Gay romance fiction

Same Page: defining terms before the worm turns 

by Damon Suede

(A-game Advice was a monthly column offering practical tips for winning promo that fits your personal style, strategy, and measure of success.)

Whether you’re pitching a project, lining up a release campaign, or trying to boost word of mouth, most of your promotional efforts will involve working with colleagues. A few of those people will actually read the book in question, but many will rely on gusts, and blurbs because reading takes time, and time is what nobody has.

In film, this conundrum is solved by something called coverage, a kind of systematized book report drafted by folks at the bottom of the Hollywood food chain to save their bosses the trouble of actually opening a script, let alone reading it. This grim trend is so entrenched that now some majors actually have people that do coverage OF COVERAGE, because even the time it takes to read a page is too daunting.


In showbiz, coverage leads to some hellacious flops and bizarre miscommunications, because as we all know from childhood rounds of Chinese Whispers and Telephone, even the most well-intentioned person will garble a portion of any message. Elision creates errors. Factor in the exigencies of screenplay format and difficulty visualizing anything, and coverage hobbles most projects from go.

In fiction, this trend may be even worse, because the average screenplay is a hundred pages and somewhere above twenty thousand words. The average novel is four to five times that. Summaries, synopses, blurbs, and loglines in publishing can steer art, editorial, and marketing into carnivorous weeds.

People speak in homophones. Someone says “bestseller” or “sexy” or “must-read” and then pretends that everyone listening knows what that word means to them. Hell, sometimes authors don’t even know what they mean themselves because they’ve ingested so many other opinions without doing the homework and forming their own. They haven’t paid attention, and it shows. That way lies frustration, rage, and penury.

Words are our business so you must choose them with care. Always define your terms when you’re discussing a project with your rep team, your editor, your publisher, your publicity staff. People assume the strangest things and they rarely step outside comfort zones without extreme incentives.

About 20 years ago I was scripting a comedy for a film studio partnered with a beautiful comedic actress of a certain age who was tired of playing ditzy bombshells, presumably because she’d recently become a grandmother. Everyone agreed she would appear on screen for 90% of the movie; her Oscar-winning name would sell the bulk of the opening weekend’s tickets, their marketing muscle would convince the public that she was still a pert ingenue at 60. Mutual exploitation to the benefit and profit of all. Hooray for Hollywood.

Before the cake was baked, all the problems were visible and active…all the worst ingredients already stirred into in the mix, waiting to poison the project. I was too young to understand the danger, but I sensed some oddness. Once things got underway based on the stated goals, every player called to set up in separate meetings so they could speak more candidly with me about their actual intentions. To wit:

  • the actress wanted her face in closeup for 100 minutes. She was smart, gorgeous, and funny as hell, with zero interest in playing brainless T&A forever, so she kept angling to deepen characterization, enrich onscreen relationships, and find warmth and humor in the story in ways that would let her career evolve and help her escape the sexist box the suits had built around her.

  • the studio wanted her ass in closeup for 100 minutes… pointless nighties and nudity, her body climbing in and out of windows, cars, balconies, ladders, tight spaces…anything that showcased her derriere. They’d signed up to pay for kooky antics that let the camera linger on her salient assets because an hour and forty minutes of her chassis was money in their bank.

Every subsequent meeting went the same: she would gush about the character moments, the emotion, the juicy range, the subtle arc the role offered. The suits would rave about the physical comedy, the saucy outfit options, the quadruple entendres, and the amazing skin-friendly locations.  The actress would demand that all the slapstick and ogling get dropped, the studio would insist that the punters wouldn’t put up with all that gabbing and dabbing. Separately each side would call me afterward, to lambast the other’s blind obstinacy.

If you are reminded of Aesop’s fable about the man with two wives, one old and one young, who plucked him bald one hair at a time, you’re spot on.

The sad thing is that either of the theoretical movies described above could have found a passionate audience and been wildly successful, but not in the same 100 minutes. All parties at the table wanted to make a successful film, but the two camps had opposing goals and no leeway. I made bank, the lawyers and rep teams made bank. The movie never got made. Dozens of broken eggs and no omelette.

Moral of this story: these folks were making two movies that had the same name and no chance. Each side had their own definitions of words like “star,” “character,” and “audience appeal” that contradicted their putative partners. They wasted piles of cash because they didn’t define their terms from the get-go.  

If your publisher wants a light goofy rom-com and you think you’re writing a gritty memoir, there will be blood and tears. If your publicity packages you as am intellectual sci-fi visionary, but you’re actually more of a paranormal satirist who loves family saga, they could paint your book into a corner. If a new reader tells their book club you write scorching love scenes even though your folks get busy offpage in flannel nighties, everyone will end up baffled and disappointed.

You’re a writer! Communicate clearly!

Coherence is critical in book promo…so any reps, publishers, editors, promoters, assistants, media, and street teams you work with need to be able to speak about the book in a way that reflects its unique appeal and singular virtues. Make sure you communicate what’s remarkable so they can help you spread the word. And if they work for you or with you directly, ASK them some basic questions so everyone is speaking the same language.

  • What is the project’s hook?

  • What is strongest and weakest, familiar and fresh, about the idea?

  • Who is the audience for this book and why?

  • What are the comp titles? What are books it shouldn’t be compared to but might easily if folks aren’t paying attention?

  • Do you and your team define hero or villain, real and fake, good and evil, strong and weak, in the same ways?

  • What kind of ending will or won’t satisfy?

  • What kind of funny is it and where? DO you laugh at the same jokes? Does anyone?

  • What kind of intimacy is in play? Precisely how hot is sweet vs. spicy vs. scorching?

Always ask. You may be startled, distressed, inspired by the answers. In genre fiction, if you mislead readers, they will not forgive you. Instead, learn to attract the audience already out there in search of your voice and your titles.

This is where professional relationships pay huge dividends; shared language is invaluable. Get specific.

Great trick: when anyone on your team reads your work with an eye to helping you edit or pitching your work, ask them tell you the story of your book before you take any advice from that quarter. If their story and your story resemble each other, then their input will be useful. If your versions diverge radically, mapping the gap in advance will affect how, when, and why you should consider their advice.

 One of the simplest solutions is to give folks the clear specific language to discuss your project: potent verbs, meaningful details, and memorable hooks in excelsis. Make certain that all the language, images, and other content associated with your book supports a coherent picture of the tone and timbre, including tagline, logline, blurb, synopsis, excerpts, quotes, memes, and anything else you put our to characterize your projects.

If you want word of mouth, put words in their mouths. Help folks help you. Even your most trusted allies can only help if you give them words they need.

Learn to signal genre and subgenre, heat level and tone using keywords and punchy soundbites other people will be able to remember and share. Harvest recurrent praise from reviewers so you know how to emphasize your biggest selling points to your unique audience. Articulate the vibe and voice of your work so that it can find the right readers.

Not only will specificity and clarity help others help you, but zeroing in on the exact words and angles will help you create work with more punch and power, which in turn nurtures the unique appeal of your voice and insures you can give your audience what they need, because you, your colleagues, your allies, and your fans will all be somewhere near the same page.

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

Copyright 2017. Damon Suede. All Rights Reserved

Originally published as part of A Game Advice for the Romance Writers Report.

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