Today, we have a special treat: an Author interview with Sherri Cornelius, the author of "Skin and Scales", her new contemporary fantasy novel, now available on Amazon.com’s Kindle store.
JDT: Thanks for stopping by today Sherri!
Sherri Cornelius: Thanks for having me for my first interview, Dane.
JDT: Sherri, you’re a relative newcomer to the field of self-publishing, but you have a lot of writing experience. How long has your writing journey gone, and what path did it lead you down?
SC: The path of broken dreams! Just kidding. I started writing in middle school, but I never seriously considered it as a possible career until my mid-30s. My first novel, a heroic fantasy, landed me an agent but ultimately didn’t sell. I thought once I had an agent I would be all set, but it didn’t work out that way. She sent out two books for me over four years before I decided to go a different way. So now I’m starting all over again. Trying new things.
JDT: Tell me about "Skin and Scales" — what inspired it?
SC: ‘Twas a dream. Specifically, I dreamed of traveling through the as-yet-unnamed Desmayo to the Black Veil, watching my skin flake off, and seeing scales underneath. It was the feeling of going through the Desmayo that guided my early efforts and set the tone. In the book, Drina likens it to being extruded through a tube of burning sandpaper. That was the seed from which everything else grew–the Ushers, the Light, the Lyceum.
JDT: I know Skin and Scales was a long time in the making, and your first full-length novel developed over a significant amount of time too. Unfortunately, we can’t all be as prolific as Stephen King in the 80s or Joe Konrath. For me, writing goes from something I leave simmering on the back burner for a time, to something urgent and desperate. What’s your process like as a writer? How do you develop and form your stories and bring them to life?
SC: I prefer to let things happen through the emotion. I feel what the character feels (or several characters, as in a group dynamic), and the story develops from there. Each choice feeds off the last. That’s the first draft. The second draft consists of dipping back into that well to fill in plot holes. I’ve tried notecards and snowflakes and flagpoles or tentpoles or whatever you call them, but that just confused and frustrated me.
But this is a dangerous way to work, emotionally. I think that’s why I’ve been slow in my output. When I’m in the middle of a book or story, I’m full-out happily writing, but it takes me a long time to recover from all that empathy. I’m hoping to find more of a balance with future works.
And you mention the more prolific writers–for a long time this seemed to me like the only legitimate way to be a working writer. I tried so hard to fit myself into that box. I think most of us go through a time when we try to be the kind of writer we think we should be, rather than being the writer we are. But I guess that’s how we figure it out. I tried to be Robert Jordan with my first novel, and felt like a failure when I didn’t make it. Now that I write in my truest voice I can see glimmers of it in that first book and I love it, but at the time I wanted to erase that voice.
JDT: With "Skin and Scales", the editing process seemed tough for you. Tell me about the evolution of the story.
SC: I started Skin and Scales for NaNoWriMo. I finished the story but fell short of the goal by 8,000 words. I’m used to losing NaNoWriMo, but I was mad that my book was so short. It was going to my agent, so in order for it to be viable in the traditional publishing world, it had to meet a certain word count. That was a depressing moment, when the exhilaration of finishing a whole book turned into the realization that I was only half finished, with no idea how to proceed. I resisted changing the original story for a long time. In order to bring in new (meaningful) material, I had to add characters and change where the story ended and where it began. It was a tough transition which lasted probably a year.
Once I started adding layers to make it into a novel, it took on a depth I never expected. For instance, Drina’s mother became a real character and muddied the water further with those issues. Also, Drina’s friend Caellum turned out to be a completely different kind of person than I originally thought he was. I had room for fun stuff, like Bobby Lee, the Usher who fixes Drina’s gauntlet. A bit part, but “that asshole does some fine metalwork.”
JDT: You have an interesting lead character in Drina. How did she come about?
SC: She revealed herself to me little by little. Like I said, I start with a feeling, and it builds from there. I’m sure many writers have the same kind of character discovery, where you’re writing along and a little whisper tickles your mind. “She doesn’t want to admit she needs a father,” it might say. And you trust the whisper enough to incorporate that bit into your character. And she thanks you for it and feeds you another tidbit, and another. The thing I freaking love about those tidbits is that a lot of times the thing that “just came to me” will serve the story in another way, like to fill a plot hole or serve as scene conflict. So that’s how it was with Drina.
JDT: What sort of things helped you develop the other major characters in the book? I’m especially interested in how you settled on The Foreman and the image you portrayed of that character.
SC: Ah, the Foreman. The enigmatic dinosaur. You might be surprised to know that the Foreman whispered to me more than Drina did. There’s a lot going on beneath the surface of that guy, stuff that didn’t have a place in this story but might come into play later. Caellum and Lohn were there from the beginning, and Inez came in during the expansion after NaNoWriMo. She was a nice surprise. Well, except that she’s a total bitch.
Supporting characters develop in response to not only what the story needs, but what your main character needs. They show what your MC is made of, more than any internal dialogue.
JDT: I’d been preaching to anyone who would listen to self-publish, so it was a given I would dive in. What made you decide to come aboard and self-publish "Skin and Scales"?
SC: My reasons for self-publishing are, I think, atypical. I have difficulty letting my stories go. Probably another reason I’m so slow putting out work. I noticed when I published my first short, Mon Petit Ami, that I finally had closure. I had no desire to go back and edit, aside from the single typo. The story was finished.
I’m hoping to get the same closure with Skin and Scales. I’ve lived with it too long. I love it too much to let it sit on my hard drive, forgotten. I could never forget it. So basically I’m using self-publishing as a way to let this book be finished. This book deserves to be loved. That’s all it really wants.
JDT: How did the publishing process itself go for you? What were your steps? Specifically, tell me about you did things like convert the file for Kindle format, layout your manuscript, prepare the table of contents, software to make the cover, things like that. We like the little techy deets here!
SC: Techy deets…
Well it’s easy to format a Word manuscript for the Kindle. They offer a free ebook with detailed instructions for the manuscript itself and the table of contents. I think most of the problems come in when you have a lot of pictures embedded throughout your book, which I didn’t have. I had a lot more trouble with the Smashwords conversion on the other two stories, but I can’t put Skin and Scales on Smashwords until the Kindle Select period is over.
The cover was a different challenge. With the two shorts’ covers under my belt I felt comfortable tackling the novel myself. Half the challenge was finding the proper images. I’d been looking on the free site sxc.hu for months, and nothing felt right. There were some that could have worked, but they weren’t what I wanted. So I expanded my search to the paid sites, and that was where I found The Light I needed for $20.
I used GIMP 2.8, which has a steep learning curve but is the closest alternative to Photoshop that I’ve found. One piece of advice I have for those just learning GIMP is this: Save after each change, but save it with a different descriptive name, like PicAfterOilify or PicTitle3. Believe me, you WILL want a previous version at some point. Don’t think, I’ll never forget how I did this! Because you will.
JDT: I was one of your early beta readers for the original story, and it seemed to be an interesting take on the "other world" sort of things, without being paranormal. How hard was it for you to come to a classification for the novel?
SC: This issue is another reason I decided to self-publish. Skin and Scales is probably the poster child for self-publishing because it won’t fit easily into any box. Someone who’s used to (and expects) very formulaic, plot-driven genre fiction isn’t my target audience. It’s emotional, but not romance. It’s gritty, but not urban. They have scales, but it isn’t, like, lizard alien sci-fi. It’s the afterlife, but not Heaven and Hell. In fact, the working title (as you know well, Dane) was Black Veil Angel, but I knew it would draw readers who were looking for wings and robes. This ain’t that. So it’s been a challenge to come up with a box to fit Skin and Scales into. In the end, I chose the broad category of contemporary fantasy.
JDT: How has your experience with Kindle Select been so far? Are you going to participate in it again, or just let it expire so you can get away from the exclusivity?
SC: As far as I can tell, the only advantage to Kindle Select is the borrow feature. I’ve had exactly zero borrows on two short stories and one novel, so I won’t be using it again in its current incarnation. To have no presence on Barnes and Noble and Sony seems like shooting myself in the foot.
JDT: My books all seem to do okay, as long as they’re free, but I don’t burn out any calculators with sales figures otherwise. What sort of success are you having with self-publishing? What sort of promotions have you tried?
SC: It’s still too early to tell, but I’m not setting any sales goals. I tried a Facebook ad. It didn’t lead to any sales, as far as I could see, but it was fun to play with. I did a free promotion which was more successful than I expected. We’re not talking huge numbers here, in the low hundreds, but I think from those downloads I got a couple of sales and reviews. What I’d hoped to achieve was a little name recognition, and later on some word-of-mouth sales.
But really, I’m just chillaxin’ about the whole thing. I put the pressure on myself when I had an agent, and it almost killed my muse. That girl has been through a lot. So I’m focusing on access, letting readers come to me and making it easy when they get here. I’ve made sure to update my various author pages, like Amazon and Goodreads, and I’m still working on my website. I might have to get outside help on that one. But I have time.
JDT: Finally, what advice would you give a newbie to self-publishing before they embark on their own journey?
SC: The only advice I have to give is to try many different things, and don’t be afraid to let go of what isn’t working. Even if it’s your own expectations.
Thanks again for being here today, Sherri, and best of luck with your novel! All success to you!
Amazon author page:
Smashwords free short story: