Emerging Writers’ Festival: Zena Shapter

Zena Shapter is an award-winning British-Australian writer, a specialist in the weird, wacky, wonderful world of speculative fiction.  Here, she talks to Georgia Behrens about discipline, distance and the dangers of being a copycat…

For those who might not be that familiar with you or your work- tell us a bit about yourself.

Well, I’m a writer, and I write both speculative and what I suppose I’d call commercial fiction. I’ve won a number of short story writing competitions in the more commercial genre, and had things published in the speculative fiction genre. And I also have a novel that’s a bit of both, that I’m currently trying to get published!

Can you give us some insight into what your lifestyle is like as a writer?

Oh, it’s just wonderful. I mean, I think you have to have a certain mindset to make it work- you have to be self disciplined, otherwise you spend your entire just watching the TV.  And you have to be able to be alone a lot of time, because it’s quite a solitary vocation, so there is the potential to go a bit mad. So, I suppose, being able to deal with the isolation, as well as having a good wok ethic is a key to being successful in the slush pile. Oh, and talent, of course.

At the festival you’ll be leading a creative writing workshop with people whose creative juices have been flowing throughout the festival. Can you give us a preview of some of the advice you’ll be giving to participants?

I really want to take a focus on making writing vivid. I personally find a lot of writing, even by really well-known authors, is quite dry to read. I know that, as a reader, I want to get pulled into a world and not be let out of it. Anyway, I’ve been told that creating worlds is something I do quite well, so I’ll be sharing some of my secrets. I mean, I write a lot of speculative fiction, so creating different worlds something I have to do quite a lot, but I really believe it’s a broadly applicable skill. Another thing that I want to work on is helping writers to make their writing more raw, which might sound weird, but I think it’s incredibly important. I think that as a writer you need to tap into your past experiences, things you remember and things you’ve felt, because all that stuff is what makes you unique as a person and therefore as a writer.

What do you think constitutes success for a writer?

Surely just by writing at all, you just succeed. A lot of people say that they want to write one day, and they never ever do it. So the minute you sit down to write something, you’ve succeeded more than most. But as for any other sort of success, it depends on what your personal goals are. Some people just want to win a competition or get something published in a journal. Then again, a lot of writers in my writing group- myself included- have quite high goals like getting their novel accepted by a major publisher or becoming an internationally bestselling author. So, for them, they don’t see themselves as successful simply because they’ve won competitions.  But I always tell them to enjoy the successes they have had rather worrying about not having got right to the end yet.  So, I suppose that for me, real success is making your way step by step to your ultimate goal

Most of the people at this festival are just starting out on their writing careers. Do you have any advice for how they can get their careers to the point that yours is at?

I think, most importantly, you’ve got to find your writing voice. Just because a book that’s a bestseller has been written in the third person or the first person doesn’t mean that you should! A lot of people emulate other writers, thinking that that will make them better writers. But that isn’t what comes naturally to them, and you can really tell that in their writing- it gets all strained and twisted and is always pale in comparison to the original. The second really important thing is that they have to get their work critiqued, and there’s lots of ways for that to be done, whether it’s through writing groups or manuscript appraisals or editors. Butt, however you choose to make it happen, it really just has to happen or you’re never going to get any better.

You describe yourself as an Australian-British writer, and the beginning of your career took place in the UK. Can you give us some insight into how the British literary market differs from the Australian one?

Well, what Britain has going for it in terms of a literary market is that it has a bigger population, so there’s a lot more opportunities for writers to find a market and set or readers. Geographically, though, it’s much smaller, so it’s incredibly easy to travel from county to county and city to city when you’re trying to publicise your work nationally. On the other hand, or the other hemisphere, the population is really quite small in Australia, so that doesn’t give rise to as many opportunities. There’s also that incredible tyranny of distance that makes it so hard to travel from city to city and get your work being read across the country. But one fantastic thing that Australian market does have going for it is that its writing communities are incredibly warm and welcoming. In that sense, it’s an absolutely wonderful place to work as a writer.

Zena will be running the Creative Writing Boot Camp at the Emerging Writers’ Festival alongside Bravo Child, Sam Cooney and Leigh Rigozzi. 

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