Writing The Dating Game

Cover of The Dating Game by Sandy Barker - man and a woman sitting in side by side sun loungers sipping cocktails

Today marks Day 201 of lockdown in Melbourne since March 31 2020 – and that is full-on lockdown with only 5 reasons to leave home, no visitors or gatherings, not going more than 5km from home, and masks on everywhere including outside. Is it any wonder that the book I started in August – just as we commenced a 112-day lockdown – has the cast of a reality television stuck in the same house with each other for months?

It’s odd, I know, but it only just occurred to me last week – The Dating Game is both my lockdown book and my book about a ‘lockdown’. Though, that is not how or why it came about.

Last year, just as the Australian season of The Bachelor was about to commence, some colleagues asked around – who would be up for a sweepstakes? We’d all put some money in the kitty, be randomly assigned a bachelorette, and the last woman standing at the end of the season would win one of us the kitty. It was a fun way to liven up an otherwise (often) dull working-from-home existence. And after the season premier aired, I was inspired to write a witty recap. I posted it to our Teams chat the next day, got lots of LOLs and, as I am a sucker for positive reinforcement, I continued throughout the season.

I mentioned my recaps to an author friend, then sent her one and she said, ‘You should write that as a book.’

‘A season of The Bachelor as a book?’

‘No, write the story about the woman who writes the recaps. Then send her on the show undercover.’

I percolated on this (brilliant) idea then pitched it to my agent, (the fabulous) Lina Langlee, sending her one of the recaps. She said, ‘Write me chapter one. Show me who she is, this woman.’ I did, sending it back a couple of days later. She loved it. ‘Write the synopsis.’ I did. She loved that and we pitched it to my publisher, One More Chapter. Hannah Todd was my editor at the time and she leapt at it – she loved the tone, style, and premise, she loved Abby, my heroine, and we got the green light. Abby Jones a.k.a. Anastasia Blabbergasted would be strong-armed into going on The Stag as a contestant. (Thank you, Andie, you were right.)

The Dating Game is a little different from my other books. It’s still ‘destination fiction’ with a heroine from London and most of the book set in Sydney, but it isn’t really about travel the way that my other books have been.

It’s about love and relationships – about what you want and need in a relationship, and how that can differ from what you think you want. It’s also about what’s real and what’s not when you go on a reality television show seeking love. That was a really fun theme to explore and a lot of characters get to have that conversation – with themselves and with each other.

Another differentiator between this book and my previous books is the romantic tropes I got to play with – several, actually: slow burn, forbidden love, friends to lovers … I had a lot of fun exploring Abby’s relationship with her love interest, especially as it starts as a meeting of the minds (with a little lust thrown in). And even though this book doesn’t have as much heat as the Holiday Romance series, I think readers will love how Abby keeps her love interest on his toes – and deservedly so! She’s plucky and, sometimes, he’s a bit of a twit!

The book also includes recaps of The Stag written by Abby as ‘Anastasia’ and – oh my god – those were a blast to write. Anastasia loves word play and literary devices, she’s hilarious and just a little bit mean and, as I wrote her, she sounded a lot like Patsy from Ab Fab in my head.

There’s also an undercurrent throughout the book of being trapped by circumstance – of having no way out of the situation so having to make the most of it and, just maybe, discovering something about one’s self along the way. (This really resonated with me.)

One thing The Dating Game does share with my other books, is that female friendship is a strong theme. I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the supporting characters and how friendships form, even under the unlikely circumstances of being in competition with each other. I’ve already had quite a few early reviews mention Kaz, one of the Aussie Does, and she could actually be fun to write as a heroine. Hmmm …

We also had some great early reader feedback about wanting an epilogue and on reflection, I wanted one too, so I wrote one! (Tip: If you downloaded the book from NetGalley before it was added, you can download it again to read the epilogue).

So, The Dating Game will forever be my ‘lockdown’ book, a little snapshot of what it was like to write while confined to home, and how ‘making the most of it’ resulted in my funniest book to date. I really hope you enjoy it – it’s light and fun and funny – and that it is as much an escape for you to read as it was for me to write.

For more info, click here.

Romance Tropes Part 1: Enemies to Lovers

I was thinking about romcoms recently – films, rather than books – and I realised that some of my absolute faves are those based on the ‘enemies to lovers’ trope.

Boy meets girl, she thinks he’s a dick. He thinks she’s stuck up. Hilarity and, eventually, love ensue.

For this trope to work, however, those initial perceptions have to be just a little bit true – he is a bit of a dick and she is a little stuck up – but both traits are about self-preservation. As the audience or reader, we see that each character’s exterior self is a defence mechanism.

And, as we’re familiar with the trope, we just know these characters will shed those prickly layers because they’ve met the other person.

Some of the best romantic comedy films do this perfectly.

  • French Kiss (Kate and Luc)
  • How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (Andie and Ben)
  • Overboard (Annie/Joanna and Dean)
  • 10 Things I Hate About You (Kat and Patrick)
  • Sweet Home Alabama (Melanie and Jake – also a ‘lovers reunited’ story)
  • Clueless (Cher and Josh)
  • The Proposal (Margaret and Andrew – although he’s not a dick; he’s kinda terrific, actually)

Even Harry and Sally, the main characters in a ‘friends to lovers’ story start out as enemies. He’s an arrogant dick. She’s a snooty cow. They become friends, then lovers, but this film – the perfect romantic comedy and my favourite ever – leans heavily on the ‘enemies to lover’ trope.

Engaging with the other person brings out something special in each character. Sally sees Harry’s vulnerable side, getting at the root of his arrogance, and drawing out his better self. Harry appreciates something in Sally that no one else does, and she can be her truest, best self with him.

French Kiss – definitely in my top 5 romcoms – explores the depths of the trope. Yes, it is a lighthearted comedy, but when Kate and Luc are offered (very appealing) alternatives to each other (spoiler) they realise that they have fallen in love – the uptight American and the dodgy Frenchman. And (more spoilers) if that last shot of them kissing passionately in a vineyard doesn’t warm your romantic cockles, perhaps nothing will.

In How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Andie and Ben are unknowingly pitted against each – enemies of circumstance – yet loves conquers all. And yes, Andrew in The Proposal is an unwitting victim to Margaret’s arrogance and entitlement – so bending the trope slightly – but they are still at cross-purposes for much of the story. By pretending to be with Andrew, Margaret’s vulnerable side shines through.

Admittedly, although I love this trope, I have yet to write it.  Wait! I have an idea …