Sensual Romance Part 1

>> Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Though sensuality can be used effectively for all kinds of things (suspense, action, grief, relief, etc), there's a reason why it's often thought of in conjunction with love and sex (not necessarily in that order). Romances, sneered at by much of the literary world, are routinely bestsellers (at least the better ones). That's not a fluke.

Writing sensuality well can bring a book or character to life. Combine it with an element of romance effectively portrayed, the reader can fall in love. And that's not limited to romance novels. I probably have 300-400 books on my "favorite, read over and over" shelves in my bedroom. I can probably count on my fingers (if not one hand) how many are completely devoid of romantic elements (note, in some cases, there are books in a series where several aren't romantic while the overall series has a strong element of romance). These are the books I pull down and read over and over, books I fell in love with years ago and still read with fresh eyes at almost every opportunity. There are historical novels (Clavell, Michener, Stewart), classics (Dumas, Brontë, Austin, Hugo), mystery (Sayers, Robb), action/thriller (Ludlum, King), tons of science fiction and fantasy and, yes, romance (Roberts, Heyer). It should be noted that, for those authors I'm passionate about, there are similar rabid fans out there as well. (That's not even counting the manga; ALL of my manga have strong streaks of romance).

Romance, in fact, makes a fine pairing with books that have other strong emotional elements, like thrillers or horror, action-heavy novels, science fiction/fantasy (given that interracial/intercultural elements are often best portrayed through romance) or dramatic fiction (depending on the topic). Thrillers, in particular, do well with romance because there is something particularly compelling about people in fear for someone else as opposed to merely concerned about their own safety. Ditto for people putting themselves in harm's way for love of someone else. Swashbuckling rescuing types never entirely go out of style, though venue and gender can vary a great deal more than it used to. People like to identify with people they can admire and it's a great deal easier to admire someone striving to save someone else, than someone cowering in fear for him or herself (even if that fear is completely justified). Romance readily provides a motive acceptable to most. Fighting might be cool; fighting for somethingor someone is compelling.

My point is that, just because you're not writing romances, doesn't mean you can't take advantage of the sensuality+romance power. I don't think it's a coincidence that James Cameron (director of the far and away most financially successful movies world-wide) almost always injects a key romantic element, even in such hard-core stories like Terminator. I'm not saying that's the only reason he's successful (not hardly), but I think he thinks he believes in romance on his resume (if not his marriage record).

Which doesn't mean a writer has to have it. I do, but clearly I like romance (even if I'm not a fan of most romance novels). What I'm saying is that romance can be a compelling part of any kind of novel. But, as was the case for sensuality and romance as stand alone elements, skill is required to use it effectively. Clumsy "sensual romance" is about as appealing as homemade pudding you find in your fridge six months later. Which is why I don't read most romance novels. Ironic, no?

True, not everyone is as picky as I am, but on this blog, it's all about my efforts to write the best I can write and my personal guidelines (that other writers might or might not like). Half-assed or ineffective sensual romance doesn't interest me in the slightest. That means, when I talk romance, I'm talking about my own view on what romance is (described here) so you might have to adapt it to your own view on romance if you want to use my advice.

More next time...


Sensuality and Romance: Part Four

>> Thursday, July 21, 2011

So. let's say you get the concept (I'm sure you do) that sensuality is all about pulling on the senses and tugging reactions from the characters. While it's not just about sex, it is about passion, being involved emotionally and physically in what is going on.

My "sensual" scene last time, as you probably noted, was not about sex or romance in any way, and you can inject a great deal of sensuality in any kind of literature without having to have a love interest or even a sexual partner. Scenes, for example, like where Sully is exploring the surface of Pandora, facing off against the bulky herbivore and then the clearly carnivorous panther analog lend themselves well to sense description and emotional reactions. Those are scenes that lend themselves well to sensuality, sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. Hearts race, fear engulfs or minds wonder.

A scene like that is far more effective when given the immediacy that sensuality can provide. In fact any scene where the character in question is struggling with the extremes of emotion can generally be served well with a dose of sensuality: the pain of being left broken after a beating, and the hatred or determination that's required to get back up and face your attacker, the sense of wonder as a small child greets the tiny creature his parents tell him is his new sister, the heartbreak when our hero breaks in only to find he's too late as he picks up the shattered body of his wife. Sensuality breathes life into scenes like this and can brand them indelibly on a reader's mind, quickening heartbeats, inducing tears. Really, isn't that a little bit why we all do this?

Of course, you can certainly use it for simple no-strings physical pleasure, too. Yes, sex. Nothing wrong with doing so, and any number of authors have characters that wend their way through their worlds enjoying the sins of the flesh without getting bogged down in anything so ridiculous as romance. But, be careful. Sensuality is partly about reaction, and sex where you don't feel much beyond the physical is going to be less powerful, in many ways, than sex where your emotions are more fully engaged (which is true in life, too, if my history is any example, but I digress). And you can rapidly lose sympathy with a character unless everyone involved leaves pretty much heart-whole. Start breaking the hearts of innocent maidens with your conquests and, pretty soon, you look like a schmuck (unless, of course, that's the kind of anti-hero you're going for). In any case, when using sensuality in this way, don't forget that you need multiple senses brought in and some form of reaction from your character in order to get the most impact.

A few other thoughts on sensuality in general (romance notwithstanding). While sensuality does great things for pivotal or powerful scenes and a little sensory description is good almost everywhere, try not to go too overboard with your sensuality for every scene. Two reasons for this recommendation:

(1) If every scene has our hero/heroine brought to the extremes of emotion, conflicted or anguished by emotion, the scenes start to all sound the same. I should not be as worked up over running out of toothpaste as I am that my daughter has run off with her boyfriend (whether he has piercings in his tongue or not). By making all the scenes emotionally charged, I take some of the power from the scenes where I need to make an impression, want to really feel a change is in works. Use the power of emotion and senses on those scenes that mean the most to the rest of the story, so that they are not diluted.

(2) Sensuality, done well, stops or slows action. If I'm spending a lot of time talking about what I'm seeing/hearing/tasting/smelling/feeling and my reaction to it, I'm not really doing much. Which doesn't mean you can't tie it with action, but you want to limit it to between action steps and not get carried away with three pages of descriptive ecstasy and two paragraphs of actual movement.

A light touch (lighter than I used yesterday) and a little judgement can do wonders for making the most of the senses, without slowing the story down or diffusing its power.

And, yes, I will eventually be putting sensuality and romance together.


Sensuality and Romance: Part Three

>> Sunday, July 17, 2011

I changed the title for those of you who were confused by the French. Also, warning, I'm going to talk about sex. Perhaps graphically. (No, RM, I don't know what I'm going to write here any more than I preplan what I'm writing when I do fiction).

I said one could do love, even deeply moving passionate romantic-type love, without expressing the sensuality inherent to that type of thing...but it was challenging to do so effectively.

Expressing sensuality without the romantic aspects is easy-peasy; however, in a way the same goes. Anyone can write about passion. Not everyone does it well. Not by a long shot.

One key reason for that, and the reason I chose sensuality in the title rather than passion, is that the descriptions of passion are frequently short on sensual description, which is fatal. Sensuality is all about titillating the senses, not just sight, but sound, touch, smell and taste as well. More than that, it's the reaction to those senses, what one feels. It's easy to lose sight of that, but sensuality is more than just sex, though it's frequently what comes to mind. It's the steeping of senses and the resulting emotions and actions.

For instance, for that picture that started all this, the story I wrote wasn't particularly sensual. If I'd wanted to focus on the sensuality of the picture, I could have limited myself to describing what was going on in the picture in terms of senses and emotions with no back story.

Pain pulsed through Lawrence as his finger ached to pull the trigger, kill the monster once and for all. Kilee was a demon, his sworn enemy. Untrustworthy, evil, bringing only devastation in his wake. Proof of that was the blood Lawrence shed in answer to Kilee's sharpened nails, warm sticky blood that stained his demon-hunter uniform. The radiating pain for those scores both tore at away at Lawrence's decency, demanding that he kill in response, and stayed his hand. As it was, Lawrence had already lost too much blood, could feel it pooling and cooling on his chest, could feel his heartbeat growing sluggish, starved of blood. His head swam and his hand shook, as his life flooded his front in a crimson wave, mocking him with its coppery smell. Death was inevitable. Unless.

He had enough strength left, physically, he could kill the demon who had deliberately killed him. Lawrence had Kilee where he wanted, in his grasp, his gun aimed at Kilee's head to kill him once and for all. But Kilee could say the same. Even with a gun to his head, Kilee knew Lawrence could hardly kill him when Kilee had the means for saving him. Kilee had cut his own throat and let his blood, the sweet verdant blood of the demons, trickle free to tempt Lawrence, an elixir that would heal Lawrence for this and all future ills. The smell of Kilee's blood overpowered the salty scent of his own blood with its seductive fragrance, the blood a drug so that Lawrence could not pull the trigger and kill this demons once and for all.

Kilee knew, of course, and there was no fear for himself when he spoke, "You need only one sip."

"Never," Lawrence gasped, his slowing heart beat echoing in his ears. His own voice sounded weak and distant.

Kilee laughed and touched his finger to his own blood. "Liar," he said. He touched the bloody finger to Lawrence's lips. Lawrence shuddered, not in disgust so much as ecstasy as he tasted the ambrosia of demon blood. The next instant, his mouth was pressed desperately against Kilee's throat, drinking deeply of that most hated blood, tasting its savory sweetness fill his mouth, hearing himself gulp it greedily, feeling it's healing warmth relieve his heart's burden and bring warmth to his cooling extremities. His fogging mind took on a sharp clarity it had never before known.

Pulling the trigger now would accomplish nothing. Kilee had already won, making Lawrence a demon with the sacrifice of Kilee's own blood. Kilee had proven his point as Lawrence had saved his own life at the expense of his soul.

No bullet would ever change that.

(Yes, I know there's story in that, too. Can't help it, as I explained at the time). Even without understanding the ins and outs of the characters or the real aspect of demons, this is a very powerful scene. Sensual description changes a pivotal occurrence into an an event that stirs emotions and drag the reader into picture. Describing it plainly wouldn't change the actual significance to the story, but it would not be as compelling or powerful without feeling Lawrence's pain and conflict. It makes the characters stronger, more sympathetic, more powerful. It helps weave that magic that lets a reader lose themselves in another world.

Compare that to something like this:

He needed the money she held in her hand. Somewhere, his wife coughed away, caught by the horrific disease that killed within days. The cure, quick and effective, was available only to those with money, money like this woman was offering so casually.

"What do you want from me?"

She licked her lips. "You know what I want." Yeah, he did. A woman looks like this, she wants a man in her. If he hadn't known, her fingers at her buttons, removing her shirt would have told him.

It's not like she wasn't beautiful. Her eyes might be hard, but her body was as curvy and appealing as only money could buy. When she unfastened her belt and let her pants slip down to the ground, he could see her ass was just as round and perfect, the kind of body that made a man's mouth water. Of course he wanted her. Who wouldn't?

He cleared his throat, but didn't move his eyes from her body. "I'm married."

"So am I. I'm not asking for a wedding ring, loverboy. I just want a little of your body temporarily."

His body was responding, his fingers already pulling at his clothes. "I'm not a gigolo."

"Sure you're not," she purred as she slid her body next to him, and kissed his neck. "Take me."

He said nothing more, just lifted her perfect body and buried himself in it, grunting as the passion over took him, blinding himself to anything and everything but this act. This woman. This feeling. This need.

When it was over, he felt drained, but not satisfied. "Thanks, loverboy," she offered, leaving the money on the counter where her ass had been seconds before. She was dressed and back to looking slick and perfect within minutes. "Feel free to leave the money if you don't really think you're a gigolo. We both know you wanted me, too."

His fingers scooped up the money as if she would change her mind. She just laughed as she left. He could save his wife now, he told himself. That was the important thing. But she'd never forgive him if she knew where he'd gotten the money, how he'd gotten it. She'd never believe he hadn't wanted to do it for his own sake.

And she'd be right.
Can you see the difference in that? How little power this pivotal event has comparatively? How much harder it is to sympathize with the man, even though, on the surface, his motivation is more noble. The act has far less power, not as much because it meant nothing, but because his involvement is ambiguous. We don't really see or feel the conflict. We're told he wanted her, but we don't feel it or get dragged in. It was actually really really hard to write that without putting in more sensuality and conflict. Writing that way is habit-forming, yet I've seen many key passages in published books as cold and flavorless as this...or worse.

I'll continue with sensuality without romance next time since this post is long enough. See you later.


Sensuality and L'Amour: Part Two

>> Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Shakespeare mentioned that she preferred sensuality to romance. Well, I'm not a big one for sensuality without romance, but I have to agree that romance without any sensuality generally doesn't do it for me either.

Love without any physicality, any contact, any sense of touch or scent or taste is, well, flavorless and bland unless the writer is very very good. Can it be done? Yes. Austen and Heyer, both writers I admire, even love, wrote about or during periods of time where discussing scent was probably a mistake and when touch was mostly taboo. Somehow, they managed to convey humor and affection, love, even passion, with dialog and with a few well-chosen descriptions (sight and sound).

But, it's a lot more work.

He sat down for a few moments, and then getting up, walked about the room. Elizabeth was surprised, but said not a word. After a silence of several minutes, he came towards her in an agitated manner, and thus began:

"In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."

"If you will thank me," he replied, "let it be for yourself alone. That the wish of giving happiness to you might add force to the other inducements which led me on, I shall not attempt to deny. But your family owe me nothing. Much as I respect them, I believe I thought only of you."

Elizabeth was too much embarrassed to say a word. After a short pause, her companion added, "You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever."

That's Pride and Prejudice and, I have to admit, especially taken out of context, it's hard to recreate the romance. Having said that, I know I'm not the only woman out there who still gets a thrill from the book, old-fashioned and chaste though it might be. If my imagination must provide the scenes left modestly out of the text, I am given characters and a sense of the emotional pull that drives them. For someone with an imagination like mine, that's enough.

But saying "XXX loves YYY" isn't enough, not even if you pull out your thesaurus and find a dozen synonyms for "love." Romance and non-romantic love has to be sold to the reader, demonstrated through word and deed. Can I tell you how to do it?

I can tell you how I do it, but not everyone sees love like I do. There are certain minimum parameters involved in love, in my mind, that include modicums of self-sacrifice, understanding, trust, protectiveness and friendliness. For romance, I usually add a measure of yearning, whether or not that desire is fulfilled.

That means that getting "it" is not more important than the happiness of the one you love. If "it" is, that's not my definition of romance. Oftimes, self-restraint is romantic. Love can mean protecting the one you love (and that's not gender specific to me). Love can mean being happy in each others company and dealing with your loved one as honestly as possible.

Nor is love limited to kisses and proposals. Love can mean doing things you'd never do for your own sake (up to and including protecting yourself). Love can mean believing something even when all the evidence argues against it. Love might be reflected in something as simple and meaningful as forgiveness or patience or gentleness.

That also means that love can be portrayed any number of ways quite effectively without contact like the hopeless empathy of the fictional Cyrano de Bergerac or the supreme sacrifice of Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities.

But that's how I see romance. If you want to inject romantic elements into your book, you have to decide what you see love as and make sure those elements are reflected in the work itself. Romance in a novel is one of those things that must be shown, not told, or it comes across as flat and colorless. Unless, of course, that's what you see love as. :)

Next time, sensuality without romance.


Sensuality and L'Amour: Part One

>> Friday, July 8, 2011

So, that was some picture last time, right? My daughter (16) who reads the same manga, brought it in to me saying, "You know, I'm not into guy on guy, but this is like the sexiest picture ever." I agreed, which is quite ironic given that the two men in the picture are not only not romantically involved but hate each other profoundly, largely because they both love the same woman. And both are in this picture, in this posture, as a direct result of that love. Zero (the one with the gun) so he wouldn't be driven mad and Kaname (getting slurped) because the woman he love cherishes Zero and he wants Zero beholden to himself so he can protect the girl when Kaname can't do it himself.

Now, why am I talking about this? Because it occurred to me that I hadn't talked much about sensuality and romantic love with regards to writing, and I think it's important. Not just because I'm a hopeless romantic (though, I am), but because this kind of relationship is a common one, not just in romance novels but every other genre as well. Even if the romance isn't central to the story or the primary protagonist(s), it's quite likely to factor as part of the motivation behind one or more other characters. When I talked about relationships earlier as part of the recipe for making a good story, this was one of the key kinds of relationships I was talking about.

I bring up the picture from last time to start the discussion by making you aware of the difference I see between sensuality and romance. The picture I pointed out was very sensual, obviously touching on more than one sense. Yes, yes, I know a picture is visual, but there was a sense of touch (wet blood), taste and smell (same wet blood, possibly gunpowder), movement and emotion. It would not take much to imagine the sounds. The picture was provocative (I presume deliberately so) and sexy.

What it wasn't (without knowing the back story) was romantic.

I bring this up because, far too often in my opinion, many novels don't make the distinction and trot out relationships that are filled to bursting with lust and sensual description but no depth beyond that. Sadly, a frightening larger percentage of these novels are labeled "romances" but I digress.

Now, I'm not against sensuality by any means. I love it. Nor do I think a book can't have sensuality without romance. But, as a writer, I think you should know the difference and understand what your characters have and why. Then write accordingly. Why? Because clumsy sensual scenes are far less objectionable if you have a real romance on your hands. People who are in love are frequently stupid or nonsensical. But, if your book is filled with sensuality, but no real love, you need to make sure you're doing your sensuality well. Cause crappy sensuality with no love is basically bad porn.

I mean, if you're going to write pornography, make it good at least. Sheesh.


Telling a Picture's Story

>> Friday, July 1, 2011

Some time back, Relax Max did an exercise on his blog where he took a picture and wrote a scene to describe it, as if you were putting that scene in a book. Naturally, I had to try my hand at that, too. At the time, I assured him, I'd return the favor when I'd found just the right picture.

Well, boys and girls, here's a winner from Vampire Knight by Matsuri Hino. And, hey, it doesn't even have dialog to get in the way. You don't have to assume vampires, of course, but then that will mean pushing the ol' imagination just a bit further. Me too, especially since I know the real characters. It's interesting enough I might talk about that on the next post since my daughter and I had a conversation about it. But first, the exercise (click for a bigger version of the picture)!

When Kadon opened his door to the pounding that sounded even over the wind, he was unsurprised to see someone so close to death. After all, with his home just outside the village walls, his was frequently the first place--the only place--a survivor could go. A glance told him this one had only moments yet to live. Blood stained his shirt, his hands, from a vicious slashes to the throat. Kadon shook his head and tried to close the door.

The man surprised him by wedging his body into the door before Kadon could close it. His body might be fading, but his spirit was strong. Oh well, those were the ones most likely to be attacked by the nightbeasts. It was miraculous he had made it this far. "Please," the man begged.

Kadon was not a sympathetic soul but felt something approaching pity. "There is nothing to be done. Your wounds are too grievous."

"We were attacked! The Queen--," That explained the uniform and the foolhardiness of anyone out in these woods at night. The Queen, famed for her sorcery, probably thought her magic could protect her against the nightbeasts. "You have to save her!" The smell of blood was overwhelming and sweet, familiar...appealing.

"She's hardly my problem," Kadon said, but left the door open so the man could stumble in. "I doubt there is naught left to save if any were foolish enough to try to do so." Kadon felt his voice grow cold. "She and her armies have all but eliminated the nightbeasts in every corner of the country save here. She was an idiot to think she could pass through their last remaining stronghold unscathed."

The man had fallen to his knees and Kadon unconsciously crouched in front of him to catch his rasping whisper. "No...choice."

Daynor! Kadon would have stood at that, but the man grabbed him by the shirt, his fancy pistol still in his bloodstained hands. "That's impossible," Kadon said. Kadon was no friend to the Queen, but anyone was better than the Black Viper of Westrim. Death Merchant. Soulstealer. The Queen had been brutal in suppressing those magical factions she deemed a threat, but at least those were clean deaths, not the unholy experiments Daynor favored, the tortures and torments he reveled in.

"No...time..." the man gasped, pulling on Kadon with his last bit of strength. ""

"I told you. It's too late for her unless she's in your pocket. It's even too late for you. If she was the sorceress she claimed to be, she should have found some way to escape."

"She...did..." the man breathed and, to Kadon's shock, latched his mouth to his neck, over the artery. At first, Kadon thought he meant to attack until he felt the cold shock of another soul entering his body, his mind, trying to subvert him as the man's body fell, lifeless, to the floor.

You, he accused. You will not take me over as easily as this man.

The unmistakable essence of the Queen laughed, though it was not a joyful sensation. Good. A weak man would not serve my purpose nor leave me any hope to regain my country.

You will not possess me.

Perhaps. I've a strong will, too. But you will not easily be quit of me either.

Kadon felt the truth of those words. But then, he knew something the Queen did not. You should have found a different host, Majesty. I am not an ordinary man.

With no effort, he transformed, shredding his bloody clothes with his massive new form: King Panther. Without a word, he began to feed on the warm flesh and last vestiges of spirit remaining in the Queen's henchman.

If he expected her horror, he waited in vain. She was so silent as he began his feast he wondered if she had, indeed, fled until she spoke at last with smug satisfaction.




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