Agony Column Interview


"We're the monster from Alien."
An Interview With Sheila Kelly
The Agony Column for November 22, 2004
Interview Conducted by Rick Kleffel

Sheila Kelly in a moment not spent writing. A moment.
Readers like to think that the books they enjoy are all works of art first and works of commerce second. But no book is published unless someone, somewhere thinks it will sell and sell well enough to make a profit. Writers, on the other hand find themselves faced with an almost impossible task. Unless you're one of a handful of writers who dominate the bestseller lists, making a living by writing alone these days is increasingly difficult. Unless you’re one of the writing Incredibles, those writers who adopt secret identities, multiple personalities and work in a multiplicity of genres. Since the year 2000, Sheila Kelly has made her living writing, and she's done so by publishing 25 books. That's an incredible and admirable output. It pays to remember that one of America's best loved genre authors, Philip K. Dick, also published an incredible number of novels over a short period of time. Sheila Kelly is working in a time-honored tradition.

SK: (Um, I have 26 books in print now. Family joke: Q: How many books does Sheila have in print now? A:What time is it?)

She's also working on the cutting edge of romantic literature. It's quite possible to argue that nearly every novel includes romance as a major or minor component. Sheila Kelly, writing under the pen names of Jessica Hall and Gena Hale has written 8 novels of romantic suspense. As S. L. Viehl, she's written seven bestselling StarDoc novels. Look on the back of those novels, and many of your other favorites besides. I'm betting that more than one of the books sitting on our shelf includes an accolade from Romantic Times. What was once unthinkable is now the norm.

As Lynn Viehl, Sheila is setting off on a new course, helping to launch a new imprint of horror / paranormal / romance novels. Signet Eclipse, from NAL, will launch next year, and I'm guessing that many of my readers have seen advertisements for the initial titles in the series in the back of any of a number of paperbacks that they may have recently purchased.

Sheila has taken the leap and decided to launch the Darkyn Website to support her forthcoming novels from Signet NAL. Yep, they're vampire novels. Sheila contracted Metro DMA, the folks behind Stephen King's website, to build her Darkyn Website. It's a big deal, and I was pleased that she offered me an exclusive interview to look behind the scenes of a genre-fiction web event. It's not often you get to peel away the HTML and see what's behind the building and launch of an expensive website to support a major new imprint.

RK: Sheila let's get some background first. What drew you to science fiction and romance novels, and what drew you to combine the two to the extent that you did in the Star Doc novels?

"At thirteen I wrote my first romance novel and submitted it to Avon Books." [I ain't afraid of no romance cooties. -- Ed.]
SK: I’ve been writing romance since 1973, when I was twelve and first read Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” I hated the ending, so I re-wrote it. At thirteen I wrote my first romance novel and actually submitted it to Avon Books. The very gentle rejection they sent me kept me writing books.

I never intended to write science fiction. When I was a kid I liked a couple of A.M. Lightner’s books, but all I really knew about SF was from watching shows like Star Trek and movies like Star Wars. I never read SF, and when I tried to, it gave me a headache or put me to sleep.

In 1996, after eight straight years of weekly rejection letters for my romance novel submissions, I was depressed and about to give up. That’s when a friend dared me to write a SF story. For some weird reason the challenge appealed to me, and I wrote the kind of SF story that I wanted to read, with elements of humor, adventure and romance. That story turned into the first two StarDoc novels. Those two were my first professional sale.

RK: Where do the novels start; as romances with a science fiction setting, or as science fiction novels that incorporate romantic plot points and character development?

SK: I always start with a character and build out from there. Genre comes in when I shape the plot and setting, but serves mostly as boundary lines. I also tend to color outside the lines.

RK: Of course you do have a medical background that plays into the books as well. That presumably plays into the medical aspect of the novels, but does it also inform the science in the science fiction?

SK: Not according to certain expectations, which I ignore. My medical background is an element I draw on and shape and work to create whatever satisfies me, serves the story, and entertains the reader.

RK: You've also published numerous novels of romantic suspense.

"Eight of them so far."
SK: Eight of them so far.

RK: Were they originally conceived as suspense novels, as romance, or simply novels that happened to fill a lucrative niche?

SK: I wrote the romance novels long before I wrote the SF novels. My romances were not published first, which is why I was originally labeled as a science fiction writer.

RK: How do you balance the aspects of romance with the elements of genre fiction?

SK: I like plots with a variety of story elements, so most of my books are a balancing act. If I’m writing a romance, the focus of the story will be on the relationship. In SF, the relationship becomes a subplot while I give more emphasis to the speculative aspects. I weave in other aspects and threads around those. Flow and pacing play a big part, too. I try to make everything mesh naturally and effortlessly.

RK: For the novels of suspense, does the publisher have rules, per se, as to how far you can go with violence, such as, shooting someone is OK, but eviscerating them is not OK?

SK: Far as I know, my publishers have no rules like that. I am blessed with six terrific editors who do tell me when they think I push too hard or go too far. They leave it up to me whether to let it stand or tone it down.

RK: As a writer, how do you structure your writing? Do you write science fiction in the morning and suspense in the afternoon?

"My day starts at 5:30 AM and ends at midnight."
SK: My day starts at 5:30 a.m. and ends at midnight. I write new material in the mornings and early afternoons for six to eight hours, and edit for another four to six hours in the evening. I have no time/genre preferences.

RK: Do you write more than one book at once?

SK: I usually write three books at the same time. This month I’m writing four so I can take off two weeks at Christmas.

RK: Do you outline or write from the hip?

SK: I outline the novel with a fairly detailed synopsis and about forty or fifty pages of notes that only make sense to me. The book is completely planned out in my head before I write the first word. I rarely deviate from the plan, but when I do, I rework the outline before I continue to write.

RK: Do you have a multi-novel arc for novels like the StarDoc series? Or do you let them evolve?

SK: Presently I have three plans developed for the StarDoc series. The shortest is seven books, the longest is twenty. I’ve also got a contingency plan that will allow me to write the “final” StarDoc book at any time.

I try to keep things flexible. I finished a romance trilogy a few years back, but when the publisher requested more books, I let the story line evolve into a second crossover trilogy.

RK: Given your interest in romance, suspense and science fiction, it seems only natural that you'd get round to the world of Dark Fantasy.

SK: It was Dark Fantasy, or ceramics classes and scrapbooking.

RK: Did you approach NAL, or did they approach you?

SK: Earlier this year Tor expressed interest in a fantasy novel (not Darkyn) I’ve been writing and made a preliminary offer, which I refused. Someone at NAL probably heard about it, as a few days later my editor asked to see everything I was doing in all genres or interested in doing. I showed them everything, and sold NAL eight novels in three different genres.

RK: Tell us about the concept behind the Darkyn novels.

"..what would happen if humans are the monsters, and vampires are the victims?"
SK: The Darkyn books themselves are based on a series of short stories which I posted for my readers on my first website. The stories became very popular and so many readers e-mailed asking for more that I decided to develop them into novels.

The basic concept is this: what would happen if humans are the monsters, and vampires are the victims?

RK: Once again, your medical knowledge seems to come into play.

SK: I have to keep busy. Those ceramics classes are evil, you know. You start off making ashtrays and Christmas ornaments. Next thing you know you’re dragging home a four-foot-tall garden gnome with cracked marble eyes and a hand-painted sign that says, “The Kellys Flower Here.”

I can’t discuss scrapbooking. It gives me a facial twitch.

RK: Do you worry that the vampire sub-genre is overworked and under-conceived?

SK: Everything is overworked and under-conceived, and you can talk yourself out of writing practically anything. So I don’t worry. I just write.

RK: There are seemingly hundreds of writers with vampire-based series. What did you seek to bring to the Darkyn novels to make them different?

SK: The same thing that I did with SF: to write the sort of books that I want to read.

Throughout our history the only things we humans have excelled at are killing, consuming and breeding. We like to think great art and technological advances redeem us, but our basic nature has never changed. As a species, we’re not Captain Kirk on the Enterprise. We're the monster from Alien.

I dream about the day when we might evolve into something less repulsive and destructive, but those hopes don’t permit me to deny what we are. Those are the elements that I look for in the fiction that I read, and that I always try to bring to my work.

RK: Who do you see as the readers of the Darkyn novels?

SK: The Darkyn novels will definitely appeal to my SF and romance readers, because they were the fans who talked me into the writing the books. I’m hoping the series will also be of interest to horror and fantasy readers. If you’re looking for perpetual boink- or gore-fests, my work is probably not for you.

RK: What are you offering readers with the Darkyn novels?

"I avoid genre labels."
SK: I avoid genre labels, but I guess dark fantasy seems most appropriate to me. The series is being marketed by the publisher as paranormal romance. There are strong elements of horror, suspense, fantasy and science fiction in the books as well. Take your pick.

RK: What kind of research did you do to bring these novels to life?

SK: Plenty. The bulk of the research involved countries, cultures, pandemics and religious systems from the Dark Ages; modern methods of reconstructive surgery; specific sociological development of three different European cultures; siege warfare tactics, weapons and machines; and my least favorite, methods of torture, interrogation and punishment from the Dark Ages to present day.

RK: Now, we've got a new imprint and a well-respected author in the world of genre fiction and romance. Why launch a website?

SK: I’ve never done much self-promotion, and a great web site promotes your books 24/7. I’ve never made a major investment in myself, either. I think a writer should at least once during the career.

I have this philosophy, too: I’d rather buy one good pair of emerald earrings than spend the same money on a drawer full of costume jewelry.

RK: How did you come to Metro Media LLC? Did you put the project out for bid?

SK: No bids. I asked who was the best in the business and hired them.

RK: Could you buy a nice car for the price of doing this website? Or a nice house? Or a nice dress?

SK: I wouldn’t know. I try to stay away from nice things. I think it’s from all the years my mom went around wailing, “Can’t you write something nice?”

RK: How much of the website was under your management as a writer, and how much is under the management of the publisher? Who decides the final edit?

"Those ceramics classes are evil."
SK: The website is 100% mine, as are all the decisions. Outside of providing copies of the artwork and cover copy, the publisher is not involved in it. I did pass around the original proposal to see if anyone on the publishing side had a problem with the project. They didn’t.

RK: The web can be a dangerous place for a writer. A recent response to negative reviews by noted vampire writer Anne Rice on suggests that an editor is an essential element of writing, especially on the web. What kind of editorial process do you have in place to ensure that you yourself don't accidentally post unfortunate unedited content to your website?

SK: I’m not a group joiner, so I don’t belong to any writer associations. I usually don’t read reviews of my books. I never respond to hate e-mail. I don’t indulge in cronyism. I have a weblog, but I don’t publicize it and I don’t allow comments on it. All this keeps me out of 99% of the trouble you can get into on the internet as an author.

Mainly I try to live by the words, “Can’t expect everyone to adore me.”

RK: One of the great aspects of the web is that an author can interact directly with the readers.

SK: It’s one of the great joys of the web.

RK: And that is also a two-edged sword.

SK: Yep. I’ve been harassed, threatened, cyber-stalked and impersonated on the web.

RK: Your website includes four forums for communication. Tell us about each, and what they're designed to facilitate.

SK: The chat room gives readers and visitors to the site a chance to talk live with each other. I’ll be dropping in now and then as well, so you might run into me there.

The discussion forum provides a place for readers to post questions, opinions and discussions about the Darkyn books and other topics. These forum discussions can be a lot of fun for everyone involved.

You can leave a message for me on the guestbook. My readers made extensive use of the guestbook at my first web site and it became a kind of bulletin board over the years.

Finally, you can send an e-mail to me. I don’t know how much e-mail will be coming in, but I’m going to try to respond to as many as possible. Do you think that readers who want to read novels that include elements of both genre fiction and definite strains of romance are reading or even interested in author web sites?If the books generate a loyal following, and the web site has lasting appeal, the readers will become regular visitors. I saw this happen on a small scale with my first web site, and a much larger scale on my friend Holly Lisle’s terrific web site (

RK: What kind of market research went into the development of this website?

SK: I’ve been online since 1998, and observed various forms of author web site promotion. I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. Less is more. Professional is always better than home-designed. Go for dignified versus cute or clever.

RK: What kind of ROI does the publisher expect?

SK: None. They have no monetary investment in the site.

RK: What is the minimum level of interest that is required to sustain the website?

"Sales figures. It always comes down to the numbers."
SK: I’ve bankrolled the site for two years. To extend it beyond that, I’ll have to see how well the books are selling. It can be a wildly popular site, but if no one is buying the books, I won’t have the budget to maintain it.

RK: What are the criteria for success -- and the measure of failure?

SK: Sales figures. It always comes down to the numbers.

RK: How long do you plan to publicize it?

SK: One year after publication of the first novel, and then I’ll look at the numbers and see where we are.

RK: Other than this column, where do you plan to publicize it?

SK: Press releases, weblog and website links, a URL printed on the acknowledgment page of the first novel, and a limited edition, signed excerpt chapbook made available to select SF conventions and romance conferences.

RK: Will you be posting any original fiction?

SK: That would depend on what the readers want, and how much time I have to write for the site.

RK: Will you be posting fan fiction, based on your characters and scenarios?

SK: No. There are many wonderful sites on the web devoted to fan fiction, and I always encourage fan writers to check them out.

I don't know about better than good chocolate. I mean -- is anything better than good chocolate? Except beer, of course. And carnitas, don't forget carnitas.

RK: Could you talk about the other areas of the website?

SK: Under The Books link, you can see the Darkyn flash movie and listen to an eight and a half audio excerpt from “If Angels Burn.” I really recommend the excerpt, as it’s read by a professional voice actor who did a beautiful job.

Via the Communicate link, you can sign up to receive the Darkyn newsletter, which will be the premiere source of updates and information on the series.

RK: One of the great dangers of the web and especially of systems like chat rooms, mailing lists, message boards and news groups is that they can become an incredible time sink. It's much easier to spew and jabber with your readers on a message board than it might be to work on three novels in three series simultaneously. How do you plan to schedule yourself so that you don't burn out too quickly, or fall behind in novel-based writing tasks?

SK: I always have a tight schedule, and I don’t deviate from it. The time I have allocated for the Darkyn site will be limited and very focused. I’m not easily distracted or lured away from work so I don’t think this will be a problem.

RK: Once the design is set and the website is launched, what will Metro DMA's part be?

SK: Metro will maintain the website, deal with the site host and take care of any technical problems. They’ll also post new content and serve as site administrator.

RK: What kind of staff will you or your publisher have maintaining the site?

SK: Metro and I will handle things in the beginning. If it takes off, then I’ll need more help and will staff accordingly.

RK: So, we've got our first Darkyn novel, 'If Angels Burn', in stores March 2005. Why launch the website so far in advance?

SK: I have an extremely busy spring ahead, and this was the best time for me to work on the project. I also think an early launch could build some momentum and help boost pre-orders for the first book.

" Everything about the Darkyn site revolves around the two things most important to me: the books and the readers."

RK: This isn't your first website, nor is it the first website to support a series. Beyond Stephen King's website, what sites did you want to emulate, or whose success did you hope to share with the Darkyn website?

SK: Much as I like Stephen King’s site, I never set out to do anything but hire the people who designed it so I could have the same level of artistry. I used other author sites as a guide to what I didn’t want. Most author sites are little more than vanity mirrors anyway.

Everything about the Darkyn site revolves around the two things most important to me: the books and the readers. That’s what I wanted.

RK: Thank you very much Sheila. I'll try to come back to you in a year's time and see where the Darkyn site is at. Thanks!

SK: You’re welcome. Thanks for talking with me, and stop in anytime.