Advice from ‘Butt In The Chair’ Experts

Sandra Neily Here;

I needed someone wise in my ear this month and a few words of inspiration. Found some!

From Joe Fassler’s interviewing 150 writers:

First Sentence

“The first line must convince me that it somehow embodies the entire unwritten text,” William Gibson said. Stephen King described spending “weeks and months and even years” working on first sentences, each one an incantation with the power to unlock the finished book. And Michael Chabon said that, once he stumbled on the first sentence of Wonder Boys, the rest of the novel was almost like taking dictation. “The seed of the novel—who would tell the story and what it would be about—was in that first sentence, and it just arrived,” he said.

Sound It Out.

“Plot can be overrated. What I strive for more is rhythm,” the late Jim Harrison said. “It’s like taking dictation, when you’re really attuned to the rhythm of that voice.” George Saunders described a similar process, explaining that sound shows him where the energy is, revealing which aspects of the story are important, which lines to follow. It can help with revision, too. “Sound gives us clues about what is necessary and real,” he said. “When you read [your work] aloud, there are parts you might skip over—you find yourself not wanting to speak them. Those are the weak parts. It’s hard to find them otherwise, just reading along.”

Stubborn Gladness

Elizabeth Gilbert’s concept of “stubborn gladness,” a term she borrows from the poet Jack Gilbert. It’s a promise to take things in stride, to remain cheerfully engaged no matter how difficult things get. “My path as a writer became much more smooth,” she said, “when I learned, when things aren’t going well, to regard my struggles as curious, not tragic.”


From tips from Nobel Prize winners:

“The Canadian author Alice Munro, who was given the Nobel for Literature in 2013: ‘Usually, I have a lot of acquaintance with the story before I start writing it. When I didn’t have regular time to give to writing, stories would just be working in my head for so long that when I started to write I was deep into them … add to this, you could keep a voice recorder or use the voice note function on a smartphone to record ideas or sentences for your novel as they occur to you. This will help you keep creating even when you have fewer moments to sit down and write.’

The Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. The celebrated author of novels such as Cien años de soledad (translated as A Hundred Years of Solitude) was also a journalist.  ‘In journalism just one fact that is false prejudices the entire work. In contrast, in fiction one single fact that is true gives legitimacy to the entire work. A novelist can do anything he wants so long as he makes people believe in it.’

The Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, who published over 30 novels, plays and essays, received the Nobel in 2010. ‘If I started to wait for moments of inspiration, I would never finish a book. Inspiration for me comes from a regular effort.’

The great Canadian-American author Saul Bellow, who published 14 novels and novellas and won the Nobel for writing in 1976, beautifully described the intimacy between the writer and the reader: ‘When you open a novel — and I mean of course the real thing — you enter into a state of intimacy with its writer. You hear a voice or, more significantly, an individual tone under the words … It is more musical than verbal, and it is the characteristic signature of a person, of a soul. Such a writer has power over distraction and fragmentation, and out of distressing unrest, even from the edge of chaos, he [or she] can bring unity and carry us into a state of intransitive attention. People hunger for this.’ ”


More Wisdom….

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”—Joan Didion

“Instructions for living a life:

pay attention
be astonished
tell about it”    —Mary Oliver

“Your day’s work might turn out to have been a mess. So what? Vonnegut said, ‘When I write I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth.’ So go ahead and make big scrawls and mistakes. Use lots of paper. Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friends.” —Anne Lamott

“Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.” —Annie Dillard

And From Stephen King:

“2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%” Every story and novel is collapsible to some degree. If you can’t get out ten per cent of it while retaining the basic story and flavor, you’re not trying very hard.”

“Stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”

“There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers . . . two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”

“The adverb is not your friend. . . . I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

“When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest…[I]t seems to me that every book — at least every one worth reading — is about something. Your job during or just after the first draft is to decide what something or somethings yours is about. Your job in the second draft — one of them, anyway — is to make that something even more clear. This may necessitate some big changes and revisions. The benefits to you and your reader will be clearer focus and a more unified story. It hardly ever fails.”


And finally:  “The joy of being an author is the joy of feeling I can do anything,” says Neil Gaiman in Light the Dark. “There are no rules. Only: can you do this with confidence? Can you do it with aplomb? Can you do it with style? Can you do it with joy?”

Yup. Mine….

The second Mystery in Maine, Deadly Turn, was published in 2021. Sandy’s debut novel, “Deadly Trespass, A Mystery in Maine,” won a national Mystery Writers of America award, was a finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest, and was a finalist for a Maine Literary Award. Find her novels at all Shermans Books (Maine) and on Amazon. Find more info on Sandy’s

About Sandra Neily

Sandy’s novel “Deadly Trespass” received a Mystery Writers of America award, was named a national finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest, a finalist in the Mslexia international novel competition, a runner- up in Maine’s Joy of the Pen competition, and recently, an international SPR fiction finalist. Sandy lives in the woods of Maine and says she’d rather be “fly fishing cold streams, skiing remote trails, paddling near loons, or just generally out there—unless I’m sharing vanishing worlds with my readers. "
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14 Responses to Advice from ‘Butt In The Chair’ Experts

  1. Jordan says:

    Hi Sandra,

    Thank you for this piece, and for mentioning my article for Now Novel on advice from Novel-winning authors. ‘Butt in chair’ was something Maya Angelou ascribed to as well, I remember reading that she would rent a room and just write anything if stuck, even ‘the cat sat on the mat’ (until she was so bored with doing so that she had to write something else).

    So many different approaches to process.

    Kind regards,

    • Sandra Neily says:

      What a great surprise, Jordan, to hear from you today. I like the Angelou addition to just write anything….think I will use that today. As my brain went to too many other things before I had a chair-butt moment. I thought you humanized the august authors so well. Thanks!

  2. Katherine says:

    Thank you for this! A marvelous way to start off a butt-in-chair morning of revision!

  3. matthewcost says:

    Great variety of inspirations! Take what works for you and run with it.

  4. Delightful and inspiring, Sandy. Thank you!


  5. maggierobinsonwriter says:

    I still object to adverb discrimination, LOL. But these blurbs were pretty great!

  6. kaitcarson says:

    Great post, and one I needed to see today.

  7. Brenda Buchanan says:

    A kick in the butt we all needed today (or at least I did . . .)


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