My name is Caitlin McKenna. I write philosophical, social science fiction with unique nonhuman points of view. Ask Me Anything about sci-fi worldbuilding, future history, and xenology!

Caitlin McKenna
Mar 7, 2018

I've been writing science fiction since 2001, and published my first novel, Absence of Blade, in September of 2017. The story explores the aftermath of a war between humans and an alien species, the Osk--a classic story that I gave the twist of making the Osk the major viewpoint characters.

To date, I've also contributed to two anthologies: in my short story, "Where the Water Meets the Land", in the Canadian SF anthology 49th Parallels, an artificial intelligence must choose to save an endangered species at the risk of its own existence. In "Mother of Pearls", part of the Inifinite Dimensions: Crossroads anthology, a healer in a broken kingdom of dark magic discovers the true source of the power she wields.

I blog semi-regularly about writing craft, motivation, and sci-fi/fantasy worldbuilding at http://expansionfront.com, and you can also find me on Facebook and Twitter!

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In grad school, how did you evolve philosophically?

Mar 7, 7:42PM EST0

Hi Alicia! First of all, my graduate studies made me a better citizen. I gained a solid understanding of the historical and cultural forces behind modernist and post-modernist philosophies. This forced me to undertake a considered examination of the structures of inequality in our society, how they originated, and what we can do as citizens to address these inequalities.

Relatedly, during my grad studies, the foundation of my approach to storytelling shifted from valuing pure knowledge to valuing knowledge + action. Before, I would often resolve conflicts or create connections between characters by having them learn more about each other; as my philosophical attitude changed, my characters formed connections by doing things together in the interest of a common goal or a related set of goals.

Mar 7, 9:24PM EST0
Could you tell about one of your favorite pieces that you’ve written?
Mar 7, 7:23PM EST0

Hi, Anastasijat! I'd be happy to. :) I have a short story set in the same universe as Absence of Blade called "Visible Elements", which is my attempt to talk about public art and the social construction of disability through the lens of science fiction.

The main character, Vysha, is a Veert, a snail-like species that sees only in infrared and perceives the world as a series of temperature gradients. They live on a multi-species colony world which is at war with humans. The story follows Vysha as they apply to be one of the artists creating wartime propaganda pieces to bolster public morale. Vysha faces a two-fold challenge in the story: they have to create a piece that both Veert and non-Veert can appreciate, and in doing so, they have to show the non-Veert that Vysha's people have something to contribute and cannot be ignored.

My favorite thing about this piece is how it challenged me to stretch my powers of imagination to write from the perspective of a being who doesn't see in the same spectrum of light, and who relates to the world as much or more by touch as by sight. I also had to imagine what the artwork created by such a being might look like.

Mar 7, 9:39PM EST0

What is something you feel is important to remember when first sitting down to turn your conceptual world into concrete form?

Mar 7, 7:04PM EST0

Hi Dylan! Before I sit down, I try to always have a specific image or setting in mind that I want to incorporate in the scene I'm about to write. Especially when I'm beginning a new project, it can be extremely challenging to decide where and when to begin the story, and having a certain situation, or even just an image, in mind, acts like an anchor for my imagination.

I find it's usually best to start with specifics when sitting down to write. Readers tend to respond to situations--characters placed in a set of circumstances where they have to act or make a decision. General information about the world or backstory can be layered in as I go, once the reader is hooked by the events unfolding on the page.

Mar 7, 9:53PM EST0
Do you think it's harder for philosophers, to maintain romantic relationships?
Mar 7, 6:14PM EST0

Hi Moana! I think it depends on the school of philosophy: some philosophies may actually help strengthen a romantic relationship, if the philosophy is focused on empathy and understanding others' needs, since these skills are also at the core of maintaining a healthy relationship. On the other hand, philosophies that discount empathy in favor of adherence to logic or reason could certainly make maintaining a relationship harder.

Mar 8, 12:26AM EST0
As a child or in high what were you into? Art? Science? Sports? Music
Mar 7, 4:09PM EST0

Hi Yena! As you can probably imagine, I was a big reader as a child. I also drew quite a bit: I had a cartooning obsession as a tween, and would spend almost every Friday night drawing a full sketchbook page of comics while I watched TV. I attribute my current career directly to the love of storytelling I discovered in those early comics.

As a teenager, I also became interested in anime and martial arts, both of which influenced the action scenes in Absence of Blade. I loved science too, especially wildlife biology and ecology!

Mar 7, 10:00PM EST0
What’s the best comment you got from a reader of Absence of Blade?
Mar 7, 10:19AM EST0

Hi, Charie34! I've been so grateful for the positive reviews Absence has gotten so far! It's hard to choose, but I think perhaps my favorite comment was from my copyeditor. She was editing the text back in late 2016 and posting updates to social media. She commented on Twitter that my book felt very relevant to the current cultural moment, and that she saw so much in it that was true and right and needed to be read by others. 

That's the comment I often remember when I'm feeling stuck or having doubts about whether writing--mine or anyone's--can make a difference in the world.

Mar 7, 10:12PM EST0

The timeline of events in Absence of Blade seemed very intricate and carefully planned out. How did you manage this intricacy so well? Were there any techniques that were helpful to you in establishing the timeline and deciding how best to order it for the audience?

Mar 7, 2:52AM EST0

Hi Daniel! I'm definitely a plotter to the core, and I did a lot of outlining via notebooks and diagramming the timeline before I started writing the book. I found that going back once I had a rough draft and writing out a scene-by-scene, chapter-by chapter timeline helped me spot plot holes and places where the chronology didn't make sense. I was then able to smooth those bumps in the subsequent drafts.

I also use Scrivener's labeling function to color code scenes according to the viewpoint character. This gives me a visual representation of the amount of page time each character gets in the book. I can make sure I haven't forgotten a character for a few chapters, or given one too much page time. It's all about balance.

Mar 7, 5:59PM EST0

What were some of the inspirations for the diversity of alien species in Absence of Blade?

Mar 7, 2:43AM EST0

Hi Daniel! I love this question, because it lets me geek out about biology.  :) My number one inspiration was the biodiversity of life on Earth. Humans are one of millions of species existing today, and most life on Earth doesn't look anything like us. There is no reason why intelligent life on other planets would follow a humanoid body plan.

In creating the species for Absence of Blade, I drew specifically on my undergraduate studies in invertebrate zoology and entomology to generate species concepts, as well as the works of authors whom I feel create truly "alien" aliens well. Two writers who spring to mind are Vernor Vinge and Robert J. Sawyer.

Mar 7, 8:24PM EST0
Would you say that the alien point of view for Absence of Blade is what made your book unique?
Mar 6, 8:14PM EST0

Hi, Murphykat! Books that include alien points of view are an existing but small niche within science fiction, and Absence of Blade is a part of that niche. My aim with the book was to take a familiar trope--the human galactic civilization, a la Foundation or Dune--and present it from a point of view outside the civilization, which meant developing aliens who would relate to the human civilization as the Other.

Mar 7, 6:12PM EST0
What are some tips you can share with newbie sci-fi authors?
Mar 6, 5:05PM EST0

Hi Majas! My first tip applies to any newbie writer: read. Read a lot. And then read some more. Read widely and deeply in your genre, and don't be afraid to explore outside it for fresh perspectives and ideas. And write, of course--it doesn't have to be every day, but it should become a consistent practice.

As far as the authorship side of things, it's a good idea to look at the top 100 science fiction books on Amazon and other retailers. Look at their book descriptions, cover art, and the sample chapter to generate some ideas you might use in marketing your own work. Even if you don't write in a super popular genre like military science fiction, seeing how successful books are presented and categorized can help you better define your own niche and determine what helps your books stand out.

Mar 7, 6:22PM EST0
Have you always liked writing even when you were younger? Did you study to become a writer?
Mar 6, 3:35PM EST0

Hi, WestHillDan! I remember making my first attempt at short story writing at age 6, and I kept writing in the form of drawing comic strips up until I was 13 or so and returned to prose. So yeah, it's pretty much been a lifelong obsession.

Over the years, I've taken writing classes and workshops. One of my best professional experiences was attending the Iowa Writers' Festival for a week; I learned so much in my workshop. I think writing workshops are excellent for learning how to talk about the process and approach it more systematically.

Mar 7, 10:21PM EST0
How does one come up with unique ideas to write about in science fiction?
Mar 6, 12:59PM EST0

Hi, Pimark! This first step is of course to read widely in the genre; this includes sampling authors from earlier decades and different countries. If science fiction writers don't read the genre, they're likely to recreate ideas that have been done, not once, but many times before!

The more in-depth answer is I'm not sure if it's possible to create an idea that's totally unique. New works of art tend to incorporate inspiration from what's come before, and that isn't a bad thing; if an idea were totally new, readers might not be able to connect with it. However, if you are well-read in the genre, one way to make your idea fresh is to take a concept that already exists and put a twist on it. When it was first published, Isaac Asimov's Foundation was unique in that it envisioned a human galactic civilization that was alone in the universe, whereas previous galactic empire books had always featured alien civilizations.

Mar 7, 10:37PM EST0

When or where do you find you are most productive writing?

Mar 6, 12:16PM EST0

Hi Daniel! I've developed certain rituals that help me get into the "write" frame of mind. :) I'm most productive when I can be at my desk at home, usually in the midmorning or midevening after dinner. For some reason writing happens rarely for me in the afternoon. I'll choose a musical compilation or playlist to set the atmosphere before I start. I've also gotten in the habit of using a time-tracking program to record my writing sprints and keep myself on task.

Mar 7, 10:27PM EST0
Aside from your own, what are some of the best science fiction books of all time that you would recommend?
Mar 6, 11:13AM EST0

Hi Michael, I'm way into space opera and anthropological sci-fi, as well as sci-fi published in earlier decades. Some of the books I consider best in the genre are The Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon, The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, and Up the Walls of the World by James Tiptree Jr. (a.k.a. Alice Sheldon; Tiptree was a pseudonym).

Star Maker is a unique "galactic tour" that takes a bird's eye look at the next ten billion or so years of galactic history; Sparrow is a story about a clash of human and alien cultures as well as faith and science on a first contact mission; and Up the Walls of the World is a great introduction to Tiptree, in my opinion one of the finest science fiction writers who ever lived.

Mar 7, 10:46PM EST0
Are you a full-time author now? If not, what’s your day job like?
Mar 6, 10:17AM EST0

Hi, George! I'm currently not a full-time author, though I hope to transition to full-time writing in a few years. I have a day job as a freelance academic editor working with clients in education and the social sciences. My daily routine involves editing academic papers, book chapters, textbooks, and the occasional dissertation.

I like nonfiction editing because it allows me to work with words in a totally different mode from fiction writing. Nonfiction is much more concerned with adhering to certain stylistic conventions and with precision rather than expressiveness in writing. That's not to say fiction writing can't be precise, but I find the different demands of fiction and nonfiction form a nice balance for me.

Mar 8, 12:33AM EST0
Would you like to see Absence of Blade on TV or on film? Who would you like to play the main character?
Mar 6, 9:59AM EST0

Hi, Kkkaterynak! I'm a bit ambivalent about the idea of Absence of Blade being adapted for film or TV, because there are always nuances lost or changed in the transition from one artistic medium to another. That said, if it were adapted, I would prefer it be for TV, because the multi-episode format of TV lets scriptwriters tell longer stories that are more novelistic and can bring in more details and subplots. On the other hand, a film budget would allow for better special effects, which would be good for rendering many of my alien characters onscreen.

Since my main characters are nonhuman, the actors would probably need to be wearing motion capture suits and be rendered in CGI! That said, Andy Serkis has done awesome motion capture work (his most recent role was Caesar in War for the Planet of the Apes), so maybe he would be the best choice to play the lead.

Mar 7, 8:15PM EST0
When writing science fiction, does it have to be realistic or anything goes?
Mar 6, 8:50AM EST0

Hi Katnderi! To me, it comes down to the subgenre of science fiction and the reader expectations within that genre. If a book is marketed as hard science fiction, the writer had better make sure the details are scientifically accurate and should be careful about invoking theoretical concepts like wormholes. However, if the subgenre admits more wiggle room in its realism--space opera or science fantasy, say--readers are generally more open to accepting tropes like faster-than-light travel or telepathy. 

I will add that no matter what kind of world it's set in, the characters should feel like real people. Realistic relationships and character motivations are what get readers to believe in the fictional world, however outlandish it is!

Mar 7, 6:29PM EST0
Did you self-publish or work with publishers when you released Absence of Blade?
Mar 5, 5:51PM EST0

Hi Celina B23! I self-published Absence of Blade after a long period of researching the pros and cons of indie versus traditional publishing. I'd had some nibbles from agents and was more or less dedicated to working with a publisher until I started reading Kristine Kathryn Rusch's blog on the business of publishing. She's been publishing science fiction and fantasy traditionally since, I believe, the mid-80's. She's now a major advocate for self-publishing, especially for authors who are just starting out, because of the amount of creative and financial control self-publishing offers compared to traditional publishing. I went with self-publishing because I believe it's the best foundation for me to build my career.

Mar 7, 8:06PM EST0

What or who inspired you to get into writing science fiction?

Mar 5, 4:20PM EST0

Hi Anna! I discovered K.A. Applegate's Animorphs series when I was 9 and never looked back. It was a career- and life-defining book series for me, and it sparked some of the thematic questions I deal with in my own work, such as the difference between revenge and justice, when (if ever) it's morally right to go to war, and so on.

In my later teens I disovered the space opera subgenre through the works of Alastair Reynolds and Iain M. Banks, both of whom are huge influences on me. I was inspired by the far future worlds they created, because their fictional societies felt truly different in terms of their culture and history as well as their technology. They weren't just writing 20th century people flying around in starships!

Mar 7, 7:58PM EST0
Do you still do research when writing science fiction?
Mar 5, 1:42PM EST0

Hi, Milos! Research is often one of my first steps when I'm developing a new science fiction idea. Even before outlining a novel or story, I'll usually research whatever topics are integral to the story, especially if I'm unfamiliar with them. Researching beforehand helps me better conceptualize the elements that might be important to the story, and often generates ideas I wouldn't have come up with otherwise.

I've also had to stop writing to do research when I realized I didn't know enough to write about something. For instance, I wanted to write a scene in which a space elevator played a key role, but realized I needed to know more about the orbital physics of space elevators to write it. I spent a few hours researching, and the scene went really quickly after that.

Mar 8, 12:39AM EST0
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