Gay romance fiction

Leap Here: on the power of improv for all creative professionals 

by Damon Suede

This past weekend I taught a full-day workshop for the (amazing) Long Island RWA chapter on plot and comedy. The funny thing is that when they first asked me to come teach, I was hesitant about the combo. For some reason, plot and comedy seemed like two abstract, heady topics to cram into a single day.

In the end I couldn’t have been happier with how things turned out. In fact, the attendees reminded me of the immortal power of “Yes, And” to kick your ass and bust through the obstacles we give ourselves. 

See…I come to fiction from theatre. In some ways that gives me all kinds of weird baggage that’s not always helpful, but in some instances, my time backstage and on the boards left me with well-worn grooves that improve my writing constantly.

Now, anyone who’s spent any time around the legendary Second City improv community may feel like this is obvious. But for any author who’s never done long-form improv or doesn’t know what a “Harold” this might be a useful tool for your bag of tricks. At the risk of redundancy and stating the obvious I want to talk about a classic from the trenches of comedic Improv: “Yes, And…”

When improvising in a group, skilled performers learn quickly that showboating and negativity will wreck the whole enterprise. Audiences love a star turn, but brilliant star turns build on savvy teamwork and collaborative ingenuity. Making up a story on the fly requires split second timing and a willingness to fail.

When two actors take the impro stage and start tossing ideas around, it’s all too common to see a selfish actor reject anyone else’s ideas so they can bogart the attention and spotlight. It’s a rube’s move, because professionals remember who’s a dick and audiences notice when everyone else on stage hates your guts.

In practice, if my scene partner starts an improv by saying, “It’s raining so hard!” then the weather has been established. If I smother that detail by saying “No, you might think so, But it’s only drizzling.” Then I’ve killed my partner’s contribution to the scene. If, instead, I say “Yes, it’s raining like anything and… pretty soon we’ll need to find the boat…” then I take the improv offer and build on it. The two of us co-create the scene by accepting each offer and expanding upon it.

Being a teamplayer in improv makes for a better experience and a more dynamic result. The same is true for any creative endeavor from designing tattoos to writing genre fiction. Learning to see the “Yes, And…” in a rejection letter, intense edits, or a blog tour can help you steer clear of disaster and salvage rotten situations. It also teaches you to adapt in the moment and cooperate with your colleagues. You also discover rapidly exactly which of your peers has the skills, temperament, and humor you work best with.

When presented with idea, try to accept the offer in the spirit of “Yes, And.” The universe is giving you something, potentially something fortuitous or inspiring. Receiving that proposal with gratitude and sense, opens you up to possibility. “No, but” sends a clear signal to your Muse and your mind and the Universe that you don’t need any damn help, thanks. You’ll just screw up on your own. “Yes, and” allows us all to screw up together. All art is collaborative, which is why editors and directors, and audiences exist. Art needs audiences who talk back, onstage and off.

If just “accepting and expanding” feels like too much, consider taking an improv class. Yes, really. They boost confidence, creativity, and interpersonal skills; they can seriously change your writing process and your professional life. That same dynamic controls jazz performance, rap battles and poetry slams, stand-up, and much modern dance. Easy to forget watching canned, prerecorded entertainment, but watching the Muse scatter divine fire in the moment is exhilarating.

No artist is an island. We communicate with the world and vice versa. That’s part of what makes genre fiction so astonishing as a career: the robust interplay of creativity and precision and expectations.

In a way, romance is especially suitable for “Yes, And” solutions because it IS about relationships both in and out of the books. Every successful writer learns to compromise and cooperate. We grow by studying our betters and taking on impossible tasks that somehow become inevitable. Every step forward I’ve taken in my career, came from a ”Yes, And” moment when I pushed myself to accept what was offered and built on it with enthusiasm. Make me an offer or throw out a suggestion and I’ll always try to say (metaphorically or literally), “Yes, and..?”

As I type this, Heidi Cullinan and I have a marketing book coming out in a couple weeks called Your A Game focusing on the idea that no two authors are the same and that genre fiction promo should be fun. In some ways the entire message of the book comes down to “Yes, And…” learning to embrace what you’re given and work with the people who know how to play well with others. We couldn’t find the book on genre promo that we wanted, and then “Yes, And”-ed the project into existence.

When Heidi and I were first talking through the enormity of the topic we realized that there was no way to cover brand and platform and marketing and promo and media training and every other part of a genre career. We spent almost a week “No, But-ting” every possible solution to the challenge until we were tied in knots. And then one day while we attacked the problem, a “Yes, And” slipped out unbidden… Is it impossible to write a promo book that is all things to all authors? YES, and that meant we had to rethink what authors need from nonfiction handbooks. We decided to write a promo guide as a chooseable adventure. Everyone could get what they needed and skip the stuff they didn’t, until they did.

The truth is, “Yes, And” sums up how I approach the writing process, how I beat blocks and kickstart projects, but it’s also the cornerstone of my promo and outreach efforts because “Yes, And” encourages dynamic, authentic give and take with everyone in all directions.

And lest you think “Yes, And” is a recipe for credulity or blind acceptance of toxic or silly suggestions, remember that part of “Yes and” involves looking at foul behavior and saying, “Yes, and now I think it’s time for me to be going.” Improv keeps you on your creative and professional toes and your colleagues likewise.

  • Those [Insert genre] books don’t sell/suck/bore me. Yes, and that’s why I’m always trying to find ways to reinvent familiar tropes.

  • I only like your light contemporaries. Yes, and I enjoy being able to move between genres so I can connect with the whole range of my fans.

  • Your book didn’t finish the way I wanted it to. Yes, and I appreciate you reading it and letting me know what worked and what didn’t.

  • “I’m dying to tell you a story that’s a steampunk inspirational,“ says your muse. Yes, and I bet I’ll learn a lot about worldbuilding and craft once I have time in my schedule.

  • You should fly to our con in outer Oshkosh and buy everyone a pony. Yes, and as soon as we can work out a concrete plan with a clear ROI I’ll book my flight.

  • You’re not a [insert popular measure of success] yet. Yes, and I’m taking practical steps to reach a broader audience toward the career I want.

A couple weeks back I was down at Coastal Magic, one of my favorite genre events of the year. Their annual Flash Fiction panel is a glorious trial by fire that requires a group of authors write a romance on-the-fly in front of a could hundred people in using a character, trope, subgenre, setting, and context conjured up by the audience specifically to stump them. It’s insane.

I usually describe Flash Fiction as being thrown out of a cargo plane with a bolt of muslin and a needle and sewing a parachute on your way down. In front of a live audience. No presh.

Flash Fiction packs them in every year at Coastal Magic … and often inspires crippling despair and panic because it strikes at the core of our creativity. It can make us feel like frauds. Now… some of us have been doing the Flash Fiction gig since year one, but every year a couple of brave talented noobs decide to plunge in… and the only advice I give the newbies is “YES, AND…” While everyone starts to get fizzy with panic, I repeat it like a catechism. “Yes. And…?”

This year, a groovy author named Brynn Meyers sat down next to me, terrified and hopeful for her first time having a whack at Flash Fiction. I just kept repeating, “Yes, And,” until she started saying it right back to me, and then gradually “Yes, And-ing” all of us. She aced the entire process and had a blast besides. “Yes, And” forces folks to collaborate and take weird risks together.

We forget sometimes that all great entertainment starts from improvisation… whether it’s two comics doing a long-form skit or a tortured writer playing out a scene in her head. We have to make stuff up. And eventually someone will offer a suggestion, for good or ill. Whether you can take advantage of everything offered to you is entirely your decision.

A professional development article for writers by M/M author Damon Suede

Copyright 2016. Damon Suede. All Rights Reserved

Originally published as a lecture for Romance University.

If you wish to republish this article, just drop me a line.