Refuse to Be Done

Most craft books on writing are informative, engaging, and if they’re any good, overwhelming. Three craft moves per book is my limit, with anything more being rejected in the limited RAM of my brain.

The subtitle to Matt Bell’s 2022 guide to novel writing, How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts, immediately appealed to my conception of the writing process. (I’m currently focused on short fiction these days, but his advice on novel writing ports well to shorter works.) I’ve identified three stages of a story’s composition: drafting (a story with a beginning, middle, and end, all in rough form with no intention of being shown to anyone), revising (a polished story presented to a writing group for feedback), and submitting (a final update based on the feedback, then sent to literary journals). Bell calls his three drafts generative, narrative, and polishing; his generative drafts are more developed than my initial stage, but it’s his second and third stages that caught my attention.

Bell’s second drafting stage begins with a narrative outline, written in the voice of the novel (he doesn’t recommend outlining during the generative stage). Expect the outline to take several months, he writes, and then promotes that one craft move I’ll implement: retype the entire novel. Don’t revise the generative draft, don’t copy and paste into a new document. Using the narrative outline as a guide, type the whole story from scratch as if that first generative draft didn’t exist.

That’s… a lot of work, even for a short story. Yet I believe this process could help overcome a problem I have with my second stage of composition. I move stuff around, expand and contract paragraphs, search for synonyms far too early, and many sessions feel like a lot of effort without a lot to show for it. Retyping the work in the entirety would avoid the muddle of revision. It’s worth a shot, anyway.

The third stage of Bell’s process might even be more labor-intensive, featuring multiple readings of the novel (printed, not on screen) using several different highlighter colors. It’s this stage which gives the book its title: go through your work until you run out of ideas for how to make it better.

Bell’s advice isn’t for the casual writer — he’s writing for professionals, writers who value the process more than the results. I’m eager to discover how implementing the second stage of Bell’s process affects my own writing.



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