I love craft books. It isn’t so much that I read them hoping to learn something new (though I almost always do), but that I enjoy finding new perspectives on what I already know about writing. I especially love reading about process and craft from writers I admire, which is why my MFA cohortmates and my students have probably gotten sick of me mentioning Ursula Le Guin in workshop. For that matter, they’re probably sick of me referencing Matt Bell, too.
Matt Bell is a Michigan-born writer who teaches at Arizona State and publishes a popular free monthly newsletter packed with craft essays, reading recommendations, and exercises. His own works of fiction are fantastic (I’ll briefly hype his latest novel Appleseed, which I savored as an end-of-fall-semester treat). When we at phoebe received an advance review copy of Refuse to Be Done: How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts (with many thanks to Bell and Erica Loberg at Soho Press), I was the first in line among several eager readers. In short: Bell’s Refuse to Be Done is, unsurprisingly, fantastic. I imagine that reading it in the abstract, without a current project at your fingertips, makes it an interesting exploration of novel craft. But if you’re deep in the trenches like I am, it’s more of an indispensable reference and guide.
I’d frequently heard Refuse to Be Done billed as a ‘book on revision,’ and this is an understatement. It is a process-oriented book with an impressive scope: as the subtitle suggests, it is a book on how to both write and rewrite a novel, starting with the first words a writer puts on the page and staying with the writer until they decide they’ve taken the work as far as they possibly can on their own. Bell claims that “rewriting and revision necessarily occur at every stage of the process,” and this sense—that revision is both iterative and unrelenting, a built-in component of all stages of writing—pervades every section of the book.
In part one, or “First Draft,” Bell approaches initial drafting as a step that he calls “generative revision.” He insists that drafting should ideally be a process of boundless creativity and exploratory freedom and that “one of the surest dangers a novel faces in its early life is a writer too eager to be sure of what it is.” This first section of the book is filled with productive exercises—ranging from from the simple and straightforward to the time-consuming and complex—for writers in the early stages of their projects. Typical of Bell’s other craft writing, each concept is laid out in detail and given thorough justification, leaving the reader to decide whether and how to implement it in their own process. Despite my nearly three years in an MFA program and many more of devouring craft books, I found plenty of new and surprising tactics in this section. But it is part two of the book that seems most profoundly different.
In “Second Draft,” Bell illuminates the path between writing an initial draft and polishing a final one; to me, this is where Refuse to Be Done really shines. We all seem to know that there is great value in revising—literally, re-seeing—our work, but how to go about dramatic revision, particularly of a book-length work, feels elusive and daunting, if not impossible. I appreciate the structural approach Bell brings to this process. Without minimizing the difficulty of such a task, he tackles what it means to revise the very architecture of a novel-in-progress, to take the raw material of a draft and constructively rebuild it into something better. His approach has readers confront not only the causal relationships of events in their novels, but also their pacing, their complications and interrelatedness, and their stakes. Most important, Bell provides practical, step-by-step guidance about how to both identify and correct weaknesses in our drafts we might otherwise fail to see.
As a warning: none of this works without a willingness to buy into one of the book’s central arguments. “When in doubt,” Bell argues, “Rewrite instead of revise.” To help our drafts reach their full potential, he insists, we should start with a blank page and rewrite—indeed, actually retype—every word.
While he’s far from the first to suggest such drastic revision as a necessary step in the process, Bell may be alone in providing strategies that can make such a rewrite worthwhile. He anticipates that many of his reader-writers, especially students, may chafe at the suggestion that this work is as necessary as it is overwhelming. His exhortation to fully rewrite is both simple and profound in its implications: if we allow ourselves to realize that rewriting will improve our work, we must confront the fallibility of our first attempts, and this does not come naturally to most writers. After all, despite our tendency towards crushing self-doubt and rampant imposter syndrome, writing a novel, at least one we hope others may someday read, does require a certain amount of ego, a belief that the story we are writing is worth telling and worth reading. To rewrite, cover to cover, is to admit that we haven’t yet told that story as well as we can. This rewriting, Bell insists, is the step of the process most likely to “produce the first real and proper draft of the book your novel has always wanted to become.”
In “Third Draft,” Bell moves writers through various modes of more editorial work, from tightening up scenes to working at the sentence level. Here, as in the first section, an abundance of finely-tuned exercises give writers new tools for improving drafts and becoming better polishers of their own work. Some of these may be familiar, but there are enough ideas here that I think every writer will glean something new from this portion of the book, too. I particularly like that Bell gives writers permission to celebrate their own milestones and forgive their own mistakes, in part by offering up the details of his own revisions to readers as evidence.
At its heart, this kind of transparency is no small part of what I hoped for in picking up Refuse to Be Done—it is what Matt Bell offers that other craft writers don’t. By opening his own process to our investigation, by making us feel that the road bumps and obstacles we encounter in our work are entirely normal and common even amongst authors we revere, he offers all writers, even those just starting out, equal footing as artists. He never talks down to his reader, never condescends, never holds to common pretension that has many successful writers keep their struggles to themselves. Yes, Bell packs his book with practicable tips and tricks, but it is the manner in which he does this that is so truly remarkable. With an authentic tone of encouragement and a rampantly infectious enthusiasm, the book highlights Bell’s passion for teaching and his genuine respect for all writers. It may well be this confidence in his readers, as much as any of his expert advice, that ultimately inspires them not to quit on their drafts. He has an uncanny knack for making you feel like you—yes, you, no matter how much or how little you may have published in the past—really are a novelist, and that your work deserves the kind of careful consideration he urges you to give it.
Anyone who has attempted to write a novel knows the ebb and flow of self-belief, the seemingly haphazard rhythm of good writing days and bad, that can make the work so challenging. Having Matt Bell in your corner, on twitter and in his newsletter and now, in Refuse to Be Done, can be a good way to find your way forward no matter what kind of writing day you are having. Whether you find in its pages a multitude of new process ideas, a neatly-organized approach to efficiently drafting your book, or simply the quiet reassurance that yes, you really can do this, one step at a time, one draft at a time, I don’t think you or your future readers will regret your giving Matt Bell’s latest book a read.
Refuse to Be Done: How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts will be released in early March by Soho Press and is available for preorder here or wherever you buy books.
is the author of Appleseed (a New York Times Notable Book) published by Custom House in July 2021, Scrapper, In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall, a non-fiction book about the classic video game Baldur’s Gate II, and several other titles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, Tin House, Fairy Tale Review, American Short Fiction, Orion, and many other publications. A native of Michigan, he teaches creative writing at Arizona State University. Sign up for his monthly newsletter here, or find him on twitter @mdbell79
a speechwriter-turned-novelist from coastal Virginia, is phoebe’s Blog Editor. She is currently finishing her MFA in Fiction at George Mason University. Catch her on twitter @leahsumrall.