21 things no one tells you about becoming a writer

PEM-NAE-00023 Næsvold Garveri i Tromsø

A writer in its natural habitat. Photo by Naesvold Garveri

“Catching the muse”; “Doing an Ernest”; “Shooting the black stuff”; “Clobbering the pencil”; whatever you want to call it, the decision to chuck in your job security, risking debt, isolation and insanity in favour of a career as a writer is undoubtedly a momentous one. But being prepared for what awaits you on your writing journey is vital as you pursue that first publishing contract. So here are just a few of the things you need to know as you set out on your journey.


  1. You no longer use pens: you use The Porlington Pontiff.


  1. All the important scenes in your books take place on hot air balloons.



Why would you even consider setting your scene anywhere else? Photo by Jaybee Bondoc

  1. The thought of wearing a waistcoat fills you with unbearable excitement.


  1. You use poems instead of more traditional methods of currency


  1. The majority of your stories involve men gradually transforming into smartphone cases


  1. You discover the real name for a duck is actually a cazoogle


  1. When you run out of paper, you’ll be surprised at how often you end up writing on significant others, strangers on the street, and family pets.


  1. Your favoured item of clothing attire quickly becomes the Lucifer Thigh Throttler


  1. You’ll complete your first novel in less than thirty minutes, and spend the next twenty four years working out what to do with it.


  1. Books need watering, like plants. But you must never feed them in the afternoon.


  1. Nothing gets the creative juices going like hanging upside down like a bat, slapping yourself on the cheeks shouting “No, no, no, no, no!”


  1. Every coffee stain has a poet in it. They’re just really small and they all look like Sylvia Plath.


  1. As a writer, you no longer drink water: you’re only able to drink a long-forgotten Scotch Whiskey known as Blackbeard’s Watercloset.


  1. Most of the characters you write about will come alive at some point. The majority of them are fabulously rude and only eat oysters. The best thing to do is ignore them: they will go away eventually and become rejected contestants for The Voice and Britain’s Got Talent.


  1. The only way to cure writer’s block is by making a human pyramid with at least seven world leaders.


  1. You’ll receive a call from your favourite author, who will tell you the secret ingredient in Quorn meatballs.


  1. In order to find a literary agent you must perform a mystical ritual. This means purchasing an Apple Macbook, visiting a chain coffee store (preferably owned by a company that doesn’t pay tax), and drinking a mocchalattecino while reciting the 5th Amendment of the American Constitution. You must also be wearing your best pair of Seamen’s Curtains.


  1. When it comes to choosing what laptop to buy, the bigger the better.


  1. On your third night as a writer, William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe will visit you in your dreams. You must choose to make out passionately with one of them. Choose wisely.


  1. Writing Flash Fiction really is as easy as writing the word “flash” over and over again until your word count reaches 500.


  1. Strangers will always be offering you free vegetables.

Get ready to see a lot more of these. Photo via Flickr


10 Writing commandments from Jonathan Franzen


In 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, The Guardian asked authors for their personal lists of dos and don’ts. We’ve gone through the whole list and, week by week, will be bringing you the timeless counsel of the great writers of the 20th and 21stcenturies.

You’ve already had some practical advice from Margaret Atwood, who advised us that writers “most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality.” Meanwhile, Zadie Smith gave us timeless writing rules, reminding us to “Avoid cliques, gangs, groups: the presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.” And of course, who could forget Neil Gaiman’s deceptively-simple sounding tips, including: “Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.”

Now, it’s our turn to treat you to this fabulous set of writing rules from Jonathan Franzen. Enjoy!

  1. The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.
  2. Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.
  3. Never use the word “then” as a ­conjunction – we have “and” for this purpose. Substituting “then” is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many “ands” on the page.
  4. Write in the third person unless a ­really distinctive first-person voice ­offers itself irresistibly.
  5. When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.
  6. The most purely autobiographical ­fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more auto­biographical story than “The Meta­morphosis”.
  7. You see more sitting still than chasing after.
  8. It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.
  9. Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.
  10. You have to love before you can be relentless.


For more excellent wisdom on writing, consider the writing tips from author and creative writing lecturer Julia Bell; and complement that with some priceless advice from the brilliant poet, Rishi Dastidar, alongside our compendium of writing advice from some of the greatest authors.

Alternatively, you could get all this and more by signing up to our free, weekly newsletter for everything interesting. Join the gang!   


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Comics: Storytelling with integrity, and the vampirism of other media


I love you this much josh spiller

An extract from my own ‘I Love You Thi$ Much’, a comic that no one has yet compared to ‘Watchmen’ or ‘The Dark Knight Returns’. You can check out more of my stories at joshspillercomics.tumblr.com 

It’s an undeniable fact – comics have never saturated culture more.

From the endless plethora of superhero blockbusters, to TV hits like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, to the slew of related videogames and cartoon series, it feels like the vast bulk of modern entertainment is either superhero-dominated, or at least superhero-inflected.

But within this boom, there is a surprising paradox: monthly comic-book sales – you know, the ones with all the superheroes in – are at pretty much their lowest ebb of all time.

For instance, according to these figures, the third highest-selling comic book of February 2016, in North America, was Batman, which shifted 102,689 copies. So what percentage of Americans bought this comic? Well, according to Google, the population of America is roughly 318.9 million.

So, if we do 102,689 ÷ 318,900,000 x 100, we should get the percentage we’re looking for. Which is… a paltry 0.03%.

To put that into context: in the 1940s, many individual comics sold over a million copies apiece. And even by the 1980s, a title on the verge of cancellation, like the pre-Alan Moore Swamp Thing, could still sell 20,000 copies per month, enough to almost be included in February 2016’s top 100-selling comics.

(For a far more detailed, accurate, and all-round better analysis of the trajectory of comic book sales over the past seventy years than I can provide, click here.)

So what’s going on? Why does there seem to be an inverse relationship between comics’ cultural profile, and their physical sales? Why aren’t individual titles selling anywhere near as well as, presumably, they should be?

Firstly, I don’t think it’s the fault of readers. You have to earn your readership. So instead, let’s consider the storytelling – and the mindset behind that storytelling – that they’re being offered.

Let’s talk revisionism

If one thing characterises modern, mainstream superhero comics, it’s revisionism. Continuities are constantly being rewritten. Titles relaunched, with a brand-spanking new ‘Issue 1’, and the promise that things will be radically different, more exciting, and better than ever.

The problem with these revisions is everything they wipe away. For all the readers that might be freshly drawn to the title, all of those who have loyally followed it for years are suddenly told: “Umm, you know all that stuff you’ve spent your time and money on? Well, none of that counts anymore. Enjoy!”

Such revisionism is applied, as you would expect, almost solely to titles with a lot of historical baggage – a.k.a the top-selling superhero books. It’s a narrative quirk, so far as I can think of, which is pretty much unique to comics. Here, a single series – such as Batman or Superman – can run continually for seventy years, with creators constantly needing to find new ways to keep readers hooked. No wonder they sometimes resort to drastic extremes.

But the moment you invalidate the history of a continuing series, you begin stripping the joy or meaning out of any long-term commitment to it; chipping away at your own edifice, and, frequently, sliding towards a regurgitation your own mythology. I mean, has any story ever justified the pressing of a reset button?

Do this, and your storytelling loses some of its integrity. The readers’ trust wanes. That’s basically inevitable.

The fact that this failing besets the very comics that  once ruled the sales charts, may help explain why the top-selling comics now only sell tens of thousands of copies, as opposed to hundreds of thousands.

The problem with “big event” storylines

Alongside revisionism, mainstream superhero comics also suffer from, in my opinion, one other major deficiency: a feverish obsession with big-event storylines. Every summer, both Marvel (Spider-Man, Hulk, Avengers, etc.) and DC (Superman, Batman, Aquaman, etc.) deliver massive, cataclysmic storylines that embroil the vast bulk of their titles, and which basically declare, year after year after year, that Nothing Will Be The Same Again.

As you can imagine, it all gets a bit wearing and pointless. If the status quo is always being shaken up, is there really a status quo to shake up? (Welcome to Zen Comic Teachings 101.) Or is it an unavoidable case of diminishing returns, where each “ground-breaking” event means less and less than the one before?

Pointing this stuff out is nothing new. Countless comic readers, afflicted with “big-event fatigue”, complain about it all the time.

What’s worth mentioning is that the stories which have actually changed these comic characters, their universes, and the very medium itself, haven’t been crossovers or needed a ton of hype. Instead, when Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns got the wider world paying attention to,  and enthusing over,  comics, it was mainly through sheer critical acclaim and word-of-mouth buzz. Thirty years later, these stories are still selling phenomenally well.

These weren’t grand-event narratives screaming for your time and money. They were self-contained, experimental stories, told with passion and integrity. They weren’t built to change the medium; and yet, perhaps even to the surprise of their creators, they were the ones that did.

So forget the short-term sales spikes that big-event narratives can bring. Just focus on telling a dope story. Or, to put it another way: ply crisis upon crisis to your books, and your sales could soon be in one.

To be clear: this is not to say that no good or great work is done in mainstream comics. It’s simply highlighting a broad phenomenology that seems to be leading to their decline.

The issues we’ve looked at so far – revisionism and big-event storylines – are both matters regarding storytelling integrity. They are problems internal to the medium, and thus are (relatively easily) fixable.

What’s much trickier are the external factors.

The wider worldview

Comics, in their physical monthly format, seem to have been hit hard by almost every other medium. Want your superhero fix? Movies, TV and videogames can take care of that. Fancy reading this month’s latest comics? Don’t go down to the shops. Simply download them from Comixology (owned by Amazon) to your computer.

Even graphic novels – simply monthly comics collected into a book-like form – have eaten up some of comics’ old market share. For instance, while February 2016’s comic book sales were down 7% on February 2015’s, graphic novel sales were up 12% over the same period. This isn’t surprising. Graphic novels tend to be cheaper than the individual comics they collect; have no adverts; and can be binge read (Netflix-style).

Plus, unlike monthly comics (which you can read for years, only to have much of what you enjoyed eliminated from continuity) graphic novels essentially have a beginning, middle, and end. You’re not likely to have your story undermined partway through reading it. Therefore, there’s an integrity to their form, and this perhaps gives them an advantage over monthly comics.

All of this, I hope, helps to explain why, in the age of the superhero boom, the medium that birthed them is going through something of a superhero bust.

Nevertheless, within this flux that the industry is experiencing, there are fascinating shoots of green growth – growth wholly contingent upon 21st-century culture.

The crowdfunding community (on websites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo) seems to be remarkably generous, enabling numerous independent, company-less creators to realise their projects.

In fact, it’s been such a success that established comic companies are now also beginning to utilise these platforms. In February this year, for instance, comic company Avatar posted a campaign on Kickstarter to raise money for a new black-and-white anthology that would feature some of the best talent, scriptorial and artistic, in the business. In 14 days, it was ridiculously over-crowdfunded to the tune of 1,000%+ its initial target, drumming up a total of $110,333.

Clearly, there’s a lot of good will out there for backing new comics, both from obscure, amateur creators, as well as from the industry’s hoary heavyweights. None of this would have been possible even a decade ago.

Moreover, on a general level, spending is like voting. Whatever you spend your money on, you’ve voted for there to be more of that thing in the world, whether it’s vegetarian food in the supermarket, action films, or electric cars. And broadly speaking (although there are many caveats), in a capitalist society, you get the world you spend/vote for. So perhaps these crowdfunded comics signal the way things are going.

Personally, I’d hate to guess. Look at Marvel – they filed for bankruptcy in 1996. Flash-forward twenty years, and they’re a corporate juggernaut. Who would’ve predicted that?

But whatever happens, hopefully this article offers a snapshot of where comics are at today… where they might be heading… and spotlights a couple of key flaws that, to bring readers back into the fold, the monthly medium urgently needs to address.

(N.B. I’m not a comic retailer, and this article is largely based upon anecdotal evidence and online research. So if there are any false facts, glaring gaps of knowledge, or cack-handed misprisions on my part, then, as ever, corrections are welcome. Well, not welcome exactly – they’ll really undermine my authority – but I’ll be happy to post them below.)

About the author

FullSizeRenderJosh Spiller is a published writer of comics, short stories, and scripts, and is currently looking for representation for his first novel. He’s also interacted with the “real world” by reviewing restaurants and theatre pieces for Flux Magazine and The London Word, and is worried that this bio is too self-centred. You can judge his work here, joshspillercomics.tumblr.com; and his very soul here – @JoshSpiller.

The NITRB internship

Nothing in the Rulebook – a literary and new writing blog dedicated to new ideas – is looking for an enthusiastic and passionate individual to join our team as our creative intern.

We are a collective of creatives bound by a single motto: ‘there’s nothing in the rulebook that says a giraffe can’t play football!’ Our news, opinion and interviews are read around the world and attract on average 20,000 unique views a month. We’ve featured writers and artists such as Iain Maloney, Julia Bell, Paul M.M. Cooper, Russ Litten, Asher Jay, Tim Leach, Rishi Dastidar, Eric Akoto, David Greaves, Charlotte Salter and many more.

We are looking for people who think just because there’s one way to do things, it doesn’t mean that’s the only way. We are looking for creative writing and journalism students or bloggers to help us run our project. This means maintaining our social media presence, writing articles for our blog and commissioning and reviewing new work.

Nothing in the Rulebook was established by Warwick University creative writing alumni with over ten years’ experience in journalism, marketing and communications. We’ve won awards for short fiction, poetry and writing and our work has been published in national newspapers, literary anthologies and magazines.

This is a great opportunity to build connections with publishers, literary agents, writers, artists and photographers while learning how literary journalism works from the inside. You’ll gain hands on experience in marketing, social media management, copy-editing and commissioning.

If you’re interested, read some of the stories and articles on Nothing in the Rulebook and pitch us five articles you’d like to write. Send us an example of writing of no more than 500 words to nothingintherulebook@gmail.com. Don’t forget a brief cover letter and your CV.

You don’t have to be Kurt Vonnegut – what’s most important to us is enthusiasm and a willingness to learn.

We look forward to receiving your applications!

The state of UK libraries today: an infographic

Ohoho! Saviours of the written word. We here at Nothing in the Rulebook have been on a fact-finding treasure hunt to find out what is happening in the world of UK libraries.

These fantastic buildings, which have been, for hundreds of years, the perfect sanctuary for books, too often fail to receive the recognition they deserve. While countless of famous voices, including acclaimed author, Neil Gaiman, have urged us in recent years to support our libraries, here in the UK our libraries are threatened by cuts to government spending.

Indeed, not only are 10% of existing UK libraries currently threatened with closure, the number of libraries in the UK today has fallen by almost 400 in the last 6 years.

But enough talk – we promised you an infographic! And an infographic you shall have. Here it is below!


pet survey

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Neil Gaiman on our obligation to support libraries


Image via Flickr/Creative Commons. Credit: Kotomi. 

In October 2013, acclaimed author Neil Gaiman – who gave us these wonderful rules for writing – wrote a detailed article in The Guardian – edited from his lecture for the Reading Agency – in praise of libraries. He wrote: “libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.”

Gaiman thus added his voice to those of so many others – among their number astronauts, artists, scientists and politicians – who have praised libraries for the service they provide to our communities; to our societies and cultures. Libraries, after all, are the ideal sanctuary for books.

Yet Gaiman notes a concern that in the modern era people are beginning to forget how valuable libraries – and librarians – are. He writes: “I worry that here in the 21st century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to miss the point fundamentally.”

Of course, Gaiman knows a thing or two about libraries. He does, after all, have one of the coolest personal libraries that we here at Nothing in the Rulebook have ever seen. And while it may not be totally surprising that someone whose work is filled with references both mythological, historical and literary would have a pretty extensive bookshelf or three, the plethora of books on show in Gaiman’s basement library is still awe-inspiring, and also kind of breath-taking. You can see a full set of pictures over at Shelfari. But here’s a tantalising glimpse for y’all below.


Photography by Kyle Cassidy. Image via Shelfari

And while Gaiman may have an understandable bias to support libraries and literature, there’s little room for argument with his position that we need to do all we can to support libraries – especially at a time when so many are threatened with closure. Engaging and thoughtful, as always, Gaiman argues: “We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.”

Our support for libraries shouldn’t just extend to those famous sites known for the beauty of their architecture or the size of their archives (though of course they are incredible in their own right). Rather, it should be universal – railing against cuts to libraries throughout the UK and elsewhere in the world. Supporting organisations, such as The Library Campaign or Voices for the library, would be a start here.

But perhaps the best way to support both your libraries and yourself is to make use of these fantastic public spaces. Because it’s not just about raising money or social media awareness. Libraries – and literature – are about something more than that. As Gaiman writes: “We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.”

Now, if that isn’t enough to get you out and down to your local library, maybe this picture of Neil Gaiman holding some milk will do the trick?


We’re pretty sure you couldn’t resist such a photo. So before you head off to check out the awesome power of libraries and books near you, (and to make sure you never miss a picture of Neil Gaiman holding some milk), subscribe to our free, regular newsletter of everything interesting. 

Travel writer John Harrison among longlist of nine for the New Welsh Writing Awards 2016: University of South Wales Prize for Travel Writing


‘Standing Between Giants’. Photography by Kristofer Williams. Via Creative Commons/Compfight. 

New Welsh Review, in association with the University of South Wales and CADCentre, has announced the longlist of nine travel nonfiction essays for the New Welsh Writing Awards 2016: University of South Wales Prize for Travel Writing. Both new and established writers based in Wales, England and Ireland are in the running for the top prize, including the award-winning travel writer John Harrison.

The Prize celebrates the best short form travel writing (5,000-30,000 words) from emerging and established writers based in the UK and Ireland plus those who have been educated in Wales. The judges are New Welsh Review editor Gwen Davies and award-winning travel writer Rory MacLean.

The longlist of writers is here below (author name, location, title of work):


Virginia Astley (Dorchester, England)  –  Keeping the River

Evan Costigan (Kildare, Ireland)  – West Under a Blue Sky

Hannah Garrard (Norwich, England)  – No Situation is Permanent

John Harrison (London, England) –  The Rains of Titikaka

Gerald Hewitson (Holyhead, Wales)  –  Oh my America

Julie Owen Moylan (Cardiff, Wales)  – Anxiety and Wet Wipes on Train Number Four

Nathan Llywelyn Munday (Cardiff, Wales)  –  Seven Days: A Pyrenean Trek

Karen Phillips (Pembrokeshire, Wales)       –    Stranger Shores

Mandy Sutter (Ilkley, England)       –      Bush Meat: As My Mother Told Me



Gwen Davies, editor of New Welsh Review said: ‘This prize has gone from strength to strength in its second year, with an increased number of entries and an excellent standard of writing. Branching out from our previous theme of nature, this year’s longlist of travel nonfiction sees a move towards the political.’

Davies continues: ‘Such essays follow the progress of a pioneering school from its refugee-camp origins in Ghana; a Nigerian domestic scene where subtle and interdependent racial and class issues are seething under a tight lid; the rise and fall of the pre-Columbian city of Tiwanaku in Bolivia and the underground (and underwater) currents of Mayan culture in the Yucatan, Mexico. In gentler pastures, meanwhile, language, geography, history, culture, religion and philosophy are given room to reflect in pieces that champion the humble Thames-side lock-keeper, the etiquette of the Trans-Siberian station pitstop; silence and spirituality on a Pennsylvanian Quaker residency, and the highs and lows of the grand narrative on trek through the Pyrenees.’

For more information about the long listed writers please visit the New Welsh Review website.

The shortlist will be announced at an event at Hay Festival on 1 June 2016 (3-4pm) and the winner at a ceremony at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff on 7 July 2016 (6-8pm).

First prize is £1,000 cash, e-publication by New Welsh Review on their New Welsh Rarebyte imprint in 2016, a positive critique by leading literary agent Cathryn Summerhayes at WME, as well as lunch with her in London. Second prize is a weeklong residential course in 2016 of the winner’s choice at Tŷ Newydd Writing Centre in Gwynedd, north Wales. Third prize is a weekend stay at Gladstone’s Library in Flintshire, north Wales. All three winners will also receive a one-year subscription to the magazine. In addition New Welsh Review will consider the highly commended and shortlisted nominees for publication in a forthcoming edition of its creative magazine New Welsh Reader with an associated standard fee.

New Welsh Review have also launched their Best Travel Book Poll inviting readers around the world to vote for their favourite all time travel book in the English language. A longlist of 20 titles have been selected by co-judges Gwen Davies and Rory MacLean with nominations from the students of the University of South Wales and librarians across Wales. The public can now vote for the shortlist and winner which will be revealed on 1 June and 7 July respectively. For more information visit http://www.newwelshwritingawards.com/best-travel-book-poll/

One letter from Charles Bukowski will make you want to quit your job and become a writer


“The kind of life that makes one feel empty and shallow and superficial, that makes one dread to read and dread to think, can’t be good for one, can it?” asked literary legend Willa Cather when pondering the trade aspiring creatives must so often make between pursuing their creative passions and working to pay the bills. It is a question that deserves attention, particularly so at a time when working hours are increasing and worker’s rights diminishing.

It’s also one we perhaps don’t ask ourselves enough: for at its heart is a difficult subject to face – the matter of whether we are a) brave enough to quit our soul sucking day jobs to do what we really want, and b) actually destined to be writers and artists.

Indeed, we must recognise the sentiment of acclaimed poet Charles Bukowski famous poem, So, you want to be a writer (Don’t do it) – “if it doesn’t come bursting out of you, in spite of everything, don’t do it”. And we must question whether or not we really possess within ourselves the burning desire to write, to create art, and whether we actually find some solace in the excuse our jobs give us not to act on our creative impulses. As though there were some fear that, should we in fact have the freedom to do so, we would end up just sitting around all day watching TV and eating toast in our pants.


‘Accountant’ by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images. How in the hell can a man enjoy being awakened at 8.30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you make a lot of money for somebody else and asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so? 

Bukowski, of course, understood better than most the crippling effects of capitalist working structures. He is, after all, the man who asked: “How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 8:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?”

It is the sort of question that can only ever be asked by someone who has lost years of his life to the mundanity, and creativity-stifling world of modern work. And before he became a full-time writer, Bukowski took a string of blue collar jobs, working as a fill-in mail man for the US Postal Service from his 30s right on into his 40s.

Like many creatives today, Bukowski also found himself stifled by working for the man. In 1969, the year before his 50th birthday, he was still working as a mail man, and pulling some gigs here and there on some small underground magazines. And it was from this position Bukowski found himself faced with the challenge we set out at the start of this article: to essentially “put up or shut up” – and quit his stifling job for the risky life of poet and writer.

Bukowski had caught the attention of Black Sparrow Press publisher John Martin, who offered the poet $100 a month to quit his job and dedicate himself solely to writing. While many creatives might dither here, adding up the costs of bills and thinking perhaps even of pensions; Bukowski was in no doubt about his decision. He took the chance gladly, and just two years later, Black Sparrow Press published his first novel, titled – appropriately – Post Office.

It was an opportunity Bukowski did not forget – although it did take him time to remember to thank his early champion; writing to Martin some 17 years later to express his gratitude. Belated the letter of thanks may be; but it nonetheless remains beautiful, and incredibly poignant today. The missive emanates Bukowski’s characteristic cynicism, but also his deep sensitivity, and a touch of self-conscious earnestness.

The letter is here below, in full;

“August 12, 1986

Hello John:

Thanks for the good letter. I don’t think it hurts, sometimes, to remember where you came from. You know the places where I came from. Even the people who try to write about that or make films about it, they don’t get it right. They call it “9 to 5.” It’s never 9 to 5, there’s no free lunch break at those places, in fact, at many of them in order to keep your job you don’t take lunch. Then there’sovertime and the books never seem to get the overtime right and if you complain about that, there’s another sucker to take your place.

You know my old saying, “Slavery was never abolished, it was only extended to include all the colors.”

And what hurts is the steadily diminishing humanity of those fighting to hold jobs they don’t want but fear the alternative worse. People simply empty out. They are bodies with fearful and obedient minds. The color leaves the eye. The voice becomes ugly. And the body. The hair. The fingernails. The shoes. Everything does.

As a young man I could not believe that people could give their lives over to those conditions. As an old man, I still can’t believe it. What do they do it for? Sex? TV? An automobile on monthly payments? Or children? Children who are just going to do the same things that they did?

Early on, when I was quite young and going from job to job I was foolish enough to sometimes speak to my fellow workers: “Hey, the boss can come in here at any moment and lay all of us off, just like that, don’t you realize that?”

They would just look at me. I was posing something that they didn’t want to enter their minds.

Now in industry, there are vast layoffs (steel mills dead, technical changes in other factors of the work place). They are layed off by the hundreds of thousands and their faces are stunned:

“I put in 35 years…”

“It ain’t right…”

“I don’t know what to do…”

They never pay the slaves enough so they can get free, just enough so they can stay alive and come back to work. I could see all this. Why couldn’t they? I figured the park bench was just as good or being a barfly was just as good. Why not get there first before they put me there? Why wait?

I just wrote in disgust against it all, it was a relief to get the shit out of my system. And now that I’m here, a so-called professional writer, after giving the first 50 years away, I’ve found out that there are other disgusts beyond the system.

I remember once, working as a packer in this lighting fixture company, one of the packers suddenly said: “I’ll never be free!”

One of the bosses was walking by (his name was Morrie) and he let out this delicious cackle of a laugh, enjoying the fact that this fellow was trapped for life.

So, the luck I finally had in getting out of those places, no matter how long it took, has given me a kind of joy, the jolly joy of the miracle. I now write from an old mind and an old body, long beyond the time when most men would ever think of continuing such a thing, but since I started so late I owe it to myself to continue, and when the words begin to falter and I must be helped up stairways and I can no longer tell a bluebird from a paperclip, I still feel that something in me is going to remember (no matter how far I’m gone) how I’ve come through the murder and the mess and the moil, to at least a generous way to die.

To not to have entirely wasted one’s life seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself.

yr boy,



If Bukowski’s letter doesn’t convince you that it’s perhaps finally time to quit your soul sucking job and start working on that novel you’ve been working on; then perhaps try Neil Gaiman’s deceptively simple-sounding rules for writers. Consider, also, the way other aspects of our modern world may be affecting our creative urges – and how things like technology may be dampening our creativity.

And, of course, always remember that we here at Nothing in the Rulebook are here to help. So sign up for our free, regular newsletter of everything interesting!

Margaret Atwood’s 10 rules for writers


“The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like,” writing legend Neil Gaiman said. But of course, the main rule of articles and lists of tips and rules about writing and for writers is that there will never be just one hard and fast rule: quite the opposite, in fact. So while Kurt Vonnegut’s first rule of writing is that one should never “use semicolons”; Zadie Smith takes a different view, arguing that you should “make sure you read a lot of books.”

When there are so many rules and pieces of advice out there, which ones do you follow? This is a question perhaps best suited to another article; yet a good place to start is – as it so often is when it comes to writing and literature – with one of the true literary greats: Margaret Atwood.

In 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, The Guardian asked authors for their personal lists of dos and don’ts. We’ve gone through the whole list and, week by week, will be bringing you the timeless counsel of the great writers of the 20th and 21st centuries. So without further introduction, we bring you Margaret Atwood with her personal writing commandments:

  1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
  2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.
  5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
  6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
  7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
  8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
  9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
  10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­isation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.


For more excellent wisdom on writing, consider the writing tips from author and creative writing lecturer Julia Bell; and complement that with some priceless advice from the brilliant poet, Rishi Dastidar, alongside our compendium of writing advice from some of the greatest authors.

Alternatively, you could get all this and more by signing up to our free, weekly newsletter for everything interesting. Join the gang!