A month or two ago I was having a typically busy day. I’d been in school since 7.30, had marked, prepared, taught three lessons and was desperate for some food. Just as I headed to my lunch, my phone buzzed. It was Meg, the amazing publicist who works for Firefly. ‘Would you like to go to YALC and can you come up with a pitch for a workshop?’. (For those of you who don’t know what YACL is, it is the YA version of Comic con – set up by Malorie Blackman to celebrate YA books and YA writers.)The answer was ‘of course’ and ‘I’d love to but my brain is busy’. But during the time it took me to eat my marinated chicken and quinoa (this teacher does not skimp on quality at lunch time), I thought, ‘I know. How to write a feminist romantic comedy.’ I sent this a few minutes later to Meg.
A few weeks later, the follow up email came – ‘yes, you are going
to YALC and yes, you are doing a workshop. Oh, and by the way you’re on a panel
too.’ There may have been a small amount of whooping at this point. I’ve followed
YALC on Twitter for a few years now. It’s always looked brilliant but also seemed
to involve being hot, queuing and a fair bit of waiting around. As I struggle
with the last three, I’ve never quite got around to booking it but every year I’ve
always felt I was missing out on the book buzz. But now, I was finally going.
To say I was busy on the run-up to YALC would be an understatement.
My first UK novel was out, I was still teaching, tutoring, marking exam scripts
and trying to be a mother who at least pays attention to her children
occasionally. So, any preparation I did was very last minute. But I painted my
nails blue (to match Tulip’s on the cover), I wrote my workshop, I picked out
the lightest outfit I could (it was 39 degrees the day before), borrowed a huge
water bottle off my husband and bought a handheld fan. I was ready for
anything. Except possibly an unexpected Artic blast…
On the 7.20 from Manchester Piccadilly, the nerves had
kicked in. I’d woken up at 4 which wasn’t all bad as I had a lovely cup of tea
up sunrise in the garden with the birds. But once on the train, I couldn’t help
reflecting on what the very socially awkward thirteen-year-old Anna would have made
of this – the one who could only speak to about five people in the world. Over
the years, I’ve learned how to manage social situations to some degree and to
whom teaching is now a habit, but still going into unknown territories with
unknown people still makes me very, very anxious. But there was no going back,
the train arrived, me and my banner had to make the journey across London to YALC.
Finally, I arrived, hardly having time to take in the
amazing costumes at Comic con. I saw one Robin from the scoop troupe of
Stranger Things 3 which pleased me no end. As soon as I arrived at YALC, it
became very obvious what a special event it is and how lovely people who want
to celebrate books are. Everyone I met just seemed so enthusiastic and
supportive. It’s like walking into a bookish hug.
I found the Green Room (cold and with free crisps – in a
word, heaven). I found Kate Mallinder, teammate at Firefly and who was chairing
our panel. I had a few minutes to drink some water and then I headed off for my
workshop. I wasn’t sure what to expect, if anyone would turn up, what the
format would be like.
But I had an audience who were interested and appreciative.
I talked through the problems of rom-coms, we shared what we loved and hated, I
explained how to turn some of the toxic or problematic parts of rom-coms round
and in the q and a at the end, I learned a few things that I think will inform
what I’m writing at the moment. I was intensely nervous at the beginning, but
by the end I was enjoying myself!
In the down time between then and the panel, I had a quick
walk around and again was so impressed by what was on offer. There were freebies,
advance copies, opportunities to win early copies of all the most hotly anticipated
novels, paperbacks were £5 and hardbacks £10. I now understood why so many
people had suitcases – if you’re a seriously book buyer, you need something on
wheels to take your stash home.
Time for the panel – Kate had now rounded up me, Clare Rhys
and Daniel Freedman, ready for our talk. Again, it was an appreciative
audience. All my nerves had gone now so I was just enjoying myself. It was
great to hear about the others’ books – all were very different but it was fascinating
to hear about the covers and the inspiration behind what we wrote. The one key
message that come out for me was that if you want to succeed at writing, it
helps to be stubborn – to keep on going even if things don’t go your way.
We were due to sign next but I thought I’d visit the ladies
even though there was a bit of a queue. Then possibly the most surreal moment
of the day so far happened. Penny Thomas, my publisher, came to drag me out of said
queue as I had a line of people wanting their books signed and I really ought
to come! Walking up to see my name on a YACL banner and people waiting with
copies of Tulip Taylor was a very special moment. (My queue was next to Holly
Bourne’s. This could have been terrible but it wasn’t. She was finishing and I
was starting so our queues were the same length. For a bit!)
Signing was lovely. I signed lots of books. I met people I
know from Twitter but not in real life. It was hot so the hand fan came in very
useful. I fanned my ‘fans’. One person fanned me whilst I was signing her book.
I did start to get hysterically giggly at this moment. Waterstones wanted some
copies signed. And then came back for some more. People I have never met turned
up with US copies of ‘Rebel with a Cupcake’ so I was signing my two books. This
was also a first for me.
What made the day also very special was that only recently
Firefly had decided to publish ‘Rebel with a Cupcake’ in the UK and I signed
the contract there and then. It really was a special end to a special day.
The final part of YACL was more personal – my friend Kim who
I did my MA with (during which I wrote Rebel with a Cupcake) arrived and we had
a lovely hour or so chatting, wandering round the stalls and generally catching
up. For that part of the day, I was just there as a fan, and I picked up some
books I’ve wanted for ages but kept putting off. I too ended up with an extra
tote full of books. Maybe next year I’ll have a suitcase.
By the time I was on the train home, I was really feeling
that 4am start. But it was all worth it. I’d love to go again if invited but if
not, I’ll probably go as a fan. The offers, the talks, the price of the books alone,
the lovely people all make it a very special experience. As for workshops,
panels, having a signing queue and my name next to one of the best-selling YA
authors – I think thirteen-year-old me would be very happy if she knew that was
waiting for her, in her future. As long as she was patient and stubborn.