As a writer and the leader of a writers' group, Zena gets asked the following questions most frequently. Whether you want to scan or read them thoroughly, they’re split into three sections for ease of reference – personal, craft and writing habits. If you have a question that’s not answered below, please email her and, if it’s something that might interest other writers, we’ll post the answer here!
What do you write, and how long have you been writing?
Like a lot of writers, I cannot remember a time when I didn’t write. As a child, I wrote short stories and poetry about my favourite animals (see biography). As a young adult, in the throes of desperate romances, I wrote sonnets and ballads. As life settled down and I began to travel the world, I took copious notes on my experiences, knowing I’d use them one day in my novels. About ten years ago, I started writing for a living – which included copywriting, editing and technical writing. Then, about eight years ago, when my two children came along, I realised that I couldn’t just be a mum, however fulfilling the role. My brain needed an intellectual and creative outlet – it was time to get serious about writing fiction. It took me a while to figure out exactly what type of fiction I was good at creating. But now I'd say I write commercial and speculative fiction, often about people with... issues.
Fiction with a speculative edge – what's that?
For me, speculative stories are thought-experiments. They are 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. Speculative fiction can include science fiction, fantasy, horror, paranormal, alternate histories, dystopian fiction and everything in between. 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.
Are you published?
Yes, my writing has been published both in print and on the web (see writing).
Have you won awards?
Indeed I have awards, yes! For my short stories.
What are your favourite books of all time?
I read widely and enjoy a huge range of authors. However, my favourite books of all time (at the moment!), are:
• “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy
• “The Twilight Series” by Stephanie Meyer
• “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood
• “Worldshaker” by Richard Harland
• “Divergent” by Veronica Roth
• “The Green Mile” by Stephen King
• “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini
• “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” by Mark Haddon
What were your early influences, the first books you read?
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.
When is your first novel coming out?
My fantastic literary agent Alex Adsett is currently talking with publishers about my debut novel Towards White. Watch this space! By the way, although it’s the first book I’ll publish, Towards White is not the first book I’ve written. My very first ‘practice’ novel was set in the World Trade Centres, New York City. I completed it in July 2001, but ditched it a couple of months later… for obvious reasons.
Do you use any specific tricks or techniques when creating new worlds in your fiction?
Whether the world I’m creating is in an imagined location or a real one, I usually like to research that world before I start to write, jotting down its various intricacies and peculiarities in a research document on my computer, or storing scenes or landscapes in my mind. Sometimes I sketch locations too. Then, as my characters experience their story, I prefer to have them notice only those details relevant to their state of mind, ideally through their non-sight senses (such as smelling, hearing, touching, tasting (if appropriate), feeling and thinking). Having my writing ripped to shreds by some trusted beta-readers is also vital to my writing process. I’m lucky enough to have some superb beta-readers who let me know their honest impressions of any world I create. If their impression differs drastically from mine, I know I have more work to do! Another good trick I use is to imagine my scene is in a silent movie or on a planet where I don’t understand the language. So much of what we understand isn’t said.
You mention using smells to create a scene – but how can you describe a smell!?
It can be quite tricky, because our ability to smell is based so heavily on memory. But if I just clear my mind and inhale the smell in question deeply, I can ask myself: is the smell sweet or sour, light or heavy? What emotions or feelings does it evoke? If I don’t have access to the smell in question, I think of something similar and go smell that instead. Using the exercises on this website sometimes helps too: Steps For Describing A Smell.
Do you have any tips for those of us who have been writing for many years, without success?
I hope that by ‘without success’ you mean recognition in the form of publication or prizes? Because you succeed simply by writing at all. So many people ‘want to write’, but never do! That said, looking back there are plenty of tips I wish someone had told me years ago. I’ll set them out in a fresh page: "I Wish Someone Had Told Me! Top Ten Tips All Writers Should Know".
Have you changed writing styles since you began writing?
Yes, a lot. When I first started writing, I typically wrote in the third person with multiple points of view (sometimes up to six!). But I never did feel very confident writing in that style. When I started winning competitions, it was with stories I'd written in the first person and I realised that suited me much better. My confidence escalated as I switched styles and that’s when I knew I’d finally found my ‘voice’. Once I’ve finished editing my novel, I plan to give a series of talks on finding your voice. Email me if you’d like to come to a talk when they’re scheduled!
Where do you find your ideas?
I am fascinated by difference and diversity. I love reading widely and absorbing information about anything; I love talking to anyone and everyone I can find (don't let me corner you at a party!); and I love travelling overseas, searching out unusual stories and uncommon sights. When I was choosing my subjects at school, I always split my studies three ways – one third were arts, one third humanities, and one third sciences – I still do! The variety feeds my imagination. And you've got to feed your imagination when you're a writer – it's where you get your ideas!
Are you a planner or pantser?
Until recently, I always thought of myself as a planner, 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 short story for weeks, months even, until one day – BAM! – it jumps straight from my brain onto the page fully formed. That’s more of a pantser’s technique. Confused, I explored the issue recently via my blog, asking Are all pantsers really planners?, and now I know… There’s a sliding scale between the two techniques, and where I sit on that scale depends on the project in question!
Where do you write, and when?
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. But now I write in my study nook because that’s where I have the least number of distractions. However, I could just as easily write in a library, in the garden or on the sofa in our lounge room… anywhere as long as it’s silent. Noise is my kryptonite, so when my two young children (aged four and six) are at home nothing gets done! It also means I can’t listen to music while I write, which is a shame because music inspires me on many levels. So I simply write whenever I’m free of work and my children aren’t in the house. As soon as they’re in bed, I’m back at the computer again until my eyes droop and it’s time to wind down!
Do you have a writing routine?
I have an ideal routine that I try to realise each day. Of course, life often gets in the way of that ideal! But when I can, I like to go for a run or walk each morning – whatever gets the blood pumping – because hopefully I’ll be sitting down all day and want to wake up my metabolism first. I also use this time to think about what I’ll be writing next, so that when I get in front of the computer, I can hit the ground running. While I write, I keep Facebook and Twitter on in the background, to keep in touch with Australia’s awesome writing community. That said, I do sometimes turn off those otherwise handy ping-alerts in order to focus. I love what I do, so I usually eat lunch while reading through manuscripts for my writers’ groups or checking emails (shhh, don’t tell husband – he’s very precious about our computer keyboard and I can’t always prevent every single crumb from straying… Ooops, better clean that one up!). At the end of the day, I look over what I plan to write tomorrow. If I spend just ten minutes organising my documents, I’ll be able to get back into them quicker and they’ll be at the front of my mind when I go for my morning run/walk – assuming, that is, that the rest of my life doesn't get in the way!
What do you do when you’re not writing?
I read (everything), watch movies (all kinds), spend time with family and friends, go to the beach, enjoy a glass of bubbly beside the BBQ or a bar of Dairy Milk in front of the TV… And of course I love to travel, everywhere I can.
...that I wish someone had told me!
Don't make the same mistakes I did... [What? Am I admitting I made mistakes?] Read my top ten tips to find out what all writers should know before they, well, er... write.