Is Zena Shapter your real name?
Yes! Zena means ‘woman’ in Persian (although when I travel around the Middle East, touts are often quick to tell me it means ‘beautiful woman’!!). My parents had already called my brother Adam, which means ‘man’ in Hebrew, so when they read in their baby book the definition of Zena, their minds were made up – the balance of A:Z man:woman was too good to ignore! And ‘Shapter’ is my hubbie’s last name. I kept my maiden name as a middle name but took his last name as mine because it meant a lot to him and because that way the whole family would have the same last name.
What’s it like working as a writer?
You need to have a certain mindset to work as a writer. You need to be incredibly self-disciplined – otherwise you’d spend your all your writing time watching television or surfing the net (oh… wait, oops!). You also have to be able to spend a lot of time alone, because writing is such a solitary vocation. There is the potential to go a bit mad! Next, you have to be good at juggling commitments. Few writers get to write only their words. So the better you become at juggling family, financial and health commitments, the more time you’ll have to write. After that, you’ve got to come up with ideas, write about them, and keep yourself fit in the process! Sitting still for hours each day isn’t good for anyone. So I like to go for a run or a walk each morning – whatever gets the blood pumping – to wake up my metabolism and focus on what I’m going to be writing when I get home.
Where do you write?
When I first started writing fiction, I had no choice but to write during my commute to and from work, on the ferry or bus. When I got my study nook I switched to writing there, though that did have the distraction of the internet (I cannot be trusted near the internet!). Once I wrote a story on a mobile phone, but then that was an mstory! Now I write on the sofa, and only edit or rewrite at my desk (or in a quiet corner of the library, I love libraries!). Wanna see my study nook and sofa? They’re here, along with a bunch of other writers’ writing spaces.
Which writers have influenced your writing?
As a young reader, I loved both the “Little House on the Prairie” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder and “The Worst Witch” series by Jill Murphy. When I studied literature at school, and later at University, I loved the symbolism of medieval literature (Malory), the inventiveness of Augustan prose (Swift, Defoe, Richardson, Fielding), the imagination of 19th century speculative fiction (Verne, Shelley, Carroll, Wilde, Stephenson, Wells, Stoker), and the raw emotion of real-life autobiographies. I still do. Once I began to travel, however, it was the thrillers that kept me occupied on the planes, on the buses, on the trains… Their constant highs and lows made journeying times pass quickly. Now I love escaping into all kinds of speculative fiction – science fiction, fantasy and horror. Want me to name some books? Okay, here you go – these aren’t necessarily my favourite books of all time, but each one has influenced my writing style in some shape of form over the years (publication date order):
- Malory, “Morte d’Arthur” (1485)
- Shakespeare, “Hamlet” (1609)
- Daniel Defore, “Robinson Crusoe” (1719)
- Laurence Sterne, “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” (1759)
- Mary Shelley, “Frankenstein” (1818)
- H. G. Wells, “The War of the Worlds” (1897)
- Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1902)
- T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land” (1922)
- Aldous Huxley, “Brave New World” (1932)
- Laura Ingalls Wilder, “Little House on the Prairie” series (1932)
- George Orwell, “The Road to Wigan Pier” (1937)
- George Orwell, “1984” (1949)
- Margaret Atwood, “The Handmaid’s Tale” (1985)
- Salman Rushdie, “Haroun and the Sea of Stories” (1990)
- Louis de Bernières, “The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts” (1990)
- John Grisham, “The Firm” (1991)
- Stephen King, “The Green Mile” (1996)
- Ben Bova, “The Precipice” (2001)
- Mark Haddon, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” (2003)
- Cormac McCarthy, “The Road” (2006)
- Patrick Rothfuss, “The Name of the Wind” (2007)
- Suzanne Collins, “The Hunger Games” (2008)
- Veronica Roth, “Divergent” (2011)
What’s your favourite worldbuilding technique?
I’ll give you two:
- Whether the world you’re creating is in an imagined location or a real one, make notes on that world before you start to write, jotting down its various intricacies and peculiarities, or storing scenes or landscapes in your mind. Maybe sketch out some locations too. Then, as your characters experience their story, have them notice only those details relevant to their state of mind in each scene, ideally through their non-sight senses (such as smelling, hearing, touching, tasting (if appropriate), feeling and thinking). Don’t rush this. If you follow this technique, by the end of each scene you’ll still be throwing in new information about your world, but your reader won’t feel overwhelmed by all the details.
- Imagine your scene is in a silent movie, or on a planet where you don’t understand the language. So much of what we understand isn’t said verbally.
What’s your top tip for unpublished writers?
I’ll give you three:
- Be raw. Publishing is an extremely competitive industry. To stand out, you have to use the one thing you’ve got that no one else has – you! You’re the only person in the world who’s had your experiences, history and relationships. So open up a vein, as they say, and bleed.
- Don’t try and get published before you’re ready. Before you approach any publisher or agent, get your work absolutely ripped to shreds, either by an experienced critic or an editor. Manuscript assessments can help guide you, but being shown – with red pen all over your work – more clearly pinpoints your weaknesses and strengths.
- Realise that a description of an incident is not the same as a character having a problem they have to solve.
If you live in Sydney, I regularly teach creative writing workshops where I help writers further behind me in their writing journeys – I show writers how to be raw, how to write vivid settings and characters with problems, as well as ways to structure & self-edit your work. Come along one day, and I’ll teach you what I’ve discovered about writing over the years! Check my Events page to see what’s coming up.
What’s best: being a planner or pantser?
Until recently I always thought being a planner was best, because I feel more confident about creating a world if I’ve thoroughly researched it in advance. But then I realised that sometimes I’ll think about a story for weeks, months even, until one day – BAM! – it’ll jump straight from my brain onto the page fully formed. That’s more of a pantser’s technique. Confused, I explored the issue via my blog, asking Are all pantsers really planners?, and now I know… There’s a sliding scale between the two techniques, and where you sit on that scale will depend on the project in question. So there’s no right or wrong. There just is, or is not.
What three things can I do on social media right now to advance my writing career?
1. Follow me. Only kidding! Just make sure you’re following all the publishers and writing centres who interest you. This will help you stay up-to-date with what’s happening in the world of publishing and with writing opportunities relevant to you.
2. Support other authors. Authors remember those who help them. Buy and review their books. Comment on their blogs, tweets and posts. Forward on and share their links. Promote them where you can.
3. Interact. Converse with readers and writers online – it’s friendly, you might learn something, and will help you in the long run, sometimes in the most surprising way.
Talking About Chickens, Staplers, and How Penguins Drink Their Whisky:
Bar Yarns & Beer Nuts
Talking about Discipline, Distance, and the Delight of Being Original:
Emerging Writers’ Festival Bootcamp Leaders
On Readability, Writing, and Consulting with Others:
Walterblog Author Tips
On Exploring the Commonality of Humankind:
Ringside Radio Interview
On writing, groups, books, community and charity
Northern Beaches Book Club (around the 27-minute mark)
On Winning Competitions, the Pitfalls of Social Media, Common Mistakes Unpublished Writers Make, Iceland, and My Novel Towards White:
The View From Here Literary Magazine
Trying Not to Miss the Whole and Genuine Sublimity of Writing:
Ebon Shores: Wednesday Writers
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