The Butt-in-the-Chair Rule

You know how some brisk how-to-write books tell you that the most important rule in writing is the Butt-in-the-Chair, aka Just Do It?  Yeah, I have problems with that theory.

Yesterday, I wrote a scene I’d been avoiding, and after I wrote it, I knew why I’d been ducking it.  It sucked.  It began as a conversation that went on and on and was pretty much infodump, and ended in action that I cut off because I really did not want to write the emotion it required which seemed banal.  The entire time I was thinking, “This is going to kneecap my story,” which was not a help.  The info is necessary to the plot of the book, but it’s not fun or interesting.  So why did I write it?

Because of the butt-in-the-chair rule, of course.  I’d been stalled on some parts of the book and decided to put my butt in the chair (which in this case was my bed, propped up by pillows) and Just Do It.   The experience reminded me of why rules about butts and where to put them are worthless for me: I really need that stretch of time where I stare into space and imagine the scene, listen to the voices, find out what they’re saying.  I need to fantasize it through before I make it concrete because if I don’t, if I just start out with an outline of what needs to be in the scene, I end up with concrete: flat, gray prose that has cracks in it.  

What I’m after is more of a mosaic of voices and attitudes and relationships and action (I can already tell this concrete/mosaic metaphor is going to get away from me) that hopefully makes a pattern that’s colorful and interesting and moving and exciting and all that good non-concrete stuff.  The key is that I can fix a mosaic but I can’t fix concrete, that stuff just has to be jackhammered out.  But to get the mosaic, I have to get out of the chair, walk around, drive to the grocery, or my fave, go to bed with the covers over my head and make believe.  Yes, I am a professional writer.

Of course, imagining it through means that the scene goes everywhere because those people in my head have no concept that they’re part of a well-organized book and they’ll talk about damn near anything if I let them go their own ways.  Those are my options: concrete or a crazy mosaic of chat and angst.  Of course, I’m going for the mosaic.  

And people wonder why it takes me years to write a book.

All of that means that the conventional wisdom of the chair thing is extremely bad advice for me.   I don’t have contrasting advice–“Crawl under a comforter, curl into the fetal position, fantasize” just doesn’t have the bracing, authoritative ring that “Put your butt in the chair” does–I just know that the briskness of the conventional wisdom was not made for such as I.  If you’re about to argue that imagining your scene is part of the “butt in the chair” bit, I will counter with the argument that the implication is that after putting your butt in the chair, you will hit those keys.  Or to put it another way, “Just write it, you dumbass.”  No.

Conventional wisdom should get its hands off my butt, is what I’m saying.

26 thoughts on “The Butt-in-the-Chair Rule

  1. Butt-in-the-chair never works for me either. My spin on it is what I call “sit-in-the story” which actually is not literal because the sit bit is more the abstract kind and can include pacing, rereading previous pages, doodling, lounging and such. But my goal for that time is to stay in story mode and not allow my mind to think about other things. And not to stray far from the keyboard. Generally, this eventually results in words on page.

    Basically, my sit-in-the-story mode is like the writing room from the Dick Van Dyke show only I play Rob, Buddy, & Sally all in one. And Mel never walks in and interrupts me:)

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      1. Yeah, time can be tricky, but that’s the beauty of the sit-in-the-story. You can do it for however much time you have, even if it’s only 15 or 30 minutes. Ideally, it’s nice if it’s a standing appointment at the same time each day, but really any slot you have works and can move around depending on your schedule. You can treat it like a part-time job and show up for a couple of hours or smaller increments. And although it’s great if you have a dedicated writing spot and definitely some privacy helps, I started out at a tiny Victorian writing table I picked up at second-hand shop that I put behind my sofa in my (very small at the time) living room. I headed there each day when I had the house to myself for a bit and worked like a charm:)

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      2. I find being in the story while exercising to be pretty productive (something a little boring but not too hard, like a moderate pace on the elliptical or going for a walk in a familiar place). I think the increased bloodflow has something to do with it.

        But even writing essays in college I was very much a “my process is to goof off until inspiration strikes” type of writer–mindless games (like Snood), knitting or doing dishes, etc. until differently my thesis statement arrived in an epiphany and it was off to the races.

        I think that’s one reason why I admire and devour Jenny’s process posts–they sound much more like the process I’m stumbling into that all those exhortations to put your butt in your seat!

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        1. Agree. Exercise is great for percolating. And think Agatha Christie said something similar about doing the dishes as good time to plan stories.

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  2. It doesn’t work for me, either. I can plot out a scene, how it’s going to start, what the goal of the scene is, where they’re going to be, for days… In my head. I don’t sit down to write a scene until I’m sure what I want to do with it. It’s always been that way for me. And, I admit, I’ve always felt like a failure since every day I don’t sit down and just write.

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  3. I’m not a writer, but the writing I do doesn’t have a linear progression, notes on different bits of paper , in different notebooks, at random times

    What does work is a great line of conversation, then I imagine in my head, who said that to who, then I am off and running, characters, story, go from there.

    I just need to put it down on paper properly

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  4. I did an online how-to-survive-as-a-professional-writer course a few years back. I’d just sold my first novel and was panicking about the fact that I had a contract for the second and no idea how to go about it. Bits of the course were really useful, but I had a lot of arguments with other students about the fact that the person running the course didn’t allow for dreaming time. Maybe she did in her own head, but it wasn’t there in the course. Everything was very measured and bum-on-the-chair, and when you’ve finished one book sit down and write the next one. And it seemed to me that she was misleading people rather badly.

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  5. I take a nap most days (or else I don’t have the energy to write in the evening). Usually I don’t fall asleep, just lie there and be quiet and regroup. And often write the next chapter in my head.

    I try and put my butt in the chair every day, but there is a lot of other stuff in between.

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  6. Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer talks about the importance of imagining the story before trying to write it. It’s part of the process! And yeah, I know I can sit down and type any time but there’s a difference between typing and creating something vivid that makes you believe in it.

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  7. I’ve always thought the ‘butt in chair’ advice is mostly for those who think about writing but will do almost anything to avoid actually sitting down and doing it. I find myself in this situation from time to time — reluctant to actually get started, even though I know that once I start typing, the story will come.

    And yes, dreaming time is really important. Apparently, movement is important to brain health, and getting up and doing stuff — going on a walk, doing the laundry, gardening, shopping, whatever — frees the brain to cook up the story.

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    1. I agree. I use the butt in the chair advice for my thesis students. And my own academic writing. Today I have a butt in the chair appointment with Starbucks at noon. And at some point, even to create the mosaic, you have to get your butt in the chair. I tell my thesis students the difference between someone who finishes their thesis and someone who doesn’t is ass power. The ability to get your ass in the chair and right The ability to get your ass in the chair and write even when you don’t feel like it. BUT I also shared the invoice another colleague ( playwright) in grad school and I came up with which is “respect the Mull”. Because so much of good writing – even academic writing which I suspect is a different process in many ways than fiction writing – involves a lot of thinking. And we would be very hard on ourselves and say oh I haven’t gotten any work done when in fact we just been a lot of productive time thinking. So we realized that the time we spent mulling things over was valuable work time. So we would remind each other to respect the m because so much of good writing Dash even academic writing which I suspect is different process in many ways than fiction writing Dash involves a lot of thinking. And we would be very hard on ourselves and say oh I haven’t gotten any work done when in fact we just been a lot of productive time thank you. So we realized that the time we spent mulling things over was valuable work time. So we would remind each other to respect the mull. So in short for me getting something written checks a combination of asked power and respecting the mull!

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  8. I find there’s nothing like a tedious, five hour round trip drive for inspiration. My theory is that my mind throws up something, anything, to break the monotony. So I always make sure I have a notebook and pencil with me at all time (who doesn’t??) and there are lots of roadside stops to scribble.

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  9. I am with you, except also…. the next bits I have to write are emotionally difficult. I know what they are, I know how they need to go. I just don’t want to do it. I’m at the point where I *NEED* the butt in chair rule because I should just sit down and get it done.

    Instead, I do anything else. Including grade papers and clean the house. Yikes!

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    1. As a former teacher, I feel like I’d do anything to evade grading papers – that would instantly drive me to that chair, plant my butt in it and start writing! No house cleaning would be able to keep me from it, either. ;o)

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  10. There’s a Six Chix comic that has someone commiserating, paraphrased, “Im sorry you didn’t win the Pulitzer/Booker/etc for your novel, but remember, you haven’t written it yet.”

    This is a chapter of my life.

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  11. Amen and amen to this whole post! I actually would like to be a butt-in-chair writer and produce gorgeous prose every time I sit down to write…but that doesn’t happen. I will say that I have better writing times-of-day than others. I used to write at night, but age has ended that for me. I’m an early-morning writer now with spates of writing furiously when something hits me other times of the day. In the midst of dishes or weeding or even the grocery store, I might think, “Oh, okay, that’s how I have to make that scene work.” Then, it’s a rush to my little writing garret or I scribble something on the back of the grocery list or a random envelope from the console of the car or the Notes app on my phone. Just to get at least the idea down so I can develop it later if need be. I once made notes on the bottom of the tissue box in my car…desperate measures. If I don’t get down the gist, it’s gone like mist over the lake on a sunny morning.

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  12. I second everything Jenny wrote. I’m not a proffessional writer by any means, all I (very occasionally) write is amateuristic fantasy short-stories for myself and, possibly, a friend. We co-write sometimes too. But I’m no butt-in-the-chair-person. I’m all for mosaics and writing when inspiration strikes. If I try to force things, it won’t work out. My best ideas and most productively written things were born out of me reading/thinking/doing/discovering something out of the blue. Not planting my butt in a chair for 8 hours straight and staring at the screen like an insomniac zombie.

    …which is probably why I put my writing-an-entire-novel-ambitions on ice about 10 years ago. Sigh.

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  13. My best writing time these days is on my commute. There’s something about sitting in traffic that just frees my brain, and so I scribble while stuck, and at lights. I sometimes find myself hoping for a red light, and cursing the green. This book is getting written in little bursts of scribbles, although today I’m going to transcribe a bunch into Scrivener and see where I am.

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  14. It probably depends a lot on the type of writing you do, and the type of person you are. I’m in marketing, so there’s a creative component to it, but a lot of the writing I do is more straightforward and also deadline driven, so for me, butt in the chair is pretty necessary to making progress. Is everything a masterpiece as it comes out? Of course not. But I find I can more easily fix a bad page, than a blank page. And for me, sometimes the writing of bad stuff makes it easier to see what’s not working and why. And for me, some of that is stuff that no amount of cogitating without writing is going to reveal for me. I do also think while moving around and doing other things, but that’s more a function of the multitasking nature of my life than a sense that that’s the always the most productive way for me.

    But I’m a big believer in you deciding your own butt’s fate, for sure.

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  15. “But I find I can more easily fix a bad page, than a blank page. And for me, sometimes the writing of bad stuff makes it easier to see what’s not working and why. And for me, some of that is stuff that no amount of cogitating without writing is going to reveal for me.”

    This, this, this, this. I’ve said before that I’m like the sculptor who creates the sculpture of an elephant, say, but removing everything not-elephant from the stone in front of her. To do my work, I first have to blurp out the stone and then take away everything that doesn’t belong.

    Of course, there are times when I’m genuinely stuck — I don’t know what happens next, no clue whatsoever. When that happens, BICHOK (butt in chair, hands on keyboard) means coming up with stuff as meaningful as, “Onoentgahan tjoathnatohw. Brfn.” So very not fixable. When that happens, it’s staring-into-space time, followed by thinking-on-paper time. The latter involves sitting with a pen and paper, and figuring out where my characters are, mentally and emotionally, at the point I got stuck, then brainstorming. “So-and-so could do this, and This-n-that could respond that way…”

    I do work on the story every day, but sometimes that amounts to nothing more than adding one sentence to where I left off. I’m recovering from a bad marriage, one that had my creativity hiding under the covers with its arms over its head, so it’s taking me time to build my scribbling stamina back up. At least looking at the story every day helps that. (I don’t have characters talking in my head unless I’m more or less living in the story, which is hard to do with the day gig and the hour-long commute…)

    Anyway, this is a long-winded way of saying how we get it done is as individual as we are and the only “have to” I can think of is, You have to be true to yourself and your own, individual process.

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