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! 😀

*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! 😀

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? 😀

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. 🙂

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! ❤

 

 

 

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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! 😀

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! 😀

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! 😀

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! 😀

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

 

Public Service Announcement.

The life of a writer, much like the life of an illustrator, is always a precarious one, but sometimes you have an experience that stays with you and that you just HAVE to share (forgive my comic take on this):

This is a public service announcement. This guide is called, “How NOT To Commission Artwork”, but can also be filed under the titles: “How NOT To Treat People” and “How NOT To Do Business.”

When commissioning artwork from any illustrator/supplier:

  1. Don’t discard the illustrator’s contract without a word of warning or any discussion – this is disrespectful and insulting and unlikely to get you what you want.
  2. Don’t get your other half to then create their own contract and don’t expect this to be used and terms to be bartered over – this is bizarre and unprofessional behaviour and is NEVER done. Suppliers supply the contract not clients.
  3. Don’t criticise the illustrator’s contract while saying how yours is better – again calling someone’s contract crap is unlikely to work.
  4. Don’t direct the illustrator to add comments on your created contract as if directing a child on what to do. You are a CLIENT not the illustrator’s boss.
  5. Don’t claim to be more knowledgeable on illustration contracts and the illustration business than the illustrator themselves. You may be an expert on everything but this is unlikely to make the illustrator want to work with you.
  6. Don’t create a contract with terms which are hugely biased towards the client at the expense of the artist, rather than being fair to BOTH parties. A contract that stipulates that if, after a month of working on your commission, using the artist’s time, skills and resources and delivering the artwork on the agreed deadline, that you can then decide not to pay for the services you have used, is neither fair nor usual business practice and would put most struggling illustrators out of business.
  7. Don’t belittle the illustrator by continuing to behave like an expert on commissioning artwork and quote Clark’s Publishing Agreements Chapter 13. You are NOT an illustrator or in the illustration business. Achieving success does not mean it gives you the right to treat people like underlings.
  8. Don’t be surprised if the illustrator is not keen to sign your created and unfair contract and requests that the Society of Authors contract experts look at it in confidence – which they did and the feedback was not good!
  9. In short, treat people with the same fairness, respect and empathy that you would want to be treated with. It doesn’t matter how big or small a name you are, how successful or not, don’t let your ego rule your decisions when dealing with people.

This has been a public service announcement. Thank you.

I know this all sounds frivolous and strange but it was a reminder to me of some of the machinations at work within the world of publishing, whether it’s big publishers, independents, small presses or self-published, despite the over-saturated market, the countless slew of books out there it’s still a rather small world with people vying for their slice of success.

BUT, being successful should never be by trying to take advantage of others or treating people with disrespect. I’m not naming and shaming, that’s not my style and frankly it’s counter productive and smacks of small minded ‘meanness’. The person in question is not a bad or vindictive person and they genuinely do not seem to be aware of how rude and inappropriate their behaviour was. I certainly mean them no harm (the personal phrase I live by is: “First, do no harm”), though I do think a little humility may be in order. Perhaps, they are simply a product of their own success and have forgotten how to treat people and what it is like for the millions of independent authors & artists for which they are supposed to represent, but then, I’m personally friends with some very successful big name authors who have never fallen into the trap of believing their own hype, so I guess it depends on the individual. 😉

Peace & love to all. ❤ xxxx

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. 😀

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’. 😦

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! 😀 ❤

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! 😀

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! 😀 xxxx ❤

Meeting Deadlines – Remember to Breathe!

It’s Easter today – Happy Easter everyone! 😀

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! 😀

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! 😀

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. 😀

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. 😦

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! 😦

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! 🙂

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

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! 😀 xxxx

Agents and Taking Chances!

This is kind of a follow on from my last post about the randomness of good luck and how ‘word of mouth’ can set off a chain reaction of happy outcomes. For me last month that started with HarperCollins approaching me because they loved the fantasy map I created for one of their new authors, Anna Smith-Spark, and that led to them wanting me to be an official HarperCollins illustrator!

Pencil portrait of poet Ben Okri by Sophie E Tallis

Pencil portrait of poet Ben Okri by Sophie E Tallis

Well, what I didn’t mention, as it happened so soon afterwards, is that I was also approached by an agent! Yes, an agent! Again, how this happened was so so weird.

I work at a library, a very inconspicuous job and one I love – who wouldn’t love being surrounded by books all day?! Now, apart from doing my normal library duties, I also paint murals on the huge glass panels of the library windows, which not only brighten the whole library up but do encourage kiddies and more people through the doors. I did a Christmas scene from Narnia, a huge homage to Roald Dahl and the latest one, my own version of ‘Twas the night before Christmas’, complete with my old cat, Kitty.

My mural interpretation of Quentin Blake's Roald Dahl character, Fantastic Mr Fox by Sophie E Tallis

My mural interpretation of Quentin Blake’s Roald Dahl character, Fantastic Mr Fox by Sophie E Tallis

Anyway, one random day last year, just before Christmas, a customer came into the library and asked if I did the windows. I said yes, then she asked if I was an illustrator, again I said yes, then she revealed that she worked in publishing, specifically children’s publishing and loved my artwork! I was gobsmacked. I told her I had written a children’s book and was busy illustrating it and she was very keen. We exchanged email addresses and emails then after Christmas she contacted me again and asked to see the book. I sent her the text, layout and a few sample illustrations then waited. About two weeks ago she got back to me. They loved it. It wasn’t an immediate “yes we’ll take it now”, but it definitely wasn’t a “no”, they gave me really detailed feedback to tweak and improve it then want me to re-submit it to them in the next few weeks. OMG! 😀

Pencil portrait of poet Benjamin Zephaniah by Sophie E Tallis

Pencil portrait of poet Benjamin Zephaniah by Sophie E Tallis

It’s just such a bizarre set of circumstances!
So, all this arty madness and my continuing daily Artmaniac Challenge on Facebook, got me thinking…yes luck plays a great part in getting opportunities, what were the chances of an agent coming into the library and approaching me? Zero I would have thought. But, by that same token, we can do more to try and maximise and even create those opportunities. Ten years ago I would never have had the confidence to speak up, if a agent had complimented my work I would have said thank you and left it at that. So yes, we do have to push ourselves out there whenever we can.

Pencil portrait of musician Rick Wakeman by Sophie E Tallis

Pencil portrait of musician Rick Wakeman by Sophie E Tallis

Simple truth – shrinking violets don’t get anywhere.
All that lovely good stuff got me thinking about taking chances, being more proactive beyond the usual internet stuff we all do, which let’s face it, doesn’t really get us anywhere beyond having a good time chatting to our friends.

So, in a mad flurry, I decided to enter the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2018, a national art competition which is televised of all things, where professional and amateur artists have four hours to paint a celebrity sitter then have their work judged. Believe me, the last thing I want to do is expose my wobbling chins on television, but this was something so totally out of my comfort zone I just felt I had to at least try.

Pencil portrait of actor Al Pacino by Sophie E Tallis

Pencil portrait of actor Al Pacino by Sophie E Tallis

First stages of my self-portrait by Sophie E Tallis

First stages of my self-portrait by Sophie E Tallis

Given that I haven’t actually painted in years (and many of my oil paints are so old they’ve gone hard!) and it’s been twenty years since I painted a self-portrait (the pre-requisite for entering the competition), it was a totally mad idea! So, with the deadline being Friday 3rd March midday, I started an oil on canvas self-portrait the day before! INSANE!

Next stage of the self-portrait by Sophie E Tallis

Next stage of the self-portrait by Sophie E Tallis

With literally a minute to go (and yes I mean one minute), I finished the portrait Friday morning, quickly filled out the online form and submitted it before I could think too much about it.

Work in progress of the self-portrait by Sophie E Tallis

Work in progress of the self-portrait by Sophie E Tallis

A few minutes later, I got the confirmation email saying they had received it, wow, I actually did it! I also got another lovely email from one of their assistant producers asking for a higher res photo of my artwork, which I did.

Now, I have no delusions of grandeur here, the likelihood is that my art won’t even be longlisted let alone shortlisted, but you know what, that almost doesn’t matter. I took a chance, a mad chance and really pushed myself out there. I’ve learnt that things I thought I couldn’t do anymore I actually can.

Progress on the self-portrait by Sophie E Tallis

Progress on the self-portrait by Sophie E Tallis

So…the next challenge? I HAVE to put that same energy, that same risk taking, chance taking in my writing. I’ve been frozen on the writing front for so long it’s now a joke. Yes I eventually managed to get to the dodgy first draft stage with my second novel, but I know it’s such a long way from being finished – what the hell has been holding me back? Illness plays a large part, but not all, I’ve been using that as a crutch, I realise that now. It’s fear. Fear that I can’t do it anymore, that all I can do is short stories not novels, fear that the second book will be a failure, that it won’t be as good as the first book, that it will be crap. FEAR.

So folks, this has been my very round about way of saying…

TAKE CHANCES GUYS!

You may fail, most likely we all will, but by god it will help you, inspire you, push you out of that rut you’ve fallen into without even noticing. If you fail, fail gloriously, fail having taken that chance not having stayed on the couch and ‘what if’d’.

So there you go. Opportunities are what we make of them, be brave and challenge yourself. Good luck guys, good luck to all us creative crazies! 😀 ❤ xxx

Final oil on canvas self-portrait completed Friday 3rd March 2017 by Sophie E Tallis

Final oil on canvas self-portrait completed Friday 3rd March 2017 by Sophie E Tallis

YOU SHALL NOT PASS!!!!

When it comes to writing or any creative endeavour that you are serious about i.e. not a hobbyist, but that you actually want to make a paying career from (again not fame & fortune, if you crave that you’re in the wrong game – go join a Big Brother house or Britain’s Got (f**k all) Talent), we are so often faced with failure.

So often I feel like the Balrog on the bridge in Khazad-dûm, trying to gain access to a path closed to me, a world full of closing (or slamming) doors.

Just need to add the appropriate sentence ending:

“YOU SHALL NOT PASS – this slush pile.”

“YOU SHALL NOT PASS – this competition’s shortlist (or even longlist).”

“YOU SHALL NOT PASS – this agent’s/publisher’s criteria.”

even “YOU SHALL NOT PASS – this selective writing group.” etc., etc.

Trying to make a living out of any creative field in a marketplace so utterly saturated with other writers and artists, is tantamount to wading through tar to reach that Avalon-like island on the horizon. It takes a hell of a lot of hard work, some random luck, some ‘who you know’ and a decent product that you’re trying to sell.

Unfinished pencil study of James Norton by Sphie E Tallis

Of course writing and art are completely subjective, what one person considers to be masterful, another perceives as being rubbish. But I still think some basic principles apply – the mechanics of writing a good sentence or drawing a good picture, of forming those images whether in the mind or on canvas.

Sadly, the path to success is littered with amazingly talented people who never quite got to grips with marketing, social media, ‘branding’ or simply had the bad luck not to reach that agent or publisher at the right time who might recognise their genius.

Pencil portrait of James Norton.

Pencil portrait of actor, James Norton by Sophie E Tallis

Annoyingly, the path to success is also littered with those who seemingly had only a tenth of the talent needed, but who were either fabulously well-connected (all areas of working life will always have an element of nepotism, the famous name, the ‘who you know’ element etc.), or were either bloody lucky in their timing when approaching said agent/publisher, or were so fantastic at the marketing/branding side that they had tremendous success before people realised the tripe they were actually peddling.

In writing terms, the author E.L. James comes to mind, whose actual writing (aside from the dubious pro-abuser content) is simply dreadful. In terms of the art world, for me, Tracey Emin is also the perfect example of brilliant self publicity/PR with minimal talent required. As a former history of art and fine art student & artist myself, I am not anti-modern art at all, just people like Emin. Damien Hirst may not be to everyone’s taste, but like Louise Bourgeois, Jenny Saville, Rachel Whiteread etc., they had a huge underlying skill level. I actually saw Hirst’s early work before he made it big as part of the 1990’s Brit-Art explosion and the guy is actually very talented. Although I cannot pretend to like a lot of his work, the guy CAN at least draw, his draftsmanship skills are very good, he just chooses to explore abstract and conceptual art. For me, as a drawer and artist, that is my benchmark for art, as it is for writing, that the person needs to have good basic skills in their chosen art-form. Emin cannot and never could draw proficiently, even the most basic forms, her drawing ability is quite frankly poor, and no, the irony that she was employed a few years ago as the Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy of Art is not lost on me. 😦

Pencil portrait of actor, Trevor Eve

Pencil portrait of actor, Trevor Eve by Sophie E Tallis

But back to writing. At the heart of the matter, the writer/author needs to have skill at stringing words together, at spinning a yarn, telling a compelling story, writing memorable characters etc., etc.

“YOU SHALL NOT PASS!” goes the voice in our heads as we contemplate sending work off to the latest narrowing submission window, chasing any opportunity that passes no matter how fleeting – like too many bees chasing the one elusive queen, or in fantasy speak – butter spread over too much bread. We’re all chasing the same thing, the same elusive target – to be published, to have an agent, to make a living from what we love to create.

For me, so far this year, the successes I have seen have definitely been in my art rather than my writing. As dearly as I would love more people to read my work and review it and yes, love it, I am still yet another small voice amongst the din, I know this (I will be doing a separate post on ‘branding’ with some tips I’ve picked up and stolen!). But, my illustration work has, rather surprisingly, started to take off and accrue a real momentum of its own!

Pencil portrait of Stephen Fry

Rough pencil study of Stephen Fry by Sophie E Tallis

Some of that is due to content, to being prolific. As a writer I have always been glacially slow, I’d like to think it’s quality over quantity, but in truth I wish I found writing as easy as drawing. I struggle with illness, concentration and mental exhaustion to get the words down, it seems to use a part of the brain that simply is not needed when I’m busily drawing. I don’t have to try to thread complicated plotlines together and continue a narrative over a long period of time when I’m drawing. Art allows you to switch off the brain and just use your eyes, instincts and fingers to form the image you want. Because of this, I have been able to create new artwork every day as part of my daily 365 day Artmaniac Challenge, whereas sadly I seldom manage to write every day no matter how hard I try. 😦

So, success definitely is due at least in part, to being prolific, having more content out there for people to look at, assess, discuss etc. Something I fear I may never achieve with my writing. 😦

Another element which I have seen first hand, is the ‘luck & who you know’ factor I was talking about. In my case it was a simple snowball effect. The lovely Juliet E McKenna heard in fantasy circles and shared contacts that I was an illustrator and specialised in fantasy maps. So she contacted me and I ended up doing a fantasy map for her and her wonderful ‘Secret Histories of the River Kingdom’.

watermarked-300dpi-finished-map-amended-bw-version

Then, because of that and again ‘word of mouth’, the equally lovely Anna Smith-Spark asked me to do a fantasy map for her debut novel, ‘The Court of Broken Knives’, to be published in June 2017 by HarperCollins. That in turn led her editors at HarperCollins to look at the map I did and my other illustration work, which then led to the Head of Fiction Art at HarperCollins contacting me directly to say how much everyone at HC loved my work and to offer me a contract to be an official HarperCollins illustrator (supplier)! *SQUEAL* 😀

The contract came through two weeks ago and yes, I signed it straight away! 😀

Since then I have had almost daily requests from various people to do commissioned artwork for them, including from a New York literary group who want me to do the main image for their magazine and website. It’s insane, I don’t even advertise and am now having to say, “No, sorry, I can’t take anymore commissions on at the moment!”

Madness!

HarperCollins were also lovely enough to tell me that I had been MASSIVELY undercharging people and advised for me to raise my rates. I did, a little, but not as much as they were suggesting otherwise that would stop any Indie Authors from being able to afford me and I know how damn hard it is for indie and self-published authors anyway, so I’m certainly not going to price myself out of their reach. 🙂

So, yes, creating more content and having that ‘word of mouth’ and lucky break does play a massive role in creating success. Now, if only I could apply that and get the same reactions to my written work! 😀

If you’re having the same struggles or successes, do let me know! 😉 xxx

Pencil portrait of Rayleigh Ritchie

Pencil portrait of actor Rayleigh Ritchie by Sophie E Tallis