Stella Duffy, writer
How did you first get published? I was in my 20s, working as an actor and comedian. I'd written some plays and a solo show, and started to think about writing a book. I wrote my first novel on a very old Amstrad, which took seven hours to print up! I sent off three chapters and a synopsis to several agents, had several rejections and one taker. That agent then sent off the book to several publishers, had several rejections and one taker. And that was pretty much my first novel published - but not for the figures that make headline news for first-time authors nowadays!
Job history: I've had 10 novels published, including Mouths of Babes (Serpents Tail), Parallel Lies (Virago), State of Happiness (Virago) and almost 30 short stories. I've also co-written an adaptation of one of my novels for the National Youth Theatre, as well as a radio play and masses of feature articles for papers and magazines. I'm currently writing the movie screenplay for my eighth novel.
Best/worst bits: The best thing is not having to go far to work (i.e. into the next room), being able to wear pyjamas to work (i.e. as I am now) and enjoying my work. Also, when you make your work up every day, there are always surprises. It could be things you didn't know you could pull off, or mistakes that turn into magic. The worst bit is having to deal with rejections. No matter how well you're doing, they do happen, and it still hurts. One of the things I find hardest is that I am responsible for my own career. I have to keep coming up with ideas. I have to push myself. I have to motivate myself. There is no one else (even though my agent does help) to make my career for me. No holiday or sick pay is also a bit of a choker.
Advice for wannabees: Keep going, keep trying, and keep going! Take advice. Understand that editing is NOT merely spell-checking, and know that sometimes the best work comes out of what feels awful/messy/hopeless/rubbish - as long as you don't give up. Often you have to be terrible before you can be brilliant. And if you keep on editing those first three chapters, you'll never finish the book - by all means edit - but do it when you've finished the book and you know what it's all about!
CV essentials: No specific training at all, but lots of learning from my editors, critics and reviews (the good ones as well as the bad!). Not that I believe everything anyone says, but most comments/suggestions are worth considering.
Anyone can write. All you need, at the very least, is a pencil, a sheet of blank paper, a vivid imagination and a strong sense of discipline. You might have a burning idea, but without sample chapters, or even the finished work, you won't get far. If you're writing with a view to getting published, you really need to seek a literary agent with your work (completed or in progress). This is the middleman between author and publisher, who will usually deduct a 15% commission on any deal (and 20% on foreign rights or film deals). There are no firm rules when it comes to making contact with an agent, but you'll find individual requirements in the Writers' and Artists' Handbook.
If an agent takes you on, the next step is for them to place your work with a publisher. No deal is ever the same, but you might be expected to meet prospective publishers first so the relevant departments can check you out for promotablity/ saleability and marketing potential. In many ways, you are as much a commodity as your written work. At the same time, you need to feel comfortable with them, and assured of their commitment, so it works both ways.
Should you strike a deal, for one or multiple books, you'll find yourself working closely with an editor. They may have suggestions for revisions or rewrites, and are effectively your in-house champion and nanny rolled into one. Once the publication date is set, the sales and marketing team focus on 'selling in' your book to the trade (i.e. bookshops, supermarkets and book clubs) and generally raising your profile. Finally, your book is published. It may change your life. It could feel like the biggest anticlimax ever. Either way, if writing is for you then you'll already be hard at work on your next one.
Unlike a movie, which is often produced by an army of personnel, only one individual is responsible for writing the words in a novel, and that's you. Everyone works to a different schedule, and much depends on your circumstances. You might be working or studying, which means squeezing in writing time whenever you can, or free to focus on your projects whenever you please. What matters is that you're focused enough to reach 'The End', and prepared to rewrite if necessary. It's a solitary business however, so you need to be happy working alone, and untroubled by distraction.
Some cultures regard writers as natural-born geniuses. Whatever you think, there's a huge amount of craft involved, and this comes down to practice. Writing courses are increasingly popular, at degree level and above (see UCAS for more details) but this isn't compulsory to get into print. Many bestselling authors have unpublished first novels in their bottom drawer, and all will say that writing one was a vital part of the learning process.
Personality/Who would it suit
People often turn to writing because they feel they have no other choice. It can feel like a compulsion as much as a craft. Doing it for fame and fortune are very much the wrong reasons. People say everyone has a book in them, but even if this is true only a handful make money from it. Even fewer sustain that for life. But if you're driven, none of this matters. You'll find a way to write and stay fed and sheltered come what may.
"One of the best things about being a writer is that it could, it just might, take off incredibly well," says Stella. Every book does have the potential to be the next bestseller - or next flop! I have as much chance as the next writer of writing the next big thing. And that's a huge positive I think."
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Pros and cons