Is it ever too late to start writing? Can you publish your first book in your late 60s or 70s?
Penny Appleton (aka Jacqui Penn, my Mum!) started writing at aged 68 after retiring from a career as a teacher and then a change management consultant.
In this interview on Kick In The Creatives, she talks about how she discovered writing later in life, why writing with her daughter (me!) has been a joy and a challenge 🙂 and also her tips for writing sweet romance.
Click here to listen to the episode on Kick In The Creatives
Click here to listen to Jacqui Penn on The Creative Penn Podcast: Co-writing with Family
In the interview, you will discover:
- Jacqui's early career as a teacher and later a consultant and how her greatest opportunities came later in life, after raising two children and traveling a lot for work
- Different facets of creativity, including painting for therapy and getting into writing later in life
- Why Jacqui decided to use a pen name, Penny Appleton, for her books
- Why Jacqui decided to write sweet romance
- How characters emerge for themselves and integrate with autobiographical detail in the Penny books
- How writing can be therapeutic and cathartic about difficult situations in life
- The main challenges in writing as a beginner. More writing tips here.
- Thoughts on choosing to self-publish over traditional publishing — when life is too short! More in Successful Self-Publishing here.
- Recommended books for writers
- Lessons learned about editing, and what happens after the first draft
- How Jacqui also wrote a non-fiction book after her experience planning her parents and her auntie's funerals. How to Plan a Funeral by Jay Ryman.
You can find Penny Appleton at www.PennyAppleton.com and her sweet romance books on Amazon in ebook, print and Large Print editions here.
Transcript of the interview with Penny Appleton on Kick In The Creatives Podcast
Sandra: Hello, and welcome to the ‘Kick In The Creatives' podcast, hosted by myself, Sandra Busby and my fellow creative, Tara Ruskell, offering you interviews, inspiration, motivation, and a gentle prod in the right direction. And for lots more information, challenges, and other useful tools to help you get creating, you can go to www.kickinthecreatives.com. And of course, this is where you can also find today's show notes. Enjoy the show.
Today, we are talking to Jacqui Penn, aka Penny Appleton, the sweet romance author. Thanks so much for coming on.
I'd love to know about your early career, first of all, before you became a writer.
Jacqui: Yes. Thank you very much, indeed, firstly, for having me on your program. That's a real privilege. And I think when one looks at one's early career, it's important to know how old you were and when you were born and things. Maybe your readers will resonate with that, your listeners will resonate with that.
So I'm 71 and I was born in 1947.
And I have a very old auntie who's recently passed away, she was 96. But she said before the Second World War, there were very few opportunities, careers, for women. And things like, she was only ever allowed to wear a skirt in her accountancy office, wearing trousers were completely no-no.
But after the war, so in 1947, people really wanted to try and make society better. She'd been wearing trousers in her dugout, being a searchlight operator. Many, many men had not come back, sadly, but those jobs went to women.
So I was the lucky recipient of school milk, vitamins, orange juice, grammar schools, and free university education, which makes a difference, I think. And now, my generation have got pensions and the National Health. And so, it was a lucky time to grow up, I think.
I think I've always been a teacher. When I was little, I used to teach and I used to go hang around at a riding school, and I ended up leading small, fat ponies around with small, fat children on.
I was somebody who would be saying, ‘Okay, heels down,' and, ‘Sit up straight,' and, ‘Hands on the neck,' ‘Well done.' My father was a teacher and my grandma was a teacher, so I think I was naturally a teaching sort of a person. Both my children, Joanna Penn, who's J.F. Penn the writer, and my son, Rod Penn, as well as doing their careers as writers and photographers, they're also teachers.
If you love to learn, then you love to teach, because the two things go hand in hand. So I became a teacher.
I wanted first to be an actress, but my dad said he wouldn't pay for me to go to drama school. He said, ‘Okay, if you want to be an actress, I'll pay for you to go to teacher training college. And then, if you're good enough to be an actress afterwards, at least I know you can always pay the rent and buy your dinner.' So that's what I was, I went to teacher training college.
I loved teaching. I was a teacher for 40 years, really, in different forms, started off in the East End of London, teaching English with kids who couldn't read and doing it through drama. So we'd do improvisation and then, we'd write that into a script. And then, they'd read the script, and we'd record it on tape and things and enter it for radio competitions, things like that.
Then, my husband and I moved from London to West Somerset, Minehead. And he was the head of art and I was the head of drama. As well as normal teaching, we did some amazing productions together, which was a lot of fun. Biggest was about 250 kids in the production of ‘Oliver,' you know, the full orchestra, two full casts, a dog, a parrot. And then, we did lots of other productions like that, then I became immensely creative and had babies. So I had five years out of teaching, but I became an examiner for Oxford O'level, and I taught an epileptic little girl who was home-schooled.
We moved to Oxfordshire, and I taught at the West OxfordshireTechnical College and did English GCSE for engineers and things. Sadly, then, my marriage broke up. But I had some friends who were teaching at the University of Malawi in central Africa. And they said, ‘Come to Malawi. It's like Scotland, only hot.'
And so, the children and I went to Malawi in central Africa, and I taught, first of all, English as a foreign to engineers who were then coming to the U.K. So they did a first degree in Malawi, amazing, really.
[Note from Joanna: Listen to my podcast on the 3 trips that changed my life, including Malawi on the Books and Travel Podcast here]
So these were Malawian youngsters whose first language would be a tribal language, second language would be Chichewa, which is the Malawian national language. The third language would be English, and they were doing a degree in their third language. Amazing. And the British Council sponsored some of them to come to the U.K. to do engineering degrees to go back. And then, while I was doing that, I was very lucky that I started to be involved with their management degree. So I was teaching communication skills on the management module, and then, psychology, which I enjoyed very much.
I came back to the U.K. with the children and had eight months on the dole (unemployment benefit), because when you come back from overseas, nobody wants you, really. Your experience is not very relevant. But it was good in that I was able to get them settled into primary school and be around for that.
Then, my darling auntie, Auntie Joy, the 96-year-old, lent me the money to do a master's degree. So I went to Bristol University and did a master's in management with the idea of moving out of teaching because it's hard to pay for two kids to go through university on a teacher's salary.
So there I was, did the master's degree in management. Went back into teaching, but very luckily, got a trainee consultant job with the Engineering Employer's Federation, working with British Aerospace and Rolls Royce in Bristol.
So I did management communication courses and that kind of thing. Did three years there. Meanwhile, the children were gone from primary and on to secondary. Then, I started working for the Hewlett-Packard company, who make printers and other things. They've got a place in Bristol, Filton, UK.
So I moved there as the training manager for Hewlett-Packard Labs and then, eventually, the site training manager. HP is a wonderful company with fabulous opportunities. Then, I did European consultancy with senior managers, then got offered a job in America.
So, I went to the U.S., first of all, in Boise in Idaho on a big change project, then Corvallis in Oregon. Rod was with me in the U.S. then, Jo was at university in Oxford.
Then I moved to San Diego for five years. Oh, wow, that was great. That was a traveling job, so the projects were change management with senior managers going through radical change. And I was working in a team with them. So did that up until I was 55, then retired from HP, went to New Zealand where Joanna had gone, and became a teacher of English again.
Sandra: So you are so well-traveled. I mean, most people don't do that in a lifetime.
Jacqui: I sometimes talk to women's groups and they go, ‘Oh, I'm home with babies,' and, ‘I'm never going to get back in my career again.' And I said,
‘Look, my most fabulous opportunity came when I was 47.'
Sandra: Yeah, that's so true. And so, I think people often feel it's too late, and it's never too late.
Jacqui: No, it's not. It's all a journey, and you watch for the opportunity. I always say to people, ‘Look. It's like you're on your surfboard out on the ocean and you're watching over your shoulder for the wave. And you have to keep paddling and you have to keep your skills up. And one day, the wave comes, but if you're not ready, then it goes past you.'
Sandra: Oh, that's such a good analogy.
Jacqui: So then, from there…how old am I now? Seventy-one, 55 to 71, taught English in New Zealand, marked New Zealand English papers, Jo moved back to London, my son is in Edinburgh, and I'm in New Zealand with the dog. So I waited for a bit, and then I came back to the U.K., too, with the dog. Not following the kids anymore, got to find somewhere to settle. So I settled here, and…
Sandra: Which is where?
Jacqui: Bristol. I love Bristol. And then, because I'm pretty active, thought, ‘What am I going to do now?'
The pension is nice, but it isn't enough to do lovely, travel-y holidays. So I started marking GCSE papers again, but that's very hard work and hurts my eyes.
So Jo said, ‘Why don't you write? And I'll help you publish it.' Because she's J.F. Penn and Joanna Penn and she's an indie publisher. She was a pioneer in indie publishing. She's been doing that for 10 years. So she said, ‘If you want to write something, then I'll help you publish it.
So that's when I started writing.
Sandra: So before we get on to that, obviously, all of that time before, had you never considered it during that time? Was it literally what Joanna said that made you think, ‘Oh, well, perhaps I can?'
Or is writing something you thought of in the past?
Jacqui: I've always written. So I write journals and I'm a great letter writer. So when I was in Africa and in New Zealand, I was writing letters to my mum. And in those, you're developing your writing, aren't you?
But when you're actually teaching, it's jolly hard to do creative stuff like that, because if you've got six classes per week of GCSE students, that's a bucketload of marking. So you're reading youngsters' work, you're correcting, your brain is not creative at the end of that. You're knackered.
So that's when I did some painting, but I'm back here now, so I'm not teaching anymore and I'm not painting. And you…one of your questions, it said, ‘You also became a painter for a while. What sort of things did you paint?
Sandra: Yeah. Well, obviously, as you know, I'm a painter, so I was really intrigued. I'm an artist, so…an oil painter, actually. And I was intrigued when I realized that you painted. Of course, I'm interested to know what you did and whether you still do it.
Jacqui: That's amazing. Well, I am glad that you are a painter. Well, I think a creative usually has many, many dimensions, and some of them are more oneself. Like, you're obviously very strongly visual, so you interpret your creativity through seeing things and then painting them.
Sandra: Well, I love writing as well. I don't know if the two go together. But one, you paint with words, and one…you know, you paint one picture with words and one with paint, don't you? Just a different way of doing it.
Jacqui: So I painted landscapes, but I paint in acrylics and I'm very messy. I throw paint, and it's very therapeutic.
When I started when I was in San Diego, and then, I had a house with a patio. So I used to cover the patio with plastic. The job was very frustrating because I had to work in HR. And I'm quite creative, so I don't particularly like the rules. But we were having to do a downsizing program, and I had to be involved in that.
So I used to paint at the weekends, in order to let out the inner me. So I'd cover the patio with plastic, put canvases down, and then throw paint. It was lovely.
Jacqui: Several glasses of wine, some great music, and throw paint. And then, I'd go to bed and then come down in the morning and go, ‘Oh, all right. Okay, then.' And some of them were brilliant, but they were not painters' painting. They happened.
Sandra: They were expressions.
Sandra: So circling back to what you've said about Joanna, who we've interviewed before on our podcast in episode 20. It's well worth listening because Joanna, I mean, she's adorable, first of all, and so enthusiastic. So she obviously put you up to the idea of writing a book.
What were your first thoughts then, when she said that?
Jacqui: Well, with painting, I don't know about how you find this, but it's an expensive hobby. So canvases are expensive, paint's expensive. And if you chucked it around like I did, you end up with a lot of canvases that you then have to paint white again and start all over. People say to me, ‘I love the texture on your paintings,' and I don't tell them there are actually 12 paintings under that one!
Because my paintings, so being acrylic, you can put texture in. And occasionally, I'll have an exhibition, they're expensive to put on. And then, obviously, people might buy a painting and you might say, ‘Well, I sold 3 at £120 each.' But actually, when I added it up, it's £2000 I spent over the last year doing painting.
So I loved painting, but I don't do it anymore, because it's expensive and messy and I live in a flat.
But Jo told me about self-publishing rather than going through a publisher. As I said to you before, I am not Hilary Mantel. I've not spent 12 years working on ‘Wolf Hall.'
I love to write and it's very nice to hold a book in your hand that is published. With Amazon and with Jo showing me how to do it, we've made a bit of money.
It's about Penny Appleton who's a sweet romance writer, which was originally Jo and me together, me writing it and her editing and smoothing and making it polished and publishing for me.
I keep that money in a separate account and use that for promoting Penny Appleton. So I'm writing, and I've got four books on my bookshelf now which are mine. And they're paying. I've had a little holiday on Penny so far.
Sandra: A lot of people are going to be thinking, ‘Well, who's Penny?' So explain this. This is your pen name, isn't it?
What made you decide to have a pen name and not to use your real name?
Because a lot of authors do this, don't they?
Jacqui: When you start a new creative stream, it might be rubbish. And if it's rubbish, I don't want to have ‘Jacqui Penn' written on it for the rest of my life! It's on the internet and there it is forever, and it's rubbish. Jo made sure that none of them are rubbish, of course, but it is a concern.
My first one, Love, Second Time Around, you asked about whether it's biographical. Well, yes, there's a lot of me in that book.
And Jo said, ‘Mum, you know, this is brilliant. Well done, fabulous.' It's 95,000 words, and since we're writing in the sweet romance category, it's got to be about 50,000. So I've edited it.
I said, ‘You've cut my baby in half,' and she had. It had gone down to 50,000 words. She kept all the good bits, she said, ‘There are some gems in here.' And because she's an experienced writer, there was also a lot of stuff which needed fixing, heads talking to each other, or aimless description.
The idea was really that I had fun and we might have a little bit of money from it.
So my name is Jacqui Penn, so I turned it around the other way and made it Penny Jackson. But there is already a Penny Jackson. So whenever you invent a name for yourself, you have to go out there and check there isn't one already.
I decided to write sweet romance which is all about relationships and it has a happy ending.
One of my favorite authors would be Jane Austen. If you look up ‘Pride and Prejudice' and ‘Sense and Sensibility,' they are two fabulously-written sweet romances.
So they're my models. I like Nora Roberts and Danielle Steele and people like that. But Jane Austen has meaty issues, she writes in a particular time. But it stops at the bedroom door, there's no swearing, and you end up with a happy ending.
In the first one, Love, Second Time Around, Maggie is like me, she's retired. She meets somebody who she loved when they both used to work together. But he was married, so she stayed well out of his way. But they meet again when they're older, and it's now the issues of, can they get together, because he's got a family and lives in America and daughters and sons and things and not with his wife anymore. And she's got a family here in the U.K. How do you manage that? Is it possible? Are both of you too cynical? So that explores all of that.
Sandra: So how did you come up with that storyline, then?
So obviously, you decided you're going to write a book. Is this partly picked from experience, your own life experience? Or is it literally, you've just come up with that story and decided to write it?
Jacqui: No, it's definitely autobiographical experience.
You take something that you really are interested in. Then, when you create those characters who are not you but you give them bits of your experience, they come alive in their own right.
The one I'm writing at the moment, Love at the Summerfield Stables, is based in a stables in the country that teaches disabled children to ride, and I did that. So there's a big, big chunk of me in that.
But the two characters who are in it, Claire, who is the person who runs the stables, and David, who's a veteran returning as an amputee, what happens between them, when it gets going, they turn into themselves. They are not me now.
There are things coming up, I keep thinking, ‘Where did that come from? That's not me.' But the story, I think, is a fascinating one. And so, I'm writing it and they talk themselves, but lots of bits are autobiographical.
In the third one, Love, Home At Last, there's a character in it called Lizzie.
When I was in New Zealand, I had the most wonderful dog. His name was Bobby, he was a German Shepherd cross. I had him for 12 years, and he was my best mate ever. Well, he's in book three. That book is dedicated to him, actually, because he was the best canine mate.
When you take a bit of your personal life and put it into a book, it comes alive. That's what makes the writing vital, like with Jane Austen in ‘Sense and Sensibility.' And I think the movie with Emma Thompson is, in fact, more powerful for me than the story now, because Jane Austen's writing is quite long-winded because it's not so much for our time.
Sandra: What about your characters, then? Are any of them based on people that you know, or can't you say?
Jacqui: I think you pick up little bits of lots of people. There's a very stuffy character in the book I'm working on at the moment. His name's Quentin Ogilvie and he's a land agent. I've always been a country girl, I love the country. But I've met lots of nice people working with horses and a load of snotty ratbags as well. And Quentin is a snotty ratbag.
Sandra: When it comes to writing about your own more painful experiences in your books, do you find that quite therapeutic in a way?
Jacqui: I try not to put too much painful stuff in it, because life is pretty tough, isn't it?
If I get into bed, I think, ‘Ooh, it's nine o'clock, I'm a bit tired. I'll get into bed and read a nice book.' I do not want angst. I want a book that I turn the pages and then when I put it down, I think, ‘Oh, that was nice. It was real, she was a real character.' And I can go to sleep now with those lovely images.
There's nothing horrible in my books. Sweet romance is not about that. It's about real life, it's got some drama, like this one I'm writing at the moment. And this actually happened.
We had a pony who went into a ditch. So she was stuck in a ditch in the mud, and she could have died. It was cold, we had to get her out. But how do you get her out? Because if you get the fiber gate there and they put a sling around her and pull her sideways, she'd break her legs. We've got to get her up, as well as out. And she went into hypothermic shock. So that's in there, so it's quite dramatic.
But it brings Claire and David together. He's an amputee in the mud, he's got a tractor, but how are they going to get the pony out of there? It's something that cements their attraction for each other, because they're both heroes, really. And so, that's where we got to on that one. Sorry, I got a bit carried away. I'm still editing at the moment.
Sandra: Well, don't tell all. Don't tell us the end.
Jacqui: It's always happy!
Sandra: I'm exactly the same. Whether I watch TV or read a book when I go to bed, I have to watch something light-hearted or read something nice, because I can't do all that either. I think about it otherwise at night, you know?
Jacqui: I think lots of us are like that. So I only watch the news once a day, and it's not in the evening. And I tend to read the newspaper rather than watch it live.
Sandra: Of course, you only hear the bad stuff as well. I mean, if they have a good news channel, I'm sure that would be just as full, if not fuller. It's just that that doesn't get people's attention, does it? That's the trouble.
Jacqui: But a good newspaper will always have good news stuff too, won't it?
Sandra: Well, obviously, going back to how you started, you are seriously well-traveled.
Jacqui: Oh, haven't I been lucky? Totally lucky and really had a stunning, lucky career.
Sandra: I know. It's fantastic. And I know that you have journaled all of your life.
So do you find that those experiences in your travels, and particularly those journals, useful to refer back to during the writing process?
Does it trigger memories for you?
Jacqui: Certainly does. I've got them here. And I think Joanna would say the same in her travels. She's got 40+ journals which she looks through occasionally, and she's just started a travel blog and podcast, BooksAndTravel.page, based on a lot of those travels.
I didn't journal so much as I traveled, because again, when you're teaching workshops during the day, in the evening, you want a glass of wine and a lovely dinner and you go to bed, because the next day, you're teaching again. When you're facilitating with managers, you've got to be 100% there with them. It's their creative process.
So I used to say to senior managers, ‘Look, all of you are like the very best soccer players from your country. And you're on the field playing, but I'm a coach. I'm going to watch your performance and I'm going to bring up some of the things that will help you. But to do that, you've got to be creative.' So I didn't journal too much in my travels.
I tended to journal the angst stuff, so going through divorce and things about bringing up kids and the things that you struggle with as a single parent. But I don't write about those in my books.
Sandra: What were the main challenges that you found during the writing process as a beginner?
Jacqui: Well, I guess it's a little unfair because I have this secret weapon who's called Joanna Penn from The Creative Penn. And she's just been fabulous.
So I'm looking now at The Successful Author Mindset, which helped me with a lot.
Whenever I got stuck, she'd say, ‘Well, try this bit here,' and, ‘Try that bit there.' She actually dedicated ‘The Successful Author Mindset' to me. I shall read you the dedication, it's so lovely. It says, ‘Dedicated to my mum, Jacqui Penn, for her unfailing positivity throughout my upbringing. My can-do attitude and proactive mindset stem from her belief in me and her support of my journey. I love you, Mum.'
Sandra: Oh, that's absolutely lovely. How gorgeous is that?
Jacqui: She writes thrillers with one side of her brain, and then, she's an indie publishing expert with the other side.
I love her Self-Publishing Salon podcast with Orna Ross on the Alliance of Independent Authors, where they're talking about indie publishing and how you do it.
Sandra: What made you choose indie publishing as opposed to going through the traditional route?
Jacqui: Most traditional publishers now aren't picking people like me. They want prize-winners or you have to go through writing competitions.
When you publish with an established publishing company, they own your manuscripts (you license them to the publisher). They develop the marketing and the formatting and the typeface and they control the book. And of course, for each of those books that are sold, they get the majority of the money.
[From Joanna: Click here for more details on the pros and cons of traditional vs self-publishing]
Well, when you do indie publishing, you do all of that stuff yourself. You have to find all the people to help, but you also get all the choice.
On Jo's website, she's got designers that she uses – book cover designers, proofreaders, and editors, and she's got a whole load of people who she would recommend because she's used them.
Jo's got all of that information in her book, Successful Self-Publishing.
When you publish the book on Amazon, you can publish hard copy to order (called print-on-demand).
If you order a Penny Appleton book or a J.F. Penn thriller book, you can have it on kindle or audio or large print. And if it's in hard copy, it is print-to-order. So there's no waste, and it would be sent to you from Amazon.
But it's only that one copy got printed, whereas with a standard publisher they would publish a print run. They might publish 10,000 books worldwide. And if that author fails, all those books…and I've seen it myself, end up in landfills. They end up in skips.
Indie publishing, when you publish with Amazon and with other publishers, it changes around the other way. You do the upfront work. And there's ways to do it and lots of advice now from indie publishing. You can charge less, and you can still make more money than working with a publisher.
Sandra: For the publishing, you have Joanna to help, but for the actual editing and layout process of the book, is that something you can just hand it to someone else?
Jacqui: You can do that. Jo's got a list of all the professional people that you would need. She did it for me on the first three books, and then, after the third one we decided to go our separate ways.
[More on co-writing and how we changed the process on The Creative Penn Podcast here.]
Sandra: Was that scary?
Jacqui: Oh, terribly scary. Luckily, after I'd written this fourth one, I now know approximately how long a sweet romance should be. Jo sends me so many lovely books to learn from, like Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life. That's a fabulous book.
She sent me K.M. Weiland, Creating Character Arcs. That really helped me. I got Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi's, The Emotion Thesaurus, because I'll often say, ‘Oh, Claire felt really sad.' Well, you don't write that. You have to show, not tell. And I had no idea how to show, not tell.
But ‘The Emotion Thesaurus' has a whole list of physical signals that you would write instead of, ‘Claire felt adoring towards David,' you know?
Sandra: Something like, ‘Her eyes welled up in and stung, as the tears rolled…' It's painting a picture.
Jacqui: You've also got to avoid cliché, haven't you?
Sandra: Of course. But then again, you don't want to chuck in too much of the other stuff, because it's kind of littered with all sorts, then? You should balance it , and that's actually quite hard.
Jacqui: It is. And that is the editing process.
So, Jo originally said, ‘Send it to me and I'll read it for you.' I now know a whole lot more, but for this book, I sent it to her thinking it was perfect. And my darling Jo sent it back with, ‘Mum, you can publish it just like this, happy to do that. And here are seven coaching points.'
So it's taken me another month to go through the coaching points because she's absolutely right. Once your brain goes from, ‘Oh, right. Got it,' you can't go back. That's the learning process, isn't it?
Jacqui: And besides, I said, this is not great literature. It's a lovely little story like the other Penny Appleton books. It's a nice holiday read, on-a-plane read, before-you-go-to-bed read, all of them are.
So my doctor, who loves them, gave the first trilogy, to her mum for Christmas. And her mum's about the same age as me. And her mum loved it, but my doctor loves them as well. She's a sweet romance person.
So Jo's helped me by giving me the coaching points, but I'm editing the next book now, and it's nearly ready to go to the proofreader. She's on Jo's website as well, Arnetta Jackson editing. She's fabulous because she's American, and she spots things for me because the books are going worldwide. And if you're working for an American audience, too, you've got to be careful of your vocabulary.
Sandra: Obviously through the editing process, there must have been bits that you really loved that you had to take out because they just weren't working? How did you feel? How was it to press the ‘Delete' button?
Jacqui: Hard. My original draft of the first novel was 95,000 words long. I thought it was beautiful. And we had to delete 45,000 of them, because the story wasn't working.
Sandra: But were there any that you thought, ‘I really, really don't want to get rid of that?'
Jacqui: Jo asked me, ‘Do you want to publish a book to have it in your hand, to put it on the shelf to say, ‘I published this, this is mine? In which case, it doesn't matter if nobody reads it or nobody buys it. This is your success, your creative dimension. That's fabulous.
Or do you want to sell any?' And I said, ‘I want to sell them,' because I painted and loved that. But it's very nice when someone says, ‘I love that painting, I hang it on my wall.'
We've had people write in and say, ‘I love this book.' I lived in Boise, Idaho. And there's a place called the Payette Lake north of Boise, just a beautiful wilderness, the Payette wilderness. And I set a scene there. And this lady came on the website and gave feedback and said, ‘I live there and this is the most fabulous description I've ever read of the place where I live. You hit it.' I mean, that's a big kicker, isn't it?
Sandra: Yes, it is.
Jacqui: It is. So I wanted the book to be for the reader, which means that you have to edit for the reader. So you would say, well, 95,000 is quite a thick book. And if your reader gets going and then goes, ‘Oh. Hmm,' okay, very slow, very slow, very slow, skip another four pages. Okay, pick it up again, ‘Yeah, this is good,' read, read, read. ‘Oh, Hmm, lost me there,' and then, they put the book down, you've failed, haven't you?
Sandra: Yes. So true.
Jacqui: So Jo's editing is about learning what it is that makes it good for the reader. That's what I've been doing this last month. Polishing and polishing to make it easier for the reader. Jo's advice, is, ‘Go away and do something else. Leave it for a bit, come back and read it as if you've never seen it before.'
Sandra: Yes, with fresh eyes. That's the same with painting, I think.
Jacqui: That's exactly right. And also, you're on a creative journey, aren't you? When you come back to it a month later, you have, in fact, changed.
Sandra: That's true.
Jacqui: When I'm feeling blocked, it's often about fatigue. I'm an introvert so I need a lot of time on my own. I need to recharge my batteries through reading and being quiet and not being out there. Other people who are extroverts, they recharge their batteries by being with people.
Sandra: Oh, fantastic. So obviously, as a writer, you have to be quite self-disciplined, because you've got to put the time in.
So what is your daily writing structure, what's your routine?
Jacqui: Well, I'm good in the early morning. So I get up, and every second day, I do yoga stretches. And I've started to go to an evening yoga class as well, because that's really good, because you've got to be careful, sitting at the computer for too long. They say sitting is the new smoking.
If you do a sitting job, you have to watch for thrombosis and stuff like that. So here's a bit of advertising. There's a thing called a revitive, R-E-V-I-T-I-V-E. You put your feet on it, and it's plugged into the mains, and it exercises your legs while you're working.
Sandra: I've seen those.
Jacqui: I love it. I'm a total convert. I also have a timer, or just an ordinary kitchen timer. So I do my stretches, then I sit down and I review, quick look at the emails, but try not to.
I review what I wrote yesterday and I set the timer for 45 minutes. And then, I get up and walk about or make a cup of tea or come back or whatever, then I do another 45 minutes. Then, maybe I'll go on for two to three hours. I don't do that every day, because obviously, there are other things, too. But most days. And because I'm retired, I can do that the weekends as well. And I love it. I love learning at home, it's fabulous.
Sandra: And I bet you will never forget how it felt to hold your very first published book in your hands. How was that?
Jacqui: Right. Ooh, so exciting. I said to Jo, I'd like to write three, I'd like to write a trilogy. And she said, ‘Yep, can help you with that.'
JD Smith Design did the three covers, and they have a similar theme, the three first Penny Appleton ones.
Although the first one I did was non-fiction. When I got back from New Zealand, because I looked after Auntie Joy before she died, I arranged her funeral and everything. I did the same with my mum and dad, I knew a lot about funerals.
So I trained as a funeral celebrant. And I'm very sensitive, and I've been through death and divorce. And I like people and I've got a great backlog of poems and stories and stuff, I'm a good listener, I'm a good facilitator. So I became a funeral celebrant, but I didn't tell any of my family, because again, a bit like Penny Appleton, I might not be any good at it.
And I'm a very private person, so I thought, ‘Well, I wouldn't tell them until I'm a really successful funeral celebrant.' Then, one of our family members got terminally ill. And I just thought, ‘I can't tell anybody about this,' I mean, if it wasn't so tragic, it would be funny, wouldn't it?
Jacqui: So Jo said, ‘Why don't you write a book?' So again, I thought, ‘I can't put it out under my own name,' so I wrote How to Plan a Funeral under Jay Ryman.
It's got some of my experiences, it's got some nice services, it's — and it brings in about £1.82 a month!
Sandra: It's so helpful and it's such a stressful time, that's what you need, isn't it?
Jacqui: Hopefully it will help people navigate the funeral process.
And then, I'm writing another non-fiction at the moment. When I was at college, it was the time of Greenham Common and the cruise missiles. So the potential of nuclear war and then I lived in San Diego on the San Andreas Fault and then New Zealand on the Pacific Ring of Fire.
Sandra: So you've got nine lives, really?!
Jacqui: No. What I've always been is a prepper — someone who is interested in survival. Especially when you've got children and things. So I'm writing a distillation of 30 years of urban prepping. A very simple book of urban survival, like what to do if you are in a city. For most of us, it won't be a terrorist-related activity. It will be something that turns the power off for three days.
That's what I'm working on with one half of my brain. And I've got another three Penny Appletons in the other half.
Sandra: You're probably better to start writing when you are older, I would have thought, than when you're very young, because obviously, you've got a lot more experience to draw from.
A lot of our listeners will be thinking, ‘Oh, I've left it too late to write.'
I hear it so often, but I actually think it's the opposite. So what advice would you give to those of our listeners who have been meaning to write a book, but they just haven't got around to it yet, and they're worried that they've left it too late?
Jacqui: It's never too late because this is a creative journey.
So if you say, ‘Well, I've got this idea in my head and I'm going to start,' you start.
I like to write in fountain pen. Joanna's husband gave me the most beautiful fountain pen. And I often go to a café and will sit with my fountain pen and lovely, lovely paper, and just put my pen on the paper and just start to write. Something comes out of my head, down my arm, and it starts to write. And then, later on, you're tired, and it's 45 minutes and you close it up.
So if you get yourself a lovely notebook and start writing. You can't edit anything if you haven't written it.
So if somebody's thinking, ‘You know, I really would like to write a book. I've been meaning to, but I haven't gotten around to it yet.' Firstly, you'll find it hard if you're being creative in a thousand other ways. So if you're bringing up children, that's going to be hard. If you've got a job that takes all of you, that's hard, or it might be a rest if you're going to write just fiction. But don't make it like, ‘I've got to write to make a book out of it.'
Write for joy, write for pleasure.
Write so that you can read it back to yourself and go, ‘I remember that. That's a lovely memory.'
Sandra: That notebook you were talking about. I think that would be a good idea for a writer to carry around all the time because if they happen to be inspired at the most bizarre moment, they've just got it there, they can write it down. And then, it doesn't go out of their head, because I've had that before. I've had inspiration for paintings come into my head, and I've been out somewhere and I haven't got a pen. And by the time I've got home, I've forgotten what it was.
Jacqui: Another good thing, if you're not someone who can easily write or you haven't got it, is to carry a dictaphone around with you. So I've got a Sony dictaphone which has a PC link. And I keep that in my bag all the time, because I might be somewhere and I see something, and I think, ‘Oh, my goodness,' like the cherry blossom trees. Amazing.
You just talk into your dictaphone. Then, when you get back, you plug in the electronic thingy, and it transcribes it using Dragon software onto the screen. That's writing. You're creating and you're writing.
[Click here for more tips on writing with dictation]
So it doesn't have to be a big deal of, ‘Oh, I've got to sit down and write 50,000 words.' It may be that you do it as you go along.
So I keep a spiral-bound journalist's notebook in my bag all the time too, and three or four pens down the bottom. I was on the bus the other day, and there was this immaculate lady. She was small, like my grandma. Her hair was beautifully back in a chignon that older ladies had, like my Nan. She was cool, and yet, she must have probably been in her 80s. When she got off the bus, I got my pad out and just wrote down the description of her. And she's become a character called Patricia in one of my books because that's who Patricia is. She's immaculate.
Sandra: Oh, that's lovely. And it's a fine example of getting inspiration from the people around you, isn't it? So where can people find your books? Where can they find out a bit more about you?
Jacqui: They can find all my Penny Appleton sweet romance books on Amazon, and also at www.PennyAppleton.com.
Hannah Ross says
I loved this interview! It was nice to “get to know” your mom a bit. She sounds like an amazing lady.
Priscilla Bettis says
Excellent interview, good tips, and (awww!) so sweet, too.:-)
Valerie Lull says
I enjoyed this interview. It’s never too late to start doing what you love. I started serious writing at age 58. I always wanted to write and one day I woke up and thought if I don’t get busy writing the book will never be written. I’m on my 4th book now.
@Jacqui, thank you so much for all you’ve shared. You’re as generous as your daughter. You are an inspiration and delight.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks, Cheryl. I’ll pass that onto Mum!
Pete Springer says
I love your whole story, Jacqui. Not only is it inspirational, but I especially like how you’ve gone for it in so many different ways in your life. Life is meant to be lived, and you have embodied this philosophy on your journey.
I’m also an educator (thirty-one fabulous years at the elementary level), and I will be forever grateful for having the opportunity to teach children. In retirement, I have thrown myself into many new things (including writing and playing the guitar). My belief is “no time like the present.” After writing a book for future teachers, I’m now working on my first children’s book.
Thanks for the lovely interview. An interview that teaches while being entertaining deserves high marks, and this discussion nails both.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks Pete. I’ll pass this onto my Mum.
Moya Sharp says
I loved your interview Jacqui, I have wanted to write my non fiction book now for years after collecting together all my research material. I kept telling myself that it was too late to start writing now, I should have done it when much younger, I’m now 64. You interview has inspired me and I have read several of Joanne’s books to help me along the way with all the others things you need to know, thank you both, you have changed my life.