Read Refuse to Be Done

Read Refuse to Be Done

They say writing is rewriting. So why does the second part get such short shrift? Refuse To Be Done will guide you through every step of the novel writing process, from getting started on those first pages to the last tips for making your final draft even tighter and stronger.

From lauded writer and teacher Matt Bell, Refuse to Be Done is encouraging and intensely practical, focusing always on specific rewriting tasks, techniques, and activities for every stage of the process. You won’t find bromides here about the “the writing Muse.” Instead, Bell breaks down the writing process in three sections. In the first, Bell shares a bounty of tactics, all meant to push you through the initial conception and get words on the page. The second focuses on reworking the narrative through outlining, modeling, and rewriting. The third and final section offers a layered approach to polishing through a checklist of operations, breaking the daunting project of final revisions into many small, achievable tasks.

First draft portion is aimed at pantsers and exploratory writers, but still has some suggestions for keeping writing interesting that could be useful to plotters too.

Second and third draft sections were more useful, though a fair amount involves sentence level revision when I suspect that many writers (like me) find that easier than large scale structural revisions.

When you’re stuck

“If what you’re doing stops working, don’t give up before you’ve tried proceeding in a new way.”

Whatever keeps you writing. That’s the number one rule of the first draft.

“So much of novel writing is about refreshing your confidence wherever and however you can.”


Seeking inspiration

Seek inspiration from “art life” and “real life”

“The writers I know who seem to be the most “original” or “innovative” often turn out to be the most diverse readers.
The bigger you make your art life, the more possibilities your imagination will generate.

If you’re stuck, try reading farther from your project

Conduct Generative Research

“Research everything that appears in the story so far” to find new ideas and inspiration

My personal rule about novel research: I never take notes separate from my main manuscript, especially once I’ve started writing. If I find a fact or a detail I want to include, I don’t write it down anywhere unless I can write it directly into the novel, either by finding an existing scene where it can live or by starting a new one centered on the fact or detail.

Do travel research after you’ve written a draft — “Visiting the buildings or landscapes or communities where you’ve set a story feels different from visiting places you might write about…”


Figuring out what comes next

What’s the story telling you?

“You should look at the material you produce to find your material… The story is always smarter than you—there will be patterns of theme, image, and idea that are much savvier and more complex than you could have come up with on your own… Become a student of your work in progress.

— Lucy Corin

Read predictively

  • What scenes would you predict follow what you’ve already written?
  • Where are your characters headed?
  • What action could they take next that would lead towards the predicted outcome?

Explore alternate methods of plot progression

Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook — four elements to progress the plot:

  • discoveries
  • complications
  • reversals
  • resolutions

If stuck, try writing one of each. “The goal here isn’t necessarily to get four perfect scenes, but to get moving again.”

Alternate shapes of novels found in Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode

Beware of “Have To” Scenes

“Follow your intuition: if you find you lack the enthusiasm to write a particular scene you’ve planned, maybe it’s only that a different scene needs to go in the same place.”

“This feeling sometimes appears when you’ve borrowed the scene you’re imagining from someone else’s novel, or from a movie you’ve seen, or from the most well-worn tropes of the genre…”

“If a scene seems impossible to write… think about why: Is the scene merely hard to write, or are you writing the wrong scene altogether?”

Learn What Book You’re Not Writing

[W]hat your novel tells you it wants to be is ultimately more important than what you wanted it to be when you began.


Changing your approach

Change the order you write scenes

“Writing the islands” technique from Charlie Smith: write all your big scenes first, then connect them

Have you written your genre’s obligatory scenes? (E.g. in murder mystery, finding the body)

Change Up Your Storytelling Modes

“Many conventional contemporary novels start in one mode—most often a third-person limited point of view written in the past tense, progressing by scenes presented in chronological order, broken up by occasional flashbacks—and then end in the same way.”

Try switching tenses, styles, POVs, perspective… use epistolary and other in-world documents, tell local folklore

“In her essay “The Circle of the Novel,” Jane Smiley talks about twelve kinds of discourse the novel might contain:

  1. travel,
  2. history,
  3. biography,
  4. the tale,
  5. the joke,
  6. gossip,
  7. diaries and letters,
  8. confessions,
  9. polemics,
  10. essays,
  11. the epic, and
  12. romance.”

“Which could be added to introduce new kinds of narrative and textual variety?”

Follow your excitement

Move toward pleasure, excitement, joy. Save nothing for later. Spend your excitement and inspiration as soon as it appears…

“Study the last sentence you wrote, the last paragraph or scene or chapter: What seems to have the most energy, the most heat, the most juice? … [C]arry it forward into a new sentence…”

You want inventiveness, play, imagination; you may not receive polish or perfection at the same time… Remember that your first draft is meant, first and foremost, to be exploratory, playful, and generative, a process of discovery and creation: you are learning what your story is and who your characters are…”

Let it get weird

“You build one model where things get better, one where they get worse, and one where they get weird.”

— Joshua Rothman (on scenario planning outcomes based on their own actions)


Rich Storytelling

Building characters

  • Highlight specific memorable physical traits (e.g. Marilyn Monroe’s beauty spot)
  • Use a character’s job to offer insight into their feelings / actions
  • Make generalized “everyday” / summarized activities into specific instances — the character’s actions will be taken as their usual way of acting

The Stories Characters Tell Themselves

“You need to know the story the characters are telling themselves, and then beyond that, you have to know the story your characters are telling themselves about the stories they tell themselves.”

— Claire Vaye Watkins

“[T]here is the story of the novel’s present action, but also the stories your protagonists are telling themselves about their motives and their pasts…The gap between the person a character is and the person they used to be (or are assumed to be) contains a lot of potential power.

“[B]oth self-narrativizing and selective memory are essential survival skills…”

— Laura van den Berg


Adding tension

“[T]he order in which information is delivered to the reader is one of the primary contributors to the building and release of tension.”

Steer Toward the Rapids

“Anywhere you find you’ve made your characters’ lives too easy, revise the scene to make life harder. As George Saunders says, the job of the writer is to “move toward the complicated”…”

[M]ove your characters into trouble, not out of it, as often as possible…Keep adding problems to scenes already written and then send your protagonist to solve the new problems.

Set (or Reset) the Clock

What’s the “smallest span of time” the story events can unfold?

Let the character (or reader for historical fiction) know that a big event’s coming soon

Play with contrasts

“You can create counterpoints and juxtapositions:

  • with images and actions,
  • with character traits,
  • with tone,
  • with topics and ideas,
  • with the gap between the expectations readers bring to your settings and the language you use to describe those settings.”

“Put the two repelling pieces of your narrative magnet as close as you can to each other and then write what you see in the energy field they generate.”



Approach to Revision

[T]he first drafts of my novels have never been the real thing, only full-scale suggestions of what they might become. Book-size maps of books.

“[T]he trick of the second draft is to recapture or re-create the magic that inspired the novel in the first place, but to do so with the fullness of the style you developed by the time you reached the end.”

Take a break

“After months or years of drafting, you need to put two kinds of time between you and the manuscript: lived time and art time…While your novel is resting, write something else.”

Create a narrative outline

narrative outline: “summary of the book written in…the novel’s voice”

Goal = “capture the main story of the novel, by which I mean the action of the book’s prime timeline…In other words, not interiority, not digression, not backstory…”

“Your job here is to make a model of your novel, as it exists right now…Once my outline is complete, I revise it, not the novel, until the outline becomes a plan for the better book I want to write.”

“If your novel has three storylines braided together, should you outline them separately or individually? My guess is either could work, but for me it’s worked best to outline each thread as if it were its own book, then revise those individual outlines before rebraiding the storylines back together.”

Check your plot

“[A] story must not retreat to actions of lesser quality or magnitude, but move progressively forward to a final action beyond which the audience cannot imagine another.”

— Robert McKee, Story

  • Do the beats add up with cause-and-effect? “Chains of cause and effect are at the root of how readers make sense of most narratives…”
  • “Where are the events that change the reader’s understanding or raise tension or advance conflict?”
  • Rate of Revelation: “the sense we have of the pace at which we’re learning crucial emotional information about the stories’ central figures.” — Jim Shepard
  • Which threads are closed, which are not?
  • How can you make the scenes following your inciting incident more efficient?
  • “How do you get the reader in and out as efficiently as possible?”
  • Does “the quality and importance of events, scenes, reveals, and complications continue to climb”?
  • Look for “unproductive doublings. Sometimes an event repeats or rhymes to good effect, but often there’s a sense of diminishing returns…Whenever I find I’ve written two versions of a particular action where I need only one, I cut one or (more often) combine the best parts of both into a single, more vivid event…”

Retype from scratch

“I retype my second draft from scratch, rewriting as I go, moving the book I’ve already drafted toward the one described by the outline I’ve spent the last weeks or months crafting.”

“[F]eel free to use the first draft as a guide—I use two monitors at home, and I put the first draft on one monitor while I type the second draft on the other—but whatever you do, don’t cut and paste to save time. Instead, retype everything.

“Adjust your outline as you go, keeping it in line with the work you’re doing: anywhere you deviate from the outline, adjust the plan for what comes after.”

When in doubt, rewrite instead of revise.

Track your daily progress

can use spreadsheet, or physical notebook

  • notes
  • what went well
  • what you learned
  • questions for tomorrow
  • what to do first thing tomorrow


Revision Tactics

Never throw away words. Have a “cut” file.

Remove the Boring Bits

Periodically read through, find the boring parts, and cut them all. If you need to fill gaps, write it from scratch.

“Start fresh. Don’t tie yourself to boring events, actions, or sentences. It’s usually easier to make a new scene from scratch than to make a bad scene good…”

Making your draft feel new

“[T]here’s power in making something feel new again.”

  • change the margins (try 2″)
  • switch tools — pen and paper or laptop
  • change fonts
  • change the zoom level

I have used the text-to-speech function on my Mac to turn my Word document into a robot-voiced audiobook… [A] tone-deaf robot with pronunciation issues will be happy to give you the least generous read possible.


Enhance your storytelling

Vary Tone and Texture

To feel as fully as we might, we need pauses and breaks, changes in tone and texture… If you look at your outline and you see catastrophe after catastrophe with no breaks, some other element might be needed to break these moments up, whether it’s a calmer or quieter moment, a humorous interlude…”

“Given the complexities of your plot, the density of your language, and the intensity of the events depicted, how often might your reader need a rest…”

Consider How the Camera Moves Through a Scene

“Does the description begin zoomed out and then move closer in? Does it progress in a way that makes it easy for the reader to imagine? … If scene-setting description is presented without some kind of order, it becomes disorientingly cubist…”

Clearly Mark Transitions in Time and Space

How much time has passed since the last chapter?


Techniques for revising at the prose level

  • Read aloud from your manuscript daily
  • “break the prose into smaller units” — e.g. put each paragraph on its own page, each sentence on its own line
  • “Cut the opening and closing paragraphs of scenes”

“There’s a lot of opportunity in your being willing to move everything: chapters, scenes, paragraphs, sentences, clauses within sentences, words within clauses. You’ll be amazed at how many paragraphs and sentences don’t need rewriting, just radical rearranging.

Do an editing pass focused on language. Consider the type of dialogue used:

  • Direct dialogue is where you report exactly what a character says;”
  • indirect dialogue is where you render the substance
    summarized dialogue is a summary of a longer conversation.”

Print and highlight

Highlighting passes with different colors for:

  1. “every sentence in which you explain something”
    • “[I]f you find yourself constantly expounding upon what’s happening or what the reader should be feeling, then one of two things is likely happening: Either the action on the page isn’t sufficiently clear for the reader to understand or feel on their own, or else you’re overexplaining what a smart and sensitive reader should be able to understand…”
  2. “every instance of backstory”
    • you probably have too much — what does the reader absolutely need to understand the story?
    • keep backstory that complicates rather than explains your character
  3. the weakest sentence (or clause) in each paragraph
    • delete them all
    • “consider if what remains of the paragraph is strong enough to stand the deletion.”
  4. the strongest sentence in each paragraph
    • what could make the surrounding sentences match its strength?
  5. passages that move you (best to do on a clean copy)
    • if a whole chapter goes by without feeling something, “is there something wrong with the scene?”

The One Good Thing

“[T]ake a page of your most lifeless or stuck prose, scan it one more time to pick out the best sentences, and then retype those sentences onto a new page. Next, move everything else on the bad page into your cut file.”

“Cut everything you can stand to cut”

“There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. the six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them.”

— Elie Wiesel

Pull up widows

Go through and revise all paragraphs with widows (even though they’re arbitrary and won’t match the final typesetting) — forces you to tighten up sentences you already thought were tight

Don’t do the reader’s work for them

“[M]ostly the reader does not want your logic. What the reader wants to do is to connect the dots for themselves, to figure out your characters’ motives, to make connections between one scene and another, to explore and solve the mysteries of your novel.”

Check “logic indicators” for too much explanation following (e.g. since, so, besides, also, although, clearly, because)


Enhance your prose

Use specific language

Mine the vocabularies of your characters’ occupations, each of which has its own special language.”

“[A]s I revise, I often move my nouns (and my descriptive metaphors and similes) ever closer to the concrete, seeking to learn proper nomenclatures, all the specific killer details”

Embrace the Quiet/Loud Dynamic

At a chapter, page, paragraph, sentence level

Chapter/ page:

Zoom out and look at the shape of your novel — where is it “thick” and “thin”? Do you like this level of variation, or do you want to add more variety into those sections?


“There is no optimum sentence length. The optimum is variety. The length of a sentence in good prose is established by contrast and interplay with the sentences around it—and by what it says and does.”

— Ursula K. Le Guin

Most of us tend to write a certain way (e.g. length of sentences, paragraphs, chapters). Figure out your “default speed” so you can “disrupt it.”


“Make sure that the stressed syllables in a sentence outnumber the unstressed syllables. The fewer unstressed syllables there are, the more sonic impact the sentence will have.

— Garielle Lutz, “The Sentence is a Lonely Place”

“[E]nd your sentence with the wham and bang of a stressed syllable…”

Trim unstressed syllables

Get more active

Can your verbs be more active? More surprising?

“Replacing even some of the most typical verbs with more precise and interesting ones will lift the level of your prose.”

“Your verbs are literally the most active part of your sentences, the place where the action occurs. More often than not, the more interesting the verb, the more interesting the action.”

Look for the verb “to be” which is often used in passive voice, or indicating a habitual action that could be made more active

Make the POV closer

Remove sensory verbs that describe which sense the character is using — instead, describe what they see, hear, feel, etc.

Remove thought tags, which “mediate the experience between the narrator and the writer; removing them allows the reader to experience the thought directly, without interruption.”

  • thought
  • wondered
  • understood
  • knew

Write Conversation as Competition

“In novels (as perhaps in life), much of conversation is competition, even if only subtly: whenever characters are speaking, they’re doing so in pursuit of their own agendas…”

  • “What do [the] characters want in this scene?”
  • How does the tension in the conversation escalate as it progresses, and where are its complications and reversals?”

“[P]eople rarely say what they mean, and they often talk over each other…” Technique from Christine Schutt: write the draft, then cut out every other line

Clean it up

  • Avoid cliche word pairings
  • Excise overused filler actions in dialogue scenes (e.g. sigh, smile, raise their brow) — instead, use “details or actions demonstrating the emotional subtext of your character’s speech”
  • Eliminate extra clauses and excess adverbs
  • Dump weasel words — “words I might use to get out of writing better sentences”
    • find your own collection of words you overuse (e.g. just, that, even, still, thing, mostly, almost, again, seem, big, small, little, weird, very, every, smile, grin, nod, look, see, sometimes)
    • Turn on track changes and delete them all, then add back in only the ones that are warranted
    • Rewrite sentences as needed


Book recommendations

Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses

Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style by Virginia Tufte — “a dictionary of the possible at the level of the sentence”

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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