Ep 31 We chat to New York Times bestseller Joanna Penn, author of ‘Delirium’

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In Episode 31 of So you want to be a writer, HarperCollins accepting unsolicited manuscripts, Cleo’s man of the year, it's never too late to be published, Laura Ingalls Wilder memoir reveals truth behind Little House on the Prairie, how to use the Fairfax Media Style Guide, the Beer Bloggers Conference, Writer in Residence Joanna Penn, how to collaborate on writing projects, when to disclose your relationship with your case studies and much more!

Click play below to listen to the podcast. You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Stitcher Radio. Or add the podcast RSS feed manually to your favourite podcast app.

Show Notes

Calling all writers – do you want to be published? HarperCollins wants to hear from you!

HarperVoyager signs 15 in open submission fortnight

Cleo's mahn of the year

Sara Donovan: Published life begins at 50

Laura Ingalls Wilder memoir reveals truth behind Little House on the Prairie

Fairfax Media Style Guide

Beer Bloggers Conference US

Writer in Residence

JoannaPennNewColorSmallJ.F.Penn is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of thrillers on the edge, as well as bestselling non-fiction for authors published under Joanna Penn. Joanna’s site for writers, TheCreativePenn.com has been voted one of the Top 10 sites for writers three years running. She is a professional speaker on creative entrepreneurship, digital publishing and internet marketing, and was voted one of The Guardian UK Top 100 creative professionals 2013.


Web Pick

How to use two powerful tools to collaborate on writing projects

Working Writer's Tip

Do I disclose if one of the experts or case studies I interview in my article is a relative/sibling/aunty/dad/friend?

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Your hosts

Allison Tait
Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers' Centre

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podcast at writerscentre.com.au



Joanna Penn is an author, speaker and entrepreneur. Under the penname JF Penn, good name for a penname, her thrillers on the edge have topped The New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists, while her non-fiction books written under her own name are also bestsellers. She is in high demand as a speaker internationally and her website, the Creative Penn, is consistently voted as one of the best websites for authors on the internet. Her most recent novel, Delirium, the second book in the London Psychic series came out earlier this year. She’s currently researching the sixth book in the Arcane series.

Hi, Joanna.

Hi Allison, thank you for that lovely intro.

Thank you for fitting us in. I was just reading that out and I’m exhausted. The first question I want to ask you is where did all this begin? You have this mammoth website with countless posts and podcasts and updates, you write non-fiction, you’re writing novels, you have a high profile speaking career, where did it start? What were the first steps in this journey?

It’s quite funny, because I was a business consultant for 13 years, working in corporates, implementing account payable systems, of all things. I had this kind of corporate career, cubical slave type of person. When I was living in Australia — I’m in London, obviously, as we’re talking now, but I was in Australia too, of course that’s why I reached out to you. I came to the Sydney Writers’ Festival it must have been 2006. That’s when I started thinking about getting out of my day job. I’ve started a number of businesses. Before I had a scuba diving business in New Zealand, I did property investment in Australia. I tried things and failed so many times, mainly because I just didn’t find what I was passionate about.

I decided to write my own book, which was How to Enjoy Your Job. The reason I wrote it was because I couldn’t understand… I had this supposedly amazing career. I owned my own house, I was a consultant, I was highly paid, I traveled, why was I so miserable? This was just crazy. I wrote the book in order to change my own life, that was, like, back in 2006/2007. I researched how do you do this life change stuff. As I went through the book myself I realised that the main thing that has been consistent in my life is books. I was one of those kids who didn’t drag around teddies, I drug around books at a really young age. I would carry a whole bag around when I was like three, you know?

As I was writing that book I started to learn about the publishing industry, I discovered self-publishing. Then as I got into it I put that book out, I made so many mistakes and finally started the blog, The Creative Penn, to share what I learned on my journey.

Then, fast-forwarding, it took me three years of working part-time, of just learning everyday until I was able to give up my day job. I’ve been a full-time author/entrepreneur for nearly three years now. I always say it’s like skiing, with skiing you want to go downhill, but you can’t go in a straight line, you have to zigzag. The only way you can change direction is by moving. You have to keep moving and then you can change direction and change direction again. That’s how I’ve kind of ended up here, but it’s been a real windy journey.

When you were starting out and you were writing your non-fiction and things like that did you always have the idea in your head that you would write fiction, that’s where you wanted to be?

Not at all. I went to Oxford University and my mom was a English literature teacher. I had been raised with the idea that the only book worth writing is a Pulitzer prize-winning literary fiction novel. This put a massive block in my head over the years. There was no point in me writing fiction because I can’t write that kind of thing. Actually, what I like reading are fast-paced kick ass thrillers. Certainly when I was working in my day job, miserably commuting for an hour a day, whatever. I used to read thrillers all the time to escape my day job, at lunch time and everything.

What happened was I was doing my podcast back in 2009 and this guy really challenged me on it. We were talking about writers’ blocks. I said, “I don’t have any blocks.” It turns out this fiction ideal of the perfect literary novel was a real block for me and he just challenged me on it. That year I did NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, which is November. I came up with 20,000 words of the first novel, which became Pentecost fifteen months later.

I went through so much then. I actually collected it all at http://www.thecreativepenn.com/firstnovel/ and it’s so painful to go through the posts. I did videos — the videos I’m living in Australia at the time and I’m like, “Today I’ve learned about point of view…” It’s so funny now, but I’m so glad I did it because as embarrassing as these things are it really shows you how much I had to learn, and we all have to learn if you want to go from writing non-fiction to writing fiction, it is a whole new set of skills. I did the how to write a novel in a year program at Queensland Writers’ Center, which was fantastic, it really helped me get on with that, basically and put a deadline on it. I know you guys do that at the Sydney Writers’ Centre and that type of thing. It’s just good to have people along the way.

I know from your Pinterest and other social media updates at the moment that you’re researching your new novel, the sixth book in the Arcane series. Tell me a little bit about that process because it always looks so interesting. That is something that you do extremely well, is take your readers with you on the journey of writing, because you seem to do a bit of travel with these books. I admit, I’m actually just really jealous and I’m thinking, “How do I get me some of that?” 

Tell me how that works? How much research are you doing for each book?

I am a research junkie. Let’s just take this as a bigger picture, what happen is because I’ve done so many different jobs and tried to start different businesses when it came down to, “Yes, I want to change my career,” what I went back to was, “What do I want my life to look like?” The point of designing a life was one of the biggest things for me — I love to learn. Learning new stuff is a massive thing. I love to travel. I’ve always traveled a lot, I’ve lived all over the world. I wanted to be a writer. So, when I put all of those things together, I want to be a speaker… so all of those things work really well as a writer. I want to be location independent.

What it means when I started to look at my fiction was — I invented the Arcane series — Arcane is essentially a secret British agency that investigates supernatural mysteries around the world. I invented this kind of hanger that I could put all of these different books under that relates to mysteries around the world. What I do for my research is I pick something, generally a place, sense of place is very important to my fiction. I pick a place that I’m interested in researching and I pick a topic. This book, which the working title is Inquisition, but it’s going to be about Spain and Kabbalah and the Jewish expulsion in 1492. It’s going to have some really interesting stuff going on.

I went to Spain, I did some research. Essentially I try and share things along the way. You mentioned Pinterest. Pinterest is fantastic for book research. You can surf the net and keep pinning things. I just share that regularly and people are like, “Wow, that’s so interesting.”

Also, one of the reasons we moved from Australia back to England was because I said, “I need to travel.” It’s so much easier from here. I mean popping to Spain is like an hour on a plane.

I’m not jealous at all…


Did you ever have any doubt it was going to work? Like as far as you were saying you had so much to learn, you started with NaNoWriMo, you had 15 months to do everything, did you ever think, “I’ve written this book, will anyone ever read it?”

That happened to me when I published How to Enjoy Your Job. What happened was I finished that book, I did send off one query email to a publisher, an agent, and got back, “This isn’t our type of book.” I just went, “You know what? I’m not into the energy of rejection and asking for permission.” I’m somebody who doesn’t ask for permission, I just get on with stuff and I like the positive energy of creation and putting it out there.

That’s all well and good, but of course I put out How to Enjoy Your Job and couldn’t sell any at all. I sold about 200. Even though I was national TV in Australia and national newspapers and I did all of the right things, supposedly, but that’s where I started to learn that you need to have a platform, you need to build an audience. As I was writing Pentecost part of what I was doing with that first novel stuff was building an audience.

What happened with Pentecost came out, finally after — I had several editors, it was a really long process, I had people who were ready to buy it because they had been following the journey. I think I would probably do things differently now because the industry’s changed, but this was kind of 2009 when the international Kindle had only just arrived in Australia. You know in the book market in Australia, fiction is very expensive. Things were very different even just a few years ago. When I had Pentecost come out that’s when I had some people to buy it and that’s when I realised that I really enjoyed the process.

I think when people worry about, “How’s this book going to do?” It’s very common with the first couple of books. What I find now after writing — I’ve just finished my seventh fiction book, eleventh overall, I feel like, “OK, I just put it out in the world and it will find its audience over time.” I don’t do like a big launch spike anymore. There’s a great quote from Krishna, which is you have right to your labor, not the fruit of your labor. I think about that everyday. If you don’t enjoy what we do, which is research, writing, sharing what you love online and hoping people are interested, then you wouldn’t do this job. I guess that’s what I keep coming back to.

We all struggle with the mental attitude, the book I recommend for people is Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield — fantastic book for kicking your ass when you’re feeling low. I also had a podcast with him quite recently and I said to him, I had actually been struggling with this self-censorship, I said to him, “What do you do when you’re afraid of what people will think of you?” He basically said, “You are dishonoring the muse, if you’re not being honest about your creativity you’re dishonoring the muse.” I was like, “Whoa. I do not want to dishonor the muse.”

You may not turn up again if you do that.

Exactly! Exactly.

You seem to write your novels, you’re obviously very motivated and very strict with your writing discipline because you write your novels quickly and regularly, like you’re getting them out there on a regular basis. I know that you do fairly rigorous edits with them, because you talk about that on your blog and various things. See, I’m actually stalking you, aren’t I? Is there a secret to being able to be so productive? What is your writing routine?

It’s so funny, I think everyone has got their own opinion of what productive is. Dean Wesley Smith, who I really recommend people look at what he’s doing, he’s an old guy, he must be in 60s, maybe even his 70s. He’s just done a series on his blog, he’s written over 150 books, I think, he’s got on his blog a series which is Writing in Public. For the last year he’s been putting his output everyday and what he gets done everyday on his blog, and it’s fascinating. He’s written over a million words in the last year. I think he’s written seven fiction and four non-fiction books or something. I’m not productive compared to these people.

I think, for me, there’s a sign on my wall that says, “Have you made art today?” For example, today I haven’t written — I actually haven’t written anything yet, it’s only midday, but I have published a book in Italian, so as far as I’m concerned I have actually put art out in the world today.

Yes, you published in Italian.

Yes, this is very cool, right? I’m like, “Yeah, that’s really cool.” It’s looks really nice even though they’re not my words anymore.

In terms of a production schedule that’s what I mean. When I say ‘production schedule’ people will go, “What about art and whatever?” But, this is my business. I am a business woman, this is my full-time income. What I have tried to do as an introvert is to make most of my time productive in a way that nurtures me as well, nurtures my energy. For me this research and writing stuff — I want to make 80 percent of my income from books and audio books and all of that book-related income. That’s why I’m so driven.

Really it’s just a case of having a process. I’ve got two series and it makes it much easier to write faster if you have a series, because you’ve got your characters, you’ve got your worlds. I know what happens in an Arcane book, there is a supernatural mystery and we go around different places and we solve it, and I have my character. I know what’s happening, so it’s much easier to write within that kind of structure.

Same with the non-fiction, the next book I have is Business for Authors: How to be an Author Entrepreneur, for that I’m answering my own questions, so I start by just writing a massive table of contents and then I fill in the blanks. That’s a very different process. It has its own structure.

Do you think you have to be entrepreneurial to self-publish the way that you do?

I think you have to be entrepreneurial or at least learn how to be entrepreneurial in order to have a business as an author, regardless of how you’re publishing these days. Publishers, as you know, want authors to be doing marketing. Once you’ve had your month of them — if you’re lucky you’ll get a publicist for a month, then they’re moving onto the next author. You’re not, unless you’re super-super famous, they’re not going to be pimping your book for the rest of your life, which is what we do if we want to make a living for the rest of our life in this way.

I think what I’ve learned about this market, and I’ll selling in 58 countries now, so everything I do has a global focus. I make sure my books are available all over the world, I’m doing different languages now. I’m doing lots of different formats, selling direct on my website. I think by learning about all of this stuff you can make a living out of it, but absolutely there are lots of authors, in fact the vast majority of authors have a day job and that’s absolutely brilliant. There’s no need to become a full time author/entrepreneur at all, but if people want to you do have to learn about this stuff. And, it’s super fun. If it’s not fun go do something else.

We talked earlier and the author platform is something that you’re very vocal about how important it is. One question I was wondering, you have two sides, you have the Creative Penn, you have www.JFPenn.com, because you have 

non-fiction and you have fiction, the Creative Penn is very much a website about writing. How do you encourage your wide readership there to follow you across to your fiction site? How do you work with that? Do you keep the two identities separate? Or do you merge them? How does it work?


It’s very difficult. I say to people, “Don’t do it unless it’s really necessary.” Coming back to that self-censorship, I am these two people, I am this happy, bubbly, self-helpy kind of person, then I’ve also got a really shadow side and my books are very dark. If you like Stephen King and you like hanging out in graveyards you’ll like my books, but actually about five percent of the Creative Penn audience have followed me into my fiction. That’s the reality for all of us.


You’re writing kids’ books?




I’m not going to follow you into kids’ books, but I might be in the market for your books for authors. So, this is what we have to think. If your brands are very different then having two sites makes sense. My brands are very different, so I do have two. But, what I also do is everything on the Creative Penn is about what I learn on this journey. Naturally I talk about how I’m doing stuff along the way, “Oh, I’ve made a book trailer… this is how you make a book trailer… oh, and here is my book trailer.”


My launching a book in Italian, which will be in a couple of weeks, I’ll have a post on launching in Italian, “Oh, by the way, here’s the book in Italian.” The most important thing with this is focus on who your target market is and how you can be either useful or entertaining or inspirational for those people. I do information and inspiration at the Creative Penn and I do entertainment at JF Penn, so they’re quite different.


I think, for me, marketing is sharing what you love with people who are also into it too and want to hear about it. Naturally you just end up sharing what you’re doing. If people don’t have products for authors, if you don’t have books for authors, if you’re not a speaker, if you’re not selling something, then I think blogging for authors might not be so worthwhile as focusing on the target market for your books.


The secret then to building a great author platform is to understand who you’re talking to?


Absolutely, or it can be about you as a person and attracting people to you as a person. Like I said, I didn’t know I was going to write fiction and it was about two and a half years after I started my website before I started that way and I had to start all over again with JF Penn. What I share on JF Penn, I just posted yesterday, I did a video about my research for desecration called How Does the Physical Body Define Us in Life and in Death, my research. It’s a video and also a slideshow. That’s an example of content you can do on a fiction site, whereas my posts at the Creative Penn and my podcasts are more about helping authors.


If you were reduced to only promoting your books through one channel, because you do use a number of different channels, but if you could only do one, which one would you choose?


You can’t ask me that.


I can, I just did.


You just did! It’s impossible to say because I see each of these things as a different way of reaching people. I have videos, podcasts and I do text stuff in order to reach a different market. If you only had one you would only reach a certain market, I mean we’re writing, so it would be writing. If I were starting again with fiction I would probably do a lot more output in fiction, so I wouldn’t even blog, I would just write short stories, I would write lots of novellas. The people earning the most money as self-publishers right now are incredibly prolific fiction authors. They are putting out a lot of fiction. They don’t necessarily blog or do anything else except write books. The author platform is only necessary in terms of blogging and social and all of that, if you are not somebody who’s writing a book a month, which I’m not —


A book a month? Yes, I’m not doing that either. You do hear a lot of authors, particularly, I find established authors who will say that social media and branding are a waste of time and you’re better off simply writing the next book. In some instances you might agree with that, as long as they were writing lots of books?


I think you don’t have a choice about brand. Brand is how people perceive you. Everything that you put out in the world, every book that you put out is a brand anyway. You will get a brand, there’s no choice.


Whether you want one or not.


Yeah, whether you want one or not. I mean the reason JF Penn is a different brand to Joanna Penn is I was getting reviews that said, “I had no idea Joanna was so dark.” “Why does a woman write such violent things?” I was like, “I don’t want people to judge me according to my gender or who they think I am as Joanna Penn. I want readers to just find my books and enjoy them for what they are.” You can see that my brand as Joanna Penn, the Creative Penn, was impacting how people were reading my thrillers, hence I had to create another brand. That really impacted me.


If you think of an author, think of a famous author, things come to mind, emotional resonance, what they do. It happens anyway.


The other thing about listening to advice from people in general, if you’re going to listen to advice, like me included, don’t listen to my advice if you don’t want to end up with a career like mine. Do you see what I mean?




If people listening want to be a literary writer who wins literary prizes don’t listen to me and don’t listen to Hugh Howey or any of the big name authors, you’ve got to listen to the people whose careers are the way you want them to be.


Something that you want to emulate, basically.


Yeah, what I find amongst the traditional publishing, and I do want to use the word ‘snobbish,’ there is a lot of snobbery in Britain, Britain is terrible for it, about what is worthy, what is a good book. Basically, what eBooks have shown what is a good book is what people want to read. You can’t judge that, you can only judge what you think is a good book, that’s how I see it anyway.


Just changing the subject slightly, earlier this year you published a non-fiction title about public speaking for introverts, which we recommended in an earlier episode of our podcast. We were just wondering what drove you to write that book?

Well, I’ve done public speaking for quite a while now and I really enjoy it, but it really tires me out. I had never thought I was an introvert. I’m not shy. I think shy and not shy and introversion and extroversion are on different scales. Introvert to me are people who get energy by being alone and being with people actually sucks a lot of energy. Conferences and conventions, big crowds, generally, are difficult for introverts. I’m actually quite a chronic introvert. I actually find it easier to speak than to be in the crowd, because as a speaker you’re quite separate.


Why I wrote the book was, one, I read Susan Cane’s Quiet: The Power of Being Quiet in a Loud World, or something like that. It’s an amazing book, highly recommend it. I read that book. Also a friend of mine, I was at a conference and I said, “You know, I’m so tired — why am I so tired?” She said, “You’re an introvert.” It just struck me that I am. As I’m an author and people would ask me, “How do you speak? I could never do that.” I wanted to kind of get rid of the myth to be a public speaker you have to be this extroverted Tony Robbins figure, actually you can bring your real self, you can bring your authenticity to public speaking and that will help.


I also think for authors, particularly, once you get noticed you will be asked to speak, you will be asked to be on a panel at a conference, you will be asked to go on a podcast, you’ll be asked to do lots of things that are outside your comfort zone. You might as well learn in advance.


Get in early and practice.


Yeah, because it’s amazing. I’m sure you know and, like, mentioning the Sydney Writers’ Festival, remember one author who did a reading and I just went, “You know what? I thought you were good before and now I think you’re terrible,” because they just ruined what I though of them by their terrible way of coming across in the live event. They just couldn’t — they read with a monotone, they just weren’t engaging at all. I think authors have to learn these things or you will actually put people off. If you do a good live performance as such people are more likely to buy your book.


And that’s what it comes down to.


Yes, it does. At the end of the day we want people to read our books, to enjoy them and also to change people’s lives. I think that’s what we want as well, as to earn money.


Yes. Yes, to pay the bills.

My last question then, like just given all of the things that we just talked about. I just had this vision of what your days must look like, how do you fit it all in? Do you sleep ever?


Yeah, I sleep a lot. I’m a real sleeper; I need at least eight hours.


I have a Filofax, which is on my desk right now. I’m a massive scheduler. I schedule everything all the time, that’s from six to eight months in advance I’ll be scheduling speaking events and books. I do have a production plan; it’s got about twelve books on it at the moment that I’m planning out. I’m really quite hardcore about treating this as my job, which it is now, and again creating art everyday and focusing the things that will get more products and more creative stuff out in the world. But, yeah, so I schedule things.


I also have an app on my phone called Office Time, where I do a timesheet everyday, which is really good. I have one time code for email and social media and if that creeps up over an hour a day I know I have to stop. Those are the things that help me measure what I’m doing over time.


Also the blog really helps. I put goals on the blog. I’m very accountable; I have accountability meetings with people. I’m covering quite a lot of this in this business authors book, but the idea of taking this seriously, like your day job, some days you have a real sick day, but most days even if you don’t feel like it you go to work. That’s more of thing, it’s like I love, love, love what I do. I’m so happy; it’s just crazy how happy I am with the way I’m living now, after how miserable I was. I used to cry everyday, I really did. When I lived in Brisbane I was crying everyday at work, I hated it — I hated it. Changing my life this way has made such a difference. Again, I’m so passionate. I don’t want to be doing anything else, so I think that helps too. If you’re not passionate about what you’re doing write a different book, or find something you love.


Find something else?


Yeah. Yeah, I mean don’t — it shouldn’t be that hard. You know? It’s difficult. It’s one of these things, it’s simple, but it’s not easy. It’s just as hard for me to sit and actually write something, but I love the finished process and I measure my life by what I create. It’s important.


Fantastic. I love the fact that you have a Filofax, I just need to say that, because I have one as well.



I get laughed at. I have to see it in front of me, if I can’t see it in front of me it didn’t happen. 


Yeah, me too!


Thank you so much for your time today. I really, really appreciate you talking to us and we’ll put all of the links to your various sites and other adventures in our show notes. Good luck with the research, the very jealous-making research, for your new book.


Thank you so much, Allison. It was great to come on the show.

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