Friday, April 29, 2016

Black Dog Dead - April

Last month, I talked mostly about anger and its debilitating effects. Although still a clear and present danger, especially in that the root causes don’t appear to be in any hurry to uproot and plant themselves elsewhere, I’ve met with some success in managing that emotional response better.

And while my fifth Evil UnLtd book remains in the works, I do have somewhere I can redirect and channel any politically motivated anger in a more positive and humorous outlet. Well, at least the few segments of that I wrote this month made me chuckle and that has to count for something.

Creatively speaking, April’s focus has been on other projects. Two main ones, along with some bits and pieces on the side. And work has progressed through the usual mix of good days and bad days. Much as you’d expect.

In reflecting on such a normal unexceptional month, I’m conscious of three factors that stand out in the context of their effects on my mental health. One of which is probably more damaging than last month’s anger, but there are two which, I’m glad to say, have been of significant benefit.

Within the first week of the month I managed to self-publish a collection of short fantasy stories (The Tortenschloss Chronicles, currently available for Kindle, folks, plug plug plug) and, in that spirit of celebrating the small victories that I’ve discussed before, deserved a pat on the back just for achieving that and for meeting the deadline I’d set myself. Yay!

But just as the act of submitting a manuscript to agents and publishers comes with the inherent and unfortunately likely risk of rejection, the act of self-publishing and the necessary self-promotion that follows comes with its own set of risks. Chief among them being releasing your labour of love to a deafening chorus of indifference.

Yeah, that’s a slap in the face.

Frankly, it’s heartbreaking.

When your advertising budget is zero, social media is one of your few avenues for promotion and it’s seriously disheartening to see posts relating to your pet project go ignored and unshared by 99% of your online followers, contacts and friends.

Obviously, my huge heartfelt appreciation goes out to the 1%. Many many thanks to them.

But it’s worth clarifying, this is not about that vast majority. Everyone leads busy lives and it’s fully possible such posts go unnoticed in a lot of people’s timelines and twitter streams and what have you. I daresay I miss loads from others and for that, what can I say, I apologise.

This is purely and simply about how it affects me.

This, in many respects more hurtful than the persistent rejection from agents and publishers that was such a feature of the traditional publishing approach, is tremendous nourishment for the Black Dog. It invites that worst of NATs  – my old enemy, “What’s the point?” – right back in to take up residence. And my brain does a little danse macabre around the notion of quitting altogether.

Yeah. It’s probably one of the highest-yield fuels for giving up that I’ve encountered in recent years. And that’s hard, because my writing is me, it’s my life, and ultimately its purpose, its raison d’etre, like mine, is to be read. If it’s not, then I’m living in a vacuum.

What’s especially frightening about that life-hurdle is that for right now I have no answer. All I have is to keep going – keep writing – in hopes of different results. And that, my friends, is close to the definition of insanity.

So, yes, April had its unhelpful share of black days. Days of derailing that, despite my having skated close to getting all caught up, put me right back to behind schedule. With the sense of constantly chasing just to get nowhere.

Scary. Although fast-approaching deadlines is at least a terror I can deal with. 

Applying a little temporal juggling, pushing back a few projects by a couple of months I’ve at least made the weeks ahead look more manageable. 

Luckily, the actual horror days were few. Not something that could be said to have characterised my whole month. They were a significant and worrying feature and a pitfall I have to be very much aware of – not least because I have to come up with some sort of answer to them. Some better way of dealing with them. Ideas on a postcard, please.

Countering them were those factors that lifted me and helped keep me afloat. Factors that, now that I come to write about them, strike me as the simplest, trifling things. They’re not actual trifles, mind you. I didn’t binge on puddings. Tried that before, you just get fat and depressed.

First and foremost has been my weekly morning swim. Every Wednesday morning, I’ve been hauling my insomnia-heavy carcass out of bed and dragging it up the hill to the local leisure centre to go several lengths of the pool. It’s been a daunting adjustment and many a Wednesday morning has been a battle, I don’t mind telling you.
But this month, something changed.

On the eighth week of this enforced habit, I sensed a shift between the swim being something I made myself do to something I wanted to do. It wasn’t some dramatic revelation or epiphany or anything, but it was a change that dawned on me nevertheless as I emerged from the pool on the second week of April. Breathlessness almost – almost – felt like exhilaration. And whereas before I was always mindful to congratulate myself on just getting out of bed at stupid o’clock, that day it felt really good.

Now, take it from me, I have no natural inclination towards physical exercise – well, not solo anyway – and I’m a long way from physical fitness, but I thoroughly recommend something like this in anyone’s ongoing fight against depression. Aside from two very unexpected anxiety attacks in the pool on separate Wednesdays – both of which I think I coped with and reined in pretty well – I’ve found that the Black Dog doesn’t seem to like water. It hasn’t, so far, seemed to want to join me on my swim.

Even on the gloomier Wednesdays, when reticence was at its peak and I walked up the hill like a leaden sloth, my head and heart were relatively clear as I swam. And hopefully, if my experience in April is any indicator, this is one habit that’s going to continue to be beneficial.

In addition to the swim itself, I maintained the habit of reporting on the swim on Facebook, I guess to keep me honest as well as to reflect on the experience and assess my progress. But I feel like I can just now embrace it as part of my weekly routine and drop the reporting. And maybe, as and when finances permit, step it up to twice a week or more.

Something to aim for.

Another element that has been surprisingly good at colouring my April days has been comfort TV. One particular low evening I couldn’t face any kind of work and wasn’t even feeling up to frittering away the hours on a video game so I turned to Friends. That’s Friends with a capital F, the TV show.

It was always a favourite of mine and for me it’s the definition of comfort TV. Alongside the continuing Doctor Who rewatchathon (which has the additional benefit of inviting Facebook discussions) it’s proven a great mood-elevator, just an episode (or two, if I’m up early enough) over breakfast or maybe one for a half-hour break between writing sessions, that sort of thing. The fact that I’ve enjoyed the episodes all over again is no surprise, but I was surprised by how effective it’s been as a therapeutic habit.

It’s a simple case, I guess, of a little bit of what you fancy doing you good. So whatever your own choice of comfort telly might be, I recommend it. And it beats comfort food because, you know, you don’t put on weight and make life difficult for yourself when it comes to those weekly morning swims.

Obviously, at some point I will run out of Friends, but I’m already thinking ahead to what other favourites I might turn to when I reach the end of the series.

Hopefully, between fun entertainments and the swimming that should go some way to keeping me sane. (Relatively speaking!) And help counter anything that comes along to work in the opposite direction.

Now faced with an ultra-busy month ahead, it should be interesting by the end of May to see which side is winning.

SAF 2016

Monday, April 11, 2016

Happy Ever Afters!

Someone left the cake out in an internet domain! Check out what we baked for you!

A short while ago in a galaxy close enough to this one to be considered pretty much the same galaxy, a friend of mine asked if I had any plans to release my Tortenschloss Chronicles in book form. My answer at the time was 'possibly', or words to that effect, but now that possibly has become reality.

We're pleased to announce publication of The Tortenschloss Chronicles ebook!

And this baby comes with FREE DLC. That's right: one purchase and we'll be adding to the stories contained in this collection.

Here's the cover blurb to explain and tempt you:



Welcome to the worlds of the Tortenschloss Chronicles.

These are worlds of Singing Swords, Prodigal Bulls and Extreme Unicorns. Of woolves and pandas and investigative jesters. Where bee-stings can be magical and cups can grant wishes without the aid of saucery. Where heroes might not always be heroic, but they will certainly be colourful.

This is a short story collection that will continue to grow after reading. Every few months, this Kindle version will be updated with two more stories, FREE bonus content, complete with accompanying illustrations and author’s notes. Just download when your device notifies you the updated version is available.

Pour yourself a cuppa and grab yourself several slices of fantasy adventure.

(Suitable for dunking.)



Now available for Kindle

The Tortenschloss Chronicles

And remember, you don't need to have a Kindle in order to enjoy this book. The Kindle app is free to download for PC and phones.

So go on. Treat yourself and tell your friends.

Enjoy some wholesome home-baked fantasy fiction.

SAF 2016

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Black Dog Dead - March

Last month I talked a lot about those pesky NATs (Negative Automatic Thoughts) and while I’ve not found the perfect insecticide to clear my head of them altogether, I believe I have made some progress.

It’s not the kind of progress that’s as easy to measure as, for example, the daily wordcount on any given project. And if I gauged my success by that, I’d have to report that March has been a variable month indeed. Up days, down days, active days, rather stay in bed days. But on the work/writing front I’ve kept things moving on the whole.

Even faced with the real struggle days, when the words are sluggish and my brain snailish, I managed to drag myself up and out for the morning and write something. And generally that had the beneficial side-effect of helping me feel that little bit better about myself. One definite improvement I’ve noticed is my conscious ability to congratulate myself for the minor wins.

Hurrah! Yay me! Etc.

But before we get too carried away, we’d best admit to the points we lost, whether through double faults, collapse of serve or whatever other tennis analogy you care to use.

Your sport of choice may vary, I just happen to prefer the tennis one, despite this month’s Sharapova-related disappointment – Maria, you let me down! But it’s still her mental approach to each point that I’d like to be able to adopt in the game of life. A setback should be just that – a single point, signal to move on to the next with the belief you can still win the match.

So, the principal enemy this month has been anger.

I’m angry with myself just thinking about it. For allowing it to get the better of me to the extent it has this past month.

Never really had anger issues until one upstairs neighbour embarked on a nine-month campaign of DIY (Do-It-Yourself and Daily Irritate Yourneighbour). Through the course of that constant daily noise and disruption, anger somehow embedded itself as part of my depression. Became a damaging additional symptom, almost, driving my stress levels through the roof long before the neighbour drove a hole in our ceiling. And made matters worse by laughing about it, through said hole. Perhaps the anger was an entirely separate ‘condition’, but it was tough for me to view them as distinct.

Anyway, once the Neighbour From B&Q Hell departed, the aftereffects remained and too often the smallest disappointments, frustrations, problems magnify into disproportionate irritants. It’s something I’ve struggled to control, because it’s an emotional, impulsive response and I’m at heart an emotional person. How do you govern what plays to your nature?

Still, I’ve managed to some degree.

Although I still swear profusely at my computer and anything technical that goes wrong. It’s inconsiderate, I know, but I expect machines to be dutiful slaves and do what they’re bloody well supposed to. I’m sure I’ll be one of those first against the wall when SkyNet launches its machine rebellion.

That aside, most days I have learned to take deep breaths, count to however many I need to count to see the spilt milks and other trifling mishaps in the appropriate perspective.

Most days.

But if exposed to anything that actually matters, I am prone to explode. And those days even the trivial stuff promotes itself right back to major annoyance.

News, global and national, is a frequent cause of that kind of volatility. So naturally I’ve had to avoid much of it or ration my intake. Even to the detriment of our pub quiz team’s performance in the current affairs rounds. But heck, there’s always a price to pay.

This month, the Tory plans to slash benefits (aka vital financial support) for the disabled in order to fund tax breaks for the already comfortably off, thank you very much, fuelled what was (obviously) entirely justifiable rage. And there was as little I could do about the anger as I could do about a government policy that even odious slimebags like IDS can’t defend.

Clearly, I should get angry about that sort of thing. Anybody in their right mind would. But when you’re not entirely in your right mind, your heart being in the right place can be a problem.

Anger can motivate action, of course, but what action can anyone take against a government so reprehensible? Beyond signing a petition or protesting or spreading word of their vile deeds on social media, etc. And I can’t actually enter into politics as a career, because I’d be completely unable to remain polite or civil in the face of these Right Dishonourable bastards. (And there I’m exercising restraint because with the written word I at least have a moment to pause and edit myself.) Anger and powerlessness are a recipe for a sense of futility and as such a dangerous source of sustenance for the Black Dog.

One consequence I became acutely aware of was that, even on some days when the writing wasn’t a struggle, while I could congratulate myself on what I’d achieved my subconscious would undermine me with the old poisonous questions: Why? What’s the point?

Toxic indeed. And as discussed last month, it’s essential to meet those NATs with positive answers. It can feel like mental warfare. With the enemy dropping dirty bombs and either you don loads of protective gear, isolate yourself, or you go out and meet the threat with whatever weapons you can get your hands on. And keep moving.

That latter approach has been key to my March.

While I’ve yet to come up with a concrete answer to those NATs that doesn’t just crumble some days and require rebuilding, I have stuck to my guns and I’ve all but put myself right back on schedule after those two weeks lost due to illness at the beginning of January.

I daresay I could have made myself busier and progressed further. But we don’t help ourselves by measuring where we are against where we could be. On the road to recovery, we do ourselves more favours by gauging our current position against where we began.

And if I can’t expect to control anger, then I might at least learn to compartmentalise it. Maybe use it.

In the face of opposition you can do nothing (or precious bloody little anyway) about, then the best you can hope is to use such enemies as anger to motivate unrelated action. Fuel for yourself, instead of food for the Black Dog.

In my case, that translates as continuing what I’m doing. Sticking with the plan. Working on my different projects, working on my mental good health.

And as luck would have it, part of that includes writing the fifth volume in my Evil UnLtd series, handily titled Vote Evil. So there’s some chance of channelling a quantity of the political anger into something positive and – hopefully! – funny.

If the darkest clouds lack for silver linings, I guess painting them on yourself is the way to go.

SAF 2016

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Game Of Scones... And More!

Exciting news!

Grab a slice and pour yourself a cuppa.

For some while, I've been writing my Tortenschloss Chronicles short stories, serving up our fantasy fiction cakes in weekly slices, and a shorter while ago a friend asked me if I had any plans to collect them in book form. The answer, friends, is yes! Very soon!

In book form, the anthology will initially include twelve of the best tales, each with an accompanying illustration and some author's notes, providing insights into how my creative mind works. Scary, I know, but hopefully a nice little companion piece to each story.

Dependent on sales, I'm hoping to follow the ebook version with a paperback release later in the year and, fingers crossed, we'll be releasing the full fantasy novel Tortenschloss at around the same time.

As a bonus with the Kindle version, our plan is to add a couple of stories every 6 months, with illustrations and author's notes, so readers will continue to receive new stories as the Kindle version updates. Nice, huh? The bumper fantasy fiction anthology.

I wanted to call it the Neverending Story Collection, but have been advised against it for legal reasons, since it may one day end and people will sue me when the flow of free stories stops.

Even so, this has to be good news for anyone who likes a tasty slice of home-baked fiction. If I had the technology to include a cup of tea with your reading, I would.

The Tortenschloss Chronicles.

Coming to you this April. After you've stuffed yourself on Easter eggs.

Watch this space and spread the word.
SAF 2016

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Black Dog Dead - February

Back in August of last year, my then recently ex wife asked how I was doing and if I was eating ok.

The answer? Well, I was, I think, eating all right – I was consuming food anyway – but I constantly wondered why. Why was I eating at all? Food sustains life, but if you feel like you have none, what’s the point? That question - what’s the point? – was my principal enemy.

Other such Negative Automatic Thoughts (NATs) have plagued me in the past – and certain ones still do (there have been times I could swear the words NOT GOOD ENOUGH were tattooed on my brain at an early age), although I am generally much more aware of them and practised at catching them before they can flit around my head too long and make a major fucking pest of themselves.

But ‘what’s the point?’ is a particularly stubborn one to swat.

It’s returned today, just as I sat down to write this blog. But it’s not born of any questioning the worth of this exercise. Which is probably one reason why I’m still ploughing ahead and writing it. That, and I can be a stubborn bastard too.

Fortunately, I’ve progressed a long way since last August. Remembering that time serves as a helpful reminder of how far I’ve come. Of course, the days when these breakdowns still threaten serve as a counter-reminder of how fragile sometimes recovery can be.

Today’s blog post can be viewed as something of a test, then. How will I fare in confronting and handling this mini crisis point? Will the NAT win today? Or will I spray it with positive insecticide and watch it emulate a dying fly on the windowsill of February?

Where’d this NAT come from?

Well, NATs hover around all kinds of shit, but I remember this particular one from back in the middle of this month.

There I was still working away to get caught up after that first fortnight in January and I was doing pretty well, I reckoned. (At current estimate, one more month of playing catch up should get me back on the original schedule, yay!) Then someone kicked my sandcastle. Twas those nasty folks at the Inland Revenue. Mind, they were just following orders. Changes in the rules for Working Tax Credits, handed down from their Tory scumbag masters.

Briefly, in future, £54 per week of WTC will be dependent on my ability to show a profit in my chosen self-employment. This will require quarterly reporting, interviews, assessments etc. Because, obviously, the pressures of making a living out of writing weren’t enough already.

Now, I’m guessing, but maybe when normal, healthy people read these kind of official notification letter from government they grumble, bitch, moan, probably swear a bit. For me, it provoked huge anger, anxiety attacks, reduced me to tears, made me contemplate jacking it all in and question the worth of life. In short, resurrected that old NAT to come haunt me again.

What’s the point?

(Honestly, my heart goes out to those more vulnerable than myself who may identify with some of the above, but are finding themselves under greater pressures and suffering greater hardships.)

Battled through it and fought it off over the course of a day, which is to my credit. A case of being good to myself, giving myself a day off work (that’ll help prove my profitability), lots of music, modest amounts of creativity (I find artwork therapeutic – I’m no good at it, but oddly that means I don’t end up beating myself up about the quality – or lack of it – the way I would with a shoddy piece of writing). A combination, I suppose, of fighting the thought at the moments I was feeling strong and diverting myself from it when I wasn’t feeling up to the fight.

That spell aside, most of February has been productive and creative. I’ve been working hard on a number of projects, enjoyed a lovely little morale boost just by virtue of officially announcing one of those projects (a novel for the Lethbridge-Stewart range, by Candy Jar books – that’s right, me writing for the dear old Brigadier from Doctor Who), and achieving all manner of stuff that wouldn’t impress the Inland Revenue one jot.

(NB. All these efforts of mine may actually generate income at some point, but I’m just not sure hard graft and productivity will weigh heavily as evidence to present before officialdom. Time will tell.)

Wary of the power that added pressure had to sink me – even if ‘only’ for a day (and I put ‘only’ in quotes because it really was a horrible day) – I looked to be a bit more prepared for future torpedo attacks – because we all know there will be more. There are always more.

So I did an exercise in what we’ll call life accounting. Essentially, listing goals – the elements you’re missing or seeking in life, the ‘things’ you want (quotes because most of the things I want aren’t things) – and your principal enemies – the negatives, the qualities or habits, say, that hold you back, barriers or opposition etc – in Column B. Example: mine are largely internal – depression, obviously, stress, anxiety, anger, loneliness, tiredness.

See, I don’t even include the Inland Revenue, they don’t feature because although they have added to my pressures – thanks, guys – they are not the problem. My problem lies in how I deal with them. Indeed, I made a conscious effort to exclude anything that wasn’t dependent solely on me. Because anything you are trying to address or achieve in life that is reliant on someone else is open to huge amounts of uncertainty. And this, we don’t need. Not when we’re focused on our own recovery.

Anyway, in other columns, you then start to list your actions. The steps you might take to attain those items in Column A and the steps you might take to eliminate, reduce or overcome those in Column B. Broad strokes, at first, but it helps if you can then go on to break the broader steps down into smaller, more immediately manageable actions. Baby steps.

(As I said on Facebook, columns – they’re s supporting structure.)

No need to bore you with my entire spreadsheet, but it’s worth citing a specific example, particularly one where I know it’s helped and I’ve made measurable progress. If tiredness is an Enemy and physical fitness/health a goal, one response is physical exercise – I resumed my (old) habit of a morning swim. Just once a week for now, since that’s all the budget will allow for, but it’s a start.
That, as it happened, had additional side benefits. I felt good about myself just for doing it. Yeah, it took me until the last week of the month to apply this plan, but hey, I did it. Medal, please. Pat on the back. Muchos congrats.

And if my subconscious throws up that NAT – what’s the point? – about that, well, I can point specifically at the point. The point in this case, oh nuisance NAT, is physical health, feeling fitter (eventually!) and feeling generally better about myself (heck, feeling more attractive maybe – why the hell not) and possibly feeling sufficiently knackered for at least one day a week so that I actually sleep pretty well. Thanks for asking, NAT.

And if you have an answer for the NAT, there’s not much for it to do but sod off. For a while anyway.
Writing this has gone some significant way to answering today’s NAT. Hopefully it’s beating its head against a window somewhere in this cafĂ© in its efforts to get out and leave me alone.

For the duration of March, at least. Because I have every intention of being too fucking busy to deal with NATs. And the action to take in the face of Inland Revenue letters of doom is to stick with the plan. It was a good plan. And it’s still a good plan. We have to trust in that.

In the months since that dark August I have battled to find raisons d’ĂȘtre and I believe I succeeded. Now I think I’m ready to start looking for raisons de vivre.

SAF 2016