New Voice: C. Lee McKenzie on Sliding on the Edge

C. Lee McKenzie is the first-time author of Sliding on the Edge (WestSide Books, 2009). From the promotional copy:

It’s not a heart-grabbing noise like when somebody jiggles the doorknob to see if it’s locked. It’s not a bitter smell like the electrical short we had last month, when all the breakers popped.

No. It’s something in the air, something like a ghost making its way through the room. And it can’t be Monster, not after last night.

Shawna Stone is sixteen going on twenty-five. Already deeply scarred, she has learned to survive with a tough attitude and a thin blade. Her journey is destined to be short.

Sliding on the Edge enters the world of a desperate teen and her disillusioned grandmother, each with secrets that stir mutual distrust. As these two unlikely companions struggle to co-exist, we are reminded that the human spirit has the capacity to overcome even the deepest suffering.

Are you a plotter or a plunger? Do you outline first, write to explore first, or engage some combination of the two? Then where do you go from there? What about this approach appeals to you? What advice do you have for beginning writers struggling with plot?

I’m definitely a plunger. Before I set out, I usually have in mind where I want my characters to be when I write “The End.” Once I’ve got a rough draft–beginning, middle, and end–I go into revision mode, and I may re-write a manuscript several times. Each time, more comes to the character or the setting, and I do tweak the plot along the way when I spot things that seem contrived.

I like plunging because I love to let the new idea out as soon as I have it in my head. That first draft is sometimes terrible, but if, after I finish it, I like the idea and the people, I get excited. Then the real writing begins.

When I struggle with plot it’s because I don’t know my people well enough. I often set a project aside until I hear them talking, see how they move, know what they eat, or how they choose their friends–when these kinds of things come, then the plot rolls onto the page.

I guess my advice to writers is know your characters and let them lead the way.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises?

I can’t do exercises to write a story about someone. I’ve tried, but I fall asleep after I make the first notation. Then I lose interest in writing. So, “no to exercises” for me.

Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk?

I don’t go out of my way to find young people, but I am guilty of eavesdropping when I happen to be near a group. It embarrasses my family, so I usually turn into a snoop when I’m by myself.

Did you simply free your inner kid or adolescent? And, if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

I suppose a lot of my voice is in Shawna, my first-person protagonist in Sliding on the Edge. She’s a little more mouthy than I was when I was a kid. My grandmother would have had none of that kind of talk in her house.

Thinking about it now, I guess I turned some of that inner adolescent loose, but the character isn’t me. She’s unique with quirks and fears and enough spunk to survive in her world.

I can’t say I found her voice by magic. It was more by connecting with the character on a very intimate level. I slept with Shawna “talking” to me for over a year.

Every writer has to find a way into her characters, so my advice would be to experiment until you find what works, and then do it.

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

Oh dear. I’m such a turtle in this respect. However, I have navigated through the online maze, and I’m on so many sites now that I need crib notes. I have a great website, but all I did was provide the information. My web designer did the Flash-Fabulous stuff.

I’m very lucky to have great writers in my life who are supportive and more knowledgeable than I am. Then I stumbled into 2009 Debutantes, and they’ve provided amazing help. I feel like I owe all of them a lot.

I have my days when I’m absolutely ecstatic; then on others, I could use a counselor to hold me above water. It’s really like being on a roller coaster for me, but I wouldn’t miss the ride.

As far as advice, I think I’d tell writers who are serious about publishing to create an online presence before they sell one book. I know a few people who have done that, and when they become published, they will have a head start on making that book successful.

Cynsational Notes

The New Voices Series is a celebration of debut authors of 2009. First-timers may also be featured in more traditional author interviews over the course of the year.