Authors' opening chapters: How at first i didn't succeed...

Stef Penney's achievement in winning the Costa Prize with her debut novel is unusual - many great writers saw their first works sink without trace. By John Walsh and Guy Adams
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The Independent Culture

Helen Fielding Cause Celeb

Two years before Bridget Jones or her diary came into being, Helen Fielding wrote a sharp and funny satire on media slickness and "charidy" posing. It was her first novel, and it emerged after the break-up of her relationship with John Lloyd, the TV comedy impresario.

There had recently been a lot of celebrity hand-wringing over Africa; fleets of droll humourists had made their concerned way to famine zones, and Fielding's book was a bracing corrective to it all. In one scene a white supermodel graciously visits some starving Ethiopian tribespeople, who, gazing at her extreme slenderness, conclude that she must be starving and try to feed her with their meagre rations.

The heroine was called Rosie Richardson and was a feisty operator very different from Bridget. The book was respectfully reviewed, but didn't sell. As its author later told an interviewer, she had to go back to journalism after it came out. And that was when she was offered a weekly column about a wine-bibbing single woman...

Anthony Trollope The Macdermots Of Ballycloran

An industrious powerhouse of fiction, Trollope's achievements as the author of the Barsetshire and the Palliser novel sequences overshadow the fact that literary success came to him comparatively late.

In his mid-20s he worked for the Post Office in London and then Ireland, where he began writing at his home in Clonmel. His first novel was nothing to do with bishops, rural deans or aspiring politicians. The Macdermots of Ballycloran, published in 1847 when the Irish famine was at its height, tells the tragic story of a doomed Irish family. Very few copies were sold. His publishers, possibly to help sales, claimed it was the work of Fanny Trollope, the author's mother, whose scornful Domestic Manners of the Americans caused a transatlantic scandal in 1832.

Trollope did not give up after his dismal beginning. He made his name with The Warden in 1855, though it was only later that he started to make any money from writing.

Thomas Hardy The Poor Man And The Lady

Hardy spent his early twenties in London. By day, he was an architect's apprentice; by night, a prolific amateur poet.

In 1867, he returned to Dorset, and decided to try fiction. The result was The Poor Man and the Lady, about a society beauty's liaison with a countryman.

The manuscript was rejected by at least five publishers before Hardy gave up trying to sell it.

Thankfully, Desperate Remedies was published four years later, and he hit the jackpot with Far From the Madding Crowd.

Gustave Flaubert The Temptation Of St Anthony

Being Flaubert's friend sounds like a barrel of laughs. In 1849, the young Frenchman spent four days beside a fire, reading his newly completed novel The Temptation of St Anthony aloud to his friends Louis Bouilhet and Maxime du Camp. His listeners were allowed only short breaks for meals. When Flaubert asked them what they thought, they advised him to throw it on the fire. Three years later, Flaubert began work on Madame Bovary.

Salman Rushdie Grimus

Six years before Midnight's Children exploded on the literary landscape, Salman Rushdie delivered his first-born in 1975. He was working as a copywriter for the Ogilvy & Mather advertising agency at the time. Grimus was described, ominously, as "a metaphysical science fiction novel" and praised by Ursula Le Guin. It concerns Flapping Eagle, an immortal Native American from the Axona tribe, who flies to a place called Phoenix to find his sister Bird-Dog, who is being held prisoner by the arch-villain Grimus, the ruler of Calf Island, who is also Flapping Eagle's doppelganger. The book is stuffed with literary allusions, to Hamlet, Rasselas, Robinson Crusoe, The Divine Comedy and a 12th-century Sufi poem called "Conference of the Birds". Rushdie's debut didn't sell well. It would still be a few years before magic realism would become popular on British shores. Rushdie himself, writing in his essay collection Imaginary Homelands in 1991, referred to "Grimus, which to put it mildly, bombed..."

Philip Pullman The Haunted Storm

Ask Philip Pullman about his first published work, The Haunted Storm, and you'll get pretty short shrift. For reasons best known to himself, the author of His Dark Materials refuses to discuss the title, and has erased it from his entry in Who's Who. Getting hold of a copy is tricky, too. It is out of print, and can only be bought from rare book dealers (at the going rate of £125), or occasionally on eBay, the internet auction site.

The publishers' synopsis suggests, however, that this elusive masterpiece is definitely one for the die-hard science fiction buff.

"Violence and death in a small village form the backdrop to this novel," it reads. "Unease and suspicion split the community. Physically involved in the investigation, Matthew finds his spiritual problems have a greater depth of reality.

"Only in the final disastrous confrontation in the ruined Mithraic Temple does he, at last, glimpse the possibility of quietude."

Toni Morrison The Bluest Eye

Another Nobel laureate with a dismal literary baptism, Toni Morrison grew up in Ohio surrounded by redneck whites. She taught English at Howard University, married an architect and moved to Europe. When her marriage ended, she moved to New York, worked for Random House and stayed up nights writing The Bluest Eye. It told the story of Pecola Breedlove, who is raped by her father and dreams of becoming a little white girl with blue eyes, like Shirley Temple. It received very mixed reviews, and was out of print by 1974. Only after the success of Beloved, Song of Solomon and Jazz did readers go back to her initial work.

Anthony Burgess A Vision Of Battlements

The astonishingly prolific Burgess is generally thought to have burst into print in 1956 with Time for a Tiger, the first book of his "Malayan trilogy". In fact his first completed book was A Vision of Battlements, a semi-autobiographical account written in 1949, about his time with the Army Educational Corps in Gibraltar, teaching squaddies a course on the "British Way and Purpose". The novel's title refers to a symptom of astigmatism. His debut and his second novel, The Worm and the Ring, and a collection of poems, were all rejected by publishers. It was only after another foreign excursion, this time to Malaya, did his work get into print. And only after the success of A Clockwork Orange - which was published in 1962 - did A Vision of Battlements hit the bookshops in 1965. Burgess died a wealthy man, but his first novel never enjoyed high sales.

John Steinbeck Cup Of Gold

The Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Grapes of Wrath had a tough time getting noticed. He studied English at Stanford University, but left in 1925 to make his fortune by his pen in New York. It was a disaster: he couldn't get published. He returned to California, but rallied enough to finish Cup of Gold, a historical novel about the 17th-century pirate Henry Morgan. It was published in 1929 but attracted little attention. Nor did his next two novels, The Pastures of Heaven and To a God Unknown. "It is an awful lot of work to write a novel," he told an old classmate. Only with Tortilla Flat (1935) did he start to find an audience.

Dan Brown Digital Fortress

In 1994, a failed musician called Dan Brown went on holiday to Tahiti. Legend has it he read Sidney Sheldon's novel The Doomsday Conspiracy on the beach, and decided he could do better.

The result was Digital Fortress, a thriller about a National Security Agency mathematician called Susan Fletcher who - in time-honoured fashion - must break a complex code to save Western civilisation from Armageddon.

It didn't exactly bomb, but less than 10,000 copies were printed. All that changed in 2003 when The Da Vinci Code became a global phenomenon. Brown's publishers re-released Digital Fortress, and it has now sold 10 million copies.