Gay romance fiction

Verbal Contract… harnessing the words that push reader’s buttons

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.)


Since some of us are headed to conference this month, I want to get grammatical with y’all.

Promo language is first and foremost language. Knowing how to parse and manipulate words makes it easier to sell your stories, full stop. Even if you “hate” grammar or “avoid” the rules of English, language is the writer’s single greatest superpower. Learning how to embrace and exploit it will make your work and the selling of it exponentially easier. 

You may think you hate grammar because you hated it in fifth grade, but today, as a writer, grammar offers one of the most powerful weapons in your professional arsenal. The ability to navigate and deploy grammar effectively will make your books better and your sales higher, literally.

Like all genres, romance comes with some pivotal preconceptions: a central relationship, an optimistic ending. All the actions we associate with romance come down to those two core principles. Romance characters act to build and protect a relationship. Those central lovers act to earn their optimistic ending. They do things that matter, and we pay attention to same.

I always tell my students: stories are not about action. They don’t use actions, tell actions, show actions, or describe actions. Stories are action. Stories are made of actions like pigs are made of pork. The moment you decide to write a genre story, you have committed yourself to the task of building fascinating actions for a specific audience with specific expectations.

Once you tell that story you have to sell that story. And that is why I want to get grammatical with a chat about basic parts of speech. Parts of speech are words divided by their function in forming sentences. Consider the function of modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) nouns, and verbs.

When you describe a romance narrative to readers with modifiers, using language that signals the kind of relationship, the kind of optimism, the flavor of fantasy, you attract different kinds of readers. Saying that a couple is “sweet” or “wild”, “hot” or “humble” only tells them what to expect. The same goes if I say a heroine does something “slowly” or “cleverly” or
defiantly.” I have to trust that those words mean the same things to every reader. Relying on adjectives and adverbs requires that everyone agrees on what those descriptives mean.

Spoiler alert: no one agrees on what anything means. Even if cloned in a vat and brainwashed from birth, readers bring the full rich tapestry of their varied experience to every story. Relying on overlapping opinions won’t stand up to scrutiny or skepticism, which makes modifiers perfectly terrible for promo language That’s why folks side-eye most books that says “COOL!” or “HAWT!” in a review or on its cover. Modifiers are too easy to doubt, to swiftly discarded. They are the junk food of promo language. At best, they offer opinions.

So let’s drill down further, nouns get more specific because they are inherently concrete: a hero who is a “duke”, a heroine who is an “assassin”, a sidekick who is a “martyr”…any of these nouns convey general identities and trust the reader to come fill in the gaps by reading the story. By definition nouns are inherently general; they convey broad assumptions.

There are dukes and dukes, assassins and assassins, martyrs and martyrs. How do we distinguish between different types of a thing a role, a status, a defining function in a community? Forget about fiction; how do we do that in our actual lives? We don’t! Not all lawyers are the same. Not all dogs are the same. Not all weddings are the same. The only way those assumptions overlap is if we share prejudices and worldviews, and here’s hoping we don’t. Nouns create pools of identity and invite us to come splash around in the hopes our assumptions line up with theirs.

So what does that leave us? What type of word is always specific, always clear, always emotional, always dramatic? What part of speech pinpoints every nuance in the story with perfect clarity? What skips over opinions and assumptions to express the actual dynamics of every moment?

Verbs.

Once heroines “rescue” or “redeem”, once heroes “protect” and “cherish”, once sweethearts “love” and “laugh” and “live” that HEA, they show us the romance without any superfluous telling. All the nouns and modifiers only gild the lily. Writing to his daughter in 1938, F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “Use verbs, not adjectives, to keep your sentences moving. All fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences.” Smart writers learn to ditch all that window dressing in favor of the real deal: active verbs.

For your promo efforts, that does triple.

For anyone who doesn’t know let me confess: I’m a verb freak, a verb junkie, a verb cultist, a verb crusader! I collect verbs with the obsessive devotion some fanatics reserve for comics or shoes or memorabilia. I hunt for verbs in old books and invent new ones whenever I’m able. I just wrote an entire thesaurus of verbs over an inch thick (called Activate) because I couldn’t find a verbal reference juicy enough for genre authors.

Verbs are the muscular magic inside all storytelling, because they reveal what matters; they are what happens. They also provide all the power that sells your story; their singular actions attract the ideal agents, editors, and the passionate diehards who need your book like oxygen.

When it comes to your language, verbs literally do everything; every other part of speech can only frame the energy unleashed by verbs. Verbs inherently show while adjectives, adverbs, and nouns can only tell. That’s what I mean when I talk about verbalizing a narrative. The core of storytelling is those dynamic, emotional actions. Characters do things. In bestselling romance they do astonishing, fascinating things that movemillions of readers.

Now that’s all very well and good, but what does that have to do with pitching and promoting your work so you can make a living.

Using modifiers to sell a book make people doubt whatever you’re saying. "Beautiful” or “ugly”, “smart” or “silly”, “forceful” or “feeble” are all adjectives that apply widely and mislead wildly. Opinions, and nothing more.

Nouns are a bit clearer: trigger words like “duke” or “damsel”, “vampire” or “virago” paint a clearer picture… except for one problem: nouns don’t DO anything. They just sit there like cold, unwashed potatoes waiting for something to flavor them and make something delicious out of them. Sure nouns may look fun and feel solid, but no one reads a book to watch a bunch of inert subjects and objects sit around static for 330 pages. Nouns rely on assumptions, which are inherently flawed, biased, and limiting.

Every genre, every subgenre, every trope, every hook comes down to the VERBS which define it.

Calling a book romantic suspense or erotic romance or sweet contemporary is a promise to the audience predicated on certain actions and tactics (aka verbs). Rakes need to be redeemed and treasures treasured, second chances require characters who risk and trust and forgive, secret babies need to be born, hidden, and claimed. The verbs you use telegraph what readers should expect and do all the work to deliver on that promise. They offer a verbal contract with the interested professionals and relevant fandom.

Audiences read for the actions. Romances need things to delight and to damn, ravish and swoon, embrace and excoriate. Stories, relationships, and complications arise from those specific verbs. Characters in a romance DO things all the time, and those actions are what make the story a romance.  With subgenres that goes double: subgenres are defined by the gradations of action which flavor the proceedings. Action creates character and plot and heat level and setting and genre and everything else that makes people want to know what happens next.

How can you convince readers to take a chance on your work and guarantee the emotional ride? How do you pitch to industry professionals or create advertising worth its salt? By highlighting the kinds of action that attract those audiences.

Action is all. Use your verbs!

That goes for telling a story and selling the story. When writing marketing copy advertisers and copywriters learn to exploit verbs every change they get. Verbs are clear, dramatic, and potent. Essentially all branding, all marketing, all promo comes down to clear communication of actions which appeal to the right set of readers.

And so I challenge you to get specific: what are the verbs that will sell your story to its ideal audience?

There’s a reason that keywords are so critical, online and on back covers. Keywords help filter the thousands of books readers don’t want in favor of the handful they do. Fans are constantly scanning for the right actions that indicate this book will take us on the emotional ride they need at the moment. The verbs make the choice, for them and for us.

Think about how you shop for books. You…

  • head to a certain genre or subgenre (which features certain actions)

  • consider the cover (which depicts or implies actions)

  • read the blurb (which relates actions and consequent re-actions)

  • ask friends (who relate the memorable actions)

  • check out the sample (which shows literal character actions)

  • read reviews (which assess actions in genre context)

Actions are what make you buy the book: the verbs. Moreover, I can guarantee that certain actions are dealbreakers for you. Maybe you don’t like to read about abuse or grief; “abuse” is a verb, “grieve” is a verb. Actions also tell readers what not to buy. Verbs are fan bait and bane, so make certain you know what you’re trying to say and to whom. The right verbs can muster a devoted army for your voice and ward off the trolls and saboteurs. The wrong verbs leaves readers feeling cheated and annoyed with you. And words don’t cost a thing. You’re a writer! All you have to do is find the right verbs and use them to make things happen.

One of the simplest ways to determine what your fans seek? Go to the source. Learn what attracts and repels, fascinates and bores your specific audience. They tell you constantly what they want, what moves them, what irks them, what catches their eye or bores them silly. Caveat scriptor: make certain you look to the actions, though. Don’t get distracted by the nouns and modifiers (as most people are) in reader praise and complaints. Look for active, transitive verbs which recur in their comments and opinions. The verbs are the real mojo you need to tap.

As an exercise: choose an author or a subgenre you feel sits close to you on the virtual shelf and choose three target titles. Maybe their tone or the setting is similar. Maybe the heat level or the pacing creates the same vibe and payoff. Or maybe you just admire and gravitate to that corner of the market. The simplest way to pinpoint the overlaps and telegraph that to readers is to excavate the relevant verbs.

  • Harvest the fan-bait actions from blurbs and quotes on the targeted books.

  • Hunt down fan language about the targeted books in reviews and online discussions with the most devoted audience members.

  • Study and dissect the target books for the literal verbs used to create moments of dramatic import and emotional impact.

At core what you are doing is analyzing your niche at the atomic level. You aren’t “borrowing” tropes or plots. You’re literally looking at the core words that accomplish most and resonate most. Learn to spot what your readers seek; they tell you, over and over.

If you want to get a bit technical, when analyzing your sources, make a big list of the verbs used in a piece of text and dump them into an online word cloud generator to see which pack the biggest punch with this specific audience. Happily, word cloud generators focus on recurrence to quickly show which words carry the most weight by rendering them literally BIGGER, incredibly useful when analyzing language for marketing copy. It will show you the trigger words and teach you how to squeeze.

I just did this word cloud exercise while studying separate genres and tropes to write Activate and the results gobsmacked me. In fact the word clouds inspired a wacky trope class I’m teaching at the RWA conference in NYC. While compiling all that verbal data, I learned what I write, how genres and promo have evolved, what packs the biggest punches, what different groups of my fans gravitated toward, and where possible audience expansions might be hiding… like a secret SEO for reader’s cravings, editor expectations,  and my muse besides. I discovered what makes heroes heroic, why some settings linger in the mind, and how bestselling titles hit their targets. The words told me the whole story. Win-win-win.

Verbs tell us everything we need to know.

Hell, I’m a writer. I get to use those words on the fly as I need them. They work inside and outside the story. They are simultaneously a Hogwart’s invitation, Wonka’s Golden Ticket, the Stick of Destiny, the secret sauce, the microfilm, the family jewels, the glass slipper, divine fire, and the One Ring…with no Dark Lord to worry about. Magic at your fingertips, pulsing with possibility which you already know how to use.

When chatting about category romance in January, the inestimably delightful Caro Carson described my wacky verbalization process as “looking through the Matrix” at any given story. By eschewing surfaces and digging right down to the actions, writers learn to see past the obvious bits and bobs to the energy pulsing underneath, which allows us to shape story more consciously and attract the readers who have been hunting for us all along. Using the right verbs just boosts our signal above the ever-increasing noise.

The best part about individual verbs: you cannot plagiarize them. Different writers will learn different lessons and take different advice from digging around in those active verbs. Study them with colleagues and you’ll reach different conclusions. And the minute you use those verbs, your voice makes them yours. They are the atoms from which writers build worlds. Reading and studying marketing copy, reviews, or even titles is a way to extract the energy that appeals to you without lifting the prose itself. In truth, studying actions and their verbs is how you can most easily avoid inadvertently borrowing from anyone else. Use the verbs, and you transform them.

Even better, this is the exact work agents and editors need you to do when they’re acquiring titles. The way you will pitch and sell a traditionally-published project is by pinpointing the fascinating actions that editors and agents know they can craft into something market ready. When industry pros talk about hooks and high concept they are speaking to the kinds of unforgettable actions that drive bestsellers.

So what are the actions that best describe and sell your current project? What if you have no idea? Spoiler alert: you do. You wrote it. There are verbs on every page.

  • Extract the active transitive verbs you use in the book. That’s invaluable information and a craft lesson to boot.

  • Reify the blurb, synopsis, reviews, and more to see what folks say (or should) about the book

  • Eyeball your bookshelf neighbors (and heroes) to see what necessary actions should be part for the course.

  • Identify your weakest and worst habits…the places where the language gets vague, passive, or redundant. Perfect as you can.

Then get specific: what verbs recur? What behavior dominates the verbal wordcloud? What actions could you focus or amplify? Make certain you can and will honor the verbal contract you have made with the reader. Telegraph those targeted actions in your swag, your messaging, and the kinds of events you host. Connect those dots for readers and industry pros.

That active, dynamic verbal palette tells you were you need to go in your promotion: the images you should foreground, the moments that need depiction, the core emotions fans crave. Follow the map your verbs draw for you. And if it leads you I the wrong direction, use your words to get your book and its promotional efforts on the right track.

Use those verbs to make decisions about the cons you attend, the imprints you court, the titles you self-pub, the swag you generate, and the ads you buy. Look for alignment between your primary verbs and the verbs of other outlets so you can make savvier decisions and waste less time on dead ends and dead horses. Make that verbal contract in all your promo and then keep your promise…and then some.

But wait! There’s more! As you stretch your own language, as you negotiate fandom expectations and publisher requirements, your books will improve, your stories will evolve. Of course they will, because your own vocabulary will grow and ripen, mature and evolve. Your magical powers as a writer will expand until your books don’t just change your fans, they can change the world, one word at a time.

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

Copyright 2019. 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.