It’s Ground Hog Day – no, sorry, it’s #WorldMentalHealthDay

It’s Ground Hog Day – no, sorry, it’s #WorldMentalHealthDay

(Warning: serious gloom ahead. Just letting you know.)

Just like Christmas, World Mental Health Day takes me by surprise each year and leaves me just as disappointed (I’m not a big fan of Christmas either) as previous years. More celebrities opening up about their struggles, more empty rhetoric, more pleas for ending stigma. And what changes? I can see few changes since last year. In my own country, provision for serious mental illness has declined still further; what is offered to people coming in with mental and emotional distress is extremely limited and chances are, you’ll be on a long waiting list just to be assessed. I’ve heard whispers that the government is appointing a minister for suicide prevention.

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The Bad, the Good, and the Indifferent: 2017 in review

The Bad, the Good, and the Indifferent: 2017 in review

The sands of time are trickling to the bottom bulb of the egg-timer of 2017. I’m not sure if it’s hard-boiled or burned-out, yet, so I am trying to do a review of the year. It’s worth remarking that this will be a rambling sort of post as I have a nasty chest infection, the kind that’s meant my ribs hurt from coughing and I’ve pulled some muscles trying to clear my lungs. I’ve also got a slight temperature, but that said, at university, one of my best ever essays was written trying to stay warm and stave off a similar illness, by drinking ginger wine. I was three sheets to the wind by the end but it earned me an A-. I can only conclude my professor was equally drunk when he marked it.

During the latter part of the year, we lost first a much-beloved guinea pig, and then, heartbreakingly, our ancient but mostly spry cat. He was eighteen and a half. I’m still so numb I cannot manage to articulate much on this; I still look for him on the Ikea chair we bought specially for him. The losses seemed to cap what has been for me quite a tough year. There have been some amazing things (family stuff that I don’t share here) but overall, the word, difficult seems to sum it all up. My day job has been affected (like most of the travel industry) by the continuing instability caused first by ongoing concerns about terrorism and second and more pervasively, by the insanity of the Leave vote. I can barely bring myself to mention this, because I rapidly become mute with anger and frustration.

In terms of writing, it’s a mixed bag. I managed to release three books this year. Two volumes of poetry and a novel. The poetry was a matter of collecting thematically poems I’ve written over a considerable period, and arranging them in an order that seemed pleasing. Hallowed Hollow has garnered 5 excellent reviews but sadly, A Box of Darkness hasn’t a single review to its name. It took a LOT of effort to get Little Gidding Girl out. I made daft mistakes with the formatting that I fought to correct, but I did eventually manage to get the book launched for midsummer. It was launched with what’s called a “puff quote”, from Caitlin Matthews, an author I had admired for (literally) decades before social media brought us into contact. Like any author, I hoped it would soar but it has not. It has, however, got 20 reviews since its launch, all but one of which were glowing. I sometimes feel that either my work is crap or it has such limited appeal that reaching the few folks who is would suit is a monumental task I no longer have the energy to attempt.

In terms of actual writing, apart from blog posts and some poetry, I completed a novel for the first time in over 4 years. This was such an achievement, I marked it by buying a perfume I’d been craving for several years. After sitting on it for a while, I sent it to a few beta readers. I’ve had little or no feedback and can only conclude one of several things: first, no one has had time or inclination to read it (which is fine, as we’re all busy) or have and have either forgotten to give feedback. Or they’ve read it and hated it, but didn’t like to knock me back by saying anything. Whichever it is, I cannot disguise my sadness. But as Locke would say, it is what it is. The novel will probably now sit on my hard drive and gather dust.

As well as the novel, I have managed to write some short stories, most of which are longhand in various notebooks. My levels of confidence in my writing is now so low that it seems better to go back to basics and write a first draft where no one but me will ever see it. I’ve done four or five in my proto-collection of fragrant fiction, short tales inspired by famous perfumes, and a few others. I did get as far as collecting and fiddling with an array of short stories that are basically modern fables for grown ups; I asked for a few volunteers from friends (largely on Facebook) to have a scan. About half of those who offered to read got back to me, and overall the collection passed muster, with some very helpful and uplifting feedback. My next task is to implement some small editorial changes before proofreading and the rest of the process of getting them published. It’s reminded me that I’m very good at the short form, even if short stories are not what people (apparently) want to read in collections from one author. Like poetry, like the literary-ish fiction I specialise in, it seems that another of my skills is in something hardly anyone wants. In a market that is totally saturated, getting noticed is now pretty much impossible unless you have a lot of money, time and energy to throw at it, as well as luck. My best plan is to continue to write what comes to me and therefore, one person is happy. The wonderful folk who read and enjoy and even review my books, may also be happy.

I often sit in awe at the people who write numerous books each year, and get them out there. I’m more than aware of the hard work and discipline involved. Bum in chair, social media disconnected, are but two of the steps needed. I’ve tried. Oh believe me I have tried, this year, to be more productive. Ideas flare, like matches in the darkness, and splutter out in the wake of “oh what’s the point?” It feels as if everything’s already been done, and done to death; I know that each author approaches an idea with their own voice. But I cannot overcome the inertia of the terrible feeling of pointlessness, when my own voice seems to die on the wind. Ill health (both mental and physical) and the invisibility, the sense of irrelevance of self, that seem to accompany middle age, have taken all the oomph out of me. I doubt that I have anything to offer the world, and increasingly, that there’s nothing the world can offer me, any more. Forgive me if this sounds depressing, but this is my reality at present.

I watch the world around me, and find that the microcosm of my back garden has brought me more joy than the wider world. I can barely watch the news any more. Yet seeing a charm of goldfinches bathing in the pond, or hearing the love songs of frogs on a spring night, or smelling the sweet fresh scent of hyacinths blooming in a forgotten corner, remind me that while wars and rumours of war go on, nature battles on, with beauty and sorrow balanced in an eternal cycle. When I go out, last thing at night, to put out food for errant hedgehogs and for the feral cat who lives at the bottom of the garden, I look up at the white stars twinkling in a frosty sky, and the vastness of the universe presses down on me, yet I can still say, “I endure. I am here, for a little while.”

I cannot make predictions for 2018. Or promises or hopes or ambitions. It will be whatever it is, whether I hope or don’t hope. But I wish that for you and for me, it may bring joy and meaning, healing and fulfilment, and understanding and forgiveness. All the rest is fluff that blows away on the winds of time like dandelion clocks when the seeds have been eaten.

A Story of Snow

A Story of Snow

A Story of Snow

It snowed yesterday, the first time this winter; I could smell it coming for days. I’ve always found snow magical, a transformational thing, but this snow before Christmas reminded me of other times of snow that have been transformational.

As a young mum, back in the 90s, I managed to wear out my hyperactive toddler at a mum and baby group, sufficient that both she and I could take a nap. It was February, in the north east of England and there was heavy snow that had laid, and I lived in a little street house with no central heating, so I huddled under the duvet and fell asleep. I woke with a pounding heart and tears streaming down my face after a dream that was so vivid it even included a soundtrack: Winter, from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The dream was a short story that I then wrote down, entranced by its power and its vision. Later that year we moved to the Midlands where my husband began his theological training, and still so haunted by the dream and by that story that I realised it was not a stand-alone short but the first chapter of a novel. Writing in the evenings and when my daughter was at playgroup, I scribbled it down, longhand and when it was finished, I began querying publishers. The novel (entitled Winterborn) garnered plenty of interest, and a good number of publishers asked for the whole thing, but ultimately, it all came to nothing but tears and tantrums from me. I still have it somewhere, in both manuscript and typescript.

But that dream and that story, of snow and fear and heartbreak, stayed with me, and eventually came back to me in a newer, more powerful form, and with a complete tale (which Winterborn had been a shadow of) that gripped me and forced me to write it down, word for word as an inner voice dictated it to me. It took seventeen days of frantic, manic, painful (I got blisters) writing that I still count as some of the best days of my whole life. I discovered later that the process itself was called hypergraphia, and later still understood that it had not come out of nowhere but rather out of undiagnosed bi-polar disorder (bi-polar II for exactitude) that I now manage (more or less) without either drugs or medical support.

That novel, too, went round the publishers, with a significant degree of interest, and then failed to find someone who would take it on. Eventually, I published it myself five or so years ago, and while it has garnered almost exclusively wow reviews, it has never sold as well as other novels of mine. Despite that, it’s the novel that I most believe in, as having something extraordinary about it. I still believe that it ought to have been a huge success. But it hasn’t and that may be why the two sequels (both written, one needing only minimal editing before I could think of starting the process of bringing it to publication) still remain unreleased. Dr Johnson once said that no-one but a blockhead ever wrote a book without being asked to, and I am surely a blockhead for writing those sequels.

But it snowed yesterday and the smell of the air and the look of the sky reminded me of the book that still holds my heart. At this time of year, the virtual (and real) bookshops are jam-packed with happy, feel-good, heart-warming tales, usually romances, set in snowy locations and cosy corners of cafes, all written to enhance the festive season and give busy, stressed people a holiday from gritty reality. This is emphatically not such a book. I make no apology for that; the Christmas books I’ve mentioned are generally not books that appeal to me. But this nonetheless is a book about overcoming adversity and tragedy, though it’s almost the antithesis of a romance, and it might suit others who share my predilection for gritty reality and will take you on a journey that has stayed with almost everyone who has read it.

I’m going to share the first few paragraphs here:

He woke with no memory of the recent past, just a cold blank tiredness and a vague sense of disorientation. Lying still in the shadowy vestiges of sleep he tried to place himself in time and space, and as returning sleep rose to drown him again he noticed the blue-white clarity of sound in the cold room, the near fluorescent glow of the light through the partially shut curtains and the muffling of traffic sound on the distant road which all told him that the promise of those few tentative flakes the previous evening had been fulfilled. With the recognition that it had, unbelievably, snowed so heavily before Christmas, came the flood of memory that made a return to sleep impossible, and he sat up, eyes wide, in a room that was only partially familiar, with his heart thumping uncomfortably.

Outside, a layer of snow inches thick reduced a familiar landscape to a white featureless expanse, the leafless trees black against a dirty white sky that promised more snow on top of the already frozen layer. He touched the radiator by the window. It was having a negligible effect, despite being almost too hot to touch. The house felt icy cold when he went downstairs; he kept checking radiators just to reassure himself that the heating was on, that the boiler had not gone out in the night. High ceilings and large rooms took a lot of heating to achieve anything like modern standards of comfort, and much of the house had been built for people who would have lit large fires and worn heavy clothing of wool and fur at this time of year. He had lit no fires yesterday; the drawing room felt so icy he expected to see his breath in wreaths of mist.

The kitchen was better, the Rayburn still warming the large room. He drank water so cold it hurt when it hit his stomach, and then filled the kettle, craving heat. It wasn’t fully light, the reflective surface of the snow making a false dawn, and the bright strip light just seemed to make the shadows sharper. He made coffee, holding the mug with both hands, but while his skin warmed from the contact, it hardly touched the deeper chill. There was a gnawing emptiness his head recognised as hunger, but the thought of food made him feel slightly sick, so the hunger was ignored. He left the mug in the sink and went round to the front of the house where the car stood parked at an angle, marks in the snowy gravel showing hasty braking, and realised with horror that he had not shut the door properly, that the courtesy light was still on and in all probability the battery was flat. It was. A minute of turning the key in the ignition produced sad noises from the car and silent swearing from him.

He locked the car and went inside again, hands now numb from the cold. He could phone for Home Start, he supposed, but decided he couldn’t face it, couldn’t face waiting, so he fetched coat and boots, stuffed a few essentials into his pockets and set out for the bus-stop where the early bus took people from the villages into town. It was inevitably late, driving slowly over impacted snow that the gritters rarely reached on these back roads. Round and round the winding slippery roads, barely faster than a brisk walk, till the main road was reached, startlingly black after the white packed snow of the country roads. Then a few minutes till his stop; the hospital almost picturesque with its domes and humps of snow on insulated roofs, flowerbeds like plump white eiderdowns between salted paths.

To celebrate the start of Advent, The Bet is on offer at £1.99 (or worldwide equivalent) https://www.amazon.co.uk/Bet-Vivienne-Tuffnell-ebook/dp/B009ISHLYI/

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)

Ringing Some Changes

Ringing Some Changes

Sometimes I hate trying to think of titles for blog posts. After more than a thousand, it gets hard not to repeat myself, and to be honest, this one is just a sort of round up of my own news. Possibly a tad tedious, but maybe not.

First bit of news is good(ish). After over six years of some pretty extreme symptoms, finally it feels as if there might be an end in sight for my hideous menopause. One of the worst was something that for many women is a mere inconvenience: hot flushes. For me, they became life-threatening. Not in themselves, though at times I did wonder whether spontaneous human combustion might be more than a myth, but rather because they were so extreme and so frequent life became almost unendurable. Drama queen you might think. I wish. At their very worst, they came at a frequency of up to 20 PER HOUR. You read that right. They were of an intensity that made my skin feel as if it were burning; the moment before it happened, it made me feel sick, as if I had stepped off a precipice. That feeling you get when you bite into a proper chilli pepper? Imagine that over every inch of your body. It meant that for about a year, I slept in perhaps 20 minute bursts if I were lucky. To say it was hell is an understatement. Given the way my GP surgery has treated me, I did not seek medical help; the idea of even speaking to one of the doctors here reduced me to a shaking, weeping wreck. So I endured. I tried many, many things to no real effect. I considered filling my pockets with rocks and walking into a river or the sea; lack of local rocks, lack of a shoreline or a river deep enough and close enough for me to get to are probably the only things that stopped me. But slowly the situation began to improve. I still get hot flushes you could power a small town from; I still get woken two or three times a night. But the intensity has reduced and the frequency too. Recently I experienced three or four days in a row where no flushes occurred during the hours of daylight. I have hope that I might have survived.

For anyone reading and thinking, “pshaw, what a fuss she makes!” and feeling smug that because they do yoga/sports/are vegan/insert reason it won’t or didn’t affect them, let me say this: it’s luck of the draw, not virtue, that means some women have a bad time and others don’t. I may write more on the topic another time.

Second bit of good news: I did a new edition of Away With The Fairies in paperback. The original edition was done via Lulu who don’t offer a matte option for covers; I’ve not been happy with their services for some time, for other reasons. One is the sheer glacial slowness of their reporting of sales. So I’d redone Strangers and Pilgrims a couple of years ago, and now Fairies. I’m pleased with the new edition; I wish I’d had the energy to do it sooner.

Third bit of good news: I sent the latest short story collection to some beta readers, and those who have had a chance to read and report back have been not only very helpful but also very encouraging. It would seem that contrary to how I feel about my abilities, I can still write. I’m waiting on the feedback of the others, then I’ll set about some edits and on with the process of getting them out. Unlikely to be before Christmas but given how small fry like me get drowned out in the big noise of promotions for key periods for sales, trying to launch a book for Christmas or summer holidays is folly.

Fourth bit of good news: for the period that begins at Samhain (Halloween/All Saints/All Souls) both Away With The Fairies and Strangers and Pilgrims will be on offer at £1.99 or local equivalent, and my short novella The Hedgeway will be on flash sale for 99p for the three days of Samhain itself. Billed as “a chilling tale for Samhain” it’s the perfect read as the nights draw in and the clocks go back (it’s a spooky story but it’s more unsettling than terrifying). For a scarier read, perhaps try The Moth’s Kiss (a collection of ten short stories, perfect for the season). I’m considering whether to also make that 99p for the Kindle version for the same period.

Which brings me to point five, which is the not so good stuff. If you are an author, especially an independent author, you’ll have spotted that it’s much harder to sell books now than it was a few years ago; virtually all the indy authors I know have seen a steady slide of lower and lower sales, with the occasional blip when a new book is launched. It’s depressing as hell. Lowering prices seems to be a way of potentially enticing a reader to take a punt on a book, but how low can you go before you are not meeting even basic costs? Lots of authors still tout the route of give a book away free (especially in a series) but there’s evidence that this tactic that worked a few years ago, is now bringing in very diminished returns. Readers have quite literally MILLIONS of books to choose from, and many pride themselves on never actually buying one. Again, depressing. Some respond by writing and publishing much faster, so that there’s always something new to tempt readers with; the risk is that you can potentially rush things and lose both quality and originality in the process. This year I have published one novel and two collections of poetry; I’ve finished writing a novel that I’m sitting on for a while. My mental health in particular means that even getting books out from my extensive “back catalogue” of books on my hard drive has become the equivalent of climbing Snowden or Scafell Pike (not Everest or K2): difficult, dangerous, and while not impossible, will take much preparation and training.

Sixth point: mental health. The current deep dark valley sometimes feels like the valley of death itself. Everything is such an effort and I find most things are not worth the effort involved. If you’ve never felt the tentacles of depression, you probably might find it hard to believe quite how debilitating depression is. You cant just cheer up, make an effort to focus only on the good things (and every other cliché people suggest). I feel paralysed by it. So the projects I would like to work on gather dust (real or virtual) and I stand in danger of slipping away as an author and poet because I cannot compete in the bright, immediate, throwaway world out there that is the world of books.

So, a mixed bag, really. I’ve put the good stuff first and in the spirit of making a proper shit sandwich (a fabulous term, that you can probably work out) I’m going to end on a good bit too. I’ve always found that autumn is the best time for my own creativity; I’ve never felt much like joining the whole NaNoWriMo that goes on in November. But what I am going to try to do is to focus on short fiction; I began a collection of short stories, each based on a famous perfume. They’re good fun to write and it indulges my love of fragrance. I have also several sets of Storyworld Cards as story prompts and I’ve got plenty of journals to dedicate to them. So even if I can’t come up with a new novel that grabs me by the throat, I can spend time honing my skills in short fiction.

I might even share some here…

W is for Woman

W is for Woman

I am woman – hear me roar,”

is what I hear so many say.

I do not roar,

I sometimes squeak

Or squeal or even growl.

At times I even purr.

In truth, mostly I am silent,

Unable to find a voice

Or words that fit

The needs that change

From day to day.

Sometimes I whisper

Into the void

Until my throat is sore,

As much as if I’d screamed.

It is not this lioness who roars.

(edited to clarify: have changed the to THIS. I know lionesses do actually roar. )

R is for Response

R is for Response

The more depressed I get, the harder it is to respond to anything. Words dry up. I might be able to say or write something but it can take so much effort that when someone replies, I cannot find more words or thoughts with which to respond.

Imagine a game of tennis played by two people, one of whom is extremely good at tennis and the other who has gone on court only because they think they should or hope it might do them good or because someone has talked them into it. The reluctant player serves; it takes all their skill and energy to hit the ball over the net successfully. Often it hits the net, or goes screaming over the head of the opponent and gets lost in the bushes behind the tennis court. Or they miss. When the ball does finally reach the other side, the other player leaps gleefully forward and lobs it back neatly. They know their opponent is not a keen player and they’re kindly trying to give a nice easy shot so they can start a satisfying volley. Or they don’t know or care what their opponent’s level is, and they return the ball with a fast, skilful slam that only a veritable athlete has a chance of returning. So the reluctant player has barely a chance to see the ball whacked back before they realise they cannot get to it. They stand there, feeling like a failure, while the keen player makes noises about, oh bad luck old girl, let’s try that again.

The game goes on.

And on.

And on.

By the time it’s game set and match to the keen player, the reluctant player has been annihilated, and when their opponent leaps the net in a mock victory parade, they slink off, humiliated and defeated.

Some days, when I try to speak of things close to my heart and soul, my throat closes up. It’s like the aftermath of a throat punch. It’s painful and quite frightening. I find writing things down less painful, but even then, it can take a lot of energy to get the words out. It seems to take forever. Then when someone responds, (either face to face, or via the comments or a tweet or a thread on Facebook), I’m often unable to reply. The original statement has taken all the energy.

So I apologise for the times when I don’t reply to comments here, in particular. I read them and I ponder on them but sometimes, and it’s been almost all the time lately, I cannot manage to respond, not in any meaningful way. I reply in my head. But something stops it going any further. I am sorry. Must do better, eh?