Welcome back to Inside The Authors Studio. Today I’m talking to another writer and sharing our conversation with you! To find out who I’ve interviewed so far and what this series is all about, check out the original post by clicking here.
Today I am pleased to share with you my conversation with another incredible writer, Aften Brook Szymanski.
After getting her undergraduate degree from Brigham Young University, Aften went on to study for her master’s in education. She graduated from the University of Utah with a concentration in low vision services for special education. Although the schools are rivals, Aften loved them both equally. She designed one reversible blanket so that she could attend home games at both campuses and still show her school pride.
Today she lives in western Wyoming with her husband and their three young children. She works as a teacher for the visually impaired and has written a collection of books across different genres and age ranges. She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, which organizes services for creators of children’s literature.
In my talk with Aften, we discuss how she got her start as an author. We talk about her experiences writing for different audiences and how they have impacted her creative process. We even take a closer look at Aften’s experience with setting as she embarks on a new journey in her personal life. I truly hope you enjoy my conversation with Aften Brook Szymanski!
Jamie: Hi Aften! Welcome to the studio! Today we are going to give my readers a look at who you are, what you do, and where you hope to go in the future. Let’s kick things off with an introduction. You bump into a complete stranger on the street. How do you introduce yourself? Tell us a bit about who you are.
Aften: I’m a smiling waver—the kind of waver where you’d think you’re setting sail on a long voyage—spastic happy flailing waver. If we’re interactive social network friends I’ll assume I know your public image, but intrude your personal space as if we grew up together because I’m awkward that way. I literally hugged my parent-in-laws on first introduction because I was nervous and didn’t know what to do with my hands.
This week we’re celebrating the release of your new book, Killer Potential, but take me back a ways. What is the first thing you ever remember writing in your life? From where did your interest in creative writing stem?
Star Wars opened my eyes to story telling like nothing before. I bought the screenplay of Return of the Jedi and studied it like I was auditioning.
I wrote a Christmas play when I was thirteen, which I convinced my siblings to perform. In it, three disgruntled elves accidentally poison Santa with cookies containing an ingredient the big guy is deathly allergic to. The elves discover that getting credit for the biggest day of the child-year isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and then discover Santa was just messing with them—he was fine.
What is your relationship with books like in general? Are you a big reader? Have you always been? Which books have had the biggest impact on you as a person? Which ones have impacted the way you view your craft?
In first grade we had sixth graders come in to mentor us as we learned to read. The kid assigned to help me volunteered just to get out of class, and because he didn’t want to listen to me struggle through the words he taught me to cheat. I applied those skills for five more years—a pro cheater, master of acquiring enough details to not be questioned. And to back up my quantity of books I’d pass off, I was a fast out loud reader.
I won a reading contest in sixth grade for reading the most books in the whole school, when in reality I had read none front to back. I told my Mom what happened. She told me it was up to me, but that I should tell my teacher the truth. So I did. And to make it worse, my teacher made me keep the prize—a book. The Singing Tree. He then shared a lesson on honesty with the WHOLE CLASS. I was certain everyone knew the lesson was about me. To this day, I haven’t read that book, but I have read just about everything else I can get my hands on. Not sure if my reader self has been trying to make up for all those years of being a cheat-bum. I credit my sixth grade teacher. Mr. Sandstrom. His lesson imprinted in my brain—I cannot forget it.
After you got your bachelor’s degree, you went on to study special education for your master’s. What about education, and specifically low vision services, made you want to become a teacher?
This is one of those weird life directions. When I was applying for teaching jobs, I somehow interviewed for a deafblind school. During the interview it came up that I was a low vision kid myself. I had my lenses removed at the age of three and was aphakic until the age of 23 when I had surgery to implant prosthetic lenses in my eyes. I was one of those kids with forty pound glasses (slight exaggeration). Common occurrence: Sister: “Af, you see that striped cow?” Me: *staring at cement wall* “I’ve been watching it for the last thirty seconds, of course I see it.” (completely not exaggerated).
The director thought that was great and offered me the job. The position required a master’s degree, which I didn’t have. They reassured me that it wasn’t a problem, that they had a program to cover the cost of my degree if I could get into the program. A job and an advanced degree? Heck yes. I took the job.
How old were you when you began playing around with the idea of becoming an author? What inspired you to begin writing your first book?
As a kid, I thought I was a stand-up comedian—like most kids. I played around with the idea of writing my own skits and jokes from kindergarten. My teacher had the word ‘red’ written on the board in red chalk and I spent most of the year trying to work the fact it remained there the whole year into some kind of hilarious joke. I have thousands of folders of story ideas, pencil written tales, and scraps from magazines for ideas.
In 2013, you published a children’s picture book entitled O. Potamus. Talk to me about that experience. How did it feel to put something you wrote out into the world? What do you like most about the process of publishing a picture book?
I always talked about wanting to create a book, but had no idea how to do it. Someone in my small town created a book on their own, illustrating and printing it. I was inspired that there was a means for a person from a small town with no connections to publishing, and no idea how to find an agent (I might add that I might not have been properly trained or prepared to create a book) could do it. I thought, “I can do that!”
So I tried to draw. Fail.
Crayons. I really tried this.
Computer art. Big fail.
My sister once won an art competition doing fabric art and I’ve always been good at cut and paste. So I tried that—and BOOM—art.
I made tons of fabric pictures, scanned them to my computer and had no idea how to make it cute. Not sure I succeeded on that part.
What it did for me—push me forward. I thought, “If I can make this happen, I bet I could reach for other goals in writing.”
I made more goals.
The next year, you created and released three middle grade books in the Lindly Brandt series. In April of this year, you released another stand-alone middle grade novel, Hero Club. What inspired you to address a different, slightly older audience with these next books? Do you feel authors should stick to one audience or topic in their writing career, or do you think they should be free to move around?
This is my climb to larger word count. I did not think it was possible for me to write a coherent novel. I didn’t think of myself as a cool author, or a person who was doing anything that would ever get noticed—other than my kids seeing that I was doing things to reach personal goals. I didn’t want them to only hear me talk about the things I wanted to do—I wanted them to see me working at it, learning, improving, and reaching farther—challenging myself.
Hero Club is for my kids. My kids knew I was writing and they wanted a real life copy of it. So I finished it, sent to CPs, who were kind but would most likely agree it’s not stellar. But, with my YA novel coming out, and it having some disturbing content (my oldest recently finished second grade), I wanted to give my kids something to hold and be proud of me for. So I hired two editors and went several rounds with one, and then more rounds with the second editor in order to make it at least okay.
I forget that making a book legit for my kids means the whole world gets to see it’s out there. But I also love that readers can see the genuine me. I’m just a girl sitting in front of a monitor, asking the words to make sense.
In April of this year you posted a picture and announced that you would be renovating a 1940s ranch house with your family. Since then, you’ve followed up with pictures and posts about the process. It’s so cool to watch the process unfold gradually through your updates online! What made you decide to undertake such a huge project? What has the experience been like so far?
This is another of those things that came about unexpectedly. My husband and I wanted to build a home, but the cost of building where we live is INSANE. After renting for a year, we started to think we might never be able to afford building a home. My husband called one Thursday afternoon and asked what I thought about buying a fixer upper. I’d seen plenty of Jojo Gaines episodes, so of course I said yes. I looked online to see there were only TWO—yes TWO fixer upper homes, at that time, in the entire valley where we live.
We called our realtor and asked for a showing of the farmhouse and discovered it already had an accepted offer. We asked to see it anyway, like dream of what could have been—I had daydreams of how cute the house would be. Then the previous offer fell through. We put in a backup offer on the off chance the deal fell through. We were under contract two days later.
And then we realized we just paid to experience HELL. First of all, we thought we exposed asbestos insulation, and naturally y reaction was to plan a family funeral and spend the next ten years touring theme parks and cry about how stupid we were. We had the material tested and learned that it was not asbestos—I’ve never felt so terrified and also relieved. Everyone who knows me thinks I’m insane now though. In all fairness, I felt insane for a few weeks just dealing with the idea of buying a home that might possibly have killed us all. I forced my husband to purchase abatement gear in order to remove the rest of the home materials—treat everything as though it’s potentially hazardous.
Everything has been huge setbacks, uncovering wire that is spliced and not even in junction boxes, improper plumbing, and framework that nullifies supporting walls.
Basically, we are big dumb idiots who must enjoy terror and panic.
How has this experience impacted your writing? What does setting mean to you in a story? How do you draw from your own life and the places you’ve been to enrich your stories?
At the moment, my writing has suffered from the experience because I’m too in it. I still aim for my word count goal of a much lower daily goal, just to keep my habits in tact while life is insane, but I don’t expect my words to be good at the moment.
My priority is to my kids and family, and I haven’t felt they are safe and secure for a while. So I’m unable to sit and write. I’m sure it will be a great source of material once the full experience of making the home safe and secure feels like a reality.
Your newest release, Killer Potential, is a young adult novel. In your experience, what makes writing for a young adult audience different from writing for middle grade readers or young children? What do you like most about YA?
Young adults are introspective, which means I had to focus a lot on the voice of the main character both in dialogue and inner voice/narrative voice.
Word choice changes for each audience. I don’t think I took that into account as much before this piece. I have a simple vocabulary myself.
I enjoy writing in first person present, which works well with YA.
Killer Potential, is also psychological thriller. What inspired you to write a thriller? What about the genre appeals to you? Any favorite thriller reads?
I like the slow burn and creepiness of thrillers. Vince Gilligan is one of my all time favorite story creators. Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, along with many of his XFiles episodes, are some of my favorite story telling. If anything, I hope to learn the art of subtlety. Both in drama and humor—Gilligan is a master of understating something to the point it’s almost screaming at you through the screen—the counter effect amazes me.
Do you view writing as a solitary endeavor, a collaborative process, or something in between? How have your friends and family reacted to your achievements as a writer? Who has been your biggest support base through all of this?
The process of writing is a combination for me. I like to get my ideas out on the page, then pester CP’s to help me flesh out the good ideas and decent plot lines so I can focus the story better. And editors—they are superheroes of words. They save lives.
My friends and family have always been supportive, kind, and encouraging. Not everyone I know or am related to enjoys the genre’s and target audience I like to write for, but they always have kind words to say when I reach a milestone. And of course, my kids are my biggest support. The love me no matter how lame I am.
How do you strike a balance between your job, your family life, and your career as a writer? Do you ever find it difficult to juggle all these different aspects of your life?
Juggling life is a challenge for all of us—no matter our jobs, hobbies, or size of family. I like to steal minutes for writing. I keep my laptop out with my document loaded on the off chance a scene will present itself. At the end of the day I take time to type while everyone else sleeps. I happen to be a night owl, so it works well for me.
In terms of writing, what has been your biggest struggle so far?
Not being as skilled as I want to be. I’m a firm believer in determination over talent (mostly due to a severe lack of natural talent). However, sometimes I get frustrated with how long it takes me to develop a single writing skill, like character voice. Or breaking a lazy habit, such as cliché writing, passive voice, or run on sentences (I love run on sentences).
How have you worked to overcome this challenge?
I practice writing every day. It doesn’t have to be on a work in progress. I simply write something—anything—every day. My goal is 500 words a day. It’s my magic number because it’s manageable (I don’t put off starting the task due to feeling overwhelmed) and pages add up if I am consistent with this simple goal.
I also attend writing conferences, which not only teach me skills, but I get to see writers who I admire, if I’m lucky I get the chance to say something really awkward in the form of a greeting to my idols.
I also pay attention to writers I admire on Twitter and Facebook. If there is a skill aspect I notice in their posts, I try to implement it if it can be applied to my writing.
What advice would you give to other writers out there who are encountering the same struggle?
Just like in real life romances there are no two exactly alike, I believe all writers have their own journey. Their own path to publication. I try to be very transparent about mine. That’s a big reason I don’t use a pen name. I want it to be obvious that I’m a work in progress myself, and the best news?—I’ve improved in a few short years of stinking hard work.
I’ve heard self-publishing referred to like the bastard sibling to all other forms of writing, and I’m not arguing the validity of that notion. The refinement process in higher publication is probably my favorite experience so far as a writer.
But, I wouldn’t trade the journey I’ve had. Every step I’ve taken has been a mix of hope and open doors. I stepped through every doorway and hope that I can continue to find more open doors.
Look for the doors open to you and don’t stop there. That’s my advice.
What are you most proud of about your writing?
I’m proud that I keep reaching to learn more, do better, and challenge myself.
What context would you like to give my readers before they jump into the sample you’ve brought with you today? Do we need to know anything by way of backstory?
Brynn, a high school blogger not known for sticking to facts, becomes the target of a murderer after posting her opinion that the police botched the investigation of a local toddler’s death.
Here is an excerpt from Aften’s work:
Crushed. That’s how I feel looking at the For Sale sign—the newest addition to our house. We’ve lived on Rockwood Lane for sixteen years without any suggestion of ‘moving up’ or ‘moving out’. Then Mom bought red exterior paint and murdered our front door. Next came a realtor.
Why would my parents pick my junior year to uproot me? Last year it wouldn’t have bothered me, but this year I have a boyfriend. My first boyfriend ever. And it’s not like he’s a total loser either. Sam wears skinny ties and his socks match his shoes. Sometimes I feel like I’m dating one of my teachers instead of a classmate. It’s elite.
As I stand on the sidewalk, glaring at my garish front door, it swings in and a stranger steps out—it’s the norm. Gone are the days of ‘don’t let in anyone you don’t know.’ Now it’s, ‘come on in, look around. Here, I’ll even step out and let you rifle through our personal belongings.’
What inspired you to write this piece?
A number of things converged for this piece to come together. First I love flawed characters, and I fell in love with the idea of Brynn who has a terrible sense of what is fact. The plot developed from a nightmare and it scared me so badly that I wrote it down just to get it out of my head.
Going forward, what are your goals for the future? What would you like to accomplish?
I’m searching to match with a literary agent. I also want to finish the project I’m working on at the moment, and maybe take a second look at some picture book manuscripts I’d like to refine.
Do you have any final thoughts to share with my readers?
Comparison is kin to depression. That does not mean that you can’t learn from those who have accomplished what you hope to accomplish. Implement habits that compliment your ambition, while not comparing where you are right now with where someone else has worked longer to arrive at (I obviously don’t put too much sway into grammar).
Thank you so much to Aften for stopping by today and sharing a bit of her work with us all. I hope you enjoyed hearing about her journey as a writer. To find out more about Aften, check out her links below!
Where you can find Aften Brook Szymanski:
Have a great day everybody!