“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
― Toni Morrison

How Professional Writers Avoid Distractions: Interview with Author Joanna Penn

Joanna PennHow do you get your writing finished and complete your deadlines in the midst of a frenetic, distracting world? How do you break away from Facebook, Twitter, blog posts, and the other perils of the internet and just write?

We’d all like to live more focused, whole lives, but how do you actually do that?

Today, I’m interviewing author Joanna Penn to find out. Joanna Penn is the author of the ARKANE thrillers, Pentecost and Prophecy. She is also an entrepreneur and professional speaker. Her site for writers The Creative Penn has been voted one of the Top 10 sites for writers two years running and offers articles, audio, and video on writing, publishing and book marketing. To learn more about her fiction, visit her fiction website, JFPenn.com. You can also connect with her on Twitter (@thecreativepenn).

Thanks for joining us today, Joanna!

So over the last few years, you’ve built a very large blog. How do you manage to write fiction while building and maintaining your platform?

I started TheCreativePenn.com in December 2008 and originally it was just a way to share my lessons learned after I self-published a non-fiction book about career change. I was a miserable IT consultant so I needed that book to help myself first, and then other people. It was only after I found a writing community online that I dared even consider fiction and I started Pentecost, the first ARKANE novel in Oct 2009, finally self-publishing it in Feb 2011.

So the blog was going all that time and I just shared what I learned along the way, writing every 2-3 days, so there’s been a lot of lessons.

Once I decided to change my life back in 2008, I was very driven to succeed so this has been my passion, my hobby and now my living as I became a full-time author-entrepreneur in Sept 2011. Basically it all comes down to time management and while I was working full-time I would get up an hour earlier and get 1,000 words done at 5am, or work on the blog/ podcast or videos. Then the weekends I would also work on it, and we got rid of the TV in 2008 as well so that was less of a time suck. Nowadays I switch between different kinds of writing as well as marketing, chunking my time down into diarized segments.

What are three tricks you use to keep yourself from getting distracted while you write?

(1)  Diary scheduling. I diarize days specifically for writing when I don’t schedule anything else – as I also have speaking and consulting commitments, as well as the sites to maintain. I try to have at least 3 days a week scheduled for fiction so I can sink into that different zone in order to create, but I also sometimes manage some words on the other days too.

(2)  I work at the London Library. I find that my desk at home is best for interviews, podcasting, videos and blogging – all the marketing stuff, but that it’s great for me to get out of the house and go to the library in order to change my physical space and remove distraction.

(3)  Set timer for ninety minutes. I do this when I create at home. Each ninety minute burst has to have a creative outcome (e.g. 2,000 words, or a blog post, or a podcast, or an interview like this). During that time I can’t check email or twitter or anything, I just have to get the creative part done. I aim to get at least four of these slots in per day—but sometimes it is less. But everyone can manage at least one!

If you were to start over, knowing everything you know now, how would you build a platform just for your fiction?

I would have a website with a list signup ready from day one when the first book was launched, and at the back of the book would be a link to signup if the reader enjoyed the book. This would start growing my fan-base from book sales. I would then get the second book ready before I did anything too over the top in terms of marketing, but during that time, I would learn from others and network with authors in my niche to get an understanding of what’s happening in the market and build a group of supporters.

I would hustle reviews through book giveaways but probably not much else. When the second book was out, I would then give the first book away free—either through Smashwords (with Amazon price match) or using KDP Select. This would bump up the “sales” of the first one and get the second one moving.

I’d also get on the radar of the sites that promote free books. I have had great success with paying for promotion on sites like Pixel of Ink and Kindle Nation Daily, as they have huge lists of readers ready to buy. The main thing is to get the Amazon algorithms fed with good reviews, good sales spikes and then more books over time.

All of the other marketing tactics have their place in terms of hustling those first 1,000 readers but I found my fiction income rose substantially with two books. And as the big names who have so many books say, writing more books is the best marketing for fiction. But it’s important to remember, there are no rules—so just find what you enjoy and what is sustainable.

I do have non-fiction as well though, plus a speaking and online business, so I use every marketing tactic under the sun 🙂

You write thrillers in the vein of Indiana Jones and The DaVinci Code. Can you tell us about your latest book?

The latest book is called Prophecy, which came out earlier this year. The inspiration comes from the book of Revelation and the pale horse whose rider is Death. The symbol is used by a secret organization, Thanatos, who have a plan to initiate mass destruction through a program of eugenics and by igniting a religious war. The final key to their plan is an ancient curse hidden in a lost manuscript, the Devil’s Bible.

After being targeted by assassins at a psychiatric Institute, Morgan Sierra, Oxford University psychologist and ex-Israeli military, joins forces with Jake Timber from ARKANE, a shadowy British group who investigate religious and supernatural mysteries. Together they must hunt down the Devil’s Bible and stop the curse being released into the world—because in just seven days, the prophecy will be fulfilled.

The action ranges from the Louvre and the catacombs in Paris, to the ossuaries of Sicily and the Czech Republic, so it’s truly an international thriller with kick-ass action and a twisted plot. It’s available on all ebook stores and can be read as a stand-alone thriller or with the first in the series, Pentecost.

How long do you spend researching before you begin writing? 

I am a research junkie and love to spend a long time coming up with wild and crazy conspiracy theories based on a lot of pre-reading. I do about a month of reading and writing notes before I write the first scenes but I do some rough outlining in that stage. I continue to research extra bits as I write and new aspects of plot or character emerge.

For example, I’ve almost finished the final draft of Exodus, the next in the ARKANE series which is about the hunt for the Ark of the Covenant as the Middle East counts down to a religious war. I’ve read so many books about Israelite pre-history as well as ancient Egypt and the possible places the Ark could be, but I’ve also been studying palimpsests and the Codex Sinaiticus as well as Jordanian archaeology. I share a lot of this research on my fiction blog at JFPenn.com. It’s fascinating stuff (if you like that kind of thing)!

One thing some writers struggle with is letting the research become an excuse to avoid writing. How do you know when it’s time to stop researching and start writing?

I tend to set deadlines and that drives the process (e.g. first draft has to be done in 3 months), so I can spend a few weeks researching and then dive in. Setting deadlines is critical if you are not working to a publishing contract.

What’s the worst writing day you’ve ever had?

I don’t really get this question as I don’t have bad writing days.

There are days when I don’t write at all, but they are more like rest daysThere are days when I write a few thousand words and none of it goes into the book, but those are like practice days, and they definitely happen to everyone. There are days when writing is hard, but this is my living so I just get on with it! I’m also a glass-half-full person, so generally I am extremely positive and loving life. 🙂

What do you do to avoid distractions while you write?

PRACTICE

As Joanna said, setting a timer will focus you on the task at hand and keep you from getting distracted.

So today, use e.ggtimer.com and free write distraction free for fifteen minutes. When you’re finished, post your your practice in the comments section.

And if you post, be sure to give feedback to a few other writers.

Good luck!

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

  • Awesome interview. I love knowing author routines. Thanks Joanna and Joe!

    • You’re welcome, Shaquanda. Thanks for reading! 🙂

  • Bill felt his phone vibrating in his pocket as the staff meeting droned on. In his attempt to nonchalantly check the text, he fumbled the phone, sending it reverberating against the hardwood floor. All heads turned in his direction.

    “Sorry,” he said, disappearing under the massive conference table. The staff’s collective eye roll quickly dismissed the disruption and turned back toward the CEO at the other end of the table. The two women staffers shifted uncomfortably in their chairs.

    Bill found his phone and quickly checked the brief text from his wife, “I told you the end was close. Today’s the day.” He jerked in shock and bumped his head on the bottom of the table.

    “Shit! Sorry,” Bill said as he awkwardly ascended back into the light.

    “Bill, what the hell?” came the voice from the end of the table. The CEO looked at him sternly over his reading glasses.

    “I’m sorry; I just got a disturbing text from my wife. I need to go. Sorry.” He grabbed his stuff and exited the conference room without making eye contact. 

    Bill tried calling his wife as he raced through the parking garage to his car, but she never answered. He kept trying as he tailgated his way home, alternating between her cell phone and their land line. Still no answer. 

    “It’s really happening. She’s going through with it,” Bill muttered as he waited at the longest red light in history. He wiped his eyes on his shirt sleeve and turned on the radio. His shaky hands reached for a half-smoked cigarette from the ashtray and relit it. “I can’t believe she’s doing this to us,” he said just as the light turned green.

    As he got within sight of his house, he spotted his wife standing next to a man who was closing the trunk of his Lexus. Bill’s tires squealed as he turned into the driveway blocking the man in. Without taking his eyes off the couple, he quickly reached into his glove compartment.

    The two froze in shock as Bill got out of his car pointing a gun at them. 

    “Bill, what are you doing?!” his wife screamed. 

    Bill shot twice, first at his wife and then at the fleeing man. As his wife lay bleeding on the driveway, Bill looked in her fading eyes before heading toward the dead man’s car.

    “How many times did I tell you,” Bill shouted, “that I would kill you if you ever attempted this?”

    Bill stuck his gun in his waistband and fell to the ground to pick up the car keys and gather up the cash that had fallen. He stood up, retrieved his cell phone from his pocket and dialed 911.

    “Hello, I would like to report a breakdown, I’m sorry, a break-in at 2314 Maple.”

    Bill hung up the phone and put it in his pocket. He stuck the key in the trunk of the Lexus and opened it cautiously.

    “There you are sweetheart; you’re safe with me now.” 

    Bill could hear the faint sound of the siren approaching as he carefully reached down and lifted his precious 52 inch flat screen TV out of the trunk and carried it back into the house.

    • I liked reading this, it was riveting and you held my attention till the end but I felt like it was hard to believe the protagonist was going to kill his wife. The buildup to it was good, and I suppose you were limited in your time and space – I just think that murders are believable after a lot of explanation and elaboration, after you get to know the character really well. 

      • Yea, murdering your wife for selling your flat screen TV was a bit absurd, but I suppose absurdity was what I was going for here. But you’re right, to make murders believable, there needs to be a greater build up. Thanks, Rebecca.

  • The guy was a letch, an absolute letch. 
    How was she going to get him to come out as the total sleaze he was. She’d known him at school, kept a good distance, he was just a little bit too weird or odd. Nothing you could put your finger on, just a creepiness. His palms sweated when he shook hands.
    She used this as a litmus test of oddity in men, since him. He was a businessman now, giving money generously to charities and that was how their paths crossed.
    Three women and herself from church were to meet Mr Southall, it never occurred to her that it was Diarmuid. She had not thought of him much but guessed he’d be locked up for salacious behaviour of some description. 
    He didn’t recognise her, she felt his hand, smooth like a child’s. limp like a lettuce leaf left at the back of the fridge  and cold, sweaty, yuck, she thought. The women chatted to him, he was married. How did that happen? They all seemed enamoured, but all she thought was how to get him. Something was off and she wanted to know what.
    Although she ran the temperance bar in town, trying to keep the kids away from drink and drugs she had a sideline. A secret that very few people knew, she was a very low key private detective and she would use all her resources to bring Diarmuid to bear.
    She owed it to her friends, the ones who didn’t keep a bargepole between them and him. Odd gossip flitted to her throughout high school about his behaviour, shadowy. odd and definitely not mainstream… 

  • Really helpful info, thanks. I believe I need to get better at using small chunks of time, rather than thinking I need 2-3 hours to get any writing done.

  • Great interview, Joe. And you picked the best indie author to ask. She gets more done than the rest of us combined. I like #3 for discipline. I do something similar. 

  • I think it boils down to staving off laziness. There’s a million excuses I come up with for why I can’t write, right now, but they all sound hollow, even when I follow through with one. I’ve experimented with the Pomodorro Technique, which is pretty legit, but I have trouble sticking with stuff like that. I think the key thing is to just write a bit, get a bit down and the rest just sort of flows out of you.

    Excellent interview, btw. Really enjoyed it.

  •    Rays of sunlight stroked the the tinted glass. I picked the seat closer to the window and brought us coffee. I brought a skim decaf cappuccino with no sugar for me and a flat white with two sugars for you. I do this every Friday. I know it’s stupid. You’re not here … and I buy two coffees, one of them gets thrown out every week. I pick a spot in the cafe, one that contains views of the city and I give you the better seat – the seat where you can get the view. I pull out your chair and wait for you to sit down. I sit down and then I talk to you… but the truth is, I’m talking to an empty chair. I know this. If you were still around you’d think that this was hilarious. Or maybe you are still around. Your presence lingers in this cafe, I can feel it, the scent of this particular blend – your favorite blend. The staff, the fact that they are all undergraduates and people on travelling visas, the books on the coffee table, well thumbed with your personal tag on some of them. Everything about this place reminds me of you. 

      I talk to you every week. I don’t know how I appear sometimes. Insane? Crazy? Just weird? The psych students probably think I have some sort of mental illness – Schizophrenia perhaps or depression with some psychosis. I tried therapy. The grief counselor would listen but her high pitched voice annoyed me. The behavioral therapist seemed to be so formulaic – giving me coping mechanisms… I didn’t want coping mechanisms, I just wanted to talk about you. I wanted to be with you again and again and again. 

    I wonder why the world feels disturbed about me meeting with you and talking to you every week. Why can’t the world won’t accept these conversations with you as nice or sweet. I live a normal and productive life, I manage to get out of bed and go to work every day. I am no burden to society. I pay by bills and I pay my taxes. I have a job and I make a valid contribution to our society. Five years have passed since your death… and I still talk to you, I meet you at the same cafe where we first met. Is there anything wrong with what I am doing? 

  • This is a new story I am working on. This is my first fifteen minute session. I appreciate any feedback.Thanks

    I do not know where she found the child or how she got him to come to the house. It had been many years since anyone who wasn’t paid to had crossed the threshold. Too many children had disappeared for anyone to come near the place anymore. I should have been dust long ago, but Evelyn seemed to know when I grew dangerously weak and I would be given just enough of what I needed to keep me alive. And even in my despair I wanted to live, so I took what I was given. I knew her well enough to know that this was not out of kindness, but in case she needed my skills again. 

    In the days before she came, the house was cleaned and I was taken down from top of the wardrobe, my glass domed prison ,with its wooden base, dusted. I was placed on a nightstand next to a bed with gleaming white sheets and forgotten. It was to this room that she brought the child and tucked him in. To any other eye it would have seemed a loving gesture, but I knew it for what it was. Evelyn would treat him well until he was ready to be an offering and then she would serve him up like all the others. 

    As I watched him sleep in those first days, the hardness of his life was clear. His hair was thin and greasy, the skin was a thin parchment over bone. Often in those first days his breath was so shallow that it often seemed  to cease. When he opened his eyes on the third day, I was the first thing he saw. Not every one can see a fairy, but the boy, I was sure that was what he was now,( we can smell these things) had been close enough to death that he was aware of things that are usually hidden. 

  • The sun is just beginning to sink, but it’s still hot and soon it will be cold.   In two hours it will be freezing.  Cold, hot… Hot, cold… always an extreme, never in between.  A dusty wind blows down the alley, trailing trash and tin cans. The debris ricochets off brick, bangs and plinks against an old refrigerator.

    Dust used to be an inconvenience—something to be swept up and dumped in the trash, a smudge to Windex, a bothersome layer to shampoo out of hair and wash down the drain.  But dust has turned darker in the last six months, morphed into something unshakable and inescapable.  A nightmare, a choking, suffocating nightmare that blots out the sun… paints the moon red. It gets in your teeth, hides like a hermit in your pores, burrows
    underneath your fingernails.  It envelops all who live on the run, obliterates our heritage, paints us all a common greyish-brown. 

    I see it’s taken hold of the baby as well, strained her tears brown, turned her snot gritty.  “Shhhhh, it’s okay, it’s okay,” I coo, lying through chapped lips.  It isn’t okay.  And its not going to be okay.  Not now. Not ever.  “Shhhh, I got you, it’s okay.”  I turn my back, try to block out the worst of the wind.  Ash clings to my arms, peppers the babies tattered blanket. 

    This is what the world has been reduced to, dust, and ash and dirty tears, and cough, cough, cough and no matter how many times you cough, never having enough clean air to take a breath. 

    Every breath toxic…
    toxic yet necessary. 

    “God damn it Twyla,” Clay hisses, his voice muffled behind his bandana. “Put that kid back where you found it.” 

    I look up.  He’s wearing goggles, fat black band wrapped around his head.  He blinks behind the dusty Plexiglas.  “Where’d you get those?” I ask, wishing it had been me who’d found the goggles, him who’d found the baby.  

    “Dead guy around the corner.  He’s fresh…”  Clay lets the words trail off.  No need to say more. 

    “I use to have a pair just like that, for skiing,” I say thinking of snow, craving ice.  My stomach growls.

    “Twyla, did you hear me?  The guy was fresh.  We have to get the hell out of here.”

    I nod.  The latest attack came by air, we’d heard the planes, felt the ground tremble; the Wanderers would be here soon.  The goggles… if they’d seen the goggles they’d be back for sure, they’d never allow goggles to be left behind. 

    The baby wiggles an arm free of her wrap—an old sweater I realized, a cardigan with big wooden buttons.  The babies’ eyes are flooded with tears, specks of gray dust, and darker flakes of ash float in the pools. 

    Tears… 

    So She (well maybe not a she, but easier to think of her as she than a he). I shake my head, focus on the babies’ damp cheeks.  So she can still make tears—a good sign…
    or a bad one, depending on how you look at it. Bad… definitely bad.   

    I look around, hopeful, as if I expect some nanny to come running around the corner—some fat woman with white nurses shoes and a giant bouncing bosom. She’d see the baby, clutch her heart, fan her face… “Lordy, I thought I’d lost her, thank you Jesus!  God, I must have thrown her away by mistake.” 

    I laugh, bitter, and curse myself for opening the dumpster lid.  I’d heard a noise, thought it was a cat, or maybe a raccoon, thought I might be able to kill what ever it was.  Fresh
    meat… that’s what I’d been thinking about.  Only this wasn’t the kind of meat I was hoping for. 

    “Pssst!” Clay is holding up a finger, crouching.

    My heart thuds, icy and hollow in the smoldering heat. I drop to my knees, make myself tiny, arranged my cape so it falls over my arms and legs.  My homemade…street-made.  My street-made camouflage, a patchwork collection of trash—old newspapers, gum wrappers, leaves, even a headless Barbie doll. 

    I hold my breath, listen… heavy booted footsteps, more than one set of them… at least four… four distinct clomps, four… no five identifiable rhythms… the tread confident… Wanderers, had to be Wanderers. 

    They are close but it’s hard to tell how close, everything echoes now that the world is empty.  Sounds bang through abandoned kitchens and empty dinners.  A single footstep made huge in vast and vacant movie theaters, in foodless food courts. 

    I put a dirty pinky in the babies’ mouth and pray her soft sucking doesn’t give us away.   She clamps her lips, moves her tongue back and forth.  I feel the beginning of a
    tooth… ignore it… move my finger until I only feel gum.  I wonder when she last had a drink.  Not long ago.  No.  It had to be recent… her mouth is too wet, her tears too plump.  I picture her pink lips wrapped around a breast, pulling, sucking—her flat belly made plump with swallow after swallow of milk. The baby sucks harder, as if she too is thinking of milk.  Her face scrunches up in concentration.  My stomach growls and I’m tempted to yank my finger from her mouth, suck the infants hydration off my skin.   

    I try to swallow, but fear has commandeered my saliva, transformed it into adrenalin.  I still have a little water in my flask, left over from last weeks rain, but I need to save that for an emergency.  And I can’t risk the noise. 

    Clomp, Clomp, Clomp.  Closer now… definitely closer.   I pull the baby into my chest, clamp my eyes shut.  The babies’ head presses against my lips.  She needs a bath and a change… but there is still something innocent underneath the stench of life… something
    familiar.  I focus on that, block out the rest, and breathe. 

    I see my Toby, alive and clean, playing a game on his iPad.  He’d just lost his fist tooth, was excited to put it under his pillow.  He’d asked me if there was an app that tracked
    the tooth fairy, like the one we’d watched Santa on.  He wanted to make sure he was in bed before she got there.  I’d cried when I saw that tooth, tiny and white, so perfect. 

    “Mommy, why are you crying?”

    “You’re growing up.” 

    He’d grinned, wriggled his tongue through the space where his tooth used to be.  “Don’t you want me to grow up?” he asked. 

    “No. I want you to stay little forever,” I said, tickling him. 

    The tooth fairy never made it, the blast came and half of the house crumbled.  I’d been in the kitchen pouring myself a glass of wine.  I’m lucky Toby died with the first round of firing.  I didn’t know it at the time.  No.  At the time I’d screamed and cursed God.  But God did me a favor.  I never had to watch dehydration steal Toby’s tears… starvation devour his will to live… fear turn him into a beast… a monster who would drink saliva from the mouth of a baby.  

    Clomp, Clomp, Clomp.  Something rattles the dumpster.  The lid screeches open, slams shut. 

    I freeze, lock eyes with the baby.  If I’d never opened that lid, never picked her up, I think, or if I’d put her back like Clay said… if I’d done any of those things, then they would have found her.  They’d be lifting her out of the trash right now.  She might have been the distraction Clay and I needed to escape.

    • I liked repetition of words you used but after reading I’m still confused as to you clay is. Is he her younger brother? Or a boyfriend? That were my closest guess.

      Also, I was drawn into the story but at the end I didn’t know what they were afraid of or running from. I didn’t know if the bombing were a random attack or a war act that was kind of expected.

      I also liked the flashback and think it should be placed more in the middle of the story because in the middle was when I was really confused about what was going on and the back story would have really helped. Lastly, I do ironically think the ending worked with the back flash as well so you have plenty of options. Maybe do both? Thanks for posting

      •  Thanks for taking the time to give feedback.  When I do these 15 min exercises I never have a plan, I just start writing.  I love it when I end up with something that peaks me curiosity…  I mean WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON HERE??  =)  I will have to keep writing to find out. 

        • M.C. Sutton

          Wow. I admire that you can come up with something like that in 15 minutes. I have the hardest time writing to a clock because I literally agonize over every word until it’s perfect before I put it on paper. Fantastic job! I was sucked in right away by your writing style alone.

  • The way I stared at her made me feel like a pervert but I couldn’t stop. Why was she doing this to me and why was I always suckered into this mess? She turned around after pulling up her jeans and gave me a questioning look.

    “What about these?” she gave me a full twirl showing her curves inside the blue jeans. She has to know I’m a man right? Yeah, I’m her best friend but..

    “They’re fine, Kate,” I said looking towards the changing room exit. “Let’s go before someone old woman with a chihuahua catches me in here.”

    “Oh, John-” she patted my shoulder- ” you’re no fun.”

    Kate changed her clothes without further comment and for that I was grateful. I unlocked the changing room door as soon as she was fully dressed. “Let’s just get out of here before…”

  • Wonderful advice from Joanna! Very positive way of looking at the journey of writing. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Sharon

    But if I were not so easily distracted, I wouldn’t have found this helpful article! 😉