CassaStaR is a debut sci-fi novel about which the Library Journal wrote, “…calls to mind the youthful focus of Robert Heinlein’s early military sf, as well as the excitement of space opera epitomized by the many Star Wars novels. Fast-paced military action and a youthful protagonist make this a good choice for both young adult and adult fans of space wars.”
This interview, like all the interviews I’ve held here at MsBookish.com, focuses on Alex’s writing process. As most of you know, I find the writing process SO interesting: the details behind how an author pulls together various bits and pieces of life and imagination, the tools used to help along the way. There’s such inspiration in seeing how a writer creates; I enjoyed this interview with Alex, and hope you do too!
MsBookish.com interviews Alex Cavanaugh on his writing process:
MB: In other interviews, you’ve mentioned that the idea for CassaStaR came from an idea for a novel that you originally started writing when you were younger. Do you remember what initially served as the “trigger” for this story idea? What were your thoughts when you pulled out that original first draft? Was there a defining moment when you realized, “This is the story I’m meant to write”?
AC: The idea sparked from watching Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars. I created an outline, wrote several scenes, and then forgot about it. When I pulled out that old notebook, I realized the story was lame but the characters were strong. That’s when I decided to take the plunge and reinvent the story.
MB: Being a writer wasn’t necessarily always your big dream. What lead you to start thinking about writing a novel?
AC: It wasn’t a childhood dream, just something I enjoyed. But I started to wonder – could I really write a novel?
MB: You’ve mentioned that during the writing of the first chapter, you had a big “aha!” moment where you realized you could do it. I really loved reading this, but would love to know more about this moment. Why that moment, that chapter? Could you elaborate?
AC: It was at that moment the characters came alive. The story felt real. And I’d written one chapter – I knew I could write the rest!
MB: CassaStaR is, in many ways, a character-driven story. Could you give us a peek into your character-creation process? Did you do anything pre-writing, like character profiles or research? Or did you just wing it as you wrote, letting the characters surface as they desired? Or somewhere in between?
AC: I don’t do anything in life without a plan! I created detailed character profiles before writing any of the story. Since the main characters remained even when the story changed, their personalities and traits just fell into place.
MB: Let’s talk a bit about world-building: how much world-building did you do before you sat down and started writing? What kind of world-building did you do as the writing progressed? What “tools” did you use: charts, notes, images, maps or anything else? How did you keep all the components of your newly created world organized?
AC: I’m not as intensive a world-builder as most authors. I took notes on the basic structure, using a few science fiction movies as guides for the overall feel and details on spacecraft and alien vessels.
MB: This is the question I love asking: Do you outline? Or plunge in and write by the seat of your pants? Or somewhere in between? Tell us about your planning and preparation process. If you outline, how in-depth do you go? Any specific software you use? How do you organize everything?
AC: I couldn’t function without an outline! (My manuscripts would take weird turns if I winged it.) I write down the basic plot, with details on key scenes. Often names don’t come until I’ve finished, though. So filling in the correct blanks later can be a challenge.
MB: How long did it take for you to write CassaStaR, from start to finish? Number of revisions and edits? Do you edit as you go, or blitz through the first draft all in one go and then settle down to revise?
AC: It was almost a year before I completed the first draft, just writing straight through. (Yeah, I’m slow.) I edited and revised as I typed it out in Word and edited a few more times from printed copies before my test readers got a hold of the story. There were many revisions after that!
MB: How do you motivate yourself to write? Do you have a writing schedule, or a goal in terms of word count or time spent writing?
AC: Even with an outline, I still don’t know all the details. I write so I can see how the story unfolds! I don’t have a set schedule although I probably need one. I’m participating in NaNo this month and that’s really kept me on target with the sequel.
MB: Where do you write? Why do you like to write there? Would you say it’s your ideal writing space, or do you have a dream writing space in your mind?
AC: I do most of my work in my office. It’s my comfort zone. Everything I need is nearby – my computer, TV, stereo, and of course, my guitar. Just needs a fridge!
(This is a picture of Alex’s guitar, which resides in his office. He always plays for 30 minutes before writing. Nice way to invite the muse in, I say! – MB)
MB: Describe a typical writing day.
AC: I work full time and occasionally have time to write during the day. But the bulk of my work is done in the evenings, after I’ve chilled with a sports show and some guitar playing.
MB: It doesn’t seem to matter much whether you’re a hardcore outliner and plotter, or whether you love the uncertainty of never quite knowing where you’re going – sooner or later, something unexpected happens as you’re writing that makes you sit up and say, “Where did that come from?” What was one development, whether plot or character or setting, that took you by surprise while you were writing that first draft?
AC: Nothing really surprised me, although it was interesting to watch the characters develop. Byron’s attitude turned very sour at one point. It was challenging to evoke sympathy for him. In contrast, Bassa grew more pleasant and stable – probably to bring balance!
MB: Writing rituals and superstitions: most writers have them. Tell us about some of your writing rituals or quirks.
AC: I’m not superstitious, but I do like everything just so before I write – water bottle in place, music playing, and my mood relaxed.
MB: How do you balance writing with your day job and your family life? Any tips or suggestions about keeping balanced that you’d like to pass on to other writers?
AC: Balance is difficult. You just have to let everyone know what you’re trying to accomplish. Remember what’s really important in life and keep communications open.
MB: Anything additional you’d like to add?
AC: Readers have enjoyed the book, but many are surprised it’s such a character driven story. CassaStar isn’t hard core or high tech – it’s about friendship. It’s the story I wanted to write and I’m happy so many have enjoyed the friendship aspect. Of course, now the pressure’s on for the sequel!
Thanks, Alex, for this peek into your creative writing process! Those of you who have yet to read CassaStaR, here’s the book trailer, to give you an idea of what you can expect:
About Alex Cavanaugh: Alex J. Cavanaugh has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and works in web design and graphics. He’s experienced in technical editing and worked with an adult literacy program for several years. A fan of all things science fiction, his interests range from books and movies to music and games. Currently he lives in the Carolinas with his wife.