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Dreams Do Come True: Maria Duffy

Barbara Scully © 7 November 2011.
Posted in the Magazine ( · Interviews · Women's Fiction ).

One day, about 18 months ago, I got a tweet from @mduffywriter who shyly told me that Vanessa O Loughlin had suggested that social networking and blogging was vital for aspiring writers.  That was the last time I think that I ever saw a shy tweet from Ms Duffy.  She quickly became one of the most active and witty tweeters. The last time I looked had garnered almost 3,000 followers – which is amazing in itself.  But is what is even more exceptional is that in those intervening 18 months, Maria has gone from being an aspiring writer to a published one and has had a wonderful adventure along the way.   I caught up with her recently to hear all about it.

Not unsurprisingly Maria has always loved writing.  During her 15 years working in the bank, she was the one who wrote the funny rhymes for colleague’s birthdays and other significant events.  She has always loved ‘women’s fiction’ and lists her favourite authors as Marian Keyes, Cathy Kelly and Patricia Scanlon.  ‘But I never thought I could be a writer,’ she tells me, ‘I have no degree and I never even worked in a library.’

With four children, life in the Duffy household was very busy for a number of years. Despite her lack of free time, Maria held a dream of perhaps writing a book.  ‘But,’ she says ‘I doubted that anyone would take my writing seriously.’  She had a story in her head that was beginning to clamour for release.  Lack of confidence was a huge issue. ‘Being a mother you lose a part of yourself.  For years I was always known as someone’s mam, as opposed to being Maria.’  But one day she began.  She wrote a few chapters of his story and then life overtook her again and she put her manuscript away.

Three years ago, she was listening to Gerry Ryan when she heard about a new programme that RTE were putting together called ‘5 Women Go Back To Work’. The programme was going to follow five specially chosen women who would have to put together a magazine – from concept to publication.  The programme makers were looking for women to fill the various roles from journalist to advertising sales etc.  Maria applied for the role of journalist.  She was shortlisted and was asked to write an article as part of the interview process.  She amazed herself by making it to the final two for position.  She didn’t get the job but the experience provided her with the first realisation that maybe she could write.  The fact she was taken seriously was the boost she needed.

Capitalising on her success she then picked up the phone and made what she calls ‘the most important phone call of her writing life’.  And yes you got it; she called our Vanessa who encouraged her to attend her Getting Published Workshop.  There she met Literary Agent, Sheila Crowley (Curtis Browne London), Paula Campbell (Poolbeg) and Ciara Considine (Hachette) and left the day with renewed enthusiasm.  Over the next year she finished her first manuscript, wrote short stories, began a blog (www.writenowmom.wordpress.com) and launched herself into Twitter.  ‘Twitter is like being part of a writer’s group.  Writing can be lonely, it’s great to be able to write a bit and check in with my writing friends online’ she says.

Those of us who follow Maria on Twitter will remember how she jumped to Jane Travers assistance when Jane was trawling for recipes for her book Tweet Treats (LINK).  Maria quickly discovered her special talent was in chasing down celebrities for their contributions.  This in turn led some wise woman on Twitter suggesting that she offer her services to Hellomagazine.com and so her Hello Blog ‘Stars in the Twitterverse’ was born.

Maria also sent her manuscript to publishers Poolbeg from whom she got, what she calls ‘an encouraging no.’

Meanwhile, agent Sheila Crowley was watching all this activity and sent Maria a message requesting that they meet up next time Sheila was in Dublin.  Maria describes how that message nearly gave her a heart attack.  When they met Sheila explained that she had been watching Maria’s tweets and thought she was a very engaging tweeter and that if she could use that same voice in a book, she would have something really special. She told Maria to send her a couple of chapters of her manuscript.  Having read them Sheila declared that yes Maria could write but no she wasn’t interested in what she had sent her.  She told Maria to write 3 chapters in her ‘twitter voice’ and send it to her.  Maria had another idea bubbling in her head for a book but she was now faced with the conundrum that many writers have faced and have great difficulty with – what is this voice?  How to I pin it down?  She re-read her original manuscript and what she realised was that it lacked authenticity.  ‘I wrote that how I thought women’s fiction writers should write.  I would have written it with a dictionary beside me due to my lack of confidence.’  What she finally realised was that this Twitter voice Sheila referred to was just Maria’s voice, her authentic self.  ‘What Sheila Crowley had done was to give me a licence to be me, to write as I speak, to be myself.’

Armed with this insight Maria began to write and she says ‘I know that this sounds corny but I cried buckets as I wrote.  I could forget about trying to be as good as everyone else.  The writing just spewed out of me.  And I loved it.  I had finally understood what my voice was and I was writing as me.’  She produced her 3 chapters which she duly sent to Sheila in London.  A short time later she was sitting in her car outside the school waiting to pick up her kids when the call came.  Sheila declared that she loved what she had read so far.  ‘Then she asked for my address so that she could put a contract in the post.’  Cue another near heart attack.  ‘I bawled my eyes out.  I couldn’t get out of the car; I had to get one of the other moms to go in to collect my kids.  I couldn’t believe it.  I now had someone in my corner, someone who believed in me.’

The joy at writing continued and Maria finished the first draft of this book in 3 months.  Sheila secured her a two book deal with Hachette and “Any Dream Will Do” will be officially launched on the 8th of November and is already in bookshops.

So as a published author what three tips would Maria give to aspiring authors?

‘Well if writing is in your heart, just do it.  Don’t make excuses, just get on with it.  I would also say, be yourself.  Be natural and write what feels right for you.  Finally there are lots of rules for writing, lots of writing websites telling you how to write, where to write, when to write, etc.  But everyone is different.  You need to do what’s right for you.’

Maria also quotes Lynda La Plante’s advice which is to remember to get out into the real world for inspiration.

It sounds like a wonderfully easy process but don’t be fooled.  I know from following Maria on Twitter that she worked very hard on her writing and I often saw tweets from her saying that she wrote through the night.  But hard work and passion certainly has paid off.  ‘The biggest buzz was probably the first time I held my real honest to God book in my hands in the offices of Hachette,’ she says. ‘Yeah that was definitely the biggest buzz.’  For writers, it’s the stuff of dreams alright.  But if we take anything from Maria’s story it is that dreams do come true.  So now you have no excuse – find your voice, work hard and get writing.

By the way Maria tells me that her second book is almost finished…

(c) Barbara Scully, November 2011.