Ten Tips I learned About Novel Revision from Matt Bell, Author of Refuse to Be Done

Author and writing instructor Matt Bell recently spoke at Porter Square Books at Grub Street’s beautiful, new narrative arts center in Boston—in person no less! In introducing his new craft book, Refuse to Be Done (Soho Press, 2022), Bell promised to share how to write a novel in three drafts. And boy, did he deliver!

For someone like me, in the throes of revising her second manuscript, the timing was perfect. Bell handed out loads of tips, strategies, inspiration, and practical advice on how to get it done. And he did it all with a self-deprecating sense of humor.

I can’t wait to start reading his new book, but in the meantime, here are a few gems I walked away with from his live presentation.

  1. Give your novel-to-be a title. Even if you decide to change it later, a title will make it real to you, and give it life.
  2. When generating pages, don’t set out to “write the novel”. Instead, write the “islands,” the bits you can see above the waterline, the parts that excite you. Don’t force yourself to write the parts that don’t excite you, the dull scenes you think you need. If they don’t excite you, maybe you don’t need them.
  3. “The story is always smarter than you.” Bell shared this Lucy Corin quote to highlight that if you listen closely to your story, it will tell you what it’s about. Especially if you get stuck, just look for where your story has energy and spark and follow it.
  4. If you get blocked writing a scene, try writing it three ways: with a good outcome for your character, with a bad outcome, and then a weird outcome. I love this idea!
  5. If you’re having trouble getting to know your characters, skip the questionnaires and biographies. Instead ask: What’s the story the character tells herself about herself? Even more important than what your characters look like or how they talk or walk, this gets at self-preservation and motivation.
  6. Another strategy to get you unstuck Bell offers is to go back to scenes you’ve written that you love. Highlight them and get inspiration. (Damn, you’re good!) What worked in these scenes? Why? How can you recreate the voice and energy?
  7. Once Bell has a full first draft, he likes to reverse outline his book, and then use that outline to create a revision plan. Bell admitted that he then uses the plan to rewrite his novel from scratch, with no cutting and pasting from the original draft. Hearing this, I almost had a heart attack! Rewrite the whole thing from scratch? Maybe someday I’ll have the guts to actually try this…
  8. In the polishing phase of your manuscript, Bell suggests cutting all the smiles, shrugs, blinks, sighs, nods, etc. And while you’re at it, cut “she thought”, “he knew”, “they understood” Am I guilty of using these? Damn right. Who isn’t?
  9. Bell also recommends examining at all your verbs. Are they the right verbs? Are they evocative and interesting? Taking the time to find the right verb can sometimes eliminate the need for lots of adverbs and unnecessary description.
  10. In the final stages, Bell says he reads his entire book aloud. I know this is worthwhile because I’ve done it with scenes and chapters, but never with an entire manuscript. I’m psyching myself up to do it this time for real. Bell says to remember, this is the last time the book will be all yours. Read it out loud as a gift to yourself. What a sweet sentiment!

Of course, this is just a smattering of all the advice Bell doled out at Porter Square Books last week. So, if you want more, pick up Refuse to Be Done at your local indie bookstore. And head over to Grub Street to register for some amazing classes, online or in-person.

Matt Bell is the author of the novels Appleseed (a New York Times Notable Book), Scrapper, and In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, as well as the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall. 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.

3 comments

  1. Deborah

    OMG, yes. All great ideas but especially item 7. Tim Weed said something like this in one of his Novel in Progress classes and I groaned out loud. But it’s true, revising by editing what’s already on your computer screen won’t get the job done as well as reading a hard copy, then putting it aside to serve only as a guide, reverse outline it and then–absolutely–face a blank screen. Weed said that an onscreen draft has a “gravitational pull” and you won’t see the flaws and the missed opportunities if you cling to it. From my experience, anyway, I think that’s exactly right.

  2. I’m looking forward to reading this book to learn how to write my next novel in three drafts, rather than 27,000. That’s not an exact count, of course, but it feels about right.

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