Podcast: Download (Duration: 1:18:09 — 63.4MB)
Subscribe: Google Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | TuneIn | RSS | More
The craft of writing has many levels — structure, character, plot, emotion, depth and much more — but all of these can be strengthened by your choice of words. In today's show, Damon Suede gives some tips on using active verbs to bring your writing alive.
In the intro, I reflect on what I learned at the London Book Fair — lots of tips on audiobooks, Streetlib's Africa roll-out, why non-fiction is easier to sell, and why intellectual property rights are behind Disney's acquisition of 21st Century Fox. Plus, lessons learned from my audiobook narration day at The Showreel in London; my new podcast www.BooksAndTravel.page, and why you should check out the Self-Publishing Advice Conference.
Today's show is sponsored by Draft2Digital, where you can get free ebook formatting, free distribution to multiple stores, and a host of other benefits. Get your free Author Marketing Guide at www.draft2digital.com/penn
Damon Suede has worked as a performer, director, and writer in film and theater. He now writes award-winning gay romance and teaches writers how to use their words more effectively for writing and marketing. Today we're talking about Verbalize: Bring Stories to Life & Life to Stories.
You can listen above or on iTunes or your favorite podcast app or watch the video here, read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.
- Common weaknesses in writing
- On developing a story’s verbal palette
- Putting readers in emotional danger at a safe distance
- On the merits for writers of reading widely
- The power of language
- Developing rich, complex characters
- How the origins of psychology and writing are linked
- The importance of verbs when creating a character
- On the current state of the Romance industry and how to rise above the scammers
- Damon's latest book, Activate: A Thesaurus of Actions and Tactics for Dynamic Genre Fiction is available now.
You can find Damon Suede at DamonSuede.com and on Twitter @DamonSuede
Transcript of interview with Damon Suede
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from the creativepenn.com. And today, I'm here with Damon Suede. Hi, Damon.
Damon: Hi, Joanna. So good to be here. I have been waiting for this like you wouldn't believe.
Joanna: Well, thanks so much for coming on the show. Just a little introduction.
Damon has worked as a performer, director, and writer in film and theater. He now writes award-winning Gay Romance and Erotica and teaches writers how to use their words more effectively for writing and marketing.
Today, we're talking about his book, ‘Verbalize: Bring Stories to Life & Life to Stories.'
I heard you talk about this at NINC last year, so I've been waiting, what, six months since I heard you speak?
Damon: Exactly. It's funny. I've been following The Creative Penn for so long. I'm such a huge fan. And when they invited me to come, and I was like, ‘Well, who are the speakers?' And you do that thing where you think, ‘Should I?' And I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. Oh, my gosh. She's coming from Perth. I'm so excited.' I'm a Jane Austin Fan, so I would come there to visit you, but it was nice for you to come here.
Joanna: Oh, no, it's fantastic.
Tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing because your background is pretty varied.
Damon: I'm a talker, but the short version is I was a song and dance kid. I had a freak singing voice when I was a little boy. I had a four and a half octave range. And having a lot of musicals, I got hired to do a production of ‘Midsummer Night's Dream' while I was living in New York.
I moved to London, did a bunch of Shakespeare. And while there, I got hired to write a play. And I started writing plays pretty much full-time. I actually tried to emigrate to the UK, which UK-iers know that can be quite difficult.
And then when I wound up giving that up because I didn't want to pay double taxes, I moved back to the States, and I worked in theater.
And then Robert Dinero bought a play of mine for film and then that led to a lot of film writing, both live action and animated because I have sort of a knack for physical comedy.
I had been doing that for about 20 years, 19 years. And a friend of mine dared me to write a romance. She was working on a story. She was stuck. My husband's a forensic investigator.
Joanna: And he's coming on the show!
Damon: He's very excited. He's actually on a case right now. But, anyway, so, she dared me to write a romance, which is the worst thing you can do to me because I am a person who responds to that kind of provocation. So, I wrote my first romance in six weeks.
I sold it in two days, and it was number one for six months. And it made so much money, and I met all these amazing fans in the romance industry. And I called my agent, and I said, ‘I never want to work for the Weinstein Brothers again.' By the way, good choice.
And when I learned how loving, supportive, and cool, and funky, and experimental romance could be, I just fell into it. And so, I really came from this weird background as like a singer, dancer, circus freak, and I wound up writing love stories.
The irony is I grew up about 10 blocks from where RWA was founded, Romance Writers of America. I also weirdly read romance. I just never thought I would write it, but now I can't imagine doing anything else.
Joanna: It's such an interesting origin story because a lot of people who start as writers want to end up writing in film.
Damon: Right. And it's a question I get. People will say like, ‘Golly gee willikers, I'd like to have a movie made of my book.' And I'm like, ‘Errr, wrong answer.'
You think you want a movie made of your book. What you want is like Tom Hiddleston to come massage your feet or Cate Blanchett to mop your brow with Idris Elba fanning you. But that's actually not what writing is in the movies.
In film, a screenwriter is the lowest, lowest, lowest critter on the totem pole. So, they treat you like garbage, but they pay you well. It's a very odd industry.
Joanna: We're going to come back to the romance side, but let's get into ‘Verbalize.' Because when we came to your session, and I would say to anyone listening, if Damon is speaking, definitely go to the session.
I don't know what I expected of you, but I think maybe its your Shakespearean side, but this is a love letter to words and grammar. So, we've mentioned the G-word, we are mentioning the G-word, and your book is full of grammar. Even today, I've been spending time with my thesaurus, and I just love it.
Can you talk about some of the most common weaknesses that you see in books based on writing itself?
Damon: I think the number one problem we have as a culture is generality. I think that we forget that the phrase mass market, mass-market, literally means generic content produced in a factory for the lowest common denominator. And I think it's very easy to sort of absorb jokes, and tropes, and things that are sort of streamlined for maximum absorption.
It's great if you want to write oatmeal or frozen Salisbury steak. But if you want to write something that is spicy, or strange, or provocative, or interesting, or imaginative, or weird, it's very difficult to shake off the bland beige cubicle culture that we're sort of raised to populate.
What I always say to baby writers is, ‘Kill your generality. Kill your clichés. Avoid them like plague, and death because it's so easy to kind of fall into language that's weak.'
The average sitcom has a vocabulary of 450 words. The average Shakespeare play has a vocabulary of 5,100 words. So, why would you feed yourself pap and expect to sort of produce stakes?
I'm always saying to people like, ‘Read widely, look further, dig deeper because each of us has stories that need telling, and each of us has a voice that is distinct.' But because we watch this uniform entertainment, we get in the habit of using bland language.
I'm a very wacky speaker. It doesn't have to be wacky, it just has to be specific to you, to your individuality, your authentic self.
Joanna: You talk about the story's verbal palette, which I really love as a phrase. How can we build that up for our work?
Damon: I did my thesis on anti-humanist pornography during the French Enlightenment, as you do, and, of course, a lot of reading. In this conversation I was having about pornography in the 18th century, I realized in the 18th century, there was this belief that the clock face was the world when actually the greasy gears under the clock face is the real world.
I think as a writer, it's very easy to get seduced by the effect we produce on the reader rather than thinking about the cause that underlies it.
I was just down in Florida last month, and a student said to me… She had gone through ‘Verbalize'. She'd taken a full day workshop with me and then she had read the book, and she came up to me, and she said, ‘I feel like Neo in the ‘Matrix' as if I've looked through the words, I've looked through the character.'
And it's not that the character doesn't have all that extraneous stuff, it's that the core of energy in the character is tappable. And the other thing I would say is when I first taught ‘Verbalize', everyone said, ‘Oh, this is so wacky. It's so weird what you're doing.'
I said, ‘Actually, I think everyone does this.' I think that we've been taught to think of stories as doll houses when we have these little dolls, and we march them around, and we make them do things, when, actually, if you let stories verbalize themselves, the words we'll make the most emotional impact.
You have to push your margins. Again, this is back to the weaknesses in writing. I think the great strength of genre fiction as an industry, as a career, is that it tests your limits. The limits of your curiosity, the limits of your emotion, the limits of your openness. Your willingness to live other lives.
There's a great book by Keith Oatley called ‘Such Stuff as Dreams.' And he says that fiction allows us to experience danger at a safe, emotional distance.
I think about that sometimes, ‘How can I put my readers in emotional danger at a safe distance?' I think that by pushing language, we make people look at things in an unexpected way. And so, that verbal palette becomes something that we lay out that lets them play with us. It lets them kind of get down in the mud with us.
A character is an action figure. It has a range of emotion. It's not a person, but that range of emotion is limited by what they must do in the story. And so, giving them fun things to play with is our job, right?
The better we get at our job, the more fun the readers have, the more readers we have, the more we get paid. We don't starve to death and live under a bridge. These are all good things.
Joanna: Just be a bit more specific about the verbal palette, give us an example.
Damon: When I was writing film, I would get hired to adapt a novel. And the director would say to me, ‘This is really written as a light, quirky comedy, but we're going to film it as a rom-com.' Now, like light sitcom and romcom have different actions for the actors. There are different things you're going to ask your actors to do.
The same thing is true in a novel. If I'm writing a novel, and I want it to be a quirky comedy of manners, that's very different from a farce, or from a situation comedy, or from a romantic comedy.
And by looking at the kinds of language that I use on the page, I'm cueing the readers of all times so that they know, ‘Oh, this is the world I'm in. Oh, this is the limits. This is the absolute high, the absolute low.'
Because when I go into a book called ‘Spot the Bunny,' I don't expect it to be about late-stage capitalism. Or if I go into a techno-thriller, I don't think it's going to be recipes for muffins.
And I think that we forget, as writers, that we're constantly giving our readers cues and clues. And that also feeds into characterization because you want to produce a character that pushes the edge of what is expected but also exceeds those expectations in a fascinating way.
By using certain kinds of language, if I say Pride and Prejudice, it has action-words for characters, things like provoke, preserve, taunt, pester, tease. The actions of the characters are framed by the milleau of the early 19th-century.
But if I update Pride and Prejudice, and I'm setting it now in the 20th century… I have a good friend, Snolly David, who just did an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and her language for that book is very different. It has things like smolder, tempt, arouse. It's a different palette.
In the same way that if I'm making curry, or if I'm making pizza, or if I'm making Tom Kha Gai, the ingredients I lay on the counter are going to be different. And I'm going to prepare them differently, and my tools are different.
As an author, taking hold of that process, right, again, like ‘The Matrix,' looking through the surface at the energy kind of pulsing in the story gives you both a faster process because you're not getting bogged down on extraneous detail, but also a more productive process because you're actually hitting the sweet spot when you need to.
Joanna: I want to be clear for everyone. You're not saying use massive, long words.
You're not saying use more literary words in your genre fiction. Are you? That's not what you mean.
Damon: No. It's really more using clearer words because, truthfully they always say when you start writing, you should use good Anglo-Saxon monosyllables, right? You want things like give, take, make, clear, break, seduce, honor, like, very clear language because everyone understands them.
It's the reason that politicians are always using sort of fourth and fifth-grade language because the most number of people can understand them. But let me tell you, there are simple words. I can say the word inveigle, which has certain connotations.
But if I say seduce, or convince, they actually mean a very similar thing, but they're clear for the reader. And so, depending on the kind of world I'm building, it changes the shape of their experience. It invites them in in a different way.
So, no, it doesn't have to be $10-words. I love a good strong Anglo-Saxon. I love it because of the Anglo Saxon vocabulary.
But one of the brilliant things about English is we have about five times the vocabulary of every other language. 50 words for snow, right? That we have so many words for love, so many words for fights, so many words for forgive, so many words for sacrifice.
By using that texture, you build out a verbal palette, a sort of a language-scape that the reader can dive into. And sometimes they don't even realize it. The reader's not going through their dictionary learning things. It's that without realizing it, they sort of absorb the little gems that you bury there.
There's a thing in New Orleans, at Mardi Gras, they bake what's called a king cake, and they've stud it with these little toys. They're called faves, and there's like a baby, and a crown, and a key. And depending on what slice of cake you get, you have a different fortune for the year.
I always say that writing is like baking a king cake. You're just burying little treasures. And if they want to go looking, it's there. But you don't want to exclude the people who don't feel like looking. Maybe they're just like tired in the hospital watching their father get over a broken leg, and they just want to be entertained.
But the richness underneath is what brings them back. It's what allows your voice to emerge authentically.
Joanna: Coming back to genre fiction, which we both write, I think one of the criticisms of genre fiction is often, and you mentioned the house, actually, like a structure. Often, we focus may be more on the structure than on words which are traditionally associated more with literary writers or poets.
What do you think about that? Is that a fair criticism of genre writing or just unthinking job or writing?
Damon: I think it's really the difference between good writers and crappy writers. I feel like hackwork in literary fiction is no less hacky than other hackwork on Amazon. There's literary fiction like poststructuralist literary fiction on Amazon makes me want to eat a razor.
But by pushing yourself, by expanding the words you feel comfortable using, I don't think you have to dig into anything fancy. You could use a fourth-grade dictionary. But by expanding your dexterity, your verbal dexterity, it allows you to paint with a different brush when it's needed.
And so, in a way, what you're doing is constantly testing the margins of what's possible. The nice thing about working this way, about working with this technique that I use for characterization and dramatization, is that you cannot plagiarize words. They're words. So, it's just a word.
I can be at a story weekend with you, and we can plan books next to each other using the exact same words and write completely different books because your voice and my voice are different.
I encourage people to go out and read more. Explore more. Get to know other authors in your genre and not just the safe ones. Explore the crazy ones. Explore the ones that mess up.
Look backwards. Look at the history of your genre, and find the treasure buried.' Because I do think we get into this habit, especially post-Amazon, into this belief that the new book is the best book, right? That the one book that you have to pay attention to is the one from three months ago, not 30 years ago.
There's a lot of great literature out there. And I don't mean literary fiction, I mean great pulp fiction, great genre fiction that can enrich our voices, and our craft, and build us outward.
Joanna: Like in the horror genre, H.P. Lovecraft would be a classic.
Damon: Oh, my God, yes.
Joanna: He made up words all the time.
Damon: And Tolkien. It so funny, I was just teaching a class on Tolkien to a group of fantasy people, and Tolkien invents a word almost every three pages. He just invents words.
And/or if you look at Willie Gibson, Necromancer. I read everything. I will read any genre. And one of the things you notice about the defining authors of a genre is how bold they are. They're so specific, and they're so bold with their language because it's their one power.
It's not that they have like a cool type base on their book cover. It's that the language, the verbalization is so powerful.
Do your kids come to you and say, ‘Mom, what color is Cinderella's hair?' Like, ‘Tell me the story about the guy with the limp.'
What they say is, ‘Tell me what happened. What happened? What was the action of the story? What moved me in the story?' Because what they want is an emotional ride. And that's our job, right? Emotional rides.
By studying emotional rides, by looking at sort of the things around our emotional experience, we learn to verbalize things. And it's, again, that Matrix thing. I think that when you start to think of story this way, you start to look past surfaces.
And that doesn't mean everything has to be sort of Mulabunda Shakara. I think that you can actually look through any story, through a video game. Every story has actions. And when you look at the energy in the story, you learn what affects people.
It's like being a carpenter. Carpenters learned to use wood, and grain, and tools to get the wood and grain to do what they want.
I always say, when I'm teaching in class, ‘How many grammar nerds do we have?' And there's always a show of hands. And when I say, ‘How many people hate grammar?' And there was like a sort of embarrassed smattering.
My answer every time is, ‘When you were a kid, you hated grammar because it was boring. But now, grammar is a magic tool that pays you money, and makes your life bigger and better, and draws in fans. Everything about grammar is good now because now it's your magic wand. You can do anything with it.'
But I think we get in our heads because when you're a kid, like, who wants to learn the subjunctive, right? Who cares what the transitive verb is? But when you actually are writing, that's a superpower.
If I said to you, ‘Look, you can control the weather, but only if you study,' would you sit on your ass with a towel over your head? No. You would want to say, ‘Yes, tornadoes, yes, lightning.' You want the superpowers. And so, I always say, ‘Embrace the things that will give your voice more power, more energy'.
Joanna: Talking about voice because I think this is why I'm so into this now. When I heard you speak, I got into it.
But I've got much more into it as I'm now narrating my own fiction because what's happened is I'm reading, and although when you edit your own work or you use a professional editor even, you figure out repeated words. But repeated sounds in audio is fascinating to me.
I've discovered so many things where I say repeated sounds, but also the word ‘said' because one of the things that we're told is just use the word said for dialogue. But actually, that's completely wrong when you're writing for audio.
I wondered if you had any comment on writing for audio.
Damon: When I was a child, because I had this weird voice, I did a lot of voiceovers. And so, when I went into theater, you rehearse out loud with another human being. You're always acting. You're taking action with actors who act or are doing something.
No actor is going to sit there and say like, ‘But what adjective should I be thinking about?' What they want to know is, ‘What am I doing? What is important? What matters?'
I read my writing outloud constantly. I dictate now.
I went through a phase where I was skeptical of dictation because I speak so quickly, and a friend of mine down in DC said, ‘No, try the new Dragon. It's great.' I love it because, A, it's doubled my production time with just word count.
But also, I read my work outloud always because I was a voiceover guy and because I know the books are going into audio. So, part of my editorial process is I read it to the wall. I just read it out loud. And so, now that I'm dictating, I've eliminated that step because I'm always reading out loud.
I'm always thinking about the sounds. I'm always thinking about the shape of the vowels and consonants on the page and how they establish energy.
Think about it. Darcy is not a man. Darcy is a series of black squiggles on a piece of paper a couple of centuries ago. And yet, we have very strong feelings about Fitzwilliam Darcy and all of his decisions. That's not because of the squiggles, right? That's because of the way the words went together.
And I think that reading out loud teaches you to look differently at how words go together. It goes back to that childhood habits thing. You were taught as a kid, write three sentences or punctuate your dialogue.
But when you're a writer, you're trying to go deeper. You're trying to dig in further to the experience of your audience. You have to unlearn these lazy, like grind down another page, grind down another thing. ‘She's pretty because she's the heroine,' all these clichés that we pick up as children. We pick up as students.
Joanna: I find this industry fascinating. I want to come back on characters because you say, ‘Characters are action figures.' You said that a while ago.
In the book, you say, ‘Characters are not people. They're purpose-built narrative tools to extract satisfying emotion from your audience.' And I know some people are like, ‘What?'
Just like you said about Cinderella's hair, I'm with you on this. I don't do character bios. I just write. People emerge because they're doing something in my book. They are acting.
Explain more about characters not being people.
Damon: I do do character bios, but I don't start with them. If I may, I'm going to tell a little bit of a story.
Popular fiction came of age at the rise of the printing press, and mass culture, and the rise of cities in the late 19th century. At the same time, a new science called psychology was being invented by Germans who sat around thinking for a long time.
In thinking about things and thinking about psychology, they set up certain theories about the ways that minds operated and emotions operated. Because of that, it was trendy at a time when people were first trying to figure out how to write fiction. And so, all of these things established by early psychology were enshrined in the writing process without anyone ever looking at it.
And so, I collect writing guides. I love writing guides. I have writing guides from the 18th, 19th century. I read in French, German. I find it fascinating how people put a story together and how they tell people to. Most people who write writing guides are not writers.
What they're doing is they're doing what Aristotle did. They're looking at something after the fact, and they're like, ‘Huh. I see the object. I'm going to take the object apart.' Aristotle was a biologist. He dissected things.
When you go into a book and you dissect it, well, that's great. I now know what a dead fetal pig looks like when I cut it apart, but I can't produce a fetal pig. I can't make a fetal pig oink, or walk around, or be cute, or anything else. And so, it's weird to me that writers are like, ‘Wow, I can dissect this thing, and that will make me able to make the thing.'
In 1933, a scholar named Elsie Nights wrote this article called ‘How Many Children Heard Lady Macbeth?' And he was making fun of all these critics that were like, ‘Hmm, if lady Macbeth was a color, what color would she be? If lady Macbeth was able to sort of strike out on her own, would she get a divorce?'
His point was, Lady Macbeth doesn't have any children. That's not the story. In fact, Lady Macbeth, in a play that has over 2,000 lines, Lady Macbeth has 252 lines, and she doesn't have a name. She literally is one of the most famous women in history. We know her epically. Everyone can think of that ‘out our damn spot' gesture, but they don't know her name.
Instantly, her name was Gruoch. She was really cool but different conversation. The point is that if you're Shakespeare, you don't give a damn how many kids she had. You're telling a story. Your actors need to do something.
All of that blather is a way for academics to write articles and get published so they can get tenure. Here's the problem. Because of the rise of mass publishing, because people wanted to be writers, they read these critics, and they were like, ‘Oh, I have to produce a three-dimensional character. I need to do an entire breakdown of everything. I need to know how many ingrown hairs she had on her first date. I need to know where he parts his hair.'
And listen, I love character detail. I love all that stuff, at the end. But if you start from, ‘Lady Macbeth had red hair,' what if you're wrong? What if that trivial nonsense gets you in into the weeds? If it leads you into mud?
The problem is that starting with trivia produces trivial stories. And we've been taught, because for 80, 90 years, we've been hearing, ‘No, no. Three-dimensional characters. Yes, yes, psychology.'
The truth is characters have something very like psychology. They have cause and effect. They do things because of things and because they do things, other things happen, right? That's causality.
But a character cannot have psychology because a character does not have a life. They are not people. They do not have childhoods. Lady Macbeth did not have a mother. She has 252 lines handwritten on parchment. So, the idea that we're going to extrapolate like how she felt about kleptocracy or what she would wear to her wedding is pointless.
It's useful as an exercise academically. But if you're a writer on deadline, why would you waste all that time?
I'm going to ask you, Creative Penn readers, when you fill out those bio's that say, ‘How tall is she? What color's her hair? What color her eyes? What kind of job does she have?' What is she wearing on her first date? What sound does she make when she screams? How much of it do you really use?'
I predict that you use about 2%, and that means 98% of the stuff you are creating in these, I call them impersonal ads, is you're creating data that is completely wasted. The equivalent is making an omelet by smashing 200 eggs and aiming a flame thrower at the floor. It's the most inefficient, illogical way to work.
What people want to know is what the character does. They want to know what the action of the character is. And so why wouldn't you look at the core? And then once you know the action, you can decide what her job is, decide what her hair color is, decide what her name is based on who she is.
How many of you would get married based on a personal ad? How many of you would hire someone strictly from a resume without meeting the person? Traits, characteristics are not character. And so, for me, it's so obvious.
The first time I taught a class on verbalization, I thought everyone did this. Now, secretly, I think everyone does do this, but they pretend that they don't. What they're doing is they're extrapolating, right? They look at a picture of Tom Hardy, and they're like, ‘He's hot.' Extrapolating from that, what would a hot guy wear? What would a hot guy do? So, they're sort of doing it backwards. But the problem is it's such a waste of time.
Instead, why not figure out who the character is and then go find a picture that looks like the energy of the character, right? Crack them open like a nut. And so, if you're at an author that loves bios, or you're an author that wants to do an astrological chart, or an NBTI, great, that's fantastic. Do it when it's going to make a difference. Don't do it at the beginning and then just stick it on a shelf.
It's like climbing a mountain with your lips. Why would you waste all that effort? It doesn't make any sense.
Joanna: I think it's very hard to encapsulate your book, which is massive, and excellent, and deep with just this interview. So, if people want to know more and about this character's act, actually do something, that is the big point, the verbs.
We haven't gone too much into grammar really, but…
Damon: Well, as I said, I can do it in like a couple of sentences. Imagine, for those of you who have never taken a class with me or have never read my books about this, I believe that all characters are their actions. They are literally the verbs in a story.
If I'm writing a character, I don't start with their hair color, or their weight, or their job, or their function in the story, or the kind of house they live in. I literally start from the thing that they do habitually.
That's actually from Aristotle. The word Aristotle uses for character is ethos. It means habitual action.
It's not a role, it's on a function, it is literally that which one habitually does. And so, when you want to come up with a character, what do they do? That is always a transitive verb, a verb that can be done to or with something else.
For example, Severus Snape is not a teacher. He's not a martyr. He's not a hero. Those are all nouns. They don't tell me anything.
He's not mean. He's not dark. He's not scary. He's not pitiful. Those are all adjectives, and they rely on assumptions.
The only part of speech that always shows rather than telling is verbs. What Snape does in every scene of every one of those seven books is vex. He vexes everyone. He vexes Harry. He vexes his family. He vexes Lilly. He vexes is Voldemort. He vexes Dumbledore. He vexes everyone. He's always vexing.
And then there's some of you that are going to say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I get it. But he's so much more complicated.' I agree, but I can prove it to you. The word Snape literally means vex. Literally, his name means I vex you severely.
Ironically, when you start digging into characters that way, you notice that actually, authors often will tell you without meaning to what the character is.
There's this great line in ‘Silence of the Lambs' where they're talking about the serial killer, and Hannibal Lecter says, ‘What does he do?'
Clarice says, ‘Well, he hunts. He hunts women. He skins women.'
And Lecter says, ‘No, no. First principle. What does he do? He covets.' That is his action. Jame Gumb covets in that book. And every scene he's in, he's coveting.
Now, some skeptics will come back and say, ‘Well, you can't do one thing for a whole book.' I agree. Because although you have an action for your entire existence as a person on the page, as a character, you have tactics. You have reactions which are synonyms of that action.
What happens over the course of a book is in every scene, I'll have a synonymous tactic that reflects their action. And what's cool for that is the reader never knows. They don't need to know. No one goes to an amusement park to look at the blueprints for a rollercoaster. They want the ride. Your job is to give them the rollercoaster.
What those tactics do is build an emotional ride that also reveals facets around the character that reveal the scope of the character. But by keeping it active, you always know what the character does. You always know what's important to them. You always know what their goal is.
Every scene verbalizes itself because you know what their action and tactic is. Stories tell themselves. I know that sounds very highfalutin, but it's true.
Joanna: No, I totally agree. And actually, it's funny on the naming i.e., when I look for character name, I often Google Arabic for strong, or old English for something.
Damon: This is my thing. I believe that all authors do this intrinsically. I think this is like ‘The Matrix.' I think you look through all the fuzz and you find the thing that the character does all the time.
Because instinctively, you don't want to watch a character that sits around eating oatmeal. You want them to do something, right? Your reader wants to feel something. And so, instinctively, I think that people are doing this. I just don't think they're doing it consciously.
If you're conscious about it, you'll be more efficient. You'll write better books.
Here's a twofer. If you write this way, if you verbalize your stories, you actually know how to sell your stories because what your characters do is how you sell them, active transitive verbs, or how you write marketing copy.
Go and read marketing copy books. Go and read funnel marketing books. What they'll tell you is active, actionable, transitive verbs because they're a call to action. That's what it is. You're asking people to participate in the emotional ride.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, we haven't got that much time left, and I want to just change tack a little bit.
Damon: No, no, no. Please. Please.
Joanna: Because you are on the Board of Romance Writers America, and you're heavily embedded in the romance community in the U.S. and, in fact, all over the world. You travel over the world speaking.
I love at the beginning, you said romance is a loving, supportive community. But from the outside, let's face it, as we're talking, there's a lot of stuff going on. The plagiarism stuff is happening. Nora Roberts even is blogging about this.
There's scammers in KU romance because it's the highest-earning genre it also attracts the most scammers because there's money there.
So, given your overarching view of the community and the genre, what are your thoughts on the best way for romance writers?
People who really love the genre and want to do this for their career, how do they publish in market in an environment that seems quite difficult right now?
Damon: I think the danger, something wonderful and terrible. It was a sword that cut both ways. When E-pub, indie-pubs, self-pub exploded, suddenly, the walls were down, and the Greeks were rolling into Troy, and anyone could be anything, right? Wild West.
The trouble is, if you're a writer who loves to write stories, who loves the work, and loves the industry, and wants to give the fans things they never imagined for themselves, then you're always going to push to get better as a writer. You're always going to look for something that is more connected to who you are as an artist, as a businessperson.
I think that, inherently, what the scammers are doing, it's like the little red hen, right? The story of the little red hen; she bakes the bread, but everyone else wants to eat it. They're hobos. They ride the train that other people build and maintain.
And so, the way that hobos operate is by attaching themselves like lampreys or barnacles to a productive system. And so, as an author, I think if you want to avoid that, if you want to escape that, and keep the system healthy, you have to constantly be thinking first, ‘How can I maintain the system in place?'
And then secondarily, if you're particularly strong, or imaginative, or legally-minded, ‘How can I build the system so I can protect my fellow authors?' I think that romance has a unique opportunity. Romance is the most popular industry, and it is this giant money machine in some ways.
But I tell my readers this all the time, romance is the literature of hope. I think the reason that romance gets such a bad rap is A, it's a genre by / for / with women, and women are treated like garbage in 90% of the cultures on our planet.
And then simultaneously, hope is always looked at askance. As an author, if you want to carve out a path for yourself, you have to have the courage of your own hope. You have to be willing to live not just profitably, or successfully, but, sort of, hopefully.
I did an interview recently for CNN, and someone said to me, ‘What is the difference between writing romance and writing other genres?' There's a very famous quote from Martin Luther King. He says, ‘The moral arc of the universe bends towards justice.'
I think that the moral arc of the universe bends towards grace. I don't think all of us want what we deserve. I think we want more because if we all got what we deserve, I think we would all be pretty bummed. And I think that what romance does that's so amazing is it always gives you extra. It always gives you something more.
If you're an author that wants to survive, thrive, boost the signal above the noise, you're going to be developing your voice. You're going to be pushing what is possible for you as an artist. You're not going to write to trends, you're going to set the trends.
You're going to look backwards at the people who came before you and honor them and celebrate them. You're going to celebrate what's strong in the genre because we all make more money. When we all make more money, we all make more readers, and we all make more readers.
Every bestseller in human history has been created by non-readers, right? Vampire Lestat, Peyton Place, ‘Gone with the Wind.' A bunch of people who'd never picked up a bunch of pages bound together as a book said, ‘Yeah, I'll check that out.' That's how '50 Shades' happened, right? ‘Twilight.'
A bunch of people who weren't readers decided to become readers. If you want to beat scammers, become a bestseller. And I don't mean that in sort of like, ‘Become a bestseller, and send me $19.95.' I mean, become a person who literally shapes pop culture because we have that power.
I think that, especially in romance, we shape modern trends in a way that others genres can't, but we don't get credit because so much of it is done by women, and women often don't get credit for things that they do.
And so, as a person, if you were trying to fight scammers, think to yourself, ‘Is this the best book I can write? Am I pursuing what is possible in the future in my genre, not just following trends?' Every scammer who has ever made a buck off Amazon followed rather than led. So, lead. Get out in front and lead.
One of the things I loved about what happened as a result of #CopyPasteChris was Chris Rea was plagiarized down in Brazil, is that the entire romance community suddenly said, ‘Hey, wait a second. I think there's a problem in our industry. I think that actually people are not just taking advantage of us as people, or as customers, or as readers, they're taking advantage of us as artists, as human beings, as human souls.'
And so, as a group, as a community, they said, ‘What can we do to fix it as a community?' Romance is predicated on the idea that relationships are more powerful than solitude. And so, if you're writing romance, where's your community? Find your community.
And if you don't believe in RWA, or you don't like conferences, find the people who think about books the way you do, who tell the kind of stories you want to tell and work together because we are always stronger as a team.
By celebrating great writing, by helping great stories, by boosting books that need a lift from communities that are marginalized or from people who might not get the same advantages that you do, we actually not only build the entire genre, but we build our own careers. Because those people are equally willing to help us when the time comes.
Joanna: But also, I think, a big thanks to the romance community because they're always out in front. Because they have been rejected, in a way, from the mainstream literary culture.
E-books really started in romance, online marketing.
Damon: Every media has begun in romance. Film started in romance, television started in romance, books started in romance. Every media that has ever existed in human culture, bas-reliefs began in romance. Base paintings began in romance. Every media starts in romance.
And it's ironic because it all starts there and so, everyone's like, ‘Oh, that old thing. Oh, that tacky old trope.' And I want to say, this is like the old novel. There's a reason that the word Roman means novel in so many languages.
It's because we're the beginning of it. And that's not a position of sort of arrogance, that's just the position of reality. That's what it does.
But I do think that romance also wants to help other genres because so many romance writers write mystery, write thrillers, write sci-fi, write fantasy, write horror. They are in those other genres because we experiment a lot. We take weird risks.
Anything is possible, right? But you have to be willing to step outside of the shadow of your own steeple.
You have to say, ‘I'm not just going to read in this little niche. I'm not just going to publish in this little niche. I'm not just going to talk to these four people. I'm going to educate myself. I'm going to join writers' organizations. I'm going to support the people who maybe don't always get the same break. I'm going to push further, like, dream harder, write bigger.'
Because by doing that, we actually help not just genre fiction but the world. I was on an interview once, and someone said, ‘Don't you feel terrible teaching all these women to ask for things they'll never have?'
And I was really annoyed. I was like pissed, and I was going to bring it. And I put on my happy hat, and I said, ‘I don't teach people to ask for what they don't deserve. I teach people to ask for what they know they deserve, to push beyond the limits set on them by other people. Everyone deserves a happy ending. Everyone deserves hope. There is no person on this earth that does not deserve hope, even Donald Trump. There is no person that doesn't deserve a hand to help them into the light. And if you can help someone stand in the light, you are making the world better.'
I think that sounds like a pretty good thing to do in your life, let alone in your career.
Joanna: Oh yeah. Let's make the world better. I think that was a good place to end because I want to ask you about your new book ‘Activate,' which as this interview goes out, will be coming either out now or out soon.
Tell us what we can expect in ‘Activate.'
Damon: When I started teaching these classes, and I first wrote ‘Verbalize', everyone was saying, ‘I don't work with verbs the way you do. I don't know as many verbs as you do.'
Resources don't exist for purely transitive verbs that are useful for genre fiction. There is some light resources available for actors, but they're specific to actors and to performance on stage or on film. And so, they kept saying, ‘You have to write it at the source, you have to have the source.'
It started out as an appendix to ‘Verbalize' as 15,000 words. It's now 266,000 words, and it is sorted in three sections. It's alphabetically by genre and then by direction. And the idea is it is only active transitive language for genre fiction authors.
Right now, it's actually in layout. Because it's a reference book, I want to make sure that it's super useful. Some people prefer it digital, some prefer it physical. But, yes, so that's coming out. ‘Activate' will be out in 30 seconds.
I actually had a thing that happened I want to share if that's okay. Last weekend in Florida, a television producer had come to me and said, ‘I just read ‘Verbalize'. This is so great. Have you considered doing some kind of a TED Talk?'
I said, ‘I'm happy to do a TED Talk'. And she said, ‘Well, I actually started using it for myself.' She said, ‘Well, isn't Damon Suede a public character?' I said, ‘Absolutely.' And she said, ‘What's your action?' And I said, ‘Oh, I can tell you immediately.'
I said, ‘My action is energize. All I do is energize.' She said, ‘What about your tactics?' I said, ‘Provoke, inspire, stimulate, shock, astonish, pester.' All the things that I do, right?
And so, now, it's actually become a way that I market myself as an author. I think, ‘Will this venue allow me to energize people? Will this podcast allow me to energize people?'
As authors, we forget that we can write the future for ourselves, that we can take control of the narrative of our own careers. And so, one of the things exciting about ‘Activate' is when I was talking about this in Florida, this woman was like, ‘I can't wait to find out what I'm going to do because all these verbs are just designed to make stuff happen,' right?
Joanna: I love that. And, of course, energize sounds like the title for another book.
Damon: Amen, sister.
Joanna: Which, I think, would be awesome because you definitely energize. You are a very energizing person.
Damon: It's how I am. It is my nature.
Joanna: It is. So, tell us where people can find you and your books online.
Damon: I am always at www.damonsuede.com. My name is spelled D-A-M-O-N-S-U-E-D-E.com. I'm also on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads. I'm sort of available everywhere writing gets wrestled or where romantic shenanigans take place. So, I'm pretty much like mold. I'm everywhere.
Joanna: Well, thanks so much for your time, Damon. That was great.
Damon: Oh, thank you so much, Joanna. It was really wonderful to spend time with you.
[Typewriter image courtesy rawpixel and Unsplash.]
Bonnie Lacy says
Fantastic! I am energized! I learn from every podcast/blog post, but this one was especially good!
Great voice, too, Damon!
Thank you, Joanna, as always, for all you do, teach and pave the way!
Damon Suede says
Thank you so much, Bonnie! Wonderful to hear.
Thank you, Joanna. Love the feedback from London Book Fair. Great audio update, so informative, as always.
An intriguing listen. I found what Damon has to say fascinating and will be looking him up to discover more. Thank you.
What I find more fascinating is coming back to listen to you on The Creative Penn after listening to all five episodes on the Books and Travel podcast. I definitely feel ‘closer’ to Jo than I do Joanna. Read ‘closer’ as meaning I can hear (detect) more of the ‘real’ you coming out in the Books and Travel podcast. If this is your intention — this revealing more of yourself, then it is definitely working!
Joanna Penn says
Thanks Lyn, I think I have 2 different sides and Joanna is more ‘self-help/teacher’ whereas J.F.Penn is my learner side, my curious side and I get to indulge the things that drive my fiction. Glad you like the new show even though it is not packed with tips 🙂
Tara Jade says
Great interview! You were right: a real live wire!!! And also such a great intro. I should re-play this every time I feel down and lose enthusiasm for being an author. Btw. it would be great to have Share buttons under the audio line, so your fans can easily share your wisdom 😉
Joanna Penn says
I do have Share buttons normally, but currently having an issue with some plugins so they are temporarily down 🙁 Sorry!
Damon Suede says
Yay, Tara! I’m so glad. I use podcasts for exactly the same reason. It’s so easy for us to feel trapped in our typing gulags…just tapping into colleagues’ perspectives tends to shake things loose for me.
Stephanie Andrews says
Outstanding interview. I’m buying the book for sure. That bit about Snape was worth the cost of the book.
Damon Suede says
I really appreciate it, Stephanie… I go into a fair amount of depth with Snape in the book, actually.
When I was drafting I went back and reread the 7 novels because I wanted to verify the actions for all the primary characters, and just wrapping my head around their actions and tactics was wildly productive as an exercise. WHat I love is that when I’m reading, I’ve started to SEE the verbal choices made on the fly and how they shift my experience as a reader.
Loved this interview! 🙂 Energy is definitely the right word to describe Damon! 🙂
Damon Suede says
True story! Thank you for the kind words. Pranathi. Hope you have an exceelent day. Write hard!
John DiCarlo says
Liberating!!!By far tge best pidcast in creative writing !
Adriana Licio says
Lvd this interview! As a first time author (and Joanna’ scrumptious course “how to write a novel” BTW) I’m editing my second book and felt miserable. First draft is just about skimmed things: no descriptions of people (unless they naturally emerge), no great descriptions of places (unless they naturally emerge), often I don’t even no whose line it is in a dialogue, just follow the story. So maybe the big take here is: trust the natural way you do things, build new knowledge around it, but don’t let it suffocate your own true self.
PS I’m gonna buy the Verbalise audiobook, but only if it’s Damon Suede reading it!
Damon Suede says
Very glad the podcast resonated so much, Joanna did such a good job directing my flow and pulling things out of me. She is a marvel!
It’s so important for us to nurture and challenge our authentic voices. It’s really the critical element for all creators and so easy to lose track of in the frantic churn of modern publishing. Kudos to you for doing the hard work.
And as for audio, I am working on getting Verbalize recorded as soon as I have the time. Thank you again for tuning in!
Grace Crook says
Your words have power. Express words that are caring, cherishing, positive, inspiring, empowering, and nurturing. Thank you so much