In this mini-series, I’m talking to a few writers at MidnightSun Publishing who have found that their background skills, training and experience have led to other opportunities, allowing them to become more involved in the intricacies of the publishing process.
Last week, I spoke with Kim Lock, writer and graphic designer who has designed most of the covers for MidnightSun Publishing.
This week, I’m speaking with Zena Shapter.
Zena is a writer who works on a freelance basis for MidnightSun Publishing, as a layout designer.
I’ve not had the pleasure yet of meeting Zena in person, but I was in contact with her when my novel, Heaven Sent, was being published last year. Zena was its layout designer, and it wasn’t until the book was out, that I realised Zena's also a writer. She has lots of other feathers to her bow, so there’s plenty for us to discuss!
Hi Zena! First of all, thank you for agreeing to be put under the spotlight for my blog.
Thank you for inviting me!
So, when I initially ‘met’ you, I knew you as the layout designer for my book. But I learnt you’re also a writer with several books of your own published. Can you tell me how you went from being ‘writer’ to ‘designer’? What has been your career path?
This is such an interesting question! Gosh, let me think. I wouldn’t say I’ve gone ‘from’ writer of course, as that’s still my main focus. Everything I do is to support my writing! But where did it all begin? Well, I read English at Birmingham University, then worked in a publishing company. As part of my role, I decided knowledge of printing and publication software would benefit me, so I took a course. However, I soon also discovered a love of travel (it’s my touchstone, see here - https://leifeshallcross.com/2017/03/26/touchstones-zena-shapter/ ) so returned to University to re-train as a solicitor to earn more money! Years later, I was writing more and more; while commuting to and from work, at lunchtimes, at weekends. It became obvious I was an artist and simply and always had to work in and with the Arts. So I took a pay-cut and returned to publishing as a copywriter and editor. My husband, a graphic designer, taught me how to use the latest publishing software (he continues to mentor me technically). Then, a few years ago, I started raising money for The Kids’ Cancer Project with my writing, and co-wrote a book for children. I did the internal layout and cover for the book, printed and published it, and did it so well people started asking me to do theirs for them too. And so, the layout side of my creative support business was born!
I know very little about what book design involves; other than that you made my words look very lovely on the page. Can you tell me about the process and what skills you need to be a good designer?
You need to know how books are printed today via a digital press, the software involved in producing print-ready files, how books are formatted into ebooks, and all the pitfalls of doing so. Usually at the start I send a short guide to the writer, and ask them to make sure all their editorial changes have been made. With picture books or books with illustrations there are extra requirements too. Meanwhile I layout some sample pages, and agree with the publisher about fonts, feel, and layout. The layout design has to work with the cover design to reflect the story and offer readers a subconscious visual experience of words matching its genre and style. It’s then a matter of laying out every page according to the agreed samples and finished manuscript. The publisher and writer review a draft, then the files are finalised and sent to the printers.
I presume you have been involved in laying-out your own work – how different is it, working on your own manuscript, to working on someone else’s?
Actually I’ve never laid out my own solo-work, as the publishers who buy my work already have their own preferred designers. It’s quite hard, actually, taking a back seat! The benefit, however, is that I get to see how other designers layout their books, and I love the internal layout of my latest book ‘Towards White’. It’s a speculative fiction thriller about where the electrical energy in our brains goes when we die (find out by reading the book over here!), and the fonts used are perfect! I have, however, laid out collaboratively-written books, which is how I got involved with MidnightSun Publishing, who bought ‘Into Tordon’ (which I co-wrote with eight other authors!). MidnightSun found out I also did book layouts, decided to get me onboard, and I've loved working with them ever since! The only difference with ‘Into Tordon’ was that I didn’t need to review the draft files once produced!
I notice from your website that you’re involved in lots of other aspects of writing. How do you divide your time between your various roles and do you find it’s difficult working to competing deadlines?
Yes, it’s difficult. Client-work always comes first because it pays the bills. As well as being a book creator, I’m also a creative writing mentor, teacher, editor, copywriter, high-school tutor, short story competition judge, and I’m passionate about increasing community participation in the Arts. It means a full-time work schedule, with extra work ‘out-of-hours’, in the evenings and weekends. To make it all happen, I often work long hours, some of it unpaid. Luckily I enjoy every minute!
When people ask what you do, do you describe yourself as a writer or do some of your other skills take priority in a professional sense?
It depends on the situation. If I’m teaching, I pitch my creative support business according to the crowd and their requirements. If I’m giving an author talk or speaking at a community event, I’m usually there as a writer to share my experience. There is overlap when I’m talking to publishers, who might want to know about my stories, but also might want to use my services – since I work from a home office my overheads are low, so I can be extremely competitive when it comes to costs.
You mentioned that you wrote a book collaboratively with a number of other writers. How was that experience, and what did it teach you? Is it something you’d like to do again?
I would definitely do it again! There are so many benefits to collaborative writing and I know all the pitfalls now! The best part was undoubtedly the diversity of experience and imagination multiple authors can bring to a story. With it, co-authors can create fantastic worlds for characters and readers to travel through. The worst part was it ending, he he! The most important thing I learnt? Probably to prioritise ‘story’ above all else. There’s a temptation to want to be visible in a collaborative team, as an individual creative, but when you’re working together to create a single product to be sold commercially – whether that’s a story, a new smartphone, or building a house – the end product needs to matter more than any one person’s visibility. Actually, it’s the same when you’re a single author working with an editor, designers and publisher – you’re a collective unit heading for a common goal.
What have been the highlights, for you, in terms of your involvement with MidnightSun Publishing?
MidnightSun Publishing is really going places. Think of a national or international book fair and they’re there, representing their authors. I enjoy being a part of something so special. Their covers are stunning too, including of course the cover for ‘Into Tordon’! Although you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover (or layout design, he he!), in this case go ahead – the stories they select for publication are well worth a reader’s time.
What are your immediate plans for the future? Are you writing anything new? Is your layout design role something that is ongoing?
At the moment I’m working on a speculative fiction trilogy, which is represented by my agents in New York and London. It’s ambitious and thrilling at the same time! And yes, I love working on books and stories – whether that’s teaching, editing, mentoring… or new layout designs! If anyone’s interested, look me up and get in touch!
Thank you so much for taking part in this mini-blog series, Zena.
Thank you for having me! This was really fun!
Next time, in the third and final part of this series, I'll be talking to writer, Anna Solding, who is Director and Co-Founder of MidnightSun Publishing
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 national writing competitions — including the Australasian Horror Writers’ Association Prize, a Ditmar Award, and the Glen Miles Short Story Prize. Her short stories have appeared in 'Midnight Echo', Hugo-nominated 'Sci Phi
Journal', ‘Antipodean SF’ and Award-Winning Australian Writing (twice). She’s a movie buff, traveller, diversity enthusiast, and story nerd.
Find her online at zenashapter.com.
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