Welcome to Introduce Yourself, a new and exciting blog segment of The PBS Blog dedicated to introducing to you new and established authors and their books.
Today I’d like to extend a warm welcome to Sarah Zama. Welcome to The PBS Blog! Let’s get started.
What is your name and where are you from?
I’m Sarah Zama and I’m an Italian from Verona. Well, actually, I’m from Isola della Scala, which is a small town 20km south of Verona. I feel I should acknowledge it, since Isola is where I was born, I grew up and I still live. But honestly, I feel a much stronger affinity with Verona. And I know I should not brag about it, but let me tell you Verona is a beautiful city, with over two thousand years of history, no wonder it’s a World Heritage site. Aside from being Romeo and Juliet’s city, it’s just charming walking by the river, especially at night, or wondering among her narrow mediaeval streets and the plazas, or visiting the castles or one of my very best favorite places, the Roman Arena.
Fine, fine, I’ll just stop before you start thinking someone is paying me to advertise my city!!
I learned my English in Dublin, which I consider my second home. I lived and worked there for over a year, and even if I left almost fifteen years ago, I still visit as often as I can. I love Dublin nearly as much as Verona.
Sarah, you are definitely bragging. I’d love to visit. What was your childhood dream?
This may sound obvious – I mean, lot of kids have the same dream – but I wanted to be an archaeologist. I read a lot about ancient history and about archaeology and archaeologists’ lives. I loved the idea to go hunting for something that used to be alive and breathing and could still be the same if I could unearth it. Archaeological items aren’t dead. If we know their language, they can tell us so many things we’d never know otherwise.
In the end, it didn’t happen. I suppose my passion resided elsewhere. But I think writing, its pretty close. When it is any good, it also tries to unearth the unknown.
I like that. In your own words, what is humility?
It’s knowing that there will always be someone better than you at something. There will always be someone that will know more than you, in one field or another. You’ll always have the possibility to learn from other people, which is our good fortune, because learning and caring is the essence of life.
Nice. What do you wish you knew more about?
Folktales. I’ve been fascinated with folktales since I was a child, then, as an adult, when I learned what folktales truly are, I became even more fascinated. Thinking that some of the folktales we learned as children go back to Prehistory is mind-blowing. Can you imagine how much we can learn from them?
When I first read Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories, one thing he said stuck with me. He said we often wonder about what went lost over the millennia about those stories, things we will never know. And we should instead care about what did come to us though the millennia, because that’s what important to us.
Sarah, are you employed outside of writing?
I’ve been a bookseller for almost fourteen years, a job that I love. The company I work for not only owns the bookshop, but a publishing house too. I learned so many things in the years I’ve work there.
It’s a small independent company based in the university lot in Verona, run by man and wife. And I know it sounds clichéd, but really it is like a family, which – aside from the actual job – is something I really like.
That explains why you’re so well read. I am enjoying *listening* to you. What job do you think you’d be really good at?
Anything visual. I’ve always been a visual person, I used to draw when I was younger (ink was my favorite medium). Now I just don’t have the time to pursue that passion anymore.
Although who knows? Recently, I’ve been attracted to Photoshop. I’d like to learn to use it in an effective way. Maybe, sometime soon.
Indeed. I am striving to learn Photoshop better myself. What takes up too much of your time?
Commuting. Because I live in Isola della Scala but I work in Verona, I have to travel to Verona and back every day, which takes up some three hours of my day.
But I commute by train, which is good. I like travelling by train. I find public transports to be fascinating; you see all kinds of people. I’ll admit… err… that I like people-sighting and eavesdropping, but don’t tell anyone.
And on the train I can read. I do much of my reading on the train to and from work.
Eavesdropping huh? Are you nosy Sarah? Lol
When did you publish your first book? What was it like?
I published my first book (which is actually a novella, not a novel) last year in March.
I self-published it, which surprised many of my friends because I had always said I wasn’t interested in self-publishing. Trad publishing is still my chief goal for my trilogy (which involves the same characters as Give in to the Feeling, my novella), but I think in the future hybrid writers will be the norm, so knowing both field is very important, I believe.
But this isn’t the reason I finally decided to self-publish.
Two years ago, when I had the first novel of the trilogy ready, I started submitting it to agents. I did two rounds of submissions, and nothing came of it. Agents are always very spare of comments, so I couldn’t really know what exactly was wrong with my samples, but they were of course not good enough. Besides, the first three chapters of the novel had always bothered me. I had in fact rewrote the first chapter at least thirty times, and it was my own fault, because at the very beginning I made a decision that then turned out to be wrong. Unfortunately, although the decision (regarding voice and information giving) was wrong, the inciting incident is right, so I had to rework the first chapter making it as different as possible, keeping it the same.
After the first round of submission turned out so disappointingly, I once again rewrote the first three chapters. It didn’t make much good, though, because, although the agents’ tone changed on the second round, they still turned me down.
So I decided I needed to go a step further and work with an editor, but I knew I couldn’t afford to edit the whole novel. I thought that I could edit a short story, though. If my writing had inherent problems, the editor would catch them in the short story and then I could apply what I learned on the novel.
So I completely rewrote Give in to the Feeling (which was five years old) and gave it to an editor.
It turned out to be a fantastic experience, I learned some very interesting things about my writing and when I had the novella ready I thought: well, why not going all the way through and experiment with publishing and marketing my work as well?
It felt like a waste to have this novella professionally edited and polished and just leave it in a drawer.
After a year, I’m not sure I have the characteristics to be a successful indie author (I’m a very slow writer, for example, and I don’t write in a definite commercial genre), but this doesn’t mean I’ll leave self-publishing. I do think in the future belongs to the hybrid authors, so I want to pursue this path still, though at my own pace.
But I’m very happy of the experience itself because it was very educational.
Thanks for sharing that experience with us! So, tell us more about the genre you write in and why.
I’ve always been a speculative writer, I think I’ll always be, though the way I express that speculation mind has changed over time.
I’ve been a classic fantasy writer for most of my writing life. I’ve read all the classics of fantasy and I’ve watched fantasy evolve in the early 2000s with great pleasure, though sadly I have to say that lately the genre seems to have taken a step back.
I’ve always been interested in history too (that was my favorite subject at school already) and when I started working in the bookshop I discovered anthropology (such fascinating subject). I think these two subjects in particular moved my interest to more modern settings recently, though – truth be said – I’ve been fascinated with the Deco period since I watched b/w mysteries on TV with my granny as a kid. So it probably doesn’t come as a surprise (it certainly doesn’t surprise me) that I ended up writing fantasy stories in a contemporary setting, particularly the 1920s.
I had been writing my trilogy for a couple of years when I stumbled upon the concept of dieselpunk and I immediately felt an affinity. I got involved with the dieselpunk community and I really feel that is my home, though the kind of dieselpunk I write is so soft and fantasy-oriented that even some dieselpunks don’t consider it such.
But I like to refer to one of the head figures of the community, Larry Amyett Jr. who has a more open concept of the ‘genre’.
Anyway, expect a lot of history and some very significant fantasy element in all of my stories.
Alright now. I love history so I am sure we’ll collaborate on some things in the future. What do you hate most about writing advice? What do you love?
One thing I hate about writing advice is the attitude of some writers towards rules. On the one hand, you’ll have writers that stick to the rules to the point it becomes flat. They won’t accept any creative use of the rules. But writing is creativity. I don’t think it’s wise to try to encage it into stone-written rules. It is also an evolving activity, so rules and conventions that were good yesterday might not be as good today. Many writers who give advice on workshops and forums don’t seem to grasp this and will question you even when you explain why you made an unconventional choice.
On the other hand, I also hate when writers are too slack with rules. I have read time and again writers who say they are not interested in learning the rules of storytelling because if you are a true writer you’re going to break them anyway. Well, personally, I don’t think you have any chance at creatively and meaningfully breaking any rules you don’t know and don’t muster. Rules are there to make storytelling stronger and more coherent, so it’s a writer’s best interest to know them inside out. Only in that case, when you do chose to break one, you’ll do it knowing why you want to break it and what the effect will be. Then it will become meaningful. Otherwise, it’s only a mess.
What I love about writing advice is that, when it is thoughtful, you’ll learn a lot. I’ve been part of an online workshop for seven years—The Critique Circle—and I can’t even start to tell you how much I’ve learned from being critiqued as well as from critiquing other people’s work. It’s an extremely educational process.
The first thing I learned is that my work isn’t perfect. No matter how much I work on it, there will always be things other people see and I don’t… until I’m pointed out. Being too protective towards our work makes a great disservice to us, to the story and to our readers.
The second most important thing I learned is asking questions. When we write, everything makes sense to us, both because we instinctively know much more about our story than will ever get on the page and because we know where the story is supposed to go, so we are focused on getting there. But when someone who knows nothing about the story reads it, he/she will have a lot more questions, some of which will be very ‘embarrassing’. Let’s face it, most of the time the answer to the question, ‘Why does this characters do this thing?’ is ‘Because I need him to go from point A to point B’ (that certainly is true in the first draft… at least for me). When you start to have your work critiqued, you’ll learn very fast that readers are a lot more attentive and demanding than you ever thought. They have lots of sensible questions you thought were not worth pursuing, and when you let people critique your work, you’ll learn how to ask yourself those questions before readers do.
And believe me; the story will come off a lot stronger.
I love it. Sarah, what’s the most difficult thing about being a writer? The most exciting thing?
The most difficult thing is to keep believing in yourself and your stories no matter what.
We writers will always have doubts about our writing. We will always be scared that we are not good enough. That’s one big reason why some writers will never let anyone read their stories, let alone critique them. Which is a real shame, because I think storytelling is communication, and there is no meaningful one-way communication. A message (which is what a story is) needs to be given, but also to be received in order to exist. When the message is received, that’s when it comes to life, not when it’s issued.
Problem is, when we let people read our stories, more doubts will arise rather than be quenched. Many people won’t like our story, and often we will never know why. Even when we understand this is natural (and believe me, this is not an instinctive understanding), it will be hard to accept it.
The rejection (I don’t like your story) and the unknown (but I’m not going to tell you why) are very hard to manage, but let me tell you, we’re not going to learn if we won’t practice. We need the help of our readers in order to become better storytellers, but this mean we also need to face rejection and handle it in a positive way.
I won’t hide it, this is hard. We need to muster the ability to tell when a critic is objective and when he isn’t, when it has something to offer and when it doesn’t, which needs a clarity of mind unaffected by feelings. But when we achieve that mastery, we will be on the right way to becoming better writers.
On the other hand, when our story is received enthusiastically… well, I think there are few feelings which are better than this.
Wow. Very informative answer! *Takes notes*. Speaking of writing, does blogging help you to write?
I wouldn’t say it helps me to write, but I will say it helps me to be a writer.
For a great part, blogging is listening, it’s looking for a connection, it’s sharing, and this is a huge help when it comes to learn to accept the reader’s rejection as well as being more critic towards our writing.
Blogging will require to make lots of decisions and you’ll see the result of the decisions you’ve made pretty soon, so that you’ll have the possibility to act on it fast enough to see a result. This is often not possible when writing and publishing a book, and that’s why blogging may help.
When I first started blogging, I did a number of mistakes, both because I didn’t know any better and because I just made the wrong choice. The only solution is to keep learning, not just because there is always something new to learn, but also because blogging – as all things internet – changes very fast. We need to the attentive and flexible.
But sometimes, we just make the wrong choice and we need to be listening in order to realize it. I have a macroscopic example of this.
When I started my blog, I decided that I wouldn’t blog about the 1920s in spite of that being a subject I had researched extensively for my stories. I didn’t feel (I still don’t feel) I’m an expert on the subject. I’ve never done any academic study, I’m just very passionate about it and I like to learn about it. But when one year later I decided to take part in the AtoZ Blogging Challenge, I realized there weren’t many things I could blog about every day, therefore I was kind of forced to write about the 1920s.
It was a success. I was shocked! People actually liked what I was writing and found it interesting and informative. As for me, I understood my mistake and changed gear. 1920s social history is the main focus of my blog now, and blogs about 1920s life are still the most popular with my readers.
So blogging gave me the possibility to make a mistake as well as to see my mistake by trying something different. It has given me the possibility to listen to the readers’ reaction and act upon it. It has also given me the possibility to believe in myself that little bit more, though honestly I should have known better even before. I might not be an expert, but I do know a few things people don’t normally know about the 1920s, and I can definitely give what little I know.
Storytelling is mainly about giving, I believe, and though we cannot give what we don’t have, what we do have, small as it may be… well, why not give it?
There’s a quote from Leonard Peltier’s Autobiography that I love and that I apparently need to remember more often: “We don’t need to be perfect, we need to be useful.”
What a wealth of information you are Sarah! Thanks for spending this time with us today.
Sarah Zama was born in Isola della scala (Verona – Italy) where she still lives. She started writing at nine – blame it over her teacher’s effort to turn her students into readers – and in the 1990s she contributed steadily to magazines and independent publishers on both sides of the Atlantic.
After a pause, in early 2010s she went back to writing with a new mindset. The internet allowed her to get in touch with fellow authors around the globe, hone her writing techniques in online workshops and finally find her home in the dieselpunk community.
Since 2010 she’s been working at a trilogy set in Chicago in 1926, historically as accurate as possible but also (as all her stories are) definitely fantasy. She’s currently seeking representation for the first book in the Ghost Trilogy, Ghostly Smell Around.
In 2016, her first book comes out, Give in to the Feeling.
She’s worked for QuiEdit, publisher and bookseller in Verona, for the last ten years.
She also maintain a blog, The Old Shelter, where she regularly blogs about the Roaring Twenties and anything dieselpunk.
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