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“You don’t have to be put in a box.” | A Conversation on Craft with Catherine McKenzie

Catherine McKenzie is one busy woman. Not only does she practice law as a career, she’s also carved out time to write multiple bestselling novels. Her latest, Fractured, will be released October 4. I spoke with her this week about the opportunities you’ll have to work alongside her at the upcoming Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference and how she’s honed her unique voice over the course of six novels:


SS: In one of your WD sessions, Bringing Characters to Life Through Dialogue, you’re going to be working with participants to help them improve their dialogue. What are some of the most common stumbling blocks when writing dialogue?

CM: I think one of the mistakes is that people treat dialogue in books differently than the way people actually speak in real life. And we can’t totally replicate the way people speak in real life. If you look at a transcript of how people interact, they talk over one another, they speak in shorthand. So obviously to write that way would be confusing. Also, people don’t speak in paragraphs unless they’re giving a speech.

It’s important when doing dialogue to keep it short and make sure it’s an exchange—not to use it as an info dump. And it should be used to move things forward. An example is that you rarely see characters on TV say “goodbye” on the phone. And that’s ok, even though it’s not true to life, that’s implied. Either you reveal something about the character or the plot but it can’t just be a “Hi, how are you?” conversation.

The third important thing is to preserve the distinctive voice of your characters. For instance, with your main character, you want to ensure there’s a consistency to the language of the character you’re writing. If you make your dialogue true to the character you don’t have to insert a lot of “he said” or “Catherine said.” You should be able to guess who is speaking without having the identifier at the end of each sentence. I personally find it annoying to read dialogue where the author is constantly telling me who is speaking. I would rather be shown in subtle ways as opposed to having that pushed at me every time I read the dialogue.

SS: Is that about trusting your reader to make those inferences? Is that trust something a writer gets better at over time?

CM:  I think that that, as with everything, people have facilities for different [skills], whether it’s writing things that convey an accent, or a dialect, or giving instructions.

Something I tend to notice is clunky dialogue and I’m really not a fan of long pages of exposition. I’m reading the book mostly for the dialogue and the interaction between the characters, so I think that’s what’s important.

SS: You’ll also be presenting Discover Your Distinctive Voice. What was that process like for you as a writer? You’ve written six novels now. Do you feel it’s an ongoing process where you’re often reassessing what your voice is or is it more fixed now?

CM: Both. It’s interesting to me that when I first started writing, a friend of mine read one of the books in its early stages and said “I’ve heard you talk about voice and I know what that means now because I can hear you speaking as I’m reading the book.” And so I took that as a great compliment!

I think voice works on two levels: you’re telling your story in your own distinctive style. I want readers to read my books and say, “Oh, this is a Catherine Mackenzie book” So even if they pick different ones—you know one of my books may be funny and another might be more of a thriller—I still want my voice to be coming through in those characters. And the characters have to have their own voices, too.

As to how I discovered it, I don’t start writing a novel until I feel like I have the voice of the main character, and that usually comes to me as an opening passage or opening line. I think about the story. I think about the main character and then I hear their voice in my head speaking the opening of the book.

SS: Where do you get your inspiration for the different voices? Are you an eavesdropper or do you feel like it’s more of a self-generated talent?

CM: I do a bunch of things! One is that I read a lot and I think everybody who wants to write needs to read a lot. I never understand when I meet people and say they want to write and then I ask them what they like to read and they say they don’t have time for it. That’s like saying you want to be a musician but you don’t listen to music! I just don’t get it. I’m also a big TV watcher and now with the quality of TV, that is where so much great writing and dialogue is happening. TV is almost a hundred percent dialogue, so that dialogue has to tell a narrative. You have short scenes and there’s a lot to be conveyed, so you don’t have anything extraneous there.

And for sure I eavesdrop. Last week, a friend of mine was filming a TV show in Montreal where I live and I got to go and be an extra in the crowd. I was there with friends but I almost wished I were alone because the conversation going on around me was so crazy and I was wishing I had my notebook to write it down, because you can’t make this stuff up.

But I do think you have to be more than an observer of society—you know, living in society—to get this stuff down. The downside of being a writer is to remember to not always be an observer when you’re experiencing things and to make sure you’re a participant! I think there are a lot of writers who feel that way—they’re in a situation and then they pull back from it to think about how they would write it. And that’s important but you could be missing out on things.

SS: Can you tell us a little bit about Writer Unboxed and what you write there?

CM: Writer Unboxed is a site that was started by two people, including Therese Walsh, who is also coming to the conference. It’s a site for writers, both published and unpublished who are coming to talk about craft and business (though more craft than business) and somebody writes a post every day and discusses the business of writing. I’ve been a regular contributor for at least two or three years and we put together a book called Author in Progress. The idea behind it is that for someone who is writing (or thinking of writing), it’s not a manual, but it an overview of the things you should be considering when writing. And hopefully it gives them some inspiration to finally write or to finish their book!

SS: And you’re part of the launch party for Author in Progress, right?

CM: Yes!  [Note: the Author in Progress Book Launch Party happens Friday evening and is open to all Novel Writing Conference attendees]

SS: Your novels seem so different from one another. When people ask you what kind of books you write, what do you tell them?

CM: I say contemporary fiction, because I think they all fit into that category more or less. And for sure there’s been an evolution. When I wrote the acknowledgements for Fractured [McKenzie’s latest novel, to be released October 4], I was writing them ten years to the day from writing my first novel. The difference between [ages] 32 and 42 is big. The things that you experience and changes in your voice, and hopefully I’ve evolved along with my readers.

I’m not trying to write to a market, but I try to be present in my own time. I know my first book might find a different audience today, or no audience at all. I think that’s fine, even though I love the book, am proud of the book and would publish it again. But I don’t want to write the same book. I like challenging myself. I’m the one spending the time writing it! If you read it, maybe that’s five hours or six hours or eight hours of your time, but that’s just one day of me writing it, so I have to make myself happy. If this weren’t fun for me and I felt like I was writing the same thing all over again and trying to write to please my readers, I think they’d feel that and it wouldn’t work. And it wouldn’t be worth my time to do it.

Ultimately I can’t decide what stories come to me and I’ve been lucky that my publisher has allowed me to shift and grow in what I’m writing and to be encouraged that people read all kinds of things. You don’t have to be put in a box.