Refuse To Be Done

How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts

Matt Bell
Soho Press ($15.95)

by Matthew Duffus

Matt Bell’s Refuse to Be Done is destined to join the upper echelons of the pantheon of craft books. Like Peter Ho Davies’s The Art of Revision (Graywolf Press, 2021), the book focuses on an oft-neglected aspect of fiction writing: revision. What’s more, he provides useful advice specific to novel writing, another underrepresented aspect. Bell’s three-draft approach begins not with a rough draft but with a “generative revision.” The emphasis here is on “an exploratory, organic, and above all playful approach” that will get words on the page and provide fodder for subsequent drafts.

As revision is recursive, Bell notes that these are better referred to as “stages,” which require moving both forward and backward, rather than drafts. No matter where one is in this process, Bell’s guidance will assist and encourage. Each chapter contains useful subheadings that allow readers to dip in and out as needed. For instance, “First Draft: Forward Progress, Generative Revision” includes sections such as “Learn What Book You’re Not Writing” (addressing the need to narrow one’s focus) and “Feed Your Imagination” (which includes a discussion of art versus life: “You’ll need to draw upon the art/life experience you already have, while replenishing and enlarging your experiential stockpile whenever you find your supply of inspiration wearing down.”) Bell provides one of the most useful explanations of these aspects around, in down-to-earth language that will help writers achieve these aspirations.

While “First Draft” is the longest chapter, its generative approach prepares writers for the work to come. For as much time as it takes most writers to get the first draft on paper, Bell views it as “not the novel itself but an idea of what a novel could be.” Moving from this “scale model” to the novel it will become requires new strategies, including what Bell calls a “narrative outline,” drawing on work from Anna Kesey and Jim Shepard, both of whom address pacing and what the latter refers to as “the rate of revelation.” Bell uses this outline to create a plan to “better take advantage of the inherent qualities in the structure you’ve chosen.” Following this, he recommends rewriting the book, beginning to end. This is time-consuming, but he argues that “the raw confusion of what book am I writing? will recede as you become surer and surer of what it is you’re making.”

This increased confidence will propel writers into the third draft, which supplies the book’s subtitle. Bell preaches patience throughout this process, recommending shifting editing between screen and paper, reading aloud, and “break[ing] the prose into manageable chunks.” These are in service to “figuring out less what happens and more the best way to show it happening.” Refuse to Be Done’s three-draft approach may not be able to provide the what of a novel’s plot, but it will help in virtually every other aspect of the process. All writers, whether first-time or experienced, will benefit from allowing Matt Bell to serve as their novel-writing guide.

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