In perhaps the craft book to end all other craft books, Matt Bell implores us to take ownership of our writing, to stop and take a second, third, hundredth look, and above all, to Refuse to Be Done—at least until we’re actually genuinely done with a manuscript and ready to kick it from the nest. Michigan-born Bell, best known for his recent 2021 novel Appleseed, is author of eight books, including Cataclysm Baby and Scrapper, both of which he references extensively in this work. He currently teaches at Arizona State University and is perhaps best known in the literary community as a former editor of Dzanc Books, and Founder and Publisher of The Rupture. This book was born from a craft talk Bell gave and should be considered a craft bible for writers at any stage of their career.
The book is split into three parts. The first chapter deals with the initial conception of the book, how to get started, and how to keep going as we hit writer’s block or hurdles. Bell encourages us to recognize the importance of beginning a work of such significance. He tells us to name our drafts early on: “To name something well can be one way to love it. You will have to love your novel for a long time.” The second chapter offers us advice on what to do once that initial draft is complete—ways to rework the narrative and bring the book closer to what we first imagined it could be, while retaining the strength of voice we’ve developed later in the draft. Lastly, in the third section—and perhaps the most compelling section to me—Bell lays out a plethora of practical exercises, designed to get you to look at your work in new ways, and to get that second, third, or fifth draft polished and prepared for submission to publishers and agents.
What has always been remarkable about Bell as a member of the literary community, which is demonstrated so clearly here, is that he believes in the individuality of the writer. There is no one way to write your novel and this book is not prescriptive or totalitarian in its advice, as craft books and talks so often have been in the past. Bell writes: “This book is here to serve you and your book. Only what’s useful to you applies.” Indeed, throughout every exercise or suggestion that Bell develops, there is no sign of pressure. For example, where he asks that we try using different font sizes or different software to look at a draft with fresh eyes, there is no implication that your book will suffer without one of these measures taken. “Sometimes you need to see the trees, and sometimes you need to see the forest,” Bell writes. “Mix up the ways in which you interact with the book as often as you can, until you’re seeing from every possible vantage point.”
Besides the suggestions for improvement that he offers up, Bell comes to these lessons with care and forethought. Alongside his own learned experiences, he refers back, as we all are wont to do, to the work of his predecessors, legends in the writing business such as the late Joan Didion, the intuitive Garth Greenwell, and perhaps my favorite of the bunch, Claire Vaye Watkins. These uses of intertextual references indicate that Bell recognizes that his contribution of craft falls into a landscape well populated by others. This book works so well because Bell does not attempt to rebuff previous craft strategies but simply offers alternative angles not yet considered, or builds on existing premises for the success of his students.
Some of my very favorite of his advice includes: “Writing the Islands,” which borrows from Charlie Smith, telling us to try writing the important, flashy scenes, and then build a bridge between those scenes to speed your progress along; “Using Lists to Manage Time,” where Bell encourages us to cut through unnecessary exposition and use listing to increase pacing and get to the heart of the work more quickly; and to “Set (or Reset) the Clock,” which suggests condensing the time span of a work can make it more successful.
Bell even recalls his own experience with previous literary advice that he includes here: “Retype everything. Yes, everything.” Certainly the concept of writing a whole second draft from scratch can feel intimidating, or too time consuming, but Bell acknowledges this, encouraging writers to persevere and find their work all the better for these efforts. He explains that while this advice is “the part of [his] personal process no one ever wants to hear about,” “despite the difficulty and the time commitment, [he] can’t recommend this whole novel rewrite enough.” “When in doubt,” he tells us, as one of two guiding principles of this book, “[r]ewrite, instead of revise.” The other principle, of course, is the title of the book itself.
Bell is a cheerleader for the arts here, for the writer themselves, and the book they may or may not have yet begun. I also appreciated his pushback on technical language—this is not a book that excludes those who have not attended an MFA or PhD program—as many craft books can be isolating in that way, rather than benevolent and user-oriented like Refuse to Be Done. He keeps it simple, classic, and his suggestions make total sense—it’s just up to us as readers and practitioners of the arts to choose which ones best suit our novel.
Soho Press made an incredibly smart decision in picking up this book. Writers will use this, teachers will teach this in great numbers. This is the perfect handbook to get any writer back on course with generating and guiding their novel into being. As mentioned, the third section of the book focuses on polishing and improving prose, rather than the higher level concerns the rest tackles. Each and every suggestion Bell offers in those pages is valuable—I ran out of sticky tabs because every page made me nod my head in recognition and want to bookmark immediately. Like Bell’s Substack (which everybody should absolutely subscribe to, at mattbell.substack.com), this fantastic, insightful book is essential. For writers, teachers, and students alike, Refuse to Be Done will be a permanent addition to your bedside table.
Refuse to Be Done, by Matt Bell. New York, New York: Soho Press, March 2022. 168 pages. $15.95, paper.
Shannon Wolf is a British writer and teacher, living in Denver, Colorado. Her debut full-length poetry collection Green Card Girl is forthcoming from Fernwood Press. She received a joint MA-MFA in Poetry at McNeese State University and also has degrees from Lancaster University and the University of Chichester. She is the Co-Curator of the Poets in Pajamas Reading Series. Her poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction (which can also be found under the name Shannon Bushby) have appeared in or are forthcoming from Bending Genres, The Forge, No Contact Mag, and HAD, among others. You can find her on social media @helloshanwolf.