Are you prepared for SUCCESS?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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. 😀

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! 😀 ❤ xxx

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