You mostly get Joanna Penn on this site – my smiley, bubbly, helpful, non-fiction personality. But sometimes, I get interviewed as my fiction writing darker side, J.F.Penn.
Rachael has also just started a new podcast with my good friend (and co-author of Risen Gods), J.Thorn. The awesomely-named Petal to the Metal podcast is all about how J and Rachael go through the transition of leaving their jobs to become full-time writers, something I know many of you are interested in.
I’m also super jealous of their podcast logo, which is awesome. It’s NSFW, but if you’re thinking of making the jump, have a listen. In the first episode, J and Rachael share the fear of giving up a steady job and the unexpected response of their family.
Watch the interview below or here on YouTube. Great channel!
Here are the highlights and there’s a full transcription below:
- When and where Joanna does her most creative writing
- Why Joanna and Rachel are big fans of lots of rest
- The tools Joanna uses to write, including Dragon Naturally Speaking for dictation
- The importance of refilling the creative well
- The worst writing advice Joanna’s ever received
- Writing tips discovered the hard way
- The job Joanna would have if she wasn’t writing
- Best advice for beginning writers
Transcription of interview
Rachael: I could not be more pleased today to welcome Joanna Penn to the podcast. I am a huge fan of Joanna and I’m just so thrilled that she’s here.
For people who don’t know Joanna, let me give a little bio first. She also goes by J.F. Penn, that’s her fiction writing name. She is the New York Times and USA bestselling author of “Thrillers on the Edge” as well as bestselling nonfiction for Authors published under Joanna Penn.
Joanna’s site for writers, thecreativepenn.com has been voted one of the top 10 sites for writers three years running. She is a professional speaker on creative entrepreneurship, digital publishing, and internet marketing. And was voted one of The Guardian UK Top 100 Creative Professionals of 2013. And Joanna, you’re just such a delight to listen to on your podcast, The Creative Penn.
Joanna: Thanks so much for having me, Rachael. It’s great to be on the show.
Rachael: I have to tell you that, you know, life gets busy and sometimes, I miss a podcast or two. But I’ve been teaching this Memoir Class at Stanford, which is about an hour away from my house. So for this last semester that I go once a week on this long drive, I am completely caught up. I’m very invested in your trips that you got back from and how you got sick. And I’m just really enjoying having the time to catch up on all the podcast. So thank you for that.
Joanna: Oh, no worries. This is what happens with podcast. You will realize this over time. You start something and you think, “Oh, I’ll just give it a go.” And then like what am I on, year seven or something?
Rachael: Well, you and I started out the same time too. I wrote my first book in 2006 as a NaNoWriMo and that was the first one to sell to Harper Collins. So we’ve kind of been on the same track. You’ve been doing it full time and longer and I’ve only been doing it this year full time.
Joanna: Oh, good.
Rachael: But super exciting. Well, let’s just jump right into your writing process because you have that interesting challenge that you do have to balance your fiction writing, content creation as well as your nonfiction.
What is the best time of day for you to write and where do you write?
Joanna: I write creatively in the mornings. I’m definitely a morning person, you know, “do it before you do anything else” type of thing.
For nonfiction, for blog posts, that type of thing I can do that in the afternoon or later on. But certainly, that creative stuff for me, I’m definitely a morning person. This is the latest I would do in evening, so I tend to keep my evenings free because I really love to sleep.
Rachael: Me too, I’m so glad that somebody has said that. I worked 911 for 17 years and so I didn’t sleep for about 17 years. And since I’ve gone full time, I average in nine hours of sleep at night.
Joanna: I am the same and especially with fiction, I think fiction is very tiring and they say that we can only make a certain number of decisions per day and we run out of willpower in this. When you’re writing fiction, you’re making decisions for your characters. That’s why I think fiction is so tiring and it’s much more tiring than nonfiction.
I love both and I use nonfiction as a like a palate cleanser, and also I think it helps people in a different way but certainly fiction, I find, is very tiring. So I would say, yeah, to listeners eight or nine hours of sleep. Sometimes I sleep 11 hours and I’m happy to. One of my productivity tips is sleep.
Rachael: But it is a hot-button topic for so many people because so many people get offended when you say that. I’ve had people say, “I never sleep more than five or six hours at night.” I’m like, “Well, but I want to sleep nine hours” and I finally did. I love that about the fiction, I absolutely agree with that.
How do you write, are you longhand, computer? I know you have been playing with dictation.
Joanna: I need to get back to dictation. I have the Moleskine journals behind me on the video. I have a lot of journals, I’ve been writing over the years. And I don’t write them in sentences. They’re mainly notes, and thoughts, and stuff like that.
In terms of actually my books, I write into Scrivener. I’ve been using Scrivener. My very first book, I did on Word and it was awful and since then I’ve been using Scrivener, it’s just been amazing.
I’m a huge fan of the way that you can drag and drop the different documents in the chapters. I don’t write in order. And especially nonfiction again, you really need to…you never write in order for nonfiction and with fiction, I tend to not to either. So I love using Scrivener and it’s probably the cheapest software that changes so many lives. It’s like $49 or something.
Rachael: I use it for everything. I use it for my books, I use it for my classes. I organize my classes in it, I organize large projects within it for the same reason and it’s so inexpensive.
Have you tried the Evernote Livescribe Pen to write in your Moleskine?
Joanna: No. I have looked at the various and I’ve tried Evernote a couple of times and I just haven’t jelled with it.
Rachael: That doesn’t make sense to me. I want to use it.
Joanna: Yeah. I want you to use it too but I think Scrivener was a good replacement and I just keep notes per project within Scrivener. And I use the Things app, which is on my phone and it also syncs to the desktop.
I have a Fiction Ideas Folder. So if I’m out and about, I’ll just type things quick of things I see or ideas into the application if I don’t have a notebook handy. I’ll also take pictures and save them to Pinterest or, you know, that type of thing.
I think you have to find your own system and force it. Like if you try a system and it just doesn’t work for you after a couple of days, don’t do it. And dictation is interesting because I want dictation to work for me and I did “Destroyer of Worlds” by dictating the first draft. For “End of Days,” I just wrote, I typed. And so I want to get back to dictation in 2017, it’s another goal.
Rachael: I wrote a whole book in dictation and it was really difficult and I want to do more of it. And I got one of those Livescribe pens because I thought it was a great idea.
Joanna: Oh, cool.
Rachael: Basically you’ve got an upload feature and then you swipe it and it converts to text that you can put anywhere. But it just wasn’t my system and the pen, the expensive pen is in the drawer sitting next to me. I never used it.
Joanna: I just use it as a cheap Berol in my expensive Moleskine.
Rachael: I use a cheap, plastic, mechanical pencil.
How do you refill the creative well when you are running dry?
Joanna: I try not to run dry and I think by not running dry, you have to go to a lot of things. I’m always reading so I read a lot of nonfiction around the topics. So at the moment, I’ve got an idea for a new series that’s around cartography, say maps and things. Who knew like the depth of cartography on the internet? It’s amazing. I’m reading a lot of books on that. I’ve just discovered that you can output your Kindle notes to a PDF.
Rachael: Isn’t that cool?
Joanna: It’s amazing.
Rachael: I love that.
Joanna: I read on the Kindle. Like for the book I just finished, I’ve just printed it out here is about a guy who went around stealing maps from museums and really interesting.
Rachael: Wait. It’s nonfiction?
Joanna: Yes, nonfiction. Yes, this is a nonfiction book. And people just going around, going into old libraries and cutting out maps. I’m like, “Wow, that’s really interesting” and just kind of learning about that.
I’ve bought a lot of books and I’m going to the library and there’s a map shop near me. That’s the thing that’s given me the idea. I went in and had a chat to them and I’m going to an exhibition this weekend on cartography.
Basically, the biggest thing is following your curiosity and filling the creative well early enough. I’m just about to start editing “End of Days” which is my next ARKANE book but that’s now in editing phase. This won’t be the next book I write but in about two books’ time, this is the stuff that I will use. So I’m filling my mind now, and writing notes, and thinking about it. I try not to let books bleed into each other but they definitely have in many ways. But the ideas for this cartography-based series, well, I’ll just percolate them and put stuff in my head and then at some point, it will come out again.
I travel a lot as well. I was in Israel a couple of weeks ago. As you said, I got ill but still had a good time. I constantly am sort of doing things, and reading things, and watching things that will be interesting for stories.
Rachael: I’m constantly grateful at how much information there is out there. And that when we are following this curiosity, we can just roll around in the ideas that we get caught up in. That’s just beautiful.
What is the worst writing advice you’ve ever been given?
Joanna: I think the worst writing advice and, of course, everyone gets the same advice generally.
Rachael: Yeah, they do.
Joanna: Yeah, they do. Is write what you know. I think that is the worst advice because it should be write what you’re interested in learning about. And it’s kind of crazy to me because with “End of Days,” I decided that the book should be called “End of Days.” And then, of course, that has some things around it like apocalyptic ideas.
And then I started to get into snake handling, and venom, and how you can actually use venom to have these hallucinations. I started going down again the rabbit hole of how venom is used in these people who inject themselves on purpose in order to, you know, not die when they get actually bitten. And then the snake-handling cults in America, in the Appalachian Mountains, and I’m like watching these YouTube videos.
I didn’t know anything about this whole serpent stuff and herpetology, and toxins, and I’ve learned all of that and of course that’s research. The book is not a nonfiction book about that. But the stuff I found in doing the research, like the different types of snakes that would come into people’s names. You know, that’s just something really cool that you can do when you find out those type of things.
I think write what you know is the worst advice and it should be write what you’re interested in and what you want to learn about. Of course, I think write what you know is probably the emotional side. So, you know, obviously friendship, and love, and pain, and all of that can come on one level.
But still, I’ve written mixed-race male characters. My guy, Blake Daniel he’s a psychic, who’s been abused in many ways. And I’ve written the death of a child, I’m happily child free, haven’t experienced that. So I just think, just have some empathy and, you know, go down that curiosity wormhole on the internet.
Rachael: Sometimes, I just feel guilty at how much fun we get to have going down those rabbit holes, like we have an excuse. Other people, you know, it might be a time suck but for us, it’s actually research, this fascinating thing I’m looking at on YouTube.
Rachael: What secret writing tip of awesomeness did you discover the hard way?
Joanna: Well, I think it’s related in that trusting your curiosity. So, for example “Desecration” was the fifth book I wrote, my fifth novel. It’s like the eighth book I wrote in total. “Desecration” was the first book I was really honest about what I was curious about.
It’s got a lot more about death culture about, you know, tattoos, body modification, human anatomy. What happens to the physical body after we die? Like really big questions that I was exploring myself. And why do we care what happens to the physical flesh when we die, why are we weirded out? Because we know that when you die, that’s not the person in you…
Rachael: You’re not in there.
Joanna: Yeah. You’re not in there and we know that so why are we so…? Like this whole idea came from the museum I went to, an anatomy museum, and seeing all the body parts in jars. And I was like, “Why do I feel so weird about that?” And I started to get into it and then this whole story, kind of, arrived.
But in terms of the tip, trusting the curiosity. I thought, at the time, when I had this experience in this anatomy museum, I thought what I’m thinking is wrong in some way. It’s weird. People don’t want to know about anatomy. They don’t want to know about tattoos, body modification. They don’t want to know that stuff, they’re not interested.
And, of course, what I’ve learned is that there are always people who are interested in the stuff you’re into. And the only way you can attract those people is by writing the stuff you love. So I attract people to J. F. Penn actually who like Stephen King, you know, or who like the darker side of fiction. Unlike you with your lovely, love books, with very welcoming…
Rachael: My more literary books are really, really dark.
Joanna: Your covers are so friendly.
Rachael: I know they are friendly. The women’s fiction though is just everybody dies, the kids die and the characters die. And for the same thing though because I’m chasing this interest of mine that always ends up in these darker places that all of us want to.
Joanna: Exactly, yeah. Well, what I’m actually thinking. I haven’t even talked about this on my podcast but I’m thinking of… Well, I have talked about the darkness, the shadow but I’m actually thinking of writing a nonfiction book about how you can use the shadow in your writing.
Rachael: I think you should.
Joanna: I think it’s so important. I feel more and more the authors are not trusting the darkness that they can use in their writing. There are some authors who do it very well but most authors will kind of deny it, and think that the horror writers are somehow wrong. But actually, the most kind of normal and lovely people I know are horror writers. And I think it’s because they put all of their shadow on the page.
Rachael: I see that in you, I see that in myself. My darkness goes to the page but that’s maybe because we’ve looked at in the face and are perhaps a little bit less scared of it. There are some people who can’t talk about that kind of thing, can’t look at it. And then when you read a book, you can feel it when the author is too scared to approach it and it’s a missed opportunity, I think.
Joanna: Absolutely. I think as writers, we have a responsibility to tackle the topics that other people don’t necessarily want to in a story. So they don’t have to read a book on what happens to the body after we die. They actually get to read like a murder mystery and even come in at an angle.
Rachael: It’s safe.
Joanna: Yeah, safe and it changed their thought process. I think it’s great that you feel the same way.
Rachael: I love that.
Can you give us a quick craft tip of any sort?
Joanna: Again kind of related to research and getting ideas and that is, go along to exhibitions at museums. Because you get a curated experience of a topic that often has really interesting, little things that you can do. Because a lot of people I know can’t travel, like can’t spend two weeks in Israel. They don’t have the money or, you know, feel it’s unsafe or whatever, or just don’t wanna do it, fair enough. But a lot of the time, you can go to even a local exhibition at a local museum or that’s a couple hours away, or whatever, or take a day trip on a train, you know, and go do this.
For example, the British Museum which is in London. I live a couple of hours away now so not so close but the British Museum has been in so many of my books. And one particular exhibition which was on religious relics several years ago now is in my book “Crypt of Bone.” And the actual scene, the two characters are walking through the exhibition. It was so macabre that the whole thing was just gory. You know relics are bits of bone from people.
Rachael: I love relics.
Joanna: Yeah, people who were killed for religion. It’s pieces of their bone and their blood, it’s really weird. And this place was full of weird body parts. Again, I keep coming out to body parts. So that was “Crypt of Bone,” I think, that book and then “Day of the Vikings” is set, half of it is set in the British Museum based on a Viking exhibition I went to.
I just wrote a short story from a sunken Egypt exhibition. Blake Daniel, one of my London psychic characters, he works at the British Museum.
And in fact, is it “One Day in New York,” I start at one of the museums there. I can’t remember the name of it now, but, you know, there’s just so many things when knowledge is curated and it’s very surprising.
So you don’t have to do all the hard work. Like sometimes, like we talked about with research, once you know what you’re looking for, you can head down this rabbit hole. I’m going to this exhibition this weekend at the British Library on maps and cartography, I don’t know what to search for yet. I’m going to go along. I’ll probably buy some of their books. I’ll take notes and then I’ll know what to look for and I’ll get ideas.
I would say that’s a really important thing and the other thing I would say is balance consumption and creation. I see too many authors reading hundreds of books on writing but not actually writing or, spending a year researching and not writing. And, you have to get that balance between consumption and creation. If you don’t get that, you will not be a successful author.
Rachael: I see a similar thing to where a lot of people are trying to do the creation and they’re reading all the books on writing. But they forget to read the books that excite them, the fiction that they want to write. You know, one of the books that challenge you and excite you. And that, I usually take more away from those books than I do from any craft book, actually being in the genre. Thank you, that’s wonderful.
If you couldn’t write, you couldn’t have your business, you’re not Joanna Penn or J.F. Penn, what a job would you take?
Joanna: I wouldn’t take a job.
Rachael: No one has ever said that.
Joanna: I am an entrepreneur. I would start my own business.
Rachael: What do you think it would be?
Joanna: I’ve had so many failures in my career. I had a scuba diving business. I thought running a scuba diving business would be the best thing because I’d get to go scuba diving, which I used to love a lot when I didn’t live in England. But basically, that was a terrible choice. And that was an example of doing a job because you think it’s your passion and then realizing that your passion can’t be your job. And a lot of writers need to realize that. You know, you’ve gone full time now.
As soon as you make writing your job, there are a whole lot of things you’ve got to do around running a business that you didn’t expect. You actually have to be an entrepreneur too, which is why most writers should probably keep their day jobs. But I am actually an entrepreneur. I’m someone who loves doing this.
So I would start another business. I seriously don’t know what I would be but I would not go back to having a job. I can’t have people telling me what to do.
Rachael: I have only had it this year and it’s so amazing. It’s so amazing that no one’s telling me what to do.
Joanna: And you have to tell yourself what to do because you have to put food on the table.
Rachael: I’m one of those who gets up and works and you have to pry the work out of my hands at the end of the day, that’s hard.
Joanna: Exactly. And also you said on really bad days. I seriously don’t have bad days anymore and I know that. I have days when I get really angry and frustrated.
For example, there was a thing about the EU VAT tax which I mean seriously why am I dealing with that? But I have to because it’s part of business and I just was angry and what I did was I went for a walk.
I do find that sometimes that’s the way. It’s like get some perspective on the world. What’s the worst thing can happen? You’d get this VAT wrong and then you have to pay some money at some other point.
I do think that taking a break and going for a walk is really important. But I was really miserable in my previous job. You know, I got to the point of crying at work and I just hated it. I was paid really good money, and I hated it, and I thought my life was pointless.
So when I get angry and frustrated with some of the things that we have to do as authors and it’s never the creation process, it’s like, what would it be? I’ve just been editing in print stuff onto IngramSpark. I really don’t like doing that. But I’m the publisher, I have to do that type of thing. And that’s like an Ant-Man type task, you know? But I’m like, this is so much better, or dealing with EU VAT is so much better than my old job. So basically, I can’t answer that question.
Rachael: I really appreciate that about your podcast is that you are having as much fun, as I am, every day. I was on an earlier radio show and the guy, he was testing the levels of the mic. And he said, “Okay, while we’re testing the levels of your mic, can you tell us about your commute to work?” And I said, “Well, I walked into the kitchen, and I poured a cup of coffee, and I walked through the living room, and into my office.” He was like, “Oh, no, you’re gonna have to tell us some more.”
If you were starting over as a new writer right now, what advice would you give yourself as a baby writer?
Joanna: I was thinking about this and what made the biggest difference to me and in fact, I don’t think I was a writer before this happened. I was at Sydney Writers Festival and I can’t remember what year it was now, I think it must have been like 2006, or ’05, or something like, ’04 maybe, like a while ago. Up until that point, I had been reading a lot about writing and I’ve been journaling.
I had gone into this workshop. It was meant to be like a workshop or a seminar on writing on plot, or character, or something. I went along ready to take notes like a good, learning writer does, you know, write notes. And the guy says, “Okay, you’ve got 10 minutes and here’s a writing form,” I think he said something like and I remember exactly what I wrote about. He said, “Write about the moment when you realized.” And that was it, the moment when you realized. And I’m coming, I’m being very honest on your show because you’re so nice, I wrote and then he said, “You have 10 minutes go.” And so this was the first timed writing I had ever done and I just went, “What, you want me to write?”
Rachael: To actually write?
Joanna: But I’m here to take notes. You meant to tell me like how I write a scene or whatever. And he said, “Write.” And when he said, “Tell me when you knew,” and I still remember it. I was married before, I’m on my second marriage. And my first husband I remember the moment I walked down the gangplank of our boat and saw him with another woman. And I didn’t learn about what happened for months but I mean looking back, that’s the moment I knew.
I wrote this in this exercise and it changed my life. It changed my life because it was timed writing. Now, and so this is the real thing. It’s not about like getting divorced or anything.
It is that you have to write and timed-writing sessions changed my life because then that’s all I do.
So one, set a timer. Well, one, schedule the time, two, set a timer and write, and three, sit with the discomfort. You will feel like, “Well, what would do I write?” And yeah, you just have to start typing but you’re not allowed to do anything else in that period.
I would just say to myself… Like seriously, I mean I’m 41 I could have started this career when I was 18 or earlier. If I had just gotten over that taking notes versus actually doing some writing. So, yeah, that’s probably what I would tell myself.
Rachael: Do you remember who the instructor was in that session?
Joanna: Not at all.
Rachael: Wouldn’t that be neat if you could drop him or her a note and say, “…That silly exercise literally put me in this place.”
Joanna: I know it’s really important. I mean I know you teach and I don’t do so much now but, you know, I do courses and stuff but I do some live events. And it’s always amazing when you get an email. In fact, I just got a letter. I just got a letter in the post like a proper letter.
Rachael: Oh, I love that.
Joanna: I know. From a podcast listener saying that I changed his life with this one particular thing. And the thing is we never know. We never know what’s gonna impact people. You just have to be honest and put yourself out there.
“Desecration” for example, that book, that series doesn’t sell well at all, it is not commercial. It falls through every genre gap possible. But when people love it, they really love it and I get the most emails about those books. Because they’re deep, because they go into the heart of humanity.
I think all of these things I would just say to myself timed writing, and like emotional honesty and what you love, just put it all in there.
Rachael: I honestly think those three things can start an entire career, the authenticity, the timed writing, and just do the work. That’s all you need.
Rachael: That’s wonderful. Thank you, Joanna.
Joanna: No worries.
Rachael: That was just so perfect.
Where can listeners find you, what’s the best place?
Joanna: There are many places but for most authors, thecreativepenn.com, and Penn with a double N is my real name, it is not a pen name. So, yeah, thecreativepenn.com, there’s a podcast there. It’s Episode 300 now so lots of stuff if people like to listen to my voice.
Also, on Twitter, @thecreativepenn. The “Author Blueprint” is free and @thecreativepenn.com/blueprint. And I was also gonna say because you said what do you wanna plug right now.
Rachael: Yes, please. Please, plug away.
Joanna: I am just about to go into the studio to record “The Successful Author Mindset” as an audiobook. And it’s interesting because that’s probably the nonfiction book that has resonated most with my audience. Because it contains excerpts from my journals from the last 10 years and there are bits in there. Like for example, on my first novel, I cancelled my launch drinks because I was so devastated. There was this feeling.
Rachael: Oh, yes, oh, yes, been there.
Joanna: And I was so paralyzed by fear and all kinds of things. So that book, “The Successful Author Mindset” it’s an e-book print, and audiobook, and a workbook. If you need help with the mindset I would love you to just go and check that out. Because we all suffer from it, right? Even though, I’m on book number 22 or whatever you’ve written the same number of books, I mean we still get that. It’s the self-doubt and all kinds of issues. And we sound so immature because we’ve been doing this so long.
Rachael: But it’s hard, it’s hard when you’re starting. And the fact is it’s hard when you’re not starting. It’s hard every day but it’s the good kind of hard.
Joanna: The good hard, exactly, yeah.
Rachael: It’s what we choose. I want to be challenged. The book I’m starting to write next is just something I’ve never even thought about tackling. And I just can’t wait because it’s gonna be so difficult so.
Joanna: Yay, difficult. I feel the same around this kind of darkness one. Like obviously, it’s a completely nebulous idea. But I’ve been thinking about it for ages and I’m like, “You know what, I should probably tackle that.” And I would have to go deep but that might be really valuable. So, yeah, good on us for 2017.
Rachael: Good on us. Well, what a treat and delight it has been to speak to you. Thank you for giving so generously of your time. And I will be listening in the car in California driving through San Francisco.
Joanna: Oh, thanks so much for having me, Rachael. That was great.
Rachael: Thanks, Joanna. Take care.