Magic and Mental Health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

❀

 

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When you’ve lost your way…

Battling depression – and losing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

😩

How to Make A Living as a Writer!

Apologies to all my US, NZ and Aussie writer friends, this post is very UK based so won’t apply to most of you, but feel free pick up ideas. 😀

On Wednesday 24th May 2017, I attended my first Society of Authors (SoA) event in Bristol, at the Arnolfini Gallery, a place I used to visit all the time when I was a struggling art student some twenty years ago! In fact, I first saw a young Damien Hirst exhibit his work there before he made it huge with his pickled sharks, and I marvelled at the huge architectural spiders of artist Louise Bourgeois (a thing of fear for an arachnophobe like me!). The Arnolfini itself is perched on the banks of the River Frome in the heart of Bristol and although it has changed a bit (more sleeker than I remember), thankfully it was still recognisable with it’s impressive exhibition spaces and relaxed bohemian vibe. If you’ve never visited it’s well worth a look. In fact the whole of the Bristol Docks/Quayside area is a lovely place to spend some time especially in the summer, very arty with almost an Amsterdam feel to the place with all the boats, barges and canal ferries going up and down the water, the smell of street food wafting through the air, acoustic guitar strumming in the background, cafes and restaurants spilling onto the cobbled streets, now pedestrianised, and of course the Watershed Arts & Media Centre one side of the river and the Arnolfini Gallery the other, linked by the stunning architectural Pero’s Bridge.

The SoA event was a very topical one – ‘How to Make a Living as a Writer’ – something every writer I know would like to do! As most SoA events are centralised in London, a criticism made by one of the members there, I was absolutely determined to attend this rare outside of London event. As usual my body had other ideas…as I had dared to go to a last minute Grimbold Books work/social on the Monday evening which was fab but left me exhausted the following day, I ended up paying for it on the Wednesday. Annoyingly I went to bed on the Tuesday with a migraine, woke up on the Wednesday with a terrible migraine and one that decided to get progressively worse through the day with my usual vertigo and sickness, to the extent that I was then unable to drive and had to ask for a lift in. 😩

The event was upstairs in one of the gallery ‘Reading Rooms’ and one with very little air conditioning on one of the hottest days of the year! I was shocked and delighted that the whole thing kicked off with the chair reading a quote from Gareth L. Powell, a brilliant Bristol based writer who I happen to know and who wanted to be there but the tickets had sold out! How weird and wonderful is that?

“There are two kinds of courage. There’s the kind you get from knowing that what you’re doing is right. And there’s the kind you get from knowing its hopeless and wrong, and just not giving a damn.”  ― Gareth L. Powell, The Last Reef

It began with an interesting Q&A session chaired by Sarah Baxter who advises SoA members on publishing contracts and issues, handles literary estates, including print permissions and amateur stage licences. She also administers grants for writers in need including the Authors Contingency Fund, PD James Memorial Fund and Authors Foundation grants. The SoA’s newest contracts advisor, Theo Jones, who used to work for Oxford University Press, also joined her and I had a rather nice chat to him during the break.
During the Q&A various topics were raised including issues about competing titles, the new Amazon buy button (which is worrying a lot of people), the difficulty of earning a living through writing, the rise of celebrity authors and I mentioned the problem of author signings in chains like Waterstones. To my delight I wasn’t the only person who had found a problem trying to get Waterstones to stock books from smaller authors and small presses, as well as indies and how once James Daunt took over Waterstones, their policy changed towards signing events – where now most shops only hold signing events for big celebrity names. Yet another door/opportunity closed to struggling writers. The discussion around celebrity authors was very pertinent and how even well established authors are finding themselves squeezed off the shelves in both bookshops and libraries and are finding it harder to get publishing contracts because celebrities are swamping the market. I myself mentioned the whole Miranda Hart problem I had encountered where I’ve had to completely re-write my entire picture book along with illustrations because her upcoming first foray into children’s fiction is almost exactly the same as my concept. Years of work wasted. Grrrrr. 😩
I kept taking notes and trying to listen as I battled the migraine which was now pounding away behind my eyes with a regular persistence and tried to ignore the rising temptation to vomit. No-one likes throwing up, but vomiting in public is one of my fears. We had a break for refreshments and after a brief chat to Theo Jones I scuttled off to the toilets in the hope of being sick so I’d feel better after. No go. I came back and found myself cornered by an overly enthusiastic writer putting the world to rights. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, although I’m not naturally very social, I can go into my ‘social façade mode’ and chat with the best of them. The problem here though, was that apart from my sweating profusely through a mixture of meds and unbearable heat, this particular woman was actually shouting. Obviously she had a problem hearing above the general chit chat, but shouting in an animated fashion only inches away from my banging migraine was something akin to torture! 😩

We returned to our seats for the meat of the matter – a one hour panel discussion on ‘How to Make a Living as a Writer’. Sarah Baxter was joined by Helen Chaloner (CEO of Literature Works*). Helen worked in publishing PR for over nine years, at Penguin Books, Macdonald Publishing and, latterly, at Faber & Faber. She was the National Director of the Arvon Foundation and Chief Executive of Farms for City Children. She is a lover of fiction and principal short story reader for the Bridport Prize. The panel was rounded off by writer and fellow SoA member, Patricia Ferguson, who has published seven novels and a volume of short stories so far, teaches Creative Writing for the University of Bristol, and was Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Reading University for three years.

*I admit I’d never heard of Literature Works before – a strategic literature development charity for South West England who are a National Portfolio Organisation of the Arts Council England. Literature Works’ role is to fundraise for the Literature Works Annual Fund, a support and grant scheme providing small awards for literature activity across the region, and where possible securing funding for larger regional projects with delivery partners, advice, advocacy and partnership. There mission is to support, understand and advocate regional literature in all its contexts, for everyone, for all ages, etc.

Sarah Baxter mentioned the South West Writers Directory (Literature Works) and that we should all get ourselves listed on there (something I have done this afternoon). Write Now was also mentioned as an initiative being piloted in Birmingham and Bristol – a scheme to find, mentor and publish new writers with different stories to tell and is in correlation with the BBC Writer’s Room. Writers from communities under-represented on the nation’s bookshelves. It is sponsored by Penguin Random House and I must say, anything that promotes greater diversity on our bookshelves is very welcomed by me.

I’d love to say some magic wands were discussed, some instant thing we can all do to suddenly become full time writers who can pay their bills exclusively through just writing, but if it was discussed, then those were the bits I missed…

Annoyingly, during this most crucial part of the event, I was desperately ill, teeth clenched, mouth clamped shut fighting the urge to barf, and so embarrassingly twice I had to leave in front of everyone. The second time I only just made it to the Arnolfini toilets before projectile vomiting everywhere. The only good thing is that it was with such force that I had no disgusting sick on me, it was like some comedy water canon being switched on. Apologies to the cleaners, I tried my best. 😩

Dear dear…you can imagine the state I was in, trying to concentrate and put on a professional front and write down copious notes for myself and friends while struggling with a howling migraine and nausea. Ugh. NOT my finest hour. I later made my apologies to Sarah Baxter and Poppy Rosenberg who were running the event and they were lovely. Then, exiting as quickly as I could, I found a bench overlooking the harbour, under the dappled shade of a sycamore tree and waited for my ride to pick me up as my head pulsated and swirled as if it were trying to copy Michael Ironside’s exploding cranium in horror film, Scanners.

So, what can I tell you about the outcome of all this?

Well, apart from the fact that you are not alone in struggling to make a living solely from writing, there really were no instant answers.

A few helpful hints were given though to raise your profile, perhaps get financial help and get paying writing work, so I’ll pop them here in no particular order (apologies for any obvious ones):

  • Literature Works – have resources, advice and help for writers.
  • South West Writer’s Directory – its free, get yourself on there! (sorry west country only)
  • Bid writing – Using your transferable skills ie. professional writing expertise in writing for companies, charities and organisations needing a more comprehensive and literate approach to their communications, fundraising and marketing.
  • Join a local writer’s group, not only as a means of fine tuning your own writing but as a networking tool.
  • Royal Literary Fund – The Royal Literary Fund is a UK charity that has been helping authors since 1790. It provides grants and pensions to writers in financial difficulty; it also places writers in universities to help students develop their writing.
  • National Writing Day (June 21st) – get involved with libraries and schools to celebrate this day.
  • Arvon – Was discussed a great deal and the grants and support.
  • Caroline Summerfield was mentioned and The Eugenie Summerfield Children’s Book Prize.
  • The Bath Novel Award was mentioned as well.
  • Mailing lists were discussed as a good way of building your fanbase.
  • It was discussed that as authors we needed to find a way of incentivising publishers to sign authors who are not celebrities, of finding a way to break that repeating cycle which is not only detrimental to professional authors whose sole income is writing, but also in some cases, floods the market with yet more substandard writing!
  • The organisers were very keen to start up a Bristol SoA chapter, as currently, despite there being apparently 481 SoA authors in and around Bristol, there is no Bristol group. I’d certainly be up for joining one, especially if there was a speculative fiction based one (Gareth?). Unfortunately a lot of this discussion and networking no doubt happened in the networking/socialising with drinks portion of the event, held afterwards in the Watershed bar and which I had to leave due to illness. 😩
  • Apparently the average earnings of a writer had now dropped from 18K a year to 11K. I must confess, my earnings from writing is nowhere near this. My illustration work with HarperCollins is the money maker for me, not my writing.
  • Promote your local connections through local libraries, bookshops, schools and writing groups – local radio is a resource as well as newspapers, use them.
  • Put yourself forward to teach creative writing courses at festivals etc. huge amounts of experience are not needed, it can be done with just a single published book under your belt.
  • Podcasting – as a visual means of raising your profile and getting more of your content out there on channels such as YouTube.

There, that seemed to be the majority of what was discussed. 😀

For me, a very handy contact gained, was meeting Judith Gunn who runs the Gloucestershire & Neighbouring Counties SoA group. I explained that unfortunately I’ve never been able to attend any of the meetings and events as they are always held during the day usually on Monday or Tuesday when I’m working. Judith said she had been discussing possibly opening up the group to hold an evening session every so often, so keen members like me who work day jobs, can attend. I certainly think that would be hugely beneficial not only to me, but other SoA writers I know, like lovely fellow fantasy writer, Jules Ironside who was working on Wednesday so couldn’t attend. Watch this space!

Meeting Deadlines – Remember to Breathe!

It’s Easter today – Happy Easter everyone! 😀

As I sit trying to recover from a very scary asthma attack I had at 4am, when I woke up suddenly unable to breathe, it’s forced me to be reflective on the last few weeks.

It was a manic March and so far April has been equally busy. Having kept up with my daily art challenge – The Artmaniac Challenge, for the whole of Jan and Feb, I fell off the art wagon in March, although ironically Sophie E Tallis Illustrations went from strength to strength – most notably being taken on by HarperCollins in February as one of their illustrators! 😀

This manicness started with a last minute dash to get a dark fantasy short story (Cern) finished for its anthology (Underskinn) deadline of Feb 28th and continued when I had the daft last minute idea of painting a self-portrait to enter the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2018 (deadline March 3rd)! I blame the inspiration of a few close friends (and cake nutters) for this and their unbridled passion and enthusiasm for just ‘going for it’, taking chances, pushing boundaries, going outside of your comfort zone – “hell why not?”.

I made the deadlines on both with literally 1 minute to spare, yes 1 minute! My short story has been accepted (as far as I know) but in the end my portrait wasn’t shortlisted. But I must say I have absolutely NO regrets, other than starting the painting the day before so it wasn’t finished properly! 😀

That manic flourish seemed to encapsulate March as I started my next commission, a painting for a New York client and his literary group – for it to adorn the front cover of their literary journal/magazine and website. Seemed like a great opportunity to once again do something different and widen my skill set and reputation for quality original art.

He was a slightly unusual client in that he clearly had never commissioned any artwork before and needed everything to be explained several times. But I’m very patient and being a perfectionist by nature I always want all my clients to be 110% happy and so far they all have been. Some of that perfectionism isn’t just in the standard of the art I produce but in making sure that each client is involved in the whole creative process every step of the way. By doing that, not only are you including the client in the work and all decision making but it becomes a great creative partnership and ensures that you deliver EXACTLY what they want. 😀

Unfortunately despite going through ‘the process’ with him several times to ensure he understood exactly how each stage works and what to expect, there were often occasions where he seemed to get confused – an example being when I sent him the first inked up artwork and he asked where the colours were even though I had explained that I couldn’t move onto the final painting stage until he was 100% happy with the inked up work!

I chalked it up to a difference in culture and language causing a few blips in communication. Mmmm, I should have listened to my spidey senses.

I had purposely set aside the whole of March for his artwork commission, having at his behest moved other projects to the side (including my own picture book that I have two agents waiting to see. So I won’t be doing that again!). Throughout the entire month he kept asking me when he could see the full colour version, even at the beginning when I was only at the graphite drawing stage.

The day of the deadline came, 31st March, as always I delivered the artwork on the deadline as agreed. That’s when it quickly appeared that there was something rotten in Denmark.

I sent the finished artwork to him with a watermark, as agreed, yet he didn’t even acknowledge it and instead kept asking for the finished work without watermark. A flurry of increasingly weird and then aggressive emails came, demanding the artwork without watermark as I kept explaining that he would get it as agreed the moment payment had been made. I’d spent a whole month working my ass off on this, doing exhaustive research, sending copious sketches, colour samples, drawings, asking 101 questions, etc., just to be screwed at the end by either an incompetent idiot or a crook. I couldn’t believe it. 😩

Friday rolled into Saturday when he then switched tack and suddenly said he didn’t like the artwork. I was bereft, utterly exhausted, stressed and upset that I’d worked so hard, which he knew, had kept giving him the artwork at every stage and given him every opportunity for the work to be amended/changed etc. as required yet he had said nothing until after the deadline. It seemed yet another ploy to get the artwork without watermark so he could use it without paying and shaft me in the process – commission my services, time and artwork for free.

Finally I sent an email threatening legal action. To be honest I’d given up hope of ever being paid by this idiot. What made the situation worse was wasting a whole month of my precious time when I could have been doing other projects. In fact half way through March I had received another email from Terence the Head of Fiction Art at HarperCollins asking if I could do another fantasy map commission (for the lovely Anna Stephens and her highly anticipated grimdark debut, Godblind, published with HC in June 2017). The problem was that this one had a tight deadline.

Because of my professionalism I said I was already committed to another client so couldn’t start the HarperCollins one until after the NY commission, April 1st earliest. Boy, April 1st really ended up being a joke on me! 😩

I was so stressed out by it and upset that of course it made me ill. I didn’t sleep for two nights and was vomiting profusely with all my usual vertigo and migraine symptoms. But I had no time to be ill, I had the HC commission to do so I plunged into it, using it as a great distraction from being screwed over. It was also lovely working with Anna Stephens and Terence from HC, two thoroughly lovely and decent people, the complete opposite to the client I had just had.

The week passed with me stressed out of my gourd until the NY git, under the threat of legal action and realising that he wasn’t going to get any artwork from me for free, finally paid up! OMG!!! :O

To be honest, I was totally shocked, I still am, because of the awful way he was behaving I had completely written off ever being paid by him.

But because of his actions, it also meant that I was having to work 12/13 hour days to try and get the HarperCollins commission finished by the deadline of 14th April.

I managed it, just, and I’m really proud of the final artwork. As always I gave it my all and it does look great. Most importantly Anna and Terence love it. Phew! 🙂

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

So what have I learned from all this madness?

Sadly, that I now won’t take on any new commissions from individuals I don’t know, it’s just too risky. From now on I’ll stick to HarperCollins commissions only and indie authors I know…at the end of the day life is tough enough without dealing with unscrupulous people and we all need to make a living and protect ourselves especially in the highly changeable creative arts (writing, artwork, acting, singing etc.).

So folks, whatever field you work in/make a living from, PLEASE make sure you protect yourself, your work, your skills, your time and your health!

Hopefully once my lungs start working again properly, I shall return to my picture book project which I have to get ready for the (hopefully still interested) agents who are awaiting it at the end of this month – in only 2 weeks time!

Wish me luck folks! 😀 xxxx

Agents and Taking Chances!

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

Pencil portrait of poet Ben Okri by Sophie E Tallis

Pencil portrait of poet Ben Okri by Sophie E Tallis

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

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

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

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

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

Pencil portrait of poet Benjamin Zephaniah by Sophie E Tallis

Pencil portrait of poet Benjamin Zephaniah by Sophie E Tallis

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

Pencil portrait of musician Rick Wakeman by Sophie E Tallis

Pencil portrait of musician Rick Wakeman by Sophie E Tallis

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

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

Pencil portrait of actor Al Pacino by Sophie E Tallis

Pencil portrait of actor Al Pacino by Sophie E Tallis

First stages of my self-portrait by Sophie E Tallis

First stages of my self-portrait by Sophie E Tallis

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

Next stage of the self-portrait by Sophie E Tallis

Next stage of the self-portrait by Sophie E Tallis

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

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

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

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

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

Progress on the self-portrait by Sophie E Tallis

Progress on the self-portrait by Sophie E Tallis

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

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

TAKE CHANCES GUYS!

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

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

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

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

YOU SHALL NOT PASS!!!!

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

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

Just need to add the appropriate sentence ending:

“YOU SHALL NOT PASS – this slush pile.”

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

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

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

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

Unfinished pencil study of James Norton by Sphie E Tallis

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

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

Pencil portrait of James Norton.

Pencil portrait of actor, James Norton by Sophie E Tallis

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

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

Pencil portrait of actor, Trevor Eve

Pencil portrait of actor, Trevor Eve by Sophie E Tallis

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

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

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

Pencil portrait of Stephen Fry

Rough pencil study of Stephen Fry by Sophie E Tallis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madness!

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

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

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

Pencil portrait of Rayleigh Ritchie

Pencil portrait of actor Rayleigh Ritchie by Sophie E Tallis

 

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!”

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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: 😀

  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