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Writing Festivals: A Must For The Aspiring Writer

Early in 2015, having recently finished writing my YA novel, Show Stopper, set in a deadly circus, I read an article in the Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook by Jenny McLachlan, author of, Flirty Dancing, about her journey to publication. In it, she mentioned the benefits of attending the Winchester Writers’ festival. 

I researched it online. It sounded amazing. I booked it.

The festival gives attendees the opportunity for one-to-one appointments with experts from the industry. You submit your work to them in advance: they have to read it! Agents, publishers, authors: there are so many influential and knowledgeable people to choose from. I spent a long time thinking about who I would most like to talk to and picked four agents who were interested in YA and who had represented authors I admired and respected.

Each person requested something slightly different. One asked for the first five pages of writing, one for a query letter, one for the first three chapters. I made sure I gave them exactly what they had asked for, sent off the submissions in good time and waited for the festival with bated breath. I used the time to anticipate what questions they might ask me, and to prepare my responses.

And so, one warm Friday evening in in June 2015, I and my lovely friend, Siân -- also an aspiring YA novelist-- took a road trip. It was a sunny evening and, as we approached Winchester, a perfectly heart-shaped cloud drifted across the blue sky. I took a photo and sent it to my children. It felt like a good omen.

The festival has a wide variety of master classes and workshops you can elect to attend. The main one I had picked on the Saturday focused on how to present the perfect submission and how to pitch to agents. It was interactive, it gave invaluable advice and, what’s more, the room was full of people just like me. People who had written books, and were desperate to see them get published. People who were dreaming of publication. People who understood.

Every class I attended over the weekend was so interesting and so inspiring, and they weren't just about how to find an agent. One of the classes gave fantastic advice about the importance of raising your profile as a writer. Don’t wait, the speaker urged, start now. That evening, I joined Twitter and wrote my first tweet.

I waited nervously for my first  1-1 appointment. What if the agent said my writing was rubbish? Show Stopper had only been read by my mum and my husband and a few select friends. They’d been very positive about it, but they were more than a little biased.

I sat down, apprehensively. She smiled. 

“I liked it very much,” she said. “The  setting is unique and it’s very fast-paced. I couldn’t put it down.” I sprouted wings and fluttered about the room. I don’t think she noticed. She gave me feedback, she asked me some questions. “I’d like to see more” she said.

Of all the wonderful moments I’ve had since, of signing with my agent, of getting a two book publishing deal with Scholastic, of seeing my book printed, that was the most amazing one of all. I was shaking with joy, my whole body was tingling. That was the first time I believed it could actually happen to me: that maybe, just maybe; I could be good enough. Up to that point, I’d worried that I might be like one of those poor people everyone sniggers at on the X factor. They think they’re brilliant, their mum thinks they’re brilliant, but the rest of the world are looking at them and laughing. Was that me? Was that my writing? Was it really totally awful?

The rest of the weekend passed by in a beautiful bubble of bliss. Every 1-1 I had was positive, every agent was interested in my work. Three asked me to send them more, one said she wasn’t looking for any YA thrillers at the moment but that I should send her anything else I wrote.

 “You will get published,” she said. “You have such a strong voice.” I managed to stop myself from hugging her.

On Saturday evening there was an open mic evening. I decided to embrace the opportunity and, after necking two gin and tonics, stood up in front of a packed room of people and read from Show Stopper. I was nervous, but it was so exhilarating. I had picked a short scene with lots of action, it seemed to do the trick. The audience applauded, they smiled, people came up afterwards and said nice things. 

When I look back on that weekend, I often wonder if I would be where I am now if I hadn’t gone to the festival. It was the source of so much practical advice but, more than that, it was such an affirmative experience. I came away from it believing in myself; it took away the self-doubt that I’d been feeling up to that point. I took on board all of the feedback the agents had given and I redrafted Show Stopper before sending it back out into the big wide world.   

So, my advice to any aspiring writers?  Write, polish, perfect. Make sure your work is as good as you think it possibly can be and then book a writer’s festival. You’ll love it.

Hayley Barker has a BA (hons) degree from Birmingham University and has taught secondary school English for eighteen years. She is a huge YA fiction fan and says being published is the most exciting thing that has ever happened to her. Hayley was inspired to write Show Stopper by her fears about the growing wave of crime and animosity against minority groups in England. She lives in Essex with her husband and two young sons. You can follow Hayley on Twitter here.