Friday, March 22, 2019

C. Lee McKenzie Q&A

C. Lee McKenzie has written 4 middle-grade and 4 YA novels.  In fact, her YA, The Princess of Las Pulgas, is not only one of my favorite YA's ever, but it is also one of my top books of 2014!  And here is a Q&A with C. Lee:

1.    What are your books about?

All of my YA characters confront issues that youth deal with. My first book was about self-abuse and healing. My second about loss and rebuilding a life. My third about illiteracy, neglect and the importance of cross-generational connections. My fourth dealt with bigotry. 

When I write for middle grade, I like to focus on adventure and fun, but I never leave out what I hope kids can get from their early reading experience--the importance of friendship, loyalty, and respect. I love to tuck history inside when I can. In The Great Time Lock Disaster the kids do some time travel and see Queen Victoria’s Coronation. In Some Very Messy Medieval Magic they meet Richard II. Since I’m fascinated by the California Gold Rush era, I had a lot of fun tying in my characters’ adventures in Sign of the Green Dragon to early Chinese mining history and mythology. 

2.    What made you decide to write novels?

I don’t think I made a conscious decision to write novels, but when I read about a study of Ivy League students that said 1 out of 5 of those interviewed admitted to some form of self-abuse, I decided to write an article about it. Then I discovered others much more qualified than I am had done that, somehow my article morphed into a story (Sliding on the Edge) about a girl and a grandmother and a horse named Magic. That was the beginning, and I kept going.

3.    What is your writing routine?

Honestly, I don't have one. I write long and hard. I take breaks. I take a lot of walks thinking about nothing but walking, then I go back to writing. Sometimes I write the end before the beginning (a lot of writers have told me they do, too) I write disconnected scenes and put them together. I write straight from beginning to end. The story comes down the way it will, and I’ve learned to step aside and never worry about routines.

4.    Do you belong to a writing group?

I’ve been in my writing group since 2007. I’ve meet them at various times, but we all live in different places so our critiques are done online. One is in France (you’ll be reading her work one day because she’s a really fine writer), one lives in Arizona and writes to contract. She’s also really a strong and interesting writer. One lives in New Jersey and is an award winning author. I’m so grateful to have these writers in my corner to keep me honest and give me good feedback.

5.    How did you get your publisher?  Do you have other books written that are
       waiting for publication?  Are there any in a drawer? 

My first two books I subbed directly to the publisher, and—hallelujah—they bought them. Unfortunately, the publisher folded their YA imprint, so I was sans publisher. I subbed my third and fourth novels to Evernight Teen and they took both books. I now have an agent, and I’m hoping a publisher will give the one she’s sending out a chance because I feel very strongly about it. I have three other books that I’m “cultivating” and hope to see in full bloom at some point. I won’t even go into the ones I’ve stashed in a folder called “Fits and Starts.” 

6.    Who edits your books?

My publishers do that for my young adult books and one of my middle grades. I did self-publish three middle grade novels, and for those I hired a professional editor. I learned that I must never do the final edits of my own books. DISASTER.

7.    How much time does it take from signed contract to published book?

It depends. With the big publishers it can take 2+ years after acquisition. With small presses about half that time. When you self-publish that’s up to you, but usually I take a year which includes a lot of editing, finding the right cover artist, laying out publicity and all kinds of chores that take a lot of planning.

8.    How do you come up with titles and covers?

Usually I don’t have trouble with finding a title. For my debut novel, the publisher chose Sliding on the Edge. I wanted the book to be titled Bad Ass Attitude. I still wish it had been, but authors don’t always have a say about things like that. All of the other titles I chose. In fact, I wrote Alligators Overhead because I already had that title in my head, and I wanted a story to go with it.

9.    How long does it take to write each book?

I often work on several projects at a time, but my guess is about a year. However, now that I’ve published several books, I seem to be slower. I’m guessing that’s because I know how much work comes after I publish, and I know how much of an uphill battle I’m facing to make my work stand out from the millions of other books flooding the market. I almost dread sending a book into the market because then my life is non-stop promotion.

10.  How many books do you write in a year? 

As I said, several, but none are really competed. Right now I have one book with my agent, one new book finished and marinating, and I have two others in various stages of completion. Come to think of it, I write like I read. I have the same number of books I’m reading in the same stages of completion. 

11.  Do you have a mentor? 

Nope. Just me. But I have a muse. I’ll send you a picture of him. My mother-in-law gave him to me years ago, and he sits on a book shelf and looks over my shoulder while I write. He’s quite demanding.

12.  Do your characters speak to you?

They keep me awake at night, but that’s good because I realize that when the characters aren’t talking to me, the book’s not working. That’s when I tuck it away and forget it. When I pull it up again later and the characters start jabbering at three a.m., then I know it’s time to write their story.

13.  Do your characters dictate what happens in your books?  Or do you know
       ahead of time where they’re going?

Both. I set the course and know where I want the story to go, but sometimes I let the characters take the lead. They often veer off course, but as long as they reveal the underlying core theme, they’re welcome to be in control. It’s kind of fun, actually, and usually when those characters charge ahead, the story really takes off.

Thanks for the great questions! It’s always fun to write about writing.

The Princess of Las Pulgas, by C. Lee McKenzie - a YA that I LOVED


  1. As I've said before, I'm so pleased that Princess struck a chord with you. Thanks again, for the interview. I appreciate being on the Book Sage!

  2. I love kids' books that tackle relevant issues. It sounds like her are great.

  3. Hello, Book Sage, and hi again to you, Cheryl-Lee!

    I learned a lot from this interview. Cheryl's creative process is much like mine, sometimes long, sometimes short periods of output, breaks whenever necessary, allowing the characters to control the flow and at times completing the ending first. Your books appeal to young readers because the themes resonate and because they are rich in history and geography. "There is no Frigate like a Book To take us Lands away" - Emily Dickinson. It is interesting that you never do the final edits of your own books. I don't know if I would be willing to relinquish that control.

    Best wishes for massive success in all your creative endeavors, dear friend C-Lee!

    1. Hi Shady! It's just that I auto-correct my own work, so I don't pick up the errors the way someone else would. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Really enjoyed this interview, Lee. You have such a down-to-earth perspective on the task of writing. I aim for a year too. They say writers forget you if you aren't around at least that often. It is true for me!

  5. I knew the stats were pretty high on self-abuse, but 1 in 5? Wow. I'm also aiming for a book a year, or more if I can manage without sacrifices brain cells or quality.

  6. Loved learning more about you, like your writing schedule. And I didn't know you have an agent. A huge congrats.

  7. Excellent interview, C.Lee - I love how you researched your way into writing. I'm with Elizabeth and I find those statistics shocking. However, knowing how high the stress is for high school and college students, it makes sense.
    I love your books, C. Lee!

  8. How cute to have a physical muse! Enjoyed the interview.

  9. Wonderful interview! Love what you focus on in your MG books. Reading with my son at the MG level, I think those are the most important aspects of the books.

  10. What a great interview. I love Lee and it is fun to see her here and learn even more about her. I am glad I am not the only one who writes slower instead of faster after publishing other books. I agree- I think it has to do with knowing about the work that comes after the writing is done. :) Wishing Lee all the best!