Guest Blog: SEEKING THAT VALIDATION OF A ‘YES’: THE ROAD TO PUBLICATION… by COL BURY

By now people will know that, after years of trying, I’ve finally bagged a deal for my debut novel, MY KIND OF JUSTICE. It’s been a bumpy old journey, one where I often thought I’d missed the bus. Obviously, it’s clear I certainly haven’t ‘arrived’ yet. I’ve just got on the bus, that’s all, and who knows it could stall or even break down!

Paul’s invited me to write about the road to publication, so here we go…

When I was a spotty teen I read horror and crime and fantasised about actually having a stab myself, since I’d somehow snagged English ‘O’ Level a year early at school so was dead good at proper England innit. Old pal, Dave Barber and I used to share crappy short stories with each other and so the bug began. In my early twenties I briefly embarked on a writers’ correspondence course (no internet then) and the tutor gave words of encouragement that spurred me on, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to write (or how to) nor how the industry really worked, so I set out to learn how all the cogs fit together and to discover my ‘voice’ therein.

Children’s stories were rejected, short story entries into many, many comps fell flat and the crime writing I’d gravitated toward – it seemed to choose me, since I’d been surrounded by it growing up around Manchester – was always on my mind, even though it was a constant struggle. Procrastination (reading tens of ‘How to’ writing books), disorganisation, full-time work (always) and then marriage and two children, prevented progress as a writer, but the drive and ambition bubbled within. The naysayers played their part as per fuckin’ usual (don’t listen to those negative buggers who are only happy when they’re miserable), hence when I hit the brick wall of 41,000 words (oddly, twice) on my first attempts at crime novels, I let life take over, though still dreamed and tinkered with writing. And I read, a lot, mainly crime.

Until, in 2008, I became friends with Matt Hilton via a mutual work colleague. Bizarrely, I was reading aloud about his huge success re’ his Joe Hunter thrillers deal and my line manager said, “Matty? Matty? No way!”… and phoned him (125 miles away in Carlisle) to congratulate him, then passed the phone to me… “Er, hello…” I said nervously. And the rest is history. We became firm friends, and when Matt started the ezine Thrillers, Killers ‘n’ Chillers in 2009 I became his co-editor and it exploded and became the catalyst to take my writing, confidence-wise, up a notch or three. Seeing my own work on the site (six shorts published by Matt before I began the editing role) was a welcome taster to how a ‘real author’ must feel, and the positive and constructive feedback from readers (yes, real people who read, actually read my writing and liked it!) spurred me on. I then felt confident enough to submit shorts to other ezines, like Chris Grant’s A Twist Of Noir, among others, and they liked my work enough to publish it. New readers , contacts and many good friends were found.

Editing stories from all over the world, from writers at varying degrees of competency, from questionable to top notch, then offering feedback, is a helluva way of analysing structure, style and what works and what doesn’t within a short story. I did this for nearly five years and, although it did consume us (Matt, Lily Childs, Lee Hughes, Dave Barber) in the end, it was an invaluable apprenticeship. It was also a thrill to publish writers’ first stories and some have consequently flourished big time! The site won awards, but, alas, was impacting on our own writing time and family life so something had to give.

Alongside this, because of shifts, I couldn’t get to a writers’ circle physically, so joined Writers News Talkback forum where I lurked for a while until chatting at leisure with a vast array of writers. Again, many friends (too many to name here) and contacts were made, and I learned a helluva lot about the business.

I started reviewing the odd book, interviewing fellow writers on my blog, and going to more book launches and writing festivals (including Harrogate, hic!) to get a feel for the whole scene, and that was possibly the most useful aspect of the ongoing apprenticeship; a thousand conversations (many drunken) about writing and the industry, plus rubbing shoulders with great writers and drinking up their wisdom. Also, at these events you meet readers, publishers and agents, so attending’s a no brainer if you want to ‘get on’.

Back to the ezines… in 2010 New York agent, Nat Sobel had scoured short story sites and approached a bunch of writers, including little old me. To cut a long story short, I rewrote a crime novel umpteen times (once, from scratch after 50,000+ ditched words!) until it was ‘ready’ to send out to publishers. I went through that process of waiting months for the responses to come in and that is stressful, I’ll tell yer! It seems writers (self-published authors apart, maybe) are always waiting anxiously for news, good or bad, and even the best tell me that’s one of the worst aspects of the process.

Anyway, the novel Nat Sobel squeezed out of me did the rounds of the big hitters, got close with one or two and to quote Nat: “We could paper the walls with glorious rejections, but no one offered.” One publisher asked me to change the location from Manchester as they already had an author writing similar stuff there, but Manchester’s what I know, so we declined. A point about timing here: that ‘similar’ author they had, left for another publisher not long after. Dammit!

Despite no deal the positive feedback was encouraging and I wrote another crime novel with a supernatural twist to help it stand out from the crowd. It didn’t. After going through the process again, the rejections poured in and, with several friends winning books deals and some having success in self-publishing, I felt like I’d not only missed the bus but had been driven the opposite way and left in the wilderness. I flirted with depression and self-pity and stopped writing for a while, as things fizzled out with Nat, albeit amicably, despite him poo-pooing a few pitched ideas for other prospective novels. I learned a helluva lot from Nat and will be forever grateful. However, the fact remained that I’d lost my rudder and was up Shit Creek, but after an extensive search I found a paddle and began to steadily find the right course.

Confidence grew gradually as I won flash fiction comps and my short stories were published in numerous anthologies, including the last three MAMMOTH BOOKS OF BEST BRITISH CRIME. I spoke to lots of people about self-publishing and read all about it. My short story collections, MANCHESTER 6 and THE COPS OF MANCHESTER had done pretty well on Amazon, but they were just for exposure and a novel was a different animal. The thing that stopped me from self-publishing, despite intense frustration, was that I deeply needed that validation of a ‘Yes’. For the record, I think the S/P option is another great way of finding a readership and I may well partake in the future, but not just yet.

I entered my novels into comps and won diddlysquat. I re-read them, gleaned feedback from trusted friends, rewrote them. Then I decided to sub to two carefully selected ‘smaller’ publishers I knew quite a bit about. And waited… a-bloody-gain!

One said, “No,” and the other, CAFFEINE NIGHTS said, “Yes!”

Validation, at last! But beware… now the fear of failure has been replaced by the fear of success. *gulps*

So, I’ve finally got my bus ticket and we’ll see where it takes me. I’m expecting more bumps along the road, but I’ve buckled-up to enjoy the ride! 😉

Thanks to all who supported and encouraged me throughout, and thanks to Paul for having me…er, so to speak.

(This post first appeared at OUT OF THE GUTTER ONLINE)

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