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A conversation with author Della Galton on writing to be published. Or not.
I am interviewing an author of over 1500 short stories, 8 novels, 14 fiction anthologies and 6 non fiction books. I am slightly nervous. I met Della Galton at the Swanwick Writers Summer School, where I attended her How to Write Your First Novel (Or Second Or Third) class.
“I would have written a lot more,” Della explains, once I have finished reciting the list, “Because obviously you don’t sell everything you write, not one hundred percent. So that’s the credits, and the short stories I tallied up six years ago. When you’ve had a few rejections you can lift yourself up, theoretically.”
“Does rejection still get to you now?”
“It depends what it is: if it's a short story... I generally don't mind about those getting rejected. Occasionally it's a bit of a sting, if I've written one which is really close to home, but I know it's the same with short stories and novels: they want to publish you, and just because you're not writing the right thing it's not their fault, and it's not your fault, it just means that you've missed it slightly. Rejection doesn't mean you've failed, it means you haven't hit the market.”
I generally receive one of three responses when I say I study English Literature with Creative Writing: polite interest, genuine interest, a raised eyebrow. Biology is something you study. History, Law, Engineering. English Lit is already a bit of a push, but at least you can name drop a few classics and some academic terminology if the conversation dynamic shifts into is-it-a-real-degree territory. I think the general consensus is that the ability to meaningfully embed a quote from a critic in an essay is a skill that can be refined. Opinion is more divided, it seems, on whether creative writing is something that can be taught to everyone.
“I think there’s a bit of magic in fiction, you’ve either got it or you haven’t. Should I say that?! There’s definitely a touch of magic in fiction. But you can teach everyone to write non-fiction, probably, because it's a craft. I used to have a student who was a brilliant non-fiction writer, she had a beautiful turn of phrase. But she could not write fiction: we tried and tried and it just did not work, I don't know why.”
“Where do you stand on the idea of luck?”
“There definitely is an element of luck.”
“Is hitting the mark luck or skill?”
“Bit of both, because the mark changes. Not even the publishers know where it is! But the more you put yourself out there, the luckier you'll be: it's a numbers game. I've been teaching for 19 years and I have students in my class who are extremely talented, but they will never get anything published because they would be shattered at their first rejection. So you're much better off being a competent writer and having a very positive attitude. If you're continually sending things out, you're likely to be luckier.”
“Would you find it irritating if someone attributed all your success to luck?”
“Yes, a little bit! Because it's both, you do need to be lucky, but you've got to put the work out there as well. I think it’s 90% hard work, 10% luck.”
“And where's talent, in that?”
“You'd need the talent in the first place.”
“So that's the foundation?”
“Yes, it is really, because if you can't produce it then you're never going to sell it.”
'Rejection doesn't mean you've failed, it means you haven't hit the market.'
“You have told me before that you used to write 3 short stories a week; roughly how many words and hours does that amount to?”
“1000 or 2000 words per story. When I first started I used to write a short story on a Monday morning, another on a Monday afternoon and the third on a Tuesday morning. Then throughout the rest of the week I taught classes and edited, and each week they would go out to a market, the three new ones, but also anything that had been rejected before. So I was sending out around 18 a month, 12 of which were new.”
“And how many hours would you spend per short story?”
“The whole thing? Two hours to write, two hours to edit. Possibly a bit longer to edit, and sometimes I could write one in under an hour, but the ending might not be quite right and take three hours to sort out. The writing's quicker than the editing, I'd say.”
“That makes sense, but now I’m thinking: how do you get so many ideas?”
“You only need one idea at a time, that's how! I kept a book of ideas and titles, and if I didn't have an idea on the Monday morning then I'd go for a walk with my dog and I'd get one. Walking for me is actually quite good because it gets my mind going.”
“Do you find it easier to get the idea or to write it down?”
“Write it down.”
“When you've got lots of deadlines do you find it stressful or motivational?”
“Do you get stressed?
“How do you handle it?”
“Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I get cross and rant to my partner. Stress can be quite positive, though.”
Studying at an arts university inevitably opens up conversations - wanted, and otherwise - on creativity. Namely, what kills it. Sometimes I think that people are a bit nervous to say they don’t avidly hate the idea of being mainstream: writing with the aim of getting published can feel a bit vulgar when the person sitting next to you sees it as the purest medium of soul bearing. Sometimes it feels like the only way to win is to write something weird and wonderful and sharp and experimental and real, then call it ‘literary fiction’ and send it off.
“I'm commercial, I'm an industry writer. I didn’t go to university, I went to a writing class and I was taught ‘pick your market’. If you want to get published, you have to know where you want to get published so that you can write something they are likely to want. It’s always market first, and within that, I write what I want to write.”
“What about people who warn students against writing to be published, because there’s the idea that it ruins your creativity-”
“Rubbish, you can do both! Find your market and then write within the boundaries. And push the boundaries.”
“Do you think writing to sell can spark creativity rather than kill it?”
“What can spark the creativity is the joy of getting published. It’s just such a fantastic feeling that it makes you want to do it again. It's not to do with money, it's to do with people wanting to read your work: the only reason I write for money is because otherwise I'd have to write in my spare time. I got published in 1987 and tried to go full time in about 1990 and I failed. I tried again in about 2010, two decades later, when I knew more about what I was doing, and I succeeded because I had a business plan the second time.”
My last question is about writing rules. As a twenty year old English student, I am towards the latter end of an education system filled with rules, from GCSEs to A Levels to an undergraduate degree. Personally, I like to be taught and I want to teach. It is easy for me to say this, because I have always had good teachers. However, this does not mean I have always liked their rules.
“Have you ever ignored a writing rule you have been strongly advised to stick to?”
“I ended up self publishing Ice And A Slice, one of my novels, because the subject matter was so dark and I couldn’t get a market for it. I was strongly advised not to write a sequel and I did. And I knew no one was going to publish it, but I didn't care because I was going to publish it anyway. And one day I'm going to write the third one! You know, I think you can break all of the rules as long as you know what they are. And why you're breaking them.”