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! 😀

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! 😦

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 café, 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. 😦

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 – suddenly 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 – to 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! 😀

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

 

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

Good luck to us all! 😀 xxxx

 

Holding Your Nerve!

A great deal of success, beyond the working your ass off, talent and smattering of luck, is also down to you ‘holding your nerve’. Recognising that moment, that opportunity which could go either way, and making sure you swing the pendulum towards the ‘YES WE WANT YOU’ direction and not the ‘THANK YOU, WE’LL PASS’.

Holding your nerve is a deep breath as you plunge through the ice and hope you don’t drown kind of a moment. It catches your breath and if you play it wrong, you’ll be self-flagellating yourself for years to come, bemoaning that one last chance, that one opportunity you had but messed up.

So, that’s the precarious limbo I find myself in now, trying to swing that pendulum my way.

Shortly after my last post about possibly getting an agent, or at least having an agent interested in me, I hit an unforeseen road block in the shape of posh celebrity funny woman, Miranda Hart!

Yes, the same Miranda Hart that used to have the TV show on BBC 1 called ‘Miranda’ and who, apart from being posh and famous, is also fabulously rich.

Well, like a slew of other celebrities, Miranda Hart has decided to go into the realms of fiction, specifically children’s fiction, after all to write a children’s book is the easiest thing isn’t it? That’s what Madonna did and David Walliams does? Sigh.

Now, normally this wouldn’t elicit much of a response from me, beyond the usual groan that once again here is a celebrity that had never written a book before they were famous and who, now they are a well known name, decide to capitalise on that fame and invade the bookshelves of our local library and bookshop (often at the expense of full time writers who depend on writing as their sole income and who don’t have the celebrity lifestyle, bling, fame, money etc., and do not have the cache of having an instantly recognisable name).

I don’t mean to sound bitter, but it does piss me off. The publishing world is tough enough for all writers, especially those like me from a small press or many of my indie author friends, so to have even well established authors squeezed off the shelves by sparkly, shiny celebrities, seems grotesquely unfair and means we have zero chance of getting there ourselves. I don’t have a problem with the endless celebrity cookbooks and autobiographies, but I do have a problem with them invading the fiction shelves with an automatic get out of jail free card – ie. an unfair advantage that no one else has. Even well established authors will not garner the massive publicity, the huge marketing budgets, the momentum, the TV interviews and media coverage that these celebs get, just for being celebs! If they always wanted to write, then why did not one of them write a book before they became famous?

Our library, like many around the country, reflects this trend. So while I’m doing my job I’m seeing Judy Finnegan, Richard Madeley, Fern Britton, Dawn French etc., etc., etc. It’s depressing tbh. Perhaps some of them are good writers, but they have used their celebrity status to get huge publishing deals most authors could only dream of, and remember, they hardly need the money!

Well, on this occasion, this latest celeb to go into fiction has made a huge and direct impact on me personally, in all the worst ways.

A few days after my last post I received a very sweet email from the interested agent giving me a head’s up. It was terrible news.

http://www.thebookseller.com/news/miranda-hart-turns-childrens-book-author-499821

The children’s book I wrote back in 2013, when after 16 years of teaching I suddenly lost my job and career through a nasty long term illness which I have for life, and when, at the same time I also left my dreadful ex-publisher and was utterly heartbroken over how they had treated me and ruined my beloved book, it was fair to say that 2013 was an awful pissing year. As such, I not only lost my way that year but I also lost my smile for a long time. It was those events that inspired me to write my children’s book, ‘The Little Girl Who Lost Her Smile’, in the hope of it helping me to find my smile again and start over.

Well, I wrote the book back then and have been slowly and meticulously designing and drawing the 24 illustrations needed for it (for a normal 32 page layout picture book). It was this same book that these agents were interested in.

What happens? Miranda bloody Hart has written a book with an almost identical title and by the sounds of it an almost identical story! So after 4 years of hard work, writing, drawing and polishing this children’s book, in one swoop it’s all gone up in smoke! Thank you Miranda millionaire Hart! To say I’m gutted and annoyed is an understatement! All that work, all those years, for nothing! 😦

I am now left in the precarious position of having to completely rework my story and illustrations for these lovely waiting agents, and yes, the pendulum has severely swung away from my direction towards the ‘Thank you but no’ side. It is up to me to now ‘hold my nerve’ and produce something amazing out of the hat to show them, something that will allay their fears about another very similar book already heading for the shelves. The only advantage I have, is that my book is aimed at a younger audience than Hart’s.

But boy oh boy, talk about bad timing, bad luck and sheer annoyance.

“Fuckity, fuckity, fuck, fuck, FUCK!”

So, here I am, holding my nerve, grasping the nettle and stepping off into the ether and hoping against hope that I’ll be able to still grab onto that fleeting opportunity.

Wish me luck folks and if you do see or know Miranda Hart, give her the middle finger for me please! 😀

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

Face to face: face those fears and show them the door!

We are all in our own way battling fears and self doubts, about decisions made, life choices, jobs, creative endeavours, pretty much everything. Yes there are those lucky few who sail through life never second guessing anything they say or do, who have unswerving self-confidence regardless of any reasons pro or against – well good for them. But for the rest of us mere mortals, especially those of us who are pursuing a creative career, writers, illustrators, actors, singers etc., crippling self-doubt kind of comes with the territory. 😦

The fact that you have chosen an entirely subjective career path which by the nature of it, is open to a great deal of criticism, speculation and even ridicule, hardly helps. Neither does the fact that most creative people tend to be very sensitive – almost a precursor to being a writer, poet or artist of any kind.

Pencil portrait of Richard E Grant

So, apart from navigating the choppy waters of crippling self-doubt and external criticism, sometimes, just sometimes you have to man (or woman) up and face your fears.

For me, some of that is allowing myself to be bold enough to actually set goals for myself. To say that this year I am going to achieve ___________.

Setting goals is a scary business, it’s laying your cards face up on a table and saying to the world – this is what I’m going to do and risk that ridicule and criticism if you don’t manage it.

But, as a brilliant writer friend of mine has said, someone who has ambitions and rightly so (watch this space people), what’s holding you back? Face those fears, fly your flag, pin your colours to the main brace and declare “I am here, and here is what I am going to do! I WILL achieve this!”

img_0129

So, I am risking the embarrassment of setting out my goals for this year – there is no try, there is only do or do not: 😀

  1. Completely finish writing and edit Darkling Rise (the very long awaited sequel to White Mountain that has taken me FAR too long to write!).
  2. Lose a minimum of two stone (hopefully three) for long-term health benefits and a major life commitment I have made to myself (before I’m too old for it to work) – I’ll be less cryptic when I’m nearer to achieving this goal.
  3. Continue writing short stories and my dark novel, Ravenwing (hopefully to a first draft stage).
  4. Continue building my illustration business. So far I haven’t had to advertise as people have been approaching me, but I need to step up my game and get more commissions going and widen my reputation.*
  5. Build a stronger online presence, as my mate calls it, sort out my ‘brand’, which will help grow followers, fans and help sales as well as getting more reviews and make me more visible to potential opportunities. Yes we’d all love the Game of Thrones success of George R. Martin (though I’ve never fancied the fame bit) but at the end of the day, most of us just want to be able to write and create full-time and make a living from it (enough to pay the bills at least).
  6. Finish my picture book ‘The Little Girl Who Lost Her Smile’ (the story is written but I need to finish drawing and painting all 24 illustrations – I had no idea just how much work is involved in making a picture book!).
  7. Bite the bullet and try subbing to agents, both for my picture book and Ravenwing (once it’s finished) and stop being afraid of success or trying to be successful!!!!
  8. Continue the daily Artmaniac Challenge, creating new art EVERY DAY for a whole year!**
  9. Pay more attention to my lovely little blog (yes, you guys) and blog more often – Sorry!

So there you go, 9 goals for the year. Will I achieve them all? Only time will tell, but I’m going to try my bloody hardest.

Face your fears…

So, what are YOU going to achieve this year?

Pencil sketch of Christopher Walken by Sophie E Tallis

* Yes, I have some exciting news to share to do with HarperCollins. I have signed a contract with them and will fill you all in very soon! 😀

** The reason for my doing portraits at the moment for the Artmaniac Challenge, is due to the wonderful inspiration that is the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year (and yes, I am thinking about doing it next year!) 😀 xxx

 

2016 – The Year of the 4 B’s – Bowie, Brexit, Broken Friendships and Bigotry

It’s 2017, thank the gods! Like many people around the world, I was very keen to welcome 2017 and see the back of 2016, a bloody awful year. 😦

This year has seen the last vestiges of any innocence die a death, of what remained of life’s rosy tints fade to a newer, harsher reality of what the world is really like rather than what we’d like it to be or thought it was. I’ve always teetered between being daftly optimistic on life or darkly pessimistic, this year has definitely brought out the latter.

That’s the reason I have written this very long post – to cathartically and finally put 2016 and all its negativity behind me, so I can start the new year afresh. To move on, live, love and find the beauty in life again.

Warning: If you’re feeling low at all, just skip on down to the positive stuff at the bottom! 😀

bowie_on_tour[1]The year started terribly, the death of one of my all time heroes who I affectionately described when I was a 6 year old dressing up like him, as my ‘space pirate’, yes, the death of David Bowie hit a lot of people hard. He was this insanely exotic and magical figure, my space pirate, then the Goblin King then as a teenager, he was a refuge, an outsider just like me, someone who didn’t fit in. He looked different and felt different and celebrated that diversity rather than trying to adhere to other’s rules. As a teenager I withdrew from friends, from everyone, from life, the weight of dealing with a family imploding in on itself, was too much to bear, an ultra violent alcoholic and abusive father who was determined to destroy his family and tear his children down. I didn’t fit in. I wasn’t worrying about make-up, exams and boyfriends, I was worrying about what lies to tell my friends when they asked why the police were around our place again, why we were seen being chased down the road in bare feet and our bedclothes as he wielded a knife, an axe, a broken bottle. I was worried about being killed, throat slit or head caved in as he threatened or having my mum killed, yet another dreadful statistic of domestic violence. So yes, I sought refuge in fantasy fiction, in writing and drawing and my beloved Bowie, the ultimate outsider.

After Bowie passed, the year saw more of our heroes fall, one after the other, unrelentingly so, most recently Carrie Fisher our beloved Princess Leia and her mother just the day after.

5dea49e85d1672067a19ae1306b8ba353e1eac91be17d09a3ee9a50c3fa7db8d1I admit my mental health has not been great this year. I’ve battled with extreme depression on and off for most of 2016, swinging from manically happy to manically low, and I’m sure this has skewed many things and heightened my reactions to things. The thing about depression is that you can be surrounded by friends yet feel utterly isolated and alone. A couple of times this year things have been very bleak indeed and I’ve teetered on the edge. I’m not excusing myself, even in my blacker moments I’ve never attacked those I love or anyone. But I know I’ve been incredibly angry this year, not like me at all, and the whole Brexit debacle has definitely played a huge role in that.

In February, I was driving to work when a woman smashed into my car ploughing it off the road and writing it off in the process. I was gutted, out of pocket and in pain. As anyone knows who is involved in an accident even a clear cut case like mine where the other party admitted culpability, it drags on for months! 😦 Crash

The year wore on and with it my physical health continued to dip, several trips to the doctors, a couple of collapses and a couple of low key hospital visits together with a shed load of meds later. It’s a drag but it’s not life threatening, pain is something you learn to deal with, its just when the vertigo and vomiting kicks in that you feel like an invalid as you truly can’t walk or even stand and can do nothing but crawl on all fours like a howling toddler. Sigh. But, I know people have it far worse, so I’m grateful for the health that I do have.

The war in Syria continued to escalate, the sheer cost of human suffering is almost unfathomable and yet the West seems utterly unable to help the innocent who are paying the cost with their lives. The world is a very scary place right now. 😦

51s1l6rh6cl-_sx311_bo1204203200_1In April came a wonderful highlight, the launch in Bristol for the awesomely awesome anthology, Fight Like A Girl (a strangely prophetic title given how the year turned out!). Wow, what a wonderful day! Martial arts, gritty readings, a panel and a mass signing, it was like a glorious mini-con and I eventually got to meet fellow AWB matey, the lovely AFE Smith who had travelled all the way to Bristol to support the launch. It was lovely meeting her after nearly 6 years of knowing her! Thank you to BristolCon, Joanne Hall, Roz Clarke and the amazing Sammy HK Smith for everything, I do feel very blessed to have you all in my life. Love to you all. ❤

Then we had the toxicity of Brexit. OMG, what can I say?

First, lovely Jo Cox, an amazing Labour MP, thoroughly decent human being and mother to two young children, was brutally murdered by a fascist right wing nut. She was a staunch supporter of the Pro-Remain side along with the rest of her party, leader and the vast majority of left wingers and Labour party supporters. She died for what she believed in, an inclusive, forward thinking and compassionate country, not an inward looking, anti-immigrant island of ‘them and us’.  It was an utterly brutal and horrific attack. jo-cox-labour-mp1

Did it change the outcome of the Brexit Referendum? No, not one jot.

13510824_10153736311815840_6984061545886519550_n1Myself, along with 16 million other people, the 48% of people in Britain who rejected the right wing rhetoric, the xenophobia, narrow mindness, racism, bigotry and poison spouted during the ‘campaign’, not to mention the endless fear mongering and lies (£350 million going to the NHS eh? Uh, no), truly believed that we lived in a better country than we do. We were proved wrong. I’ve never been so sad and so ashamed of my country. 😦

Massive divisions opened up, and yes, there was mud slinging on both sides. No-one escaped Brexit untouched and unsullied. But what was shocking to me was how intelligence was suddenly vilified, experts in fiscal studies, economics, trade, heads of business, the IMF, corporate CEO’s, scientists, academics, all of them were ignored while ignorance itself and mistruths were applauded, the ‘now we have our country back’ brigade were out in force.

Brexit was utterly toxic, divisive and caused deep rifts in families, friendships and communities up and down the country, rifts that still remain today. lr-by-party1

On a personal level, which I admit has really shaken me, it also heralded the end of a close friendship I had for nearly 5 years. I won’t mention his name, I’m not into ‘outing people’, it’s unfair and unnecessary so most of you will have no clue who I’m talking about, only a very small handful will know and they know anyway.

It was a strange friendship, granted, but a good one I thought. Despite often telling me that we were basically the same age (thanks for that), there was actually 18 years between us, he is nearer to my Mum’s age than mine. Age never mattered to me though, anyone who writes fantasy tends to be young in themselves regardless of the passing of time, but in this case it seemed to play a part. As with much of the country, we fell into the age demographics of Brexit. He was a vehement Pro-Leaver/Brexiteer as most of his ‘baby boomer’ generation were (the 60yr olds +, the ones who benefitted from free education, early retirement, golden handshakes, low cost housing, plentiful jobs etc., opportunities the younger generations could only dream of) and I was a staunch Pro-Remainer along with most people in their 40’s and younger (many of them unable to get on the housing ladder and crippled by huge debts). Of course there are exceptions, my mum and her friends in their early 70’s were all left wingers and Pro-Remainers and a percentage of younger people also voted to Leave, but generally the vote was pretty clear along age, political and educational lines.image1

 

13498097_1209717079039636_4890768423205541922_o1Running up to the Referendum, for weeks we had had awkward conversations on FB, especially privately. He’s a very forceful personality and was actively interjecting his opinions all over FB most notably and deliberately on Pro-Remain posts, to such a degree that a mutual friend threatened to defriend and even block him! It didn’t seem to diminish his fervour, in fact he seemed to actively enjoy the arguments as if it were mere banter. I hated it. I admit I was very fervent myself, very angry, but unlike him I was ONLY commenting on my fellow pro-Remainers posts, a mutual commiserating and supporting of each other during a traumatic time. I’d no sooner start trolling Pro-Brexit posts than fly to the moon! Suffice to say, he was rubbing quite a few people up the wrong way and was either blissfully oblivious or found it a strange ego-boost in some way. I can’t fathom that kind of thinking to be honest, I hate confrontations, I’ve had a lifetime of them and they make me ill, but then I don’t have his unrelenting self-confidence.

With each new comment I became more shocked at how entrenched he was, which of course, only made me equally intractable, that’s how arguments escalate, like sides in a war. brexit-shorthand-charts-1_11

Things came to a head when, after he had pushed me to the point of breaking, ignoring my repeated pleas to him not to discuss politics (he’s one of those characters that think of themselves as being very sensitive to others when in reality they are utterly clueless and just bulldoze over people) I had asked him to back off, stating that I would not discuss politics with him, that I would walk away every time he commented on something. Fine.

Then came the vote itself. Despite feeling awful at the outcome, he, on the winning side, still continued to blissfully push his opinions on everyone, cheerily telling Remainers who were in shock, dismay and were mourning the result, that things would be rosy and fine, that their genuine fears were wrong – NOT the thing to do! Again, a mutual friend had to forcibly tell him to BACK OFF. Despite all this, I private messaged him offering the olive branch, trying to reconnect with him and explain why I had asked him to back off and had been so emotional.

What did he do? He verbally attacked me. I never knew he had a nasty side, I do now. Among other things, he accused me of calling him a racist, something he knows damn well I never said and never would. It couldn’t have been further from the truth. I knew full well his reasons for voting the way he did, he saw the EU as some all evil Empire, it had nothing to do with immigration. I was deeply hurt, outraged, bloody furious, how dare he? After all the crap I’ve put up with from him, the bullshit, the exaggerations, the lies, the ulterior motives. I’d never blamed him for repeatedly recommending me to join our old awful ex-publishers, for pushing them so hard, it was my mistake not his, I had signed with them without checking them out first because I had trusted the opinions of him, my friend. He’d later admitted that he wanted as many people to join them as possible to make them successful and help his own books. The experience scarred me more than I can say and almost stopped me from ever writing again, but I never once blamed him for my own misfortune. It was my mistake, not his. I’d always been supportive, putting my own personal feelings to one side when he did things I didn’t like, as I’m sure he did for me, after all, that’s what friends do, they respect each other’s differences and idiosyncrasies. Having been cheated on myself in the past, I find adultery abhorrent regardless of the circumstances, but when he got involved with a married woman (whose husband was apparently dying), I was genuinely thrilled and supportive for him, because I just wanted to see him happy – again that’s what friends do!

I asked him to show proof of where I had accused him of such a heinous thing (knowing he wouldn’t be able to). He ignored my message for two long weeks. I was devastated. How could a close friend be so vicious, so unkind, so untruthful? I shared my shock on FB, being careful not to mention his name, as I was so upset and needed the comfort of friends. What did he do? – attack me again for sharing my feelings on FB – and here’s where it gets truly nasty. He had done the exact same thing to me, but worse, he had done it the day before (when I was in ignorant bliss of his awful feelings towards me) he had openly vented over FB on a mutual friend’s post, spreading lies about me, about how a close friend of his had called him a racist and how he’d been battling with racism his whole life etc etc. Then in a typically underhanded and hypocritical move of him, he had secretly contacted the mutual friend and asked him to remove the thread, when that friend refused, he then went in and edited out all the crap he said about me – but too late, I had already seen it! To then have the audacity to pretend he was somehow the victim instead of the attacker and accuse me of something he himself had done the day before just beggared belief!

I know how terribly trivial this all sounds, especially given the dreadful global things that have happened this year – the crumbling of a friendship is hardly worth moaning about. But it was one of the worst most hurtful things I’ve gone through in quite a few years, made worse because I was in a vulnerable state and hadn’t expected a friend to behave like that.

To be honest, politics, deceitfulness and verbal attacks aside, the thing that has devastated me the most is the fact that running up to this whole horrible debacle, I had repeatedly told him that I was in a bad head space, that the whole Brexit thing was actually making me ill, that I was really struggling etc., and he couldn’t give a shit. From someone who has been afflicted by depression himself, the ‘black dog’ as he fashionably likes to call it, and as a close friend he knew I had struggled with bad depression for years, including two suicide attempts. I had always been SO fucking supportive of him when he was in a bad head space, even though I know he exaggerates everything, I’d been on the same drugs as him which hadn’t affected me at all, but none of that mattered. I know when it comes to mental health everyone deals with it differently and gets affected by it differently. But here was the crux, I’d always been very supportive and caring of when his bad times hit, and to a certain extent he had been relatively supportive of mine. Yet, when it came to Brexit, he had ignored every single one of my pleas, he didn’t give a shit that I was struggling, that I was repeatedly telling him I was in a bad way, none of that mattered, only that he was right and me along with 16 million others were wrong. His ego, his unwavering self-belief was far far more important than a friend in need. It was the final demonstration, if I needed it, that this was a man so utterly up his own arse that if anyone needed help, he’d be the last person to see it. Like a teenager desperately seeking attention, only HE was the one that mattered, only his depression, his feelings, his opinions.

After two weeks passed he eventually responded to my private message. I admit, I never read it. I was too hurt by the whole thing and could tell straight away that it wasn’t an apology or anything like it. He had attacked me in such a nasty way, he had hurt me terribly to assuage his own bruised ego over most of our mutual friends saying how wrong he was over his Brexit stance and he had taken his frustrations out on me, a soft target. Ironically I saw how he reacted to our mutual friend who had threatened to defriend and block him and who quite rightly told him where to stick his opinions in a hilariously forceful way. Did he attack him back? No, of course not, he replied with a single word answer, “Peace”. Strange how differently he had reacted to me, but then our mutual friend wasn’t a soft target and I was.

To me, that was pretty unforgiveable. Like a divorce, the end of a friendship is never easy and always painful. Things went on. We didn’t speak or communicate at all. When my birthday rolled around I knew I wouldn’t be getting a birthday card from him, but I admit, seeing him active on FB that day and not bothering to even press a button to send one of those automatic FB birthday messages, something that takes no effort to do, I finally realised that things were over for good. The pretence that we were friends was over, what was the point of hanging on and just being continually kicked in the gut? So the day after my birthday I finally defriended him. It hurt, it still does to a certain extent, maybe that will give him some pleasure, I don’t know and I no longer care. I only know that after a lifetime of being hurt, of being kicked in the guts physically and figuratively, that I am too old and too worn down to allow so called friends to hurt me, my tolerance for cruelty is zero. I’ve never knowingly hurt anyone in my life, never attacked anyone, never cheated, never lied about someone. I have been a carpet, I admit, but my fiery temperament is definitely taking over now and I’m not prepared to take anymore shit.

None of us deserve to be treated badly, none of us.

I’m all for forgiving people, god knows I’ve forgiven people a hell of a lot and then been shitted on again. But in the end, life is too short, too hard, too fucking difficult to keep climbing that hill with all our baggage while those we hold dear kick us as we stumble. I am very fortunate to have a few very very dear friends, Heather who I’ve known for years and who made me godmother to her first child; Sammy, my amazing publisher but far far more importantly, an amazing and very dear friend who I share so much with, Kate Coe and Jo, two of the truly loveliest people you could meet, Roz too and actually all my fellow Grimbold authors who are such darlings and such truly remarkable and wonderful people. I love them all and am very thankful to have them in my life. ❤

But I admit, more than the awfulness of Brexit, of Trump’s hideous bigotry and election win, of our heroes dying, what has marked this year as being particularly awful for me, was the ugly end to what I thought was a great friendship. It leaves me feeling wary, jaded and nervous of trusting people again and I know that is not a good disposition to have.

So…my New Year’s Resolution is simply this – to be open, to be positive and to be happy.

Darkness won in 2016, but even in the dark there is always a light.

So, looking to the positives…this year has also seen a very close family friend of some 50 years, battle and survive cancer, which is to be celebrated! We are so thrilled she has made a full recovery and is doing so well. 😀 ❤ The growing closeness of my other friends is something I am so so thankful for and as some of them embark on a whole new chapter in their lives, I am so excited and thrilled for them. shadows-of-the-oak

This year has also seen the publishing of two books with my stories in, the wonderful, Fight Like A Girl in April (with an amazing book launch in Bristol), and most recently, Shadows Of The Oak which also has two of my illustrations in. I am so happy for improved health and happiness of those I hold dear too, especially my mate Sammy who has overcome so many things and is an inspiration to all of us. Love you sweetie. ❤

My illustration business has continued to flourish with great word of mouth keeping me very busy. My most prestigious commissions to date were for the wonderful Juliet McKenna and her Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom, and now Anna Smith-Spark and her new HarperCollins book due out next year, The Court of Broken Knives.

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I also managed to win my second NaNo this year (50K words in a month) which I was thrilled about and have just wrangled into existence a first rough draft of my second novel, Darkling Rise, after struggling for two years with it!

Now, I have two more short stories to write this month for two different anthologies, yet more illustration commissions lined up and Book 2 to knock into shape. 2017 also heralds a very personal milestone that I am going to try my hardest to achieve…watch this space! 😀

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So, I hope you guys have had a better year than me and wish you a gloriously happy 2017. But if you have had a tough year too, then take heart, things always change and WILL get better. I know 2017 will have a lot of struggles of its own, after all we will all be entering Trumpland, but I truly believe if we remember to treat each other well and not give into hate, that we can make the next year a great one.

Love to you all and HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!! 😀 ❤ xxxxx

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Battling the Great ‘D’!

The Great ‘D’ – depression.

I’ve battled with this nasty bottom dweller since I was a teen, not just the usual teenage angst but something fundamentally more serious and frightening. Well, it’s true to say that I have been struggling again these last few months.

The problem with depression isn’t merely the ‘being down’, the negative thoughts, the brain paralysing fears and paranoia’s and the black pit of despair, it is also the straight jacket, the feeling of having your hands and feet tied whilst being asked to continue with ‘normal’ daily life. A total impossibility. Depression is a paralyser of creativity, ideas, ‘normal’ cognitive function, it skews and sours everything.

There’s that awful word again – ‘normal’, as when you’re in the grip of depression you feel anything but normal, you imagine your head enlarged, a sign scrawled across your forehead, a big pointy neon sign following you around. Did I mention paranoia? You feel out of control, scrutinised, attacked, beaten, bruised, defeated all at once. It’s the sensation of speeding in an open top car at 110mph with no seat belt while the driver wears a blindfold, yet at the same time feeling as if you’re stuck neck deep in treacle – unable to move, to progress, to do anything. It’s debilitating.

It’s such an insidious condition. I’ve known it’s been creeping up on me for the last few months, that sinking feeling as life’s little or big crisis’s become increasingly more difficult to deal with. None of us can stop life being damn hard, from bad things happening. But when you have depression, you are completely incapable of dealing with them. You become instantly overwhelmed by the smallest thing, and completely smothered by anything larger.

It’s for this reason that I’ve neglected my own lovely blog for so long. I’ve found it virtually impossible to get the energy to blog anything this year and have been utterly incapable of following any of my friend’s wonderful blogs. Every time I saw one of their blog posts pop up on my emails, it just stayed there, accumulating with all the others along with hundreds of emails, probably thousands now. 😦

So, a huge apology to any and all of my friends if I’ve been a bit weird of late. I’m usually a great one for doing a ‘swan impression’, appearing in control, the effortless gliding swan, while in truth the legs are peddling manically beneath. That’s me to a T – so busy trying to convince others and myself that everything is okay, that I’m my usual social, bubbly, happy self, when the reality is anything but that. It’s exhausting and a dreadful ‘Catch-22’ cycle, one I find almost impossible to break. Perhaps it’s a confidence issue, but I’m just so used to putting up a front, the happy exterior that I don’t seem to be able to let that slip and allow people to see me down. Reality bites.

I think the only time in my life that I’ve really ever broken down and cried in public was at my friend’s funeral. So, to anyone who suffers from depression, whether you put on a brave face like me or are able to be open and honest about it, you have my heartfelt sympathies. It sucks. And to anyone who knows someone who is struggling, please be patient with them and if they appear okay, look a little closer. No-one builds a wall better than someone battling depression, we’re experts at hiding from the world, our friends, ourselves.

At the moment, I admit I am drowning slightly. Life worries are weighing heavily and those worst dark impulses are louder than ever. So, trying to be positive and drag myself out of this cycle, I have promised myself to try and list 5 things every day that are positive or make me happy, no matter how small or seemingly unimportant.

So here goes:

  1. A notable and prestigious writer has approached me to do a fantasy map commission for her amazing books. I am both thrilled and honoured.
  2. I have a lovely meeting of my gorgeous fellow Grimbold authors and friends at my place this Sunday for a big BBQ. I cannot tell you how much I am looking forward to this and what a light in a dark tunnel it’s been.
  3. I am perpetually thankful for the family that I do have. I love them all dearly.
  4. My four gorgeous doggies bring me laughter and light every day.
  5. Despite my job being terribly low paid, I do absolutely love it and love the people I work with.

There, 5 things to be thankful for. If you are struggling with any kind of depression, mental illness or anything else, then please take the time to breathe, look around you and find 5 things that make your life better/easier/happier. It’s so so easy to be swamped in a negative mire and forget to look up and really see what you have.

I will also try to blog again and when I can (without beating myself up anymore), read and support my lovely friend’s blogs…it may just take me a little time.

Take care and remember to be kind to yourself as well – you can’t help others if you’ve fallen yourself. ❤ xxxx

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6 months of magic and mayhem…with more to follow!

Today’s post is a rather reflective one, so apologies for getting a little misty-eyed and overawed!

Six months ago on the 1st December 2014 my debut novel, White Mountain, the first of my Darkling Chronicles trilogy, was gloriously published by Grimbold Books & their imprint Kristell Ink Publishing. I knew at the time that the merry-go-round of madness was about to begin, but boy what a rollercoaster ride it’s been!

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White Mountain, as most of my friends, family and supporters know, was a complete labour of love that took over ten years to write, research and worldbuild (yes, I am a VERY slow writer! I promise that Book 2 WILL be finished and ready next year, so no decade to wait!). All my interests in ancient history, world mythology, geography, geology, natural history, ecology, anthropology etc., etc., dripped into the history and worldbuilding behind the story of White Mountain; and my personal experiences and complicated relationships seeped into the characters and their lives.

No matter what genre you write in, no matter how fantastical or other-worldly it may be, use your life in what you write.

For me it was a wonderful cathartic experience of writing about dysfunctional relationships I knew, about friendships, inner turmoil, feelings of atonement, guilt, rage, loneliness and yes, it was liberating to write my villain, a thoroughly nasty, manipulative, violent and cruel character who I have openly admitted is based on my father. Do I have baggage to write about? Hell, yes…don’t we all?

Anyway, White Mountain was born into the world with its awesome new cover and that’s when all the fun began!

My signing at Books On The Hill

The last six months has been a manic ride. I attended my very first fantasy/sci-fi convention, BristolCon, (huge thanks to the multi-talented and fellow fantasy writer, Joanne Hall who founded & runs it brilliantly). I went to my first book fair and did my first public reading (terrifying but brilliant!). I then embarked on a hectic book-signing tour around Wales and the West Country, signing in some truly gorgeous and prestigious bookshops and meeting some terrifically awesome people along the way. Best of all though, has to be that sense of tingling excitement when someone buys your book! I don’t think I’ll ever feel blasé about that, it’s a truly humbling experience chatting to customers, signing and dedicating books to them and loved ones. Simply put, it’s just one of the most magical experiences and completely eclipses the awkwardness and embarrassment of sitting in a bookshop feeling like a lemon waiting to be squeezed! SAM_6855 (2)

Chepstow BookshopAmongst the book-signing tour and newspaper articles I went to my first literary festival as an author, to do a poetry and fiction reading. The tiny but potent, Hawkesbury Upton (HULit) Literary Festival, founded by local indie author, Debbie Young, who is a one-woman self-publishing whizz and who managed to not only organise the whole event but to even attract big name authors such as Katie Fforde – who opened the event, read from her book and graciously took a photo op with little old me!

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White Mountain, continued to pick up momentum and great reviews, including gaining a 5 star review and shiny medal from Reader’s Favorite and from very popular websites, Girl Who Reads and Brainfluff among others. Of course we authors are always desperate for more reviews as we know that getting reviews is absolutely crucial to whether a book succeeds or fails. So if you read a book you love, help that book and author and post a review! Reader's Favorite review

Then, amongst the book signings and readings, I was asked to participate in the Cirencester Literary Festival in July, as an author and illustrator and run my own illustration workshop for children in Bingham Gallery!

Cirencester event on Octavia's

Octavia's Cirencester eventWow!

With more bookshop signings and book fairs on the horizon in addition to BristolCon 2015 and FantasyCon coming up in the Autumn, it has been a gloriously nutty few months!

Then…to top it all off, White Mountain, has been shortlisted in The People’s Book Prize! The People’s Book Prize is the only major literary award voted by the people, as a way of finding new books and new talent which may have been overlooked by mainstream markets. Founded by Dame Beryl Bainbridge and with Frederick Forsythe as it’s current Patron, it is wonderful to be nominated.

People's Book Prize page

Do I have a chance of winning?

I’d certainly LOVE to win as it’s a fantastic way of raising your book’s profile, with the awards ceremony even being televised on SKY News, but honestly I don’t hold out much hope. White Mountain is in the Children’s category and the competition is very stiff with the most likely winner being a larger mainstream author who sells in Waterstones, has a larger fanbase and has won it before. BUT, you never know…could David defeat Goliath?

People's Book Prize capture

So here’s my shameless plugging bit…can I ask EVERYONE reading this to PLEASE lend your support and give the underdog a chance by voting for White Mountain? It only takes a few moments of your time, is totally FREE and really would make all the difference to a little indie author like me. Voting continues until August, but every single vote counts! Just pop on the website, register by giving your name and email, they will then send you a password. Then click back onto my book, put in your name, password, VOTE and leave a short comment. http://www.peoplesbookprize.com/book.php?id=1295

A MASSIVE THANK YOU to everyone who has already voted, especially those who have left comments too, and to those who are going to vote. It really is hugely appreciated, so thank you guys, you are the best! Lol, I won’t hold my breath, but I’ll quietly keep my fingers, toes and dragon wings crossed! 😉

So, there you go…as my little blog passes 39,000 visitors (a truly humbling number for such a tiny online diary about writing), I can only wonder what the next six months will bring… 😀

A HUGE thank you to all of you who keep the fires burning in this quiet cloister of the internet! You are all amazing and uber-cool dudes and dudettes! THANK YOU!!!!!! 😀 xxxx

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