Magic and Mental Health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Maps, Book Launches and Chris Pratt!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For The Love Of Maps!

Mapping Your Fantasy

Mapping The Imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BUT…this experience became the lightning bolt I needed.

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

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

What the hell was I doing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Good luck to us all! ūüėÄ xxxx

 

Are you prepared for SUCCESS?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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-d√Ľm, 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. ūüė¶

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. ūüė¶

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. ūüė¶

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* ūüėÄ

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

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. ūüôā

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! ūüėÄ

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

Pencil portrait of Rayleigh Ritchie

Pencil portrait of actor Rayleigh Ritchie 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. ūüė¶

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!”

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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: ūüėÄ

  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! ūüėÄ

** 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!) ūüėÄ xxx

 

The Realities of Writing…

soa_member_rgb1As a member of The Society of Authors (SoA), the longest running society helping authors (actually celebrating its centenary this year)¬†and certainly the nearest we have to an ‘Author Union’, I received my quarterly SoA magazine ‘The Author’ a few weeks ago.

‘The Author’ is¬†always a fascinating read, a thermometer of what’s going on in the literary¬†world, in publishing, what’s¬†trending¬†and in writer’s lives themselves. It’s full of really interesting articles, all written by writers for writers on issues as diverse as copyright, publishing & publishers, literary festivals, contracts, public lending rights (PLR), author events, public liability insurance, awards and grants, writing tips,¬†sales, bookshops, Amazon, research, booktrade news¬†in addition to its own¬†‘Quarterly News’. Lol, to be honest, the first thing I always do is look to see the names of new members and if I recognise anyone. ūüėÄ

Anyway, in amongst the magazine was a ballot paper for this year’s Election to the Management Committee. Now I won’t say who I voted for, I don’t want to invalidate my ballot, but reading their candidate statements was really interesting and, considering most of these people are big names, quite surprising. I don’t know why, but I suppose we all have stereotypes that we fall into from time to time and certainly I imagine that these writers, the ‘big names’, all¬†live a dream life of never having to worry about money or bills or mundane things again, that their writing has brought riches and fame and therefore they are a world away from the harsh realities that myself and my fellow writers live in day in day out. But, to my surprise, I couldn’t have been more wrong. It is precisely because these writers have made it big, that makes them so sympathetic and empathetic to the struggles and plights of others because they remember what life was life before that bestseller.

One writer in particular who grabbed my attention was Alice Jolly, talking about writing as a career and how hard it is for most writers just to keep their head above the rising tides.

In her own words:

“The position of the writer is a paradox. On the one hand, authors appear to be powerful. The UK general public love authors. They spend approximately ¬£2.2 billion on books a year and 60% cite ‘author’ as their dream job. The UK has approximately 250 literary festivals some of which attract audiences of 200,000.

But despite all that, the reality of an average author’s life is grim. The median annual income of authors is ¬£11,000 (substantially below the minimum wage based on a forty hour week). The hours are unsocial and authors are continually asked to run workshops or make visits to schools for free.

So how can we writers capitalise on the power we have in order to ensure that writing is a career, not a hobby? How do we make sure that the current seismic changes in the publishing industry take us into a world where writers have more control over their careers?

There is no simple answer but that change certainly will not happen unless we all work together.”

What makes Alice Jolly’s words particularly pertinent is that she has experience in a range of fields,¬†from teaching creative writing at Oxford University, having two novels published through Simon & Schuster, to four plays produced in the theatre to crowdfunding her latest work. It’s¬†somehow reassuring¬†to know that people like Alice, or Joanne Harris who are widely known and respected, are able to relate to the problems and struggles that we small press and indie authors face every day – that struggle not only to write in itself, to get published (in whatever way that means to you), but also to make ends meet, pay the bills, survive.

The romantic notion of the starving artist in their garret or isolated writer in their shed, is all well and good, but starving in reality does not help creativity – it stifles it. If your mind is continually pre-occupied by how you are going to keep the roof over your head and food on your plate, if you are literally starving, you are not going to be concerned by writing the next great tome. Your energies and efforts will be spent on trying to survive so you have a future where you can write.

I find these issues particularly relevant to me and my own situation. Not only have I found writing my second novel particularly hard (due to major writer’s block¬†caused by¬†health issues), though I have been able to write several short stories/novellas, my own personal circumstances are more than a little precarious in both financial and personal terms. All of which, the stress, the worry, health issues and the counting of pennies, really does not help the creative process.

So, what is the answer?

Alice Jolly is right, there are no simple solutions. As with everything in life, the randomness of luck always plays a part, simply being in the right place at the right time, and yes, sadly, the old adage of ‘who you know’ plays a major part. Would Christopher Paolini really have been published and pushed into the limelight if his mother hadn’t been in the industry and placed his novel in front of an agent rather than it doing the rounds of the slushpile? I think not. But we are also masters of our own destinies. I see the flamboyant and endless energy of self-published authors Ben Galley and Debbie Young who both simply do not settle for resting on their laurels. They are so determined, so inventive and so driven they have made it happen for them. Ben Galley recently revealed that he’s selling 400 books a month in the US and tours around the country and can be seen at most conventions, Debbie Young set up her own Literary Festival from scratch (the Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival) with Katie FForde herself opening the inaugural event. She’s now planning the 3rd year of the festival next year and is also the main collaborator for ALLi – The Alliance of Independent Authors and tours the country doing talks and events.

So, is this the future and answer¬†to making writing a career that can actually pay the bills? The honest answer is…I don’t know. I’m thrilled for both Ben Galley and Debbie Young, both of whom are not only thoroughly lovely people but also¬†terrific writers. My problem is this, as much as I would dearly love to be a full-time writer (it’s been my dream since I was a kid) and be able to make an actual living from it as with any other career (yes, writing paying bills), I simply do not have the stamina¬†or funds to do half the things that they do, I dearly wish I could. This year for instance, as I’ve been concentrating on writing so much, my marketing and publicity has, in all fairness, been crap. I’ve just found it far too hard to be able to do both things effectively.

So, the question remains, what is the answer? If you’re unable to travel much, are not techy at all¬†(I’m an IT idiot tbh and still don’t understand what the hell, Thunderclap is!), and health and circumstances curtail what you can do, then how do you turn your imagination into something that can actually pay those bills?

Well, in truth I’m still working on that one. What I will say is in a strange parallel to other industries such as farming for instance, I think a big part of success or at least survival and self-sufficiency, is by diversifying. Look at what you can do, what you’re good at (apart from writing) and try using those skills to aid¬†not only your writing but to also¬†pay the bills.

For me, that has meant illustration work: – ¬†Sophie E Tallis Illustrations. Being a trained traditional artist, with a BA (Hons) in Fine Art and an MA place, I illustrate books and do fantasy maps (having just completed a commission for the¬†wonderful Juliet McKenna and her fantastic ‘Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom’ and am currently working on a map commission for grimdark author, Anna Smith-Spark and her upcoming Harper Voyager book, ‘The Court of Broken Knives’). In fact as I can adapt to any illustration style wanted, I can pretty much do whatever the client wants (lol, though not digital art, my computer skills are crap!). Now, although¬†I’m not raking¬†in huge amounts, as far as paying for those damn bills, it is definitely helping!

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So, for we small authors to continue writing as a career not a hobby, we have to use every trick in our arsenal, diversify, think outside of the box, focus on what you can do rather than what you can’t.

Good luck guys, may we all succeed at that elusive goal – full-time writing AND survival! ūüėÄ ‚̧ xxx

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A Year of Wonder…!

Today, is a special day – not¬†just the 1st of a new month (pinch punch sort of thing),¬†and the first day of the festive season (I LOVE Christmas and yes, I already have my trees up and decorated and excitedly switched the lights on this morning before work :D!) … BUT today marks the 1 year anniversary of my novel, WHITE MOUNTAIN, being published! YAY!!!!!! ūüėÄ9781909845978[1]

A year ago today, my epic fantasy was born or should I say re-born in all its glory by a fantastic publisher, Grimbold Books, who prizes quality above anything else and who truly GOT IT!

I owe them so many thanks, not least for producing a book of tremendous quality from the awesome cover to the calligraphy inside, from the production values to the formatting of text and my illustrations (a fiddly thing at the best of times…when was the last time you read an illustrated novel?), (thank you to Alex Bardy the God of Typesetting!). Everything was done with care and more than a pinch of love and I genuinely think it shows.¬†Grimbold Books¬†and Kristell Ink¬†also restored my very shaken faith in the integrity and honesty of people after my dreadful first publisher experience. To say Grimbold are the polar opposite to the cretins I first¬†signed with, would be an understatement of gargantuan proportions! So, a massive thank you to Sammy HK Smith and Zoe Harris for taking a chance on me and everyone at Team Grimbold…I love you guys! ūüėÄ xxx White Mountain full book jacket

So, on this happy book anniversary it seems fitting to take a breath and look back at the wondrous whirlwind year its been and share a few of the highlights!

1st Dec 2014 – My reaction was as always, understated and subtle… ūüėÄ SAM_5228

To my delight, not only did White Mountain gain lots of new readers and admirers but many fans of the first flawed book bought the second improved version too, just to read how¬†the story¬†should have been told. Thank you to all my fans, old and new! I really appreciate your support! ‚̧ xxx 10407894_10153042995986950_697215546084611716_n[1]

After my first ever Book Fair at the Welsh ICE Book Fair on 29th Nov, I followed that up by my first ever reading in Bristol at the ‘Fairies at the bottom of the garden’ event Sat 13th Dec. I was VERY nervous, but it was great fun. ūüėÄ 10614253_846486532082170_6044863703050848758_n[1]

After another successful book signing at the lovely Books & Pontyclun bookshop on December 20th where I formed a great friendship with Book Lady extraordinaire¬†and White Mountain mega-fan, Emily Hannah Rogers now Mrs Emily Hannah King! (She’s on her honeymoon trip around the world…I was hoping to sneak inside her suitcase when I heard she was going to my beloved New Zealand!). SAM_5401

The new year¬†brought yet more wonderful signings and ‘booky’ events. Signing at the fab Books On The Hill Bookshop in Clevedon in February with Alistair Sims and Chloe, lol, and being photographed for the Somerset Times Newspaper…gulp! My signing at Books On The Hill

In March, my second Book Fair and¬†more signings this time at prestigious Chepstow Bookshop in the shoes of my¬†hero David Attenborough! Thank you to Matt and to my lovely mate Will who popped along to say “Hello!”

April, saw me attending my very first Literary Festival as an author and illustrator for the inaugural Hawkesbury-Upton Lit Fest organised by self-published author extraordinaire, Debbie Young, to celebrate World Book Night. 51LK1eQJXNL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_[1]My poetry readings (my first ever) went down a storm and my White Mountain reading got people so hooked they grabbed another few sales! Yay! I also meet famous author, Katie Fforde, who posed for a photo op! ūüėÄ SAM_6754

The month of May was busy busy busy, juggling illustration commissions and lots of events, the highlights being another signing at lovely Octavia’s Bookshop in Cirencester and my third public book reading as part of BristolCon Fringe alongside fellow fantasy author, Ben Galley. May also saw me going see one of my favourite authors, Kazuo Ishiguro, at¬†the Hay Festival – where he signed two books for me and chatted about the prejudice the fantasy genre faces from the literarti, what an awesome experience! SAM_6855 (2)

In June, White Mountain continued to soar in the Amazon charts and gained yet more wonderful¬†REVIEWS – THANK YOU! This little blog seemed to explode, with a couple of days gaining over 600 visitors each day! Yet more illustrations and yes, lots of writing, including a dark fairy-tale short story, ‘The Orphan and The Iron Troll’¬†The Orphan and the Iron Trollto be published in upcoming dark anthology, Shadows Of The Oak and a gritty sci-fi space opera short story, ‘Silent Running’ for the upcoming awesome Fight Like A Girl anthology alongside big fantasy hitters like Juliet E McKenna, Danie Ware, Gaie Sebold, K.T. Davies, Kim Lakin-Smith, Roz Clarke and Joanne Hall among others! Wow! Very honoured and rather humbled to be in such company. (gulp) Fight-Like-A-Girl-V2-400ppi[1]

July was hot and awesome in equal measure…but the highlight of highlights had to be the honour of being invited as an author and illustrator to take part in the prestigious Cirencester Literary Festival, running my own illustration workshop as one of the main events! The place, Bingham Gallery in Cirencester,¬†was absolutely PACKED! The event was a tremendous success and went brilliantly, and I even managed to control my nerves! July also saw me starting my Distant Worlds author interview series on this blog, which has been such fun and has had such a tremendous response. ūüėÄ CJi9mo3WEAAGHFn[1] (2)11059440_1736544409906170_5015057545228280997_n[1]11822572_1736544419906169_8415676657590741700_n[1]11406151_1717954358431842_1815668094057261589_o1[1]

September, apart from my birthday (gulp), saw the eventual release of the Alliance of Worldbuilders (AWB) first anthology, A World Of Their Own, the fruition of four years hard work. The anthology is dedicated to my dear friend and fellow AWB member, Lindsey J Parsons who died so suddenly in January 2014, with ALL profits from the book going to charity Рso it makes the perfect Christmas present. 10628434_901588523202885_688426025216875644_n[1]

I still miss¬†Linds so much, especially late at night when my insomnia kicks in and I need to talk to someone and bounce ideas of…or chat stupidly like we often did until 3am! ūüė¶

Anyway, after the anthology publication the rest of the month was dominated by the insanely cool BristolCon run by Joanne Hall. It took place at the Doubletree Hilton Hotel in Bristol, where I was not only attending as an author on my first ever panel (alongside Jasper Fforde) but was also CHAIRING a panel on the apt subject of Libraries. I also got to finally meet Emma Newman which was very cool as was seeing my mate, Joanne Hall, have her awesome book launch! SAM_7710

October was a mad blur of more book fairs and signings but the highlight was an epically AWESOME 5 days up in Nottingham with my fellow Grimbold band of brothers and sisters for FantasyCon!!!! WOW!!! Where to start? Such cool panels, talks, lots of fun events, me singing Blondie and Adele at my first ever Karaoke…and yes, I didn’t completely embarrass myself! Meeting Brandon Sanderson, hanging out with my new cool friends, eating copious amounts of pizza, cake and burgers (diet was on hiatus), Steven Poore (fellow Grimbold cat) having his awesome book launch at the Con, SAM_8039playing Cards Against Humanity and my 1981 board-game, Dark Tower and cheering on the wonderful Adele Wearing of Fox Spirit Books as they won Best Independent Press at the British Fantasy Awards. SAM_8064Highlights, have to be my decision to make a visual record of the Con by sketching people. Amongst some decidedly dodgy drawings (sorry Jo, I will draw you again honey and do a better job!), I got to eventually meet the very cool Jen Williams who I’d missed at BristolCon. Not only did Jen and Brandon sign the sketches I did of them, Jen very kindly posed for a piccie with it too! SO COOL!!! ūüėÄ SAM_7981Had SUCH an amazing time! SAM_8100SAM_7917

Then, suddenly it was November and my fellow cool Grimbold cat and talented writer, Kate Coe (who I shared a hotel room with and who had to put up with my snoring!), had encouraged me to do something I have been avoiding since 1999…National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWrMo (Nano)! NaNo-2015-Winner-Badge-Large-Square[1]

Knowing what a slow sod I am when it comes to writing, yes hopefully I write quality stuff, but do I need to be so goddamn slow? – well, knowing that, how could I of all people possibly hope to write a massive 50,000 words in just one month. Geared up by Kate’s enthusiasm that¬†I could in fact do it…I plunged into it head long! I also took part in a little sword fighting play at Kate’s place for one of the Nano Write-In’s with Adrian Faulkner, a master swordsman and very cool fantasy writer. 12196097_10153633033412254_1672540370840878677_n[1]SAM_7910

So, November was spent ignoring emails, ignoring the TV, Facebook, friends and relatives and just writing, writing, writing…and…on Sunday 29th November, a whole day early for my first ever Nano…I achieved my impossible goal, I reached 50,143 words of my new dark fantasy, RAVENWING. Ravenwing

That was two days ago, and I’m still reeling from it. For me, this Nano challenge was also a deeply personal and important one. I wasn’t just challenging myself to write a huge amount of words in a short time, I was challenging my illness and saying YES, I CAN DO THIS! Nano Winner 2015 Certificate

As many of my friends know, I was struck down by a nasty illness a couple of years ago and that has badly impacted on my writing, making me slower again but also making the sheer effort and mental strain of concentrating for the longer periods needed to write, very very difficult indeed. This has meant that the sequel to my beloved, White Mountain, has been very slow in the making (a big thank you again to my VERY patient publishers!). So…for me, Nano was also an opportunity to show myself that I can do it, to kickstart my White Mountain sequel, and that’s what I intend to do!

So…to start as I mean to continue, here is an exclusive for all my White Mountain fans…

The sequel, DARKLING RISE,¬†is coming (promise), but to tide you all over…there will be two brand¬†NEW White Mountain short stories published next year!!!!

A Friendship Forged Рis a wonderful back story of how Mr. Agyk and Gralen first meet with some awesome fight sequences and more than a few hints about Book 2 and tie-in events from White Mountain.

The Siege of Kallorm Рis the back story of Korrun, why he is such an angst character. It charts his fateful fall from grace, from being a hero figure, the Captain of the Kallorm City Guard to becoming a vilified, hated figure after he makes the worst of mistakes. Can you ever atone for your sins? The Siege of Kallorm sketch

Both new stories are coming soon…watch this space!

***

So…there you go, a year of madness, mayhem, wonderful weirdness, lots of ‘firsts’, and a real personal turning point.

I wonder…what on earth will the next year bring?!

See you all there, for yet more fun…roll on 2016! ūüėÄ xxxxx

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ūüėÄ ‚̧ xxxxx