A Living Nightmare of a Decade?

A Living Nightmare of a Decade?

There’s been a thing going round. One of those things. Posting a picture from ten years ago and one from this year, to illustrate the changes in a decade. Another thing has been to list your achievements in the last decade. Both have made me shudder. I couldn’t find a picture of me from 2009 that I wanted to share and when I have compared to now, it’s clear the decade has aged me. But ten years ages everyone, so no surprises there.

Continue reading

Fragments and Inertia (musings and mutterings)

Fragments and Inertia (musings and mutterings)

In the ten or so years since I began blogging I’ve seen a lot written about SEO (search engine optimisation), detailing how to gain greater prominence among the various search engines. I’ve concluded that for the most part, what gives greater prominence is paying for it, whether by using a paying platform, or by plug-ins that you also pay for, or by choosing a blogging platform closely allied to the companies that run search engines. So for years I tried to use titles that might spark interest or somehow be picked up by the search engines (I’m not naming any…). But these days, finding a title for a blog post mostly involves finding something, anything, by which I might find it again amid the thousand or so articles filed away. Hence the fairly uninspiring title of THIS post.

I wanted to write a post that gives some sense of what I’ve been doing and what I have managed to do and what I have not managed to do. Oh, and why.

Good news is that I am quite close to publishing a new book.

Continue reading

A Decade of Tightrope Walking – a celebration of ten years of blogging

A Decade of Tightrope Walking – a celebration of ten years of blogging

February the 9th marks a full decade since I began Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking.

Continue reading

The vital importance of beauty, truth and hope in books

The vital importance of beauty, truth and hope in books

The vital importance of beauty, truth and hope in books

As a card-carrying depressive, I’m not someone known for being an optimist. I’m sometimes like the love child of Marvin the Paranoid Android and Eeyore. It’s hard to not feel that the world is currently going to hell in a very large hand basket. I take breaks from the internet on a regular basis, hoping that the world beyond my small bubble will have improved by the time I go back; I retreat into the world of books and seek what solace I can find there.

I’ve recently finished reading a biography of Elizabeth Goudge. Beyond the Snow  by Christine Rawlins  is an exhaustive, and inspiring account of the life and faith of this most beloved of authors, and I didn’t want it to end. She had an interesting and sometimes very difficult life, though cushioned somewhat by her privileges of birth. Though she does not write much about it, it is known that she experienced severe mental distress and even breakdowns; this is reflected very much in certain books (such as The Scent of Water that I have blogged about here) and echoes in many others. There is compassion and bravery in her decision to write happy books.

Critics sometimes dismissed her books as “pretty pretty” and as light romances (they’re not) but the public bought them in their millions. She does not shy away from the difficult things, like death or loss of faith or suffering, but she offers a vision of hope, of redemption and of atonement too. The books are full of havens: places where people go to be healed, to rest and recover their strength and to go out again to continue their work in the world. There is faith, but it is built into the woodwork and rarely centre stage. There is kindness and care and hope, even in dark times. People make tough decisions, ones that reflect a code of ethics that is now rare.

In these dark times, I know that I am avoiding fiction that seems to revel in darkness and hatred. I’m trying to find books that are trying to be beacons in the dark, to be rallying calls to resist the lure of what Hopkins calls Carrion Comfort. I’ve read a few recently. I reread Sir Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch, my favourite of his Discworld novels; though it looks evil squarely in the face, it fights back. I have recently read a couple of novels by Jane Davis too. My Counterfeit Self https://www.amazon.co.uk/My-Counterfeit-Self-Jane-Davis-ebook/dp/B01KTY22R0/  is an excellent and immersive tale of a woman who stayed true to her own beliefs and who fought for justice and social changes. The fact that the main character is a poet just adds to the charm for me. Smash All The Windows https://www.amazon.co.uk/Smash-all-Windows-Jane-Davis-ebook/dp/B079MBP3WD/ is a powerful (and sometimes very disturbing) account of a major disaster on the London Underground; the survivors and the families of those lost face huge difficulties in getting at the truth of what happened, and even greater challenges of transforming the grief into something that shines beyond all the pain and sorrow and loss.

In non-fiction, I recently read another book by Robert McFarlane, The Old Ways. It’s about walking and about the power of paths. I’d highly recommend it if you are someone who loved walking but whose health does not allow longer distances or more difficult conditions. There is great beauty and evocation of all the senses in McFarlane’s writing, taking you out of yourself and into another world of experience.

All of these books offer beauty and hope and truth without ever scuttling into whimsy and unrealistic withdrawal from the world. They’re books that strengthen your soul; they put shining steel into your limbs and the gold of optimism into your soul.

As for my own writing… Well, I’ve been limping along with several projects and having read Beyond the Snow, I have become convinced that to keep going as a writer, I must commit myself to writing books that are filled with beauty, truth and hope, however unfashionable, however bourgeois and some might say, naff, such a concept might be. My existing novels, all available from Amazon, are already books that I believe offer a haven and a support to battered souls. Despite the fact that it feels like the world has become so focused on capitalism that unless you pay for advertising, I do believe that people will find my books even if Amazon is steadily erasing all the opportunities that once existed for unknown independent authors to become known. I’m not sure how, though. I have less than three thousand followers on my Twitter, less than five hundred likes on my official Facebook page and around five hundred subscribers to this blog.

But that, perhaps, is not my business. My business is to find that beauty, hope and truth and let the stories weave themselves. That’s all I can do right now.

Pirates for Halloween?

I had intended to share a short story here, one called The Salmon’s Leap. It would have been a perfect tale for the time of year; poignant, spooky and unsettling.

But then I read this post this morning: http://maggie-stiefvater.tumblr.com/post/166952028861/ive-decided-to-tell-you-guys-a-story-about 

The Too-Long-Didn’t-Read is that this author saw her sales diminishing as a series progressed, her publisher started to reduce the number of copies printed. For the next book in the series, she asked that pdf copies for advanced review copies not be sent out, because she felt that the swathe of pirated copies of the last one came from those ARCs. Setting a cunning trap (do read, it really is cunning) it became quite clear that huge numbers of her readers were grabbing pirated copies as soon as they appeared, rather than shell out for a legitimate copy.

Now the usual wisdom regarding book piracy is that those who nab pirated copies would not buy the real version. This gives the lie to that and my goodness, I feel angry and bitterly sad for this author. I feel sad for all of us. The levels of entitlement exhibited on the various forums was breathtaking; some said they even had to *SHOCK* *HORROR* actually go to Amazon and buy a copy.

I’ve never had the courage to check if mine are on pirate sites but the likelihood is they are. I know of authors who spend much time sending cease and desist notices but this issue is hydra-headed: cut off one pirate source and more will spring up. I am also sure that many of my poems have been nicked and used for school homework, for church magazines, for competitions and so on.

I am sure most of my readers are nodding in fervent agreement, here, and agree that this is barefaced theft, no more and no less. Not only does it steal the words of an author, it can steal their future. The author in the article was facing the very real chance that her publisher would cancel the series because of diminishing sales. It also steals our hopes.

I don’t have a lot of heart left, or hope. I am going to save The Salmon’s Leap and add it to the collection of short stories I am working on getting out there. In the mean time, for Halloween/ Samhain, both The Hedgeway and The Moth’s Kiss are both just 99p for worldwid equivalent for a couple of days. Not free; I don’t do free. But about the same price as a packet of sweeties.

(Away With The Fairies as well as Strangers & Pilgrims are also on sale at a mere £1.99 each. I did consider a 99p flash sale for those but decided not to)

On this day in 2009…

…I posted my very first blog post.

I’d had the idea in mind for the blog title itself before I even knew blogs existed, but Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking took a while to come into being. I joined a co-operative blog, Cafe Crem, first, and after a month, I was ready to go it alone.

When I hit publish for this post, my stats will tell me I have done 970 posts in the eight years since I began.  There have been almost a quarter of a million hits. Thousands of comments, likes, shares. It’s been a huge part of my life. It’s where I began to reach out and meet people who (I hate the term) are my tribe. I’ve met a few wolves in sheep’s clothing too, got burned, got hurt. I hope I have touched lives for the better. There’s even a little book, intended as a part of a series using the essays in this blog collected thematically. The first book is on depression. There will be more (one day). There’s posts about my books, stories, poems, rants, paens, authors I love. So much here.

So, wish Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking a happy 8th birthday. Having seen many blogs begin, flounder, die, and disappear, I know that keeping going is quite an achievement and one I ought to be rightly proud about. Blogging is not longer what it was, as Facebook has taken the place for many, as a forum for sharing, but I will persist and hopefully, you will too.

Bless you all (in the true sense, rather than the wonderful passive-aggressive semi-curse of the American south) and thank you.

Dark Times at the Winter Solstice

Dark Times at the Winter Solstice

It’s been weeks since I was able to blog; in the years since I began this blog (in Feb 2009 FWIW) it’s been rare to let weeks and weeks slip by without a post. I’m more and more reluctant to share any original material; my drafts file here contains more than a few short stories and poems. But I don’t hit publish because it’s become a worry to me that work can so easily be stolen from a blog for all sorts of nefarious reasons.

As 2016 draws speedily to its end, I had this dream:

I am in a big empty wooden building, like a barn or a log cabin. It feels like it has once been full and is now devoid of everything but two things. On the wall hangs a set of ornamental shelves, for books or for objets d’art. The only thing on the shelves is a single large natural sponge, and when I lift it, it is feather light because it is bone dry; not merely wrung out but dried out.

That’s how I feel: empty, drained of all life, light, creativity and potential. It’s not merely that I don’t want to write: it’s more that there is nothing left inside to bring out.

This time of year is quite grim for many; I spoke of the very real concerns for the world generally in my previous post (Rumblestrutting) and those concerns are growing rather than declining. And in addition, there is the loss of light that is a purely natural phenomenon as we approach mid winter.

Mid winter is seen in a positive light as a time to rest, withdraw, recuperate, hibernate and husband our energies, but there’s aspects that we too easily forget that our ancestors may have better understood.

Amid the darkness of mid winter is another layer of darkness, a kind of residue of things unfinished, thwarted plans, hopes, dreams ambitions, a silt of the soul that leaks into the wider world. It’s full of the anger and the sadness and the disappointments that are all part and parcel of being human, sloughed off because we are not well equipped to integrate the side of human nature too often dubbed negative. It has to go somewhere so it oozes around, like the gunk you find accumulating in sink outlets and drains. Not evil exactly but unpleasant, smelly and completely undesirable. Like slime moulds, this residue has a kind of unexamined sentience; it can seem that it knows what it is doing (slime moulds are fascinating things, by the by; do go and look them up) and it has an unerring tendency to gather in the unlighted corners both of our psyches and our environments, seeking to be acknowledged, expressed and released.

You know the much-talked-about Christmas Day fights so common in most families? That dark residue is probably the culprit, nudging existing intolerances and tensions and putting a match to the blue touch paper.

There are many, many ways of dealing with this residue; too many to count, among all cultures that have at some level understood it. Lighting candles, burning sacred smoke of a hundred types (white sage, Frankincense, cedar and so on) banging drums, gongs, pots and pans, prayers of all kinds, dance, song, and a thousand other things, all help to defuse the end of year residue, and in the still moments of the turning year, they help to welcome the slowly returning light as the sun seems to stand still, poised on tiptoes, before beginning the long climb back towards spring time and the light.

I’m on the Pink Sofa ~ come and join me

Today I am being graciously hosted on the famed Pink Sofa of novelist and blogger Carol Hedges. Carol is the author of a series of Victorian “sensation” novels, which will appeal if you like detective stories set in Dickensian London. I’ve read and enjoyed the first in the series, and now there are two more to look forward to. You can find Carol’s books here  and my guest post is below, so do go over, have a read and comment too.


Depression and the Art of Tightrope Walking: first the book, one day the movie?

The movie bit was intended as a joke.

Finally, the project to publish some of the posts from this blog on the theme of depression has come to fruition. The bitterest of ironies is that it was delayed because I was fighting depression; yet, perhaps that in itself speaks volumes about the need for such a  book.

It’s not a self help book in the classic, “Follow these instructions and be free of whatever ailed you,” tradition. If I marketed it as such, I would be lying. It’s very tempting, though, as such books usually sell incredibly well, but that’s because there are vast numbers of people seeking help for their pain.

If anything, this is a book that asks more questions than it answers. All the posts are from this blog, but since they span a considerable space of time and are dotted in among over eight hundred other posts, finding them isn’t an easy matter. The fact that they are freely available on this blog, if you look hard enough, is why I can’t enroll the book into the Select programme, and why therefore it won’t be available to borrow via the Kindle Unlimited scheme.

This is the blurb:

“I’m a writer and poet and a long-term sufferer of depressive illness. I try to keep smiling but sometimes I fail. I love the natural world, and am a great fan of the vagaries of the English weather.” These words were the first attempts to define what my blog was about when I began it in February 2009. From these first tentative steps into blogging, Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking has expanded into a wide-ranging and eclectic exploratory journey into what it means to live with depression. There are many posts on the subject now, and I decided to collect together the ones I felt were potentially most helpful to others affected by mental and emotional distress. They’re not intended as classic self-help or as a replacement for treatment but rather as a commentary from one person’s experience. Sometimes it can help simply knowing we are not alone in a journey, even when it feels that way. I’ve enjoyed the whole concept of the Zen koan, a short question that usually has no answer but is intended to provoke more questions and more thinking. Think of the classic one: What is the sound of one hand clapping? Most of my posts are written with this aim in mind; I just lack the compactness of a koan. I try to look at the world from another angle. I like (like? not sure I like it but I am inwardly compelled to do it) to ask questions, sometimes awkward ones. There is no final answer about anything. That’s the joy and the sorrow of it. Depression and the Art of Tightrope Walking contains twenty essays from the original blog and includes a foreword from Suzie Grogan, author of Shell Shocked Britain-The First World War’s Legacy for Britain’s Mental Health and editor of Dandelions and Bad Hair Days (Untangling lives affected by depression and anxiety)

It’s available here as a paperback:  http://www.amazon.co.uk/Depression-Art-Tightrope-Walking-Zen/dp/1511921005/ref=la_B00766135C_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1441304725&sr=1-1 

and here as a Kindle version: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Depression-Art-Tightrope-Walking-Book-ebook/dp/B014V7313A/ref=la_B00766135C_1_10?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1441304796&sr=1-10

In a week or two, the two ought to be joined onto one page.

There’s a launch party on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/events/354508034737778/

It’s available across all Amazon stores. You can either enter the title in the search facility of your Amazon store, or (neat little trick this) you copy the URL, then change the bit where it says dot co dot uk to dot com or whichever *suffix* your country uses, and that should take you to the correct page.

As I said in my previous post, reviews very gratefully received. The visibility of books on Amazon is a very tricky issue but it’s known that a certain number of reviews increases visibility. 25 reviews triggers certain extra promotion from Amazon (or so it is believed) and 50 initiates more. The mystery surrounding how the great ‘Zon works is dense and impossible to fathom but the consensus is that more reviews (especially good ones), more visibility.



As I sit, summer is upon the British Isles and I’m doing my normal dodging the sun routine. I burn very easily, and I don’t like the feeling of sun cream so I only put it on if I am out for more than a few minutes at a time. The day they invent non-claggy, safe sun care for sensitive skins is going to be a very welcome one for pale-skins like me.

Summer usually results in a slow down for blog hits and also for many authors, a slow down in book sales. Yes, I know: people are out enjoying the summer rather than staying in reading blogs or books. Yet I have now been blogging for over six years and I have seen a change. My blog hits have slumped now to equal those of my second year of blogging, and I am sad. I have always chosen NOT to chase hits for the sake of numbers, eschewing learning SEO magic tricks and a whole host of other strategies that bring in greater and greater numbers. I don’t want that sort of engagement; I believe in serendipity, and synchronicity. I believe that people will find their way to the right articles on this blog by those avenues and not because I effectively collar them on the virtual streets, accosting them by telling them that THIS is what they were looking for.

I’ve been struggling to keep going with blogging. Not because I have nothing to say, but there is a feeling inside me that grows until it roars like an enraged tiger: hardly anyone is listening. That is not true. I know this. There are lots of people listening, and engaging. Yet the feeling is still there, and it keeps telling me to just shut up, that no one is interested. I do not know where the feeling comes from precisely, but this post is intended to try to explore it. Hence the title Buffering; often by writing down my thoughts, clarity emerges.

On one of my recent work trips I mentioned to one of the teachers that I did not understand why adults read books for the Young Adult market. The explanation was that after a long day at work, people don’t always want the effort of reading a book that demands more of the reader. They want an easy read that fulfils the need to enjoy a story without the need to wrestle with it. I cannot tell you how sad this makes me. Young adult fiction did not really exist when I was a young adult, and I probably wouldn’t have read it then anyway. Not that there is anything wrong with it, before anyone leaps down the internet to rip my throat out (virtually speaking) but because I never identified with any of the themes. I read Harry Potter because I worked with teens at the time (ditto Twilight; that’s a few hours of my life I’ll never get back.) I can’t say I didn’t enjoy HP, because I did, and it does grapple with some important ideas (though all the teen angst had me just shrugging and reminding myself I am not the target demographic.

No, it’s the fact that people are reluctant to read something that demands something of them as reader. They wish to be entertained, not enlightened. We all read for different reasons, at different times. Entertainment is essential. But then so is engagement and that’s the thing that seems (to me, anyway) that is being shied away from on a grander scale.

My own books have been described as thought-provoking, poignant and other epithets that unfortunately have become almost the kiss of death for books at the moment. Combined with the vast ocean of material on sale, is it not inevitable that their appeal is limited?

I’ve become also terribly weary of the effort of trying to sell my books. There are hundreds of blogs, tips, tweets and even books that explore new (yeah, right!) ways of reaching readers. One might spend all day following these ideas and yet never sell a book. Things that worked six months ago may well not work now, and with tens if not hundreds of thousands of authors exploring every possible method, each method soon becomes stale. In my view, the thing that is crucial is the loyalty of readership, of having readers who love your work, share it and talk about it. I know that I seldom ever buy a book based on a single tweet, but do because of personal recommendation.

I now believe that one of the things that keeps me from just saying Bubbles to it and going and growing marrows like Poirot in his retirement, are my readers. Wonderful people who ask me when the sequel to The Bet is coming out, who tell me how much Away With The Fairies helped them through a dark time, who comment on this blog and whose words of kindness have often brought me back from the brink of quitting.

I’ve realised also that the yawning maw of social media is something that has had a weird effect on my writing. I want the instant approval and acclaim when I write something, and I’ve had to step back from it all. I’ve taken to old technology for first drafts: pen and ink and Moleskine notebooks, so that I am not using a keyboard a whisker away from being on Facebook, hearing its siren song and the plink of someone messaging me. Truth is, I’m terribly lonely at times and my friends in social media world are a huge comfort to me. But from time to time my other friends, the ones who live in my head and not in my computer screen, will sometimes talk to me and their voices are quieter, like overhearing voices in the next room. So to hear them, I need to go into that next room and sit with them. The constant demands of the perceived career path of an independent author are getting in the way of me actually being an author.

I’m not sure where to go from here. My biggest hitting blog posts tend to be the ones that are about writing; I imagine they’re read mostly by other authors looking for tips or wishing to express solidarity. The next biggest are the ones about mental health. The ones that garner least visits are the poetry ones, which again tells me something interesting. Ones I write about my books vary hugely; I’m reluctant to write those often because I can just hear those voices in my head sighing and bitching Oh enough already about your wretched books.

I know I can write. I’ve always know that’s what I should do with my life, yet writing for a diminishing market is getting me down because my faith in myself and my path is easily shaken. In theory it should not matter to me if I sell no more books, ever. But it does matter to me, and for more than just money. My worth as an author is inevitably measured by external agencies by the number of books sold. It tends to be among the first five questions people ask you when they find you are an author: how many books have you sold? It’s intrinsically wrong that this is so, but then it is as it is.

Anyway, I’ve postponed the release of the book of essays till early autumn because summer is a rubbish time for a book launch for anything that isn’t a beach read or an airplane book. Depression and the Art of Tightrope Walking is in the final stages of a final polish before release. I’ve had the sequel to The Bet printed out by our local stationery shop, to start a proof read. It needs a concept for cover art before I can even think about contacting my last cover artist and I’m stumped to find anything. The title, by the way is One Immortal Diamond (but that could change). I’ve been plugging away with other stuff as well, usually longhand but some on the computer. One work-in-progress slipped past the 50k words mark and I’m pleased with it so far. There’s life in this old dog, but I’ve learned too many new tricks in the last years to have the energy for more. In the end, I’m just a writer and more than that is expected of me (marketing executive, publisher, formatter, social media expert etc etc) and they are all getting in the way of me actually being able to do the thing I am good at.