Interview: Novelist Zoe Sumra

Pens are one of the most basic tools that writers can use, so when whole worlds of imagination flow out of them, it seems magical.

And maybe it is – the story inside a writer’s head comes to life when the words hit the page.

That’s why, even with all the technology available to writers today, some still prefer to start their work with nothing but a pen and paper to hand.

Novelist Zoe Sumra is one of them. The London-based writer recently some time out to answer some questions for us.

Zoe Sumra

Tell us a little about yourself.

I decided to become a novelist when I was three – I’d just learnt that the youngest published author was four and a half, and realised I had eighteen months to beat that. I didn’t quite manage it: I actually started writing novels when I was twelve. Since then I have written an epic fantasy trilogy – firmly in the trunk – and quite a lot of space opera in what is now a fully developed story universe. When not writing or reading, whether for pleasure or research, I spend most of my spare time fencing, in the gym as an adjunct to fencing, or rehabilitating ankle injuries. My day job is as a print controller in the advertising industry.

Tell us a little about your work.

I write space opera thrillers. I moved on from epic space opera when I realised I preferred to read and write at thriller pacing. My novel Sailor to a Siren came out in ebook format in July and will be released in paperback in November. Sailor is the story of two brothers, Connor and Logan Cardwain, who accidentally steal a superweapon and thereby end up in a lot more danger than racketeering had previously offered them. Every nearby crime king and would-be smuggler wants the superweapon, ruining Connor’s ambitions to start his own business. Logan’s girlfriend Éloise – an intergalactic rent-a-cop armed with powerful magic – stands in the way, but in a world where magic itself cannot be trusted, maybe Éloise herself is the biggest danger of all.

Can you describe your writing process?

While I don’t make formal plans for my novels very often, I start writing them after taking a year or so to think about the story (while editing another book). So, I begin when quite familiar with the new novel’s plot progression. I then handwrite a first draft over a period lasting between six months and a couple of years. The second draft (which doubles as a first structural edit) is my first typed draft. I then occasionally perform a second structural edit and always perform at least three passes of line editing. The first line editing pass takes place entirely in a popular word processing program, the second consists of printing out the first line-edited pass and taking a red pen to it, and the third is a read-through on my e-reader. It’s amazing how many more errors one spots when line editing repeatedly in different formats than trying to use just one format.

How did using a pen and paper become part of that?

I’ve always handwritten my first drafts (with one exception for a novella – my first attempt at a thriller, in fact, after writing epic for some years), so it’s not so much a matter of pen and paper becoming part of my process as them always having been there.

How does using pen and paper affect your creativity?

My emotional connection with my characters is fundamentally deeper when I hand-write first drafts than on the one occasion I typed a first draft. I recently read a report on a study showing that people remember things more accurately afterwards when they write them down rather than typing them, which I suspect is a similar phenomenon. I’m not sure whether the effect is caused by the different physical mechanic or whether it’s just psychosomatic, but it’s noticeable enough that I don’t want to change my handwriting habit – it’s just too valuable.

What are the top three advantages of writing by hand?

Firstly, it doesn’t require any particularly expensive equipment that might act as barriers to entry. I started writing novels with a low-range Lamy and a cheap notebook. Some twelve-year-olds are lucky enough to have computers or other devices to use for word processing, others aren’t.

Secondly, handwritten copy is portable. I can write during my commute or my lunch break. If one’s only laptop is a gaming machine, as mine is, they are heavy; my shoulders prefer me to carry around paper, pen and spare ink. (There’s also far less risk of breaking a pen when out and about than a laptop or tablet.)

Thirdly, I experience less self-imposed pressure to edit the first draft before it is complete than writers who draft into a word processor. Editing one’s first drafts too soon is the kiss of death for any novel, as the writer becomes too concerned with the revision process to finish a full manuscript, and structural revision itself actually can’t be completed without that full manuscript, leaving some would-be novelists in an endless circle out of which they can’t break. My drafting and editing processes are fundamentally separate so I have no difficulty keeping them apart.

What pens/paper do you use?

For the past fifteen years or so I have used Parkers as their black ink cartridges are readily available. I never want to be out and about having forgotten to fill the reservoir of a non-cartridge pen, whereas I can keep a supply of cartridges in my writing bag. My current pen is a Parker Urban. The weight took me a bit of time to get used to, and I can’t write with the cap attached to the bottom of the pen as that unbalances it, but other than that, I’ve enjoyed using it. I write on regular lined office paper; it’s ready-punched for filing in each novel’s master folder, and if I realise while writing a scene that I have made an error, I just add a note in the margin and carry on rather than being tempted to go back and fix the issue.

Parker Urban FP Metallic CT

Are a pen and a notebook part of your everyday carry? If so, how do you use them?

Yes: I carry two notebooks at all times. One of them has new story ideas at the front and dialogue snippets at the back. The other – and the one that it would pain me most to lose – I use for making notes on my work-in-progress, particularly to analyse problematic plot issues. As I mentioned above, I’m not very fond of planning, but when I realise I do have an issue with a particular scene or plotline, writing out the conundrum in a notebook is vital to me.

How’s your handwriting?

I can read it – luckily, I’m the only person who has to! When I’m particularly excited about a particular scene, each letter tends to flatten and words become a series of little bumps, but typing out the edited version is still straightforward.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing two first drafts at the moment: a direct sequel to Sailor to a Siren set about two years later, and another volume set about sixteen years later, into which I’ve been dipping scene by scene for the past few years (as I am fond of the story but under no immediate pressure to complete it). The direct sequel is a thriller with crime mystery elements. One young woman is murdered on the same night that another young woman disappears; the protagonists have to solve both mysteries before the intelligence services of two feuding empires frame them for the crimes.

Which is mightier, the pen or the foil?

The sabre! I’m seven months pregnant at the moment and put foil on hiatus at about three months (foil is a point weapon where hits are made on the torso, whereas sabre is a cutting weapon in which hits are most frequently made to the head and arms). I have stopped sparring but am still taking sabre lessons.


To learn more about Zoe, including details on where to pick up a copy of her book, visit her page at Elsewhen Press.

Thanks to Zoe for taking the time!

Photo of author

Tony Bridges

As a seasoned journalist and freelance writer, I've spent over three decades telling stories and exploring the world through the written word. With a passion for writing instruments, I found my niche at The Pen Vibe, a blog that shares our collective fascination with pens, pencils, and other tools that have shaped the art of writing.

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