Hi everyone! Today, I’m interviewing a friend of mine, an MG author who just signed with their agent, Megan Manzano of D4EO Literary — Esme Symes-Smith! Read on to learn about Esme’s querying journey, how fanfiction helps you as a writer, and about some of their favorite books!
Can you tell me about the book that got you your agent?
ESS: The Moon Path is the epitome of a heart-book, and it’s certainly mine. It’s a middle-grade fantasy about brothers and imaginary friends, and all the ways we cope with impossible things when we’re too young to have any control of our circumstances.
The pitch-y version is this:
In half-magical Laurie’s world, the Empire begins stripping away children’s imaginations at thirteen in preparation for a focused life, but after witnessing the damage to his older brother, Dakin, Laurie wants no part in it. Besides, no imagination means being severed permanently from his only and imaginary friend, Joanna.
Terrified of a lonely, magicless life, Laurie and Joanna grasp at his mother’s old fairytale, The Moon Path, and try to make it real. The Moon Path is the only way to escape across the sea without help or permission. But going means leaving Dakin behind once and for all, and Laurie’s loyalties are split.
To make matters worse, Joanna is becoming possessive and corporeal the closer they come to leaving and the memories of his lost relationship with Dakin pull Laurie away from her. Laurie must accept that he longer needs Joanna as a crutch, and face the full force of her wrath to save his brother—even if that means sacrificing the last hope of the Moon Path and his own freedom.
Can you tell me a bit about your querying journey? For example, was the project that got you your agent the first book you queried?
ESS: Yes, though there’s a big gap in the middle. I’ve worked on The Moon Path since 2013, I started querying in 2016 though that attempt only lasted a couple of months. I shelved the book for two years, then returned to it at the end of 2018 and started querying again late October of this year.
It’s been a very bumpy road, but the whole way through I never loved the book any less. I shelved it because I didn’t know how to make it what it needed to be, and I’m glad I took those two years to write different books and learn about craft and the community of publishing.
Querying, for me, was very much a matter of following my gut, for better or worse. I didn’t querying for long any of the times I did it; most of my time was spent on my book and my submission. I didn’t really research agents, I picked people I really felt a connection to. At the point I received my offer, I was content with the decision that I’d rather shelve my book again than settle.
Was there a time in your querying journey when you felt like giving up?
ESS: Not in the broader scheme of things. This is always something I knew I was going to do, whether it was The Moon Path or a different book. It was more a matter of which and when. I was never going to stop trying, even if I never succeeded.
How did you get the strength to keep trying?
ESS: I’ve always known what I want. It wasn’t really an option.
Do you have any advice for querying authors?
ESS: Love the Doing more than the Result. Nothing is guaranteed at any point in the journey. As long as you love writing, keep writing. Everything else is just extra.
What’s something you know now as an agented author that you wish you knew before?
ESS: I have a new-found appreciation for the agents’ perspective. It’s just as stressful for them as it is for us. Love them, help them by doing your best. They want to love your work as much as you do.
When and why did you start writing?
ESS: Funnily enough, I was the only one of my close friendship group who didn’t aspire to be an author when we were in Primary school! Even though I loved reading more than anything and got picked to go to a weekend masterclass when I was nine(?) and won prizes for my creative writing, I wanted to be an Emu Farmer.
I got serious when I was thirteen. I’d been reading and dabbling in Harry Potter fanfiction for a couple of years, and when I was thirteen I discovered fanfiction.net where I could post my stories! They were terrible, but I had a strong following (that first terrible fic is still my most popular. I hate it!) and I quickly got hooked on writing for an audience. I loved being able to make people feel real things with my pretend words. It was incredibly addictive, and ever since then I’ve been set on honing my craft and teaching myself how to be better and better at doing what I love: twisting peoples’ feelings!
More seriously, fiction is a safe way to explore really difficult feelings. It’s so much easier to watch a character go through hardships and come through to their end than do it yourself. I rarely write to life intentionally, but there’s always a lot of me in all my works and characters — the good and the bad.
What inspires you?
ESS: Oh, anything. It’s usually a feeling I get that I want to capture and absorb. Sometimes from another piece of writing, or visual art or music, or a conversation. Literally anything.
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
ESS: Plotter. Definitely. I feel like knowing what I’m doing gives my characters much more elbow-room to just live and lead the way. If I’m not getting bogged down by plot, I can just sit back and observe and record.
If you read writing craft books, do you have any to recommend?
ESS: I’m not big on craft books, but I LOVE Steven King’s One Writing, and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. I recommend them to every creative I come across.
What’s a book you’ve read lately that you’re OBSESSED with?
ESS: The Gentlemen’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzie Lee. Honestly SO GOOD. I’ve listened to it countless times on audio and Ack! It’s just everything I love in a book, with the perfect, most inspiring blend of humour and angst. It’s the book I wish I’d written but I will more than settle on reading. So excited to hear there’s going to be a third!
What’s your author dream? Fanart? Movie adaptation? Fanfic?
ESS: My big wish is for a good audiobook. My dream narrator is Michael Sheen, who’s doing such a fantastic job with The Book of Dust series. I would give my soul for fanfiction though. I know when I read something that means a lot to me my first instinct is FIC! so I’ll know I’ve made it when I find my characters on Ao3!
What’s the hardest part about being a writer?
ESS: Finding the time to read and socialize and write and live in the real world! There aren’t enough hours in the day. And of course, if I sit on the couch with my phone I’m down for a good few hours. It’s hard feeling good about non-writing time too, but that’s just as important as writing-time. Finding a balance is one of my 2020 goals.
What’s the best part?
ESS: Omgosh! Everything! I love it, every part of it! But absolutely most of all, I love it when people read my work. That’s why I write. I love seeing or hearing their reactions, especially when it’s a reaction I’ve really worked to orchestrate in my work. Getting in-line comments from several people at once where everyone’s had the same reactions is *chef’s kiss* so satisfying!
Fanfic has been a huge part of your story as a writer. What lessons can writers learn from writing fanfic?
ESS: Writing for readers. I definitely treat my fics like soap-operas — each chapter has its own arc, and each one has to pull the reader into the next one. Fic has been a brilliant lesson in narrative structure. And characters too, because you aren’t just playing with existing characters, you have to make them your own whilst still making them recognizable as themselves. I feel like fic gives you really good scope to dig deep, and I think that practise has really enabled me to write real people well. Fic is also a huge lesson in humility. Good reviews are super addictive and I had a pretty unhealthy relationship with them in my late teens. It really made me analyze the balance between writing what I wanted to write and writing what would spark the most feedback. I took a few years off to work out what was important to me, and I’m pleased with the result.
Do you have any advice for writers when it comes to accepting criticism?
ESS: Remember that no-one’s being a jerk. No-one’s trying to kill your buzz or ruin your book. Least of all writers. Getting feedback, especially crit, is really hard. There’s no point pretending it isn’t. But even if you don’t agree with the feedback, take a step back and a really deep breath, then look at it again. There’s usually some useful kernel there even in what appears to be the least useful.
Also, if you have to justify yourself, it means something isn’t working. You don’t get to explain your work to agents or editors or readers. It has to be able to stand up without you.
You have fought so hard for THE MOON PATH! What kept you motivated?
ESS: I love these kids. They’ve been with me for such a long time, even before the story was a thing. Even through writing other books, I still had conversations with them and I’ve never been able to reconcile giving up on them. I don’t want to let them down.
How do you carve out time for writing?
ESS: It’s hard and it takes a lot of self-discipline (which is really hard). Mostly I make a plan the night before and say ‘this is my writing time for this day’, and just setting that intention and expectation makes me do it. Depending on my day-job schedule, I’ll either go in before my shift and writing, or stay after for an hour or two. I know if I go home and sit down, I won’t get up again. I’m very good at sticking with plans once I make them, but I’m also harder on myself than I suspect most people are. Basically, I decide this is what I want to do, therefore I’m going to do it.
Has being in America / moving to America inspired your writing in any way?
ESS: Not specifically, but getting both the physical and emotional distance from ‘home’ has really allowed me to analyze themes of home and family, belonging and displacement in a more productive way. I think moving away is an invaluable tool as a creative person.
What MG books inspired you as an MG writer?
ESS: Admittedly, I’m new to the MG scene though the books that spoke to me have mostly been MG adjacent.
His Dark Materials by Phillp Pullman
The Protector of the Small by Tamora Pierce
Wendy by Karen Wallace
Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
The Windsinger Trilogy by William Nicholson
And I grew up on the classics too, The Secret Garden especially.
How do you hope your readers will feel after reading THE MOON PATH?
ESS: As much as I talk about orchestrating feelings during the book, I really want readers to interpret and take away what they will. I hope it’ll be a lot of different things depending on the person, and I look forward to hearing them. I hope it’ll spark thought and contemplation, a little bit of sad and a lot of hope. Most of all I hope my kids stick and stay in the imagination.
Esme, thank you for your time!!
About Esme Symes-Smith
Esme Symes-Smith grew up in the South West of England before moving up to Wales for a degree in Literature and Creative Writing, then emigrated to Missouri when they fell in love with a cute girl they met through fanfiction. Since then, they write books for their younger self in-between Starbucks shifts. They are represented by Megan Manzano of D4EO Literary.