Interview with Sci-Fi Author C.A. MacLean

C.A. MacLean~

Today’s guest author is C.A. MacLean, a sci-fi writer I had a chance to meet personally last fall at a local book event. While this gentleman may appear quiet and demure his characters and plots are anything but! His passion for science fiction, worldbuilding and the exploration of the unknown explodes in his stories.

I’d like to give a warm welcome to C.A. MacLean. Thanks so much for stopping by today to share your insights into your work and the writing/publishing world.

It’s my pleasure. I enjoy sharing my creative process and exploring not only the depths of my novels but my journey to publication as well.

Can you describe for us the moment that launched you on your writing journey?

I’m going to go ahead and not count the joke-book I made when I was little enough for my age to be counted on one hand (What lizard can see in a snowstorm? A Blizzard! I’m so, so sorry).

Rather, I think that instead of having a singular ‘eureka moment’, it was something that just kind of happened organically. With so many shows and movies I would watch, and games I would play, I would start getting all these scenarios flying through my head, this urge to tell stories of my own.

A big part of it is “that moment” – the moment where you get so immersed in a piece of art that you momentarily lose track of time, and you exist in this space somewhere between this world and the world of the media you’re playing, or watching, or listening to or reading. At the risk of getting poetic on you, I like to think that’s the magic moment where you can reach in and latch on to true inspiration. That’s where I got bitten by the creative bug, at any rate. I want to give others “that moment”.

I think the gaming was a huge part of it, actually, just because the hands-on nature of the medium means it’s very easy to get immersed and enter that “inspiration zone”. So there’s something to think about the next time someone tells you you’re just wasting your time playing all those video games.

How has your ‘day job’ or post-secondary schooling influenced your writing? What are the main influences to your writing?

I like to say that when you want to create, you never stop taking in inspiration. In my case, I never stopped taking influence from the kinds of entertainment media that made me want to do this in the first place.

My post-secondary education definitely helped me to develop a more analytical eye towards the kinds of media I consume, but believe it or not, being able to get deeper into the analytic angle actually deepened my appreciation for a lot of it, because all of a sudden I was able to enjoy these pieces of art on multiple levels. My website actually began as a university project where I put various video games under the analytic microscope.

As I mentioned, I take a whole lot of inspiration from games, music, books, films and shows. I spend my time at home surrounded by this material – quite literally, since I have a considerable physical collection of entertainment media – and, while a part of me wants to consider Architects a series that wears its influences proudly on its sleeves, I also think it’s my personal spin on the action, adventure and speculative fiction styles. By the time the series is completed – granted, there are only two books out so far – I have a hope that it will represent my unabridged and unrestrained take on the genre of science fiction so far.

And, getting away from entertainment media for a moment, I’ve become really fascinated with real-world astronomy, space exploration – anything pertaining to space, really. I’ll be watching, for example, a special on wormholes, and suddenly get a plot idea (this may or may not be a veiled spoiler for the as-yet unreleased third Architects book), or I’ll get an idea for a really visually cool Architects world after seeing a special about tidally-locked planets where the only habitable zone is on the equator in perpetual twilight (This is absolutely a spoiler for book four). Certain parts of the series are less a love letter to sci-fi, and more a love letter to space and the potential it holds.

What were the most challenging aspects of bringing your books to life?

Seed of TreacheryI would actually say that the most challenging moment in bringing Architects to life came after the initial writing process on the first book, when one of my beta-readers on Seed Of Treachery brought to my attention no fewer than two important plot points that just plain didn’t work. This is way more distressing than finding an error of your own volition when your manuscript is half-finished, because all of a sudden you’re confronting these structural errors in a completed story. There are two major kinds of errors that a beta-reader might find: mechanical (typos, dialogue that doesn’t make sense, etc.) and structural. Structural are the big ones, because they necessitate the literary equivalent of open-heart surgery to correct: you’ve got to go in there and change significant elements of the story, adding and subtracting scenes if necessary, all while taking into account the delicate balancing-act that is your story’s pacing. Worst-case-scenario, you might have to remove the Jenga piece from the bottom and hope the whole thing stays standing in the meantime.

Needless to say, I was overjoyed when my beta-reader’s analysis of The Great Scourge returned no structural errors, only things that could be referred to as a ‘clerical derp’.

The moral of the story? Beta readers are not optional. They are 100% essential if you value the integrity of your book, and I know that you do. It’s a trial-by-fire for your story, but if you have yourself a beta-reader who respects you enough to tell you the brutal truth in a constructive way, it’s the best thing for your book.

As for the actual writing process, though, during the phase when mine is the only set of eyes? There was one story element that I had to think long and hard about, but I don’t know how much I can really say about it – major spoilers and all that. All I’ll say is that it proved an interesting puzzle to solve.

What is the fundamental message you would like readers to walk away with after reading your work?

The message itself I’d like readers to walk away with depends on the specific book (For example: with The Great Scourge, I’d like to foster feelings that the universe is much broader and with much more amazing elements than we could ever imagine, both for good and for ill), but there’s one thing that I think is universal: although I’ve mentioned it before, I’d like to give readers the same kind of feeling of imagination and wonder as the epic films that pulled me in when I was a kid. I hope people will want to explore my world and want to take it into their minds and hearts, and to spend time there. (Just watch out for the ravenous bloodthirsty aliens, the meteor storms, ominous deep-space ship graveyards, rebel insurrections…)

Who is your favourite character? Can you describe an interesting moment in the development of this character.

I think it’s gotta be Ashy, the younger sister of protagonist Eva. While she’s involved in a generous amount of action, her story arc also deals with a number of deeply personal issues, such as what it’s like to be in the shadow of someone else, and what it’s like to feel damaged by how others perceive you. Like other Architects protagonists, she winds up mentally and physically tested, but she in particular has just such ‘sticktuitiveness’ that I find admirable. She also tends to emote more openly than her more stoic sister. She’s the underdog and she knows it, and she hates it, but she’s not going to stop fighting.

I think my favourite moment for her, so far, is from early in The Great Scourge, when she manages to channel all this pent-up frustration into a serious drive to take her sister’s example and put her life on the line for those who need help. I loved writing that, because it’s such an intense moment where you can just see the ‘Hero Motivation’ (For you Spider-Man fans call it the ‘With Great Power’ moment) splitting the skin and breaking the surface.

What was the most difficult scene for you to write? Try to describe your efforts without revealing too much or ‘spoiling’ the moment for future readers.

There are several different kinds of difficult scenes to write: namely, technical and emotional. On the technical side, action scenes are both fun and challenging, because so much more goes into a good action scene than I think a lot of people appreciate at face value: there’s so much to keep track of for an awesome, epic action setpiece to really come to life. There’s an action-based scene in The Great Scourge that spans an entire chapter, involving a number of warships in space, a sudden betrayal, and one very frazzled supporting character (Hannah Andora, a human military Admiral) running about trying not to have it all blow up – literally. There are some incredible moments in the chapter that, visually and logistically, only work because both the science (“Alright, so if the gravity generators malfunction in this way…”) and the spatial logistics (Keeping track of all the characters’ locations and the ships) are nailed down. It was a real challenge to write – a fantastic action scene is the Hard Mode of books – but it was a blast to write as well. As far as action goes, I consider it my proudest moment so far in this series. Hope you guys enjoy it.

As for emotional…I don’t know. If I’m finding an emotional beat hard to write, it’s usually because I’m just not in the right mood for it, because doing a truly convincing, compelling emotional scene requires that you let it take you where it intends to go, and you have to ‘ride the wave’ of those emotions, if that makes any sense. If I’m high on caffeine and have just listened to a whole bunch of uptempo music, for example, getting me to write a good sad beat is like getting blood from a stone.

On the whole, though, I feel that if a scene feels “stuck” instead of just “challenging”, like something’s gumming up the gears, then it might be worth your while to take a step back and look critically at the structure or the aim of the scene rather than keep trying to roll the boulder up the hill. If everything about a scene is already to your complete satisfaction, the prose should be able to flow like water.

What insight can you give regarding the publishing industry and the route you chose for publication (traditional publishing vs. self-publishing).

The Great ScourgeFor Architects, I went with Createspace, which can best be described as assisted self-publishing. There are certain freedoms that I really enjoy from this format; for example, I’ve contracted all my own cover artists so far through good ol’ fashioned networking, whereas I’ve seen some publishing houses (I shan’t be naming names) that lock their authors into specific art designs that weren’t even that appealing to my eyes. What this does is give me access to the physical format – they put out great paperback editions – and access to Kindle format because Createspace is owned by Amazon. Nothing for me will ever beat the feel of physical media and all that it implies, but I know how convenient Kindle is for a lot of readers, and I want to make all my books available in digital form for those who consume their media that way. It’s about availability, after all.

On the other hand, I’m currently in the writing process of a horror novel that I have my heart set on getting ‘traditionally’ published, because I would love a foothold into that realm as well, and as far as my personally promoting it all on my own, an epic action-packed space opera is a far easier sell than a dark, psychological, supernatural horror novel for adult audiences. I’m sure that a story like that will find its audience, but I’d much rather have on my side a speculative fiction publisher who knows how to tap into said audience.

That said, if a traditional publisher came up to me and told me they wanted to pick up Architects, I’d do it in a second, not the least of which because of the expanded distribution.

What have you found to be the most challenging aspect of publicizing yourself and your work?

Doing one’s own promotion is inherently a challenge, because you’re competing against other artists and companies with much bigger promotional budgets than you. I’m not trying to imply some kind of mean-spirited competition, because almost all of the fellow writers I’ve met and networked with have had nothing but high spirits and encouragement for their fellow authors – common ground and all that. But the notion of, ‘How do I make myself noticed?’ can be a paralyzing one, especially for an introvert by nature.

I feel that ‘daunting’ is the best word to describe the self-promotional process, because it feels a little bit like trying to leap onto a runaway train.

But hey, aspiring writers, if you need a quick shot of confidence – it’s okay to be proud of your work. Absolutely. I know I have an issue with downplaying myself so as to not appear big-headed, and I’ve been told as much by my publicist and others whose job it is to know the what’s-what with promotion, but really, it’s okay to sit back and think to yourself, ‘I’ve done well’. And even though it’s a money-sink and a time-sink, it’s time and money well spent if you truly believe that what you’re creating has the potential to be fantastic.

Remember ‘that moment’ I mentioned? Because when you pour all that energy, and all that time, into a book, people can read it and love it, and receive ‘that moment’ for themselves – even after your own lifetime. That’s what you’re really selling. You’re selling the opportunity for others to find a home in the world you’ve created. If I sound sentimental, it’s because I have no blazing clue what I’d be doing right now if I hadn’t found a second home amongst the great works of other artists. It makes you feel like you float above your day-to-day, and gives you a sense of greater purpose. Now you just have to figure out how to translate those amazing feelings into some kind of promotional material. Which brings us back around to that one word: daunting.

A lot of people in the digital age might seem cynical and hard, but for everybody, there’s always going to be room for one more wonderful piece of art. A story, a song, a show. And then one more after that, and one more after that…

What drew you to science fiction? What are your favourite scenes to write?

Am I allowed, “because it’s awesome” as an answer to the first question? Because no matter how many words I take, that’s what it boils down to. I always loved the visceral impact of alien worlds, epic space battles and strange creatures, and more recently I loved the thrill of being able to flesh out these worlds, think about how they work, and really hopefully live up to the ‘speculative’ part of speculative fiction. There’s nothing wrong with modern day stories that surround themselves with our day-to-day – I consider Breaking Bad to be one of the absolute best-written stories to come along in the past decade – but with those kinds of stories, the world is by-and-large built for you, because it’s the one we live in. And, strange and lopsided as it sounds, I’m not 100% sure where to go with that yet.

As for my favourite scenes to write, I mentioned the difficulty of a good action scene, but there’s also an intense feeling of satisfaction when you do finally nail it down. But rather than say a specific kind of scene – an emotional beat, a war scene – I’ll instead say that my favourite types of scenes are the “payoff” scenes. Writing a multi-part series is a little like farming: you plant seeds (plot elements) and you nurture them, then harvest them when they’re just about ready. And there’s a lot of pressure on you to get it right when it comes time to harvest a plot element you’ve spent a book and a half building towards: you’re going to be thinking less ‘alright, this is gonna be great!’ and more ‘Please don’t let me screw this up.’ Maybe a bit of both. Because unless you do the payoff right, there’s the danger of it rebounding back and making the buildup seem less awesome by proxy. But that’s part of the excitement, I think.

What can you tell us about designing alien races?

It’s just as important a part of the worldbuilding as the society they live in, and the two play off of each other. It’s fine – it’s great – to start with “wouldn’t this be cool if we made aliens that are [x]”, but then you have to take it aside and think, “How did they evolve in this way? What utility does it serve, and how can I integrate it into my story?”

Take the Arkerian race, of which Eva and Ashy are a part: the species has hollow bones, so they’ve developed an innate gift for athleticism and dexterity, to prevent from falling from high places. (Call it ‘genetic parkour’ if you want.) They also have specific types of garb meant to shield their bones from impact, which have entered into their fashion culture as well. When you’re worldbuilding, remember – everything informs everything else. No part of society exists in a bubble.

To again use the Arkerians as an example, their genetic gift for dexterity lends to action sequences that are very fun for me to write, and I hope very fun for you to read, because they move in a distinct way different from humans or other aliens. Always think when you’re worldbuilding, ‘how can this tie in to the narrative itself?’

Let’s throw in another one: there’s another alien race in Architects who have evolved with crystalline-like deposits on the crown of their heads instead of hair, and these deposits glimmer in accordance with their emotional state. So right there, you can infer that in their culture, headgear is simply not a thing except for things like spacewalks, because to hide one’s head is to hide one’s emotions and true intentions. Ask yourself, how would a society evolve if everyone literally wore their emotions on the outside? It’s a question that, for plot and pacing concerns, hasn’t yet been directly addressed in Architects, but I’d love to explore it in the books to come.

What projects are you currently working on and can you reveal or give any juicy hints?

First and foremost, the third Architects book is on the horizon. I couldn’t really give you a “percentage-complete counter”, because I’m writing it all out of order (as I tend to do – it’s all about which scene you feel in the mood to write on a given day), but I can tell you that there’s going to be some insane action going on. I want to take the most epic setpieces from the previous books, and make them the baseline for what to expect from the third Architects book, tentatively titled Elysium Protocol (subject to change). And emotionally, there’s going to be some heart-wrenching moments to come; war doesn’t come without sacrifice. Out of the frying pan…

As I mentioned, I’ve also got a horror novel in the works, which takes place in a setting I’m not so used to writing – right here. A good chunk of the book takes place in Toronto (and a hellish nightmarish realm of freaky monsters as well – no, I’m not talking about rush hour downtown, but some dark interdimensional juiciness that I think fans of Silent Hill will love). This book is me ‘playing against type’ in a way: While sci-fi and horror both technically fall under the ‘speculative fiction’ umbrella, there are so many subsets to each. Architects is – I used this phrase in a correspondence with one of my cover artists in describing Architects and it probably sounds better in my head – “Kitchen Sink Sci-Fi”, as in everything-but. There’s futuristic action-adventure that fans of Halo or Mass Effect can sink their teeth into (Mass Effect being one of my personal bibles on good, thorough worldbuilding), extravagant locales (particularly in the second book) that I should hope grant the same kind of cinematic wonder as epic setpieces from a Cameron or Spielberg film, and some leery, even frightening moments that fans of, say, Event Horizon or Metroid Prime might be drawn to. So even within the same series, I’ve got some practice juggling drastically different moods and settings.

Now, just because Architects has some tense, dark elements sprinkled throughout doesn’t mean that it and my horror book, tentatively titled Falling Fire (consider this the official title unveil – yay!), share elements of the writing process. Quite the opposite, in fact; because Architects takes place far in the future and this one will take place in contemporary Toronto and Japan, the way in which I construct language and dialogue is worlds apart, no pun intended. It’s also far more insular, in comparison, which is a new sensation for me…although there are definite hints of something much bigger going on.

Content-wise, it’s interesting to write this horror book in a far more unrestrained way. Architects is somewhere between a hard PG-13 and a light R, so far – though expect things to get more intense with each passing book – but I already know Falling Fire is going to not really have any restrictions as such. Because with horror, the tension is removed if you already know that nothing too shocking is going to happen. People are tired of jumpscares. They want to know that there’s a possibility of being left stunned and shocked, because that’s the primal reason we love horror. That doesn’t necessarily mean gore; shocking plot elements and surreal atmospheres can do it just as well, if not better. The book is going to deal with some considerably heavy themes as well, which just kind of came naturally – after all, horror is a reflection of our fears and the darker side of our subconscious, and I think that makes it the perfect vehicle to tackle weighty themes.

Oh, and writing in the perspective of a snarky protagonist instead of the omnipresent narrator employed in Architects? Very interesting. It’s challenging, but also freeing, because this character’s not afraid to speak her mind.

In other news, I asked a question the other month, ‘why do we rarely see high fantasy and horror paired together?’ I suppose Lovecraft’s work can be considered a very dark mixture of sci-fi and fantasy, although it’s fair to say ‘Lovecraftian’ has become its own separate genre now, with its own tropes and conventions – but at any rate, I’ve begun work on an as-yet untitled fantasy novel that’s going to – as they say – show its teeth. It’s going to have horror elements and definitely be intense and visceral (action for sure), while taking place in a high-fantasy realm. I always told myself that if I was ever going to do straight-up fantasy, it was going to have claws. Now, the claws are coming out.

Thank you so much for your willingness to share your experiences and love of sci-fi with us today C.A. You’ve given all of us much to consider the next time we pick up a SF/F book. Be sure and stop by to let us know when Book 3 in the Architects series is coming out 🙂

Will do. And thank you for having me here today. As you can see I love what I do (and can’t help but get caught up in my own enthusiasm)!

C.A. MacLean’s Website

Twitter

Architects of the Illusion

Architects Of The Illusion is an ongoing sci-fi action epic, setting us down in a future far after Earth’s demise. The star system of Arela threatens to be torn apart, both by factions within and darker threats from the depths of space; the Fireseed mercenaries and their allies – a coalition of far-flung aliens and the endangered species known as humanity – stand in the face of their world crumbling down.

It all begins with Seed of Treachery, and continues in The Great Scourge.

READ AN EXCERPT FROM BOOK 1 HERE

Buy @

AMAZON.COM

or

AMAZON.CA

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