Joanna Penn’s pearls of wisdom

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Recently we spoke with Joanna Penn – author, speaker and entrepreneur. She writes thrillers under the name JF Penn and uses her actual name for her non-fiction blog books on writing and entrepreneurship. She’s also runs the super popular Creative Penn website and is in high demand around the globe as a speaker. Here are some highlights from Joanna’s chat with Allison Tait.

On discovering what she actually loved:
“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 dragged around books at a really young age. I would carry a whole bag around when I was like three.”

On succeeding by never stopping:
“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 winding journey.”

Her initial idea of fiction:
“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.”

November 2009:
“That year I did NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. I came up with 20,000 words of the first novel, which became [her debut fiction novel] Pentecost 15 months later. I went through so much then. I actually collected it all and it’s so painful to go through the posts. 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.”

On her favourite research tool:
“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’.”

On choosing your battles:
“I think 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 feel like, ‘OK, I just put it out in the world and it will find its audience over time.’

On enjoying what you do:
“There’s a great quote from Krishna, which is you have right to your labour, not the fruit of your labour. 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.

“[T]he book I recommend for people is Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield — fantastic book for kicking your ass when you’re feeling low.”

On productivity:

”It’s so funny, I think everyone has got their own opinion of what productive is… 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!”

On being your own biggest cheerleader:
“Regardless of how you’re publishing these days, publishers 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 on to the next author. 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.”

On branding yourself as an author:
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.

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

On what constitutes a good book:
A good book is what people want to read.”

 On the importance of public speaking:
“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.”

The final word
“At the end of the day we want people to read our books, to enjoy them and also to change people’s lives. And to earn money…”

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J Penn


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