Writing Fast, Collaboration, And Author Mindset With Daniel Willcocks

How can you write fast but also make your creative process sustainable for the long term? How can you collaborate effectively with other authors in your genre? Dan Willcocks talks about his creative and business approach.

In the intro, Draft2Digital acquires SelfPubBookCovers; Different types of creative energy [Self Publishing Advice]; Twitter becomes X [The Verge]; TikTok text posts [The Verge]; What AI can help you do in 30 mins [Ethan Mollick]; Discovery Writing with ChatGPT by J. Thorn; Claude 100K model on Poe.com; Facebook AI Writing for Authors.

Please join my shadow survey for my next book: www.jfpenn.com/shadowsurvey.

Plus Catacomb is available now! Walker Kane didn’t believe in monsters … Until they came for his daughter. Buy now on my new store, www.JFPennBooks.com – use discount coupon LAUNCH for 15% off.


Today’s show is sponsored by Ingram Spark, which I use to print and distribute my print-on-demand books to 40,000 retailers including independent bookstores, schools and universities, libraries, and more. It’s your content—do more with it through IngramSpark.com.

Daniel Willcocks is the international bestselling author of over 60 books, including horror, sci-fi, and nonfiction. He’s also an award-winning podcaster, author coach and speaker, and runs the Activated Author community.

You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.

Show Notes

  • Tips for being a prolific writer
  • Reasons why authors write darker books
  • Scheduling separate times for writing different genres
  • Creating a successful co-writing relationship
  • What is a series of standalone?
  • How to manage your time when you juggle multiple projects
  • Optimizing your strengths to best run an author business
  • Ambition and working to reach long-term goals

You can find Dan at DanielWillcocks.com, join his author community at ActivatedAuthors.com, and listen to his horror podcast at TheOtherStories.net

Transcript of Interview with Daniel Willcocks

Joanna: Daniel Willcocks is the international bestselling author of over 60 books, including horror, sci-fi and nonfiction. He’s also an award-winning podcaster, author coach and speaker, and runs the Activated Author community. So welcome to the show, Dan.

Dan: Thank you so much for having me. I am incredibly excited to be here. Before we start, I will say that this is a big moment for me because I’ve been listening to you since I started my author journey in 2014. So I’m glad we finally got here.

Joanna: Ah, 2014. It seems so long ago now. But fantastic, so you’re almost a decade and you’ve done a lot. It’s very exciting. But first up—

Tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing and publishing.

Dan: I’ve always been interested in reading. Writing was never something that I kind of foresaw as a career because I never thought it was achievable to become a writer. It just wasn’t a thing that was on my radar, but I’ve always studied English, I did some writing and things throughout university.

It wasn’t until the Christmas of 2013/2014 that I was gifted from a Secret Santa, a book of Stephen King short stories. And I was reading through these, and at the time I was a nonfiction proofreader and copy editor, sorting out other people’s work, and I was reading these stories just going like these are—like I didn’t understand the medium of short stories very well, and obviously, if you’re going to start anywhere, start with Stephen King. This collection, each story was so individual, and unique, and in depth for such a short amount of time.

I kind of just started putting fingers to keyboard, and around early 2014, I then discovered KDP. I had an old stage play that I’d written for university that got nominated to go to the Edinburgh Fringe. I thought, oh, let’s experiment and see if I can turn this into a book. I had no expectations of what that would look like. A couple of weeks later, I ended up with this book in my lap.

Then I started thinking, well, if I can do this, well, maybe I can write a short story.

And I ended up writing a novella called Sins of Smoke, that I ended up publishing in October of 2015. That went to number one in the horror charts. That whole experience of just putting stuff out there, I was like, this is fun. I just want a book that’s on the shelf for me. It kind of ignited a bit of a flame, and it was very quickly after that that I started collaborating with people, founded Hawk & Cleaver. It just kind of accelerated from there.

Joanna: Give us a little bit of an update in terms of where you are now because it’s a long way to go from a stage play that turned into a novella, and 60 books across multiple sub genres. So tell us—

How did you transition into writing so many books, and podcasting, and everything you do now?

Because it doesn’t just go from, oh, I wrote a novella and it hit number one in the charts, and now I’m full time and everything’s all good.

Dan: Yeah, well, everything that ends up big starts incrementally.

So after that first book was launched, I ended up reaching out to another indie author who wrote a dark sci fi book. It turned out that he was joining forces with two other authors, Ben Arrington, Luke Kondor, and they’re very chatty with a guy called Matt Butcher. They were starting with Hawk & Cleaver.

We jumped on a Zoom call during Christmas 2015, and we were like, you know what — 

We love writing the same similar things. Maybe we can do this together, help promote each other, and do it all under this unified brand.

I suggested that we create an e-magazine, we each write a 1000-word short story once a month, create an e-magazine, and we can publish on Kindle because I knew how to do that. Then that could be a way to build up a bit of an audience while we were all writing other things. 

Luke Kondor had a bit of a background in podcasting and suggested we made it a podcast. So we started writing this podcast, we got narrators in, Luke did a lot of the original editing.

And that podcast became The Other Stories, which launched in 2016, and now has hit 10 million plus downloads over the past sort of seven years. 

Along the way, I was working a full-time job until 2019. I developed a practice of writing every morning, of putting out content, of just making it a priority for me to do alongside the rest of my life.

So every morning, I would get up and I’d write those words. And, as I said, incrementally over time, I ended up publishing one book that turned into two, I then collaborated with Michael Anderle in his Kurtherian Gambit universe and wrote five book series in that universe.

I then went on to do three years of ghostwriting. In 2020, I wrote 26 books in a single year. So like, it all comes back to those humble beginnings. In the beginning, I was writing 200 words a day, ish, like every other day.

Then I just got so absorbed in it and really kind of did a lot of self-development, a lot of mindset work, which came on to form the foundation of the Activated Author community that I run.

Yeah, there is a lot to look back on and go, I have done a fair bit now. I podcasted for several years as well, and done well over 250 episodes across different podcasts. If you just chip away a little bit each day, in the end, it all adds up.

Joanna: Yes, well, I’m very impressed. People say I do a lot, but you do even more. You also have your family, so you’re a busy guy.

Let’s get into that word count because you said you were at 200 words a day or every couple of days. Now, I realize that some people don’t write every day.

I don’t write every day, I tend to binge-write.

So when I’m working on a project, I’ll binge write. Other people obviously have family issues, health issues, mental health issues.

So we’re not saying you have to write every day, that’s definitely not what we’re saying. But, in terms of you have a book for authors coming out later this year—

Dan: Yes.

Joanna: Which is 50,000 Words in 30 Days.

Give us some more tips for being prolific.

Dan: Well, as you mentioned, it’s about finding the pace of what works for you. I think there is some really good advice in your community, and there is some more toxic advice.

I do think that the whole write everyday ethos, like you say, can work for some people, but I think sometimes it puts people off and makes them think they’re not going to be a writer because they can’t keep that pace.

So a lot of what I do when I’m coaching and working with authors is really trying to —

Figure out how your life looks, how you’re set-up, because people have jobs with different schedules and routines

— as you say, you’ve got family, or you might have financial limitations, health problems, like not everyone can hit that pace every day.

So to be prolific for you, which is the key thing because you should never compare yourself to other people, is to understand who you are, what you do, and to find out the word counts that will fit you.

So if that’s 100 words a day, awesome. If that’s 2000 words a day, great. If that’s 5000 words on a weekend, then that sort of works for you. I think you need to be confident, own it, and be comfortable in those word counts.

As I say, there is a lot of advice out there that is somewhat toxic. Like I do know authors that write 13,000 words a day. I, personally, cannot hit that consistently. I’ve had big word days, but every time I have a big word day, it burns me out, and then I do nothing next day.

It’s really connecting with who you are, giving yourself that grace to be a bit slower if that is your pace.

There are people in my Activated Authors community who write 1000 words a week, and that’s fine. That works for them, they publish books.

Myself, I’ve kind of gone from being a regular writer to being, as you say, a bit more of a binge writer with projects. So if I’m in a project, I can definitely hit some bigger word counts, but then I’m sort of done for a few weeks. Getting to know yourself is certainly a big tip.

Another really good tip is — 

Prioritize your writing. Make an appointment with yourself.

Make a date with yourself to say, at this time,  at this date, in this place, I’m going to write.

That was something I had to do when I was first starting out because I had a full time job, and the only time that I could fit in writing was half past six in the morning, and then at seven, I’d have to get up and get the little boy ready and get ready for work.

So that was something that I committed to myself. I said to myself, this is happening, I want to publish books, and this is what it’s going to take for me. 

Then I think the biggest piece of advice I give, and it’s normally the starting point of anytime I’m in a consultation or coaching someone, is—

You need to ask yourself why you’re doing it.

Because if you are writing just because you think it’s a quick way to make money, you’re going to burn out quickly and the work probably isn’t going to be worth the reward. 

If you’re like me, and you love telling stories, I love the idea of leaving a legacy, I love reaching out to readers, it becomes a compulsion that I now can’t stop, then you’re creating a sustainable way to keep on going.

Then on those days when it’s really, really, really hard, and you’re waking up bleary eyed and your alarm is going off, and you just can’t be bothered today, like you kind just go, well, why am I doing it?

And you might see that book a few months down the line, you might see yourself looking back on yourself when you’re 80 and thinking, you know, I made the most of this day. But having a really good reason as to why you’re doing it is ultimately the fundamental component of how you create a sustainable career.

Joanna: I laughed there when you said those people who think it’s a quick way to make money. You and I know that this is not a quick way to make money!

Dan: No, no. Nine years in and I’m still trying to make money.

Joanna: That’s the thing. I feel like, well, people listening to this show understand, if you want to write you’ll write.

If you want to do it full-time, that’s a different thing. Obviously, both you and I do a lot of different things other than just write.

But I did want to ask you, because you write dark stories as do I, but also like me on your nonfiction stuff, you’re a happy, upbeat person. If people meet you at a convention or something, you’re always smiling, and that’s you and me as well, but we have this other side.

Tell us more about why you write darker books and how you tap into that.

Dan: I love this question because it’s definitely something I’ve been trying to verbalize and pin down and work on myself. In the beginning, I didn’t really know. I just wanted to tell darker stories, I didn’t know where it came from.

Over time, what I’ve come to learn is that horror writers tend to be some of the loveliest people you’ll meet. We were just speaking beforehand that I’ve just been to StokerCon, which is a convention purely made of horror writers, and it was one of the best times I’ve had at a conference. Everyone was lovely.

I think there’s a few reasons why it’s so cathartic to write horror. One of them being that there aren’t really any limits to what you can write, and as someone who kind of likes to go through life sampling from every table, and just experimenting, and seeing all the different colors on the spectrum, having not to worry about what you’re writing is quite a nice experience. It’s freeing. So when you’re writing your prose not worried about swear words, you’re not worried about sort of graphic material, it’s just a place to play. 

The other really thing good thing that I love about it as well, is it is a place to exorcise your demons. I think a lot of the reason that horror writers are really nice people is because they put all of their demons onto the page.

One thing I certainly do is anything that’s worrying me, any sort of tough times I’ve had, any sort of trauma I’ve been through, I then use that to fuel the stories. In a way, it’s kind of its own therapy, which is, as I say, just a really nice way to work through that in your mind and to put things down.

So, I mean, there are a number of reasons. Like, who doesn’t like playing with monsters and ghosts? Who doesn’t like just going to the darkest edges of what’s going on? But yeah, there’s definitely a personal element of just therapy as well for me.

Joanna: I agree with you, I think just put putting the demons on the page. You’re exactly right, like lovely, lovely people, horror writers.

Dan: Yeah. Ironically.

Joanna: It is kind of ironic, but it makes sense when you think about it. Do you write under different names?

Do you find that you separate your time differently with fiction and nonfiction?

Dan: So I haven’t, purely because I didn’t want to over stretch what I was doing with different pen names. I don’t know if maybe I should have for certain projects. but where I am at the minute, it’s all under one name.

I am looking at a different style of horror, which I’m contemplating a pen name for, but I haven’t yet made that decision. That’s mostly for sort of marketing purposes, in the sense of like it’s a middle grade horror, a lot less dark, a bit more pacey, whereas like some of the stuff I like to write is a lot more wayfaring and rich prose and very, very dark. So I’m potentially contemplating those two different audiences, just to make it a bit easier to sell those books

As I said, I’ve not really made a decision on that yet because part of the reason that I choose to write is because I want to share the stuff that I do. So putting myself behind a pen name, because this would be a totally different name, putting myself behind the pen name, I kind of feel like I’m hiding, and I don’t necessarily want to do that. Then I understand the marketing value as well. So once I figured that one out, I’ll let you know.

Joanna: It is tough. I mean, I published the first two or three novels under Joanna Penn and then realized that I needed to, for my audience, but also for myself. Like I do kind of schedule different time slots, you talked about that, making an appointment with yourself. I make Joanna Penn appointments, and J.F. Penn appointments. Like I’ve got my Catacomb monster book here on my desk, and that I have scheduled time for J.F. Penn editing. I wouldn’t be able to do this interview with you after doing that kind of session. So I really have to split my time.

But I did want to ask you, because you’ve mentioned collaboration, and Hawk & Cleaver, and you mentioned Michael Anderle and the collaborations. Now, I have co-written a few novels and other books, and I do find it really hard.

Give us some tips around collaborating and co-writing and how you do that.

Dan: Yeah, I think it all starts with, again, that question of: why you’re doing it? What is it you’re hoping to achieve from the collaboration?

And sort of the second biggest thing to go into a collaboration with is understanding that it’s not going to be your book. I think a lot of people go into collaborations, and they’re like, I’m going to be able to write my story faster because I’m working with someone else.

What ends up happening is this beautiful magic in which you create an amalgam of both styles of writer, the story kind of takes its own phrase, and you really have to put your ego aside and say, look, this project isn’t going to be typically how I process things because there’s two people involved. 

So as I said, there’s the question of why.

There are also many, many different ways to collaborate.

So I’ve done collaborations with Luke Kondor, incredible writer, check him out Lukekondor.com. But I’ve done collaborations with him in which it was 50/50, in the sense of we worked on two novels at once, I wrote the first draft of one, he wrote the first draft the other, and we kind of switched back and forth between drafts. So the story was very much both of our hands very much in that story.

The collaboration with Michael that you mentioned, he’d already built a world, he knew what that timeline was, there was a bunch of rules that you had to stick to so that the rest of the books made sense. Then I was allowed to create my own little sandbox in that world and play with it myself, and then there was just that approval at the end to make sure that it fitted where it needs to go.

Then I’ve done a collaboration with J. Thorn and his American Demon Hunter series.

[Me too! American Demon Hunters: Sacrifice, written on the train from Chicago to New Orleans]

That was taking his characters, and his location, and writing their story for him with my ideas.

There are all these different ways to collaborate, and it doesn’t even have to stay within the writing zone.

It could be one person writes, the other person edits. It could be one person does all the writing, the other person does all the marketing. I think the key to collaborating really is being open and honest with each other and being transparent with what you want because the minute someone lies or someone misleads the other person, that is where it all starts falling flat.

So if you can’t meet the deadline, but you say you’re going to, that’s an issue. If the project isn’t entirely in line with the things you want to create, and you feel like a collaboration will just make it happen quicker, that’s a bad idea. I have seen some collaborations go south very quickly, and that has mostly just been because the expectations of each author are different and they haven’t had that initial conversation.

I wrote a book, back in 2020 I published it, Collaboration for Authors, and within that I had all these different sections for the different stages of collaborating with another author.

What very quickly happened was all of the pages about the setup, before you’ve signed anything or agreed anything, ended up being half of the book. The most important thing you can do is figure everything out upfront, like go into detail on finance, marketing, writing timelines, any problems you might foresee, because if you can do that before you’ve fully agreed and committed, then half of the problems are gone.

Joanna: That’s interesting. Of course, I’ve also co-written with J Thorn in that same universe.

Dan: Who hasn’t?!

Joanna: We wrote Risen Gods together, and also Co-writing a Book together. It’s interesting, I’ve written some nonfiction co-written, and on the one hand, I like it, and on the other hand, I find it really hard because, as you say, we’re control freaks. We like our own stories. 

Here’s another point is that, yes, I agree, you have to get your contract sorted upfront, but then the money is split between two of you, or however many you do. So I basically have found that those books don’t make me as much money, so therefore, I don’t promote them as much.

How do you deal with the business side of co-writing?

Are you just so prolific it doesn’t matter because you have so many books?

Dan: Yeah. I mean, the collaborations aren’t the ones that made me the most money. I mean, obviously, the books I did with Michael have been very, very helpful because he’s a giant in the space that he’s currently working in.

There is definitely something about having two names on the cover that can put people off. I’m not sure about the psychology behind that or what that is. I have seen quite a few authors who, if they are collaborating, will generally create a pseudonym or a pen name for themselves, so it looks like one author, but it’s actually two or sometimes three.

So yeah, I mean, I will say that they’re probably not the most lucrative in terms of making money and earning that back. I’ve been publishing books pretty much solid since 2014, so having that regular rhythm, that regular schedule definitely helps. I

‘m doing a lot of work at the minute with creating a series of standalones within horror that will keep the read-through going between different books, to hopefully also help increase somebody’s income. 

I mean, collaborations are there a lot of fun, but yeah, each one is absolutely different. Some can be more of a struggle than others. And also, yeah, I will say as a warning to anyone, the admin side of it is a bit of a headache.

Joanna: Yeah, although thanks to Draft2Digital who now have payment splitting.

I did that with Mark Leslie Lefebvre for The Relaxed Author. You mentioned there a series of standalone in horror, which everyone’s like, what? What is the series of standalone? Explain that because, of course, in horror, a lot of books are standalone because like a lot of people die, there’s no one left.

What is a series of ‘standalone’ books?

Dan: Well, so I’ve been trying to get my head around this for the last sort of two, three years. I wrote a serialized novel in 2020 that turned out it was six novellas that I released one a month and started building a bit of an audience. Then like you say, at the end, everyone dies. So where do you go from there?

I’ve kind of just been doing a lot of looking into how people sustain horror series because there are examples out there of people who have kept series going. So you can look at The Shining and then Doctor Sleep as kind of a sequel, very, very short series. You can look at things like R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps, which are obviously aimed at much, much younger readers. 

There are a lot of examples of authors out there that are creating standalones, but within either a brand or a universe. So there’s Jeremy Bates.

Joanna: Oh, yes.

Dan: Yeah, I think it’s like the World’s Scariest Places or something. He’s got a bunch of books in that series, and even though they’re all standalone, the branding tells the reader they’re written by the same author, they’re in the same sort of tone, they have a uniformity on the stories without each story being connected, which I think is a really, really smart way to do that. So that’s something that I’m creating and playing with at the minute.

I’ll say this, because I’ve already seen a few other people doing this, I thought it had a really unique idea, but every idea is unique when you do it yourself. But I mentioned, obviously Goosebumps is a series of standalone, and so one of the things I’m working on at the minute is a Goosebumps-inspired series for adults. So for the much more sort of older horror reader, a series of interconnected shorter novellas—I say interconnected, not story wise—but branded together so that they’re written in a very particular style, readers know what they’re going to get, they’re a much faster pace reads.

As I say, when it comes to these, it’s definitely the branding that’s going to be the most important thing to sell that to people. So you know that if you pick up book one, you could pick up book eight, and you’ll still have the same experience, but an entirely different story.

Joanna: Yeah, it is tough. I was actually looking at Jeremy Bates’s books because my book is called Catacomb, and whenever you have a one-word title, you’re going to overlap with someone else’s one-word title. He has one of his World’s Scariest Places, or whatever it is, is Catacomb. Yeah, I’ve read a few of his books, and they’re fantastic. So I do think we can all look at series options, so I like that. 

We mentioned at the beginning that you do a lot, and you do. So I wondered, how do you manage your time? Because I know it can be hard to juggle so much, and I would say as someone who is a few years ahead of you, that one of the things that has happened to me is I have had to drop things over time because I realized I haven’t got time for everything or I need to spend time on the things that are really the main thing that I need to do.

How do you juggle everything? How do you manage your time?

Dan: So it’s very fortuitous timing that you ask this question. But I’ll say before I kind of dive into the reality of the situation, so I’ve kind of got two thoughts on this that have changed over the last couple of years.

The first one is, productivity comes in seasons. So what I have found is that there are certain points in which I am incredibly productive, and 2020 was definitely one of them, and I can’t think why that might be. So that was very productive. 

Then I also see my own productiveness as a bit of an accordion. So what I mean by that is that I will generally slim loads of stuff down until I feel that I have capacity.

Then over time, I’ll gently take more and more and more on until I’m sort of right stretched out, can’t take any more, and then I squeeze it all back in and try to slim it out so I can focus again. So I do do a lot, and one of the things I’m definitely trying to do is slim down on that. I know that you’ve been a big proponent of books that sort of encourage ‘no’ and slimming back, and I’ve read a few of those.

A perfect example of why that’s important is that I actually ended up in hospital in March of this year, having a stress/anxiety attack, which I thought was a heart attack. That was a combination of work, that was a combination of personal life circumstances because there’s a lot going on in the personal life as well.

This kind of comes back to what we’re saying about your life and your way, because —

Everyone has their own capacity depending on what it is they’re doing, and I pushed mine a bit too far.

So there are lessons learned, and I think one of the things that I teach a lot is the idea of going narrow and deep on a subject, rather than wide and shallow on about 10 different ones. My problem is I’m just an incredibly ambitious individual. So I will get very excited about an idea, and I will just run with it.

I know that you’re a proponent these days of the Clifton Strengths model, and two of mine are Activator and Ideation. So I will come up with an idea for something and I will want to execute it straightaway. I will get incredibly excited about that idea, and I will just go for it. What I’m learning is that I need to slow that down and really kind of put some brakes on myself, contemplate what it is that I’m doing, and whether or not that serves a bigger goal

Even over the past few months since the incident at the hospital, I’ve incredibly narrowed down what my big goals are because I’ve realized that I can’t do it all. And more importantly, I shouldn’t do it all, especially if I want to make this a sustainable career and not end up back in hospital again.

So creating very, very stringent, like one big goal, two big goals, at most three big goals, and then creating small pathways to get to those without getting too distracted, which is, again, for people like me, incredibly hard. 

This is also one of the reasons that I created the Author Activation Matrix, which is a free resource people can download it on the activatedauthors.com website.

It’s because I was giving a lot of thought into what the different areas of life as an author are, so not just about the writing, but about the health, the social life, all the different components of what makes you you, so that you can try and put those in balance and try and keep pushing forward without hurting yourself. And again, speaking as someone that has been there, I find it incredibly useful.

Joanna: Yes, and thank you for talking about that.

I think it’s important for us all to talk about that. I mean there aren’t many authors who are professionals who haven’t had some kind of these incidents.

I mean, for me, it was more that I ended up with a really bad shoulder injury from the posture that we sit in, the kind of hunched posture, not just from writing, but from 20 years in IT as well. So like this morning, I was working out with my personal trainer, I do weights twice a week, I do walking and things.

You include health on one of the aspects of your activation matrix, so that’s one of the things.

What are some of the other things that you think are important for authors to consider?

Dan: Well, so the five categories I’ve got down here are: general, health, social, authorship, and outlook.

So general is kind of encompassing just feelings, and how you are on a day to day. So there’s things like mood in there. There is gratitude. How grateful are you for the things that you currently have? Are you taking time to be appreciative of what you do have rather than what you don’t? Things like joy are in there. I’ve even put finances in there because finances, as you no doubt know, massively affects that underlying level of tension and anxiety you might feel on a daily basis.

Under health there’s things like hydration, nutrition, exercise, sleep, even just going outside and getting some sunshine. Then there’s the social element that’s got like how are your relationships with your family, with your friends, or with any partnerships that can be romantic, or important work partnerships.

There’s a section for authorship, which is how creative do you feel? Are you doing stuff for self-development? How’s your publishing? How’s your marketing? That’s a bit more sort of boiling down into the operational logistics of running your author business.  Then outlook is just as simple as how are you currently feeling now and how optimistic or pessimistic are you for the future that you’ve got coming up?

So it’s quite holistic, but what I do is I’ve got each category labeled 1 to 10. Then as you go through, you circle what number you’re on, where you feel you are in these particular areas, and then at the end, you get given a score.

The idea isn’t to win or lose the score, it’s literally just to give you a baseline of where you’re at so that you can look back in a week or two weeks’ time and say, okay, I’ve taken action on this one, my number is improving, that means I’m paying attention to the areas that I’m letting drop.

Joanna: It’s interesting. I like the Clifton Strengths because the focus is more leaning into our strengths. The matrix you talk about, obviously, there’ll be some numbers we’re weak on. We cannot be strong on everything.

What kind of person are you? Are you an optimize your strengths or fix your weaknesses person?

Because we can’t do everything.

Dan: No, I think I am definitely optimize my strengths is where I’ve kind of gotten to. I mean, I got this principle from Gary Vaynerchuk and some of the stuff that he said all over his Instagram all the time with his incredibly thick accent. But yeah, I like the idea of leaning into the things that you do well in. 

Sometimes that’s difficult, especially if you’re running a solo author business. Obviously, you’ve got to be able to cover a lot of different areas, and some that you might not be as good in. But if you can afford it, if you can get the help, or even if you’ve got sort of volunteer partners or collaborators that can help you balance out what those weaknesses are, then that will help you create a more sort of rounded experience.

I mean, something that I found incredibly useful,  and this is going a bit more back to the day job, is a model that I came across called the T-shaped marketing model.

The idea was that you create, similarly to the activity in the author matrix, you create a baseline of all the different categories that are critical to your business. So it could be finance, it could be marketing, it could be writing, and then you give yourself kind of a score in terms of like along the line. It’s hard to do by my audio only, but people, check out the T-shaped marketing model. 

It highlights what you’re strong in, and anything that you’re weak in you can then look for other people to bring in to inflate those to bring those up so that you’ve got a bit more of a rounded business that you can then run. So yeah, I tend to lean into my strengths a lot more, but when I can, I do try and educate myself on the things that I might be a bit weaker in.

Joanna: Well, you do have marketing under authorship. I feel like this is a non-negotiable weakness that authors have to sort out you. You actually can’t leave that. Sorry, everyone. I mean, you can hire people, but you can only really do that at a point in your career where you can afford it.

As an author of fiction and nonfiction books, give us some of your tips for marketing both of those. And how are they different?

Dan: I mean, there are some similarities, and there’s definitely like a lot of differences.

My fiction tends to center around, like one of the big things is my reader magnets. I’ve got a number of those for different series, different books that I’ve put out. I do a lot of newsletter swaps.

I’m very, very prolific on Story Origin as a resource, which I highly recommend to anyone looking to try and build up their mailing lists and just get readers into their funnel. I do a lot of swaps just to stay connected with other authors and to reach new readers. A lot of the fiction stuff, it has to be regular, you have to be putting out newsletters somewhat regularly. Again, whatever that looks like for you. So it could be monthly, weekly, bi monthly. So all these different strategies and rhythms and times to create the fiction promotion. 

One of the big things is just keep writing good books because if someone enjoys the reader experience, then hell yeah, they’re going to buy another book from you.

If they reach out to you, absolutely write something back —

Because nothing pleases a reader more than actually hearing back from the people that they enjoy reading from.

Then nonfiction, it’s somewhat similar, although I tend to do a lot of things like this, you know, podcasts, hop on different interviews, network and speak to different people.

If I’m at events, I’ll speak to different people and try and see what they’ve got going on and see if there’s any sort of cross-promotional opportunities.

I have the Activated Authors Podcast, which I run with Samantha Frost. We’re on a little bit of a hiatus at the minute, but we run that pretty much every week, discussing all the different areas of author life. We sometimes have interviews. I do think podcasting is a very, very good vehicle to bring people into a nonfiction environment.

That’s one of the reasons I created Activated Authors was because, well, I say I created it, but the community basically begged me to make it happen. But you know, running something like a podcast or doing small events or challenges and things, it gives people a chance to get to know you, to hear your voice, to get familiar with you.

I’m sure that you’re more than familiar with this, the amount of time someone will come up to you and they’ll know who you are, so they talk to you like an old friend, and you’ve never seen that person before in your life.

Any opportunity to connect with people, to reach out, to just get a bit of exposure and share who you really are, it’s fantastic for nonfiction.

What I kind of say with my brand in nonfiction is I prioritize authenticity, honesty, and just the reality behind the author journey.

So Activated Authors is all about supporting authors, no sort of screens, no smoke screens about what it is to be an author. We’re very honest, we all support each other, and it’s kind of a wonderful environment to be in.

So the thing that I find in marketing is there are very, very general principles which everyone knows. It’s just everyone’s very reluctant to put the work in to make it happen. Because obviously we want to be writers ,and that’s kind of why people get into the writing business in the first place.

Joanna: You’re right. I mean, at the end of the day —

The email list still rules.

Dan: It reigns supreme.

Joanna: Yes, exactly. I did want to come back on something you said earlier.

You talked about being ambitious, and you’ve obviously been doing this now almost a decade.

Tell us a bit more about ambition because I feel like a lot of us have ambition, and we might be just slightly ashamed of it, especially being British, it’s just not done to talk that way. Americans are fine, but we struggle.

Talk about ambition and how you’re weaving these longer-term ambitions into the short-term need to make money.

Dan: Yeah, I mean, that’s a big question.

I ended up doing a lot of sort of self-development work around what would have been 2013 through 2017. That was a mix of reading a bunch of nonfiction books, people like Gary Vaynerchuk were very inspirational for that. Brene Brown, Glennon Doyle, Elizabeth Gilbert, like all those books are like fantastic for helping you, I guess, come to terms with your own ambition and the fact that this is your life to lead.

I think, without going on a whole sort of soapbox, one of the big disadvantages of especially being British, is the school system is bred to teach you to comply and that anything outside of the norm is unwanted, unacceptable, and kind of something to be ashamed about.

I kind of came around to it, probably in my late teens, maybe just a little after, but the idea that I’m only going to be here once, I’m only going to live on this planet once, if what I believe to be true is true.

I try not to hold back from anything that I want to do.

Part of that is, well, there’s many kinds of components that, but one of them is accepting that you’re probably going to fail to begin with, or that things are going to be hard when you first learn them.

Over the years I’ve taught myself guitar, piano, juggling. I’m learning coding for video games and things at the minute. I taught myself how to write novels and scripts and short stories, tried painting, tried drawing. Like I’ve tried a lot of different things, even if I’ve sucked at it, just to give it a go and to understand. I mean, I’ve literally bought a little crochet kit at the minute so I can try and make my kid a crochet Buzz Lightyear because I want to see if I can do that skill. 

It’s accepting that you’re not going to be good to begin with, and it’s got to take work, and that’s just part of the process.

And because I’m very much gotten to the point that I, you know, we all fall prey to it sometimes, but for the most part, I don’t compare myself to other people. I’m hyper aware that my journey is different to anyone else’s. Number one, Individualization, back to the Clifton Strengths. I’m so aware that my journey is different that it really doesn’t bother me what other people think of me. 

I’ve gotten to a point now where I can experiment and write a stupid story and put that out there. A couple of times, I’ve done some live writing in which I’ve written the first draft of a story just in front of people and let them see that. I shared my first ever first draft of my first ever novel with people inside Activated Authors because that was done from 2014. That’s nothing to do with me now, like I’ve put in the work.

So ambition comes from, I guess, a desire to live a life well lived.

Also, in order to do that, you have to just be very, very aware that like no one can tell you no, only you can tell you no. You know, in a way without getting arrested. But you’re the only one that can really stop yourself from doing things. So again, like I’ve kind of taught myself small bits of languages, and I want to learn more of that, I played lots of different sports, but it’s an ever-evolving journey. I just want to have fun, and I want to see what I can do in the time I have.

Joanna: But—

Do you have any specific author-related ambitions?

Dan: Yeah, I mean, I want to win a Bram Stoker. That would be awesome. Which is a weird one because I’m not fueled by approval, but I think I need a goal in that regard. Kind of go on that journey, as I say, I’ve recently just come back from StokerCon, I sat in the Bram Stoker Awards this year, met a lot of nominated authors, spoke to a few award-winning authors.

I’m putting in the work to find out how that happens, and to see what that looks like, and anything that I can do to make it.

No matter what you want to do, there is somewhat a path to there. I mean, you’ll struggle if you’re—not to say that this hasn’t happened—but you’ll struggle if you’re four-foot and you’re trying to dunk in the NBA. So there are certain limits to ambitions, but for the most part, there’s a path to try and get to where you want to go. The hard part is figuring what that path is and allowing yourself to stumble along the way.

Joanna: Absolutely.

Dan: So yeah, I definitely want the award. I’ve got a few ambitions to speak in bigger venues and bigger arenas and just to try and spread the message of a lot of the stuff that we had spoken about because I think it’s hyper-important.

And honestly, a lot of people don’t talk about the tougher times and the realities of being an author. I kind of hear too many interviews where people are like, “Oh, yeah, my first book went amazing. Now I’m writing every day, and it’s wonderful.” Because I’m like, you’re lying. There’s something that you’re holding back that for some reason you’re scared to share.

Joanna: I mean, a lot of that is the historical way. I mean, I think on this show, we keep it real!

Dan: A hundred percent. And that’s why I’ve listened to you for nine years.

Joanna: I think people come back because of the difficult times as well. They’re going to get different things here. Thank you for sharing.

So where can people find you, and your books, and your podcasts, and everything you do online?

Dan: So there’s three main places for me. There’s DanielWillcocks.com. There’s ActivatedAuthors.com for anyone who wants to come over and see the author community, which I have recently made free. So if any wants to jump over into that, that’s at that website. Then for some nice horror every Monday into your podcast feed, that’s at TheOtherStories.net.

Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Dan. That was great.

Dan: Thank you. I really appreciate the opportunity to come on.

The post Writing Fast, Collaboration, And Author Mindset With Daniel Willcocks first appeared on The Creative Penn.

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Author: Joanna Penn

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  • August 3, 2023