Writing one book is hard enough, but writing several books a year over a long-term career is a challenge that few authors can manage. That's why I love to talk about longevity with authors who are still writing after 30+ years, and in today's show, I talk to urban fantasy legend, Sherrilyn Kenyon.
In the introduction, I discuss the AI translation from English to Chinese that took 30 seconds with 95% accuracy. [The New Publishing Standard]. Plus, my personal update and the launch of Valley of Dry Bones this week.
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
Sherrilyn Kenyon is the multi-award-winning and multi-number-1 New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of urban fantasy and paranormal romance with over 80 million books in print sold in over 100 countries. She also has YA novels, children’s books, manga, graphic novels, coloring books, historical romance under a pen-name, and her Lords of Avalon novels have been adapted by Marvel.
- Sherrilyn's links with Europe and how her fascination weaves into her writing
- Tips for writing a series that sustains reader's interest over time – and why her characters are like family. Her latest novel is Stygian, in the long-running Dark-Hunter series
- How Sherrilyn engages with her super-fans, the Menyons, and what strategies she uses for marketing – including a preference for live interactions at conventions and why merchandise continues to be important
- How to maintain a sustainable creative writing and publishing career over the long-term, and why staying positive is the best way forward in an ever-changing market.
Transcript of the interview with Sherrilyn Kenyon
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com and today I'm here with Sherrilyn Kenyon. Hi, Sherrilyn.
Sherrilyn: Hey, sweetie. How are you doing today?
Joanna: I'm good. And for people watching on the video, that is an amazing hat.
Sherrilyn: Thank you. My friend Elizabeth does them. She's Blonde Swan. Shameless publicity plug but yeah, she's great.
Joanna: That is fantastic. So just in case people don't know you although I can't believe they might not but just in case:
Sherrilyn is multi award-winning, multi-number one New York Times and ‘USA Today' bestselling author of urban fantasy and paranormal romance with over 80 million books sold in print in over 100 countries.
She's also got YA, children's books, manga, graphic novels, coloring books, historical romance and her books have been adapted by Marvel. Sherrilyn, that's an amazing introduction.
Do you feel like you've hit the top? Do you ever feel like you've made it?
Sherrilyn: No. Not at all. I have three sons and I was raised in the middle of boys so they keep you humble real fast.
Joanna: I love that. I know my audience are like, ‘Wow, you're so up there.' And yet I know that self-doubt is still an issue for every author with every book, right?
I'm in the UK and I saw that you trace your ancestry back to here and you have a nonfiction book, ‘The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in the Middle Ages'.
Tell us a bit more about your links with Europe.
Sherrilyn: I'm of the Plantagenet bloodline, which is very, very cool. I know, right? And it's one of those things, you know, my dad would tell us these stories, you're like, ‘Sure, dad. Sure.' You'd kinda pat him on the head and kind of eye roll.
But it turns out that actually he wasn't kidding and it goes back from both my mother and my father's side.
We came over with Jamestown. We were here originally too so I've got Native American ancestry. But yeah, the ones who came up from England were among the first that came over on the Mayflower. So I've got them back on both sides.
Joanna: Wow. So interesting.
How does your interest in the Middle Ages come through in your writing?
Sherrilyn: Well, it was weird because I had started writing all of that before. And what's so fun now is knowing that I'm related to most of the people that I wrote about like William Marshall and Eleanor of Aquitaine and all that.
But my interest started when I was very, very young. My mother loved horror stories and she loved a lot of the historical fiction and ‘Dragonwyck' was kind of the big bridge book between them.
As a little kid it just fascinated me, the whole idea of castles and that gothic setting and everything about England just seemed so mysterious and beautiful. Growing up in the South we have that ancient Greek architecture but to me it was just something about just England and the folklore and the puppets and, oh, just it was, from birth practically just everything. I wanted to know more and more and more and so I did more and more research on it.
Joanna: I think your curiosity and your interest in all these things come through in all your writing.
You must be researching all the time to have so many books in so many different areas.
Sherrilyn: Actually it's a way of validating to my father because my dad was so funny. When I was in college and I took all these classes and things like old English and old Norse. My dad's like, ‘Why, honey? Repeat after me – y'all want fries with it.' I was like, ‘Dad, seriously?'
It's like, ‘No. Why are you studying Chaucer…who in the world…why do you need this?' I'm like, ‘Because if we find a way to do DNA testing, bring Chaucer back I can communicate with him. It'll be awesome.'
Joanna: That is very cool. So I want to talk about your latest book. I know you have lots of books coming out but ‘Stygian‘ which is book 28 or 29 in the Dark-Hunters.
Sherrilyn: Depending on how you count them, right.
Joanna: Exactly but it's a lot. You have several long-running series. And a lot of people listening are writing series. I'm just releasing book 10 in one series and that feels like a lot.
Sherrilyn: That's wonderful.
Joanna: It does. It feels like a lot.
How do you sustain your own interest over 28 plus books? And also how do you keep the stories fresh for the readers?
Sherrilyn: To me, the characters are why I write. They're family. And I love the worlds.
Some of the series like League and Dark-Hunter I grew up with. The League characters have been with me since I was a small child and Dark-Hunter has been with me … some of the characters actually predate Dark-Hunter like Talon I invented in … goodness, elementary school, junior high. He was actually taken out of the High Fantasy series that I used to write.
Some of those characters even predate Dark-Hunter but Dark-Hunter itself started when I was 18 years old. They're my family and when I'm writing them, I want to know more and more about them.
There's so much left in the world that I have yet really to get into that I want to explore more like the Hell Chasers. I did short stories about them many years ago when I was still a teenager but in the series that's been published in book form we really haven't delved a whole lot into it and I still want to go and explore more and more.
And the Lords of Avalon got sidetracked a little bit. So I still haven't really delved deep into those books yet as far as I want to go. There's just so much more material still there.
Joanna: I love your enthusiasm. I wonder on the series … because again, on book 10 I'm like, ‘I've lost track of it.'
Do you have a series Bible for your characters and the plots or do you just remember stuff or have good beta readers?
Sherrilyn: Sadly, I don't know where I put my car keys. I lose everything else in my house but I remember all these nuances about every character. Well, I won't lie, not every single character. Some of the smaller characters I will have to go back and go, ‘Wait a minute. What color was their eyes?'
But the major characters, like I said, they're family to me so all of those I remember. I didn't have a Bible until we started doing the screenplays. And then the scriptwriters were like, ‘Okay. We can't call you every five minutes. You have got to write some of this down. We can't keep it straight, how do you keep it straight?' I'm like, ‘I don't know. How do you not?'
Now I have gone back and had to do like the timelines, the dictionaries so it's like, ‘Okay, okay, okay. Other people have to play in my universe now. It's kinda scary.'
Joanna: That's actually really interesting. So how do you then decide which series to write next because, again, some readers might love one particular series and others like another series?
How are you juggling them all?
Sherrilyn: That becomes problematic because the readers who read one series or another are really possessive and they are, ‘Why are you wasting time with that one? I want you over here.'
And then, of course, the other ones are like, ‘Well, why are you over there because I like this one.' And it's like, ‘I love all of you equally. So please, please don't fight. I'm sorry but they're all my children and I love them all equally.'
Basically, it's whatever character's screaming loudest in my head. Because to me, it would be a disservice, if that's not the book I'm most passionate about, that's where my attention needs to be.
Because if I'm just writing a book to write it because I'm being told that we need the Dark-Hunter book now or we need Lords of Avalon or we need this, that's not the book of my heart.
And if that's not the book of my heart, I don't think it's fair to give that to the readers.
I want them to have the book that is burning to get out of me, the characters that are keeping me up at night, that are storming around in my head. That's what gets my attention.
I had been in the middle of the book before, had to make the awkward call to my editor going, ‘I know I told you that we were gonna do this, we're not doing that book anymore. I got sidetracked.'
Joanna: I know some writers hear voices and take dictation and others type as if they're in control.
Which one are you or how do you write?
Sherrilyn: I sputter around a lot. I'm also verbally dyslexic so if I were trying to talk I think I would break the computer. I have to type. It's the only way I can actually focus.
The only time I'm actually really calm and I'm not like bouncing off walls is when I'm sitting in my chair and it's just me and the keyboard or used to be me and the typewriter.
Joanna: That's amazing. So again, coming back to your readers, because you have these super fans who are menyons. I said to my husband, of course he likes the Minions from the movie and I'm like, ‘No, not Minions. Menyons.' And some even have these tattoos of your symbols which is just incredible.
How do you think you have turned casual readers into such rabid fans?
Sherrilyn: It was weird. They've always been there. We started in the dark ages of the web. You know, back in the early '90s we had…oh, my gosh, GeoCities. Before GeoCities we had Prodigy. We always had these chatrooms.
I guess some of it's from the fact that I was a role player and such back when we would do SEA stuff back in the '80s and the early '90s. I remember when I did my very first book signing…gosh, I guess it was '93, '94 and I sold out all of my books in 45 minutes.
I was sitting next to a writer, I won't tell who it is, but she was sitting there looking over at me going, ‘Are you famous? Who are you?' Because I had a line already out the door. It was surreal and fun.
But just from those communities online. And I guess short stories too helped a lot because I started publishing the short stories in '78.
Joanna: Wow. It's so interesting to hear that you did the early days of online marketing because now we hear even new authors saying, ‘It's so much work to do social media. It's so much work to do websites and email.'
How do you manage to keep readers engaged? Because your voice is what they want. They don't want an assistant's voice.
How are you managing to do that and write so much and have a life?
Sherrilyn: Well, it's harder actually now because back then there was not so much noise online. I had one of the first bulletin boards for writers. Nobody had ever heard of them.
We had the Dark-Hunter chatrooms before anybody knew what a chatroom was or a blog. So I had the characters blogging.
Now it's a lot harder because you've got Twitter, you've got Facebook, you've got Reddit. Every time you turn around there's another one coming online. It really is hard to stay focused. Some of them fit in but it is hard. I'm not gonna lie. It can drain you very quickly.
But what we do is my oldest son helps out a lot with doing social media. So it helps if you've got a millennial in your team. I try to do a post every day or two or three. So then like just here's my day, here's a squirrel who ran across the yard, my cat did something cute.
Or it's something about the characters. Usually, I try to stay focused on the books. But yeah, it is hard. No doubt about it. It was much easier to stay close to the fans 20 years ago online than it is now.
Joanna: What about merchandise? Because I see that you've actually got tons and tons of merchandise and that's even without movies and other stuff like that.
Why do you think you got into the merchandise? Is that effective for fan engagement?
Sherrilyn: It can be. I have a lot of friends because I've been doing convention circuits and such. I went to art school so I have friends who have interesting hobbies and do different things like create soaps, they create nail polishes.
Having been in all the conventions all these years it's like, ‘Hey, wanna do some of that for me?' The Dark-Hunter dolls were actually something I did way back when I used to do custom doll work for other people.
When did I make the first one? I guess back in the late '80s, early '90s, I started doing the Dark-Hunters. I just created my own. And at first, nobody knew who they were so I'd take them around to the book signings. And it would help draw people into the book signing being like, ‘She came here with a bunch of dolls. ‘What are those?'
And then I'd get to tell them. Break the ice a little bit. They'd be like, ‘It's all so much fun. Okay, I'll take a few books.'
It actually helped me because for me it was easier to talk about my dolls than it was my books.
Joanna: It's a really good point because they are unusual and it's a talking point as you say. The fans ended up kind of with collectibles over time.
Sherrilyn: Right. Somewhere out there, there are a lot of people with my handmade dolls to this day because in the beginning days I auctioned off a lot of them. Or not auctioned, I raffled off. That's technically illegal so I always feel weird saying I raffled. We held drawings for them.
Joanna: You mentioned the convention circuit.
Do you still find that in person events are really effective for you or are you favoring online marketing now?
Sherrilyn: I like to be in person. To me the online community is very sterile and I like seeing people. That's just so much more fun.
To me you build much better relationships. It's funny with my kids because you'll go out there and they're sitting together in their rooms and I'll ask, ‘Kids, what are you doing? Turn your head, talk to your buddy. He came over here, why are you texting each other sitting in the same room? There's this thing called a relationship. It won't hurt you. I promise.'
Joanna: I laugh at that because I often text my husband from the bedroom to the living room. We're two introverts living in the same flat.
Sherrilyn: And I admit, I'm guilty. I'll text my kids, ‘Come down here.' Well, that's laziness. Yeah.
Joanna: Good point.
Sherrilyn: I'm in the basement. Come here, kids.
Joanna: You mentioned horror earlier and that you were reading horror and involved in that. And I'm so fascinated about genre in the publishing industry and paranormal romance as well. Urban fantasy is kind of related to horror. It's very difficult to say.
With paranormal romance, do you feel that the perspective on genre fiction has changed? To me, it feels like it used to be on the fringes and now it's mainstream.
Sherrilyn: When I was first writing they had no genres as we know them. So it's been funny to watch how the trends have gone through the years.
Dark-Hunter first started out in horror and some of the early rejections were hysterical. One of my favorites came from Marion Zimmer Bradley who said, ‘Just because you've got magic in this, it doesn't make it fantasy. You really need to put this in horror.'
And then I'd send it over to horror and they're like, ‘Look, just because you've got demons in this it does not make this horror. You need to send this over to fantasy.' And then they're like, ‘Well, I don't know, you got romance in there. Go try romance.'
And then the romance people would be like, ‘Well, just because you've got relationships in here it doesn't make it romance. You need to send this to science fiction and fantasy.' It was like, ‘Oh, god, somebody make up your mind. Where does this go?'
I think Stephen King says it best, ‘I don't care what you call me as long as you don't call me late to dinner.' Because they are constantly inventing new labels for what we write. New adult now for young adult; it's new adult but it's still young adult.
Joanna: I thought new adult had more sex in.
Sherrilyn: But so does young adult. Have you read some of the young adults that are out there? Really.
Joanna: It is a good point. It's so interesting you say that that's kind of changed over the years. And I wondered also because many people listening want to be a writer for the long term and we focus on our craft but there's a lot more that goes into it than craft, right.
What are some of your tips for lasting a really long time in publishing and writing?
Sherrilyn: Never give up, never surrender. Thank you, ‘Galaxy Quest.'
Don't get hung up on things with labels. They're gonna call you whatever they call you.
Be happy, focus on one reader at a time. All careers are built one reader at a time, one book at a time.
You've gotta roll with the punches because God knows life's never going to be easy for anybody but it is what it is. You take each day one step at a time. You hang onto the people around you who are positive. If you realize somebody around you isn't, don't be afraid to cull the herd.
If somebody is having a bad patch in their life don't abandon them. Everybody has troubles. You want to support them. But if you realize that this is a friend who is chronically toxic and when you're around them you're getting a stomach ache and you really dread seeing them.
And this is what I tell my kids all the time too. If it's somebody you dread being around that's somebody you might want to think about not being around. And especially with writers because we all have that person in our writing group where you go, ‘Oh, my God. I just finally won the contest.' And this person goes, ‘Well, you know, they didn't have that many entries this year.'
You know exactly who I'm talking about. We've all got that person in our group.
That's the person that I'm talking about. Don't let them rain on you because we've got that voice in our head, we don't need that too.
Stay positive because life's short.
You want to keep it positive as much as you can. Don't let anything rain on you.
Believe that you deserve your dream. Believe that you're going to have this long-term career, you won't. Close your eyes and imagine I'm JK Rowling whether you are or not. You could be. You don't know. But we're writers. You're gonna be. And if not, live in your head and you are because that's the beauty of what we do.
Joanna: No, that's fantastic, super positive. And I know people listening are going, ‘But it's difficult in this negative news environment.' And I'm like, ‘Turn off the news.'
Sherrilyn: Thank you. I watch about half an hour a day so that I'm not completely in my bubble.
Don't let anything ruin that muse. Treat her kindly.
Hopefully, she'll be kind back. Some days mine can be a little bitchy but by and large she's good to me. And I try to be good to her.
Joanna: I know we're almost out of time but your first novel debuted I think in the '90s or was it in the '80s?
Sherrilyn: In the early '90s.
Joanna: In the early '90s. And of course, publishing was completely different back then in terms of the market. Many of my listeners are independent authors and some are trying to decide what to do.
What are your thoughts on the changes in publishing and how you've seen it go up and down over time?
Sherrilyn: The whole thing's to find your audience. And however you do it, you do it.
I was there in the beginning of eBooks and I was actually the first New York author to sign an eBook contract. I never understood that whole backlash that eBook authors had anyway because it's like we're all writers. If you write something whether you're published or not, you're a writer. So why do you feel this need to say well, I'm published and you're not.
It's easy to write a book when you know you're going to get paid. That's the easy part of our job. The hardest thing in the world is to find that drive to keep writing when you don't know.
Be kind to them because we need them. We're not going to live forever. We need to cultivate those young writers and to keep them going because to me the biggest tragedy in the world is when a writer quits writing. You don't want that.
Those people don't need to die. Those characters need to live and breathe just like everybody else. We need, as a community, to stick together and to just grow stronger and, you know, a rising tide will raise our boats.
I don't understand the whole negativity thing anyway. It's like stick to your guns, whatever you do. Don't let anything destroy your dream. You have to believe that as a writer. You have to believe that all throughout your career.
If you wanna stay in here, people are gonna come at you whether it's in writing or any career you choose, you're going to have those enemies. But you know what? Laugh, step over them and keep going. Because at the end of the day they're the barking dogs that are going to get left behind. You're going to be that steamroller that just goes whatever and keep going. And that's how you maintain a long career in any profession.
Joanna: That's fantastic. Fantastic advice. So before we go, just tell people if they haven't tried your books before and ‘Stygian‘ is out now what can they find in that book.
What will they love about it?
Sherrilyn: Hopefully its humor. The thing that I like about it is it delves into the dark side. Most of the books focus on the heroes but he actually comes from the villain side. And so you get the first really good in depth look at what it was like for the vampire side.
They're not true vampires. They only live to be 27. Then they have to decide whether or not they want to kill humanity to live. You get to actually see what it was like because they started out as a normal race like us and they got cursed.
And what it was like to be that very first generation who had that taken from them, through no fault of their own. And they now have to live with the consequences of, do I have it in me? Can I become a predator?
Urian is interesting because he watches his family and his friends and all of them have to go through these really harsh decisions. And he lives for 11,000 years and just watching him gain and lose his humanity is, I think, very interesting.
Joanna: Wow. It sounds fascinating. Where can people find you and everything you do online?
Sherrilyn: Sherrilynkenyon.com and usually on Facebook at least. I try to hit there every day, I don't always. But I'm there a few times a week.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Sherrilyn. That was great.
Sherrilyn: Thank you, sweetie. I appreciate it.