The 3 hardest things about writing sci-fi romance

I’ve lost count of how many times I curse my choice of story genre. It tends to happen when I hit particular writing challenges, and end up walking away from my computer in a huff. After a little sulking on the couch, I reflect on the fact that I do love writing sci-fi romance (or romantic sci-fi). I love exploring how people and societies cope in a futuristic setting.

But there are things I definitely find difficult. I consider myself at between the “advanced beginner” and “competent” skill level when it comes to writing, with these three major bugbears that frustrate the hell out of me:

Economies and power structures

In my early days of writing fiction, I read something along the lines of how every exciting space battle is ultimately driven by economy. While love, culture, religion and politics may spark conflict, it takes economic incentive to fuel an all-out war. After all, you need something to make it worth the huge risks, the sacrifices and expense. Learning this secret blew my mind and I’ve never been able to un-see it.

It changed the way I approach my writing. For example, I couldn’t just have characters playing Cops & Bounty Hunters in Chasing Sisyphus. I need to consider the societal structures and economic forces that shaped the circumstances in which the characters find themselves.

Adria isn’t just a bounty hunter, she’s a tiny cog in a dynastic capitalist machine (ie. Basilica City) that’s beholden to an external authority (ie. the Alliance). There are wheels in motion within the city that empower and hinder the police, making it easy for bad cops to abuse their power and hard for good cops to keep the streets safe. That’s what drives Rhys’s frustration and, in many ways, gets him so caught between what he thinks he should do and what the situation calls for him to do.

Beyond my neon-washed room is a Pollock’s shitshow that may never make it into the story, but it’s all necessary for creating a richer world and a more interesting romance.

The technological landscape

Some writers and readers are offended by anachronism. Not me. I find it charming and remarkably relatable as a quirk of futuristic fiction. Looking around my home, my neighbourhood, colleagues and social circles, I see a diverse spread of technology in use. Not everyone can afford the latest hardware, and some devices are capable of surviving many generations of technological advancement.

There’s a lot of scifi out there that only shows a single era of tech as the norm. Or maybe the latest tech + whatever bleeding edge innovation (or ancient artifact) that eventually serves as the inciting incident/MacGuffin of the story. Nothing wrong with this, of course, but I wanted to base my future tech on the diversity of today’s tech.

The world I see today is full of cassette players in petrol-guzzling cars that refuse to die, Android fragmentation across millions of handsets, previous-gen iPhones struggling to keep up with iOS 14.6, tablet cases that mimic typewriters, printed publications that thrive because they’re charming, mechanical keyboards, mechanical watches, and other such affectations.

Technology influences and is influenced by policy and society. Sometimes we keep loving old toys because we are human. This what makes my world.

Culture & society

This is the part that causes me the most stress. It’s actually the least complicated aspect of world building, but one that stands to cause the most upset for contemporary readers. For me, a world that’s enjoyable to write about is colourful and multicultural. But what does culture look like hundreds of years from now when you’ve sent humans into space?

I see a lot of cultural blending where say, two cultures spawn a new intermingled culture in a space colony. My favourite example from big-name scifi is the blending you see on Mars and in the Belt in The Expanse universe, with accents and writing and language from different Earth roots all fused together.

Confession: I’m not that smart or skilled or detailed. My cultural blending for the Alliance Worlds is rudimentary at best. So I’m forever wondering whether my readers will pick up on it, or if they’ll view it like the racist cultural conflations you come to see in monoculture societies today. If a Chinese-named character demonstrates Japanese customs, how can you convey the backstory of a futuristic Sino-Japanese society? And you’d have to, somehow, wouldn’t you—so XYZ reader doesn’t mistake you for some QED rando chump who thinks that all Asians look the same.

Growing up in Southeast Asia and Australia, I’ve gotten to see cultural blending in action, and it occurs to me that this isn’t a typical experience for everyone. If you had never lived in a multicultural society, what would it take for you to recognise one when you see it? And how would you work that seamlessly into a story?

No answers, just work

If you were hoping for answers at this point, I am sorry. I have none.

These challenges plague me throughout the entire creative process, and the only way I can think of to address them is to keep learning and keep writing.

Improving one’s writing skill means increasing how fluently one can express ideas and intentions without jarring the reader out of the story. I imagine this is a worthwhile approach for any writer at every level.

Moon — the last edits are in!

Earlier this week, I turned in the final edit of O, swear not by the moon (let’s call it “Moon” for short bc I’m soooooo tired of typing out the full title).

It feels BLOODY GREAT to be on the other side of that WIP. Don’t get me wrong, I had a whale of a time writing it 🐳 but I’ve never created a a piece of fiction that lengthy to a deadline so tight before… Which, in all fairness, wasn’t that tight (and at 12.5k words, my piece is hardly lengthy), but with Christmas and start-of-the-year particulars hitting me at the same time, I consider completing this project a personal achievement.

“Moon” is also the first story that pushed me hard on both the science fiction and romance fronts. In all my published work to date, I’ve taken the sci-fi elements fairly casually. Yes, even though It Starts With A Kiss has that “engineers in space” thing, the science is still incidental to the characters’ respective journeys.

With “Moon”, I wanted to explore how technology empowers human connection, similar to how it enables our relationships today. We often blame the Internet and social media for weakening our in-person relationships, but I’d like to know… how robust were these relationships to begin with if they could be threatened by a tool that offers us more opportunity to connect?

We now have the ability to bypass chance. We’re no longer “stuck with” the pool of people who happened to be around us when we were born. We have the means to intentionally seek out and nurture relationships with others who might understand and know how to appreciate us. That, I feel, deserves acknowledgement.

There are other things “Moon” gave me an outlet to explore, but because they’re a bit spoilery, I won’t discuss them right now. I’d prefer for you to explore them with me through the story.

It comes out 26th April in Fedowar Press’s Star Crossed anthology of romantic science fiction.

Breathing life into a flat sci-fi romance

This post is a deep-dive into the revision process for It Starts With A Kiss. For just the highlights, check out the “Behind The Rewrite” edition on Shortcuts For Writers.

I hate first drafting. I really do. As cathartic as it is to get a story onto the page, it can be so disheartening to read through chapters of rough dreck, knowing that’s what you’ve got to show for hours of slaving over a hot keyboard.

That said, I love having a first draft. And while revising can be tedious at times, this is the stage where you get to really put your knowledge into practice.

To date, my most popular book, It Starts With A Kiss (“Kiss”), is the one I enjoyed drafting the least. Before revision, it was flat and vapid; the draft seemed to suck the life out of the story I wanted to tell. It took four rounds of reboots and rewrites to turn it into a piece of work I was comfortable sending out.

Oh, gosh, my rewrites… Let me show you them.

1. Shaping realistic characters

Hot take: people are inconsistent. While usually predictable, they can still surprise you with unexpected decisions. And they’re not perfect. Sometimes the archetypal Innocent develops a nasty streak to keep their fears at bay. Sometimes the Rebel is so obsessed with being unique, they don’t realise they’re just conforming to an adjacent ideology.

Using archetypes can speed up the first draft process, because we’re so used to seeing them in fiction and the “economy of thought” saves us from getting bogged down by details early on. But these exaggerated personality profiles are just that—profiles. And depending on the kind of story you’re telling, they may hinder your ability to write characters people can relate to.

Where this stuck out for me was when Celeste stood at the door to Eleanor’s quarters, deciding whether or not to knock. I realised then that it would be too easy to portray a “blameless protagonist”, free of vice and vitriol. But as nice as it would be to imagine anyone could be that good, it’s not very interesting to read about. And looking at what most people are like, it’s not realistic either. Even the best of us have flaws.

The truth of character emerges most strongly at critical points throughout a story, where the character needs to make a decision they can’t take back. But as inconsistent as people can be, one thing they do consistently is express the truth of who they are in any given moment. Well ahead of any scene (let’s say two or three scenes at least) where a character must make an important choice, make sure you express and explore the rationale that leads to the beliefs that drive that choice. Armed with a sense of your character’s personality and disposition, readers will appreciate that your character couldn’t help but make that critical decision because that’s just who they are.

This is why it was important to show Celeste talking about Eleanor as well as to her in earlier chapters. Celeste isn’t the stereotypical mild-mannered geek who’s open to being bullied, like the kind you see in teen movies. This isn’t that kind of story. Realistic Celeste is grown-up and strong-willed, and so not only does it make sense why she made that decision at the door, the truth of her character emerges as well to set up even more intense moments later in the book.

Of all the characters in “Kiss”, Martin was the easiest and most fun to write. I suppose it’s because he wasn’t a central character that I didn’t feel so precious about him. He started out as a bit of a himbo in the first draft, but in fixing other aspects of the story, the bits that made him more human (and less stereotypical) began to shine through. So when he got his two turning points in the second half of the book, they ended up being more than just a convenient way to bump my Plot A along.

2. Writing natural dialogue

Dialogue can make or break a book’s immersion factor. I’ve come across novels where the dialogue was too thinly veiled a way to insert an infodump. It dulls the story and turns the characters into talking cardboard cutouts. I’m embarrassed to say my original draft of this office romance committed that offence. In case your draft is struggling with this too, here’s my advice:

Workplace banter is easy if you’ve ever been mates with your colleagues. Pay attention to what’s said during small-talk, break room conversation, and end-of-day heart-to-hearts, and you’ll collect a whole series worth of great material that you can adapt to your own office romance stories, while still having it sound like stuff actual people would say.

Of course, it takes more than whizzy words to write good dialogue, so take note of the non-verbal stuff too, like tone of voice, facial expression and body language. And consider that people from different backgrounds and disciplines will borrow from other lexicons they’re familiar with. Sometimes they just can’t help it, even if they consciously edit themselves for the audience they’re speaking to. Every type of conversation has a special flavour that demonstrates the dynamic between characters and how they, individually and together, relate to the circumstances around them.

So, when re-written Owen mashes his hand into Celeste’s face, you can tell it’s because they’ve been friends long enough for that to be okay. When re-written Laks bosses everyone around in the function room, you know it’s different to when Eleanor does it. It’s evident in what she says, how she says it and, most importantly, how everyone else responds to it.

If you don’t have personal “banter” to inspire your dialogue in certain scenes, look for movies, TV shows and reality shows that match the genres, characters, setting, pacing or vibe of your story. In addition to my own workplace friendships, I referenced my friends, family and in-laws for specific social dynamics (such as Betina’s dynamic with Dave), and Fresh Meat for how a diverse cast of characters could bounce off each other in a story-driven setting.

3. Fixing the tone of voice

You can’t tell a happy story with a sad tone of voice. Well, you can, but it wouldn’t be the same story. If you’ve ever seen 10 Things I Hate About Commandments, you’ll know what I mean. Otherwise, there are so many more re-cut trailers that demonstrate how this works (or doesn’t work).

Even though “Kiss” was always intended to be a romantic comedy, the prose style was far too jolly and saccharine in its early stages. This meant that every negative encounter hit like a ton of bricks, even the mildly unpleasant ones. With the wrong tone, the manuscript lacked the internal cohesiveness it needed to emotionally connect with my readers.

What I learned from this was that I couldn’t just write a story. I had to re-set my mental state and emotions to be in the story. I’m certain there are better writers out there who can accomplish crisp, pitch-perfect prose at the drop of a hat. But well, the rest of us have to get by somehow…

For me, this means compiling a soundtrack. Not just “a writing playlist”, but a playlist specific to the story and its unique setting. Sometimes it can also mean turning the lights down, writing only at certain times of day, wearing certain clothes or fabrics, andfinding a writing totem. Every writer will have different sensory needs for getting into the zone of a particular story, if not getting into the zone of writing anything at all.

4. Not shying away from science

This was a dilemma. Over the years, I’ve found you can only include so much technical realism before your work becomes unbelievably boring or just plain unbelievable. (And when it comes to violent stories, there may be a “duty of care” involved too.) You know that scene in “Kiss” where Eleanor stares blankly at Celeste during a technical explanation? I’ve seen that look way too many times from non-technical people who asked a technical question but didn’t really want to know the answer.

So, let’s talk about when people want to know the answer. Some genres have it made in the shade. Contemporary romance? Skip the technical, no sweat. Haunted house horror? No one cares, just gimme the scares. Sci-fi romance, though, especially in the nerd-first space I wanted “Kiss” to occupy, I knew I’d be dealing with a lot of technical diversity in my readership.

The first version of “Kiss” had far less of the nerdy stuff. At the time, I was trying to emulate the contemporary stories I’d immersed myself in, ones with broader appeal that stuck with general language. Not to disparage contemporary romance at all, but for this specific sci-fi romance, it failed. And in light of a lifeless first draft, it became clear that what makes each romance novel special and unique is the characters.

It Starts With A Kiss is a story about two engineers who came together through their work on a futuristic space station. The technical stuff comes part and parcel with who they are and the choices they’d made leading up to the start of the book. It didn’t feel right to tread only half a step into the science, but I didn’t want to go as far as the Honor Harrington novels (because JFC 😳). Getting the balance right hinged on how big a role the technical stuff plays in the characters’ own views, and how much was worth showing to the reader.

So when Celeste rambles about outdated firmware and electromigration in old components—genuine concerns for software developers and electrical engineers—it’s because that’s what she sees when she looks at the world. As far as she’s concerned, this is the situation she’s dealing with, even if non-technical folk gloss over it or decide it’s nonsense because they don’t understand it. This is just who she is, and just who many of my sources of inspiration for her character are.

Personally, I love listening to my nerdy friends talk about deeply nerdy shit, even if it goes way over my head. I love to soak up their words and perspectives and come away from the conversation either exposed to a new concept or having a better appreciation for who they are as individuals. I’ve come across so many nerdy folk who don’t get much support in a “normie” world. So, giving the technical stuff a little more juice in the rewrite was my way of saying to all of them, hey, I see you and I think you’re great.

5. Building the wider universe

All of my stories are contained within their own worlds, but most of these worlds belong to a greater milieu with a timeline and events. “Kiss” is my third Alliance Worlds book, but actually the first book in the chronology of the universe…though this isn’t at all relevant to the story.

So how do you pull off large-scale worldbuilding in such a way that it’s enriched by existing lore while also contributing to the wider universe, when it has nothing to do with what your book is about? Turns out, you shouldn’t, really. Otherwise you end up with yet another infodump.

But you can drop hints.

For example, towards the end of “Kiss”, when Eleanor has her big spiel, I could have let her allude to other companies as an abstract concept. It does just as good a job at getting her harsh point across, if that’s all we needed to do. But in the final published version of the book, Elle names a specific company that’s tied to the wider universe. For my new readers, it’s flavour text, giving them a more specific taste of the Halcyon Aries world.

For readers familiar with my other work, it gives them a sense of place that exists beyond the covers of this book, making the experience of this story and all the other stories a little richer.

It Starts With A Kiss was tricky to write for all sorts of reasons, but these particular revisions ended up breathing life into a manuscript I was on the verge of giving up on. What’s especially satisfying is that so much of the positive feedback I’ve gotten for this story has been around these key areas.

Of course, I look back and wonder if I’d be capable of doing a better job of it with the gift of hindsight and these extra months’ worth of learning about storycraft. I’d like to hope so, but I’ve resigned to never finding out.

There are just too many other stories still to tell.