“In this class, we’re going to explore the art of sensual writing,” said the professor in introduction. The setting was a lecture room at the University of Maryland Creative Writing Institute.
Great! thought the six students., of which I was one. He’s going to teach us how to write steamy sex scenes. It soon became evident that the professor had something altogether different in mind. First, he reminded us of the primary definition of “sensual:” Of the body or senses as distinguished from the intellect or spirit (Webster’s New World Dictionary). The senses--hearing, smelling, tasting, seeing and feeling. Then he described what he meant by “sensual writing.”
In our creative writing class, we learned to attempt to let our readers experience the situations we dreamed up rather than just reading about them. Our British friends have a wonderful expression for this, “Putting one in the picture.” Consider the following two approaches to a situation (from my latest novel, Hold Back the Sun). Fleeing from the invading Japanese, the protagonist is entering a hotel in Central Java seeking shelter.
Unadorned writing: Frank walked through the open door and went straight to the check-in desk. A large number of refugees crowded the lobby.
Sensual writing: When Frank walked through the door, his eyes took in a brightly lit, teeming lobby. He had to elbow his way through a throng of desperate Dutchmen, Brits, Australians, and Americans to reach the check-in desk. Although the high, coffered ceiling deadened some of the sound, their raucous chattering bombarded his ears. The rank odor of countless unwashed bodies brought the taste of bile to his throat.
I believe that the second example gives the reader a much better grasp of the setting. (I must caution that the paragraph isn’t precisely what is actually in the book. I modified it to include all of the senses). Most of those who have written reviews of my work on Amazon.com tend to agree with my approach. Many praised the descriptive nature of my writing. The few who have been more critical of my work disagree. They feel that the detail makes the story drag. At present, the ratio is about 7:1 in favor of descriptive detail.
I intend to continue, “putting my readers in the picture” to the best of my abilities. I’ll let my readers decide whether I’m on the right track by their purchases.
Note: Warren Bell's debut novel, Fall Eagle One, detailing a fictitious but plausible assassination attempt on FDR during World War II, (Semi-Finalist in the Kindle Indie Book Review Best Books of 2012) is available for Kindle or in paperback on Amazon.com. His newest novel, Hold Back the Sun, has been released for Kindle in advance of the printed book launch on October 25, 2013. This new historical-fiction thriller, set in the Pacific, follows the US Asiatic Fleet in their battle with the Japanese in WWII.