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Refuse to Be Done: How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts by Matt Bell

22 February 2024


Refuse to Be Done: How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts by Matt Bell


Bell’s book, Refuse to Be Done, is a craft book instructing writers how to produce, rewrite, and revise a novel in three drafts. The book is organized into three major segments: first draft, second draft, and third draft. The first draft segment is the most robust, comprising over half the book; the second draft segment takes up about only 15 pages and is rather single-minded in its message: rewrite it from scratch. This might be Bell’s niche in the craft world, what makes this book remarkable, because the advice is so difficult for most writers to swallow. Bell’s intended readership is likely his MFA students at Arizona State University, and for that reason, since we’re likely moving to Phoenix in a little over a year, where I’ll be looking for new adjunct positions, perhaps I should take heed. That said, before reading this craft book, I had no idea who Bell was; I’d never read any of his fiction novels, nor was I aware of any of his short stories, some of which were featured in Best American Mystery Stories. For that reason, for my ignorance of his clout, his advice was tougher for me to swallow than, say, Stephen King’s (who does not recommend a complete second draft rewrite).


It was Bell’s first section on the first draft that carried the most relevant advice, for me. That’s easy to say, though, since it was over half the book. But the message that resonated throughout those pages was pretty singular: just don’t stop. My favorite version of that message was one of encouraging experimenting and play: “At this stage, I advocate an exploratory, organic, and above all playful approach, not because it’s the only way to draft a novel, but because it’s the most enjoyable way I know how” (3). Bell talks about inviting “chaos” in that first draft simply because it loosens our reins and the restrictions on our brains. He also encourages “actively opposing a craft lesson,” as needed for your book (6). He talks about the value of writing the requisite number of words for the simple sake of proving to yourself that you can (12), which is exceptionally valuable encouragement for me. He also discourages too much meddling from outside sources in this phase, the generative phase, of writing: “…you may also find you need to occasionally hide from the pressure you’re feeling over the novel’s outcome, whether that burden is self-imposed or put on you by the expectations of others” (12). All of this I found interesting and timely, as I lobbed three chapters out for feedback and received little more than criticism for them (likely because they were taken out of context of the larger project). The truth is that I have a vision that may not be perceptible until the whole project is complete. And/or, if nothing else, I should march forward with the plan if for no other reason than to prove to myself I can.


Bell’s first section on generative writing contains a multitude of additional little suggestions and recommendations to keep the creative juices flowing, such as write the big action events first and leave out the connective tissue, follow your excitement, reuse minor characters in startling new ways to shake up plot (a great idea, frankly), write the four scenes (discovery, complication, reversal, resolution (41)), move your characters into trouble (52), and retreat to re-read what you’ve written and remove the boring bits (73).


The second section of Bell’s book is dedicated to his theory that your second draft should be a complete re-writing of the first—every last word. If the first draft was exceptionally rough blips of action, then his suggestion to now give the story a solid outline is a great one. That said, I have a tough time swallowing the idea of re-writing everything from scratch, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Still, there may be some merit to his “first guiding principle” here: “When in doubt, rewrite instead of revise” (93). It turns out that I needed to do this just yesterday with a draft. There was a scene I knew I’d written before and could reuse, but I wrote it about three years ago, and I was a different person and a different writer then. The scene was also composed for a different essay with a different tone; it was not useful to copy/paste it in. It needed to be rewritten, and I think the rewritten version is far superior to the original. Would I do it for the entirety of a novel? I’m not sure…but I’ll consider it.


What bothered me about Bell’s third section is that he never suggests sharing your work (in the third draft stage) for critical feedback. He only suggests sharing it with others for a good ol’ pat on the back. Perhaps someone with Bell’s resume has the necessary confidence to eschew outside guidance and revisions. Maybe someday, after I’ve written and published a few novels, I’ll feel I have that luxury too. Today, however, I cannot accept such advice without a grain of writerly salt. Where perhaps too much interference in the first draft stage would stymy the process, I still want it in the third draft stage before I send my pieces out into the world; I need to know how the product is perceived so that I may make necessary adjustments to the storyline/message to bring it closer to my intention. Maybe some of that insecurity is just the newness of this career for me, or maybe some of it is my neurodivergence: I have difficulty reading people understanding nonverbal cues, at times, so I want someone to mirror to me how my characters are behaving and what it means to them. Nevertheless, I value feedback in a way Bell never mentions in this book at all.


Overall, this book contains many valuable suggestions. I loved that Bell identifies the word “that” as almost always useless—it’s something I’d noticed myself while writing poetry, then applied it to my prose to eliminate words. I also loved that he mentioned the rhythm of sentences and the value of ending a sentence on a powerful note with a powerhouse word. These are great recommendations, especially for newer writers. I’d probably recommend this book to others, even if I don’t agree with every aspect of its contents; we all write differently, after all, and that’s kind of the point.

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