Now that my new memoir is out in the world, I’ve been binging craft books in an attempt to teach myself how I might write a novel. It’s frequently proven to be little more than an elaborate way to postpone actually writing. But upon reading novelist Matt Bell’s new guide, Refuse to Be Done: How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts, I found myself downright inspired into action. Bell’s very practical book got me out of a weeks-long writing rut and is filled with practical tips that are as indispensable as they are non-prescriptive. After recommending this guide over and over to all my writer friends, I realized I had to pick Bell’s brain about this book, and his own creative process.
Part of what I loved about this book was just how practical it was, how you present so many useful little tips. For example, I love the tip of “writing towards joy.” Looking back on writing my memoir Open, the parts I enjoyed writing the most, I think, are still the best parts of it. But I also know that a lot of times, the things I have the most resistance towards writing—the sort of “have-to scenes,” as you call them—were necessary. So how do you navigate the difference between, "This is a scene I’ve preconceived as ‘necessary,’ but maybe it’s painful to write because it isn’t actually needed," versus like, "Well, this doesn't feel joyful to write, but maybe it's difficult for a good reason, and I have to push through it"?
Some of it's thinking about joy or pleasure in a really wide way, right? My last novel, Appleseed, was about climate change. I wouldn't say it was a joyful topic to write. But there are other kinds of pleasure, even in a difficult chapter—like the pleasure of the language, or the pleasure of the construction of the scene. And I think when I'm doing something which is devoid of any of that, you can't find pleasure in writing it.
And so I’d suggest looking for signs of that kind of craft pleasure. And then, of course, knowing when you're just avoiding writing something because it's harder, or you don't know how to do it. The book's a puzzle. I think I actually find the problem-solving part may be one of the most enjoyable things about writing, at least once it starts being solvable.
Refuse to Be Done is definitely a book that gives permission to us “pansters” to not be plotters. At least for the first draft. I found that refreshing, because I have trouble, as someone trying fiction rather than nonfiction for the first time, imagining a whole plot in advance.
For the first draft, I just follow whatever I'm interested in, knowing a lot of it won't be in the book. I don't tend to leave a lot of explicit backstory in my novels. There aren't a lot of flashbacks. But I write a lot of backstory in the first draft because I want to know it, or I'm interested in it, or I feel like I need to know. And so sometimes I write all this exposition and I'm just like, "There's no way this can be in the book." But I know I’m building the iceberg, that it’s stuff I need to know about the characters and the world I’m building.
And then later, after I cut that exploratory writing in a later draft, someone will use that backstory knowledge in a line of dialogue where I'm like, "They just—that character now just knows that ten pages of stuff! It’s not a waste. If a character wants to explain something in a monologue to me for three pages, knock yourself out. It probably won't look like that in the final draft, but why would I stop a character from speaking? It wants to tell me what's going on.
It's not efficient though, right? None of this is “efficient.”
You suggest retyping the entire second draft. And you're like, "Look, if it took you a year to write the first draft, it's going to take you a year to rewrite the second draft." That is a really intense thing to ask of people! But it makes sense to me why you're recommending it, that the rewards would be so high. It's going to be a lot better than if you were just chipping away at the preexisting draft. I can also see how it would make you more motivated to be concise because you don't want to have to retype as much. Whereas if you're just revising off the old draft, you have to kill your darlings in order to condense. It's harder to let go of what you already have on the page.
Yes, especially all that explanation and exposition that you do as you're figuring the book out—that stuff becomes really obvious when you retype the second draft. But that's part of the pleasure of writing, right? I wouldn't purposely write terrible sentences just so I could figure something out. So that work isn’t lost. It’s just going beneath the surface.
So this book is called Refuse to Be Done, but you also give examples of when you have been like, "This isn't working. I'm going to step away. This novel idea is done." So how do you know when you should refuse to give up, and when it’s time to step away from a project for good?
I mean, there's one kind of novel that falls apart that just wasn't 300 pages of material, right? You get up to 100 pages, and you've worn out the initial inspiration, and nothing has joined it. It feels to me that full novels are really hungry. One of the ways I learned to get through novels is that everything I get interested in when I'm writing the book, I try to in some way put in the book. I’m like, "These other ideas are part of this book, too. Let's get you in here."
But when you have a draft that isn’t hungry for outside input in that way, when you find nothing from the outside really joins it, there's very rarely a novel's worth of material. The thing just dies an early death at 30,000 words. So that's one kind of novel where it becomes really clear that I can stop writing—although I usually work on it for like two months more than I should. But usually, when I'm done with it, I know it was the right call because I'm kind of like, "That's a relief."
Rachel Krantz is the author of the reported memoir Open: An Uncensored Memoir of Love, Liberation, and Non-Monogamy.