Refuse to be Done

by | Jun 25, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

For our final installment of Revision Month, I’m thrilled to share a conversation about revision I had with Matt Bell, whose breakout novel Appleseed* comes out next month. Lately, I’ve been readings lots of what I’d call “trenchant literary historical fiction” (currently, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell; before that, The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave and The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller), and Appleseed promises to be a standout of that ilk, with special relevance to climate change and the making of America. If you pre-order it, let me know and I’ll give you a free gift subscription to Write Away Weekly to send to someone who you think would benefit. 

It’s always a pleasure to talk about writing and teaching with Matt. And get this–his next book is a craft book about revision called Refuse to Be Done! I simply cannot wait to read it.

Here’s our conversation.

Amy: How long did it take to revise Appleseed? How many drafts would you say you wrote?

Matt: I started Appleseed in 2016 and did my final edits on it in late 2020, so about four years total. It looks like I did nine major drafts of the book, five of them before I sent it to my agent, then a couple rounds with my editor at Custom House. What counts as a “draft” is always a bit hard to quantify, but the earliest ones were the biggest lifts: each of the first three drafts were probably about a year of work.

Amy: What surprised you as you were revising Appleseed

Matt: So many things! My novels tend to change quite a bit in revision, especially between the first and second draft. This was my first novel where I didn’t write a complete first draft before starting over: I let myself write a very exploratory first draft, figuring out the scope of the story as I went, and at some point I had several hundred pages of material that didn’t quite all go together. So I stopped, spent a month or two organizing and outlining and then started over again—and ended up using very little of the actual writing from the first draft, because what it became in the second was so different.

Amy: What is your top revision tip?

Matt: When in doubt, rewrite, don’t revise. It’s often easier to make a better version of a scene from scratch than to tweak a boring version into something good.

Amy: What is the meaning of the title of your revision book, Refuse to be Done? 

Matt: “Refuse to be done” refers to that phase of novel writing where the book is pretty good—the plot works, the characters are fleshed out, the sentences are polished enough—but it could still be even better. What I always want to do then is to find ways to stay inside the book as long as possible, to make everything the best it can be, to transform this pretty good draft into something that’s as great as it can be.

Amy: What can readers expect to learn about revision from Refuse to be Done?

Matt: We’ve all been told that revision and rewriting are some of the most important parts of writing, but even those of us with formal educations in creative writing were often not taught how to do it. Refuse to Be Done aims to be a practical guide to the work of rewriting, full of specific, actionable tasks you can try out in your own fiction.

Amy: When can we pre-order our copy of Refuse to be Done?

Matt: Soon, I hope! Right now it’s scheduled to be released in early 2022, so details on the exact pub date and preorders should be available anytime now. I’ve seen the cover already, and I couldn’t be happier with it. I’m excited to share it with you!

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