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.

SUNSET sits at 70k words

Mate. Maaaaaaaate. I hit my 70k-word target on Sunset on a Distant World (SUNSET) yesterday and feel absolutely and utterly delighted.

This WIP has been a load on me since 2018. That’s not to say it’s been a burden, as I do feel a lot of love for it—but then, isn’t love simply the burden we accept that brings meaning to our lives? Anyway, I am the donkey, and this manuscript is my very full saddlebag, and my poor asinine spine could do with some rest.

Me, a donkey, chilling in a hammock after writing 70,000 words.

The next steps from here are:

  • A final proofread
  • The nerve-wracking beta
  • Researching agents
  • Querying like a bitch

It’s funny, I’ve been looking forward to this for months, eager to get stuck into the not-drafting part of the process. But now that it’s here, I’m kind of bricking it. What if my work is not good enough? What if it’s too weird? What if readers hate it? What if it’s indulgent and dreck and destroys my chances of a sustainable creative career? What’s the most dignified way I can pass it off as a joke, life as performance art, that kind of thing?

But then I remember it doesn’t matter. One day, I will die. The sun will expand and devour the earth. In the grand scheme of things, one hack story doesn’t stop the unfolding of time and the universe. My worries are nothing compared to the stuff that makes a difference. And in this brief period of my existence, I might as well have a go.

Being busy happens when life makes plans for you

I reject the idea that being busy is a badge of honour. If anything, being too busy may be a sign that we’re not being kind enough to ourselves, giving ourselves time to rest, which is hardly something to brag about even if it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

We may not mean to be busy, yet life happens and we end up that way. Maybe in our pursuit of meaning and happiness, we took on one too many enjoyable things and overdid it a little—or a lot. Or maybe we got caught up in the hidden tasks, the unpaid labour, the little extras that project managers need Gantt charts for.

That’s certainly how my last few years materialised, anyway. My rearview looks like a long, dark tunnel, stretching so far back that I can barely see the pinprick of light at the entrance. But the road ahead looks brighter. April has been a raging nonce of a month. A heap of big, demanding long-term projects converged at once, which was intense but came with the silver lining of getting them all out the door.

Actually, no, they’re not quite out the door. At the moment, they’re still in the foyer putting their shoes on, but it’s progress and I feel better for it. I’ve caught up on a huge backlog of filing and admin as well, and am now getting closer to catching up properly on email, unsubscribing from ancient spam, et cetera. It’s been a productive time, even with all the recent pandemic business that’s been going on in Western Australia. Looks like when things go awry, I deal with it by buckling down, focusing local, and taking comfort in things I can control. It’s left me with room to rediscover things I love that I’d let fall by the wayside.

This week, I’m working on “Sunset”; I’m working on a novella release of About Henry; I’m working on maintaining work-life balance as we head towards the light.

And it feels good.

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.

Hobbies that feed my fiction

Throughout my life, I’ve been prone to minor obsessions (and many not so minor), some of which have been finding their way into my writing. I think the best part about being a bit of a hobby junkie is how much one can learn without it feeling like work.

It is work, of course. As they say, we never get to skip eating the shit sandwich, we can only choose the flavour it comes in. But if that sandwich happens to be a flavour we enjoy, then it seems appropriate to count our blessings.

So, here are a few of mine 💜💜💜💜

Birdwatching 🐦

Did you know that birdwatching is such a serious pursuit, they have a different name for the truly committed enthusiast? I’m definitely more on the casual end of the spectrum, though I do own a pair of binoculars bought specifically for this hobby. In our home, it’s not about snapping photos or filling out a catalogue. We just try to say hello to as many birds as possible when we’re out on a walk. Bonus points if we can identify the species, imitate the bird call, or whip out a fun fact on the spot.

We’ve had odd encounters with our local birds. They can be real friendly once they get to know you, and some just aren’t afraid at all as long as you seem non-threatening. We found an owl in our driveway a couple summers ago, staring at us like we were the weirdos out of place. Once, I sat for ages next to a cormorant who pretty much snubbed me the whole time (tbf he was probably asleep). And then there was that well-orchestrated bird heist

Anyway, even as just a casual hobbyist, this interest popped up in an early writing exercise. Birdwatchers, an erotic short story, ensued.

Book cover for Birdwatchers by JL Peridot

Martial arts 🥋

Up until a couple years ago, I studied a shōtōkan-based martial art with my partner and some friends. I originally got into it as mental-health management and body awareness practice, but ended up going as far as a brown-belt grading. Really, it was a “just for fun” grading, as I’d recently graded and was rocking a sprained ankle from something unrelated. A proper brown-belt grading would have flattened me.

I had a love-hate relationship with this sport, but learned so much from doing it. The experience of sparring was especially useful to the work I do now. It’s not the same as a real-life fight situation, and I only ever did it at a beginner level, but it gave me a taste of those on-your-feet things your brain thinks and registers when you’re in the moment.

Most importantly, it showed me the things you don’t take notice of. This dramatically changed my approach to writing action scenes, culminating in the fights that appear in Chasing Sisyphus.

Book cover for Chasing Sisyphus by JL Peridot

Partying 👯‍♀️

I spent my twenties as “one of the bad kids”, frantically making up for a youth squandered amidst strait-laced negativity and toxic conformity. I partied with a variety of goodies, sometimes every night, and today thank my lucky stars that a) it never hindered my ability to work and function, and b) I’m not biologically or psychologically predisposed to addiction.

Ironically, that lifestyle ended up being good for me at the time. It helped me unwind in ways I never knew how to before and helped me think about things with a different perspective. It let me develop some artistic confidence and practice self-awareness under unusual circumstances—both early-days skills I could take back with me to Sobriety City. It’s for this reason that I feel certain illicit substances shouldn’t be outlawed, but studied and regulated with care and pragmatism, and with a body of education developed around them.

I wouldn’t recommend this hobby for everyone—even a short stint of deep research will come with risks—but well, it was certainly a time in my life, and the experiences from it factor a lot into my writing today.

Arduino programming 🤖

For a brief period, I was very into microcontrollers. Arduino, to be specific. I’ve always regretted skipping the hardware units at school, thinking stuff like logic gates and resistance calculations would never come up in my work. Getting into this hobby filled a huge gap in my computer science education, which I’d never missed in my web development career, but definitely ended up yearning for in life.

The obsessive phase for this hobby was short, but I learned just enough of the concepts, principles and vocabulary to develop Celeste’s character for It Starts with a Kiss. Even though it’s a soft sci-fi romance that’s light on the tech, I’m glad I got to write an MC who talks nerdy like it’s normal, not too unlike many of the beloved nerds in my life.


How about you? What hobbies scratch your itch right now? How do you feel when you see one of your interests appear in the books you read? If you write as well, what hobbies have played into your work? Leave a comment. Let’s chat ☺️

On procrastinating better

Today’s world has plenty of distractions that can easily be shut out on a good day. But when your energy is low, even a single notification on a quiet afternoon can kick off a solid 20 minutes of farting around!

I’ve been procrastinating lately. Like, a lot. So much that people around me have begun to worry. This NYT article about procrastination belying hidden psychological problems rings way too true. Don’t worry, this isn’t a doom-post. I will be fine. However, I am fascinating by how easily a little innocuous procrastination can creep up and become a big, looming beast standing over one’s shoulder.

The question today is more about how we can procrastinate better. When we don’t have the luxury of putting life on hold while muddling through our psyches, how can we avoid missing important deadlines or stressing the hell out?

I asked a professional PA, Karisma Carpenter, to help me out. Here’s what she advised:

A dedicated workspace to avoid psychological contamination:

“Well for starters try to give yourself a designated space to get your work done that’s away from distractions like the TV and snack cabinets.”

A clear, easily reference-able organisation system:

“Set up something visual like a large calendar. This way you can put due dates and any other things you have going on in one central place. Try breaking up your task into sections so it’s easier to manage and not so daunting.”

Social accountability:

“Share your progress. Tell a friend or even post on Social Media what you plan to accomplish, so that you have someone or somewhere to check back in with about your progress.”

Hacking your brain’s reward circuits:

“Reward yourself! Everyone deserves rewards for doing things they need to, even you. However make sure you rewards are comparable, for example for 20 minutes of productive work give yourself 5 minutes to relax or do something fun.”

Mindful and deliberate self-care:

“Know when to call it quits! I know, I know, we’re talking about being productive here but, if you have been putting true effort into getting work done and nothing productive is coming out it’s time to take a time out. Trying to struggle through it will only make you frustrated and make your task at hand suffer. So do something relaxing like take a 10 minute walk, or grab a bite to eat and come back to your task. Sometimes being distractible means you need a break, so remember to look after yourself too.”


Karisma Carpenter is a full-time PA/VA I met on Facebook while struggling with some of my research. Based in USA, she’s a nerd of many fandoms who helps authors with things like design, administration, social media management, book promotion, project management, scheduling, and more.

Chasing that first book deal (the guide sheet)

My first book, Chasing Sisyphus, came out in 2017. It’s a suspenseful sci-fi romance and, well, there was nothing romantic about getting that book written. For years, I’d tried and failed to finish a decent story, let alone getting one published. If I wanted to achieve my goal of being a published author, I’d need to put the romance on hold until I sorted out the rest of my shit.

This post is a guide, based on the path I took, which will hopefully help new writers get their first book into the wild. You can read my full story here:

You don’t have to read it to understand this guide, but for context, it’s better if you do. So, grab a drink, pen and paper (or word processor and keyboard) and follow the prompts.

Mindset

Let’s look at the ideas, habits and obstacles that might be standing in your way…

What are some of your ideas about what it means to “be a published author”? Do you have any high expectations that could possibly be unrealistic? Do you have any prejudices that prevent you from acting on good opportunities? Given the resources available to you today, which of those ideas, expectations or prejudices could you tweak in order to get closer to your goal of getting published?

Which of your writing habits might be stopping you from finishing your manuscript? Are you a perfectionist? Are you time-poor? Do you despise research? Are you dealing with chronic illness, injury, mental health issues, children, unsupportive friends…? You don’t have to feel bad about any of this, but you do have to be honest. None of this is your fault. Your habits are the way they are because they served you in the past, but you’re looking to the future now.

Finally, how willing are you to change your mindset to get your book published? And why do you feel this way? It’s OK if you’re not willing. The world is full of possibility and people just like you may be achieving that goal you want without having to change. But if you are willing, then great! Here’s what to do next:

  • List 5 things you can do/change/address/learn this week to make your goal more achievable.
  • Of those 5 things, pick 1 to start doing today.

Audience

All right, now let’s look at who’s gonna be reading your work…

What does “writing for yourself” mean to you? What do you love about writing? What factors matter most to you when it comes to telling stories? What kinds of stories are satisfying for you to tell? What feeling of reward will you personally get from telling this particular story?

Who do you want your book to appeal to? You don’t have to be clear about this yet—just “(insert genre) readers” and “(insert genre) publishers” will do—but you do have to pick a target audience that’s more specific than “everyone”. Reason being that when it comes to writing and publicising your book, you’ll burn yourself out trying to please everyone. Do yourself a favour and establish some boundaries at the start. You can always change this later if you want to.

What does your target audience (yay, you have one now!) want to read? What are the norms, expectations and tropes in the genre you’re aiming for (eg. epic space battles, happily ever after, graphic sex, particular prose styles)? Do the things you enjoy writing fit this framework, or do you need to pick a different framework? Or do you need to learn to enjoy writing in the framework you’ve chosen? What story elements do audiences appreciate today? What story elements are no longer enjoyable to read?

  • With all this in mind, make your list of things about your target audience and genre that you can go research.
  • From that list, pick 5 items that are most immediately relevant to you.
  • And now pick 2 that you can start researching today.

Publisher shortlisting

This section can come before or after the next section—it’s up to you and where your head’s at in terms of story and market awareness.

Here’s what to consider if, like me, you prefer to take the non-agented “direct submission” route.

  • Who are the publishers (or imprints) that play in your space (genre, audience, etc.)?
  • What sorts of content do they publish?
  • Do they have any specific requirements for story content?
  • How comfortable do you feel adhering to their submission guidelines?
  • What can you learn about them from their website and social media profiles?
  • What are people saying about them? (check online forums and social media)
  • How do they compensate their authors?
  • What would be expected of you if you become a signed author?
  • How do you feel about the other authors contracted to them?

Note that some considerations are worth caring a lot about (ie. don’t waste energy on a publisher who doesn’t do your genre), while others will be open to negotiation (eg. you don’t like a particular author signed to that publisher, but you might still be open to having your name next to theirs). This is totally up to you and will likely determine who makes it onto your shortlist.

Drafting your story

This is a huge rabbit hole, but this guide aims to get your idea out of your head and onto the page, in a format you can query with. So, with that in mind…

If you’re a pantser… Use what you know about storytelling, genre and any recommendations from your shortlisted publishers to determine the critical story elements you just can’t do without. List them in the order you’d like to see them happen and commit to writing your story down. Tell your Inner Editor and Inner Critic to take a recess while you sprint your way to The End. Promise them their time to shine during your revision process.

If you’re a plotter/planner… Choose the simplest and quickest planning system you can find. While the likes of Snowflake Method and StoryGrid will help you come up with an amazing piece of work, if you don’t already know how to use them, you can really get lost in the nuts and bolts of figuring them out. For your first draft of your first book, go quick and simple. You can always refer back to whatever system you adore once your first draft is done.

My very basic chapter-by-chapter outline template is available via Google Drive if you’d like to pinch it ☺️

Query checklist

This one’s straightforward—or at least, it should be.

For each publisher you submit to:

  • Review their submission guidelines
  • Check that your story content aligns with any requirements
  • Check that your manuscript is formatted (fonts, margins, spacings, etc.) to their specifications
  • Prepare your synopsis according to any requirements
  • Write your query letter, addressing it to the acquisitions editor (if applicable)

Tl;dr: follow the publisher’s instructions.

Final thoughts…

  • Committing to your writing doesn’t mean you have to become a workaholic. It means engaging your Rider just a bit more, rather than waiting for your Elephant to stumble upon the path.
  • A good story is both satisfying for you to tell and satisfying for your readers to read. You’re not a sellout for writing what an audience wants to read.
  • Respect the people you’re querying, whether they’re agents, publishers, other writers, readers or critics.
  • You don’t need to be perfect on your first go. You just need to have a go.
  • You don’t have to be an amazing writer on your first go, but you must be willing to learn.
  • If you discover along the way you’re not enjoying this, it’s perfectly OK to stop ❤️

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.