Interview with Zena Shapter

The View From Here Interview: Zena Shapter
by Jen

Zena Shapter is a British-Australian fiction writer who has won multiple awards for her short stories, which have been published internationally. She founded and still leads the widely attended Northern Beaches Writers' Group, and blogs about contemporary book culture.

She has a BA (Hons) in English Literature from the University of Birmingham, England; and teaches seminars on social media for writers and advanced creative writing techniques.


In February you are giving a two-part hands-on workshop for writers yet to receive the recognition they deserve. What do you think is the single most important thing a writer can do to achieve this? (Apart from attending your class at the Mosman Community College in NSW Australia, of course.)

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, your history, your relationships. So open up a vein, as they say, and bleed.

Then, yes, if you live in Sydney – come along to my workshop on 16th February and I’ll show you what to do with that.

You teach on Social Media for Writers “guiding attendees through the minefield that is social networking… from a writers’ perspective.” Why did Alice Hoffman go so wrong on Twitter, in your opinion? (Ref:

Oh, it’s such a minefield out there! It’s so easy to publish thoughts and feelings online, yet online is so permanent and public. It’s amazing that writers cope at all with reviews. The first challenge, of course, is to not take them personally. What makes one reader fall in love with your work will inevitably put another reader off. The second challenge is to not respond. It’s better to vent with industry friends, whinge to loved-ones, or write a reply you’ll never send. Reason being: the reviewer is a reader who’s entitled to their opinion/interpretation. Alice Hoffman went wrong because she forgot that social media is like being at a party, a convention or any other social gathering. If you’re at any of those, you wouldn’t start calling someone you didn’t even know names just because they disagreed with you. If you did, you just might be asked to leave…

Which authors in your opinion, do an excellent social media job?

Ian Irvine is great at Facebook. Janice Hardy and David McDonald are excellent bloggers. Although not authors, @MomentumBooks (publisher) and @BothersomeWords (editor) have Twitter sussed. Kylie Scott is a fab all-rounder.

Many say that authors can spend a lot of time they should spend writing, writing to other writers about their writing on social media instead. What role does social media play in your own writing life and how does it add value? How much time spent is too much?

I’m happy to spend about 10% of my working week on social media and email combined. That includes Facebook, Twitter, Blogging, Goggle+, Goodreads, LinkedIn and my email account. Any more than that is writing time wasted. There are tricks to being proficient with your social media time, and owning a smartphone certainly helps. But that 10% is definitely worth it because I get something from pressing my finger into the pulse of the communal psyche that is social networking. Not only does it nullify the existential loneliness I would otherwise have to bear sitting alone at my computer all day, but it helps me stay in touch with the ‘now’ of living. I love popular culture. I like to stay up-to-date with the latest industry news and events. I enjoy being social with both colleagues and fans – and that role alone is invaluable to me.

Can you recommend your top 3 pitfalls to avoid (as a writer using Facebook and/or Twitter)?

1 – Don’t be fake. Tweeps and Facebookers are clever. If you’re not being yourself, they’ll be straight onto you.
2 – It’s not all about you! Comment on others and other things. Interact. Don’t sell continuously (and that includes selling your blog).
3 – Keep your manners (unless being rude is why people follow you!).

Congratulations on winning for the third consecutive time, the Fellowship of Australian Writers 2012 Manly & Peninsula short story competition. How do you go about deciding your opening?

Thank you! I’m still quite thrilled to have won three years in a row. Like most authors, I try to open all my stories with a scene or sentence that will draw in readers. Sometimes that opening will show an unusual setting, other times an unusual character. Either way, I use the opening to make an offer to my readers – here’s something you might not have read before. If the reader accepts my offer, I see it as my job to fulfill our agreement in the following pages. Here’s the beginning of my 2012 win:

“In the heart of every mother lies the fear that, one day, their child might be taken from them. For me, though, it’s more of a knowledge.”

Which is your favourite of your own award winning short stories and why?

Don’t make me choose! I love all of them. Of course my favourite stories are the ones I’m working on right now. With every story I write, I try to push myself that little bit more, open up more veins and spill more blood. Those stories I’ve already written – the cuts that made them have healed now. My favourite scar is still to come ;)

‘Towards White’, your novel. Please tell me a little more about it?

Here’s the blurb:

Scientists in Iceland think they’ve figured out one of our greatest mysteries – where the electrical energy in our brains goes after we die. But when Becky Dales travels to Iceland to repatriate her brother, she doesn’t care about science, or the positive-thinking practiced by the Icelanders, she just wants the death threats she’s started receiving to stop. Having stumbled on something she thinks the Icelandic government wants covered up, Becky must piece together the answers fast… before she becomes a victim herself.

I’m working with the literary agent Alex Addsett to find the best publisher.

Are the second and third books you have in progress and planned connected to the first?

It’s a generational trilogy, although each novel can also standalone – similar to Ben Bova’s Asteroid Wars. My goal is for the three novels to entertain speculatively while exploring several common themes as a set.

On your website you say, ‘When I first started writing, I typically wrote in the third person with multiple points of view (sometimes up to six!)...When I started winning competitions, it was with stories I'd written in the first person and I realised that suited me much better.” How did you know, and how do you get around that much of a story is beyond a single viewpoint of a first person protagonist? ie they can’t know what is going on with someone or something else with which they do not have direct contact.

Writing in the first person is, for me now, far more realistic than writing in the third person – because that’s how we see the world. We don’t always know what’s going on with other people in other places. So I love writing in the first person, despite its restrictions!

I realised it suited me much better after I tried some character exercises one day, writing a scene as if it were a memoir. After I read the scene back to myself, I realised the voice was stronger. Now I love the style so much I even put novels written in the first person straight to the top of my to-read pile.

Do you think the language used on social media is influencing dialogue we see in novels?

I’m starting to see it come in, especially in short stories and YA fiction.

Your current novel is set (in part/all?) in Iceland. How did a sense of place influence that writing and how important is it to you?

I visited Iceland in 2001 and fell in love with the country’s austere beauty. I’d already been playing around with theories about the afterlife and the electrical energy in our brains. But from the moment I landed in Reykjavík, I knew Iceland was the only country for my story. Inspiration simply poured into my brain from there.

One of your top tips advice for writers on your website includes being selective of detail - how do you know how much is too much? Older classics have much more detail than many books today, yet they would not be considered complete or as great if written in a different way.

I agree! A lot of older classics would be considered wordy by today’s standards. Our tastes have changed following the increasing influence of television and movies. We have become more visual in our preferences (hence the ‘show, don’t tell’ maxim) and pace is all-important. Because of this, I always read my writing aloud. If the scene allows for contemplation, I include as much detail as is relevant to my protagonist. If the pace veers from contemplation toward stagnancy, and the story stops going anywhere, I know there’s too much detail and cut. If the scene doesn’t allow for contemplation at all, I only mention a detail if it’s vital to the plot.

How do you define your own writing genre, speculative fiction?

For me, speculative stories are thought-experiments. They’re fantastical ideas that take us away from the everyday, sometimes very far away, sometimes so close it's only when we shut the book we realise we've been away at all. They're the 'what if' of fiction, the beyond and the magical. But I think it's more than that. By putting characters in extreme or unusual situations, speculative fiction can show us who we really are.

Do you have any of your own pet word hates - the ones you repeat too often, or have to edit out from your own writing?

But. I always have to edit that one out of my own writing. I tend not to trust sentences to contradict each other by themselves. But I’m learning to trust more. (He he!)

As founder of the Northern Beaches Writers’ Group you have a lot of experience of other writers writing. What are the most common mistakes you see unpublished first time writers make?

Here’s three:

1– Writers thinking they’re ready to be published before they are.
2– Not writing anything original or different from what’s already out there.
3– Believing that a description of an incident is the same as a character having a problem they have to solve.

Do you or have you considered running online writing/critique sessions using skype?

I will now!!

Desert Island time: what would be your chosen one luxury (inanimate) object, book (aside from great religious works) and favourite (at the moment) piece of music?

This was really difficult to answer! For my luxury object, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the practical things I’d want to take – sunscreen, spear, fishing line, matches, mosquito net, first aid kit… Ideally, my luxury item would be an iPhone but there’d be no power on a desert island. My family isn’t inanimate so I couldn’t choose them. Wine and chocolate are consumables, so wouldn’t last long. In the end I realised the answer was simple – a notebook and pen!

For my book, I’d take “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy. I don’t have a favourite book of all time. My top ten varies according to new releases and other discoveries. But “The Road” is tragic yet beautiful, soulful yet hopeless. It’s the epitome of humanity, and I’d want to have that with me on a desert island.

For my piece of music, I’m torn because “Clair de Lune” by Debussy and David Guetta’s greatest hits!

May I ask you about your most uncommon name? Do you know its origins?
Zena. It means ‘woman’ in Persian. Although when I travel around the Middle East, touts are always quick to tell me it means ‘beautiful woman’.

When my parents were picking names for my brother and I, their baby book said that Adam meant ‘man’ in Hebrew. When they read the definition of Zena, their minds were made up – the balance of A:Z man:woman was simply too good to ignore!

Shapter. It’s 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.

What’s currently at the top of your To Be Read pile?

“The Knife of Never Letting Go” by Patrick Ness. It was recommended to me recently by a reliable source.

Thank you so much Zena, and we wish you continued success in all your writing endeavours.


Read more about Zena on her website or find her on your preferred form of social media. And if you do pop by, be sure to say you called in through us over here at The View From Here.

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• “The Something Said” – Winner of the 2012 Fellowship of Australian Writers Manly & Peninsula Short Story Competition.
• “A Knight Answers” – Winner, 2012 Oberon Writing Competition.
• “Deep” – Honourable Mention, Writers of the Future (2nd Quarter, 2012).
• “Finding My Way” – shortlisted by Berkelouw Books for The Pittwater Award 2012.
• “From Here to There” – superior entry, 2011 Conflux 7.
• “Portrait of a Model” – Winner, 2011 Fellowship of Australian Writers Manly & Peninsula Short Story Competition.
• “Invisible Dirt” – Winner, 2011 Oberon Writing Competition.
• “Fighting Off The Foxes” – Winner, 2010 Fellowship of Australian Writers Manly & Peninsula Short Story Competition.
• “Once, Upon A Wattle” – commended, 2010 Fellowship of Australian Writers Manly & Peninsula Short Story Competition.
• “just the way things are” – commended, 2009 Fellowship of Australian Writers Manly & Peninsula Short Story Competition.

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