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.

Should fiction writers talk about politics?

I find I don’t have so many opinions these days, more just feelings and questions. And one thing stoking these feelings lately is the idea that fiction writers shouldn’t talk about politics.

When I was a younger reader, I certainly wondered why on earth they would. Unless an author was writing contemporary political fiction, what would real-life arguments that no one seems able to agree on have to do with their work?

Then I started taking my own writing more seriously and realised, wow… actually, politics has A LOT to do with fiction.

Let’s set aside the idea of “moralising” or “sending a message” here. It’s kind of obvious this happens, and whether an author intends for their fiction to push an agenda is always down to the individual author and the piece of work in question. Also, this isn’t the thing I want to talk about today.

I want to talk about world-building. Specifically, how worldly mechanics and market forces help shape the setting of a story and drive the drama. Even in romance fiction, where the conflict is about how the MC and LI succeed or fail in answering the call of love, it’s stuff like politics, economics and social issues that offers fertile ground for interesting conflict to grow.

Take Sarah Smith’s Simmer Down as a contemporary example. If Nikki lets Callum nick her parking spot, her sales will drop, resulting in less income to support her family. Their conflict over food truck territory is ultimately an economic one. This novel may not feature US economic policy per se, but it does examine the impacts of capitalism on the individual, albeit in a super hot, sexy and entertaining way.

A glowing plasma ball
Photo by Skitterphoto from Pexels

Speculative fiction, by necessity, may include its fair share of politics, which I think stems from authors having to create an entire universe by extrapolating from real-world circumstances and events. Policy influences how people behave, decides how technology may be created and used, and deems what actions are acceptable when we want something we don’t have.

The effect is subtle in Pia Manning’s Star Brides series, where xenopolitics encourages the interspecies marriages that lead to romantic tension, giving us a taste of how humans and aliens might resolve differing ideologies within an intimate partnership. In my own work, It Starts With A Kiss, the romantic conflict occurs against the backdrop of issues surrounding industry automation and regulation of UBI (universal basic income).

But then there are stories where you also get to see characters actually do a politics. Stories like Frank Herbert’s Dune, A.R. Vagnetti’s Storm series, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight universe (the Volturi), and James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse.

But let’s get back to present-day realism.

We share this world. We are all connected. Sometimes we mean to be, but most of the time it happens by accident. The events of 2020 highlighted quite profoundly how strong our connections are, even when we can’t see them.

Politics (governmental or otherwise) is the means by which we negotiate the influences and resources within our world. It’s in the air we breathe, the water we drink, it even governs the ground we walk on. Just try setting foot in a restricted area and you’ll get a first-hand lesson in how your society regards “property ownership”.

If we’re lucky enough to be aligned with the dominant political and socioeconomic position where we live, we get to take it all for granted. That doesn’t mean we’re apolitical, it just means we don’t have to think about it all the time. We get to pretend we’re happy-go-lucky and stuff doesn’t matter.

If that’s not the case, though, then we remain almost constantly aware and conscious of the fact that everything stems from politics. We may never get the experience of not thinking about it.

A toy dinosaur sits atop a stack of books
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

The book on top of your TBR pile got there because certain worldly forces permitted it to be. Maybe you live in a place where books like that are allowed to be printed and sold. The author must have been afforded the ability to sit and write it, then to have it be published and distributed. And you were able to acquire it because someone somewhere paid good money for it to be at the right place at the right time. All of the forces that put that book in your hands were shaped by the negotiations in our shared world.

I daresay fiction writers must be aware of this, at least on some level, in order to write relatable and interesting stories. Even when we make the argument that fiction should be about helping readers escape from vexatious politics, writers must still create those places they can escape to. These places may not feature political conflict, but politics—in some fashion—will always be relevant.

Now, I don’t think fiction writers should necessarily talk about politics. But my feeling is there may be no reason why they shouldn’t, as politics are necessary to create an interesting world.

And appreciating how worldly forces have enabled me to sit here and write this post, I can’t help but wonder—how can anyone talk about anything without ultimately being political? 🤔

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.