What Would Life be Like on a Planet with Binary Stars?

It’s an iconic shot: Luke Skywalker watches double sunsets as evening falls on Tattooine in Star Wars: A New Hope. Science fiction films like Star Wars, and novels like Brian Aldiss’ The Dark Light Years and Fire Time by Poul Anderson, have often featured habitable planets with binary or even trinary stars. But could humans–or any complex life–survive on a planet with two suns?

What is a Binary Star System? Binaries are star systems with two suns. Trinary systems are also possible, but rarer than binaries. In fact, binary systems may be more common than our own single-star system: four-fifths of the stars in the night sky visible as single points of light are actually binary pairs.

Our sun may even have been part of a binary system. The other star likely formed in the same cloud of gas and dust as our own sun, but broke off and joined the Milky Way’s stellar population billions of years ago.

Binaries are classified based on their distance from each other (as either wide or close binaries), as well as how they look when observed from Earth (whether they eclipse each other in their orbit, for example). In a binary pair, one star may orbit the other, or the two stars may orbit around a common center of mass called a barycenter.

Life in a Binary Star System? One thing is certain: binary systems make it even dicier for life to evolve. Double-star systems introduce more variations—sometimes wild fluctuations— in the amounts of heat and light (as UV radiation) received by any planet orbiting them. Planets with climates that regularly go from freezing to boiling aren’t likely to support Earthlike life, which depends on liquid water and a relatively narrow temperature range.

Another factor is that binaries may make it more difficult for planets to form at all. The competing gravitational pull of two stars on a protoplanetary disk of dust and rocky fragments may disrupt the formation of those rocky grains into protoplanets. On the other hand, that same gravitational disruption may actually make it easier for protoplanets to form by “stirring up” the protoplanetary disk.

However, scientists think that both non-circumbinary planets (planets that orbit one member of a binary) and circumbinary planets (planets that orbit both stars) could harbor life if they are located within both the system’s habitable zone and orbital stability zone.

Night and Day, Fire and Ice: Astronomers don’t like speculating too much about squishy biology, but we can make some guesses based on what they know. For instance, Paul Sutter says,

 “Orbiting two stars at once, as our friend Kepler-47c does, makes life very elliptical, occasionally bringing the planet out of the zone. Life doesn’t take too kindly to frequently freezing over.

Orbiting just one star in a binary system? Well, sometimes you’ll have two stars in your sky at once, which can be a tad toasty. And sometimes you’ll have a star on each face of the planet, ruining the night. And don’t forget the double-doses of UV radiation and solar flares.”

So life that evolves on a world that dips in and out of the habitable zone might have evolved to withstand periodic freezing — by hibernation, or clustering around the lifegiving heat of deep-sea ocean vents. Periodic extreme heat might result in life that escapes the worst of it by burrowing, growing a calcified shell, or migrating to the cooler regions if the planet’s axis has a tilt like Earth’s does. We may also find extreme-heat-dependent adaptations, such as seeds that only germinate after forest fires. A montane plant called fireweed already uses this strategy on Earth.

Irregular day-night cycles might result in life with bio-rhythms attuned to two or more day-night periods, or to shorter active and rest periods. For instance, some Earth animals like rabbits, deer, and fireflies are crepuscular, or most active at dawn and dusk. On a planet with potentially multiple dawns and dusks in a 24-hour period, crepuscular cycles could be much more common!

Finally, exposure to higher levels of radiation and UV rays could have forced lifeforms to evolve powerful anti-oxidant and UV-blocking pigments to protect themselves from cancers and DNA damage. It’s even possible that their DNA (or equivalent hereditary molecule) could have evolved a more stable structure more resistant to damage.

Current estimates suggest 50-60% of known binary systems are capable of supporting life–that is, their planets, if they have any, would be both in habitable and orbitally stable zones. I don’t know about you, but I like those odds!

I drew on real science about binary star systems and how life might evolve on them to create the binary system in my novel, Absence of Blade. What’s the coolest fictional example of a binary star system you can think of? Tell me in the comments!

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Replenishing Your Creative Coffers

Creative work, whether it’s fiction, art, music, etc., takes a special kind of energy. Like any work, creative work demands our attention and concentration. However, creative work is usually something we have to fit in around other time demands, such as a day job and chores. We write or paint or compose music because it’s fun, and because we’re passionate about it–but this same passion means it can be hard to take breaks when we need to.

If someone were paying me for it, I could probably make a comfortable living reading those writing advice articles that tell writers to “write every day, whether you feel like it or not”. There’s something to be said for consistent practice, especially for writers who are just starting out. I have two serious bones to pick with those articles that hail producing every day as the key to success, though: first, they make no room for letting creative works lie fallow (more on this in a later article), and second, writing every day without stopping to recharge is a recipe for frustration and burnout.

It can be tempting not to think of creative work as work–after all, at its best, it’s fun, a kind of play. But even play takes energy, and if you draw on that energy without ever replenishing it, eventually your energy will run out. That can be a bad place to be for a creative; it’s much easier to recharge while there’s still some creative energy left than to rebuild your reserves from zero.

The good news is there are lots of ways to replenish your creative energy. The even-better news is that they are usually enjoyable in themselves! Here are my three favorite methods to recharge my creativity when I’m feeling in the doldrums:

Step away from the screen or paper. When you’re in the middle of a creative project–especially if you’ve hit a roadblock–it can be tempting to stare at the screen all day, but it’s often better to step away. Take a shower, play with your pet, go on a walk–anything to get your conscious mind off the creative work. It sounds counterintuitive, but creativity research has suggested that the solutions to creative problems often come precisely when you’re not consciously thinking about the problem. When the conscious mind is occupied with other things, it gives the subconscious more room to churn and come up with creative possibilities.

Make room for recreation. It can be tempting to devote every waking moment not taken up by your job and chores to your creative passion, but you’re doing yourself a disservice if you do. Spending some of that precious free time on fun activities that are ends in themselves not only helps you recharge creatively, it enriches life. Play videogames and/or sports, read for pleasure, watch movies–anything you like to do that isn’t directly related to your creative work*.

*A word of caution: Avoid making excuses for your hobbies like, “Reading helps me be a better writer”, or “I watch movies to learn about writing in a different medium”. These claims may be true (I’d say they are), but approaching a hobby with this attitude means you’re still mentally at work when the point is to take a break. It’s not only okay to switch off from the productive mindset, it’s essential. Your energy levels, quality of life, and work-in-progress will thank you.

Switch creative gears. If you’re in the middle of a longer project like a novel, and feeling lost or overtaxed, it’s totally okay to work on something else if you have the urge. Draw some line art while the latest layer of paint dries on your masterpiece. Write a short story while that novel draft ferments. I’ve written about the benefits of switching gears to clear your head between novel drafts, but sometimes it can help to step back in the middle of a work-in-progress to work on something unrelated.

It can be even more stimulating to switch artistic mediums completely. That is, if you’re a writer, you might draw or paint. A visual artist might write fiction or do some journaling. Exploring an art form outside of your own can be a refreshing shock to the creative system. Plus, if it’s not something you do professionally, there’s often a lot less pressure to be “good”, and as a result, more willingness to experiment with the art form. And who knows, maybe something you create on the side will give you an idea you can use later in your chosen medium.

Taking the time to replenish your creative energy benefits not just you, but also your work. I mention above that the “write every day” adage doesn’t leave time for creative works to lie fallow; in my next article, I’ll dig into why sometimes writing means not writing, and why giving your finished work time to ferment is an essential part of the creative process.

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Announcing the winners of the Goodreads giveaway…

WOW! Thanks to an amazing groundswell in the last 24 hours, the Absence of Blade paperback giveaway closed on November 11th, 11:59 PM with 919 entries! That is not a typo. 😀

Congratulations to the winners, Timothy, Dan, and Jennifer! Copies of your book have been ordered and should be sent out in the next couple weeks. I’ll notify Goodreads when I’ve mailed them out, so stay tuned over there.

I just want to give a heartfelt thank you to everyone who entered and helped spread the word by sharing the giveaway on social media. If you’re not one of the lucky three but still want a free, signed copy, you can head over to my Book Gobbler giveaway until December 15th for a chance to win 1 of 2 paperback copies! Book Gobbler hooks up readers with free ebooks in exchange for honest reviews*. The first 14 entrants are guaranteed a free ebook, so what are you waiting for?

*You don’t need to commit to reviewing the book to enter the paperback raffle. No purchase is necessary to enter the giveaway.

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Why I’m NOT Doing NaNoWriMo 2017

In the months of September and October, I often see posts aimed at helping writers gear up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). For those of you who don’t know, NaNoWriMo participants undertake a personal challenge to write 50,000 words in the 30 days of November–the equivalent of a short novel. These words can be for a new project or added to an existing project; the only requirement to finish NaNoWriMo is that they be 50,000 new words.

I completed NaNoWriMo for the first time in 2016 (my second attempt). It was a wonderful experience, just the push I needed to make some serious word count on my latest novel. I’m not doing it this year. Here are three reasons why. 

I need to revise Book #2 in my Expansion series. My editor has recommended heavy rewrites to some sections, as well as general tweaking, which will likely take a couple of months. NaNo is great for producing new material, but production alone can’t be the goal if you want to be a professional writer. My time in November will be better spent attending to the words already on the page.

I’m still settling down after an international move. If you saw my post in August, you know my partner and I moved to Vancouver, Canada from the United States. We were lucky enough to find an apartment relatively quickly, but we still have a myriad of tasks to complete before we can consider ourselves firmly settled.

I have to focus on my paid work. I’m a freelance academic nonfiction editor by day, and there’s a certain amount of hustle involved in sustaining that business, especially after relocating. Besides taking much-needed time to build business connections in Vancouver, I also have a big project due by middle of November. Although in the long run I would like to make a living from my fiction, and am slowly building that business, I’ll be shortchanging myself if I neglect what pays the bills now.

Final note – Production vs. Productivity: Writers and other creative types feel a lot of pressure to be “productive”. It’s worth stepping back and asking yourself if putting words into a new project is the best use of your energy at this moment. Sometimes we may be creating something of value that’s not as readily visible: for instance, revision may not seem productive but it’s an essential part of the writing process, as is outlining. Also, sometimes life takes precedence over art — it’s hard to write effectively when your non-writing life or work is tugging for your attention.

Rather than pushing yourself to write for the sake of feeling productive, even when it doesn’t make sense for your current situation, think of production as a cycle. Make use of creative sprees in your free time, but also cultivate periods of rest when your creative mind can lie fallow and replenish its energy. Production is a cycle of spending and replenishing energy, and both phases are important if you want to do this long-term.

Readers, I want to hear from you – Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? Why or why not? What strategies have you found for restoring your creative energy and avoiding burnout? Share in the comments below. 

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The paperback Goodreads giveaway is now live until November 11th!

In celebration of Indie Author Day, I’m running a giveaway of my debut space opera novel on Goodreads! Because I love Goodreads and the community it provides for writers and readers, and because who doesn’t like free books? Enter until November 11th for a chance to win a signed paperback copy of Absence of Blade:

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Absence of Blade by Caitlin Demaris McKenna

Absence of Blade

by Caitlin Demaris McKenna

Giveaway ends November 11, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

Author’s note: This is an update of an earlier post some of you may have seen before the giveaway went live. Since it launched on Thursday, it’s garnered 166 entries; I am beyond honored at the interest and responsiveness of the Goodreads community. You guys are awesome!

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Life Changes

Hi everyone, 

Phew. This year has been intense, for reasons both good and not so good. However, it is with wholehearted excitement that I write today to share some personal news: after months of planning and saving up, my partner and I are moving to Vancouver, Canada! 

For me, this will be a return to a city for which I feel considerable fondness; for him, it will be a return to that sweet vacation where he had that great gelato, but it will be a big change for us both regardless. We both hope to put down roots there as we move into the next phase of our lives. There’s going to be uncertainty going forward, but I hope there will also be discovery, seredipity and hope. 

Thanks for following me on this journey so far; I anticipate much more to come!

P.S., For those of you who follow me on Twitter, I’ll be posting road trip pictures there. 🙂 

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Interpreting Reviews – A Writer’s Guide

Rows of star ratings, from 5 to 1.I got my first reader review on Goodreads about a week ago *cue the champagne*. Overall, it was positive, with a couple areas of critique that got me thinking about the eternal question for writers and other artists: how do you deal with critical interpretations of your work?

Before we begin, it’s important to note that criticism doesn’t imply a negative evaluation. Criticism as I’m discussing it here is the art of analyzing and interpreting a cultural object (in the case of fiction writers, a book or story) for its craft, artistry, and impact or relevance to the larger cultural landscape. Scholarly analysis of literature is a form of criticism, as are newspaper staples like the New York Times Review of Books, all the way down to user-generated reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. All participate in a rich tradition of reading, interpreting, and sharing views on books.

By adopting a zoomed-out perspective, it’s possible to see the benefit of garnering reviews, favorable or otherwise, for your work: it’s a sign your book is being read, and even more importantly, considered. Another person has taken the time not only to read your words but to construct a personal interpretation of them. They have contributed in some small way to the critical body of work about your work. To me, that’s pretty humbling in itself.

Of course, even after keeping this in mind, there’s still the dilemma of what you should do when you get a negative review, or one that contains negatives as well as positives. My two cents are below.

What to do:

Have perspective. Are the opinions expressed limited to one review, or are they part of a trend of negative feedback? Did the reader expect one thing from your book and get another? That’s an issue of marketing, not necessarily the writing.

Focus on the good. Print out or save the parts of the review you like. We tend to remember the bad, so it can help to reinforce the good.

Look at how the review ends. This can say a lot about the reader’s overall impression. For instance, did the reviewer express interest in your future books?

Consider the negative without dwelling on it. Thoughtful critique in a review can be hard to take, but it can also help you improve as a writer.

What not to do:

Argue with a negative review. Just don’t do it. The reviewer has a right to their opinion, and arguing with it makes you look childish and petty. In the long run, that loses way more readers than a bad review.

Brood. Consider criticisms but don’t obsess about them. Use that mental energy to keep writing and improving.

Revise the book based on negative feedback*. When making changes is as simple as revising and reuploading an ebook, it can be tempting to make changes based on negative feedback. I added the asterisk because, on occasion, withdrawing and revising a book based on negative reviews can be the right decision. Sometimes a book just isn’t finished “cooking”, whether it’s the premise, story, or execution, and consistently negative reviews can act as a signal for that. In this case, it may be worthwhile to withdraw the book and release a revised edition later.

However, if the reviews on your book are a mix of positive and negative, that’s the business. It’s not a sign your book isn’t ready, and you waste time trying to be all things to all people. The same thing one reviewer disliked, another may love; don’t cheat them out of the story they liked by trying to please everyone.

Now I want to hear from you: if you’re a writer, how do you cope with criticism of your work? If you’re a book blogger or other reader-reviewer, what do you take into consideration when reviewing a book? What’s most important that the story get right, and what’s less so?


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What’s in a Name? Titling a Book

Pic expressing a blank page used for title brainstormingConfession: I dread coming up with titles. It’s hard in part because so much is riding on it: not only does every book or short story need a title, but the title is an essential part of the book’s first impression. Unlike the cover art or even the content, book titles are rarely changed once decided on. That ill-chosen title can dog the book (and the writer) for years or even decades. No pressure!

There’s an artistry to a good novel or short story title. You can probably think of your favorite titles readily. What do you like about them? Often great titles have a poesy, a gravitas, and evoke some quintessential feeling about the story. In fact, I contend the best titles more often are about creating atmosphere rather than conveying exactly what the story is about.

Consider this shortlist of my favorite titles:
“Vaster than Empires and More Slow” – Ursula K. LeGuin
A Fire Upon the Deep – Vernor Vinge
The Escapement – K.J. Parker
“Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death” – James Tiptree Jr., a.k.a Alice Sheldon
The Clockwork Rocket – Greg Egan

Maybe you’ve read these books and stories too, maybe you haven’t. That’s the point–without knowing anything about the content, what makes these titles interesting? Sometimes they inspire curiosity by combining seemingly contradictory terms (Egan); they may invoke a single, important concept or object from the story (Parker); or they instill a certain feeling that hints at the atmosphere of the story as a whole (LeGuin).

When coming up with the title for my book, I obsessed over titles I like, analyzing them for pattern, structure, and feeling. I asked myself how I wanted potential readers to react when they read my title. I thought about structures I could apply to titles across my series, a subtle but important signal that the books belong together. I made lists of terms and literary allusions I thought might encapsulate the theme or invoke the atmosphere of the book.

Here’s a shortlist of titles I considered:
Drawing Weapons
Advanced Pawn
Some Rock’s Vast Weight (The only literary allusion in the bunch, this is taken from the Iliad: “…as Ajax strains some rock’s vast weight to throw…”)
First Move
Edged Overture

After many hours of research and brainstorming, this is the title I chose:

Absence of blade (n., fencing): The situation in a match when the opposing blades are not in contact; the opposite of engagement.

I chose this title because of the resonances the fencing term shares with the tone and atmosphere of the story: in many ways, Absence of Blade is about characters waiting for the right moment to act, enduring the hardships and tensions of a situation they can’t yet resolve, then seizing the moment to strike.

Titles have to do a lot of work for their books and authors. Beyond thematic appropriateness, they need to sound good to the ear and look good on the page; they need to be memorable enough to be “sticky” to the reader, but not become tiresome even as they’re repeated over and over in marketing copy. I’ve probably spoken or written down my title a hundred times already, with no sign that will be slacking off anytime soon!

So readers, what are some of your favorite titles? And for the writers out there, what’s your method (if any) for coming up with titles?

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Upcoming Space Opera Release – ABSENCE OF BLADE

Absence of Blade (Expansion #1)I’m excited to announce the release of my debut novel, Absence of Blade!

Absence of Blade is the start of a new space opera series set against a backdrop of interstellar strife. On a contested world, a hegemonic human empire is set to crush an alien colony. An assassin, a spy, and a scientist will have to summon the last of their resolve to resist the Terran Expansion.

Whether they succeed depends on what they can withstand.

This is the first book in my Expansion series, out now on book retailers worldwide.

Click to buy from your favorite retailer

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So You Want to Write a Book Series Part 3: Creating Continuity

I’ve seen a lot of writers talk about the importance of writing book series to gain and keep readers, especially as an independent author. But what they don’t often discuss is how to write a great book series, one that will hold your readers’ interest not just for one book, but over multiple volumes.

In Part 2, I explored ways to create and maintain a coherent plot and character arcs over multiple books. In this last installment, we’ll look at how to create continuity in the smaller details that give your story life.

As a writer, you ignore the work of continuity creation at your peril. Detail-oriented readers will spot gaps in your continuity and bring this to your attention–sometimes directly, but just as often in reviews. However, creating continuity is more than simply filling in the gaps. You can also turn it to your advantage to create a more realistic-feeling, lived-in world. It sounds simple, but having strong continuity makes your books better by:

Building readers’ trust in your world building. The details, large and small, you include as part of the backdrop can organically suggest a larger world. Working these details in is a way to deliver information without info-dumping the pages’ worth of exposition in your notebook.

Making it feel like your world persists when the main characters aren’t in the frame. Stories can feel a bit thin when only your main characters seem to have jobs or a family, or when all the important backstory in the narrative somehow relates to them. Adding background detail like references to historical events or places we haven’t seen or witnessed strengthens the verisimilitude of your world.

Adding color and texture. For me, often equally as memorable as a series’ main ideas and characters are those little background details of the world around them. If these details are good enough, they can even steal the show to an extent: think of the visual interest of the cobbled-together Millennium Falcon in Star Wars, or the highly detailed maps in the Song of Ice and Fire series.

4 Ways to Create Continuity

1. Feature returning minor characters. These can (and probably should) be characters you found yourself interested in or who showed promise for growth. It’s even better if your minor characters have arcs and roles that change with time.

2. Make reference to future plot hooks. These can be settings the reader hasn’t visited yet, pieces of history, characters the reader hasn’t met yet, etc. This has the added benefit of making you look clever when these details become plot-relevant later.

3. Reference events from past books in current ones where appropriate. This seems really obvious, but it’s worth restating: Your characters will remember what happened to them in past books. Having them react to or recall these events in later books develops the character and shows how they grow and change in response to their experiences.

4. Mention details–places, species, cultural practices–that never become plot-relevant. For obvious reasons you don’t want to overdo this technique: mention something enough (at least twice), and readers will expect it to be sanguine to the main story, and may get angry when they find out it isn’t.

So why mention it at all? For the same reason you include minor characters, or places we only see once: to create a living, breathing world going about its business for whom the characters are not the center of the universe. How impoverished our stories would be if they didn’t have that kind of rich background stage against which the drama of the story could play out!

In a way, all storytelling is creating continuity. Narrative is a linear art form. By weaving in small details and recurring characters, places and themes, you can create a story with much more depth than the bare words on the page. And isn’t that your ultimate goal?

Other articles in this series:

So You Want to Write a Book Series Part 1: Choosing a Structure

So You Want to Write a Book Series Part 2: Managing Plot and Character

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