OLD POST ALERT! This is an older post and although you might find some useful tips, any technical or publishing information is likely to be out of date. Please click on Start Here on the menu bar above to find links to my most useful articles, videos and podcast. Thanks and happy writing! – Joanna Penn
I'm in my 7th year of the writing journey and things have changed a LOT in that time!
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.
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.
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.
It'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.
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.
When you started The Creative Penn, did you start it with the idea in mind that that was going to be your career eventually?
Joanna: 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
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.
And 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.”
But 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.”
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.
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?
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?
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.
I 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.
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.
The 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!