Ass-In-Chair and Shitty First Drafts: 4 Pieces of Advice from Seasoned Authors

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This week, each of us is sharing advice we’ve gotten from veteran authors–the people who have been there, done that, and lived to tell the tale. Here are four pearls of wisdom I’ve gleaned from a few more seasoned authors. And, as I pull them together, I realize that a lot of these nuggets involve cuss words.

(#1) I could fill this whole page with the priceless publishing tips that Kelly Harms, a 2013 Deb, has given me. Kelly’s debut novel, The Good Luck Girls of Shipwreck Lane, came out in July (go get it if you need a fun read). Before she was an author, though, Kelly was a literary agent and an editor at a Big Five publishing house. Kelly and I live in the same hometown and we have sons the same age. So while our kiddos are fighting over Tonka trucks on the floor, we talk about the book business.

One beautiful, pithy tidbit that Kelly taught me was the concept of “Ass-in-Chair” time. If you want to write a novel, she advises, figure out how long it takes you to write, say, a thousand words. Let’s say it takes you two hours. If, like me, you’re aiming to hit a total word count of about 80,000-90,000 words (a common length for women’s fiction), then your total Ass-in-Chair time, spent sitting at your computer, is 180 hours for a completed first draft. Now, of course, you’ll spend many, many more hours revising. And, if you’re the organized type, you’ll probably do a lot of outlining and researching before you start. But the Ass-in-Chair time is what makes “The End” happen.

(#2) There aren’t many authors out there who can be considered more veteran than John Irving. He has said that “writing is rewriting,” and that quote is a mantra for me in my own work. It allows me the freedom to do as another seasoned writer, Ann Lamott (#3), advises, which is to let yourself write a “shitty first draft.” If you know it’s going to be shitty, the pressure is off. You can go back later and make it shiny and smooth and linear (or jagged and non-linear, if that’s your preferred way to narrate). But if you’ve got nothing, then there’s nothing to work with.

When I need to laugh at my own neuroses, I head over to (#4) Chuck Wendig’s blog, Terrible Minds. His posts are a hilarious and delightfully inappropriate gold mine for writers. A lot of his advice has to do with getting over yourself and just WRITING THE DAMN BOOK, ALREADY, a philosophy which I wholeheartedly embrace.

Are there any sage words from seasoned authors I’ve left out that you want to share? If so, leave a comment below.

Photo credit: Chuck Wendig

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Susan Gloss is the author of the novel VINTAGE (William Morrow/HarperCollins, March 2014). When she's not writing, toddler wrangling, or working as an attorney, she blogs at Glossing Over It and curates an online vintage store, Cleverly Curated.

12 thoughts on “Ass-In-Chair and Shitty First Drafts: 4 Pieces of Advice from Seasoned Authors

  1. When I was in journalism school, my first newswriting professor gave us the “butt in chair” advice (I guess he cleaned up his language, haha), and I’ve carried it through to all my writing. No question the best advice I’ve ever gotten!

  2. Ass-in-the-chair is really the key. Since you mentioned John Irving,. I’ll quote a John Irving character: You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.

    Finish your shit indeed. Unfinished novels can be a drag, a drag that you aren’t even aware of until you finish them.

    For professionals (not me 🙂 ), I’ve always thought highly of Heinlein’s advice: http://tinyurl.com/ned8rno

  3. Susan, I subscribe to all these. In the first workshops I attended they called #1 “bum glue.” And it’s so true–gotta just sit down and do it.

    How fun that you and Kelly are play-date writing friends!

  4. Great advice. Writing used to be a hobby. That all changed when I reached out to you a few months ago and you were kind enough to respond. Ass-in-chair is the phase I’m in right now. In the past, I’d get started, but couldn’t stop critiquing long enough to keep writing so I’d give up and stop writing altogether. Now, I’ve accepted that the first draft will be shitty, but I can’t wait to get it all out so I can start re-writing. Thanks again!

  5. Lots of swearing in this post which is what makes it extra true an enlightened, in my opinion. Lots of ass and shit going on with hard drafting and editing and writing and publishing. And so much love and obsession. Great post, S!

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