Ambition, Writing Tips And Being An Indie At #ThrillerFest15

This was my third Thrillerfest and as in previous years, I was amongst my tribe!

I also heard several other authors say the same thing, “I couldn’t find my people anywhere else, but here, I feel at home.” Here are some of my highlights from this year and you can also check out my 2012 and 2014 articles for past event tips.

J.F.Penn, Clive Cussler

I meet one of my writing heroes, Clive Cussler! Dirk Pitt’s influence can be seen in Morgan Sierra in my ARKANE series.

Writers are weird, that’s true of any genre.

But ITW and ThrillerFest are my kind of weird – authors who talk about body count, weaponry, explosions, sex and the supernatural alongside the business of selling multi-millions of books.

If you check #thrillerfest15 on Twitter, you’ll find a whole load of pics and tweets from the event. I also did a reader focused post for #BritCrime with some author tidbits, but here are some of the things that have stood out for me as an author in the last few days.

On ambition

One of the reasons I come to ThrillerFest is to learn from authors who have been writing for decades, many of them since before I was born. I am on the bottom rung of the writer’s journey (or maybe the second rung!) and at ThrillerFest I learn from those who remember the early days of this path and are now some of the biggest names in the book world.

I’m also ambitious and ambition is something that many authors, especially in the UK, shy away from as something unacceptable for artists.

But at ThrillerFest every year, I meet authors who are unafraid to state massive ambition, both in artistic and financial terms.

On this trip I met Clive Cussler, whose Dirk Pitt character was definitely an influence on my own Morgan Sierra in the ARKANE series. Clive was asked why he co-writes and he said, “Because the money is so good, and if [James] Patterson can do it, so can I.” I love the honesty of that from a writer who has blazed the action adventure trail, but also still appreciates cash!

Joanna Penn with Blake Crouch

With Blake Crouch, author of the Wayward Pines series, now a TV show

Think big.Blake Crouch

I’ve read Blake Crouch’s indie horror novels and he has co-written with JA Konrath so is well known in indie circles. But when my Dad recommended the Wayward Pines books to me last year, I knew Blake had gone mainstream.

The books are amazing and have recently been adapted into a TV show. Blake spoke of his 10 year journey through different forms of publishing and about how thinking bigger changed his writing career.

He suggested writing stories and characters that resonate across large audiences if you want to have a big hit, rather than writing in a tiny, dark niche like horror. Write what you love, for sure, but consider going wider if you want a massive hit.

Charlaine Harris Karin Slaughter

Karin Slaughter interviews Charlaine Harris

I discovered an ambitious streak.Charlaine Harris

Charlaine is absolutely charming and funny, the kind of woman that you want to hang out with just to hear her laugh. In an interview with Karin Slaughter, she explained that she had been midlist for years and then with her first Sookie Stackhouse book, she discovered an ambitious streak.

It was wonderful to hear those words from such a gentlewoman, in the Southern sense of the word. She made her agent persist with submissions even after so many rejections, and the Sookie books went on to sell multi-millions of copies and become the beloved TV show, True Blood.

Im the CEO of a multi-million dollar publishing company I have a business plan and I make a new one every year.Lilliana Hart.

Liliana Hart J.F.Penn

Liliana Hart with Joanna Penn at Thrillerfest 2015

I heard Liliana speak at London Book Fair 2014 and she’s definitely one of the indie authors and business women I admire most.

She’s also ambitious and as well as her expanding number of books, she has recently announced SilverHart Author Resources and SWAT Academy, for authors who want to learn more about law enforcement, as well as SilverHart Publishing. Created by Liliana and her husband, the lovely Chief of Police Scott Silverii, you can find out more here.

Liliana also mentioned that iBooks is the largest market for her books, and she’ll be coming on the podcast to talk about that later this year.

Writing and publishing tidbits

I went to lots of panels and heard lots of authors speak. Here are some of the lines that stood out.

“The story is what hooks the reader, not the beauty of the writing. Become a better storyteller.” Lilliana Hart.

RL Stine, David Morrell and Nelson DeMille“I’m a factory.” RL Stine on writing 2000 words every day. Stine has sold over 400 million books! He also writes extensive outlines of every book so an editor will approve them before writing.

“I’m an entertainer. The reader has to get their money’s worth.” Clive Cussler.

David Morrell (First Blood/Rambo, Inspector of the Dead) writes 5 pages a day. He talked about how self doubt still plagues him on every book after more than 40 years writing.

Sandra Brown writes for 4-5 hours per day and goes to a separate office away from her house.

Peter James, Simon Toyne and J.F.Penn

Simon Toyne, J.F.Penn and Peter James,

Peter James and Greg Iles talked about how covers rejected by bigger name authors get handed down to the lesser known. It’s common in the publishing industry (and not something I had heard before!)

“It’s the small connections on the journey that validate our dreams.” Greg Iles talks about getting a fan letter from Stephen King, surely every thriller authors fantasy!

“Authors employ publishers, they exist to serve readers and authors.” Greg Iles

“Care about getting 70% royalty, not about hitting a list.” Lilliana Hart

On the importance of one liners/taglines for breakout success.

J.F.Penn, Simon Toyne and Mark Billingham  #britcrime

J.F.Penn, Simon Toyne and Mark Billingham #britcrime

Mark Billingham credits the strapline for his first book, Sleepyhead, as the thing that helped him break out. He doesn’t want you alive. He doesn’t want you dead. He wants you somewhere in between.

Simon Toyne was also signing advance copies of his next book and said the same thing. His tagline for Solomon Creed is “His past is unknown. His future unwritten.

I also heard this same advice at Frankfurt Book Fair last year from A.G.Riddle whose book Departure was also on show at ThrillerFest. Riddle has sold over 1m books as an indie and now has a load of book deals so I take his advice seriously!

Departure has also been optioned for a movie deal and can be explained by “A plane takes off and lands in the future.” I’m going to dig deeper into taglines so expect a podcast on how to craft one soon!

On being indie at a pro writer convention

gender panel at ITW

Panel on gender in thrillers moderated by the brilliant Heather Graham. I’m 3rd from left.

ITW is one of the few writer’s organisations that judges authors on the quality of their writing and their sales figures, rather than who publishes them.

I’m a Member of ITW as a professional indie author and they are open to submissions from others who professionally self-publish too. Check the application process here if you write thrillers (the definition of which is pretty inclusive!).

I’ve never felt judged by members of ITW at ThrillerFest for the way I choose to publish. In fact, I met a lot of people this year who listen to my podcast and who read this blog, as well as authors who are indie or hybrid.

I was also on a panel about gender in thrillers alongside traditionally published authors and moderated by Heather Graham, author of over 150 novels which have sold over 75 million copies, who will be the ThrillerMaster in 2016. To be on the program alongside such an amazing author shows true egalitarianism in the organization!

CJ Lyons Joanna Penn

With CJ Lyons after her ITW Thriller award for Best ebook original

To further illustrate the equality of ITW, CJ Lyons won the Best eBook Original Award for Hard Fall, a Lucy Guardino FBI thriller, which she self-published, although she also has books with large publishers so she’s definitely a hybrid author. The fact that it was self-published wasn’t mentioned. Layton Green was also nominated for his indie book, The Metaxy Project.

Indie superstar Liliana Hart was on a panel about sex in thrillers alongside Charlaine Harris (Sookie Stackhouse/True Blood), Lee Child (Jack Reacher) and other traditionally published authors and again, the way she publishes was not mentioned. It really doesn’t matter here.

But there was a specific indie panel and the room was packed.

Jon Land, who is now a hybrid author himself, moderated a great discussion during CareerFest, demonstrating that the indie option is now considered a valid choice for authors.

Lilliana Hart talked about how many people told her it would be the kiss of death to self-publish a few years ago. Now she’s sold over 3 million books without a publisher, she has proved them wrong, but it has been difficult along the way. There will always be levels of snobbery about indies, but also about romantic suspense books. In fact, there’s snobbery about any kind of genre fiction amongst the literary community, so it’s something every author faces at some level.

Write consistently good books and you will make it.Lilliana Hart

cj lyons j.f.penn boyd morrison

With CJ Lyons and Boyd Morrison after the indie panel.

Dan Slater from Amazon KDP has a calm manner which is always wonderful to watch on these panels. He’s often goaded but never cracks and is always professional.

He explained that from the Amazon perspective, they know that readers buy books based on the author name and not the publisher, so building your own author brand and following is the critical thing, however you are published.

When asked about the Amazon review policy change as well as the KDP Select payment per page, Dan said that there will always be more change and authors themselves are driving much of the innovation.

“The worst thing for you to do is stagnate. Keep innovating!” Dan Slater, Amazon KDP

“It’s about you and the readers. No one else matters. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.” Liliana Hart

In conclusion

J.F.Penn Lee Child

With Lee Child at the Gala Dinner

It’s been amazing as ever, but I’ve also had a conflicting time at ThrillerFest this year. On the one hand, Liliana Hart represents what I want to achieve as an indie in terms of success in pleasing readers and in growing a multi-million dollar business on her own terms.

But author of the Sanctus trilogy, Simon Toyne, and I also spent a lot of time recording big name authors sharing their journey and their tips for success for an ITW promo video (which I will share when it’s available!)

When I listened to David Morrell, Steve Berry and Karin Slaughter talk about their journey, when I heard Mark Billingham and Lee Child talk about film and TV deals, when I met Clive Cussler – I was reminded of the opportunities of the traditional publishing industry and my teenage-fangirl-reader-self wanted to be part of it again.

I also got my first email from a reader asking when the hard cover versions of my books will be available and at the moment, hard covers are not something I am considering for my self-published books.

What’s fantastic about ITW is that both indie and traditional options are valid, and they’re not mutually exclusive anymore.

I’ll continue to build my indie career, but I’m also pitching my agent with some ideas for a new series in the next month or so.

I feel incredibly lucky to be an author at this fantastic time when the internet gives us so many options. And I’ll be back at ThrillerFest in New York next year to learn some more. Perhaps I’ll see you there!

Social Media Tips For Writers With Frances Caballo

I learned a ton of new stuff about social media in this interview with Frances Caballo from SocialMediaJustForWriters. I know you will too!

Deviance I’ve scheduled this in advance as I am away in New York for Thrillerfest. In the intro I mention Deviance, which is out on pre-order right now at a reduced price of US$2.99. It’s also July so I reflect on my own 2015 goals at this mid year point and encourage you to reflect on your own.

99designs-logo-750x200pxThis podcast episode is sponsored by 99 Designs, where you can get all kinds of designs for your author business including book covers, merchandising, branding and business cards, illustrations and artwork and much more. You can get a Powerpack upgrade which gives your project more chance of getting noticed by going to:

frances caballoFrances Caballo is an author and social media strategist and runs the fantastic site, Social Media Just for Writers.

You can listen above or on iTunes or Stitcher, watch the video on YouTube or read the notes and links below.

  • On the time suck of social media and how to avoid it, including Frances’ four-step process for an effective social media strategy. You can also check out Frances’ book: Avoid Social Media Time Suck.
  • avoid social media time suckThe importance of the 80/20 rule on social media, as well as the influence of images.
  • Why social media is not the Shopping Channel and the importance of following the social rules.
  • On authenticity, being genuine and being consistent with your brand, while still respecting your own boundaries about what personal information you share.
  • On which sites writers should be on based on the demographics of the audience for their specific genre.
  • The importance of a professional presence on social media, including avatars and bios.
  • Tips for Pinterest and ways to create more traffic to your blog, including tracking where traffic is coming from, as well as tips about creating and managing images for the various social media sites.
  • On the new mobile video app Periscope, now owned by Twitter.
  • Advertising and the issue of some social media sites being pay to play now, as well as balancing the different type of marketing strategies that are available – content marketing, attraction marketing and paid advertising.

You can find Frances at her website, and on twitter @caballofrances

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Webinar: Find Your First 10,000 Readers And Put Your Book Marketing On Autopilot With Nick Stephenson

I’ve shared before how Nick Stephenson’s advice helped me to grow my own fiction email list substantially, so I am super excited to be able to present this webinar for my audience.

nick stephenson webinarClick here to learn more and book your seat at the webinar.

This is a free value-packed webinar with Nick covering:

  • Why Amazon and the other ebook retailers are NOT bookstores – and what this means for you
  • How to drive thousands of readers to your books (on autopilot)
  • Why Facebook, Twitter, and Blog Tours don’t work – and what you should do instead (plug and play strategy)
  • How to convert casual readers into COMMITTED lifelong fans – set this system up and watch your visibility skyrocket overnight
  • How to sell without being “salesy” or “sleazy”
  • Special bonus: how one author used these strategies to boost his sales from $20 a month to over $3,000 a month

PLUS/ Q&A with Nick and I on anything you like :) We’ll stay on the call after the content part of the webinar is over and answer your questions.

Date and time: Thurs 16 July 3pm US Eastern, 8pm London

We’d love to have you live on the call so we can answer your questions. But, of course, the time won’t work for everyone. If you can’t attend live, then please register anyway and you will get sent the recording. There’s no limit to numbers so please register if you’re interested.

Click here to learn more and book your seat at the webinar.

Audiobook Production And Marketing Tips with Jeffrey Kafer

I’m super excited about growth in audiobook sales in the coming year and today I discuss lots of interesting aspects with Jeffrey Kafer, award winning voice talent and narrator for one of my latest audiobooks, One Day in New York.

In the intro, I mention my tech and health gremlins, the KDP Select page count freak out, the Self-Publishing Summit and the webinar with Nick Stephenson on finding your first 10,000 readers. I also update on my writing: How to Make a Living with your Writing is out now in ebook formats, and Deviance is out on pre-order.

This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets kobo writing lifethrough the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.

Kobo’s financial support pays for the hosting and transcription, and if you enjoy the show, you can now support my time on Patreon. Thank you for your support!

jeffkaferJeffrey Kafer is a professional audiobook narrator and an award-winning voice over artist. He recently narrated my first male character audiobook, One Day in New York, and he also runs the audiobook promotion site, AudiobookBlast.

You can listen above or on iTunes or Stitcher, watch the video or read the notes and links below.

  • On changes in the audiobook market and why it’s a good time for authors to do audiobooks.
  • The pros and cons of ACX and options available to US & UK authors who use the service, including royalty sharing with the narrator.
  • On ways that authors can get the attention of good narrators.
  • Whispersync explained and how it effects royalties for narrators.
  • On audiobooks in languages other than English.
  • one day in new yorkOn Jeff’s audiobook promotion site, called, how it works and how it differs from BookBub.
  • The frustrating lack of granular categories on Audible and whether this could change.
  • The importance of quality audio clips when marketing an audiobook, ways to get these and what to avoid.
  • Working collaboratively with a narrator and the resulting new piece of art.
  • The future of audio, including Google Auto, CarPlay and streaming services.

You can find Jeffrey at and you can find One Day in New York in audiobook format here on Audible and here on iTunes.

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Writing Habits And Routines, Filling The Creative Well And More Tips On Writing And Productivity

This is an excerpted chapter from my latest book, How To Make a Living with Your Writing.

typing laptopYou can’t make a living from your writing if you’re not actually writing.

And while writing may seem easy to some and it has its fun moments, it’s actually really hard work!

I think it’s the best job in the world (for me) but it’s certainly not for everyone. Here are my tips on getting the words out.

(1) Sort out your routine and writing habits

Every writer is different but every professional writer also has some kind of routine to get the words onto the page. You can call this discipline if you like, but it’s better to think of it as a habit.

Habits are things you do without having to debate whether to do them or not. Like brushing your teeth, which you likely do at the same time every day and miss if you don’t do.

In my first four years of writing books and blogging, I also had a demanding day job as an IT consultant. Because I was drained by the end of the day, I would get up at 5am and write before going to work and also set aside a bigger chunk of time to write on the weekends. In the evenings I worked on my website, blog, podcast and social media, connecting with other authors and building my online platform. I wrote several non-fiction books and also my first three novels this way.

In many ways, it’s easier to write when you have a day job.

alarm clockYour time is restricted so you have to make the most of the time you have and you’re driven to achieve in that period. The financial side is also taken care of so you have less pressure. But of course, you’re likely reading this because you want to switch!

I switched to being a full time author entrepreneur in September 2011 and in the first year, it was very hard to find a routine. After 13 years of commuting and office work, it was difficult to adapt to working from home alone. I solved this problem by joining a library and taking the train into town with my husband, then working “office hours” and taking lunch or coffee breaks with other author friends, most of whom I met on Twitter.

You’ll need to play around with what works for you, but here’s what I’ve found for my own routine:

  • I’m a morning person so I need to write fiction in the morning and then do marketing/running the business activities after 2pm. I can also write non-fiction or blog posts/articles in the afternoon, but then I wind down in the evenings. Work out when your most creative time is and use it for first draft material.
  • Creating things is tiring. Writing fiction in particular can really take it out of you, so getting enough sleep is critical. I usually get 8 hours a night and sometimes I’ll sleep 10 hours after a big writing day. Our brains pay the bills so we need to look after them.
  • I need to write new words away from my home desk, because I also use that for podcasting, accounting and other things. So I write in libraries or cafes and I always plug in my headphones, listen to rain and thunderstorms album on repeat, turn up the volume and start to write.
  • Diarize your time and make slots for your writing as you would for any other appointment. If you think you don’t have enough time, then look at what to eliminate to make the time. You’ll find a way if you really want to write. It’s all about where you choose to spend your energy. You get what you focus on.

(2) Get the right tools for the job

We are super lucky as authors because the tools we need are minimal and cheap compared to other businesses. I used to run

jo tribeca

Running a boat is super expensive!

a scuba diving business in New Zealand – we had a boat and loads of dive gear, not to mention the costs of fuel, insurance, wages etc.

Now all I need is a laptop and an internet connection!

I have a MacBook Pro and I use it for writing as well as making videos, podcasting and emails, etc. Pro writer Dean Wesley Smith recommends having a separate computer for writing so you can get into focus without distraction, but I’ve managed this by changing location.

However, if you can’t escape the addictive pull of the internet during writing sessions, then maybe getting something basic to write on and disabling the internet on that is a good idea.

The other tool I couldn’t do without is Scrivener software. I use it to plot and (roughly) outline as well as write, organize and manage my books. I also use the Compile option to create my ebook files for Kindle and ePub formats. It’s incredibly powerful software and if you want to maximize your usage, I recommend the Learn Scrivener Fast training course.

You can also watch a 36 min video here where I talk you through my writing tips as well as how I use Scrivener for fiction and non-fiction.

(3) Understand first draft writing vs editing/redrafting

Words do not stream from a writer’s fingertips perfectly in order, each word exactly as it will be in the final draft.

Writers will usually create a first draft, a splurge of words and ideas that definitely will NOT be seen by others. They will then spend time rewriting, editing and polishing until the manuscript is ready for public consumption. I’ve also found this is true for blog posts and articles as much as books.

birdbybirdYes, there are some exceptions but understanding this freed me up enough to write books. I recommend you read Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird where she talks about this saying, “Write shitty first drafts.” Then clean them up!

Remember, you can’t edit a blank page. So just get black on white and work through edits later.

Here are some tips for getting that first draft done.

(4) Fill the creative well and then trust emergence

If you want to write for a living, you need to have a consistent flow of ideas that can be used in whatever you’re writing next. I still remember when this seemed impossible to me but once you start the flow, ideas will never be a problem again. The problem will be turning those ideas into words and finished products.

So how do you start the flow of ideas?

For me, it’s all about research – this can be online or through books, but I also like to go visit places, immerse myself in new experiences and give synchronicity a chance.

I often find things in museums that end up in my books, or I am at an event and get an idea, or I’m watching TV or a film and something springs to mind. For example, I was watching a documentary on sharks and wondered how biohacking could be used to make human skin more like a shark’s. I just write stuff like that down. I don’t have to do anything with it now, just log it and I trust that I will come back to it another time. Or not, it doesn’t matter. But just getting used to the process of noticing ideas and writing them down will prime the pump.

Trust those impulses and write them down.

things appI use the Things app on the iPhone which syncs to my Mac and I have a special folder for ideas where I just log a line or two per idea. You can use a notebook or any other app, but definitely have some way to note them down.

When I write, ideas filter up from my subconscious, often from things I saw or experienced years ago. In Gates of Hell, I ended up writing about Safed, a little town in Israel that I visited way back in 1990. It emerged in the story somehow and my memories of it came back, aided by Google, of course!

I don’t believe in writer’s block. I think it’s a symptom of letting the creative well run dry. Go fill it up, get excited about things again and then come back to the page.

(5) Find your voice by writing lots

Here’s a question for you to consider.

If someone writes 10 books, which book will be the best? Number 1 or number 10?

Hopefully the answer is obvious, because practice and experience result in better everything.

But so many writers get obsessed over their first book, spending years writing, editing and polishing it without moving on to the next. We all have self-doubt, we all suffer from fear of failure, fear of judgment. That never stops, even for the most experienced writers from what I’ve heard.

How to Make a Living from your Writing 3DThe best thing to do is to write that book, then write another, then another, then another.

Work with a professional editor on every book, learning from their experience. Read loads and loads and learn from other writers. Practice technique as you write, focusing on different aspects per book.

Also, relax into it and have fun.

I used to take myself so seriously, but these days, I try to bring joy into my writing. This is not war and peace. No one is going to die (except in your stories!).

Focus on entertaining, educating or inspiring your readers and just write more.

This is an excerpted chapter from How to Make a Living with your Writing, available in ebook formats.

Images: Flickr Creative Commons: alarm clock by H is for Home.