Welcome to the three hundred and thirty-third of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with non-fiction and religious / paranormal action-adventure thriller author Joanna Penn. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Joanna. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Joanna: I’m Joanna Penn, British, living in London, England but I have spent the last 11 years in Australia and New Zealand. I always wanted to be a novelist but I was blocked for many years thinking I needed to write literary fiction in the style of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Finally, in 2009, I joined NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, and that kickstarted the ideas for my first novel, Pentecost. Now I have the fiction bug!
Morgen: I love NaNoWriMo. I’ve done it four times and love the discipline. What genre do you write?
Joanna: I am currently writing action-adventure thrillers for my first series, which are a cross between Dan Brown and the Lara Croft games / movies. The books feature religious and psychological themes with a kick-ass heroine and lots of brilliant locations as I am a travel junkie. I have also just started a novel which is more crime / psychological thriller.
Morgen: They sound like fun. What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Joanna: I have two action-adventure thrillers, Pentecost and Prophecy, in the ARKANE series. ARKANE is a secret British government agency responsible for investigating religious and paranormal mysteries. Their headquarters is under Trafalgar Square (but don’t tell anyone!) Both books are available on the Amazon Kindle.
I don’t have a pseudonym, but I use my initials for fiction and my full name for non-fiction.
Morgen: Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Joanna: I received a rejection for my first non-fiction book but have never queried my fiction. I know a lot about self-publishing and book marketing so I went the independent route with my books as a positive choice, rather than a last resort.
Morgen: Me too, although I did send to half a dozen agents before I started thinking I’d prefer to do the whole thing myself. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Joanna: I don’t have an agent and haven’t looked for one as yet. In terms of success, it depends how you define it. If you want a physical book in Waterstones, Piccadilly, then yes, you probably need an agent. But for me, success means connecting with readers and making more income than a standard author advance, which I have achieved. Pentecost has now sold over 30,000 copies and Prophecy has been selling well since I launched in February.
I also think that agents will be far more interested in successful authors who know how to write and market books so I am investing in those skills for the longer term.
Morgen: 30,000… wow! I’m just uploading my eBooks on Amazon… I’d love to pick your brains. So presumably your books are available as eBooks, do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Joanna: Yes, and I have decided to go ebook only for my fiction. I personally read 99% ebooks these days and shop almost exclusively on the Kindle. I know how to market to that audience, and when I had a print option, my sales were still over 90% ebook so it doesn’t make commercial sense for me.
I create the ebook files myself using Scrivener, which is a brilliant tool for writers. I love the freedom of being able to publish myself and have a book available for sale within 24 hours of publishing. But of course, I always use a professional editor and cover designer. I consider myself an independent author, an entrepreneur using other professionals in the collaborative process that is publishing.
Morgen: An editor is my only outsourcing (so far anyway) and no-one should edit their own writing. Having a second opinion is so valuable. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Joanna: I do all my marketing myself, and I actually really enjoy it! I have an author blog at JoannaPenn.com as well as a writers site at TheCreativePenn.com. I’m active on twitter @thecreativepenn and use a whole load of other marketing tactics, including paid advertising to promote my books. I have a YouTube channel and a podcast on iTunes as multimedia is a great way to connect with people and promote the brand. Everything you do online can be perceived as marketing so it is critical to be authentic and also to enjoy the process.
Morgen: I’m not far behind you (blog, Twitter, podcast on iTunes – I’ve definitely considered YouTube). Do you have a favourite of your books or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Joanna: I only have two books right now so my central character Morgan Sierra would have to be my favourite. She is my alter-ego. She shoots the bad guys, looks great in a cocktail dress and is an ex Israeli military psychologist, specializing in paranormal and religious experience.
Morgan would be played by Angelina Jolie, in the same vein as the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider films, or her more recent assassin in Salt. Jake Timber, the ARKANE agent, would be played by David Boreanz from Bones / Angel or Hugh Jackman. [I’ve thought a lot about this!]
Morgen: All great choices. Seeing as today is Easter Sunday, I’d love to know what inspires you to focus on the religious aspects in your fiction?
Joanna: Religion and spirituality are deeply fascinating to me. I have a Masters in Theology from Oxford University and my thesis was on the psychology of fundamentalist religion, which I continue to be interested in today. I also find that biblical stories often resonate with readers as grains of truth in a fictional story.
For Pentecost, I tracked the bones of the Apostles to their resting places around the ancient world in order to find stones that could have been empowered by the events of Pentecost. In Prophecy, I expanded on the apocalyptic verses in the book of Revelation and combined that with eugenics to create a doomsday scenario. So the religious aspects act as an idea catalyst which I combine with a modern day thriller. The books are not Christian but equally are not offensive to Christians. It’s a hard line to tread but an edge I enjoy walking.
Morgen: What are you working on at the moment / next?
Joanna: I’m working on the third ARKANE novel, Exodus, which is around the themes of the Ark of the Covenant, ancient Egypt and a terror plot to bring down the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. It will be another kick-ass action-adventure thriller.
I’m also working on a new book that will feature a psychic who can read the past through touching objects (psychometry). It will be set around a murder at the Hunterian Museum in London, where there are hundreds of medical objects collected by the surgeons there.
Morgen: It certainly sounds like you keep busy. Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Joanna: I always write every day, but not necessarily fiction. I often write in my journal on various subjects, and I create articles, blog posts and other media for marketing and also income.
I think writer’s block is more about being empty inside so you have to get out and fill the creative well. I don’t suffer from it as I just go out and find some inspiration if the well gets a little dry!
Morgen: Your plots sound so intricate, do you plot them or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Joanna: I’m a hybrid ‘pantser’-plotter. I decide on the theme and broad story idea, then I roughly map out about 20 scenes. Then I start writing on those scenes and extend from there. After about 40,000 words, I often go back and re-plot.
Morgen: I plotted for my first NaNo but then the characters and plot took over (which I love) and it went out the window somewhat. Given your complex plots, do you have to do much research?
Joanna: I do extensive research for my books, and that is one of the most enjoyable aspects of fiction for me. I start with a broad idea and then research from that point in order to create a real basis to the story. It’s important in thrillers that as much as possible is based in reality and that makes the fiction aspect more believable.
In my latest book, Prophecy, the characters hunt for the Devil’s Bible, which is a real medieval manuscript. They go to macabre locations like the bone church of Sedlec in the Czech Republic as well the Capuchin crypt in Palermo where bodies are mummified underground. There are really ten missing pages from the book and I weave in the art history of Albrecht Durer, whose wood blocks of the apocalypse fit into the story perfectly. I often find moments of synchronicity where truth seems to enable the fiction I am telling.
Morgen: I can see why your books do so well, you clearly have attention to detail. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Joanna: I really don’t enjoy the first draft! I love idea generation and researching, and I also love the editing and rewriting process. It’s just a pain creating the first block of writing that can then be shaped into something worth reading. This is definitely the hardest part for me. I also love the business of being an author, the connection with readers and marketing activities, so really, I enjoy an awful lot.
Morgen: That’s really interesting. I love the first draft, just getting it on paper (screen) but am not at all keen on editing (I still have my four novels to edit!) and marketing is certainly hard work, although this blog is my main What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Joanna: In the words of Michael Crichton, “writing is rewriting”. What crippled me for so many years was thinking that I had to write perfect sentences whenever my fingers touched the keys. But the truth is that all writers spend a lot of time editing. That’s what turns a manuscript into a book. Self-editing and rewriting is an extensive process that you go through before you even work with someone else as an editor. All of this will continually improve the book until it’s ready for your readers. So if you are an aspiring writer, just get on with writing a first draft and then you can polish it later. Get words on a page.
Morgen: That’s the great thing about NaNoWriMo – it gets words written. You can’t edit a blank page. What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks?
Joanna: I love to travel and get itchy feet if I don’t get to a faraway place regularly. I include a lot of my travels in my writing. I’m a PADI Divemaster and love to scuba dive. I’m a cat person. I like silence and although I love public speaking, I am an introvert, like many writers.
Morgen: I’m getting better at public speaking, although I usually (I say “usually” like it happens all the time!) have to wear a sleeveless top as I get so warm! Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Joanna: Check out the Top 10 Blogs for Writers, and the 20 finalists. These sites were voted the top sites out of thousands of submissions.
Morgen: And I see you’re on there, well done. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Joanna: I am very active on twitter @thecreativepenn. Twitter is a brilliant community and a fantastic way to network with other writers, as well as find an audience for your books. Social networking is valuable if you go about it the right way. It has to be an authentic social experience, but you can also use it effectively without wasting time.
Morgen: I use Twitter and Facebook a lot, fortunately mostly automatically through the blog and Scoop.it. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Joanna: I am tremendously excited about the future for writers. It is seriously the best time in history to be an author because we can reach readers directly these days. This connection helps with developing an audience for our books, as well as providing an ongoing income stream. The technologies available provide an amazing platform for authors who are willing to experiment with online marketing as well as different digital projects that can reach a global market.
Morgen: I’m excited too. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Morgen: Thank you, Joanna.
I then invited Joanna to include a short synopsis of her latest book and this is taken from ‘Prophecy’, an ARKANE thriller by J.F.Penn…
The prophecy in Revelation declares that a quarter of the world must die and now a shadowy organization has the ability to fulfill these words. Can one woman stop the abomination before it’s too late?
From the catacombs of Paris to the skeletal ossuaries of Sicily and the Czech Republic, Morgan and Jake must find the Devil’s Bible and stop the curse being released into the world before one in four are destroyed in the coming holocaust. Because in just seven days, the final curse will be spoken and the prophecy will be fulfilled.
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