Broken, Not Bitter. An Author’s Life with Repetitive Strain Injuries

A writer’s life is not an inherently healthy one.

hands typing

We sit for long periods of time, and studies show that sedentary behavior is bad for us. We hunch over keys, creating back problems. We stare at screens, giving us headaches and we type and mouse a lot. All of this can lead to Repetitive Strain Injury.

I had back problems in the last few years that were solved by using a Swiss ball instead of a chair, and moving a lot more. We don’t have a car so naturally walk a lot anyway.

But in the last few months, after a heavy writing stint in a cafe with tables at the wrong height, I developed RSI in my right wrist, elbow and upper arm.

After some initial denial, I visited the doctor, went to a physio and had an ergonomic assessment at my home desk. Since then, I’ve been using an Evoluent sideways mouse, as well as using my left hand a lot more. I’m practically ambi-mouse-strous these days :) I’ve also been doing exercises to strengthen the arm.

I tried Dragon Dictate but just found it frustrating to use. I considered moving to paid transcription as Kevin J Anderson does with his walking/talking approach, but with everything else I was doing, the pain lessened. It’s a lot better now but we all need to be aware of the possible strain injuries we can develop.

Lots of people have emailed me with tips on various ways of dealing with RSI, because, unsurprisingly, so many of us suffer

Marianne Sciucco, Author

Marianne Sciucco, Author

with it. Marianne Sciucco emailed me with her own story that, while extreme, is important because it emphasizes how bad things can get.

Prevention will always be better than pain and (hopefully) cure later on, so this is your wake-up call, writers! Sort out your physical writing position and exercise and stretching routine BEFORE anything happens.

Here’s Marianne’s story and also her tips at the end. Please do leave a comment with your thoughts and experiences of having or treating RSI as this is something critically important to the health of the writing community.

“What about your writing?”

This was a question I had not considered after my visit with the thoracic surgeon in March 2007. He’d advised me I needed two surgeries – the removal of both first ribs – to relieve symptoms caused by thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS). This would necessitate a leave of absence from my job as a hospital nurse case manager for a minimum of six months.

Devastating news.

I’d suffered from TOS and a collection of other repetitive strain injuries for the last year, undergoing months of physical therapy which had not corrected the problem.

My biggest concern at the time was missing work. My department was undergoing great change as we moved into a fully computerized system to perform our duties. I was 100 percent in favor of these changes and looked forward to being a leader in the transition. A six-month leave of absence would effectively remove me from the process. Little did I know that once I took that leave of absence I would never return to that job.

But it was the question asked by a coworker who had a great interest in my writing that rattled me.

“What about your writing?”

This question stopped me in my tracks. What about my writing? These injuries had impacted my writing routine for months. I rarely spent time on my projects because typing and using a computer caused tremendous pain. Prior to my injuries, I had completed my first novel and was looking for an agent. I’d started a second book. One of my short stories had won a contest. I had another I was shopping around.

I am, by nature, stubborn, and refused to give in to the pain, revising my stories and querying agents whenever I could. I was also in denial. How absurd that something like this would keep me from pursuing my goals!

But these repetitive strain injuries threatened to take more from me than my 15-year career at this hospital. They would take away my ability to write for years, and leave me unable to use a computer for days on end.

My purpose in relating this story is not to gain sympathy but to let others know that repetitive strain injuries caused by computer use are real, scary, and difficult to treat.

Many things can cause repetitive strain injuries but in my case the problem was hours of keyboarding and data entry at a workstation that did not properly or ergonomically support my body mechanics. I traveled throughout the hospital pushing a utility cart with a laptop and a printer as I visited each unit to do chart review 35 hours each week. At first I laughed about waking up at night with numb hands, thinking I had somehow slept wrong.

Then the pain began in my right bicep, a tearing, almost ripping pain when I reached for or pulled something. I wondered if I had broken my arm – perhaps a hairline fracture? My doctor sent me for x-rays which were unremarkable, no fractures. By this time I was already using night splints to help reverse the mild carpal tunnel syndrome I had in both wrists.

The arm pain grew worse and began to affect my shoulder. The doctor ordered physical therapy, and while doing the exercises I realized that when I raised my arms up over my head they’d become completely numb and very heavy. I could not do this simple movement for more than 15 seconds.

Then came changes in my hands, fingers that turned blue, sometimes a blackish blue, or red and puffy, or white and ice cold. The numbness and tingling in my hands continued. The diagnosis: thoracic outlet syndrome, something I had never heard of although I analyzed medical records for a living. I also developed tendinitis in my right thumb and both elbows. My right shoulder became frozen. It was a collection of musculo-skeletal injuries which had to be addressed one at a time.

At this point, I was unable to continue working without more aggressive intervention and opted for surgery. Over the next four years, the two ribs were removed and the right shoulder explored. PT, OT, massage therapy, and chiropractic continued, along with all kinds of lotions, potions, and pills. Many of my symptoms gradually improved, however, the chronic pain continues to affect my right arm, both hands, and my neck and I suffer frequent severe headaches. I am permanently partially disabled.

Throughout all this, I had given up on my plans to become an author, putting my work aside.

Life passed me by as I watched every episode of Law and Order ever produced. I read hundreds of books, novels, in particular, but many dedicated to writing and publishing as I continued to hope that one day I would resume my writing career.

This would not happen until 2012. A friend had published a book on Kindle and suggested I do the same. I figured I had blue hydrangeasnothing to lose and went about preparing my Alzheimer’s novel Blue Hydrangeas for publication.

This took a year. Yes, one year, as I struggled with the pain caused by keyboarding to complete my project followed by days and weeks of computer avoidance to recover.

If you experience numbness or tingling in your hands or fingers, or any kind of pain in your arms, shoulders, neck, or upper back after a writing session that is not relieved by simple stretching, please take it seriously.

Once these injuries set in, your muscle memory will adapt and this will become your new normal, close to impossible to reverse. In spite of three surgeries, countless therapy sessions, and umpteen medications this pain continues to control my life.

In April 2010, I was fortunate to return to work at a new job, part-time, but still chained to a computer most of the day. My two work days require a minimum one day’s rest from the computer. This leaves me with four days during the week with a maximum writing time of about two hours per day to write as much as I possibly can. This includes finishing the novel I’ve been working on for four years and tending to my website, social media, email, and all the other business that makes up an author’s life.

This is a writer’s life with RSI.

The frustrating part is that the mind continues to imagine and explore, to come up with new ideas, and the desire to write remains strong. It is a constant battle of mind over matter, a roller coaster of emotions intertwined with varying levels of pain and discomfort. There is constant acquiescence to disability. Imagine how difficult it is to complete a project under these conditions.

If you encounter RSI or TOS symptoms see your doctor immediately.

Here are some ways to help alleviate the discomfort and treat the pain:

  • This means the avoidance of all keyboarding, even on a tablet or smartphone. [Note from Joanna: I have definitely found that I need to only use my left arm for texting/twitter etc in order to rest the right from the cellphone.]
  • Ice the affected area to relieve pain and inflammation.
  • Heat to the affected area is also helpful. You can alternate heat and ice.
  • Advil and other OTC remedies can relieve pain and inflammation. This includes topical remedies such as Topricin, Thermacare Wraps, etc.
  • Hand splints may ease the discomfort of carpal tunnel syndrome.
  • Have realistic expectations. If you’re having a bad bout, alter your plans and goals to allow adequate time for rest and repair of injured tissues, muscles, tendons, etc. [Note from Joanna: I’ve found this has gone on for a lot longer than expected, and even though it’s a lot better, I’ll forget and pick something up the wrong way and the pain will kick off again. So be careful.]
  • Mix it up. Switch from a PC, to a laptop, to a smartphone, to a tablet, offsetting the pressure on your damaged hands, neck, arms, etc. Go back to pencils and paper. Type up your work when you’ve recovered or ask someone else do it for you.
  • Practice proper ergonomics: ears over shoulders, shoulders over hips. Be careful not to “turtle head,” thrusting your head forward to see the screen. This can become a permanent posture and strains your neck muscles. [Note from Joanna: I am totally guilty of turtle head. Have someone take a picture of you while you’re working in your normal posture. It may be shocking.]
  • Use a timer to remind you when it’s time to take a break.
  • Dictation is a wonderful tool to write hands-free.
  • Consider a new keyboard. I use a Logitech gaming keyboard which substitutes a glide pad for the mouse, eliminating mouse work, a primary cause of RSIs.
  • Delegate, if possible. An author’s assistant can handle tasks that exacerbate your injuries. I offer an internship in self-publishing to students at my community college. It’s a win-win for both of us. A Virtual Assistant can also make life easier.
  • If you experience pain STOP! Take a break. Stretch those muscles! Do something else: a load of laundry, the dishes, shopping, or a long walk.
  • Physical and occupational therapy, chiropractic, and massage can correct problems, relieve pain, and eliminate the need for surgery, which is always a last resort.

For more information, here is an excellent explanation of computer-related RSI’s by Paul Marxhausen from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln.

What’s your experience with RSI? Do you suffer from pain associated with writing? What have you done about it? Please do leave a comment below with your thoughts and experiences of having or treating RSI as this is something critically important to the health of the writing community.

About the Author

Marianne Sciucco, Author

Marianne Sciucco, Author

Marianne Sciucco is not a nurse who writes but a writer who happens to be a nurse. A lover of words and books, she dreamed of becoming an author when she grew up, but became a nurse to avoid poverty. She later brought her two passions together and writes about the intricate lives of people struggling with health and family issues.

Her debut novel, Blue Hydrangeas, an Alzheimer’s love story, is a Kindle bestseller, IndieReader Approved, a BookWorks featured book, winner of IndieReCon’s Best Indie Novel Award, 2014, and a Library Journal Self-e Selection. A native Bostonian, she lives in New York’s Hudson Valley, and when not writing works as a campus nurse at a community college.

You can find Marianne at her website or @mariannesciucco on twitter. Her books are available on all online stores and you can find Blue Hydrangeas here on Amazon.

 

Discipline And Practice In Writing And Swordfighting With Guy Windsor

Sometimes I just have to interview people I think are super cool and today I talk about swordfighting with Guy Windsor :)

I haven’t yet included a swordfighting scene into my modern day thrillers, but it might have to happen, because this was a lot of fun :) We also talk about how the discipline and practice of martial arts applies to writing, facing fear and deep and meaningful stuff on art and death.

stores2015In the introduction, I talk about the breakdown of my income – you can see it here broken down by revenue type, fiction vs non-fiction, format and retailer. I also mention the next in the free Creative Freedom video series on productivity which has been getting a lot of great feedback. Plus CrimeFiction.fm with Stephen Campbell, a great new genre podcast and the success of Audiobookblast for promoting audiobooks.

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!

guywindsorGuy Windsor is a swordsman, author and entrepreneur. He researches and teaches medieval and Renaissance Italian swordsmanship and runs The School of European Swordsmanship. His latest book is Swordfighting for Writers, Game Designers and Martial Artists, with a foreword by Neal Stephenson, which is pretty epic :)

You can listen above or on iTunes or Stitcher, watch the video or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.

  • The origins of Guy’s passion for swords and sword fighting.
  • The importance for entrepreneurs and artists to be good at their art and also at business.
  • swordfightingWhat writing and martial arts have in common including skill building and dealing with fears.
  • Practice and discipline and starting with achievable goals.
  • Using tools to create accountability and making mental adjustments about how we are categorizing our writing. Is it work or is it fun?
  • The myth of talent and the reality that those who are good at something have worked hard to become good at it.
  • How we learn by doing and the importance of feedback
  • The mistakes authors make when writing sword fighting scenes
  • Reconciling the intermingling of art, beauty and death.
  • The Maker renaissance and how that is also occurring in sword-making.

You can find Guy at GuyWindsor.net and on twitter @guy_windsor

Continue Reading

5 Lessons Learned From Writing 10 Fiction Books

Deviance is out today!

DevianceIt’s my tenth fiction book, the 3rd in the London Psychic series which completes the trilogy. There are also 7 books in the ARKANE series, 4 novels and 3 novellas.

So these days, I finally feel like I have a bit of a clue about what I’m doing :) so here’s a reflection on lessons learned from writing 10 fiction books.

(1) Writing more books will improve your writing

That might sound obvious, but the number of authors obsessing over book one seems to suggest otherwise! It’s much better to get the first book finished and edited, then write the next one and the next one, learning on the way.

You will improve faster by writing more books than if you spend years honing one manuscript. You’ll get quicker feedback if you hire a pro editor and then self-publish.

10 booksI also had an email this week from one of my wonderful readers who is in my Pennfriends reader’s group. He said he has been reading my books since the very beginning and has loved them all, but that I have clearly become a much better writer in that time.

That makes me super happy because clearly, I’ve been working on my craft and applying those lessons in each book.

It’s also a natural development from the process of writing more books. If you read Deviance and then go back to Stone of Fire, you will notice the difference, for sure. Every time I have an edit on one of my books, I learn what I’m doing wrong and I try not to repeat those mistakes in the next manuscript.

But I’m OK with that. As the startup industry says, if you’re not embarrassed by what you did last year, you’re not moving fast enough. Or something like that :)

(2) Writing a novella is a lot of fun and readers love them

one day in new yorkIt’s much easier to write a story that is 27,000 words than construct a novel of 60,000 – 100,000 words. For a start, you can hold it all in your head so much more easily and you can get a first draft done in a couple of weeks if you focus. It’s also a lot of fun because it’s so fast – something I didn’t really expect.

I have really enjoyed doing the ‘Day’ novellas for the ARKANE series and certainly intend to do more. They also fit my travel addiction :) The titles might give it away: One Day in Budapest, Day of the Vikings (which opens with a murder in Orkney), One Day in New York.

Yes, these books all take place over one day and the bad guys get a kicking by sundown. Super fun! Definitely more novellas to come in my future.

(3) Understand the cycles of writing to avoid guilt

There’s a lot of advice out there (including on this site) but we all have to understand our own creative cycles. I don’t write book related words every day. Sure, I write every day but it might involve blogging, journalling or other things. For my fiction and non-fiction books, I’m more of a binge writer.

wall chart calendarIn the last year, I have had some massive word count months, where I have written thousands of words of  first draft material every day.

Then I move into an editing phase and the calendar is bare.

But being an author is more than just writing a lot of words.

It’s about thinking and letting ideas compost, it’s about research trips, it’s also about turning those words into a book – the editing and redrafting process – and then, if you’re an indie, going through the publishing and marketing process too.

By understanding the cycles of creating a book, you can avoid writer’s guilt about not writing every day. (Please remind me of this when I get antsy about not creating enough new words!)

(4) Getting into flow and getting the first draft out fast

rainI’ve now learned that I need to get that first draft done as fast as possible.

If I take too long between writing sessions, I lose where I am. I need to clear the decks and immerse myself for a period of time. Then emerge from the writing cave and do the rest of the work.

I’ve pretty much nailed my process for writing first draft fiction in a flow state now. It’s taken many years!

I get away from my desk and go either to a cafe or a library. I plug in my earphones and listen to Rain and Thunderstorms on repeat. I write for a couple of hours, until I have finished a scene or reached 1500 – 2000 words.

During that time, it can feel like a fugue state. I don’t usually remember it. I don’t really see the words on the page as my own.

It’s quite weird.

But then writers are definitely weird! (Don’t worry, you’re at home here!)

GatesofHellsmallerI think part of this is trusting emergence and the creative side and not editing my writing at all in the first draft phase. It’s also partly being more comfortable with what a story really is. I’ve only felt this in the last 9 months really. I first felt it when writing Gates of Hell and then One Day in New York, both of which were very clean first drafts.

Deviance was hard as the series is much more intricately plotted than the ARKANE books, but after I used Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid to work out plot issues, I wrote the last 50k words in a month. Happy times :)

 Image: Flickr Creative Commons After the rain by Oleg Shpyrko

(5) The bug has bitten deep

I love love love love writing fiction.

It’s definitely hard work and I have a theory on why. There’s evidence that every decision we make every day saps our willpower and our energy. That’s why books like The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg recommend having a routine for breakfast and clothes etc so you can save your decision making for difficult things. That’s why Barack Obama wears the same type of suit every day.

Fiction writers have to make loads and loads of decisions for their characters which saps our own decision making ability and leaves us exhausted after writing. (Or is this just my justification for chocolate?!)

pinterest deviance

Check out the Pinterest board for Deviance here

Anyway, it is hard work but I love it. It stretches and challenges me. I can go deep into things I’m fascinated with, like the tattoo and body modification community in Deviance, and Jewish Kabbalah mysticism in Gates of Hell. I can travel for research.

I can create something new in the world and say, “I made this!.”

Even better, I can help readers escape their lives for a time, like the authors who help me escape into exciting worlds. I am addicted to thrillers and now I get to write them. Happy dance :)

I also get paid for doing it. So I am one happy little writer bunny today!

THANK YOU to all of you who have bought my books or tried out my fiction. If you’d like to give it a go, you can get a free novella, Day of the Vikings, here.

You can also get Deviance in ebook or print format today, currently on sale at US$2.99 or equivalent. It will go up to $4.99 in a week or so.

Buy Deviance now in ebook or print format. Coming soon in audiobook.

amazon-iconKobo_Icon-150x150nook-icon

Genre, Story Tips And Getting A Film Deal With Charles Harris

It’s always good to learn from industry professionals outside our direct area of writing. Today I discuss genre, loglines and getting a film deal with Charles Harris.

In the intro, I mention some VERY exciting news!

make moneyI’ve just hired my husband out of his corporate job to join the business and that gives me more time to serve the community :)

With the popularity of How to Make a Living with your Writing and also Business for Authors, I’m starting with some free video training on 11 ways to make money as an indie author. Click here to check it out.

London psychic seriesI also mention the launch of Deviance, the 3rd in the London Psychic trilogy, in ebook and print formats. All 3 books are on special during the weeks of 27 July – 10 August.

Today’s show is sponsored by all the brilliant listeners who support the show on Patreon. Thank you! You can find them all listed on this Patrons page and you can support the show here on Patreon.

Show notes for Charles Harris interview

charles harrisCharles Harris is an international award-winning writer-director, a script consultant, co-founder of a screenwriters’ workshop and author of The Complete Screenwriting Course.

You can listen above or on iTunes or Stitcher, watch the video or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.

  • On starting as a screenwriter.
  • The three essential elements of scripts that sell and stories that resonate.
  • The importance of a strong and interesting premise in TV and film writing and the importance of characters in writing novels, TV or for the screen.
  • How premise and pitch are aligned.
  • The four elements, structure and theory behind a compelling story sentence. How emotion plays a role in creating a premise or story sentence.
  • screenwriterscourseWriting the story sentence for a multi-book series and the importance of genre when describing your book or screenplay.
  • Charles recommends Shooting People for opportunities in independent film
  • An explanation of the ‘four quadrants’ of the film marketplace and the dangers when films fall in between two quadrants.
  • The financial rewards (or not) of being optioned for the screen.
  • The expected time authors can expect an optioned book to take to reach the screen.
  • The differences Charles notices between writing novels and writing screenplays.

You can find Charles at www.Charles-Harris.co.uk and his book, The Complete Screenwriting Course, here on Amazon.

Continue Reading

Start Before You Know What You’re Doing. Interview With Joanna Penn On The Writer’s Journey.

I’m in my 7th year of the writing journey and things have changed a LOT in that time!

joanna penn lovelyn bettisonIn this interview on Lovelyn Bettison’s Imagine the Possibilities podcast, I go through how it all got started, how I changed careers and what I’ve learned along the way.

I talk about going from newbie author to running a six-figure business as an author entrepreneur.

I’m also excited to announce that I have just hired my husband out of his corporate job. This has been a big goal for a number of years and I’m thrilled to have reached it. He’s pretty happy too :)

I hope you find the interview useful.

Click here to listen to the interview or download the mp3. Or read the transcript below.

Transcription of the interview

Lovelyn: Hello, Joanna. Welcome to Imagine the Possibilities. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Joanna: Oh, thanks for having me Lovelyn. This is awesome.

Lovelyn: It’s really an honor to have you on the show, I have to say. I remember listening to one of your first podcasts.

Joanna: That’s like four, five years ago now. That’s a long time.

Lovelyn: Yeah, I think it was back in 2009.

Joanna: Oh, wow. Wow, thank you so much for being a listener for so long. Well, in that case, you remember when I just didn’t have a clue what I was doing. But that’s important, isn’t it?

For people listening, it’s important to start when you haven’t got a clue what you’re doing.

Lovelyn: Yeah, that’s a great point, and that’s something I really admired about you. It’s that you just started. Because so often, people can put things off and put things off. They want to get it perfect and it needs to be just right. But I think I remember hearing you saying in an interview that that first interview you did, you just had a recorder next to the phone or something.

Joanna: Yeah. I literally, I’d phoned up a lady. She was a super best-seller in Australia. I was living in Australia and I phoned her up on my landline phone and I put it on speakerphone and then I held an MP3 player over the phone.

[You can check it out here: March 2009 – Interview with Rachael Bermingham]

I’m sure Skype was around back then but I didn’t know about it. I didn’t know about anything that could record over the internet at that point. Although I think by the second show, I might have figured that out. And also, I think the other thing to say to people is that my blog was only about five months, six months old at that point and I didn’t feel like I had an audience at all.

People were just starting to leave comments but my traffic was still pretty small. So that’s a really good time to try new things when you’re not known. That’s actually the best time to make mistakes. Not that I call them mistakes. Try new things before you really get everything sorted out.

Lovelyn: Then you learn along the way.

first book

Me with my first book in 2008, still in the pin-stripes! It’s since been rewritten as Career Change

Joanna: Exactly. For example, now I’ve written 16 books. Back then, I hadn’t. Now, it’s a much bigger deal if I write a book that gets bad reviews. Whereas right at the beginning when nobody knows who you are, you are still learning how to do these things.

So I would really advise people to experiment. Plus I would also say I didn’t know back then that I would carry on podcasting. I love podcasting and I started doing videos and I quite enjoy videos but I didn’t become like a big YouTube person.

And I also discovered Twitter at that point and I love Twitter. And I wouldn’t have known that I love those things unless I tried them out and then doubled down on what I enjoyed.

Lovelyn: Back when you first started The Creative Penn, what were you doing as your day job?

Joanna: My first degree is in theology, from Oxford University, which is one of the oldest degrees in the world, like the syllabus is 1,000 years old. So that makes it a really useless degree! But in going to Oxford, I got recruited into a large consulting firm now called Accenture. And back then, it was Andersen Consulting. I’m that old!

And I became a consultant. And on my first day, they said, “Okay, you’re learning SAP”, which is this big enterprise software system for big companies.

And I started implementing Accounts Payable into large corporates which is a crazy, random thing to do. But I just started doing that, and thirteen years later, I was still doing that but I was at the top of the contracting game. I was making a lot of money. It was the golden handcuffs thing. I was contracting and I was highly specialized.

After thirteen years of specializing and implementing accounts payable, all around the world really, I was very good at my job but I was super bored and miserable, like really miserable, as in I was crying most days.

I don’t cry much anymore unless it’s a sad movie.

But I was crying with frustration back then.

I also couldn’t understand why I hated my job so much. I had everything I was meant to have. I had a house and a happy marriage, I’m still happily married. But I had a house and a mortgage and a car and a job that my mom liked the idea of and that society said was a good job, I was a consultant and earning lots of money.

But I was really empty creatively, also spiritually. I was empty, I think by not letting that creative spark ignite, you dampen down that spiritual side as well.

And so I really was trying to figure out what I wanted. I did another degree in psychology to see if I wanted to become a psychologist but then also decided that wasn’t a job I wanted to do. I started a scuba diving company. I tried property investment. I just tried loads of things trying to work out what I wanted to do with my life. And in the end, I hit this wall where like, “This is crazy,” and I started to read a lot of self-help books.

One of the books, I still have it on my desk, it’s right here.

the success principlesIt’s called The Success Principles by Jack Canfield. It came out ten years ago, which is when I first got it in 2005. And I started to read that book and it was like, “Well, decide where you are now and then decide where you want to be.”

I really started to think about my ideal life and what I wanted to do.

What was my ideal day? What energized me as a person?

And I actually started to write my own self-help book, which I rewrote later on and it’s now called Career Change. But writing that book, that was back in 2007. I wrote that book to try and figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

And amusingly, that book changed my life because I learned about writing and publishing and books and marketing, etc. So that’s the journey in a nutshell.

Lovelyn: That’s a great story. And actually, it’s similar to a lot of stories we’ve heard on the podcast that people have really what would be considered a really good job or a job that they should like or they felt like it should be the one that they should be happy. But at night, they go home and they cry at night.

Joanna: Yeah.

Lovelyn: They’re not happy and they’re not fulfilled.

I think there are a lot of people who experience this struggle where they feel like they should be happy but they’re not happy and they’re trying to explore their lives and figure out what to do to fulfil themselves.

Joanna: Yeah, and there’s a lot of guilt around, “Well, shouldn’t I just be happy with what I have?” It’s like, “I’m not poor. The job is fine. It’s in an office. It’s not like digging ditches and all that.”

That guilt was pretty massive for me. “How can you be so ungrateful about your life?”

But at the end of the day, I believe we only have this once, so you have to find out what your bliss is as Joseph Campbell said. And then find what fulfills you.

But the other thing I say to people is it’s a bit like skiing down a mountain, although you’re in Florida so there’s not much skiing.

Lovelyn: And no mountains.

Joanna: And no mountain. But when you’re skiing, if you’re at the top, I know I’m a terrible skier. I’m the sort of the pie, the wedge shape.

But to get down a hill, when you have to get started, you actually have to be moving in order to change direction, so that’s really important. And you’re never going to get down there in a straight line. You’re going to damage yourself. You’re always going to be zigzagging.

And my path was as zigzag-y as anyone and continues to be because I started writing fiction, a bit of another zigzag. But yeah, I think getting started, changing direction, you’re going to fall down. It’s the other thing about skiing.

You will fall down. You will mistakes. It will cost you money.

But eventually if you keep zigging and zagging and moving towards your ideal life, you’ll get there.

Lovelyn: Definitely.

When you started The Creative Penn, did you start it with the idea in mind that that was going to be your career eventually?

careerchangesmallJoanna: No. I started The Creative Penn in December 2008. But winding the clock back, I published my book earlier that year. My first book, it was called How to Enjoy your Job. But as I said, I rewrote it as Career Change, which is what it’s out as now.

I tried all kinds of things to market it. But what happened is I realized, I made the classic mistake of printing books and having them in my house.

Do not do that, people! That is not how to self-publish. Use print on demand. I had all these books in my house and then I realized I didn’t know how to sell them. I had the product part down but I didn’t understand sales and marketing.

So I began the whole process of learning about sales and marketing back then. Because as I said, I studied theology and psychology, I had no marketing background, no sales background. Like many people, I felt it was all a bit scammy and sucky and all that.

I discovered blogging. I started one blog which was called How to Enjoy your Job about the first book. One of the classic mistakes of people with their first book is starting a website around that first book.

Don’t do that because chances are you’re going to write another book!

Then I started another blog which was I was basically writing all the lessons I learned about all the things I was learning. But then I decided that I didn’t want to do that either. I got bored. And this is another good sign. If you start a blog and you’re bored and you’re not overrun with content, then don’t carry on.

And then I started my third blog, The Creative Penn. What was so funny is that I had written an affirmation based on Jack

I am creative. I am an author. Creativity.

This is the affirmation I had in my wallet for years!

Canfield’s book. He talks about using affirmations. My affirmation was “I am creative, I am an author.” And what was weird about that now is that back then I couldn’t even say it out loud.

I didn’t feel I was creative.

I was basically working in a technical field. I wasn’t an author. So to say it out loud, “I am creative. I am an author,” I couldn’t do it for about six months.

Once I managed to say that out loud, I used to recite it on my way to work in my head, and then eventually out loud. See how it tasted. See how it felt in my mouth.

I really advise people to do this. It’s very powerful stuff. It changes your brain.

It reprograms your brain. And I came up with the idea. It was like, “I am the Creative Penn,” because my surname is Penn. That is my real name, P-E-N-N. And it was like The Creative Penn, then I can be anything through this website. This is me.

And basically, if I start painting, I can use The Creative Penn. It exists for me across whatever I do in my brand. I subsequently created JFPenn.com which is my fiction site. But at that time, it was like, “This is perfect.” So basically, it took me that whole year and I started The Creative Penn in December 2008.

But again, when I started, I didn’t have a clue.

And if anybody looks back at the archives list first, that first year, I had no ‘voice.’ It was all very stilted. There were lots of lessons learned because I was trying to helpful, always trying to be helpful. Still am.

It took a while for me to grow into my voice and trust the world and trust social media and be able to share more personally really.

Lovelyn: I think your story is great because you said you went from not even being able to say it out loud that you’re creative and an author. And now, look at you. You’ve written all these books, so you’re extremely creative.

I think that’s a good lesson for people listening who feel like they have this dream that they have hidden way back in their brain, that they don’t want to tell anyone about or don’t want to admit to and it scares them and they’re unsure.

But it’s about taking those first steps and really believing it yourself, and then you are able to manifest that.

Joanna: What’s so crazy is what then happened next. There was absolutely no way I ever thought I would write fiction. I mean, I was actively NOT writing fiction because I didn’t believe I was creative enough to do that.

After starting The Creative Penn, immersing myself in the world that we are in now through networking on the internet, reading loads of books, I joined a class. And what happened was that creative spark and the idea machine kickstarted.

Again, I remember feeling that I would never have enough ideas. I would never be able to make that stuff up because my brain is not like that or whatever.

But once you take little steps towards it, once you start trusting, it starts to happen. And blogging is fantastic.

Blogging changed my life because you have an impulse to write something and you write it and you press publish and it’s out in the world and somebody might comment on it or they share it on social media, and you’re like, “Wow, that just touched somebody.”

And that also helps you release your voice. So it might not be blogging. Some people do paintings and put them online or take pictures and put them online, all of that type of thing.

The other thing I would say is selling your first anything online.

When you make your first $10 or even $5 online, it changes your life again.

It’s like, “Oh my goodness, you don’t have to have a job.” You don’t have to be paid a salary in order to make money. That’s a massive shift for many people. Especially for people who were not born in the internet age as such. I think we are stuck in that traditional mindset of salary being the only way.

With the millennials, unfortunately, they suffered through the crash in a bad way when they were trying to get jobs but they’ve all learned that basically, salaries aren’t stability and a lot more millennials are running their own businesses than Gen X’ers like me.

Lovelyn: Yeah, they have learned that you can’t really count on the 9:00 to 5:00.

Joanna: I mean obviously, I don’t work 9:00 to 5:00. This is what I would say to people. It’s one of the lessons I learned in the first year full time. It is much easier having a day job.

But equally, because I love what I do, I tend to be a workaholic because I love what I do, as in I don’t need work-life balance. It’s not balanced at all. Everything I do is writing!

Every holiday is fodder for my writing and everyone I meet could be a marketing opportunity or networking or whatever. So it becomes your life, which I think is much more fulfilling.

Lovelyn: When you first left your day job and made that transition, how did that go for you?

Joanna: So I started writing in 2006, 2007, published 2008, started the blog 2008. It wasn’t until September 2011 that I was able to give up my job. What I did between then is I worked hard.

I was working full-time most of that. But then once I started to make income, I started to sell books, I started to do a little bit of affiliate marketing. Even just using Amazon links on my blog to get that Amazon affiliate income.

I then started to start to create courses for people. Every time I learned something, I created a little course to help other people. So I was one of the first people to recommend Smashwords, one of first people to get on the Kindle in Australia [hilarious vid!]. And I started speaking, so all of this was in addition to my day job.

We got rid of the TV. That was a big deal. And then I moved to four days a week at work.

I essentially made a choice to opt out of the traditional career path and not care about the day job anymore.

So literally, I did enough to keep my job but I was not investing any extra time in that. So any time I could work from home, I did. I did my work and then got on the learning things, networking, blogging, podcasting, creating content, writing the book. I also used to get up at 5:00 a.m. and write before work.

I had found what I loved and I was determined to get out of my day job.

When I left my job, I had saved a buffer of cash. I’m very risk averse.

We also downsized. We had sold our properties so we didn’t have any overheads and I was making around a thousand a month which obviously isn’t that much money but my husband was also making money, even though I was the prime wage earner at the time.

freedomsignupimageAnd I said, “Okay, so we’ve got these savings. In six months time, if I’m not making x, then I will go back to my job.” And six months later, we reassessed it and then I haven’t been back! I’ve just done my accounts and I don’t mind telling your listeners that it’s now a six-figure business.

Lovelyn: Oh, very good. Congratulations.

Joanna: And we’re talking in June 2015. So it has taken almost four years to get back up to what would be good in terms of the job I used to have, a decent salary. I know for many people that that’s very good. But from the job I came from, your self-esteem is related to the amount of money you earn. So that is important to me.

Lovelyn: Well, congratulations. I’m so glad that you’ve been able to make all of this successful because it’s such a great example to other people who want to do something similar.

Before you talked about how you didn’t write fiction before because you felt like you weren’t creative or you couldn’t really do that.

But I’m wondering how you transitioned into writing fiction what made you change your mind?

Joanna: Well, one of my podcast interviews was with a guy called Tom Evans, The Bookwright, again, way back in June 2009.

I said something something back on the show. “Oh, I could never write fiction.” And it was amusingly an interview on writer’s block. I said, “Oh, I don’t have writer’s block. I’m writing nonfiction.”

He said, “Oh, I think you’ve got a block around fiction. And it was like, Oh, Okay,” I was being challenged on my own podcast.

I realized that because my mom taught English literature at school, my family are very literary, I went to Oxford, where the only “good novel” is one that wins the Booker prize or whatever. And so my cultural upbringing is very much, “you must write literary fiction.”

con airBut as a reader, I love Dan Brown, I loved the conspiracy thriller niche. I love action adventure. My favorite film is Con Air!

I love all the John Woo-slow motion-flying doves stuff, Nicholas Cage. And that’s what I wanted to write.

So I suddenly came up against the first blocks.

One of the blocks very much for writers is your family and your friends will not like what you write, they just won’t. And my mom still says things like, “Why don’t you write like Hilary Mantel?” Who won the Booker prize with Wolf Hall, which is very big in England historical novel. And I’m like, “Mom, that’s not my thing.”

So I realized that I did have a block. And once I got rid of that, I was like, “Okay, well, I am allowed to write what I love.”

ARKANE Books x 7

The ARKANE action adventure series

So I started writing conspiracy thriller, religious thriller. My ARKANE series is essentially action-adventure around religious and supernatural mysteries.

And it’s super fun as well as using my theology degree, and my protagonist was a military psychologist in Israel and then worked at Oxford University as a psychologist of religion.

I’ve woven my past into Morgan Sierra, my main character, and she goes around kicking ass and solving mysteries.

How I started writing was – after I got rid of that initial block – I did NaNoWriMo, which is National Novel Writing Month, and that’s nanowrimo.org if people want to have a look. I wrote my first 20,000 words of fiction of which I used about 5,000 words eventually.

Then I registered for a How to Write a Novel in a Year course at my local library. And what that did was give me a deadline, and that is something I recommend for people.

If you want to write a book, or in fact if you want to do anything, set a deadline.

I had a deadline of the end of the year and I spent that year learning about writing fiction. And it is very, very different to write fiction than it is to writing nonfiction. Very different skills. I spent that year learning and self-published my first novel in 2011, I think, and then I started to write the next one and the caught the bug.

So that’s how I transitioned. [You can read all my posts from my first novel here].

Lovelyn: I’m sure it takes you less than a year now to write a book.

London psychic seriesJoanna: Yeah. I have the London Psychic crime thriller series which features a British detective and a psychic researcher who works with her.

The first one of that again took me just over a year again because of the thinking process. When you create a new world, new characters, new world, new ideas, that does take longer.

But once you have a series like my ARKANE series now, the latest one is One Day In New York. That didn’t take me very long. That’s a novella as well.

But it’s a lot quicker now. And I know how to write a book!

But it’s really very rewarding to write stories that people enjoy. But then I also, I won’t give up The Creative Penn because I also love to help people. I still love the self-help genre and I enjoy putting stuff out there that help other people write their books and get them in the world.

Lovelyn: So what does your normal day look like? What’s your writing schedule like or how do you divide your time between your fiction and The Creative Penn?

have you made artJoanna: Well, I have on my wall here, “Have you made art today?”

Pretty much every day, I have to create something new in the world. I aim to do some creative work every day.

With fiction, there will be a first draft phase, or nonfiction as well.

With the first draft, you just have to get the first draft done. I go to a cafe locally or to the library and spend a couple of hours just writing words into my computer on Scrivener. I use Scrivener which is amazing software.

But then of course, once the draft is finished, you then have to edit. In those days I’ll be editing, which is different, there’s no word count when you’re editing, you’re just reworking the document.

So I have to create something every day but it might be something else. It might be a video or something, but I make sure that I create something new in the world.

And then I am also running a business so I have marketing things, podcast interviews etc. So this is obviously a marketing category type of thing and I like helping people thing too.

I am also a professional speaker so sometimes I’m speaking. I also do have to do things like accounting and stuff. Although I like doing accounting because it’s a measurement of success! So those are the main things. So pretty much separating into a creative period and then a running the business period of the day.

Lovelyn: So you create in the morning usually?

Joanna: Yes.

Lovelyn: And then the business stuff in the afternoon?

Joanna: Exactly. That works for me, and I am pretty brain dead by about now because we’re recording late. I haven’t got a glass of wine, I promise!

Lovelyn: Do you have any tips or advice for someone out there who might want to start writing?

Joanna: In terms of writing in general, it’s just a case of just doing the writing.

Stephen King - On WritingI think there’s a phase that people get into, and I was in it too, where you read all the books on writing.

I mean, everybody’s got Stephen King’s On Writing; Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott, Writing Down the Bones, we all have all those books. And then what’s the other one? Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way. Everybody’s got all these books.

But what you actually have to do is start writing your project.

So stop reading about writing and start writing. That’s why I found joining a class very useful because it gave me an end point. So that will be the other thing. Set your goals. NaNoWriMo is very good for that in November.

There are lots of online writing groups. Or you could start one locally. On meetup.com, you’ll often find writer’s groups. You just need some help with the discipline of sitting down for some period of time and just trusting.

Trust emergence. Something will come out of your brain.

storygridActually, there’s one book. I recently interviewed Shawn Coyne on my podcast. The book is called The Story Grid. That’s an excellent book.

I’ve just used that on Deviance to help me with my plot. Yeah, the Story Grid by Shawn Coyne, that’s excellent.

And he’s business partners with Stephen Pressfield who wrote The War of Art, and that is another hardcore book you’ve got to read, The War of Art.

Lovelyn: I love that book.

Joanna: And if people are most serious, his other book, Turning Pro, I reread every year. That will kick your ass, it really will.

[All the links to these books for writers here.]

I really believe you have to put the work in and then the muse, or God, or spirit, whatever you want to call it, the great unconscious, will come.

Sometimes, I look at my words and go, “I really don’t know where that came from.” But it only comes when you are actually sitting there working on your document, on your manuscript.

You do have to force it a bit at the beginning. I actually have on my website at thecreativepenn.com/firstnovel, I have all the blog posts which are really funny actually. Some of them are hilarious from when I decided to do that NaNoWriMo all the way through to launching, getting a New York agent, selling loads of books, all the stuff I go through. So that’s really interesting if people do want to write a novel.

Lovelyn: Okay, and I’ll link to all of these things in the show notes everyone, so you can go to my website and look at the show notes to find links to all of these things that Joanna is mentioning.

Do you have anything that you would like to share or promote? Where can people find you online and what do you have going on?

Joanna: If people are interested in writing and publishing and book marketing, then thecreativepenn.com, there’s the Author 2.0 Blueprint which is a free big mega e-book. It’s basically a book on all those things, so check that out, thecreativepenn.com/blueprint. And then, there’s obviously my podcast, The Creative Penn podcast. And all the links are on thecreativepenn.com. I’m on Twitter @thecreativepenn. I’m very active on Twitter. Also, if you want to check out my fiction, go to jfpenn.com and you can get a free book if you’d like to check some action-adventure.

Lovelyn: Okay, that sounds great. And I really appreciate you coming on the show because I really think that you are a great example of, number one, the first thing that I always tell people to do is just to start. Sometimes you have to start before you’re ready. Just get started.

I think you’re a great example of just steady consistent action.

I don’t know if I’m wrong about this. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think you had any big viral event that all of the sudden you’re the most popular blogger in the world or something. It was just continuing, consistently putting out the content and helping people and doing a lot of things over time that has led to the success that you have now that you have the six-figure business.

Joanna: I’m so glad you noticed that because that is totally true. I haven’t ever had a breakout success on one of my books or a massive spike in income. It’s all been incremental. And it’s basically, for the last six, seven years…

I’ve written every day. I’ve done some marketing every day. It’s all little drip, drip, drip.

compound effectThe book I like for this is called The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy. And it’s a great book. I mean, you think the concept is simple but the book really explains it well, which is just about how these little things build up over time.

And what I feel is really, I’m in year seven or eight or whatever and year six of the podcast and the blog and stuff.

And I feel like now things are starting to really tick up, and that’s just the snowball effect over time. Eventually, the little trickles start adding up.

And sales, I was looking at my sales from all over the world. A year ago, I had nothing from Japan. Now, I get about $2 a month from Japan but I used to only earn $2 a month from Amazon right at the beginning from America. And then every month, it gets bigger and bigger and bigger.

My books now have sold copies in 66 countries, which is amazing.

And then, there’s audio books and then there’s just so many different little things that make a difference. So I hope that encourages people too.

You don’t go from nothing to six figures overnight.

But over time, if you think about a bigger period, like say, do you want to change your life in the next five years?

It’s not like by Christmas you’re going to be able to leave your job. It’s how do you get there slowly. It’s worth working on slowly. That’s the thing.

I think we’re so used to this instant stuff. But I think mostly that’s a lie, like the 10-year overnight success is what you hear about as well. Maybe I’ll be one of those. But thank you so much for having me on your show. And of course, if anyone has any questions, best to tweet me, @thecreativepenn.

Lovelyn: All right, thank you so much. This has been brilliant.

Joanna: No worries. Thanks, Lovelyn.

I hope you enjoyed the interview! Please do leave a question or comment below or tweet me @thecreativepenn with any responses!