Mistress of Wolves – the pleasures and pains of having wolfies!

I’ll be writing a blog post about making a living as an artist and my glacial progress on the writing front, but this really is a post for all of you who have fur babies, those four-legged members of the family who are so much more than ‘just a pet’, and the emotional challenges that brings.

This will also, hopefully, be an informative post for those who are dealing with the dreaded degenerative myelopathyDM (previously called CDRM – canine degenerative radiculomyelopathy) a horrendous progressive inherited disease of the spinal cord similar to multiple sclerosis (MS) in humans and which tragically¬†has no cure at the moment. ūüė¶ DM is¬†caused through a breakdown of the myelin sheath protecting the neurons of the spinal cord. The cause of the demyelination itself is unclear, though it is thought to be an autoimmune disorder.¬†ūüė¶

As many of you know, I have four beautiful wolf babies, my two 8yr old White German Shepherds, Tolly/Tollam (our long haired boy) and his brother Korrun (short haired) + my two 4yr old Alaskan Malamute brothers, (big) Bere (our 65kg white bundle of gorgeousness) and his brother Fenn (the darkest of our handsome boys).

Anyone who knows me, knows¬†how much I love them¬†(and I don’t care how sad that sounds!) ūüėÄ Basically it’s a love-in at our house with them kissing and licking each other all the time and me if I’m not quick enough to avoid the occasional tongue in my ear! Eeeew! ūüėÄ

That’s not to say life is perfect. Anyone who knows malamutes knows they’re the toughest most stubborn breed to train¬†(being the nearest dog breed to wolves) and my two are definitely Houdini’s at exploring, escaping through hedges and fences¬†and squeezing through impossibly small places (the sole reason we had to fence in the entire stream!), not to mention being natural-born hunters so all the wildlife in our garden must beware.¬†Cheeky boys! ūüėÄ

2 years ago we¬†noticed that¬†our big Alaskan Malamute, Bere, was¬†suddenly losing weight despite having a ravenous appetite and had very loose stools. We didn’t wait, we saw the vet straight away and did a ton of research (including finding out about a cutting edge Bristol University study) and found out that he had EPI (exocrine pancreatic insufficiency) a nasty inherited disease where the dog’s own pancreas stops working and doesn’t produce the enzymes needed for digestion and breaking down food. It’s a horrible condition where basically the dog starves to death from the inside as they eat and eat and eat but nothing is absorbed and just passes through. I came across a lot of owners who, on finding out the diagnosis, had their dogs put down. ūüė¶ Sorry, but that ain’t us, we fight for our family and we weren’t going to just¬†let Bere die. Lol, I’m nothing if not tenacious! Long story short, we found a¬†solution, by liquidating pigs pancreas (a natural substitute which is full of those missing enzymes) and mixing it with every meal, Bere went from 40kg to 65kg! Although he has the condition for life, he couldn’t be happier or healthier now. No-one would ever know there was anything wrong with him. It really was like watching a miracle, and yes, a hell of a lot of daily hard work and expense, but he’s so worth it. ūüôā ‚̧

Then I have my two German Sheps who were rescues which, despite being amazing with wildlife, explains a lot of their social anxieties around people particularly strangers. From the little information we were given by the rescue centre, the RSPCA rescued their mum (who died shortly after)¬†and the whole litter of 10 from what sounded like an awful puppy farm. My views on greedy unscrupulous people, who usually have¬†no qualifications, formal training or morals for that matter, and who are just into using animals to make money, are pretty stringent. I think they’re the lowest of the low basically, often breeding 4 or more litters from¬†a single dog too old to have anymore pups, to squeeze as much money out of them as they can, and yes, sadly, often breeding all sorts of nasty inherited diseases too, which lead to heartbreak for the animal and their owners. ūüė¶

Sadly¬†this time we’ve come up against¬†one of those¬†insidious diseases that we can’t solve¬†– degenerative myelopathy (DM), an awful debilitating progressive spinal cord condition inherited by those carrying the DM gene and most associated with German Shepherds (in fact it used to be called the German Shepherd disease!),¬†that leads to paralysis and sadly¬†kills 100% of those afflicted with it. Tragically at the moment there is NO cure. ūüė¶

We are utterly devastated that our¬†beloved Tolly looks like he has it. ūüė¶ It came out of the blue too which has made this even more difficult. Over Christmas I noticed a slight tremor in his hind legs. We weren’t unduly worried though, our boys do so much running around we’ve often had the odd sprain. But in January Tolly’s hind legs were noticeably shaky and weak, we contacted the vets and were initially told just to monitor him as there were no signs of pain – thankfully that is the ONLY positive thing about DM in that it is a non-painful condition. By February though¬†he was dragging his back paws, particularly on the left side, and his hind legs were crossing over and collapsing on him once or sometimes¬†twice a day. He is still very mobile though, still running brilliantly and is as active as ever, but after resting or sleeping, that’s when you see the back legs go – this apparently is the early stages of DM. Also, Tolly’s two middle claws on both his back feet are also worn down where he has dragged them.

To say we have researched the hell out of degenerative myelopathy would be an understatement. We’ve combed sources, websites, blogs, joined Facebook groups on the subject, sent countless emails off etc etc. So far, all evidence points to DM being an incurable fatal disease with little to no hope once a dog has it. Yes, some dogs have lived for several years with the condition, using mobility carts when their back legs give out on them, which we ourselves will do when the time comes, but in every single case the same inevitable outcome – death. ūüė¶

Tolly is only 8yrs old, and we’re utterly heartbroken¬†for us and him. Worse still, as DM is a hereditary disease, we think his brother Korrun may have it too as we’ve noticed a slight tremor in his hind legs! ūüė¶ xxx

It is true that other conditions like slipped discs, arthritis¬†and hip dysplasia which do cause pain, can have similar signs to DM and that often to gain an actual diagnosis of DM all other conditions have to be ruled out first. But we know our dogs so well, as much as I wish it wasn’t DM, we’re 99% sure it is. ūüė¶

So, what can you do when faced with an incurable fatal disease? Р Fight! Fight like hell against it!

These are just a few of the things you can do if you think your dog has degenerative myelopathy:

  1. Get a DNA test done (which we’re doing), which can be either through a blood test or mouth swab test. Although¬†a DNA test¬†cannot definitively show if a dog has DM it will show if they are carriers of the faulty DM gene. If they are, then there’s a good chance they have or may develop the disease. If they are not carrying the DM gene then they CANNOT have DM, so it’s definitely worth getting a test and it’s a whole lot cheaper than an MRI/CT scan. DNA tests are generally covered by pet insurance too, but do check first.
  2. Daily exercise is key. Lack of exercise does NOT cause degenerative myelopathy, that’s a completely inaccurate wife’s tale, it is a genetic inherited condition and only dogs carrying the gene may develop it. BUT, daily exercise will hugely help keep slow down the progression of the disease and will aid in your dog’s mobility. I’ve been doing daily runs with Tolly, circuits around our 2 acre garden as well as weaving exercises around the trees. I would recommend avoiding walking on pavements and roads as this will further damage those worn¬†down nails, walking on grass, gravel, sand (different textures is important) but they’ll also be softer on their feet.
  3. Daily leg stretches and massages. I don’t know if these actually help but Tolly certainly loves them and it helps you to feel the muscle mass in their legs, it’s also good to push against/put pressure on their paws/pads.
  4. As advised by the vet, have your pet walk on a variety of surfaces, spiky, smooth, textured, rough, etc., this will encourage the signals from the feet along the spine to the brain and encourage them to pick up their feet a bit more. I’ve done this in the past by placing socks on his feet too.
  5. Hydrotherapy – helps mobility and limb ataxia, eases any pain from related arthritis and problems caused by DM like sprains and is a great exercise for dogs as it supports their weight. BUT, it is very pricey. Our pet insurance will only cover this to ¬£500 so it may well be worth finding your own alternatives – we’ll be taking Tolly for walks through the stream that runs by our house, which is also good for the different textures (sand, gravel, stone, weeds) under foot.
  6. There are no medicinal cures for DM yet but daily supplements and vitamins help hugely in the general health & mobility of your dog and can help alleviate some of the symptoms (the below are for UK residents USA residents can find these from other outlets):
  • Vitamin B complex (100mg) (B12 + B6) (found in Vetzyme products UK)
  • Vitamin E (1000 – 2000mg) (found in Vetzyme products UK)
  • Vitamin C (anti-oxidant 1000 – 2000mg) (VetUK joint supplement)
  • Selenium (works with Vitamin E) no more than 200¬Ķg a day
  • Omega 3 (either fish oil, ground flax seeds¬†or fish products are also very rich in these) (Vetzyme high strength product UK)
  • MSM (ProTreat and Vetzyme high strength) MSM is a strong antioxidant, capable of binding and inactivating harmful free radicals. MSM is also a potent anti-inflammatory for autoimmune reactions, it also crosses the blood brain barrier and allows nerve cells to excrete products
  • Turmeric is a great detoxifier (not tablets for humans as these are too strong, use VetUK as these joint supplements are specifically for dogs)
  • Glucosamine and Chondroitin sulphate (VetUK, ProTreat and Vetzyme have these)
  • Nutritional yeast as well.
  • Raw garlic is antibacterial and antifungal as well as having an anti-inflammatory and anti-biotic. Add in ginger for it’s anti-emetic and calming effect along with mustard which improves digestion and bowel function.
  1. Other alternatives to try:
  • CBD oil¬† – (the legal cannabis oil, stronger than the hemp oil you can buy in supermarkets for cooking but as CBD oil is VERY expensive, if you can’t afford it then please do buy the Hemp Oil). We’ve ordered this but not tried it yet, but from all the things we’ve heard, this can really help relax your dog, help with any pain caused through twisting limbs/sprains and is an antioxidant and is great at combating autoimmune associated disorders.
  • Aminocaproic Acid (EACA)now this is the closest we’ve found to finding a cure! Unfortunately for UK residents it’s nigh on impossible to get over here (but we are still trying and I will post here any that we find!). This amazing USA Vet, Dr Roger Clemmons, is an expert in DM in German Shepherds and from his WestLab facilities in Florida he has had amazing results with aminocaproic acid in 80% of his patients where it slowed down the progression of the disease and even halted it! Be aware, this is¬†extremely expensive!
  • N-acetylcysteine (NAC) – this (easier to get in the UK) was also the other medication Dr Clemmons used with aminocaproic acid for the best results.

So, at the moment we are fighting the good fight. We seem to have swayed our at first very reluctant vet (our usual amazing vet is on maternity leave) to look into aminocaproic acid in the UK as a treatment for him. We have Tolly on all those daily supplements and vitamins above, we’ve ordered the CBD oil which is on its way¬†and will be having the vet do a DNA test hopefully next week, while we are rigorously exercising him every day, doing leg stretches and massages and generally doing everything we can to help him and slow this hideous disease. It’s the very least we can do for our darling Tolly.

We’ve even been looking into stem cell research as some progress has come through recently in regards to MS which is so so similar to DM.

So there you go. For any wolfie lovers out there facing this same awful journey, I hope some of the info on here has been helpful. I would recommend joining the Degenerative Myelopathy group on Facebook, which has been a great source of information particularly for breaking down the different stages of the disease so people know what to look out for and can prepare themselves for what is to come.

Information is always power.

For those that are owners of healthy doggies, just give them a tight squeeze and hug and keep your fingers crossed that you never have to go through this.

May the force be with Tolly and any other wolfies fighting this. We love you! ‚̧ xxxxxx

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When time is the enemy – manically juggling!

Well it’s true to say that I started 2018 on the ground running – it’s been an utterly¬†manic year already and we’re only a few months in!

As with most people, I find myself constantly juggling. For me, working part time in a library, means juggling that with working full time as an illustrator, trying to find some time for writing and personal artwork, as well as home responsibilities, personal goals¬†(particularly for this year – more details later in the year on that one) and having four huge wolfies who require a LOT of time and attention. I’m not called the ‘Mistress of Wolves’ for nothing!

Cover artwork by Antonio Javier Caparo.

But recently even I admit that things have¬†been insane. Basically from November 2016 to now, I haven’t stopped. As the writing has taken a back seat, my illustrating has never been in more demand. After a couple of HarperCollins’s commissions and a hastily short deadline for Penguin Random House (for ‘The Mad Wolf’s Daughter’ by Diane Magras, published March 2018) and a¬†few individual commissions, I happily signed up for a very exciting and MASSIVE commission¬†funded by¬†Oxford University and created by writer, self-publishing guru¬†and Creative Thinking World Champion, Dan Holloway. Basically Dan has invented a brilliant new game, Mycelium’, as an amazing¬†training tool and fun game to promote and expand creative thinking. To say its clever and inventive, like it’s creator,¬†is a colossal understatement.

Dan Holloway is one of those rare people you only meet once in a blue moon, a true inspiration. I first knew of him as a fellow writer on the now defunct HarperCollins online writing site, Authonomy, then met him in the flesh at the second Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival¬†founded by Debbie Young.¬†Think of Elon Musk, Bob Dylan and Basquiat and you get close to how talented this chap is. He’s a huge brain, an amazing performance poet, writer and…well, in my opinion, a bit of a¬†genius!

Mycelium final logo which will be on the back of each card.

Anyway, he liked my artwork and wanted me to create the visuals for this amazing game, starting with producing 50 images for the first playing pack of cards. I can’t reveal the artwork I’ve done for this yet, but will as soon as I’m able. ūüėČ

So this is where the juggling really comes in,¬†with time becoming an enemy that you’re constantly chasing.

The irony is that ‘chasing time’ has become a bit of a metaphor for my life, particularly at the moment.¬†¬†Time has flown by so quickly and suddenly your life and life decisions are reduced down to a tiny window of opportunity in an alchemist’s grand experiment! Blink, and you’ll miss that window forever.

Although I’ve done allsorts of commissions and projects¬†which usually take a month to complete, due to fitting illustration work in with a job etc., I’ve never done 50 images for one project before. Gulp! Being the idiot optimist I am, the deadline seemed reasonable, 60 days for 50 images and small images too. Easy, eh? Lol, well of course, me being me, I just cannot rush through anything crap so I created 50 folders, one for each image and trawled through countless books and the internet gathering inspirational images for each piece of artwork before drawing them. Once drawn, they then had to be inked up in permanent ink and then hand painted.

It really has been one of the most amazing, inspiring, varied and challenging commissions I’ve ever done and I have loved every second of it BUT…being such a perfectionist I should have known that creating 50 pictures in only 60 days just wasn’t possible. Unfortunately, despite my very best efforts of time pacing, doing the more complicated images first, I only really realised the sheer amount of work involved when I was already halfway through the commission! My juggling skills were put to the test and I’m afraid they failed me entirely.

For the last 60 days my¬†four wolfies have not had much of a mum, my daily walks with them have all but stopped to just a few hours playing and exercising in the garden, my normal home chores have fallen by the wayside, my library job has, if I’m being honest, not had the best of me, I’ve been absent from all social media and friends and I’ve become somewhat of a stranger to sleep. But try as I have, to my own disappointment and for the first time, I missed my deadline. I was gutted, having worked so damn hard. Dan was wonderful of course and I’ve made¬†sure I’ve rewarded that kindness with awesome images, but yes, I was several weeks late in delivering all 50 finished painted images and only finally finished them a few days ago!

So what do you do when time becomes the enemy, when juggling manically still doesn’t work?

Lol, I really wouldn’t recommend what I have done several times now, drawing in bed on a light-box until 4 or 5am when you suddenly realise that it’s getting light outside and you haven’t slept at all!

The only thing I can think of to help pace your time, when you have an insane amount of things to do and no time to do them in, is, to be honest,¬†create a detailed colour coded weekly schedulebreaking your time into 2 hourly chunks, giving yourself time to eat, do chores, do housey things then back to work. As daft as¬†it seems, it really helps to organise you and¬†maximise productivity¬†from each time period.¬†I’ve also started using an alarm clock set in hour or 2 hour slots, trying to finish one section of work in that time frame before the buzzer goes!

I’m seriously not complaining here, I’m very thankful for all the work I get especially as I don’t advertise and¬†do recognise that it’s far better to be incredibly busy than to have time on your hands, but once, just once, I wish I really could stretch the space/time continuum! ūüėÄ

On a personal note too, I’ve spent the last year climbing Everest and trying to stretch time to achieve my goals. So yes, as much as we are powerless to stop the march of time, perhaps a healthier more mindful approach to the passing of time would be more beneficial to us all. As clich√©d as it is, we only have one life and it flies past so damn quickly that we owe it to ourselves to take stock and really notice what is happening around us.

Mindfulness has been a key word that has entered the zeitgeist in the last few¬†years, but the principles behind it can be applied to every area of our lives. As an M.E sufferer (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis) it’s a very important concept that helps us to regulate our condition and pace ourselves and the daily tasks we do.

As someone who has been overweight for most of my adult life and has decided to make a permanent life change at last, having committed myself to losing weight and getting fitter (my Chris Pratt Challenge) Рmindfulness plays a key rolebeing aware and present in thought over everything you do. Being mindful of everything you put into your body so there is NO mindless snacking, everything is focused on, thought about.

The same too with life and time. Being mindful of your life, of each passing day, each hour, each minute, making you more aware of the choices you make, of the time you are using, of the time you have left.

Don’t sleep walk through your life. Be mindful of it.

So yes, being mindful and applying that to this commission also helped, particularly latterly, in making sure that the work I did was not only the best it could be but that I was working as productively as possible in each timed slot.

In an age of such mindlessness – Trump bigotry & idiocy, Brexit xenophobia & lies, political cruelty, government corruption and inherent unfairness – being mindful has never been more important!

‚̧ xxx

 

Increasing Discoverability – The 2018 Challenge

My awesome writer friend, Joanne Hall, who is not only a fantastic writer herself but is a great advocate for new writers and promoting diversity and new talent in SFF. Definitely some names to check out here!

Joanne Hall

For the last four years, I have been challenging myself to read more new-to-me female authors ‚Äď at least 12 a year, and review the ones I enjoy the most to share my discoveries. I was a little bit slack with reviews last year, but I discovered more female authors. Hoping to review more this year ‚Äď that‚Äôs my pledge!

In 2017 I read 60 books, 20 of which were single-author novels or novellas by women. I read quite a few anthologies and dual-author novels too, but I’m not counting them for the purposes of the challenge. That’s about proportional with last year, when I read more books overall, but this year I really want to try to get my reading closer to 50/50. I gave eight books five stars on Goodreads this year and four of those were by women.

Best discoveries of the year were Zen Cho…

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2017 – A Year of Art and Climbing Everest!!!

2017 has been a strange year and on more than one occasion I’ve heard myself saying “This can’t be reality?”, as if I’d slipped into some dream state without my knowing…I mean come on, apart from the dreadful and embarrassing debacle that is ‘Brexit’, we’re now living in an odd dystopian universe where an unhinged, dangerously narcissistic, orange, sexual offending, racist twat is the American President with his short fat fingers on the nuclear button!

Yeap, 2017 was a weird year. The saddest thing to hit early in the year was the loss of my hero David Bowie. Anyone with any inkling of creativity in them mourned his loss and feels it still.

But despite the sad loss of Bowie and wonderful actors like John Hurt, 2017 did bring up some revelatory surprises too. For me personally, this was undoubtedly the ‘Year of Art’.

I started the year committing myself to the 365 day Artmaniac Challenge (following in the footsteps of Children’s Laureate, Chris Riddell), by creating a new piece of art EVERY DAY for a whole year! I started well, in fact for the first 3 months of the year I did create a brand new piece of art every day, firstly rough sketches and then portraits! It was exhilarating, I hadn’t done any portraits in 20 years and was thrilled that I could still do them!

I also began the year finishing a fantasy map art commission for the lovely fantasy author, Anna Smith-Spark, which became a commission for HarperCollins as they approached me to become one of their illustrators! I was amazed and flabbergasted! A second HarperCollins commission quickly followed for the equally lovely Anna Stephens for another fantasy map. The year continued like that, in a blur of deadlines and commissions. I’ve never been busier and considering I don’t advertise and still use a free weebly website for my illustration business, I was astounded at the interest I was getting.

Both fantasy maps for HarperCollins ended up being picked up and bought by other publishers around the world, Dutch, German, US publishers like Orbit and Random House – I was suddenly glimpsing through the keyhole of big league success – it really is a whole different story to the indie world I’ve lived in for so long!

The year flashed by and before I knew it the giddy pleasures of summer had come and gone in a haze of excitement, silk painting, BBQ’s (with my lovely Grimbold posse)¬†and writing.

It is true to say that 2017 was not a great year for my writing, in fact I haven’t written anything now in months following a crisis of confidence a few months back. I will eventually return to writing as I always have, but I don’t have that belief in my abilities anymore the way I used to, I’m hoping given time that I will find my voice again somewhere but for now I’m happy just to follow my art and get my creative fulfilment that way. BUT, 2017 was a great year for other writers, most notably my amazing publishers, Grimbold Books, who were not only nominated for Best Independent Press in the British Fantasy Society Awards (BFS Awards) … but actually WON IT!!!!!

YAY!!! Go Grimbold go!

The end of summer came (and my dreaded birthday) and I was neck deep in prep for October’s BristolCon where I’d be exhibiting my artwork – gulp, my first art exhibition for 20 years! I was nervous to say the least but it went amazingly well, better than I could have dreamed of in fact! ūüėÄ

A huge thank you to my Grimbold family and to awesome authors like Gareth L Powell who actually helped me put up some of my pictures (and who also very kindly told me about the V&A Illustrator’s Competition for illustrations published in 2017!) THANK YOU! ‚̧

After the wonderful BristolCon I was then approached by Penguin Random House for a commission for them! A few¬†weeks later I also¬†started my latest commission for the inspirational Dan Holloway and Oxford University – a massive commission for 50 unique images! I’m manically producing them as I type this last blog entry for the year! ūüėÄ

2017 has definitely been a peculiar year, a year of creative highs and depressive lows, of hopes and dreams and major steps forward for the future. Professionally – it’s been the best year of my life as an illustrator and I feel very blessed and lucky! Personally –¬†it’s been more of a rollercoaster ride. I’ve found myself in the grips and depths of depression a couple of times this year, which has been a struggle and heartbreakingly, another friend, the amazing Lisa Scullard suddenly and shockingly died while 38 weeks pregnant. She had so many hopes for this year and next and they were suddenly snatched away. ūüė¶

The only positive I can draw from such a cruel tragedy is that it really put a rocket up my arse – life is fucking short and precious folks, if you haven’t accomplished what you want, DO IT. If you doing something you don’t want to be – STOP and CHANGE YOUR LIFE.

Life goes in a flash. So yes, I am following one dream in particular, a dream I’ve had for the last 14 years and I am doing everything I can to achieve it. Hopefully this time next year my life will be dramatically different…please keep all your fingers, toes and everything else crossed for me, I have an Everest to climb, the odds are against me, but still I’m pursuing this goal – 2018 will be make or break.

So, as the year closes, with only minutes to spare…I want to wish you all a HAPPY NEW YEAR and a coming year of dreams and hopes.

Hold your heart in your hands and cradle those dreams, whatever they are, and never give up. Love to you all. ‚̧ xxxxx

BristolCon 2017 – Art, Fantasy & Maps!

Last weekend was BristolCon, the largest sci-fi & fantasy convention in the west country, UK¬†and by far my favourite con. For the last nine years BristolCon has flourished at the Hilton Double Tree hotel in the heart of Bristol,¬†a single day SFF convention that always signifies a glorious mix of panels, events, signings, workshops, art, and¬†of course books! Amongst the flurry of bookish activity, one the things that makes BristolCon so damn special is that feeling of inclusiveness, a welcoming family for old friends and new, with no cliques, no judgements, just a genuinely open, friendly and ultra cool ethos of – “come along folks and have a great time!”

What made BristolCon 2017 extra special for me this year, besides being thrilled that my lovely publisher, Grimbold Books (and¬†our leader the¬†wonderful Sammy HK Smith) has subsequently won the BFS Award for Best Independent Press, is that I wasn’t just there as an author and panellist (moderating an uber cool panel on ‘Mapping in SF & F’)…but that I was there as an artist too! ūüėÄ

*gulp*

Yes, after being talked into applying to exhibit in the famous Art Room at BristolCon by the lovely vice chair, John Bav, with extra encouragement from Mark Robinson and the lovely ex-chair, Joanne Hall, I actually plucked up the courage and applied and got in! For me this was a huge thing. Although I’ve been drawing and painting my entire life (before I could even walk apparently), and although I did a BA (Hons) Degree in Fine Art and had won an MA place at the Slade School of Fine Art (which I stupidly didn’t take up), I’ve only actually been illustrating for the last 2 or 3 years. In fact, it’s only since my teaching career ended due to illness that I’ve even had the time to do more art.

So, in the last 2 years, I’ve illustrated about 12 books so far (with a few current¬†‘in the works’ projects). The highlight undoubtedly had been creating the fantasy maps for Juliet E McKenna and the two HarperCollins commissions for Anna Smith-Spark & Anna Stephens, and now I am busy creating another cool fantasy map for Penguin Random House – Yay! ūüėÄ

But actually exhibiting my artwork was an entirely different thing. I haven’t exhibited since my art student days, twenty years ago! Despite starting prep for it months ago, finding and buying the right frames, getting all the ‘s’ hooks needed to hand them etc etc. I’d actually forgotten just how much work is involved! The framing and mounting card alone took ages, the picture prep, sorting out illustration portfolios, transporting the art and putting it up. Thank goodness for Andy Bigwood (Mr Art himself) who runs the Art Room and helped me find my feet and for the vital Friday pre-BristolCon Art Room set up time! I was there at the hotel until 11pm the night before BristolCon, knackered and nervous but I can’t explain how great it felt – being in that atmosphere! A mixture of pure fear, excitement, exhilaration and¬†total imposter syndrome! Lol,¬†when you’re there in the Art Room next to the likes of illustrating greats like Jim Burns and Chris Moore and BFS Award winning Sarah Ann Langton (who did the cool cover for the ‘Fight Like A Girl’ anthology), you suddenly feel very quickly out of your depth!

BUT, despite all those daft fears, the whole thing felt RIGHT. It felt like THIS is what I should be doing, coming full circle, coming home to art – my love of it, my solace, my saviour through mental health problems and depression, my relief, my method of self-expression when I can’t muster the words.

I admit, with only an hour and a half sleep, I was a walking zombie when Saturday actually came. Apologies to a couple of customers as my brain freeze took over a couple of times – so weird that when you’re that exhausted you slip into daft old sayings as your brain stops processing new information. By the end of BristolCon I was so out of it, I honestly can’t remember how I drove home! Oops!

But it was brilliant and I loved every second of it.

I’d decided to show some of my best portraits (30 of them all framed in lovely black box frames) for a cool ‘Game Of Thrones’ idea I had of having them all clustered together for a ‘wall of faces’ (aka GoT season 6) which became an interactive ‘Game Of Faces’ where people had to try¬†to identify as many of the portraits as possible and the winner would win a piece of original artwork of their choice! Cool idea, eh? ūüėÄ

Well, it worked beautifully! I had loads of people coming to view my work and participate. I also displayed some of my silk paintings and my maps (all framed in lovely matching black frames) and one of my ‘works in progress’ (the steampunk map I’m working on for the lovely Kate Coe) so people could view my creative process at constructing them. ūüôā

In fact, I had so many people coming to visit my art display that I couldn’t finish writing up my art price list! Lol, I eventually finished it after I’d already sold a load of silk paintings and was dragged off by the lovely Robyn Fulton to actually eat something before I dropped.

After a hurried but much needed lunch I went off to my ‘Mapping SF & F’ panel about one fo my favourite subjects – fantasy maps!¬†¬†I was moderating the panel¬†in the big conference room with the lovely Anna Stephens, Juliet E McKenna, Joel Cornah and Andy Bigwood. It went wonderfully, in fact myself and all the panellists could have talked for three or four hours and only got through half of my questions!

The whole day was a delightful blur of meeting old friends and new – people I’ve been friends with for years on Facebook but who I hadn’t actually met yet (like RB Watkinson, Judith Mortimore and Jessica Rydill) and chatting to the lovely people who bought my art – THANK YOU! ‚̧

 

 

 

Magic and Mental Health

It seems both poetic and ironic that on World Mental Health Day (10th October), that my own mental health which has not been good this year (particularly of late), has turned a corner.

It’s true that I have been plagued by depression since I was 13 and have had some pretty dark times. I once described it as being a meal on a menu, once you’ve been down that dark road you’re never quite the same again and that meal option keeps popping up – an apparent ‘easy’ way out. Which of course is illusory, nothing in any aspect of life is ever ‘easy’.

But, demons aside and crippling self-doubt, it is amazing what a piece of good news can do for your self-esteem and yes, for your mental health.

It’s horrible to think that my mental health is so fragile and unstable that it can be shaken by bad news and improved by good news. I’ve always prided myself on being a very tough cookie, after all I’ve survived a lot of things that would simply have buried other people, so there is a hard tenacious streak somewhere in me.

But I suppose, when I’m feeling low, stressed and upset, that’s when mental health can be particularly fragile and susceptible to outward forces. I just have to accept that and try not to be so affected by others and the outside world. Being a hermit after all has some benefits! ūüėÄ

The trick to any mental health crisis, is not to beat yourself up. You can’t help how you’re feeling and you’re not in full control of how you behave either, I’m not talking about behaving like an asshole to others and using it as an excuse, there’s never an excuse for being a dick. But, when you’re in that dark hole, the world and everything in it is skewed, you are viewing people and situations in a very altered state. Paranoia, fear, isolation, loneliness and self-destructive thoughts run rampant and things that appear minor and trivial to others, become massively important to you, through a microscope lens.

The only advice I can offer to fellow suffers, is just that it WILL pass, if you let it. Everything in life is transitory.

Happiness never lasts, neither does love, but then neither does unhappiness either.

We are all flotsam on a tide of emotions that ebb and flow, appear and disappear. So if you are feeling miserable, take heart that you will not feel like that forever. And if you are happy or in love, make sure you treasure every moment because life is so fleeting.

So…for me, as writing has been causing me so much pain of late, I have temporarily hung up my pen. I will always be a writer and I WILL finish Book 2 of The Darkling Chronicles, Darkling Rise and the third and final book, even if no-one reads them and my other novel projects, including Ravenwing. But for now, novels and short stories (which I’m still not convinced I should do anymore of), are being temporarily shelved.

I’m concentrating on something I know I CAN do and do well – ART!

2017 has been a pretty monumental year art wise. I established the Artmaniac Challenge and FB group, where people share their art and try to do something arty and creative every day (a very hard ask), as well as videoing my first art tutorials on YouTube and doing my first art exhibition in the Art Room at BristolCon (the first exhibition since my art student days)…but I have also found myself being wooed by HarperCollins to become one of their illustrators! A dream come true! That resulted in my creating two awesome maps for their highly anticipated grimdark debut’s Anna Stephen’s Godblind and Anna Smith-Spark’s The Court of Broken Knives. The response I have had about these maps has been nothing short of phenomenal and they have made their way around the world being picked up by Random House and Orbit in the USA and by Dutch and German publishers etc etc.

Well, it’s happened again! Out of the blue, another major publisher contacted me on my illustration website and wants me to work for them! No less than Penguin Random House! ūüėÄ

I’m so chuffed! Yes I know my art skills are good and I’m a total perfectionist, but as we all know, having any measure of talent does not guarantee you a damn thing. How many multi-talented people do we all know who should be wildly successful but aren’t, while decidedly mediocre folks seem to rise to the top? 9/10 times, it’s simply who you know, your connections that get you where you want to go and not your acumen or talent. Tough but true.

But on this occasion, it genuinely seems to be my skills as a mapmaker that have brought me to Penguin’s attention. Woo and hoo! ūüėÄ

So yes, as I finish a current map commission, start work on a brilliant new project¬†being funded by Oxford University no less, and prepare for my scary art exhibition and being on two panels at BristolCon (including moderating one)…I will also begin a scary new commission for Penguin Random House! ūüėÄ

So…dare I whisper it, but I am starting to feel a lot better and my depression is (hopefully) on the wane even as I enter a very hectic and stressful period. But that’s the thing about mental health, it can affect any one of us and at any time. So please, if you know someone who is struggling, no matter what the cause, just listen and be there for them and remember to look after yourself too.

Peace, good mental health and love to you all. ‚̧ xxxx

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When you’ve lost your way…

Battling depression – and losing.

As writers we all have times when we face a crisis in confidence, often being plagued by terrible self-doubts. In my case, those anxieties are magnified. Certainly out of all the friends I know, especially writer friends, I would say I’m by far the least confident as a writer. I see them saying things and doing things I wouldn’t dream of saying or doing, conducting themselves with the reassurance that they are right and know what they’re talking about. I never think that, certainly not where writing is concerned. The most confident I am, is with my artwork, I know I can draw and paint well, though I’m utterly crap at any digital art.

But writing although it has been a apart of me since I was three apparently, the earliest in the whole school to read and write, writing, particularly in recent years (since I got ill in 2013) has also been my Achilles Heel and something I admit that I am terribly insecure about.

But recently, those nagging insecurities, self-doubts and paralysing fears have been given tangible substance and I admit, it has triggered a terrible reaction in me that I’m struggling to control. Because so much of my identity of who I am and what I am, is tied up with writing, to suddenly find that something I was so proud of, something I thought was fantastic, poetically written, tense, engaging, historically accurate (I did a History A Level on the subject), something I had done exhaustive research on and which had filled my imagination for months and months…was in fact crap, has been like an earthquake to me. I honestly believed it was one of the best stories I’ve ever written. I still don’t know what is actually wrong with it, the feedback I’ve had focused on different areas, but I still don’t know what it was about it that they disliked so much, what made it a bad story, because honestly, re-reading it, I still think it’s great even though now that’s tinged with my brain saying – no Sophie¬†it’s shit, remember, you’ve been told it’s subpar, deal with it.

Criticism is something we all get, and up til now I’d always dealt well with it, I’ve had a life time of practice after all. But something about this just broke me. I can’t put it anymore plainly than that. It triggered the very worst of those negative voices I carry around with me, and unfortunately triggered an awful lot more – my depression and the worst of my dangerous feelings and feelings of worthlessness. It symbolised that not only was I wrong, not only was my writing not good, but that my judgement was WAY off!

How can a writer continue if they can’t trust their judgement? If what they think is good is crap, or vice versa?

It also meant that a book, Ravenwing, that I have been working on (80,000 words+), which has so much of me and my life in and which when I pitched it to a couple of friends received a luke warm reception to say the least, is also crap. That book has the exact same character in it as the crap story and is written in exactly the same manner, so if one is rubbish, the other will be too.

For someone like me who struggles against an illness that robs writers of their voice, that steals away my short term memory, to the point¬†where I can’t remember¬†books I’ve read only months before, and that makes mental fatigue and a 30min max concentration span so overwhelming – to have yet another obstacle in my way has been more than I can deal with. I don’t need anyone else tearing me down, I do that well enough on my own, but yes, the whole experience has broken me.

I don’t know where I go from here. I can’t trust my judgement and I can’t trust any writing ability I may or may not have. Not only will I never write another short story again, I’m now left wondering if I can ever write anything again. The mountain is too high as it is, but now my hands and feet are tied and I’m blindfolded.

So yes, depression has sunk its claws into me and I would quite happily bury myself in a hole and never reappear again. My energies are spent, my confidence (such as it was, under my ‘bubbly facade’) is in tatters and I genuinely don’t know where I go from here. I’ve never felt like giving up more than I do now. Giving up on everything. What the fuck is the point?

So I’m taking a break from everything, from FB, social media and the constant whirr of noise that hits you, the ups and downs of people, the dramas, the tears and smiles, the narcissistic selfies, the congratulatory patting of backs, the woes, the worries, the inner thinkings, the copious piccies, all of it. I need a rest, I need space. I can’t take the optimism and confidence of people, especially my friends when I’m feeling as if a black hole has swallowed me.

I wish everyone well, I always do, and I love my friends. But no-one can help sort out what’s in my head. I know they’ll be¬†back chat and talk from some people and inevitable bitchy comments of¬† – “really? oh ffs, what’s she making a fuss about?”

What am I making a fuss about? Nothing, absolutely nothing…that’s kind of the point.

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