Today I have on Dakota Banks, a talented author across genres.
She writes the Mortal Path paranormal thriller series as Dakota Banks and the PJ Gray suspense/police procedural series under the name of Shirley Kennett. Watch for her third Mortal Path book, DELIVERANCE, coming out March 2012. Once you check out the first 50 pages for free of DARK TIME: Mortal Path Book 1 you’ll be hooked and wanting more!
Dakota lives in the St. Louis area and is a member of the International Thriller Writers, Horror Writers Association, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and Mystery Writers of America.
INTERVIEW WITH DAKOTA BANKS
You had to ask! When I was in elementary school, the class was assigned to write a few sentences about what we wanted to be when we grew up. We were supposed to dress the part. Everyone else was happily chatting about doctors and nurses and firefighters and actresses, and I was stuck. I wanted to be a writer. How was I to dress like a writer? I asked my mother and got the answer I frequently did: “Go to the library.” All I found were pictures of stuffy-looking old men—no way was I going to school in my dad’s jacket and hat. Besides, that was for Halloween. I picked up a book on Greek gods and goddesses and was awed by the elegant women and stern-looking men. Besides, all I needed to dress as Athena was a sheet, the alternate Halloween costume. As I recall I didn’t get a good grade on the assignment because the teacher thought I was making fun of it, or her, or something. I was caught up, though. I inhaled mythology. Later on, I was the only kid in the class who had already read Homer’s ILIAD AND THE ODYSSEY. Isn’t it odd how a chance situation like that can turn into a lifetime interest?
Back to the Mortal Path books. The first twinkling in my eye about the series began during the Iraq war, when the Iraqi National Museum was looted in a period of a few days before adequate security was provided. If you go back far enough, Iraq used to be Sumeria, one of the places that make archaeologists drool. Many world-class treasures in the museum were vandalized and others were stolen for the black market. I’ve been fascinated by the Sumerian people and their quirky pantheon (set of gods). The whole episode stirred ideas of what could happen if those gods and demons were around today. What if they were pulling the strings of human activity behind the scenes? Developing the concept into the series took years and a lot of (yay!) research.
The heroine, Maliha, is three hundred years old. A terrible incident left her as an assassin working for a Sumerian demon, Rabishu. She defies her demon and no longer wants to work on the side of evil. You can’t just tear up a contract for your soul, though, so she sets about earning it back by trying to save as many people as she’s killed at the demon’s direction—and that’s a huge number, since she was a serious baddie. In DELIVERANCE, someone has taken notice of Maliha’s superb skills. Her closest friends begin to disappear, held hostage to force Maliha to be an assassin again. It’s isn’t Rabishu who’s pulling the strings, but it might as well be. DELIVERANCE starts with D, and that stands for Dark.
Maliha Crayne, the main character in your Mortal Path books, is one tough woman. How did you create her?
I wanted a major challenge. Maliha is a character who’d been hardened by life and has essentially locked away her humanity for centuries. What would happen when her feelings re-emerged, prompted by an assassination she couldn’t bring herself to carry out? How does she commit herself to the human race, form friendships, fall in love? Her sinister past weighs her down and she struggles to cope with it. Relationships are difficult when you can’t just kill and walk away. Sure, Maliha is tough. She has to be to have any chance of meeting her new goals. The books are action-filled, and Maliha can kick butt with the best of them. She’s had 300 years of practice! But inside, she’s a storm of emotions, including deep regret and longing for a normal life. She’s a very complex and exciting person. She’s larger than life, yet she has her bad days, and bad decisions. I love writing about her and in spite of the overall dark tone, I have a lot of fun. The question is can I make readers love a character with such a dark past? I hope so.
My PJ Gray suspense novels were police procedurals, heavily into computers, forensics, virtual reality, and profiling the bad guys. They’re fascinating stories, but they aren’t in the paranormal area. When I decided to add paranormal elements to my writing, I wanted a new name to separate the two. Plug: I’m bringing out the PJ Gray series as ebooks. The first one, GRAY MATTER, is available now for $.99.
What is the biggest challenge for you in writing a series?
Making it up as I go along. Seriously, there are two challenges. The first is keeping the plots fresh within the boundaries of the urban fantasy world created for the series. Maliha and the other characters have their backstories, and I can’t change them because on page 287, I wrote myself into a corner and it sure would be convenient if…. Fresh plots mean new villains, and I take mine very seriously. A lot of research goes into them, because I use historical figures from our reality, give them a twist, and plunk them down in Maliha’s. So I need a great villain and an idea that provides not only a chance for Maliha to do her stuff, but is going to strike a chord with readers. Something that makes readers’ skins crawl and makes them say, “Hey, that might really happen!” (Did I mention D is for Dark?) The second challenge is providing opportunities for Maliha and the rest of the characters to experience change and growth. Maliha’s on a quest, and she needs to keep moving, even if it’s two steps back and one ahead.
Do you prefer to write a series or stand-alone novels?
I have written only one stand-alone, BURNING ROSE, a futuristic eco-thriller, so I don’t have enough of a sample to say for certain. Stand-alones are a lot easier than writing series! You don’t have to worry about who survives into the next book (I call it CoC—Conservation of Characters), or develop an overall story arc that spans several books. From my limited experience, I’d have to say series are the way to go for me. It gives me a broader canvas on which to paint.
You grew up in a converted funeral home. How did that play a role in what you write?
It certainly exercised my imagination and gave me an early taste for that thrill/chill that raises the hair on your arms and makes your heart pound. That’s reflected in the Mortal Path series, books with plenty of hair-raising moments. And I like it that way.
What inspired you to write your first book?
When you say, “write,” I’m taking that to mean “finish.” I had my share of partial manuscripts. While I knew that I wanted to be a writer from an early age, life kept getting in the way and I never could seem to get going, as much as I wanted to. The thing that propelled me into writing my first book—listen up, new writers—was greed. Not what you were expecting, eh? I heard about a contest with a large cash prize. I needed repairs for my car. I put the two together, wrote furiously to meet the deadline, and sent off my manuscript with the certainty that I was going to win that only fools and writers are permitted to have. I didn’t. But I loved the process so much I couldn’t imagine not doing it again, and again.
Do you travel for book research?
I wish. Maliha gets to go to all the exotic places.
Writer’s Block – is it real? How do you break through?
It’s only real if you let it be. Writers working on contract deadlines get stuck for only two reasons: spring fever or its equivalent any time of year, or they haven’t thought through their stories well enough. The solution for the first is to take a few days off when the mood strikes (those chained to desks may cry now) and come back refreshed.
For the second, my tool of choice is the synopsis. This is not a chapter-by-chapter outline, but a brief version of the entire story, hitting only the high points of the plot. It’s like standing on one mountaintop (the beginning of the story) and seeing the peaks of other mountains in the distance (the middle), all the way to that glorious snow-capped one at the end. Only the peaks. That’s my line of sight to guide me through the book, and that does mean I know the ending before I start. The rest of my writing process is walking that route, down into each valley between the peaks. That’s where all the character development, secondary plots, and other juicy parts of the book take place. Brainstorm before you start, pick out 6-12 key points that have to happen in your book, and write that synopsis. When the going gets tough down there in the valleys, where writer’s block can pop up, you’re not lost. You know where the next beacon is. Sometimes you might come up with better ideas as you write the book. That’s okay. Be flexible. Try out any major change of direction in the synopsis first and see if you like where it’s taking you before you commit to it. This is the Voice of Experience talking. It’s much easier to tweak a five-page synopsis than rip out a hundred pages of manuscript that took you into a dead end.
Who or what has influenced your writing, and in what way?
I grew up reading a lot of science fiction, thrillers, and (surprise) horror. I learned world building from science fiction; suspense and pacing from horror; and action from thrillers. A few favorites: Orson Scott Card, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Lee Child, and James Rollins. In the paranormal genre, I enjoy reading Jim Butcher, Kim Harrison, and Jeaniene Frost, among many others. My favorite book is LORD OF THE RINGS which has it all.
Will ebooks hurt or help novels, writers and writing?
I have mixed feelings here. The publishing business in pre-ebook times frustrated (and continues to do so now) a lot of good writers, whose work never made it before an audience. In the old days, the advice to writers was to write a high quality manuscript and some editor, somewhere, would recognize it and help turn it into a successful book. I believe that editorial spirit is still there but can be smothered by current day bottom-line business practices, resulting in the overlooking of writers who could produce fine books given the chance. In that respect, ebooks are a breath of fresh air throughout the industry and a tremendous release of talent into the marketplace. I’m supportive from that angle and excited about the broadening of choices available to readers.
I also think there are some people putting out ebooks that aren’t ready for prime time. Not everybody is cut out to be a writer. It may sound harsh, but I would rather that those who are publishing hastily written and poorly edited ebooks just because they can would stop. The ease of publishing an ebook belies how difficult it is to write a really good book. How can readers find the true gems I firmly believe are out there? Taking a chance on new writers and then being disappointed too often with low-quality work may have a numbing effect on readers. I hope that won’t be the case. If you don’t agree with what I’ve said, then I have to admit it was Dakota Banks’ evil twin who wrote this last paragraph.
How do you market your work? What avenues have you found to work best for you genre (s)?
One thing I don’t do is hop in the car or on a plane and set out on a book tour. The theory used to be that even if you don’t sell many books at each stop, you are making contacts among bookstore owners that might bear fruit in the future. Been there, done that, didn’t harvest any fruit to speak of. Unless you want to gamble big bucks on advertising, I think the best approach is through social media channels. I didn’t take naturally to blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. I had a website, but that’s as far as it went. I had to push myself to become involved, take chances, make mistakes, and get messy (Thank you, Ms. Frizzle!). I enjoy it. It puts me in touch with the best people in the world, readers, and no more zero-turnout book signings.
Any other projects or news you can share with us?
Everybody seems to be getting into Young Adult writing these days, have you noticed? I used to give talks at elementary schools about brainstorming as part of the writing process. I couldn’t talk about my R-rated books as examples, so confronted with an empty dry erase marker board and three fifth grade classes, I made a story up on the spot. The first time I tried it, I came up with a story the kids loved and so did I. I polished that story and wrote it. My agent loves it and will be submitting it in January. It’s completely not what you’d expect from me. It’s a middle grades historical adventure, and yes, I managed to weave some mythology into it. The title is HONOR’S JOURNEY. Wish me luck!
Additional Mortal Path books are, as they say, in development. No peekies.
Do you have any advice to give to aspiring writers?
Believe in yourself and your work. Reach out to others, even if it’s just to send a note of encouragement to someone. Build a writing community.
Do you have deep dark secret? How about a shallow grey one?
Maliha’s demon reminds me of my eighth grade social studies teacher. (Hush, you teachers out there. You know you’re some of my favorite people.) I’m almost certain that Rabishu is Mr. Logan—name changed to protect the guilty—in Sumerian guise.
Keep up with Dakota here:
Facebook Page: http://dbanks.me/DBface
Dakota is running a giveaway of a Kindle Fire on Facebook now until January 31, 2012.
Twitter: http://dbanks.me/DBtwit or @dakotabanks