. Due to the number of people waiting Neil could only signed two books, but frankly he was amazing and ended up book signing for 5 hours! OMG! Anyway, being the naughty shit that I am and being a fan of his writing, I couldn’t resist in doing something cheeky. When it came to him singing the books I bought, his Norse Mythology and Stardust, I¬†blurted out that I was a fan of his writing and wanted to give him a gift to say thank you. I wasn’t as eloquent as I wanted to be and slapped my novel, White Mountain, down on his table like a wet fish, but he was very gracious and seemed to love the cover.¬†“Wow, lovely to meet a fellow author!”¬†then to my amazement he¬†stretched out his hand for a handshake! Gulp! What a moment, then he went and drew a doodle in one of the books!

After the book signing, exhausted but blissfully happy we said our goodbyes. It was nearly 8:30 but thankfully still light, so with the sun setting I left Hay-on-Wye and this my most favourite of festivals and taking a different route I drove through the majestic landscapes of the Golden Valley homeward bound.

What a magical day! ūüėÄ

How to Make A Living as a Writer!

Apologies¬†to all my US, NZ and Aussie¬†writer friends, this post is very UK based so won’t apply to most of you, but feel free pick up ideas. ūüėÄ

On Wednesday 24th May 2017, I attended my first Society of Authors (SoA) event in Bristol, at the Arnolfini Gallery, a place I used to visit all the time when I was a struggling art student some twenty years ago! In fact, I first saw a young Damien Hirst exhibit his work there before he made it huge with his pickled sharks, and I marvelled at the huge architectural spiders of artist Louise Bourgeois (a thing of fear for an arachnophobe like me!). The Arnolfini itself is perched on the banks of the River Frome in the heart of Bristol and although it¬†has changed a bit (more sleeker than I remember), thankfully it was still recognisable with it’s impressive exhibition spaces and relaxed bohemian vibe. If you’ve never visited it’s well worth a look. In fact the whole of the Bristol Docks/Quayside area is a lovely place to spend some time especially in the summer, very arty with almost an Amsterdam feel to the place with all the boats, barges and canal ferries going up and down¬†the water, the smell of street food wafting through the air, acoustic guitar strumming in the background, cafes and restaurants spilling onto the cobbled streets, now pedestrianised, and of course the Watershed Arts & Media Centre one side of the river and the Arnolfini Gallery the other, linked by the¬†stunning architectural Pero’s¬†Bridge.

The SoA event was a very topical one – ‘How to Make¬†a Living as a Writer’ – something¬†every writer I know would like to do!¬†As most SoA events are centralised in London, a¬†criticism made by one of the members there, I was absolutely determined to attend this rare outside of London event. As usual my body had other ideas…as I had dared to go to a last minute Grimbold Books work/social on the Monday evening which was fab but left me exhausted the following day, I ended up paying for it on the Wednesday. Annoyingly I went to bed on the Tuesday with a migraine, woke up on the Wednesday with a terrible migraine and one that decided to get progressively worse through the day with my usual vertigo and sickness, to the extent that I was then unable to drive and had to ask for a lift in. ūüė¶

The event was upstairs in one of the gallery ‘Reading Rooms’ and one with very little air conditioning on one of the hottest days of the year!¬†I was shocked and delighted that the whole thing¬†kicked off with the chair¬†reading a quote from¬†Gareth L. Powell, a brilliant Bristol based writer who I happen to know and who wanted to be there but the tickets had sold out!¬†How weird and wonderful¬†is that?

‚ÄúThere are two kinds of courage. There’s the kind you get from knowing that what you’re doing is right. And there’s the kind you get from knowing its hopeless and wrong, and just not giving a damn.‚Ä̬† ‚Äē Gareth L. Powell, The Last Reef

It began¬†with an interesting¬†Q&A session chaired by Sarah Baxter who advises SoA members on publishing contracts and issues, handles literary estates, including print permissions and amateur stage licences. She also administers grants for writers in need including the Authors Contingency Fund, PD James Memorial Fund and Authors Foundation grants. The SoA’s newest contracts advisor, Theo Jones, who used to work for Oxford University Press, also joined her and I had a rather nice chat to him during the break.
During the Q&A various topics were raised including¬†issues about competing titles, the new Amazon buy button (which is worrying a lot of people), the difficulty of earning a living through writing, the rise of celebrity authors¬†and I mentioned the problem of author signings in chains like Waterstones. To my delight I wasn’t the only person who had found a problem trying to get Waterstones to stock books from smaller authors and small presses, as well as indies and how once James Daunt took over Waterstones, their policy changed towards signing events¬†– where now most shops only hold signing events for big celebrity names. Yet another door/opportunity closed to struggling writers. The discussion around celebrity authors was very pertinent and how even well established authors are finding themselves squeezed off the shelves in both bookshops and libraries and are¬†finding it harder to get publishing contracts because celebrities are swamping the market. I myself mentioned the whole Miranda Hart problem I had encountered where I’ve had to completely re-write my entire picture book along with illustrations because her upcoming first foray into children’s fiction is almost exactly the same as my concept. Years of work wasted. Grrrrr. ūüė¶
I kept taking notes and trying to listen as I battled the migraine which was now pounding away behind my eyes with a regular persistence and tried to ignore the rising temptation to vomit. No-one likes throwing up, but vomiting in public is one of my fears. We had a break for refreshments and after a brief chat to Theo Jones I scuttled off to the toilets¬†in the hope of being¬†sick so I’d feel better after. No go. I came back and found myself cornered by an overly enthusiastic writer putting the world to rights. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, although I’m not naturally very social, I can go into my ‘social fa√ßade mode’ and chat with the best of them. The problem here though, was that apart from my sweating profusely through a mixture of meds and unbearable heat, this particular woman was actually shouting. Obviously she had a problem hearing above the general chit chat, but shouting in an animated fashion only inches away from my banging migraine was something akin to torture! ūüė¶

We returned to our seats for the meat of the matter –¬†a one hour¬†panel discussion on ‘How to Make a Living as a Writer’. Sarah Baxter was joined by Helen Chaloner (CEO of Literature Works*). Helen worked in publishing PR for over nine years, at Penguin Books, Macdonald Publishing and, latterly, at Faber & Faber.¬†She was the National Director of the Arvon Foundation and Chief Executive of Farms for City Children. She is a lover of fiction and principal short story reader for the Bridport Prize. The panel was rounded off by writer and fellow SoA member, Patricia Ferguson,¬†who has published seven novels and a volume of short stories so far, teaches¬†Creative Writing for the University of Bristol, and was Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Reading University for three years.

*I admit I’d never heard of Literature Works before –¬†a strategic literature development charity for South West England¬†who¬†are a National Portfolio Organisation of the Arts Council England.¬†Literature Works‚Äô role is to fundraise for the Literature Works Annual Fund, a support and grant scheme providing small awards for literature activity across the region, and where possible securing funding for larger regional projects with delivery partners, advice, advocacy and partnership.¬†There mission is to support, understand and advocate¬†regional literature in all its contexts, for everyone, for all ages, etc.

Sarah Baxter mentioned the South West Writers Directory (Literature Works) and that we should all get ourselves listed on there (something I have done this afternoon). Write Now was also mentioned as an initiative being piloted in Birmingham and Bristol – a scheme to find, mentor and publish new writers with different stories to tell and is in correlation with the BBC Writer’s Room. Writers from communities under-represented on the nation‚Äôs bookshelves.¬†It is sponsored by Penguin Random House and I must say, anything that promotes greater diversity on our bookshelves is very welcomed by me.

I’d love to say some magic wands were discussed, some instant thing we can all do to suddenly become full time writers who can pay their bills exclusively through just writing, but if it was discussed, then those were the bits I missed…

Annoyingly, during this most crucial part of the event, I was desperately ill, teeth clenched, mouth clamped shut fighting the urge to barf, and so embarrassingly twice I had to leave in front of everyone. The second time I only just made it to the Arnolfini toilets before projectile vomiting everywhere. The only good thing is that it was with such force that I had no disgusting sick on me, it was like some comedy water canon¬†being switched on. Apologies to the cleaners, I tried my best. ūüė¶

Dear dear…you can imagine the state I was in, trying to concentrate and put on a professional front and write down copious notes for myself and friends while struggling with a howling migraine and nausea. Ugh. NOT my finest hour. I later made my apologies to Sarah Baxter and Poppy Rosenberg who were running the event and they were lovely. Then, exiting as quickly as I could, I found a bench overlooking the harbour, under the dappled shade of a sycamore tree and waited for my ride to pick me up as my head pulsated and swirled as if it were trying to copy Michael Ironside’s exploding cranium in horror film,¬†Scanners.

So, what can I tell you about the outcome of all this?

Well, apart from the fact that you are not alone in struggling to make a living solely from writing, there really were no instant answers.

A few helpful hints were given though to raise your profile, perhaps get financial help and get paying writing work, so I’ll pop them here in no particular order (apologies for any obvious ones):

  • Literature Works – have resources, advice and help for writers.
  • South West Writer’s Directory¬†– its free, get yourself on there! (sorry west country only)
  • Bid writing – Using your transferable skills ie. professional writing expertise in writing for companies, charities¬†and organisations needing a more comprehensive and literate approach to their communications, fundraising¬†and marketing.
  • Join a local writer’s group, not only as a means of fine tuning your own writing but as a networking tool.
  • Royal Literary Fund – The Royal Literary Fund is a UK charity that has been helping authors since 1790. It provides grants and pensions to writers in financial difficulty; it also places writers in universities to help students develop their writing.
  • National Writing Day (June 21st) – get involved with libraries and schools to celebrate this day.
  • Arvon – Was discussed a great deal and the grants and support.
  • Caroline Summerfield was mentioned and The Eugenie Summerfield Children’s Book Prize.
  • The Bath Novel Award was mentioned as well.
  • Mailing lists were discussed as a good way of building your fanbase.
  • It was discussed that as authors we needed to find a way of incentivising publishers to sign authors who are not celebrities, of finding a way to break that repeating cycle which is not only detrimental to professional authors whose sole income is writing, but also in some cases, floods the market with yet more substandard writing!
  • The organisers were very keen to start up a Bristol SoA chapter, as currently, despite there being apparently 481 SoA authors in and around Bristol, there is no Bristol group. I’d certainly be up for joining one, especially if there was a speculative fiction based one (Gareth?). Unfortunately a lot of this discussion and networking no doubt happened in the networking/socialising with drinks portion of the event, held afterwards in the Watershed bar and which I had to leave due to illness. ūüė¶
  • Apparently the average earnings of a writer had now dropped from 18K a year to 11K. I must confess, my earnings from writing is nowhere near this. My illustration work with HarperCollins is the money maker for me, not my writing.
  • Promote your local connections through local libraries, bookshops, schools and writing groups – local radio is a resource as well as newspapers, use them.
  • Put yourself forward to teach creative writing courses at festivals etc. huge amounts of experience are not needed, it can be done with just a single published book under your belt.
  • Podcasting – as a visual means of raising your profile and getting more of your content out there on channels such as YouTube.

There, that seemed to be the majority of what was discussed. ūüėÄ

For me, a very handy contact gained, was meeting Judith Gunn who runs the Gloucestershire & Neighbouring Counties¬†SoA¬†group. I explained that unfortunately I’ve never been able to attend any of the meetings and events as they are always held during the day usually on Monday or Tuesday when I’m working. Judith said she had been discussing possibly opening up the group to hold an evening session every so often, so keen members like me who work day jobs, can attend. I certainly think that would be hugely beneficial not only to me, but other SoA writers I know, like lovely fellow fantasy writer, Jules Ironside who was working on Wednesday so couldn’t attend. Watch this space!

Are you prepared for SUCCESS?

Despite not being well at the moment it has been a good year so far. It’s funny, I¬†don’t know if it’s a Brit thing – being¬†humble not ‘hooting your horn’ or wanting to be seen to show off, or if it’s just a me thing, but I’ve always been prepared for failure not success.

On the relationship front – yeap, I’m pretty much a human tsunami, a total disaster zone. It’s true I never wanted to get married or trapped as I saw it¬†(hardly surprising given my childhood and family) but I did and do still want kids…something I’m going to have to do something about sooner rather than later.

On the professional front – I fell into a career (teaching) I never intended to do, and though to my own surprise I was very good at it, it was hugely draining and creatively very unfulfilling. But, I thank that career for my house and mortgage and the boring adult life stuff it gave me.

On the creative front – yes, I’ve always been blessed with the ability to draw and paint to a high standard, even from the age of 3 apparently. It led me to do a National Diploma in Foundation Art followed by a BA (Hons) Degree in Fine Art/Visual Arts, which I loved every moment of. But, having completed said degree and not having any money, I foolishly turned down the MA place I had secured at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art in London. Instead, after yet another disastrous relationship break up and a¬†marriage proposal (yes, I still have feelings for him but no I have no regrets saying “No”), I escaped as far away as I could, 15,000 miles away to New Zealand for four months – backpacking in blissful solitude and stunning landscapes! I’d never been happier. ūüėÄ

On returning, without a job or prospects of getting one, I did a post-grad teaching course and fell into teaching for 16 long years – many of which were enjoyable but many of which were not.

Life passes so frigging quickly…how the hell did I get here?

Then, my first completed novel, White Mountain, was published. I was ecstatic, a childhood dream and passion had actually come true and to make things more perfect, I had illustrated my epic fantasy novel too, combining my two great loves.

What happened?

Well, an 8 date Waterstones book signing tour and numerous independent bookshops, sold a ton of books, which gave me my membership to the Society of Authors, newspaper interviews, things were moving fast and brilliantly and then…it all promptly collapsed. Despite my jubilation at being published, it was with such a thoroughly unscrupulous and dreadful publisher who¬†had ruined my book (something I had taken ten years to write and research), had given me possibly the worst contract terms in the business, broken that same contract numerous times, bullied me terribly and finally shafted me out of hundreds if not thousands of pounds of royalties. I left them and after only 4 months of the book being out there on shelves and in bookshops, it was withdrawn and I skulked away badly battered and bruised by the whole ordeal.

It very nearly stopped me from ever writing again and certainly contributed to my permanent illness and my problems ‘getting the words down’. ūüė¶

Fast forward, amazing thing upon amazing thing happened and my beloved book was taken on and re-published by another publisher, the wonderful Grimbold Books based in¬†Banbury¬†(and their imprint, Kristell Ink Publishing). It was re-edited, re-formatted, given an amazing new cover from the dreadful one it had been landed with and was completely overhauled and released out into the world once more as a beautiful fresh thing! ūüėÄ ‚̧

I was thrilled and elated beyond words. That elusory second chance had come along and the book was how I had always dreamed it would be. BUT, despite Grimbold being utterly brilliant, which they are and the book being brilliant too, that initial momentum had been lost. Yes sales were steady, but not the fast flow they had once been and in the intervening time Waterstones had changed their policy about small press authors signing, and so suddenly, despite having sold well in every Waterstones I had signed in, the doors were slammed shut. I believe, slowly, that is beginning to change…we’ll see.

Now, with a crippling illness and mental constrictions on what I can do (short term memory loss and severe mental fatigue as part of my ME/CFS and Vestibular Neuritis), I have struggled on, writing a slew of short stories, novellas and poetry and trying my hardest to still write the second novel and follow up to White Mountain. Now at least I finally have a first draft of Darkling Rise from which to work.

I kept drawing, painting, mostly for myself and friends and started doing book illustrations. Nothing major, all very enjoyable but hardly paying the bills, especially as once my teaching career ended I found I physically and mentally couldn’t work fulltime anymore – I work part-time in a library now, a job I love.

So yes, some ups, undoubtedly, but lots of downs and certainly lots of practice for failing.

Then suddenly, this year after a strange string of ‘word of mouth’ and luck coincided, along with a large dose of THANK YOU to author, Anna Smith-Spark, I was actually¬†approached by the big boys – HarperCollins! ūüėÄ

They had seen the hand drawn fantasy map I had done for Anna Smith-Spark and her wonderful fantasy debut, The Court of Broken Knives, and seen my other illustration work and wanted me to be one of their illustrators/suppliers! It was a strange dream, but a wonderful one.

Of course I jumped at the chance and quickly found myself doing a second commission for them only weeks later, for Anna Stephens and her highly anticipated fantasy debut, Godblind.

But here is where the¬†– are you prepared for success?, comes in…

Because I really, REALLY was not¬†ready. Suddenly I had HarperCollins contacting me on almost a daily basis, tight deadlines thrust on me, and yes…MONEY! They were valuing me and my work in a way I was unprepared for.

I was having to deal with purchase orders and invoices. I’d always given clients a receipt if they wanted it, but no, these were bonafide invoices, each one for a different hardback edition then paperback edition of the books the maps would be in and each for a handsome amount.

I was stunned. I still am. I just received 6 purchase orders from HarperCollins a few days ago, for me to send back with 6 different invoices. Then, I got contacted by Dutch Publishers, Luitingh-Sijthoff, who want to use the same map too, and Orbit from the USA will be using one of them as well, etc., etc. OMG!!!

It’s been utterly bewildering. For someone not used to any kind of success (other than the fleeting kind), despite all my hard work, efforts and dreams, to have this happening now is frankly bizarre.

To all of you out there, plugging away as I have been, trying to find that magical ingredient to finding a market for your work, or ‘making it big’, finding success, having your dreams realised…take some heart. Although I’d never claim that I’ve ‘made it big’ because I haven’t, I have suddenly found myself in the big leagues in illustrative terms at least, with the prospect of making a good living from what I create – there is now a small space for me at the grand table.

So keep working at it guys, keep having those dreams, don’t give in, work your ass off and grasp every opportunity that comes your way because they don’t last and may not come again.

I for one have no idea where all this will lead me and am convinced it won’t last, but I’m hanging on for the ride with every intention of staying on this rollercoaster for as long as I possibly can! ūüėÄ xxxx ‚̧

Meeting Deadlines – Remember to Breathe!

It’s Easter today – Happy Easter everyone! ūüėÄ

As I sit trying to recover from a very scary asthma attack I had at 4am, when I woke up suddenly unable to breathe, it’s forced me to be reflective on the last few weeks.

It was a manic March and so far April has been equally busy. Having kept up with my daily art challenge – The Artmaniac Challenge, for the whole of Jan and Feb, I fell off the art wagon in March, although ironically Sophie E Tallis Illustrations¬†went from strength to strength – most notably being taken on by HarperCollins in February as one of their illustrators! ūüėÄ

This manicness started with a last minute¬†dash to get a dark fantasy short story (Cern) finished¬†for its anthology (Underskinn)¬†deadline of Feb 28th and continued when I had the daft last minute idea of painting a self-portrait to enter the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2018 (deadline March 3rd)! I blame the inspiration of a few close friends (and cake nutters) for this and their unbridled passion and enthusiasm¬†for just ‘going for it’, taking chances, pushing boundaries, going outside of your comfort zone – “hell why not?”.

I made the deadlines on both with literally 1 minute to spare, yes 1 minute! My short story¬†has been accepted (as far as I know) but in the end my portrait wasn’t shortlisted. But I must say I have absolutely¬†NO regrets, other than starting the painting the day before so it wasn’t finished properly! ūüėÄ

That manic flourish seemed to encapsulate March as I started my next commission, a painting for a New York client and his literary group – for it to adorn the front cover of their literary journal/magazine and website. Seemed like a great opportunity to once again do something different and widen my skill set and reputation for quality original art.

He was a slightly unusual client in that he clearly had never commissioned any artwork before and needed everything to be explained several times. But I’m very patient¬†and being¬†a perfectionist by nature¬†I always want all my clients to be 110% happy and so far they all have been. Some of that perfectionism isn’t just in the standard of the art I produce but in making sure that each client is involved in the whole creative process every step of the way. By doing that, not only are you including the client in the work and all decision making but it becomes a great creative partnership and ensures that you deliver EXACTLY what they want. ūüėÄ

Unfortunately¬†despite going through ‘the process’ with him several times to ensure he understood exactly how¬†each stage¬†works and what to expect, there were often occasions where he seemed to get confused – an example being when I sent him the first inked up artwork and he asked where the colours were even though I had explained that I couldn’t move onto the final painting stage¬†until he was 100% happy with the inked up work!

I chalked it up to a difference in culture and language causing a few blips in communication. Mmmm, I should have listened to my spidey senses.

I had purposely set aside the whole of March for his artwork commission, having at his behest moved other projects to the side (including my own picture book that I have two agents waiting to see. So I won’t be doing that again!). Throughout the entire month he kept asking me when he could see the full colour version, even at the beginning when I was only at the graphite drawing stage.

The day of the deadline came, 31st March, as always I delivered the artwork on the deadline as agreed. That’s when it quickly appeared that there was something rotten in Denmark.

I sent the finished artwork to him with a watermark, as agreed, yet he didn’t even acknowledge it and instead kept asking for the finished work without watermark. A flurry of increasingly weird and then aggressive emails came, demanding the artwork without watermark as I kept explaining that he would get it as agreed the moment payment had been made. I’d spent a whole month working my ass off on this, doing exhaustive research, sending copious sketches, colour samples, drawings, asking 101 questions, etc., just to be screwed at the end by either an incompetent idiot or a crook. I couldn’t believe it. ūüė¶

Friday rolled into Saturday when he then switched tack and suddenly said he didn’t like the artwork. I was bereft, utterly exhausted, stressed and upset that I’d worked so hard, which he knew, had kept giving him the artwork at every stage and given him every opportunity for the work to be amended/changed etc. as required¬†yet he had said nothing until after the deadline. It seemed yet another ploy to get the artwork without watermark so he could use it without paying and shaft me in the process – commission my services, time and artwork for free.

Finally I sent an email threatening¬†legal action. To be honest¬†I’d given up hope of ever being paid by this idiot. What made¬†the situation¬†worse was wasting a whole month of my precious time when I could have been doing other projects. In fact half way through March I had received another email from Terence the Head of Fiction Art at HarperCollins asking if I could do another fantasy map commission (for the lovely Anna Stephens and her highly anticipated grimdark debut, Godblind,¬†published with HC in June 2017). The problem was that this one had a tight deadline.

Because of my professionalism I said I was already committed to another client so couldn’t start the HarperCollins one until after the NY commission, April 1st earliest. Boy, April 1st really ended up being¬†a joke on me! ūüė¶

I was so stressed out by it and upset that of course it made me ill. I didn’t sleep for two nights and was vomiting profusely with all my usual vertigo and migraine symptoms. But I had no time to be ill, I had the HC commission to do so I plunged into it, using it as a great distraction from being screwed over. It was also lovely working with Anna Stephens and Terence from HC, two thoroughly lovely and decent people, the complete opposite to the client I had just had.

The week passed with me stressed out of my gourd until the NY git, under the threat of legal action and realising that he wasn’t going to get any artwork from me for free, finally paid up! OMG!!! :O

To be honest, I was totally shocked, I still am, because of the awful way he was behaving I had completely written off ever being paid by him.

But because of his actions, it also meant that I was having to work 12/13 hour days to try and get the HarperCollins commission finished by the deadline of 14th April.

I managed it, just, and I’m really proud of the final artwork. As always I gave it my all and it does look great. Most importantly Anna and Terence love it. Phew! ūüôā

But of course, all of this has taken a toll – hence my asthma attack last night. ūüė¶

So what have I learned from all this madness?

Sadly, that I now won’t take on any¬†new commissions from¬†individuals I don’t know, it’s just too risky.¬†From now on¬†I’ll stick to HarperCollins commissions only¬†and indie authors I know…at the end of the day life is tough enough without dealing with unscrupulous people and we all need to make a living and protect ourselves especially in the highly changeable creative arts (writing, artwork, acting, singing etc.).

So folks, whatever field you work in/make a living from, PLEASE make sure you protect yourself, your work, your skills, your time and your health!

Hopefully once my lungs start working again properly, I shall return to my picture book project which I have to get ready for the (hopefully still interested) agents who are awaiting it at the end of this month – in only 2 weeks time!

Wish me luck folks! ūüėÄ xxxx