The Pleasures of Writing Promiscuously

by | August 26, 2013 | General | 10 comments

by Jean Roberta

Anyone who follows the careers of celebrity writers knows that the great American crime-writer Elmore Leonard passed away on August 20, 2013. Amidst the eulogies, his ten writing rules have been trotted forth:

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify “said.”
5. Keep your exclamation marks under control.
6. Never use “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great details describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Much as I would have liked Mr. Leonard to live past his eighties, the current media-storm of analyses of his writing style is timely for me. I am on schedule to teach a creative writing class for credit for the first time in September. Note that non-credit classes (such as the one I taught in the 1990s to senior citizens) are much different, more like hobbies; there are no grades and no pressure. This time, I will be expected to teach some useful techniques which might actually result in publishing contracts. Therefore I have been checking out “writing rules” of various kinds.

My senior colleague, experienced mystery-writer Gail Bowen (whose novels are all set in the town where we both live) has discussed Elmore Leonard’s rules with approval in Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail:

Well, yes and no. My students all had to audition for my class by submitting samples of their writing to me. I have definitely seen some “Hooptedoodle” in the form of self-conscious writing that strains to be witty or memorable. It would probably be good for all my students to have to follow Elmore Leonard’s rules while writing one assignment. Writers, like singers, can benefit from expanding their range.

It doesn’t surprise me that Elmore Leonard admired Ernest Hemingway, who apparently developed his famously terse style as a journalist, pounding out news articles on a manual typewriter in various war zones. (It should be noted, however, that journalists did not always write like Hemingway. Nineteenth-century newspapers often combined floridly-written news articles with fiction, and at first glance it can be hard to guess which is which.)

I have nothing against the school of Hemingway, Leonard, and their many followers. Showing action rather than describing people and scenes can be an effective way to develop character and a plot at the same time. If dialogue sounds true-to-life as well as expressive, “said” is the only verb that needs to be added.

However, there are other ways to write. Writing about sex, in particular, lends itself to description. (“They met, they fucked, they came” doesn’t work for me as a climactic passage.) Even Hemingway resorted to an extreme metaphor when “the earth moved” for his central characters. A precious, overwrought, bejewelled and archaic style can be great fun to write – and to read.

“Purple prose,” the sort of thing that Hemingway and Leonard aimed to stamp out, is now associated with the famous opening sentence of an 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton before Charles Dickens had become a household name. Note the way this passage violates Elmore Leonard’s Rule #1:

“It was a dark and stormy night, the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

This is not the sort of opening scene that appeals to a reader who wants to cut to the chase. In its way, however—like a lady of the evening in a corset and flounced petticoats–this long sentence is damn sexy. Notice what the author has accomplished, even before introducing a single human character. The reader is plunged into a sensuous experience, as though caught in a sudden downpour. The location has been identified. If even the housetops are “rattled,” the shelters that humans have built for themselves are clearly no match for the power of nature. And the struggling flames that fight against darkness suggest the brave fragility of human consciousness or life itself.

After this introduction, characters can be brought into an imaginary world that has already been set up. As a prologue or declaration of purpose, the opening sentence can be considered direct and concise, rather than too long. And every word contributes to the general effect.

I would like to give a “dark and stormy night” assignment, not as a joke (like the annual Bulwer-Lytton Award that offers prizes for the most extreme parodies of the famous sentence) but as an exercise in writing vivid description.

Writing “rules” can be useful in helping fledgling writers find the subjects, the styles, the genres and the philosophies that work best for them. Ultimately, however, good writing seems to me to be a matter of coherence and faithfulness to one`s own vision.

“Different strokes for different folks” is not only a snappy way to advocate acceptance of other people`s sexual tastes. It can describe a smorgasbord of different writing styles. Just as finding the best Significant Other can require kissing a few toads along the way, finding the best style for a particular piece is likely to involve a few failed experiments. And the journey can be more fun than reaching the destination.

Jean Roberta

Jean Roberta once promised her parents not to use their unusual family name for her queer and erotic writing, and thus was born her thin-disguise pen name. She teaches English and Creative Writing in a university on the Canadian prairies, where the vastness of land and sky encourage daydreaming. Jean immigrated to Canada from the United States as a teenager with her family. In her last year of high school, she won a major award in a national student writing contest. In 1988, a one-woman publisher in Montreal published a book of Jean’s lesbian stories, Secrets of the Invisible World. When the publisher went out of business, the book went out of print. In the same year, Jean attended the Third International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal, where she read a call-for-submissions for erotic lesbian stories. She wrote three, sent them off, and got a letter saying that all three were accepted. Then the publisher went out of business. In 1998, Jean and her partner acquired their first computer. Jean looked for writers’ groups and found the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, which was then two years old! She began writing erotica in every flavor she could think of (f/f, m/f, m/m, f/f/m, etc) and in various genres (realistic contemporary, fantasy, historical). Her stories have appeared in anthology series such as Best Lesbian Erotica (2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, Volume 1 in new series, 2016), Best Lesbian Romance (2014), and Best Women's Erotica (2000, 2003, 2005, 2006) from Cleis Press, as well as many others. Her single-author books include Obsession (Renaissance, Sizzler Editions), an erotic story collection, The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past (Lethe Press), and The Flight of the Black Swan: A Bawdy Novella (Lethe, also in audio). Fantasy stories by Jean include “Lunacy” in Journey to the Center of Desire (erotic stories based on the work of Jules Verne) from Circlet Press 2017, “Green Spectacles and Rosy Cheeks” (steampunk erotica) in Valves & Vixens 3 (House of Erotica, UK, 2016), and “Under the Sign of the Dragon” (story about the conception of King Arthur) in Nights of the Round Table: Arthurian Erotica (Circlet 2015). This story is now available from eXcessica ( Her horror story, “Roots,” first published in Monsters from Torquere Press, is now in the Treasure Gallery of the Erotic Readers and Writers Association. With Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman, she coedited Heiresses of Russ 2015 (Lethe), an annual anthology of the year’s best lesbian speculative fiction. Her realistic erotic novel, Prairie Gothic: A Tale of the Old Millennium, was published by Lethe in September 2021. Jean has written many reviews and blog posts. Her former columns include “Sex Is All Metaphors” (based on a line in a poem by Dylan Thomas) for the Erotic Readers and Writers Association, July 2008-November 2010. The 25 column pieces can still be found in the on-site archives and in an e-book from Coming Together, Jean married her long-term partner, Mirtha Rivera, on October 30, 2010. Links:


  1. Annabeth Leong

    Thanks for this! In general, there's a lot of confusion between "rules" and "style." It's really important to be able to access a lot of different styles, and to see the difference between violating rules of grammar (which can be done, but also threatens the reader's ability to parse a sentence), and using different styles (which may produce writing that appeals to different tastes, but does not constitute anything technically incorrect).

    As you say, it's a good assignment to try different styles to expand one's range. I always bristle, however, at the religious force with which members of the cult of Hemingway sometimes pronounce their rules. I'm sure that if another school were currently in fashion, of course, that their rules would be promulgated with equal vigor.

  2. Lisabet Sarai

    Hi, Jean,

    I was sorry to hear of Leonard's passing. As it happens, I just finished one of his books (Be Cool) a few days before his demise, and I was surprised to find myself unimpressed. On the other hand, the last thing I read by him – a collection of short stories whose name I can't recall – was brilliant.

    Anyway, I have always taken his rules with a grain of salt, especially since most of them just don't work for me personally (although I heartily agree with 7). Like you, I enjoy experimenting with different styles. Anyone who's interested in how extreme that can get should check out my paean to H.P. Lovecraft, "The Shadow Over Desmoines".


  3. Kathleen Bradean

    I agree that he and Hemingway would have made terrible erotica writers. They had no appreciation for lingering or sensualism.

  4. Jean Roberta

    Annabeth, Lisabet and Kathleen –

    Thank you for reading and commenting! And thank you especially for not claiming that the school of Leonard & Hemingway is the One True Faith. 🙂

  5. Donna

    Very thought-provoking post! I've certainly internalized Leonard's rules, although I've broken several with no lasting damage to my career, such that it is! And yet, for any reader who wants more than just a snappy plot, images like "fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness" are so magical. Just love to stop and visualize those flickering lamps struggling against dark powers. That is indeed why I read. So indeed as I was trying to follow the rules, especially when I was younger, I was realizing that a lot of the beauty is sacrificed, which is perhaps what Hemingway was speaking of when he counseled us to "kill our darlings." However, I also don't believe we should incise anything beautiful just because it is beautiful either.

    This also got me thinking about the "value" of a "serious" writing class. One of the most memorable parts of Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird is one of the opening scenes where she's trying to share her hard-earned wisdom about the writing process, but her students keep raising their hands to ask how they can find an agent. Teaching people the tricks for getting published and inspiring them to write something worth reading can be very different things!

    Still, it will surely be a great experience for you and your students.

  6. Rachel Green

    I rather like his rules. I generally try to be sparing with description, in the hope that readers form their own images of the characters and places I refer to.

  7. Jean Roberta

    Thanks, all!
    I'm not sure that long-winded, voluptuous descriptions will ever come back into style because they slow down the action. In the Victorian Age, there weren't many other sources of entertainment to compete with the reading of door-stop novels. If any of my students want to write this way, though, I won't necessarily punish them with low marks. If they want to know how to become rich and famouos, I will have to point out that if I knew, I probably wouldn't be their writing instructor. 🙁

  8. The Moose

    I suppose there is some need for some writers and teachers of writing to list rules. First I recall reading were those of SS Van Dyne, a millenia back. You might check them if you're interested. I suggest it is not too much to say that one writes with brain and feelings, the latter as is in "what feels good to you" or does it fit your mood. The caution is of course that over the time one spends in writing your thoughts and mood changes, ergo we edit.

    Having said all that, I feel far more comfortable suggesting authors or titles that I believe express my views of good writing. Hammett becomes a template of a kind that I then follow or not as my writing progresses.

    I would not trust Hemingway, not because he is a bad writer, far from it, but rather because of he practice and his "world." He needed code in his day. Why else would The Sun Also Rises be written as it was. Impotency is no longer "verboten" either as a subject or expression. He then labored over words endlessly. Satisfied with his result? Fine. Wonder what the old man really thought.

    Would I suggest A Woman in White as a template? No. Would I suggest it as a novel to be read? You betcha.

    The one rule I believe all writers must at least be aware of whether they comply or not (see James Joyce or Gertrude Stein) is clarity. That is your job I think. Put another way, learned the hard way in law school, a fuzzy mind will lead to fuzzy expression. Think clearly and you have a chance to write clearly. And have a fearless editor at hand, that person of course is not you.

  9. Anonymous

    Elmore Leonard's writing rules demonstrate why I never had the desire to read an Elmore Leonard novel. Fuck him and the horse he rode out on.

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