Young women with contrast appearance on sandy beach

Can we please overhaul the "alpha bitch" trope?

Take your typical setting involving teenagers—say, a High School—wait an establishing scene or two or three, and there she is. See that attractive blonde cheerleader looking down her nose (often literally) and sneering at the frumpy girl in glasses? That's her.

Alpha Bitch, tvtropes.org

Also known as the "Queen Bee", the Alpha Bitch is a fairly well-known trope in many books and romantic movies, particularly teen movies and office romantic comedies—the heroine needs a rival, after all.

And don't get me wrong, the drama and scandal can be a good laugh from time to time, but I worry about how this portrayal can undermine women, and the friendships and relationships we make. Especially in the eyes of impressionable audiences who haven't yet got the life experience to tell the difference between caricature and reality.

When a real-life Alpha Bitch stresses us out, it's far too easy to lump them into the "they're being a bitch" category as a way to emotionally distance and defend ourselves. We have every right to do this, of course, but it does little to improve the space we must share with the person in question when we can't get away.

Perhaps as well, it's a microaggression of sorts, dehumanising and dismissing someone who may feel they have no other option but to preemptively attack or lash out.

I once shared an office with a lady who brought her own special brand of Queen Bee to work everyday. While I can't say I based Eleanor on her, she was definitely the reason I wanted to re-visit the Alpha Bitch stereotype. After spending a year confused by the surprise sting of her barbs, I learned all about how the higher-ups in our company treated her. And I learned what things were like for her outside of work; how her husband's hereditary lung disorder shaped their lifestyle.

The Alpha Bitch of our little department wasn't a bitch at all. She was reacting to every moment the way she felt she needed to, given all the forces in her life. Maybe she was more a diamond than a hardarse, and those barbs were just the sheer, sharp edges that life had cut into her. Seeing this made her words hurt less, because I finally understood they weren't about me.

As a writer, I often feel some responsibility to show the sides of things not acknowledged enough day to day—the pain behind the anger, the beauty behind the misery, the vulnerability behind the bitch. To show another side without playing devil's advocate, and without taking away from the experience of being on the receiving end. An aggressor's pain should never invalidate ours, but perhaps understanding it can offer a way out—at the very least by letting us know we're not completely powerless against it.

I feel there's still a place for the Alpha Bitch these days, but it's time for that tired trope to grow up. Everyone's fighting their own private battle. The most interesting stories make efforts to give us hints of how. And anything that contributes to a softer, more understanding world is a good thing in my book.


Where the Sun Always Shines: An anthology of feel good stories

Where the Sun Always Shines — an anthology of feel good stories

Where the Sun Always Shines, an anthology of feel good stories, is out now!

Where the Sun Always Shines is a free anthology of feel good stories created through the donated time and effort of the authors, editors, and designers to make you smile, make you laugh, and give you hope.

Edited by Crystal L. Kirkham and Jodi Jensen 💖 I'm honoured to have my short story, Playing Trades, counted among the hope-inspiring works in this anthology. It's now available for free in the Kyanite Shop.

Where the Sun Always Shines: An anthology of feel good stories


Chasing that first book deal (my story)

Let me tell you about the experience of writing my first book, Chasing Sisyphus. It’s a suspenseful sci-fi romance and, well, there was nothing romantic about how its story starts. The romance—the creativity—came later. But in the beginning, it was all about one thing: getting a book published.

Sometimes it’s our dreams themselves that prevent us from achieving them. I woke up one day and realised the approach I'd been using wasn't working. If I wanted to achieve this seemingly impossible task of getting a book published, I'd have to try something different. This is the path I took.

This is a companion post to last month's guide sheet on finding your own way.

Getting over myself

As a hobbyist writer, I had the luxury of writing “whenever I was inspired”. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be because you can’t really control what inspires you. Getting a book published first means finishing a book, which means committing to writing on the busy days, the uninspired days, and especially when you hit a difficult point in your story that would otherwise turn you away.

Note, this doesn’t mean becoming a workaholic (that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish). It means engaging your Rider just a bit more, rather than waiting for your Elephant to stumble upon the path. In my case, my Elephant was scared of imperfection, so my Rider had to deliberately and consciously push through the urge to procrastinate and give up. I had to develop mental discipline over when, how and what to write.

Who are you writing for?

To the writer who worries about artistic integrity: you’re not a sellout for “writing to market”. In fact, just a little more market awareness can sometimes make your writing a lot better. A good story is both satisfying for you to tell and satisfying for your readers to read. And to be able to produce work in that "goldilocks zone", you need to know who your readers are.

The good news is you don’t even have to be super clear about this when you’re starting out. Even a vague notion of your audience can be enough to get you started. My vague notion that got me started? Romance readers and romance publishers.

I wasn’t even thinking about my story at this point. As a very inexperienced writer (and chronic over-thinker), I didn’t even know what kind of story I wanted to tell yet. But defining my audience—even though the definition was vague—gave me a solid footing. I actually had a goal now, not just a dream.

What do they want to read?

Initially, I only looked up major publishers and names I recognised. This was a fail. I found very little information about how I could query a major publisher successfully without adding more hoops to jump through.

So I started aiming for smaller publishers who were more approachable and who could publish books faster than the bigger players. It amazed me to discover that beyond the “big 5” publishers, there is a huge publishing market, especially in romance. Some publishers prefer certain subgenres, some only publish in certain subgenres, and some have firm guidelines for the types of stories they’re willing to consider.

So, here's what my publisher criteria looked like in the end:

  • Must accept direct submissions (ie. not through an agent)
  • Must present a friendly and upfront manner on their website
  • Must be open to sexy stories of a medium-to-high steam rating
  • Must be clear about what they want (lack of clarity is the worst when you’re trying to learn)

Out of all the publishers that made my shortlist, only two had guidelines about story. And of those, only one of them got specific about things like sexual content, frequency and couplings. Their guidelines were the ones I used to help me plan my story.

Developing a viable story

I’m not ashamed to admit I wrote to a criteria and to a formula at this point. Many inexperienced writers (like I was) presume that such prescriptions leave less room for creativity. But in reality, they simply locked down certain parameters so I could focus on the really interesting stuff like worldbuilding and depth of character.

When it came to story planning, I kept things super simple with a chapter-by-chapter outline in a Google Doc. Then I divided those chapters into 3 acts, added a handful of genre-specific events (ie. when the characters meet, when they hook up, when the big climax happens), then finally, connected those dots with a story.

Then, I began to write.

Querying to the letter

When I finally had a submittable manuscript (thanks to feedback from generous beta readers), I began the querying process. For each publisher I submitted to, I followed their query guidelines to the letter.

Yes, it’s a lot of work to do this, and rightly so! Acquiring editors, like agents, are busy af. So at the very least, following their instructions shows we respect the people we’re asking to take a look at our work.

You’ll see this advice everywhere, but let me repeat it here: follow the publisher’s instructions. It could mean the difference between your email going to a human being or going into the bin.

The debut novel

Within two weeks of submission, the top publisher on my shortlist (the one whose content guidelines I based my story on) got back to me with an offer. From there, I followed their process, worked to their deadlines, and made extra effort to look up stuff I didn’t understand so I wouldn’t have to keep bugging them. Within a few short months, my book was released.

Once upon a time, I believed being an author and getting a book published would be a big scary ordeal. And, you know, it still can be. Writing a good story is hard enough when we don’t get in our own way. At least the process can be straightforward if we let it.


I remember him catching my wrist. I remember a kiss.

Julie couldn’t help it. After her brief dalliance with the charming, carefree, married Henry Aston, he was well and truly under her skin. Mr. and Mrs. Aston were only out of town for a couple of weeks when reality sank in—little Julie Ho was just a summer fling.

Here’s how it all turned out in the end. What happened when the Astons got back from their road trip. What happened after a chance meeting in a cocktail bar on the other side of town. And what happened when Henry finally introduced Julie to his wife...

Excerpt from About Her by JL Peridot:

I don’t recall everything as well as I’d like. I remember the lights not working. I remember my bra hook getting caught in my hair. And I remember Henry’s socks. Now, I hate the sock thing as much as the next girl, but I remember telling him to keep them on. I liked that they were a gift from his wife.

I remember looking up with him kneeling over me, my knees over his shoulders, his arms around my waist, and his face between my legs. His tongue worked sharp, soft, textured, slow, then fast in just the right place. I was drunk, I was numb and warm and scattered and helpless in his grasp. Every muscle in my body tense with anticipation. I was on the edge—right on the fucking edge—ready to go over. But then he pulled away.

“God, why—”

“Not yet.”

Henry opened the window. The night breeze rolled through the room, cooling my skin. My nipples tightened from the sudden chill—I love how they look when they get that way. I hoped to see them cast on the wall, but that detail was lost in the shadows. And with a flick of a switch, those shadows went too, the only light now coming from outside, teasing the contours of Henry’s taught body and magnificent cock as he stood by the bedside lamp.

He shoved the bed against the window. Effortless. This guy was stronger than he looked. When he was done, I leaned across the bed and ran my fingers down his abs. I remember him catching my wrist. I remember a kiss.

Read the rest of About Her

About Her, the long-awaited follow-up to About Henry, is available for free on Vocal.

Woman stands by the window in a hotel room. Text reads: "About Her"

More steam down here

This post is part of a blog hop. Check out the other posts in this steamy event:


#MFRWsteam mfrwsteam.blogspot.com


Interviewed at This Writer's Life

Feels like so much time has passed since doing this interview for This Writer's Life. Let's see, that was like...two months ago? Since then, my city's had a lockdown that it's now coming out of 🍞 we've had six birthdays in the family 🎂 I've hit two PBs in my fitness and weight training 💪 three of my author besties have each released a book 🏅🏅🏅 and some shamefully unfair laws have been changed as a result of #BLM efforts ❤️💛🖤 —what a time to be alive!

Anyway, enough rambling. You can check out the interview here:

Thank you so much, Susan Palmquist, for interviewing me. Visit This Writer's Life for more author interviews, motivation, and Susan's writerly musings.


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 ❤️

Status Update — May 2020

CampNaNoWriMo was a success. And by that, I mean The Dragon's Den WIP is finally in a usable first draft state. It still needs so much research and revising before it's even close to becoming a book, but I was very happy anyway and celebrated with a couple of new videogames (tell you about them in a tick).

The Basilica Conspiracy

The Dragon's Den is book 2 of The Basilica Conspiracy, a sci-fi/retrofuture mini-series that follows the development of Rhys and Adria's romantic relationship after they accidentally stumble on some business they weren't supposed to see.

The first book, Chasing Sisyphus, came out in 2017 and while book 2 should have started as soon as book 1 was finished, now that I've reached this point in the WIP, I realise I just wasn't ready to write The Dragon's Den back then. The story was too complex, character motivations too intense, and my writing nowhere near strong enough to tell the story needing to be told.

But I'm ready now...I think. And after a short break, I'll be starting the first proper revision of The Dragon's Den as well as the first draft of book 3, Sins of the Other.

Sunset on a Distant World

...is back on the worktable after almost a year of sitting in a box. There are a lot of problems with the first draft, but a lot of interesting ways to fix them. There is a plan for this book and I'm really looking forward to sharing it with you when it's done.

Shop talk

I hope you enjoyed reading about the revision process for It Starts With A Kiss, as there'll be more where that came from. "Shop talk" is a new category of content I'll be sharing in my newsletter and on this blog, talking about writing craft, mindset and "the trade". I know most of you also write, so I hope you'll find the information useful in your own creative endeavours.

Short stories

So, the writing I started "for no reason" ended up as short story, Playing Trades. This 2000-word piece was sent out to my dear readers in the April/May issue of Dot Club, and has since been accepted into Crystal L. Kirkham's Where the Sun Always Shines Anthology, coming out soon.

There's a new microstory going into next month's newsletter. If you'd like to see it, you can subscribe on my website.

Oh, and I gave up on "MOAB". About two-thirds of the way through, it stopped feeling right, so back in the box it goes.

Projects (still) on hold

  • Project H
  • Project D (yep, there's another unnamed project floating around)

Self-care

There's a lot I can't control right now, but also a lot that I can. Getting at least 20 minutes of sunlight a day is one of them. Drinking 2L of water a day is another. I still slip sometimes, but for the most part, minding these two things sets me up to be able to do other things. Like exercising and catching myself before I get too emotionally invested in ignorant hot takes on Twitter. Everyone handles stress differently, and where I can help it, I'm trying not to let some stranger's stress tantrum become the reason I have one too 😅

Other self-care activities that have helped a lot:

Moisturising my forearms... Maybe I have a sensory thing going on, but supple forearm skin seems to be a real mood lifter 🤔

Nice smells. I've burnt all my smelly candles, but found a tiny vial of peppermint oil on a cluttered shelf, so we're all candy cane country this month!

Curating my feeds. Nuff said.

Reading

  • Forgotten Storm by A. R. Vagnetti, after longingly staring at the paperback on my shelf for months.
  • True Refuge by Annabelle McInnes—I had to stop this one, as the incredibly powerful first chapter moved me more than I was ready for. But I'm ready to come back now.
  • Also beta reading for some writer friends.

Recently finished: The Way Home by Stefanie Simpson. Night Life by B.K. Bass.

Watching

  • Family Guy
  • Parks & Recs
  • Luis Miguel: The Series—Diego Boneta is a snack, even with a mullet
Actor Diego Boneta holds a cigarette between his soft lips
Diego Boneta via IMDB

Recently watched: Devs (brilliant).

Playing

Recently on the socials...

https://www.instagram.com/p/CAEn942AIwS/


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.


What I've been buying online

I stumbled upon a blog prompt recently, asking whether online shopping was better than going to a physical store. The answer for me is obvious—online wins hands down. And since lockdown started, I've thought a great deal about how N and I could digitise (and possibly automate) our regular shopping routine.

Fancy a rundown of what we've been buying?

Matcha green tea

My favourite right now is ITO EN Matcha Green Tea Bags, available at only a couple of shops in my city. I got a bit worried after a week of lockdown, as I'd reached the end of my teabag supply. But fortunately, ITO EN has an Australian distributor 💃🏻💃🏻💃🏻 which means affordable, accessible matcha as long as I can receive mail.

Fun fact, all tea—black, green, white—comes from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. The only difference is in the way they're prepared. If a tea doesn't come from that plant (eg. peppermint, lavender, chamomile), then strictly speaking, it's not a tea—it's a tisane or an infusion.

Matcha is a special type of green tea, finished off differently to other teas before harvest. And unlike with other green teas whose leaves get steeped in water, matcha tea leaves are ground into a fine powder. Which means you're consuming the leaf matter when you drink it, taking in the brain-boosting amino acid theanine. (Though I'd be interested to know if those trace amounts actually make noticeable difference.)

A box of ITO EN Matcha Green Tea, two green tea sachets and a ceramic cup
This is not an ad. I just love it that much.

Razors

I signed up for Dollar Shave Club after seeing an ad on Instagram, curious if the reality was as good as it looked in the video. I was very skeptical at first. What if it was no better than the crap razors I was already buying? What if couldn't use them quickly enough? What if trying to use them quickly was environmentally irresponsible?

Good thing it was cheap to have a go, otherwise I'd still be buying crap razors today. Now every month, I get an email to tell me my next box will ship on XYZ date, and I can add/remove stuff if I want, or postpone that shipment to the following month. I was surprised by the quality of the product, surprised by how much it ended up reducing my shave-related waste, and surprised how big an impact the convenience had on my mental state.

That last bit astonished me the most. I never thought taking razors off my shopping list would amount to much, but having one less thing to think about was significant. It's such a small thing, but I guess you don't notice the load you're carrying until someone finally takes it off you.

Natural deodorant

Once upon a time, I would never have dreamed about buying deodorant online, cos don't you need to smell it first to see if you like it? But N and I were getting fed up with our old stuff. There's something about ordinary deo that makes it start out nice only to suddenly turn horrible. Then it all stops working or makes us smell worse than before. Maybe we're low-grade allergic or something. Who knows!

A few Instagram ads later (again), I decided to try NATIVE. Their "no stink" claim was a tall order, but I promised myself I'd make an effort to try new things. So glad we have it a shit. This deo blew my expectations out of the water. It smells nice, feels nice, doesn't stink, doesn't linger after a shower, and doesn't defile my laundry.

Their website lists Lactobacillus acidophilus as an ingredient. Yep, that's the same bacteria found in yoghurt and in your mouth, gut and VAGINA. I'm guessing this good bacteria eats the bad bacteria whose poos make us stink. While I also never would have dreamed I'd do this, it doesn't freak me out that I'm spreading MAGIC VAGINA GERMS onto my armpits. I also promised myself a few years ago that I'd try to work with my body's biome instead of against it, and this seems like a perfectly scientific thing to do.

Soap

Back in the old days, N and I would take a cheap and cheerful, low-key trip out to the country. Perth is a small city and you don't have to drive far to reach a country town with its own culture and collection of cottage industries. While we're out there, we find the nearest local soap-maker and do a big purchase. That soap stash ends up being the countdown to our next quiet weekend away. It's our way of supporting a small rural businesses while being mindful and proactive about our relationship.

Of course, this kind of thing is out the window when you have to stay at home. So we ordered a batch from our favourite skincare artisan down south. It feels good having a bundle of handmade soap in the cupboard. They smell amazing and while sometimes it's sad to be reminded of something you can't have, smell is just...so visceral. For a split second, I'm back there and the mood's all all sleepy towns, beachy walks and blue skies. I'm grateful to have the memory. I'm grateful to be able to look forward to it once all this is over.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BhbLXrUhasG/

Clothes

Our home is tiny. We have room for two small wardrobes and a compact clothes rack. So we're minimal on clothes, thanks Marie Kondo.

There are certain clothes we've deemed essential: socks, undies, basics and sportswear. We wear the life out of them most of the time, so we don't think twice about buying what we want when we want it. Even at our most gluttonous, we still seem to accumulate (and spend) less than friends with more space and bigger appetites for fashion.

It's harder to support small businesses here, balancing for quality, fit, comfort, price and durability. We default instead to familiar brands like Uniqlo, Cotton On and MUJI. I don't think we could automate these purchases either, because clothing is such a personal decision to be made on the spot, even if you're not leaving the house.

Cat stuff

Last week, we set up regular orders of cat food and I think it's gonna change our lives forever. Gone are last-minute Sunday "oh fucks" when we realise we've run out, followed by a mad dash to the supermarket at dinnertime rush hour, then coming home to a proper scolding from our hairy beasts because we've served them late.

And stress comes down to a chain of events, don't they? First, it's the "oh fuck", then it's the guy who almost runs you over as you're walking to your car, then it's the noise that greets you upon your return, and you don't seem to be able to settle down for the rest of the night. And then it's back to work on Monday.

Cat stuff plays a much bigger role in our lives than shaving gear. Having that looked after by an automated process and online controls should give us back the mental bandwidth for more satisfying things.

https://www.instagram.com/p/B9-0FFZAq03/

I do not miss the physical shopping experience

I'm very grateful to be living in a city and time where most things I could want are easy to get hold of. But I do not miss the sensory barrage that is the local shopping centre.

In my time, I've walked past police action, fist fights, screaming children, screaming adults, mysterious traces of blood on the floor, arctic temps, a larger-than-average human turd (yes, really!) in the car park, people who cough and sneeze without covering their faces, people who do cover their faces then proceed to touch common surfaces... Someone I know was even assaulted by a creepy random in a fancy supermarket in a fancy suburb. Luckily there was an eye witness and CCTV footage. She took the guy to court and got justice. But you know that for every one woman who gets justice, so many others do not.

Gosh, it sounds terrible to read that list back. Supermarkets are safe enough here most of the time, and worrying about this kind of thing is maybe a first-world privilege. But when given the choice of a practical, affordable and safer online option, you bet your sweet knickerbockers I'm taking it. Wouldn't you?