Damon Suede, who visits RU with another spectacular post, shows how the concept of improv can improve your writing skills as well.
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 constantly inform my writing. Consciously and unconsciously, the [nouns] of improv are useful tools for my personal bag of tricks, but none so much as the stalwart 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 improv stage and start tossing ideas around, it’s all too common to see a selfish actor reject everyone else’s ideas so they can bogart the 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.
If I’m improvising a scene and my scene partner begins with, “It’s raining so hard!” the weather has been established. If I smother that detail by saying “No, you might think so, but it’s only drizzling,” 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. We leap before looking. The two of us co-create the scene by accepting each other’s offers and expanding upon them, one leap at a time.
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, your mind, and the Universe that you don’t need any damn help, thanks. You’ll screw up on your own. Yes, and allows us all to screw up together.
All art is collaborative, which is why editors, directors, cover artists, formatters, marketing executives, producers, and above all audiences exist. Spontaneity is the heartbeat of creation. Art needs audiences who talk back, onstage and off. But arriving to the stage requires a great deal of yes, and too.
If the concept “accepting and expanding” your fiction career feels like too much, consider taking an improv class. Yes, really. The experience boosts confidence, creativity, and interpersonal skills; the classes 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. It’s easy to forget while consuming 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. Every success story is an act of improvisation.
In a way, romance is especially suitable for yes, and solutions because it’s 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. This nonfiction guide focuses 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, so we yes, and-ed the project into existence.
When Heidi and I were first talking through the enormity of the topic, we realized 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 build the career I want and reach a broader audience.
Rejection sucks and ideas flop. The beauty of an improvisatory mindset is that every failure is fertile compost for whatever comes next.
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. Yes, and forces people to collaborate and take weird risks together. It stops closing doors and shows us how to carve new ones out of soft masonry with a pen knife and five our new best friends. Embrace spontaneity and make room for it with careful planning.
Yes, in your genre fiction career, eventually someone will offer a suggestion, for good or ill. And whether you can take advantage of everything offered to you is entirely your decision. Genre publishing is too frenetic and volatile to expect orderly progress or a single set of rules.
We have to make stuff up. We have to leap so that we can create things worth looking at. We have to share the credit, cooperating and reciprocating with the talented folks around us. And that means accepting what we’re given and building from there, together. Our futures are a collaborative, seat-of-the-pants enterprise. All hands on deck!
Show up. Pay attention. Make mistakes. Take risks. Share credit. Dance in the rain and turn lightning bugs into lightning.
Whatever challenge lies before you, whether you’re talking promo with your peers, percentages with your agent, or plot bunnies with your invisible friends, there’s only one response:
Join us on Monday for the fabulous Anna Campbell!
Bio: Damon Suede grew up out-n-proud deep in the anus of right-wing America, and escaped as soon as it was legal. Though new to romance fiction, Damon has been writing for print, stage, and screen for two decades. He’s won some awards, but counts his blessings more often: his amazing friends, his demented family, his beautiful husband, his loyal fans, and his silly, stern, seductive Muse who keeps whispering in his ear, year after year. Get in touch with him on Twitter, Facebook, or at DamonSuede.com.
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