The number #1 question that many writers are asked is the perennial favourite, “Where do you get your ideas?” The answer is usually “It depends.” But for the purposes of this post, I’m going to spell it out for you concerning one particular project.
In 2016, I went to Canberra to attend ACAF (Australian Comic Arts Festival). Ryan K Lindsay was running a workshop there. I think it was on generating ideas or some such thing. He took us through an exercise that I found really helpful—so helpful, in fact, that I pinched it and used it in a couple of workshops that I ran later that year. (Sorry and thank you, Ryan!)
Ingredient 1: Love
I used the exercise at a workshop I ran for the Sydney Comics Guild about writing short comics. But I made the participants at this workshop generate ideas around the theme of love. I chose this theme because I thought it might help the participants to start with something, rather than nothing, and also because I have, in the past, toyed with writing an anthology of comics on the subject. (NB: I never made this anthology.)
Why “love”? I would say that I’m a bit of a sucker for love stories, but that’s not exactly true: I’m also highly critical of them too. If you will pardon the poor use of the expression, I have a bit of a “love/hate” relationship with romcoms. I watch them, but I don’t enjoy most of them because they also annoy me. Take You’ve Got Mail: Tom Hanks’s character is rude to Meg Ryan’s character the first time they meet in person after he’s figured out who he’s been corresponding with, and he humiliates her in public. Why, then, is she so quick to forgive him later on?? Or Clueless: what is so attractive about Paul Rudd’s character in the eyes of Alicia Silverstone’s? Or 10 Things I Hate About You: Heath Ledger’s character never actually apologises to Julia Stiles’s character for concealing the fact he was paid to take her out. He just buys her the guitar she’s always wanted, and all of a sudden they’re kissing in the parking lot at the end of the movie.
For me, there has to be an element of believability in the love story—less in terms of the characters’ circumstances and the plot of the movie, and more in terms of what the characters see in each other, what draws them together and how they make each other better. Like Tong Yao and Lu Sicheng in Falling Into Your Smile, or Hong Ra On and Crown Prince Lee Yeong in Love in the Moonlight: the relationship has to make sense in some way. It’s that journey—whether it be from acquaintances to boyfriend and girlfriend, or enemies to lovers—that fascinates me. What makes two people fall for one another? Furthermore, what makes their relationship survive?
Ingredient 2: Games
I also ran Ryan’s ideas exercise later in 2016 at Bezerkacon. This time, because Bezerkacon was a gaming and pop culture con, I made the workshop participants generate ideas around the theme of games. At the time, Pokémon GO had exploded onto the scene and while I wasn’t playing it myself, an awful lot of people I knew were. As an outside observer, I found the whole thing absolutely fascinating: here was a game that was actually making a difference to people’s lives, getting them out of the house and exercising, walking around their neighbourhoods looking for Pokémon, and even connecting and socialising with other gamers. Furthermore, it was resulting in positive social benefits: consider this viral story about an autistic boy who began to engage more with others through playing the game. It made me wonder what other positive social benefits could be reaped from playing games. It made me wonder what if there was a Pokémon Go-type game that people played in order to meet other people and fall in love?
Ingredient 3: Dating
I confess I don’t have that much experience with romantic relationships. Ben and I married young, and before that, we each had had only one significant romantic relationship.
That probably explains why we were both rather fascinated by the show Taken Out, which aired on Australian TV during 2008-2009. Unlike Perfect Match, which aired during the 80s, Taken Out featured more contestants: it starts with a single person—the candidate—being introduced to 30 other single people of the opposite sex. In the first round, the 30 are asked if they are in or out based on their initial impression of the candidate. The 30 indicate their preference by either turning out their light or keeping it on. In the second round, the remainders watch a short video package in which the candidate talks about himself or herself. At the end, they are asked again if they are in or out, and those who opt out turn out their lights. In the third round, the remainders watch a short video package in which the candidate’s friends and family are interviewed about the candidate. Once again, the remaining singles are asked if they are in or out. The fourth round is the final round, and this time, the candidate gets to choose three singles from the remainders. He or she then asks these three people two questions. Based on their answers, the candidate then selects one of the three and they go on a date together. If they decide they like each other and want to progress the relationship further, they meet up later at the top of this tower overlooking the city.
The Australian version of the show was short-lived, but it inspired other versions of it around the world—the most famous of which is arguably the Chinese version, If You Are the One, which some people in my social circles watched rather obsessively.
2016/2017 was also around the time I was reading Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg (or rather Aziz Ansari was reading it to me; I was listening to the audio book). I was reading it partly because of my idea and partly because I enjoyed watching Ansari in Master of None. Modern Romance was born out of Ansari’s obsession with how romance and technology interact and it’s absolutely fascinating. The early chapters outline a history of romantic relationships that contrast sharply with the later chapters, which detail how everything has changed. In the “olden days”, people usually ended up marrying people who were in close physical proximity to them—the girl next door, the boy down the street, etc. Then society became more mobile, with young people moving interstate for college or work, and forging relationships with people who grew up further away from them. The rise of the internet and internet dating opened up things up even further: suddenly the pool of potential romantic partners was seemingly infinite.
However, with more choice came a kind of decision fatigue. Ansari talked to multiple people who complained about feeling burnt out by internet dating because of the amount of “work” it generated for them—vetting candidates, answering messages and setting up dates. Sometimes during his live shows, Ansari would ask audience members to log into their internet dating accounts, which were then displayed for the rest of the audience on large screens. One fairly attractive young woman logged into her account and the audience were aghast to see the number of messages she was receiving from potential matches. She said she felt bad for the guys who were messaging her, but there was absolutely no way she could keep up and respond to all the messages herself. I found it interesting that, because of this sort of thing, Tinder became hugely popular: in a sense, it brought dating back to the “olden days”, restricting the pool of potential candidates to the people around you.
In the final chapter of Modern Love, Ansari tries to put into practice some of the things he’s learned about dating and how to do it better. He asked his friends to set him up with people they thought would suit him. He focused on taking the same girl out on multiple dates, rather than taking multiple girls out for just one date. He varied what they did on each date, because doing the same thing—like dinner and a movie—each time is boring, and when you do different things together, you get to see a whole other side of a person you might not normally get to see. Ansari wasn’t necessarily saying that one way of dating is better than other ways of dating; instead, he felt like he was increasing his odds of finding someone by doing these things, rather than subjecting himself to the chaotic, wild jungles of internet dating.
Combine and stir
I asked myself, “What if there was a Pokémon Go-type game that people played in order to meet other people and fall in love?” The result was a novella that I initially called The Dating Game.
(Side note: A novella is roughly half the size of a novel. Most novels are 80,000-100,000 words [unless you’re George RR Martin; then they’re 150,000 words]. Most novellas about half that. Mine is just under 40,000 words.)
I spent most of 2018 writing it. Curiously, I did a lot of work on it during the six months that Ben and I were separated. (It sounds odd, but writing a love story is actually a good anti-depressant for when you’re down.)
After I finished the first draft, I sent it to a flock of beta readers to see what they thought. I decided to have a go at using Lulu.com’s print-on-demand service and created the print copies pictured above as a test run. (The shipping actually cost more than the books did.) I submitted the manuscript to a small independent publisher who were doing a callout for “seasonal” novellas. Unfortunately it sat in their slush pile for the better part of a year before ultimately getting rejected. (Also most unfortunately, that indie publisher didn’t allow simultaneously submissions, which meant I couldn’t send the manuscript elsewhere while it was in their slush pile.)
Then at the beginning of 2020, I decided I really needed to do something with the story. I had pretty much given up on getting it traditionally published as there is a very limited market for novellas, and it didn’t really fit into the sort of boxes publishers are looking for, being not quite completely speculative fiction (even with its more futuristic elements) and not quite completely romance either. I decided to fall back on what I’ve always done and publish it myself.
I got it professionally edited by Dan Hanks, who I met on Twitter. Dan really seemed to get what I was trying to do with the story, and gave me some helpful advice on how to fix the parts I felt weren’t working.
I also made a couple of mock-ups of potential covers and put them up for feedback in one of the Facebook writers groups I’m a member of. Lots of people gave me some very helpful advice, which I used for the next round of options.
Then the pandemic hit and, like many people, I lost momentum.
Finished is better than perfect
Fast forward to this year (2022). The novella had been sitting around for so long doing nothing that two other books with the title The Dating Game came out in the interim. I decided I really needed to do something about the manuscript—that I really needed to actually finish it. Because I was going to table at Book Fair Australia on the 26-27 November and because I wanted to have something new to sell, I figured I should really use that event as the impetus to get the job done. After all, I can’t sell an unfinished book, and I still need to make back what I’ve already spent on production.
So over the last couple of months, I went back into my drafts, the feedback my beta readers sent me, and Dan’s editing notes, and I started revising and redrafting, editing and polishing. When I was satisfied the manuscript was as good as it was going to get (continually reminding myself that “finished is better than perfect”), I worked on the layout. I typeset and proofread the whole thing myself. I created the cover based on previous iterations and feedback (with input from some trusted friends). And for obvious reasons, I changed the title.
My printer sent the finished copies last week and they look marvellous:
I’ve done a very limited print run using print-on-demand. The unit cost was a little higher than I was expecting, but there’s a paper shortage, which is affecting the entire publishing industry in a big way, and the pandemic has made everything a little more expensive these days.
Introducing: The Dating Program: A novella
So I am very pleased to introduce to you The Dating Program: A novella:
In the near-future, concern about an increasingly workaholic corporate culture and the falling birthrate causes the government of one metropolis to institute GoDate, a city-wide summer dating program for people of a certain age. Players are sent on a series of ten different dates, during which they are matched with potential love interests via algorithms.
Petra, a 24-year-old highly introverted graphic designer, isn’t sure she’s ready for a relationship, but isn’t entirely happy with singleness either. Encouraged by her co-workers and driven by a strong desire not to live with regret, she decides to participate in GoDate for the very first time. But as GoDate takes her on all manner of dates—both good and bad—Petra is forced to question what it is she actually wants.
I would call my novella speculative fiction, but it definitely skews more towards the romance genre than the speculative fiction genre. It’s certainly not dystopian in the slightest! Instead, I think of it as being a comfort read—something to turn to when you’re feeling down, or when you just want something light and fluffy to escape into for a little while.
If you like to read your books in print, you can order yourself a copy from my shiny new online store:
(If you know me personally, get in touch with me for a special coupon code so that you aren’t charged shipping, and I’ll give you yours the next time we catch up. Also, I will have copies at Book Fair Australia.)
If, however, you like to read your books electronically, the e-book of The Dating Program is now available on Kindle:
It’s also now available for Apple Books:
I’m currently working on getting it into Google Play, but there are problems I need to overcome. (I really should have started the process with those earlier. Did I mention how inexperienced I am with this whole self-publishing prose thing?)
If you think The Dating Program might be your cup of tea, I encourage you to check it out. And if you like it, please tell someone else about it; you’d be surprised how much word of mouth sells books.