Beating Self-Censorship And How Embracing The Shadow Helps My Fiction

I recently did an all-encompassing interview with the lovely Deb Ozarko about changing the status quo.

red wineWe talked a lot about going indie, self-publishing and creative entrepreneurship, but we also got into some deep and meaningful topics.

I must admit to being fueled by pinot noir for the interview, so I opened up a lot about some of the things that really matter to me :) If you’d like to listen to the whole interview, I suggest joining me for a glass!

You can listen to the whole interview here [1 hr 44], or you can watch or listen to the 5 minute clip below or here on YouTube.

desecration deliriumIn this part of the interview, I talk about:

  • How I finally stopped self-censoring, and how my fiction helps me work out what I believe
  • The theme of good and evil is resonant in all my fiction, as well as aspects of my own travels and experiences
  • How I want to tell a good fast-paced story to keep people reading but that I also want to tackle deeper topics that leave you thinking afterwards
  • Carl Jung and the Shadow side, and how embracing it can make a person whole

I also talk more about Desecration, London Psychic Book 1, and what it means to me. You can find Desecration in ebook, print and audiobook formats here. The sequel, Delirium, is also available.

Do you use the Shadow side in your creative work? I’d love to know your thoughts so please share them in the comments below.

Top image: Flickr Creative Commons red wine by Wes Peck

Why The Writing Journey Is Just Like Skiing

Everybody wants to know the best way to write, to publish, to market.

skiingBut although there are tracks to follow and experts to emulate, there really is no single right way to do anything in the author life. We will all have a different journey.

Imagine that you want to ski down a hill.

Even if you don’t ski, hopefully you’ve seen enough Bond movies to know how it works! It’s similar to our journey through life and also applies to writing, marketing and any kind of business or career.

Here’s why.

(1) Your path is not a straight line. You have to zigzag.

Even though you know the general direction you want to head in, you can’t direct yourself straight down the mountain, or you will certainly have an accident.

Even pros have to change direction and turn their skis across the slope. There is no direct path, so don’t expect there to be.

There’s also not just one path – everyone has a different route to get down, so you can try to follow other people’s example but you will end up carving your own path. In my book, Career Change, I talk about all my various failed businesses before I found my true path as an author. It’s a zigzag journey for us all.

(2) It’s easier to turn once you’re moving.

You need some momentum in order to turn on skis, so you actually have to get moving before you try.

In the same way, you actually have to start writing in order to have something to edit and improve. You have to start with a crappy website so you can learn how to make it better.

You have to start marketing somehow so you can learn what works for you and improve over time.

(3) You can’t learn it all from books: you have to get on the slope.

You can’t be a great skier by reading about it or going to seminars or watching YouTube videos. You actually have to put in the hours skiing.

The same applies to writing, publishing and marketing. People often assume that I have some kind of degree in marketing, but I don’t. I’ve just been out there every day for five years learning on the slopes – emulating the pros, yes – but mainly doing it for myself.

(4) You’re going to fall over and it’s going to hurt. But you get better over time.

If you’re afraid of falling over, you will never be a good skier. Because you will fall, it happens a lot and it has to happen if you’re going to push yourself to get better and go on more advanced runs. So be prepared to fall, to fail, and to just get up again. Keep writing, keep putting your words out and keep experimenting with marketing.

(5) Some days, the weather is perfect and you can see for miles and the sun is shining and it’s amazing!

This is meant to be fun!

Yes, being an author can be a career and an income, but it’s also a passion. The reason we keep going back to skiing, keep going back up the slope, is that there is exhilaration and joy in the process, not just the outcome of getting to the bottom.

Some days, the weather will be perfect and we will have amazing runs on pristine, soft snow. Other days, the icy cold will make us grit our teeth to even manage one run and we wish we hadn’t bothered. But we keep going back because we love it, and those amazing days when it all falls into place make it worth it!

What do you think about this? Does a zigzag journey accurately reflect your writing life? Please do leave a comment and join the conversation below.

Top image: Flickr Creative Commons ruapehu skiing by Airflore

Adapting A Novel And Other Lessons Learned From London Screenwriter’s Festival

A few weeks ago, I attended the London Screenwriter’s Festival which was a cornucopia of fascinating information and networking packed into a couple of intense days.

london screenwritersAuthors can learn a lot from screenwriters, especially in an age where there’s some amazing television. After getting rid of the physical TV six years ago, we’ve been downloading and devouring shows like House of Cards, Game of Thrones and True Detective, and I am always a sucker for action movies!

Let’s face it – more people watch TV and films than read books.

More people devour stories through the visual medium.

So I decided to go and find out a little more about possibly adapting my own books into screenplays, and what the screenwriting world was about. As usual, I am not content to sit back and wait! Here are some of my notes from the days I attended.

“Storytellers need to be passionate, creative people and rise above the resigned and cynical world we live in.”

Chris Jones opened the festival with a rousing speech to get out there and create the stories that ignite passion within you. He talked about how others may think we’re crazy and tell us to get a real job, but at events like this, we are amongst peers. We know each other.

Choose the people you spend time with wisely and they will buoy you up in this creative career.

I feel this a lot in the author community, and avoid any toxic situations/ forums/ people as much as possible. Life is short – it’s important to make good choices about who we spend it with.

lynda la planteScreenwriter and novelist Lynda La Plante gave a great talk about her journey. She’s a fantastic example of an author-entrepreneur, moving from acting into writing and then into running her own company in order to have more creative control over her work.

She talked about ‘going back to Source,’ when researching her work, not in a metaphysical sense, but actually visiting criminals, prisons, police stations and morgues to learn the reality from the people who live it.

“The roots of a good story are in reality.” Lynda La Plante

She suggested always including comedic elements in dark books to break the tension, and that the gore level of the current crime scene will swing back soon as it has gone too far and people are more interested in the hunt than the violence.

William Nicholsonshadowlands, screenwriter for Shadowlands, Mandela and Gladiator, as well as many more screenplays and also novels, talked about his journey in one fantastic session. He talked, as did others, about the disappointment of the screenplays that get sold but never made. Many of the speakers commented on how some of their best work would never see the light of day as it wouldn’t get made but the rights had been sold.

The focus of the session was on heightening emotion, the heart of all great drama. William writes by choosing the emotion he wants the audience to feel, connecting to that within himself and then structuring around that.

“Screenwriters don’t write lines. They write stories.” William Nicholson

He also mentioned that researching too much was a bad thing, as we’re not writing reality, we’re writing stories that communicate values.

William mentioned that he only started screenwriting after several very serious novels, and his writing loosened up when he stopped taking himself and his writing so seriously.

[This advice is something I have also learned from Dean Wesley Smith in his brilliant Productivity workshop.]

William suggested choosing something that other people care about as a theme, and not focusing on yourself as the writer. You’re not as interesting as a resonant theme or topic.

the lost boysThere was also a great session with Joel Schumacher where the film of The Lost Boys was played on the big screen, and he talked about the various shots as the film progressed. We were also able to download the script and read along.

That process was a real revelation to me, and it was fascinating to hear from the Director himself how the story was structured to appeal to the audience. He said, “we had no idea it would be this big,” and Nicholson said the same of Gladiator.

It seems to be a theme, you just don’t know when things will blow up, so just keep creating the stories you love.

“Dialogue is not real conversation. It’s the illusion of conversation.” Claudia Myers

In one session on dialogue, Claudia Myers went through the four key elements. It must:

  • Advance the plot
  • Reveal character
  • Give exposition
  • Set the tone

One of the reasons I wanted to attend the festival was to focus on dialogue as it is something that novelists need to work on constantly. The first solution to revealing character is always action/ behavior, but then it’s dialogue. Not speaking is sometimes just as powerful as speaking.

Good dialogue should also work sub-textually – people often don’t say what they really think. There are forces that make us say things we don’t mean, and we need to communicate that through sub-text. A good example of this comes from the pitching sessions. When an agent says “I’ll get back to you,” without providing their contact details, it’s likely that they actually mean, “No thanks, it’s not for me.”

“Write a bad scene and then fix it.” Claudia Myers

quotation marksThe ‘rules’ for screenwriting are very similar to novels, and a lot of dialogue can be fixed in a second pass.

Pilar Allesandra did a session on the craft, and used some great examples from scripts to demonstrate how important word choice is for genre. She also suggested picking a small ‘tell’ that reveals what a character is really thinking i.e. subtext.

For example, two people bump into each other, one says “I’m sorry,” but rolls their eyes. You show their annoyance through the physical response, that’s the subtext to the dialogue.

She also had a tip for revealing character without constraining the casting options. Compare the two:

  • Vanessa, a beguiling vamp
  • Vanessa (25) tall, blonde, wearing a cocktail dress

The first option describes the character but leaves the casting open to actresses of all kinds.

“Eventually the book becomes this forgotten thing – a sacred text that nobody looks at any more.” Ted Tally

silence of the lambsThere was a revealing session by Ted Tally, who won an Oscar for the adaptation of ‘The Silence of the Lambs.’

He talked about choosing books to adapt, how he reads a lot and is always hoping to discover something unusual, but usually gets pitched and sent things from agents. He wants to find compelling characters more than anything else, since plot and dialogue can be fixed, but the character is critical from the start.

He’ll read a book several times and work on a treatment, and then a first draft. Subsequent drafts are done from the treatment, rather than the book.

Most execs and people involved in the film won’t have read the book, which is why so many films get further and further from the original text. They just don’t know the material and don’t necessarily want to. The original author and the screenwriter are not usually around on set – although they are in some cases, and Ted was for Silence of the Lambs, as was Thomas Harris, the author.

The adaptation is the screenwriter’s take on the book, their enhancement of the original work.

It’s not just the book turned into the movie.

The choices that the screenwriter makes can change the film into something different. For example, the choice of Clarice as the main focal character meant a lot of the book’s other POV characters were minimized, changing the depth of their characters in the movie. The adaptation screenwriter slashes the book apart and their freedom is that first draft, when they re-imagine. [That part does actually sound pretty fun to me, as I love editing!]

popcornVery occasionally, there is a brilliant book that doesn’t need much work in adaptation. Ted said of All the Pretty Horses, “it didn’t need a screenwriter, it just needed a typist.”

As an author, I felt a real respect for the screenwriters who adapt novels, and I’d be keen to work with someone to adapt my books, as I have done with translators and audiobook narrators.

Collaboration is a powerful way to move a story onwards.

Once again, the writers talked about their disappointment. Ted Tally said “some of the best scripts I’ve ever written haven’t been produced and maybe never will be.” That melancholic statement seemed to be part of the general acceptance of a screenwriter’s lot, and the aspiring screenwriters suggested this was just part of the journey. You work hard until the magical moment of seeing your name on the credits of a TV show or film. That’s what you’re working for, along with the pleasure of writing and the paychecks that (occasionally) come.

My personal conclusions

It was great to attend the event because it solidified a few things for me:

  • I love the control of being indie and I love the speed of getting my creative work into the world. I love reaching readers with my stories and being paid 90 days later for that work. I don’t want to wait years for someone to pick my book (or my script) and I don’t want to give up creative control and be ignored once the work is accepted. So basically, I don’t want to write a screenplay and I won’t be adapting my books into scripts myself. [At least right now! Never say never!]
  • I would LOVE to have my books (properties) optioned for film/ TV and I would be a gem of an author to work with when it comes to adaptation (honest!) I’m enjoying the collaborative process of translation and I think adaptation would be similar. It’s respecting someone else’s creativity and their interpretation of your work.

I had some great aha moments over the weekend and it helped me to formulate my own strategy for the film/TV market. I highly recommend the festival if you’re at all interested in screenwriting, or even if you want to learn some tips from another type of writer. You can find more here: London Screen Writers Festival.

I’d love to hear from you on any screenwriting tips, or whether your works have been optioned. This is a fascinating topic, so please join the conversation below.

Images Flickr Creative Commons: of quotation marks by Quinn Dombrowski, popcorn by Joakim Wahlander

How To Get A Unique Illustration For Your Book Cover

With the explosion of creativity that is the indie publishing revolution, you may have noticed the array of book covers that use similar stock photos in their designs.


Selection of the initial key designs submitted. All copyright belongs to the designers.

Some authors these days have private photo shoots to ensure their cover images are unique, but what about if you have a smaller budget, or you want something uniquely special in terms of an illustration?

This type of approach can also work for art that relates to your book, e.g. world building and maps, or artwork for marketing purposes

Using 99 Designs to get a custom illustration

Full disclosure here. 99 Designs now sponsor 50% of my podcast, so I was encouraged to try them out. After hearing great things from other authors, I thought I would do something a little different.


FINALIST: Copyright 99 Designs designer lucky bast(art), previously vandamme99

I already have a book cover designer in the wonderful Derek Murphy from Creativindie, so I decided to get an image done for my next book, Gates of Hell. I’m just heading towards the end of the first draft and the book features a hunt for the Key to the Gates of Hell. It should be out before Christmas if you’re interested!

My original brief: Create a key to the Gates of Hell. Let your creative darkness loose!


FINALIST: Copyright: 99Designs BelleIllumina

I wanted to be quite open with the brief, as at that point I hadn’t decided what the key would look like. Here’s what I wrote:

I want an illustration of a key to the Gates of Hell – with the aim that the image is used on the book cover of the book, titled “Gates of Hell,” and also in promotional material.

And also that I can use the illustration to get a pattern made to actually 3D print the key.

I have visions of screaming open mouths and mis-shapen deformities and demons and oozing blackness – but basically, I want a creative image that is still recognizably a key and I want you to use any images that conjure up hell. I am using a group called the Misshapen in the book, so that word may also help. The book is a thriller with a supernatural edge, so dark/scary is good – edge of horror is fine. I don’t mind black & white or color.

Changing my mind based on the designs

Copyright 99Designs designer josephnovi

FINALIST: Copyright 99Designs designer josephnovi

As the designs started to come in, I realized that I was confusing the issue by saying I wanted to turn the image into a 3D printed design as well as a book cover. The two are quite different, and the book cover was always the most important thing, so I narrowed down the requirements as the competition progressed. I also created a Gates of Hell pinboard on Pinterest for the book to give another flavor to the design.


FINALIST: Copyright 99Designs MadMaxx

I had 125 entries from 48 designers in the end, ranging from some really amazing elaborate designs to some striking images.

You get to rate the images as they come in, and that helps the designers consider another iteration. You can also engage in private or public conversations which helps everyone move closer to the desired result.

With 99 Designs, you only pay if you are happy with the design, so there is no risk. Of course, guaranteeing the payment may make the competition more attractive :)

You can also do Polls by selecting the images and then enabling a shareable link for email and social media so people can vote on the designs. I sent the link out to my J.F.Penn fiction newsletter subscribers, as well as sharing on social media and had several hundred votes on the final Poll.

key to the gates of hell

WINNER! Thanks D.C – Danniel Soares

The Key to the Gates of Hell

And here’s the final design, which I love!

It looks like a real key but also captures the desperation of a soul in Hell (in my mind at least) and it came out top of the final poll as well.

Next, I need to finish the book and we’ll work on the full cover design. Since it will be ARKANE Book 6, there are elements of the cover that are fixed. This illustration will just add another dimension, and in fact, provided a story twist that I’m currently writing!

It was an added bonus to have other creative minds that jump-started my own thoughts as I wrote! I just LOVE collaboration with other artists – it’s so rewarding.

I asked the fantastic designer of the winning illustration, Danniel Soares, a couple of questions:

How did you come up with the design based on the (very loose) brief?

I particularly like this sort of brief, giving enough direction ideas, while not being strictly defined. The downside is that you’ll probably need to narrow down on one or two ideas relatively fast, in this contest scheme, so you can present something that already have a reasonably good rendering. Other important consideration is the time it will take to develop it.

Unfortunately I wouldn’t be able to do a 3D sculpture in the foreseeable time (I’m not really “fluent” with the 3D software I have, and I’m not sure my current hardware would be powerful enough for this sort of thing as the 3D mesh grows in complexity), even though this consideration also had some influence on that particular idea, which is relatively simpler, while still at least just as good. The other idea, actually came first, and morphed more or less gradually into the final one.

What are your tips for authors who want to get designs for their books?

An important thing to have in mind before anything are the different sub-domains of graphic artists. In an ideal world people wouldn’t take jobs they don’t really feel ready to do, but that can happen, and the final product will probably suffer as a result.

The main distinctions among professionals who would do the final work are perhaps “illustrator” and “designer” (who will often have their sub-specialties, based on genre, technique, and intended use). The latter deals more with the overall layout and structure of the whole, while the former is more concerned with “isolated” details, even though it’s helpful to have a notion of the planned design, to make it match appropriately — but perhaps some designers would prefer to have the illustrations roughs to see how to layout things around it! The specialty of one will tend to be the weakness of the other, even though there will be some people who do both equally well.

The best way to proceed then is to take some time to look through several artists’ portfolios, trying to find a few who work in styles that match the book.

Maybe while still writing the book, perhaps it could turn out to be a form of inspiration. And make some inquiries along the way, or at some allotted time.

Established professionals, whether they’re solo, a team, or subcontractors of an agency, will likely have a well defined process, describing their obligations and conditions in a more or less standardized contract. With people who are just starting out things can be probably be somewhat more complicated and insecure, due to inexperience, and a natural lack of expertise in the business and administrative side. But that probably can be dealt with some precautions from the author, like coming up with a reasonable contract beforehand, to be filled in eventually. That’s definitely somewhat more complicated, but may worth the extra work.

Services like 99designs can be seen as an intermediate way, since they’re literally being the intermediaries between the artists and the client, offering some aspects of “insurance”, even though I’m not totally sure about the details. I hope it didn’t sound too much like some sort of infomercial, because I’m not being paid to make this sort of advertisement. But even with this sort of backing it’s perhaps interesting to study how to do a briefing that is specific enough and clear in scope, in order to avoid misunderstandings and frustrations from both sides.

What else can you use 99 Designs for?

99designsIf you need visual work done, then there are lots of options for what the designers on 99 Designs can do for you. The services include:

  • Book cover design and custom artwork and illustrations
  • Logos and business cards
  • Web page and mobile apps as well as banner ads
  • T-shirts (I am seriously considering this at some point!)

You can get a PowerPack upgrade if you use my sponsorship link: which will supercharge your contest by highlighting your listing, bolding its font, and bumping it to the top of the page. Basically, you can get more entries from better designers.

I found the whole process pretty addictive and since I love collaboration, it’s definitely on my list to do again.

OK, I’d love to know what you think of 99 Designs, or if you have used custom designs/illustrations from other designers.Please leave a comment below and join the conversation.


The Self-Publishing Revolution Is Only Just Beginning. Reflections On My Stockholm Trip

I spent a couple of days in Stockholm last week, and did three events in just over 24 hours for Lava Forlag, meeting authors at all stages of the journey. Here are my reflections on my time there.

flying into stockholm

Flying into Stockholm

The indie revolution is expanding… and it is incredibly exciting to see the light dawning in people’s eyes.

The Swedish publishing industry is still in the old traditional, print dominated way of doing things right now. Ebooks haven’t taken off yet, Amazon hasn’t opened its .se store and authors are still focused on the route of agents and publishers to reach readers.

I was told that the biggest publishers are integrated with the media companies – in the same way as Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp owning Harper Collins, the Fox Network, The Times and the Wall Street Journal.

When big media owns all the publishing channels, there is little chance for the independent voice against such established behemoths. But change is coming …

I was asked to Stockholm by the lovely Kristina Svensson, an indie author who sees the digital future coming to Sweden in the next few years. I spoke to the audience of authors about my reality, the world I live in, where authors are writing what they want, publishing what they want, and in many cases, making a decent living from their words.

In my world, authors sell books globally, in ebook, print and audiobook format, they are paid monthly and they have creative freedom and control over timing – all without a publisher.

Joanna Penn speaking

Speaking passionately in Stockholm. Photo Credit: Petra Rolinec,

When I spoke at a packed gallery space in downtown Stockholm on Monday night, I saw the light dawning in some people’s eyes at the possibilities.

Some of those authors saw their future in my current existence – and that is truly exciting.

We take for granted our incredible reality these days and it’s only by stepping outside, to those places where the change hasn’t come yet, that we can really appreciate how far we have come.

I didn’t enter this author life via the traditional publishing route. As a business woman and an entrepreneur, I only pursued this author route when it became a viable business option as a self-publisher.

Embracing the indie way was natural for me, as someone who doesn’t like asking permission, who has no patience with waiting, and no love for power imbalance.

I have stopped speaking at events where the industry tries to cut authors down to size, where they negate creativity and try to crush us back into the box where they once controlled the rules. I don’t want to speak to groups that aren’t delighted at the explosion of expression that is happening now.

I don’t want to argue with people who don’t see my way of life as a valid choice. I don’t try to convince people that going indie is fantastic anymore. I only want to speak to those who are keen to learn about the new ways of being a creative in this exciting digital world.

Entrepreneurs create new things out of their heads – and the world we live in right now embraces entrepreneurs. It worships Silicon Valley startups. Well, we’re entrepreneurs too.

Writers are artists and creatives and entrepreneurs, just as the painter, the sculptor, the dancer, the dressmaker – and anyone who creates new things in the world.

Entrepreneurs don’t wait for permission, they try new things, they fail, they pivot, they keep going in the face of criticism.

The next big opportunity: Joint ventures with other creative professionals

Stockholm old city

Stockholm Old City

One of the sessions I did in Stockholm was a lunchtime seminar on “How to sell more books.” As none of the authors who were present actually self-published direct on KDP, discussions on metadata and keywords fell on rather confused ears. So I started with what seemed to me like the biggest issue.

There are 9 million people who speak Swedish. There are over 400 million who speak English. If you want to sell more books, then they need to be in English. Luckily, Swedes mostly speak excellent English but they still need help with translation and editing. I had the most number of questions about how this would be possible without paying half a years salary to a translator.

Here’s what you have to consider: the world has changed!!

Not just for you, but for everyone involved in the publishing industry. Editors and cover designers, who were laid off from big publishers, now happily freelance for indie authors. Many of them continue to work for traditional publishing, well as freelancing on the side.

In the same way, translators are discovering the joy of working in collaboration with authors. For years, they have been undervalued by publishers, treated as ‘workers’ rather than creatives in their own right. I’ve now partnered with six translators and I can tell you, translation is an art, it’s definitely a creative process.

You don’t have to follow the rules anymore. In fact, there are no rules!

Joanna Penn

Joanna Penn with Cas Blomberg, fantasy author, in Stockholm. Photo Credit: Petra Rolinec,

I’m about to start working with a Portuguese translator, who has books of his own in a genre similar to my ARKANE series. He wants to translate mine alongside his, so together, we can mutually promote, and it will be quicker to have more books out if he translates at the same time as writing his own. He’s currently working on Terry Pratchett’s books – and we’re doing a 50:50% royalty split, as I have done with all my translators.

This is only possible in a world where creatives just try stuff, take risks and ‘play’ together.

Other creative industries do this very well – look at musicians and dancers, film-makers, actors – most other creative industries collaborate in every work. Authors seem to default to timidity. They say “but I can’t do that .. no one would work with me.” Really? Have you actually tried asking?

Collaboration is a (not so secret) weapon for indies. When you own your own rights, you can do anything you like.

You can put 12 books in a box-set and together, you can hit the New York Times and the USA Today bestseller lists. You can co-write with multiple different authors. You can write a single book with multiple authors. You can do promotions together. You can write books that feature each others’ worlds. You can do anything you like when you own the rights. Other creative professionals work together collaboratively. It’s time for authors to do the same. Try asking and see what happens.

Stop waiting, stop asking, stop begging to be picked. Embrace the opportunities in front of you. Create!

Photo credit: Petra Rolinec,