How Professional Writers Avoid Distractions: Interview with Author Joanna Penn
How 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!
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 days. There 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?
As Joanna said, setting a timer will focus you on the task at hand and keep you from getting distracted.
And if you post, be sure to give feedback to a few other writers.