10 Writing Rules from AL Kennedy


AL Kennedy, photo via Wikipedia Commons

Avoid interesting verbs and internet connections; take pencils on aeroplanes; spend more time reading books than anything else; put one word after the other; write. These are just a handful of the numerous priceless tips and pieces of advice from famous authors that we have been featuring here at Nothing in the Rulebook for the last few weeks.

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.

We’ve seen Zadie Smith’s exquisite balance of the practical, the philosophical, and the poetic. Then there’s Neil Gaiman’s timeless counsel on writing, which complements the writing commandments of Jonathan Franzen, as well as the wise decree of Margaret Atwood. Today, we’re pleased to feature the writing advice from the one and only AL Kennedy. Enjoy!


  1. Have humility. Older/more ­experienced/more convincing writers may offer rules and varieties of advice. ­Consider what they say. However, don’t automatically give them charge of your brain, or anything else – they might be bitter, twisted, burned-out, manipulative, or just not very like you.
  2. Have more humility. Remember you don’t know the limits of your own abilities. Successful or not, if you keep pushing beyond yourself, you will enrich your own life – and maybe even please a few strangers.
  3. Defend others. You can, of course, steal stories and attributes from family and friends, fill in filecards after lovemaking and so forth. It might be better to celebrate those you love – and love itself – by writing in such a way that everyone keeps their privacy and dignity intact.
  4. Defend your work. Organisations, institutions and individuals will often think they know best about your work – especially if they are paying you. When you genuinely believe their decisions would damage your work – walk away. Run away. The money doesn’t matter that much.
  5. Defend yourself. Find out what keeps you happy, motivated and creative.
  6. Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go.
  7. Read. As much as you can. As deeply and widely and nourishingly and ­irritatingly as you can. And the good things will make you remember them, so you won’t need to take notes.
  8. Be without fear. This is impossible, but let the small fears drive your rewriting and set aside the large ones ­until they behave – then use them, maybe even write them. Too much fear and all you’ll get is silence.
  9. Remember you love writing. It wouldn’t be worth it if you didn’t. If the love fades, do what you need to and get it back.
  10. Remember writing doesn’t love you. It doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.


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 Kurt Vonnegut, 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!    




Film makers wanted!

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The Disappear Here Logo: Designed by Emilia Moniszko 

Disappear Here – a project founded and crowd funded by the artist Adam Steiner are looking for film-makers/artists to submit up-to 1 film-poem idea of their own, with 2 films produced to be in collaboration with a writer for a collaborative poetry-film project about Coventry ringroad.

The 18 artists selected will (in pairs) produce 3 poetry-films between them that explore the ringroad as brutalist/modernist structure/setting/inspiration.

The organisers are interested in artistic approaches to urban space, telling city stories and re-imagining the cyclical ringroad as an (in-between) area of change/flux/progress.

Selected artists will be commissioned for the production of up-to three film-poems, at a fixed-fee of £550 (to include all travel and project costs – with a focus upon the time-taken to shoot and edit footage) and will work alongside with a writer and their poems, offering support as performer/concept planning/production consultat for their work.

There will be a summit meeting in Coventry (SAT – 23/7/2016) between all of the participating artists – if applying – please ensure you are free on this date.

DEADLINE for applications is midnight 15/6/2016


There is a simple application form to be completed – there will be an opportunity to detail your ideas and provide links to previous work –  more information: www.disappear-here.org/submit


If you have any questions, wish to talk through initial ideas, plesae email: adam@disappear-here.org


Poetry writers wanted!

logo 2 no background

Disappear Here Logo: designed by Emilia Moniszko

Disappear Here – a project founded and crowd funded by the artist Adam Steiner – are looking for writers/poets/artists to submit THREE ideas / proposals / full poems for a collaborative poetry-film project about Coventry ringroad.

The 18 artists selected will (in pairs) produce 3 poetry-films between them that explore the ringroad as brutalist/modernist structure/setting/inspiration.

The organisers are interested in artistic approaches to urban space, telling city stories and re-imagining the cyclical ringroad as an (in-between) area of change/flux/progress.

Selected artists will be commissioned for the production of up-to three poems, at a fixed-fee of £350 (to include all travel and costs – with a focus upon paying writers to write) and will work alongside the film-maker in performance/production/consultation of their work.

There will be a summit meeting in Coventry (SAT – 23/7/2016) between all of the participating artists – if applying – please ensure you are free on this date.

DEADLINE for applications is midnight 15/6/2016


There is a simple application form to be completed – more information: http://www.disappear-here.org/submit


If you have any questions, wish to talk through initial ideas, plesae email: adam@disappear-here.org

Book Review: Kingdom by Russ Litten



Kingdom is written by Russ Litten and published by Wrecking Ball Press. You can read our extensive interview with Litten here

Few books will capture your attention from the first page as Russ Litten’s Kingdom. Indeed, the quasi-surrealist opening scene in an unknown prison library is perhaps the most interesting and unique introduction to a novel that we here at Nothing in the Rulebook have read all year.

Of course, many novels start extremely well – explosively well, even – only to lose some of their initial spark and magic as the plot progresses. And while in this case the plot does settle down, it retains that opening magic for the entirety of the book.

While the action of the plot may be light on significant moments of incident (this is about gradual exploration of both the world and the self – more so than driving the narrative on through event after event), Litten’s style is infectious. And when you read writing as crisp and as fast as this, it is difficult not to turn page after page with a broad smile on your face.

Described on paper as a ghost story, this is unlike any ghost story you’ll have read before – and that’s a declarative statement we’re happy to be challenged on. More than anything, the book is a reflection on – and an exploration of – what it means to be alive (or not) in 21st Century Britain.

Indeed, what Litten explores, with gripping clarity, is a reality left unseen and marginalised in the national consciousness. As with works such as Alisdair Gray’s Lanark or Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, Litten vividly paints a picture of working class inner city life with concision, but also sensitivity and charm.

In the context of modern Britain, Litten thus explores the legacy of neoliberalism – which leaves us with a country of burgeoning inequality, stripping assets from the poorest and most vulnerable to redistribute them to the wealthiest in society. But we can all read statistics about income gaps, zero hour contracts and housing and rental crises; what is more difficult is imagining the realities these statistics infer for those people most affected by them. And this is where Litten’s remarkable writing skills truly enter the fray, because this book is not cold in the way facts, figures and statistics – or even political theory and rhetoric – so often is. It is rich, and warm – with a underlying, constant beating thread of humour which is both grim and good. And there are moments that will also hit you in the lungs and take your breath away.

Indeed, it is a hard task to think of a more sympathetic character than the novel’s protagonist, Alistair Kingdom. Considering Kingdom is self-described as having been “born a ghost”, creating such a compelling and fleshed out (pun intended) character from a ghost is quite some feat. And when Kingdom falls in love with another of the book’s great characters – Gemma – it pulls at the soul in a way few other love stories manage.

A clear reason Litten’s characters – especially Kingdom – seem to grow out of the page, is Litten’s use of language. For this is the language of real people.

For want of a better term, one might describe the changes in syntax, the interior monologue technique which leaves sentences unfinished and thoughts left unsaid – as well as the use of expletives – as “non-standard English”. But there is hesitation in using such a term since there is surely no “right” or “wrong” way to speak.

Indeed, using language in the way Litten does strikes the reader very much a political decision. Since Adam Smith’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres in 1748, there has been a conscious effort to standardize the English language; cultivating what Smith viewed as “the most imperfect” dialects found across the United Kingdom.

But what this standardization of language has meant is the obliteration of entire cultures and communities. Thousands of voices silenced, or pushed to the margins, seen as inherently other – as being beneath those who hold the power of “perfect” speech.

And when you take away an individual’s language, you also remove their heritage, their culture. Consider the words of Booker-Prize winning author James Kelman:

“Everybody from a working class background, everybody in fact from any regional part of Britain  none of them knew how to talk! What larks! Every time they opened their mouth out came a stream of gobbledygook. Beautiful! their language a cross between semaphore and Morse code; apostrophes here and apostrophes there; a strange hotchpoth of bad phonetics and horrendous spelling  unlike the nice stalwart upperclass English Hero, whose words on the page were always absolutely splendidly proper and pure and pristinely accurate, whether in dialogue or without. And what grammar! Colons and semi-colons! Straight out of their mouths! An incredible mastery of language. Most interesting of all, for myself as a writer, the narrative belonged to them and them alone. They owned it.”

By using language and accurate representations of working class, urban dialects, Litten thus presents us with a challenge to the status quo. Kingdom therefore provides us with a glimpse of the real United Kingdom that is so often otherwise ignored. An extremely timely and necessary book.


Dealing with criticism: thoughts and advice from literary titans



Photography by Graham Holliday, via Flickr Creative Commons.

It’s a near universally accepted truth: criticism can be hard to take. Seeing, reading or hearing someone deconstruct what you’ve written is strange at the best of times; and when the feedback you receive is negative, well that can feel like a sucker punch right to the lower intestine. This is true not only for aspiring writers, receiving the first of many rejection letters and emails from literary agents and publishing houses; it’s also true or established authors (if you don’t believe us, just ask master story teller Robert Ford, who was so upset about a review of his book The Sportswriter, he took a gun and shot bullets through one of said reviewers own books).

Indeed, in a 2003 interview with The Guardian, Ford explained his thinking behind shooting Alice Hoffman’s book. He said:

“People had written me off. When the book came out it just took a while to make its way. It didn’t happen overnight. It got bad reviews – that’s the book that Alice Hoffman wrote nasty things about in the New York Times […] my wife shot it [Hoffman’s book] first. She took the book out into the back yard, and shot it. But people make such a big deal out of it – shooting a book – it’s not like I shot her.”

Of course, not every author would endorse shooting holes in books of any kind, even if they have been written by someone who has just sent you a rejection letter for your first novel, or by a “nasty” New York Times reviewer.

In fact, some might even suggest a more thoughtful response is required. How to relate to criticism in a healthy way is one of the essential survival skills of the creative spirit.

So what exactly is the best way to deal with, and respond to, criticism? Well, fortunately, this has been answered by some of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, including Kurt Vonnegut, Truman Capote and Ray Bradbury.

And here are those answers, collected lovingly by your comrades here at Nothing in the Rulebook. Enjoy!


  1. Margaret Atwood

“Critics haven’t been any harder on me than they usually are. If anything, maybe a bit easier; I think they’re getting used to having me around. Growing a few wrinkles helps. Then they can think you’re a sort of eminent fixture. I still get a few young folks who want to make their reputations by shooting me down. Any writer who has been around for a while gets a certain amount of that. I was very intolerant as a youthful person. It’s almost necessary, that intolerance; young people need it in order to establish credentials for themselves.”

  1. Truman Capote

“Most of all, I believe in hardening yourself against opinion… There is one piece of advice I strongly urge: never demean yourself by talking back to a critic, never. Write those letters to the editor in your head, but don’t put them on paper.”

  1. Aldous Huxley

“[Reviews] have never had any effect on me, for the simple reason that I’ve never read them. I’ve never made a point of writing for any particular person or audience; I’ve simply tried to do the best job I could and let it go at that. The critics don’t interest me because they’re concerned with what’s past and done, while I’m concerned with what comes next.”

  1. William Styron

“I think it’s unfortunate to have critics for friends. Suppose you write something that stinks, what are they going to say in a review? Say it stinks? So if they’re honest they do, and if you were friends you’re still friends, but the knowledge of your lousy writing and their articulate admission of it will be always something between the two of you, like the knowledge between a man and his wife of some shady adultery.

There’s only one person a writer should listen to, pay any attention to. It’s not any damn critic. It’s the reader. And that doesn’t mean any compromise or sell-out. The writer must criticize his own work as a reader. Every day I pick up the story or whatever it is I’ve been working on and read it through. If I enjoy it as a reader then I know I”m getting along all right.”

  1. John Irving

“Listen very carefully to the first criticism of your work. Note just what it is about your work that the reviewers don’t like; it may be the only thing in your work that is original and worthwhile.”

  1. Kurt Vonnegut

“I never felt worse in my life [when reading negative reviews]. I felt as though I were sleeping standing up on a box car in Germany again. All of a sudden, critics wanted me squashed like a bug… It was dishonorable enough that I perverted art for money. I then topped that felony by becoming, as I say, fabulously well-to-do. Well, that’s just too damn bad for me and for everybody. I’m completely in print, so we’re all stuck with me and stuck with my books.”

  1. Toni Morrison

“I read [reviews]; I read everything. I read everything written about me that I see. I have to know what’s going on! It’s not about me or my work, it’s about what is going on. I have to get a sense, particularly or what’s going on with women’s work or African American work, contemporary work. I teach a literature course, so I read any information that’s going to help me teach. […] unflattering reviews are painful for short periods of time; the badly written ones are deeply, deeply insulting. That reviewer took no time to really read the book […] There are authors who find it healthier for them, in their creative process, to just not look at any reviews, or bad reviews, or they have them filtered, because sometimes they are toxic for them. I don’t agree with that kind of isolation.”

  1. Ray Bradbury

  “The critics are generally wrong, or they’re fifteen, twenty years late. It’s a great shame. They miss out on a lot. Why the fiction of ideas should be so neglected is beyond me. I can’t explain it, except in terms of intellectual snobbery […] there was a time when I wanted recognition across the board from critics and intellectuals. […] But not anymore. If I’d found out that Norman Mailer liked me, I’d have killed myself. I think he was too hung up. I’m glad Kurt Vonnegut didn’t like me either. He had problems, terrible problems. He couldn’t see the world the way I see it. I suppose I’m too much Pollyanna, he was too much Cassandra. Actually I prefer to see myself as the Janus, the two-faced god who is half Pollyanna and half Cassandra, warning of the future and perhaps living too much in the past—a combination of both. But I don’t think I’m too overoptimistic. […] I don’t tell anyone how to write and no one tells me.”

  1. Neil Gaiman

“When things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. […]Someone on the Internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before — make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, eventually time will take the sting away, and that doesn’t even matter. Do what only you can do best: Make good art. Make it on the bad days, make it on the good days, too. […] And make mistakes! If you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.”