People To Learn From in the Trenches: Meet Aften Brook Szymanski
Some querying authors who've been in the trenches for a long while have some great advice to share. You don't want to miss this interview with Aften Brook Szymanski. She's a querying author who's also been published by small presses. She has a YA Sci-fi book called Cheat Code coming out this spring, check back here on Friday for the cover reveal.
J: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
A: I grew up on a steady diet of Star Wars and night games in the back forty. I’m an unrepentant dork with a pension for awkwardness. I used to list reading and writing as my only hobbies on ‘about me’ questionnaires. Someone once told me that wasn’t interesting information. I thought about it and agreed. People who read and write should experience real life. So, I did more things—experienced more things. And I still write ‘reading and writing’ in ‘about me’ questionnaires.
J: Ha! I think those are fine 'about me' answers lol. You just have to be a writer to understand.
J: What is the most valuable lesson you've learned while querying?
A: Research agents and the market. Provide all the information asked for by the specific person you’re querying. Keep it tight, short, and engaging.
J: That is important advice. Although it can be grueling, and we'd all like to streamline the process, each query needs to count.
J: How long have you been querying and with how many manuscripts? How long do you wait before shelving them?
A: I feel like all I ever do is query. At least five years since I ever tried. I’ve queried between five and seven manuscripts, which means there are ten or more I’ve never put out there. Sometimes I shelf a manuscript the second I finish it. It could be due to me not being ready for that work to be public, or because I know the work isn’t ready or up to par. Sometimes I shelf a manuscript after querying because it’s not of interest to publishers. But, I always keep working. I do not dwell on old works—even if I friggin’ love them.
J: Are there any manuscripts you want to revisit someday?
A: So many. I have a MG space adventure manuscript I’d like to revise. I have a MG horror series about friendship I hope to sell. Several YA novels I think are still worth publication. When you write twenty or so novels, it’s impossible to not hope there’s salvage in the mix.
J: I'm impressed that you've written so many!
J: What have you found to be the hardest part about querying?
A: Waiting. On both sides. I’m an anxious person. I struggle with being still. Publishing is an anxious industry. It’s filled with waiting—and deadlines, which sound counter functional, but that’s the nature of selling stories.
J: Yes! Waiting is so hard.
J: You have small press books published or to be published, so what is it that makes you continue to query agents?
A: Being an anxious person, it helps to have a handler. Someone to take over the part that I often jump the gun on—someone who can rally my work and represent with understanding and foresight. I’ve learned a lot about the industry in the five years I’ve been learning about publishing, but I don’t know everything.
J: You are also an intern at a literary agency, correct? What has that taught you?
A: It’s taught me that there is so much more to publication than writing. And that there are so many talented and caring people trying to do everything they can for the authors they represent. Sometimes the market just doesn’t align with what you see as gold. I’ve learned that talent can come from unexpected places and to never underestimate someone. It’s also taxing on agents who work their tails off and are judged for not doing enough. There is a lot to an editorial proposal. Going on submission is much more involved than querying agents or small press. There are plans and steps and packaging of authors and works. It’s very complex and you want an agent who understands the business and loves your work. Be good to your agents. They’re all trying.
J: I'm glad you said that. I think as writer's we get focused on our own needs. Agents work so extremely hard and rarely get the credit that is due.
J: Which contests have you participated in and what did you learn from them?
A: When I first decided to try to publish (about three years ago), I entered some Twitter contests for completed manuscripts. I made it to the final rounds and even obtained a publishing contract with a small press. I learned networking and research. I also learned I’m probably a little too quick to sign things. Ha ha ha.
J: What are your favorite writer resource(s)?
A: I’m in love with Ackerman/Puglisi books. Emotion Thesaurus et. al. Right now I’d say other successful writer friends are my best resources for industry trends and successes. Attending conferences and craft seminars always inspires me to dig deeper and refine my own abilities.
And reading. Reading all the things. Different genres and writers from various backgrounds and experiences. I love new styles and rhythms to expression. I like fun and fast reads as well as epics. I learn so much from reading.
J: Those are all great resources. Thank you for covering the spectrum. I think sometimes we forget an important resource can be our peers.
J: Is there a particular author that inspires you?
A: So many. Ruta Sepetys is one of my favorite historic fiction authors. She has a way with language—a literal rhythm to her words. I like to read out loud with my family. Her books are gorgeous spoken or in your head.
Neal Shusterman inspires me. He’s been writing a long time—decades. His Arc of a Scythe series is his best work yet, his most recent work. That inspires me. We get better. Really really better. His writing in Scythe is both tight and profound, clean and messy in the best literary ways. I love it.
Dr. Suess inspires me. He made up words and places and nonsense, and it was fun when I was a kid, and it’s still fun to read as an adult. He’s the only author whose quotes decorate my walls. (admittedly, I haven’t hanged my Willy Wonka quotes yet, so there will be a day when the previous statement will no longer be true).
J: Give blog readers your best piece of writerly advice.
Writerly advice. Yikes. That’s hard. Is there ever good writerly advice? Universally decent advice? I doubt it. All advice runs the risk of benefiting some and diluting or misleading others. Advice might also elevate one population while inflicting a standard another population can never live up to.
Obviously, I stink at advice.
I can’t follow a recipe, much less advice (ask my mother).
So my advice is, experiment with your favorite recipe for writing and make it your own. But definitely have a trusted tasters circle (crit partners) to try your product on before rushing off to the show/competition.
J: I love, love, love this answer. We get so much advice and sometimes we start boxing ourselves in with it. Listen to advice but know when to apply it and when to simply acknowledge it.
If you loved Aften's advice as much as I did, follow Aften on Twitter here, visit her author website here, or like her Facebook page. And don't forget to check back on Friday for her cover reveal and the beginning excerpt of Cheat Code.