Hi Zena, when did you decide you were truly a writer?
Gosh, that’s a good question! I don’t know if I ever really ‘decided’ I was a writer, but there was a distinctive moment when I could no longer deny it.
I had had a talent for writing since I was a child. I remembered writing a poem about owls and hedgehogs when I was about ten. My teacher was annoyed because the homework was supposed to be writing an original poem and she demanded to know where I’d copied it from – I was thrilled she didn’t believe the poem was mine! When I was about 14, my teacher asked me to read out to the class a 77-stanza epic ballad I had written for fun, she was so impressed.
As my teens continued, creative writing became a daily catharsis. I went on to take a degree majoring in English Literature at Birmingham University, England; and my first ‘proper’ job was in publishing.
However, it was when I was targeted by a street thief in Birmingham that I could no longer deny that I was, truly, a writer. I was in my early twenties, I’d just finished work at that publishing company, and I was walking to the train station. It was dusk, there was no one else on the street. The thief came from nowhere. He yanked the small backpack off my shoulder and tried to run off. I held on, but he was stronger and easily overpowered me. I couldn’t let him! Why? Because I had written a poem that day and my only copy was in that bag. So I ran after him yelling, “Give it back!”. I had my wallet and keys in the bag, but they were replaceable. The poem was not.
We ran into a housing estate and along its empty streets until, luckily, a car drove past. I flagged it down, shouting out about the thief. I couldn’t believe it – the car did a speedy three-point turn, zoomed after the thief, overtook him, blocked him off and two men jumped out. The thief immediately dropped my bag and ran… back towards me!
I stood as still as a lamppost, staring at his face so I’d be able to identify him later. The men ran past me and… arrested him! They were undercover policemen! They’d been patrolling after receiving reports about a mugger in the area. I was lucky too because, in running alone into a dark housing estate, I could have encountered more trouble than a stolen bag. But a writer will do anything for their writing, and that was when I could no longer deny it: I was a writer! I ran to my bag and held it tight.
I love that story! What was the process for writing and publishing your first book?
Another good question! Acknowledging that writing is your passion, and publishing work for readers to actually read, are two very different things. Plenty of writers dabble endlessly and lovingly with words without ever publishing them. In my twenties, I doubted I had much to say about life, but knew the time to start writing a novel would one day present itself.
That day came when I was asked to commute from London to Reading, every day for six months, as part of my job. The hour and a half journey was the perfect opportunity to tackle a long project. So I started writing.
It was so much fun! It took me about a year to actually finish that first book, a legal thriller, and I submitted it to a few publishers; but I also knew that, as my first book, it probably wasn’t very good. By then, I was also in the process of emigrating and then establishing myself in Australia, and that occupied a great deal of my time.
Still, I had an idea for another book, which incorporated scientific concepts I had explored since my teens about life after death. I went to Iceland, spent years researching the science and exploring my ideas further. As I started writing the book, I had to learn how to incorporate creative writing into my life on a regular basis; then after I completed a first draft, I also knew it needed improvement. I paid for manuscript assessments to improve my craft and spent a year applying myself to each assessment, creating newer and better drafts, learning storytelling tools along the way and about myself as a writer.
Marriage and kids then came along, but I kept writing and rewriting. What started out as a multi-point-of-view third-person novel gradually became a single perspective first-person science fiction thriller.
Then an opportunity arose to write YA and middle grade books collaboratively to raise money for The Kids’ Cancer Project. I jumped at the chance and wrote five books over five years, all with different writers, and each book won an award, which made publishing them easy. I then wrote another book collaboratively, ‘Into Tordon’, which was published by MidnightSun Publishing and distributed into over a thousand schools via Scholastic Australia.
Meanwhile, a final manuscript assessment for that science fiction thriller suggested minimal changes. It was ready. I applied to literary agents and got one, the book went to acquisitions at three major publishers, then finally ‘Towards White’ found its rightful home (IFWG 2017), my first solo book.
What other work do you like to do?
I love working with other writers in my Creative Support business! I’ve always had a natural gift for writing and editing, and have used my skills in every job I’ve had. But about 20 years ago now, I established my own editing, mentoring and tutoring business and have been helping writers with it ever since.
You sound so busy! How do you fit in time for your own writing? What do you suggest for people who live busy lives but want to write?
It can be hard to find the time to write for myself. However, since I committed myself to writing on that long commute to work, I learnt to simply write whenever I can. Once you do commit, there are actually plenty of moments you can use to write – lunchtimes at work, any time spent commuting, and any moment spent waiting.
Having children was perhaps the greatest challenge. But when they were younger I orchestrated their daytime naps to coincide so I could write while they slept; then every Saturday my husband would ‘fly solo’ so I could write for a few hours in my local library.
Over the years I grew used to juggling my time, and now it’s simply a way of life. I never go anywhere without a writing tool – at first I carried my trusty PalmPilot everywhere, now it's my laptop! I once wrote a story on my smartphone. Right now I’m sat in the hospital emergency waiting room with my son, who has a broken thumb, and we’ve been waiting to see someone for six hours. That’s a lot of writing time.
Many writers say writing is a compulsion, would you agree?
Absolutely. I write because I have no choice. It’s how I express myself. If a few weeks go by and I haven’t written any creative words of my own, because I’ve spent too many hours writing for or editing other people for example, I start to feel uptight and a little miserable. I need to create, and my natural form of expression is: writing words.
What role do you think creativity plays, not only in people’s lives but in communities?
When you’re creating (in a safe and inclusive environment) it improves your self-esteem, sense of belonging, and self-actualisation. Creating makes you happier and healthier. There’s no price tag for that. All the money in the world isn’t as important as your health or happiness. So I encourage everyone to get creative, whether it’s with words or some other form of creative art.
Happier individuals also make happier communities, so your personal creativity can make the world a better place! Creativity can bring us together as we learn and improve our skills, then share what we create. So communities really should enable creativity as much as they possibly can.
Thanks for chatting with me, Zena!
Thank you for having me, Jacqui, it’s been a pleasure chatting with *you*!
Discover more about Zena on her website.
More about Zena:
Zena Shapter writes from a castle in a flying city hidden by a thundercloud. Author of 'Towards White' (IFWG 2017) and co-author of 'Into Tordon' (MidnightSun 2016), she’s won over a dozen writing competitions – including a Ditmar Award, Glen Miles Short Story Prize, and Australasian Horror Writers’ Association Award for Short Fiction.
Her short stories have appeared in the Hugo-nominated 'Sci Phi Journal', 'Midnight Echo' and their Australian Shadows Awarded ‘best’ anthology, ‘Antipodean SF’, and Award-Winning Australian Writing (twice).
She’s a movie buff, story nerd, writing mentor and editor, book creator, short story judge and an inclusive creativity advocate, who’s founded community creativity projects for writers such as the ‘Art & Words Project’ and the award-winning Northern Beaches Writers’ Group. She loves frogs, chocolate, potatoes, and travelling. Find her online via social media @ZenaShapter and zenashapter.com