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Writing children's fiction: Advice from author Penny Chrimes and literary agent Lisa Babalis

BY Abby Parsons
28th Jul 2021

Earlier this month, we hosted a webinar with Curtis Brown literary agent Lisa Babalis and her client and former CBC student Penny Chrimes. These special webinars are an exclusive component of our Writing YA & Children’s Fiction course, and they give our students the chance to discover more about finding an agent and the publishing process.

Since finishing her course with us and gaining representation with Lisa, Penny has gone on to secure a publishing deal with Orion and publish two middle-grade novels:Tiger Heart, a magical tale of a bold young chimney sweep and a remarkable tiger andThe Dragon and Her Boy, a fantastical tale of friendship and adventure.

I was very pleased to sit in on this inspiring and enlightening session, in which our students heard about Penny’s journey to publication, what it’s like to work with an agent, and what Lisa is looking for in a submission. Here are some of the highlights:

On working with an agent…

Penny: Writing is such a solitary process (which sort of suits me, I’m afraid) but you’re always going to go through difficult times, and Lisa and I have the sort of relationship where I can say ‘I’m stuck’, and we can spend an hour on the phone knocking ideas and plot around. That’s wonderful, to have that.

When you’re at the stage when you haven’t got an agent and it feels like a very closed world that you’re never going to be a part of and it’s breaking your heart, anyone who says ‘Can we have a chat?’ or ‘I like your work’ is just wonderful, and on the whole if someone likes your work the chances are there is a connection there.

Lisa: For me, part of the huge privilege of the job is being part of the creative process in a very small way. Being the first reader never gets old – it’s such a thrill – so when Penny says ‘I’ve got a problem’, I’m keen to help! It’s wonderful to have even a tiny toehold in a book that’s going to go on to be read and loved by kids. It’s my favourite bit.

On the editing process…

Penny: I was lucky, because I didn’t have to change a lot with Tiger Heart. But when receiving feedback you do have to take a breath and listen to other people – you can’t be self-satisfied when it comes to edits. Sometimes you’ll have a conversation with somebody, and you’ll take on board what they say and then you’ll think ‘I don’t want to do that, it doesn’t feel right to me’ – so it’s a balance between listening and not being arrogant.

Lisa: I think the most helpful editorial feedback is to identify a place where something isn’t working, and not to suggest something but to say ‘let’s have a conversation about ways in which you think this gap or this lag can be fixed’. When I do editorial work on books, what I really want to say is ‘all the elements are here, let’s work out if they’re all in the right order’ – it’s helping the writer find the fix that works for them.

On changing lanes…

Lisa: The book that I took Penny on for was based on a true story and was realistic and quite gritty, and Tiger Heart is about a magical world where animals can talk. She didn’t stick with the same lane… and I was delighted. Most agents understand that people feel different things at different times, and will want to write different things at different times. Writers are creative people; they’re not battery hens.

Penny: I did try quite a lot of different things, and I did get a bit sucked in to trying to emulate what was on the market. It was only when I let myself do what I wanted to do, that was what changed for me.

Lisa: With Tiger Heart, Penny suddenly realised this idea that she’d always had needed to come out. She had been trying to do things that she thought were better than her ideas because they were ‘pre-approved’, which at the time seems like a sensible, measured way to it, but of course, when you write the story that is bursting at the walls of your heart to come out, that’s the one people fall in love with.

On trends in YA and Children’s fiction…

Lisa: If you spot a trend, it’s probably too late – and you have to just accept that. But if you feel compelled to do something, and you don’t know why, that’s when you’re in the upswell – and it’s probably the right time to catch that wave.

Penny: I try and keep in touch with what’s being published – that’s partly because I love reading children’s books and it’s such a joy, really. I did try to follow the trends a little bit as part of my ‘apprenticeship’ in writing, but that didn’t really stick. In the end I wrote a book I loved.

I’m influenced by adult writing as much as anything else. I’m interested in what’s happening to our planet. I follow my passions and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

On the submission process…

Penny: When looking for agents, treat it as a profession and do your homework. Don’t annoy people by breaking the rules of their submission guidelines. I read the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. You can pick up more now about what agents are looking for from people’s websites and by following them on Twitter.

Lisa: For me, the thing that grabs my attention when reading a submission is the writing. When you read the first paragraph it should pull you somewhere. It takes you by the hand and leads you somewhere – and you want to go with them and keep reading.

It might not be that you find it perfectly polished at that point but you can see something in what they’re doing that speaks to you. Most agents would say that deep down they are a reader – they want to read a book that they fall in love with so that they can tell people about it enthusiastically. What I’m not looking for is things inspired by lots of other things out there – it has to feel like it’s coming from a place of invention and originality.

Their advice for aspiring authors…

Penny: Just keep going! If it’s your passion, just keep going with it. Even if it doesn’t happen now, it’s a bit crushing, but it might happen in five years, ten years. Don’t stop writing, if you love writing. There is a joy in writing for itself.

Lisa: There’s no expiry date on the books you’ve written. They go in your bottom drawer – they don’t get thrown away. You don’t know when its time is going to come, and it might become the basis for something else. All your material is like a cupboard full of scraps that you can make something else out of – it’s all valuable, just hold onto it and treasure it.