In the Editing Trenches: Refuse to Be Done

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Recently, I committed to making 2022 a year of editing. As part of that commitment, I’m reading a lot of craft books on writing and editing in the hopes their general wisdom will help push my many manuscripts into that ideal ‘P’ zone that George Saunders talks about. And, as promised, I’m going to share what I find with you, so that we can all improve both our manuscripts and our chances of being published and engaging readers.

In this first instalment, I’m going to share with you Matt Bell’s “Refuse to Be Done: How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts”, which comes out in March (but that is available for pre-order now). I was lucky enough to score an Advanced Reader Copy, and I devoured it in a few days.  

Bell, author of the New York Times Notable Book, Appleseed, and the award-winning In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, previously worked at a small publishing house, and now teaches creative writing at Arizona State University. And, in Refuse to Be Done, his experiences along that broad spectrum come together in a way that pragmatically addresses the challenges of revisions, while offering kindness, hope, and encouragement.

Refuse to Be Done is, above all, a generous book – it draws not only on the author’s extensive experience, but shares the insights and wisdom of other writers from a range of genres and styles and actively encourages the reader to seek out other books on the writing and editing craft. And this all happens right from the get go – in the epigraph, Bell quotes Karen Russell, American novelist and short story writer whose debut novel, Swamplandia!, was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize: “Writing a novel is kind of like scaling Mt Everest and passing by your own bones on the way”.

Bell gets it; he understands the uniquely personal aspects of writing and editing, and he prefaces his own advice with a caveat. This book is not to turn you into the kind of novelist he is (which, to be honest, wouldn’t be a bad thing…), but to “help you become more yourself, on the page and throughout your process…to serve you and your book.”

Now that we know we’re all on the same page, let’s get into what makes this book so useful to the writer who is editing (even, sometimes, as they write).

The core underlying belief of this book is that “rewriting and revision necessarily occur at every stage of the process”. The book itself is organised into three parts to match these key stages, what Bell terms ‘the three drafts’.

In the first draft, Bell looks at ‘generative revision’ – the kind of revision that allows you to rewrite while still maintaining progress towards finishing your manuscript. Here, the focus is on having fun and exploring the story organically. There are some great ‘hacks’ to trick your brain into generating and maintaining creative output (and avoid writers block), and excellent advice around not letting this stage of creating a book be weighed down and tightly constrained by too much planning. In amongst these prompts are some of my favourite ‘rules of thumb’ – 1) In every scene, have your character doing something that causes a change in them or around them, 2) Know the stories your characters are telling themselves, with all their secrets, misunderstandings, heuristics, and biases – their ‘meta-narratives’ – and explore the conflict this creates, and 3) Turn your character’s ongoing, habitual action into a specific incident that sets that behaviour as natural and habitual.

(As I work through my own edits next year, I’ll be returning to these and many others explored in Refuse to Be Done – testing them out and sharing with you the outcomes).  

The second draft is what Bell calls ‘narrative revision’ – where the big decisions about how to restructure and rewrite your story’s dramatic material to maximum effect comes into play. It is in this stage that the most significant improvements to plot and story can happen. Central to creating this draft is understanding your story better – knowing its key parts intimately and understanding the through-lines of cause and effect. Interestingly, Bell suggests that the best way to do this is to write a detailed outline and work on that and not the manuscript, until you’ve got the outline of the novel you wanted to write (but maybe/possibly/probably didn’t on your first time around). In this part, Bell offers advice on how to turn that outline into a plan, and what key things to look out for along the way.

And, then we get to the third draft, where we encounter the ‘polishing revision’ – and where the book’s title really comes into play. It is in the third draft that authors must refuse to be done – “What you want now is to stay inside your novel as long as possible, giving yourself every chance to transform this pretty good draft into a novel that’s as great as it can be.” What follows is a layered approach to revision – editing tasks and checklists that continue to fine tune the piece until it’s pitch perfect. Here, the focus is less on figuring out what happens, and more on the best way of showing it happening. This part of the book is like having an editor beside you as you work, pointing out what could be fixed, and offering suggestions for how to fix it (and is, no doubt, a product of Bell’s experiences reading and marking student work, working at a small publication house, and working with respected editors for his own works).

I’m really looking forward to using Refuse to Be Done as a quasi-workbook next year and sharing with you all the process as it occurs. Don’t forget you can also grab your copy from March (or save yourself the reminder and pre-order now).

Happy editing!

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