Novel Revision with Matt Bell

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Show Notes

Matt Bell discusses his new craft book, Refuse to Be Done: How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts. We talk about the mysteries, joys, and frustrations of novel revision, including getting that first draft out on the page, recordkeeping during the drafting process, finding your place on the “outline or no outline” spectrum, strategies for the second draft, unpublished first novels, abandoning a novel after writing 100 pages, why community is sustaining for writers, and more.

Matt Bell is the author of the novels Appleseed, Scrapper, and In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, as well as the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall, a nonfiction book about the classic video game Baldur’s Gate II, and several other titles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, Tin House, Fairy Tale Review, American Short Fiction, Orion, and many other publications. A native of Michigan, he has an MFA from Bowling Green State University and teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.

Mentioned in this episode:

  • Bowling Green State University’s MFA program
  • Winter Wheat Festival of Writing
  • Karen Russell
  • Carmen Maria Machado
  • Lauren Groff
  • Wendell Mayo
  • Lawrence Coates
  • Anne Valente
  • Callista Buchen
  • Dustin M Hoffman
  • Gregory Howard
  • Joseph Scapellato


Laura Maylene Walter (00:02):
Welcome to Page Count presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. This podcast celebrates authors, illustrators, librarians, booksellers, literary advocates, and readers in and from the state of Ohio. I'm your host, Laura Maylene Walter, the Ohio Center for the Book Fellow and author of the novel BODY OF STARS.. In today's episode, we're speaking with Matt bell, a novelist, short story writer, and professor of creative writing at Arizona State University. His most recent novel, APPLESEED, was published in July 2021, but his newest title is the craft book REFUSE TO BE DONE: How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts. We'll be talking about the mysteries, the joys, and the frustrations of novel revision today. Matt, thanks so much for joining us.

Matt Bell (00:55):
Thank you for having me.

Laura Maylene Walter (00:56):
I always start by asking my guests about their connection to Ohio. Now, Matt, I know you're in Arizona right now and you're from Michigan, but here you are on this podcast with an Ohio focus. So can you tell us what is your Ohio connection?

Matt Bell (01:11):
Yeah. Uh, thank you. I went to grad school at Bowling Green State University from 2008 to 2010. So I was there for a couple years and then I've been lucky to come back to the Winter Wheat festival at Bowling Green a couple times over the years and, and see all our Bowling Green friends. Um, and then my novel APPLESEED is partly a retelling of Johnny Appleseed. The historical John Chapman did a lot of his work in Ohio, so much of the book is set in that area

Laura Maylene Walter (01:35):
And just full disclosure. I also attended Bowling Green's MFA program, but not at the same time as Matt. I was a little bit later. So you have this new craft book about novel writing and revision, which was just a fantastic read. I thought maybe we could set the tone and have you read the epigraph for the book, which is a quote from Karen Russell. So can you please share that with us and then tell us why you chose it?

Matt Bell (01:58):
Sure. The epigraph is from the novelist Karen Russell. "Writing a novel is kind of like scaling Mount Everest and passing by your own bones on the way." I think I, I first read that in a, I think it's something Karen said at an event and it was reported in an essay somewhere else by Carmen Maria Machado. It's a little inscrutable, like I'm not sure exactly what it means and it also feels exactly right. It has that sort of full wisdom to it. But I think there is part of novel revision that is like every draft is, I mean, if I make it really literal as like climbing the mountain again and like you see the things you've done before, and this time you hope to do it better, you go farther than you did. You know, the past time, the explorer who didn't make it to the top of the mountain that you're passing. That is also you is part of the process. Right. But yeah, I love it. Partly 'cause I think it's both like wry and also dramatic <laugh>,

Laura Maylene Walter (02:47):
Which also sums up the novel writing process in my experience. So it's perfect. Well, so this book is really a guide to help, I think, ease writers along through the process, not only of writing their first draft of a novel, which is a huge undertaking, but then refusing to give in and give up and to continue revising it. And the introduction you open by encouraging writers to tell themselves repeatedly that they are writing a novel and to confirm that to themselves. I was really taken by that because I feel I often come across writers who want to write a novel or have thought about writing a novel, but they either feel they don't have permission to do it. Or they might feel that they don't have the experience or the knowledge or the quote unquote talent or the connections or any of these things. So sometimes they seem to need either permission or something external to tell them that they can or will write a novel. Can you just talk about that a bit? Why did you think it was so important, right from page one, to let the reader know that it's okay if they tell themselves they are writing a novel?

Matt Bell (03:47):
You know, it's natural, I think, to want like sort of outside validation of sort of our beliefs of ourselves. But if you wait till you've published a novel to call yourself a writer, you've sort of given up all that time you were writing, which is, which is really the thing. I think when you are writing a novel, you're writing a novel and you should sort of claim that also. I know one thing that's in the book is talking about like giving a novel, a title on the first day. So you have something to call it. And there's something really interesting about thinking about your book by the title. It will like one day be named even before it exists. 'Cause it makes it feel like it exists already. Like you're excavating it instead of inventing it or something. And I find that helpful, even for me, like I'm halfway through another novel and I call it by name and it's useful for me to think of it in that way.

Laura Maylene Walter (04:29):
Yeah. It makes it more of a tangible thing that you're working on instead of just a huge pile of pages that don't quite fit in your mind. I like that.

Matt Bell (04:38):
Right. <Laugh>

Laura Maylene Walter (04:38):
Well, so speaking of titles, I have to admit when I first saw the subtitle of this craft book, which is How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts. My first thought was, oh my God, only three drafts. What? Because as a writer who really went through the trenches, the revision trenches with my novel, my first reaction was just wonder that anyone could do it in three drafts. But of course I read the book and it seems to me that your conception of three drafts is more three stages of the process. So I was wondering if you could just briefly describe what those three stages or drafts would be.

Matt Bell (05:13):
Yeah, absolutely. And I have the same experience. I mean, "what is a draft?" is a whole other question probably, but I think in theory, I had like nine drafts for APPLESEED while doing the things I call three here. Right. So I really think of it as stages, which just doesn't make as pithy of a title. Right. So that's the reason it drafts there. I think, you know, there's the stage of writing like this sort of original draft to the book, which I think of as generative writing or generative revision or exploratory revision. And then for me, the second draft is really the one where like the story comes into shape or you reshape the story to be as tight as it can be. And so I think of that as narrative revision really focused on plot level kind of questions and scene-level questions. And then this third draft or third stage is a polishing revision. By then the book is like story complete and it's just making the book as enjoyable as it can be. And as polished as it can be, which really the part where it becomes the kind of thing you might see on a shelf. For me, a lot of the things that make the book seem as good as another book that's been published happens in that last stage. Like it takes a long time for it to sort of start really coming into being in that way.

Laura Maylene Walter (06:13):
So I was curious, just for fun, this is not going to be a scientific question, but if you think about your novel writing process, if you had to guess the percentage of time you spend working on the first draft of a novel and the percentage of time you spend on all the revision and the rewriting, what do you think that would be for you?

Matt Bell (06:31):
Proportionally? I would say that second draft takes about the same amount of time as the first draft. It is in some ways for me like a really a full rewrite and reimagining of the book. And it seems to take almost exactly the same amount of time. So if I spend a year on a first draft, maybe I spend a year on a second draft and then the, the sort of polishing work, maybe a little less. I know with my first novel, like 10 months, 10 months and six months or something like that for like those three stages with some time in between, right. In this very like particular sort of only thing I was working on kind of way. I do think, even though I say six months later, I went back and like, cut that book in half again, before it ever got to an editor. So there's this other time where I spent a couple months, maybe it's really all three are about the same and that's before it goes to my agent or an editor. Right. And then there's like that revision, which is like more time. This is all sort of the, like before other people process.

Laura Maylene Walter (07:16):
And speaking of that, do you usually hold onto your novels until you go through all three of these stages before you show it to an agent or, say, a beta reader or anyone else?

Matt Bell (07:26):
Yeah. I ideally I think, well, I think for me, a lot of my books don't sound like good ideas when I start them. Like, so sort of there's this they're like delicate, right? Like I'm gonna prove it should be a book by writing it. So I think I try to wait as long as possible. I know that's not good for everybody and everybody should do what's right for them, but I both wanna protect my own relationship with it for a long time. And I'm also really aware that like your friends are only gonna read your books so many times. Right? <Laugh>

Laura Maylene Walter (07:51):
Yes. You can only ask so much of people. Yeah.

Matt Bell (07:54):
Yeah. And so like really wanting people to read it when it's like, I've done all I can now I need help, but I it's lonely to do that too. So I understand that that's not going to be the case for everybody.

Laura Maylene Walter (08:04):
Right. I think some people might need a bit of a push and have to make it even feel real to them in the world that someone can read it and give them feedback. I'm probably more like you, I like to hold onto it for as long as possible. When I was younger, I drafted a few novels that didn't go anywhere, but the impulse back then was finished the first rough draft and then immediately like, turn it over to someone because you just wanna say here, tell me what's wrong with it. You know? But at that stage, of course, pretty much everything's wrong with it. <laugh> and so it's a better use of their time and your time. I, I agree if you can hold onto it a bit longer and revise it. Well, I would love to talk to you about outlining.

Laura Maylene Walter (08:41):
I think after reading this book, I think you and I probably have similar thoughts on outlining, which in my case means I don't do it. <laugh> and I have to write to explore and to understand the world of the novel, but it can be really exhilarating and fun, but it can also be a giant mess. So I'm wondering in general, what advice do you have for writers when it comes to outlining a novel? What works for you and what do you suggest for people trying to find out where they are on that outliner don't outline spectrum.

Matt Bell (09:09):
Yeah. Like you said, I think we both start from maybe like no outline. So that's the default. My novel SCRAPPER really takes place in like the illegal metal scavenging industry in contemporary Detroit. And that was my original interest. I'm like, oh, there's like a book to be set there. It's like an interesting setting. So I was really starting kind of exploring that. I didn't know the character's name for months. I'm exploring, I'm looking around. I'm trying to find out what I'm interested in, what the book's interested in. One of my rules that I think has been useful is that I try to keep the protagonist acting, even if I don't know what the super structure is like to write scenes in which they're doing things and making choices so that they're not just observing and reflecting. And I think that eventually sort of reveals story, I'm teaching a novel class right now where I've been suggesting to students that like, even if they don't know the whole, maybe like the senior working on, and then having like an on deck scene, at least one more that's enough of an outline to see like the next place I'm gonna go will get you through the exploratory draft.

Matt Bell (10:03):
So the first draft is always really baggy. It's always a little misshapen because I obviously did not plot it well. And then as you know, in the second draft, I stop and I outline the first draft I've written. And then I revise that outline, which see, has worked really well for me. It's sort of like you get all that exciting sort of organic material to work with. And then it's like, what's the best shape story I can make. And that process takes longer every book, I don't know if that'll always be the case. It took like a couple weeks for my first novel, IN THE HOUSE. And then it took three months for APPLESEED and APPLESEED's more complicated, but I'm not even sure that's why. I just, I think I also wrote a better outline. So maybe that's part of it. It becomes this like model of the book then, and I can rewrite from it. I don't think I would've written any of my books the way they are. If I had had to outline them in advance. I just can't imagine what that would look like.

Laura Maylene Walter (10:52):
I know I can't for my own work either. I just, I can't imagine not being turned loose with 80,000 words to just kind of see what happens and let the story, tell me what happens. Right? Which again, for some writers though, that is not an ideal way. Some people need an outline and I respect that sometimes I'm jealous of it. So it's interesting how every writer has defined their own way.

Matt Bell (11:13):
One of the things that I think makes people nervous is like, um, that it would take a long time to do this process than you and I do, but I don't know that it takes longer like this kind of exploratory, figure-out-the-book thing always sounds to people like it's gonna take forever, but three novels in the last 10 years. Right? You know, like that's like every couple years is enough. It's not efficient, but it's more than fast enough. Right?

Laura Maylene Walter (11:34):
If we were just all about efficiency, then we probably wouldn't be writers. We'd be doing some very practical kind of career. Yes. That was more stable in all sorts of ways. Well, I had mentioned that I wrote some novels when I was younger, that nothing happened with them. And you have just one line in your book that says that you did write a first novel, that you did not try to get published. So I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about that. What was that process like for you? What did you learn from it? And a lot of writers out there, the first novel they publish is not necessarily the first one they wrote, which often terrifies my writing students when I mention that. And I don't say it to be discouraging. I actually think it's encouraging to show that we get better and that we learn. But what do you have to say about that process for yourself? And what would you tell other writers who might be worried about that?

Matt Bell (12:19):
It's funny you say that about your students. Cause I think all the things that I find encouraging about like the long arc of a career makes my students nervous. Right? Yeah. <laugh>

Laura Maylene Walter (12:28):
Maybe you have to be a nihilist to be a writer. I don't know. <laugh>

Matt Bell (12:33):
It's like there's no such thing as talent. It's just hard work and they're like, well, what if I'm just talented or not? You know, but anyway, so I wrote two novels, really like three novels before IN THE HOUSE UPON THE DIRT BETWEEN THE LAKE AND THE WOODS. I wrote a NANOWRIMO novel a long time ago, which was not great. Right. And I don't think I ever showed anybody, but it proved to me that I could type that many words. Right. It was like, oh, there's a 60,000 word thing I wrote. And I remember that first time getting to like page 100 on something. Right. And you're like, oh, you're like in this different world. And then I wrote a long novel rate before grad school. Maybe it had a similar effect. Like it wasn't very good. I worked really hard on it.

Matt Bell (13:08):
I think what I learned with that book was like how to write on a schedule. I had sort of a process, and the process produced all this material, but I had this idea when I was writing that book that you should like never look back. That first drafts were all about just like momentum. And so it was like even more messy and broken than a normal first draft might be. And then I wrote a, uh, while I was writing in the house, I wrote a licensed Dungeon & Dragons novel under a pen name with a friend, which was a very different kind of novel writing process. But that came out like the year before IN THE HOUSE did. So I got to experience kind of co-writing with someone which was another way of sort of learning to do it. And then between every book I have failed novels, right? Like between IN THE HOUSE and SCRAPPER, I had two novels that wrote at least a hundred pages of that I didn't finish. And between SCRAPPER and APPLESEED, I wrote 400 pages starts that didn't become things. So I presume I have to write like eight of those before my next novel. Um <laugh> but I produce so many novel starts that don't become novels. You know? I mean, I think that's part of the process too.

Laura Maylene Walter (14:05):
What is that like for you when you know, you've written a hundred pages, I'm assuming your instinct tells you that there's nowhere left to go, that you want to go. What is that process like internally when you come to that decision?

Matt Bell (14:17):
It's been different from project to project. Sometimes I just lose the thread of it or I stop being excited about it and then let's stop working on it. At least once I realized I was like outta my depth culturally on something like, I just like, I'm like, oh, this isn't a story maybe I can or should tell and walked away from it. I felt like I learned a lot writing it, but it was like maybe not something I needed to make into a book. And I hope someone else does. I think I lost one where I just had like a loss of confidence. I was like, is this the right book to be writing? Is this what I'm supposed to be doing? Which is silly. Um, and I should have just kept writing it, but no one's ever told me what I'm writing the wrong thing, but I got my own head about it.

Matt Bell (14:50):
Right. And so it's lost one. So it could be different from book to book. I don't know if this is your experience, this kind of thing, but it takes me a little while to give up. There's always this like, oh, this really isn't working. And then I beat my head against it for three months and then I give up and I'm like, just the relief of being like, not that book is so good when it finally happens, but the, the first inkling of disaster and the giving up are terrible. But you know, sometimes you have two bad months while you're writing a good book, you know, <laugh> right.

Laura Maylene Walter (15:18):
Or many bad months,

Matt Bell (15:19):
But yeah. Many bad months. Yeah. Two would be great. Two would be a blessing. Yeah.

Laura Maylene Walter (15:24):
That brings me to talking about motivation to keep going through the first draft. When you were talking about your earlier kind of practice novels that showed you, you could write that many words. It reminded me of the first time I drove across country. I drove the whole way. And when I arrived, I said to the person hosting me, I said, oh, well, Hey, now at least I know I can drive across the country by myself. And I realized when I said that, like, of course I always knew I was capable of it. It's not really that hard. You just keep your foot on the gas for three days or whatever. It's fine. But it is with the novel, it is sometimes psychologically an endurance test, I think. So you mentioned a few tactics that you have with a record keeping system and tracking your words and tracking your time. Can you tell us a bit about that and how that might help keep you going?

Matt Bell (16:10):
Yeah. I think, you know, the tracking, so obviously most people listen when have read the book. So to say quickly, you know, I keep some version of a writing log. It's often a simple spreadsheet where I just put in, I wrote this many words today. I worked for this many hours. Here's how I felt. Here's what I thought about. I think there's some of, it's just like when you track things, you do a better job of it. Right. You know, and you write down the miles you run every day and you become a better runner. You write down the words you wrote every day and you become a better writer. You're trying to diet and count calories. You can't really do it like in your head by feel right. You sort of like whatever your thing is that you're paying attention to. And so I think for me, that's helpful.

Matt Bell (16:45):
Like, it just makes me want to do it more because I'm writing it down. I think the other part of it is the process is so long that it's nice to be able to look at the log and see what I've done. And just be like, I'm working really hard. Like you can see how much effort I'm putting in. So it's like, I'm on the path or you look back and you go, well, a month ago I had 20,000 less words than I have. Now that's a good month. Even if you're in that uncertain middle where you're like, will this ever be done? Will this be good? And the spreadsheet doesn't answer that question, but it doesn't at least show that you're trying. And I think that's really, really helpful. And especially if you're a person like me who doesn't share any of it with anybody or necessarily even talk that much about it. Like you just have to have somewhere where there's a record of what you did with all this time. <laugh>

Laura Maylene Walter (17:25):
Right. I do something similar and it feels on a day-to-day basis when you're drafting, it feels like progress is so slow or non-existent. I also leave myself little notes about how I felt about the day and over time that all washes away. But if I go back and look at my notes, I can see like, wow, I felt each day, I wasn't making much progress, but I wrote a whole draft in, you know, X amount of time. But I also, I like data and actually seeing things laid out. So I recommend that for writers too. I think it can be helpful. So let's say someone does get through their first draft. They keep track of everything. They get to the end of that first draft and then they create their outline. And they're thinking about changes that can be made. You have a really interesting idea about retyping the second draft. Can you tell us about that? Because this is something I admittedly have not done. I often rewrite huge portions of a second draft, but I haven't gone through and done what you suggest in the book. So I would love to hear about it.

Matt Bell (18:19):
Yeah. Um, I sort of always joke when I, you know, this, this book grew of a craft lecture when I would get the lecture version of it. So obviously like this is the part, no one wants to hear it. It is mostly, which is that I write second drafts pretty much from scratch, starting over partly a belief that like, I'll revise more if I'm retyping, like it just like, I will, I'll make bigger changes. I'll be a little bolder cutting and pasting does not feel like what's not revision in some ways, right? It's moving things, but it's not making the pros better. Often the outline is dramatic enough different that it requires it to some extent. One of my rules is that I let myself reuse anything from the first draft that I want, as long as I'll retype it. But over the years, every novel I've used less of the first draft than I did the one before.

Matt Bell (19:01):
Like it becomes less useful. And I think part of it is that the plot continues to morph and change as I'm writing the new second draft. So like some of the stuff just ends up out of bounds, but I also think wherever the voice of the book just keeps strengthening and strengthening. And eventually the second draft has gotten so much better at the level of voice that the first draft material is, feels juvenile compared to it. And I think that's actually an exciting moment where I'm like, oh, none of this is useful anymore. And I don't have to look at it and I've sort of moved past it, but it got me to where I was, you know, it's not a, it's not a waste, right? It's not none of the times waste or bad writing. It's just like the new writing is better than, but so I think that's worked out well.

Matt Bell (19:36):
I know other writers do things like Lauren Groff, whose books I love, writes a first draft by hand that she says, she's trying to figure out the story, but she doesn't wanna worry about sentences yet. So she does it by hand. And I think she just like puts it in a drawer and starts over. And it's like, now I know what the story's about. Now I'll try to write like the pristine version of it, you know, the sort of beautiful sentences version of it. And I've never had quite the guts to be like, I don't need to look at the first draft ever again, but I do think I abandon it more fully as I go for that first novel. It felt very reassuring to have it to draw on and to sort of build off of, especially,

Laura Maylene Walter (20:11):
It's funny how much of this process is really embracing either your past failure and trusting you can move on from it or, and just letting go of things. I think that can be scary for writers because it is work to write a draft to write anything. And the thought that those words probably won't be published as they are right now. I think that can be scary for people, but I also think it's so worth it because that's how you grow as a writer. Yeah.

Matt Bell (20:35):
Is there a part of it that ends up being like freeing though? Like one of the things that's freeing about the exploratory draft is no one has to see this. Yes. Right.

Laura Maylene Walter (20:43):
I love that part of it.

Matt Bell (20:45):
Oh, me too. Yeah. I would not be judged on this material. This material is just for me. And it means that you can write bad sentences while you're figuring something out because you're not gonna live or die by them. Where that first things you write cost you so much to make, and you don't have that, like this is gonna work out feeling. So I think it's just much more dire to sort of give up on something or to put pieces aside. I don't know. I think at this stage I like published half a million words and I've probably written 2 million. Right. You've hit the keys a lot. Like it's sort of, you know, if you've added up, it's this insane amount of prose you've made most of which no one will ever read and you just become more capable of moving on from it. That's just part of the process.

Laura Maylene Walter (21:23):
You did mention earlier your collaborative novel project, if you just briefly touch on that, because I imagine that must be such a different process. And were you reading each other's early work and was there anything from that experience that informed how you write your own novels on your own today?

Matt Bell (21:39):
Yeah, I think it was about 10 years ago. So trying to remember exactly what we sort of did, but if I remember right, we had like a really rough structural outline, but like, I don't think we followed it very closely. It was like very rough. And then my, uh, co-writer's named Matthew as well. So Matthew would write a chapter and then I would write chapter. Then he would write chapter for the first draft. And then once we did that, we actually did like whole book passes individually. So like he would do a revision of the whole book. Then I would do a revision of the whole book. Then he would do one. And I think one of the things that ended up doing was like leveling out our voices. I don't know if it exactly sounds like either of us, you know, and it was an interesting way.

Matt Bell (22:14):
The original draft, the chapters felt very different. You could really tell who wrote what, but I think the sort of back and forth revision, there was part of that. And also because it was a licensing, we were writing in someone else's world that had like weird structural asks and things, right. It had to work a very particular way. It had to be a very particular size. And so it did have a different kind of process, but it was interesting to sort of have that back and forth. That felt certainly different than working with yourself in some ways. Although when you write a novel, you end up working with old versions of yourself too, right? Like who wrote this? Like, why is it like this? The person you were when you start a book is different than the one who finishes it three years later and has almost a completely different job. The third draft writer has a different job than the first draft writer. I don't know. It's very weird. You're always in this sort of state collaboration with yourself.

Laura Maylene Walter (22:57):
That's a really good point. And it makes me wonder now that you've published several novels, you are such a different person from the first draft to the final draft. And also I think you're a different person when the book is out in the world and published. So I'm curious, what is that like for you? Does it feel more distant to you? You know, how do you reconcile your past writing self after the book is out and it's a product in a store that people can buy, right?

Matt Bell (23:22):
I mean, I think partly do it, but it never really feels that real to me. <Laugh> I do feel a little distant from it sort of in general, right? When you're writing a book and you're imagining it being published, there is this, like when the book's published, I will feel this way or that will mean this, but I really do believe that the time you spend writing it is actually the meaningful part. The thing I really want out of publishing books is obviously for other people to enjoy them and for them to succeed enough that I get to write more books. The actual line of success for me is most that I get to continue. And so I don't know, it is a little weird. You must have had this experience with your first book, but that first time you're doing interviews with this book that you finished a year and a half before. And you're like, oh, I don't really know anymore. Every time you ever went to a reading and asked someone a question about their book, it had been like years since they started it it'd been years since they wrote it. And you're like, oh, all those people were just trying to remember on stage what they had done or what it meant.

Laura Maylene Walter (24:13):
The first book club I was invited to when BODY OF STARS came out a few days beforehand, I almost panicked and thought I should reread my book and study it because I had no idea. <Laugh> I just felt like it had flown out of my mind. And then I decided that was ridiculous. And it was completely fine, but it is this strange sense that you don't know it as well anymore. Yeah. Well, the title of this book is REFUSE TO BE DONE, which is also one of your guiding principles. So I wanted to talk about how through this book, you're encouraging writers, not to throw in the revision towel too early, and you encourage them to keep going, keep returning to it, keep making it better. And, you know, I really revised for a long time, my first novel before it got published. And I received a along the way, some, I think interesting reactions from some writers, this was rare, but a few writers seemed either a little taken aback by all the revision, or they seemed worried about it, or maybe even defensive.

Laura Maylene Walter (25:10):
And I found that reaction really fascinating because I think revision is hard work. It's a lot easier just to decide that it's done and to leave it behind. And for me, I was writing a speculative world. So it was really complicated and I needed that time, but I'm wondering, you know, writers can be impatient, sometimes a little impatient, sometimes a lot impatient. We all just want to be done. We all just want to be published and move on to the next thing. But what do you have to say about that in terms of patience when it comes to revision and in terms of encouraging writers, you know, why they should focus on trying to revise a little bit more if they can.

Matt Bell (25:43):
Yeah. I mean, in a real broad stroke, I think about like the revision process, how my books have like become themselves. I wouldn't want the first drafts of my novels published either, right?

Laura Maylene Walter (25:54):
No. <Laugh>

Matt Bell (25:54):
Yeah. Sometimes I'm reading from the published book and I'm like, why am I making people read this? You know, like <laugh>, but I think my first draft would be like, uh, almost like a crime to make someone read it for me. But I, I do think there's something about like taking something as far as you can for yourself for your own reasons. Not because it'll be easier to get an agent if it's perfect first, but just for like your own reasons to do the whole job, to build the whole thing. I think a lot of what really makes the book feel successful to me, like as a work that I did happens in that last six months of the work, that first part is exciting and exploratory and difficult and uncertain, but the part where it like becomes something that I'm really proud of often happens toward the end.

Matt Bell (26:35):
And, you know, it's, it's interesting talking to other published writers and it's interesting having been a book editor and a teacher for a long time. I know the state people turn in different books and there are writers who turn in first drafts and their editors buy them and then they work with them for years on them, or they rewrite a lot of the person's book for them. And like that happens. And I don't wanna be one of those people. And I know other editors who are like, you know, famous writers who are like, I rewrite their books, you know, it's like, I would never name anybody, but like, you know, it's a business, there's different ways of being in a business. I think for me as an artist, I want to go as far as I can on my own. And then I want to collaborate with great people, a great agent and a great editor, a great copy editor.

Matt Bell (27:14):
And so I think that's part of it. I also think in just a really practical way, if you get your book to good, you know, other people help you maybe get it to like very good, but if you can get to very good on your own before you give it to them, then they'll take it that much farther. Your editor is also only going to work so hard in your book. They have 10 books to do that year. You get like six weeks of their time, you know, and man, that might be a lot. The worst shape your book's in, the less chance of it going all the way is.

Laura Maylene Walter (27:39):
Yeah, that's a great point. And I will also say, I found it really satisfying when I was revising and revising and times would come when I would think I can't revise this anymore. I either don't have anything left in me or I'm not a strong enough writer to keep revising or anything, but then I would take a break and then get back into the work and I could do more and make it deeper and go deeper. And that was really satisfying to actually see progress. Even when you think you didn't have anything left, you always kind of do. If you dig deeper.

Matt Bell (28:10):
I mean, there is obviously a place where you have to stop, but it's usually not the first time you come to the place where you think you have to stop. Right? <Laugh>

Laura Maylene Walter (28:17):
Right. Yeah. Well, that leads me to my next question, which I want to ask you the question that writers ask me all the time and I never know how to answer it, which is how does a writer know when they are quote-unquote done revising their book?

Matt Bell (28:31):
Yeah. I wish I had like a super easy answer for it. I do think there are things that happened in my novel drafts as I'm getting close, that I can feel like there's a place where they get proportionally, correct. You're doing all this revision. And then like one day, the first act is a hundred pages and the second act is a hundred pages and the third, you know, or whatever it is. And you sort of feel this like, oh, things are like the right size. Now, like somehow that's happened where it used to be a 37-page chapter and a two-page chapter, they're both 10 now, you know, it's like, how did that happen? You do start to feel this like rightness sort of spreading through it. My sort of nervousness about what I'm doing goes down. And that way I start seeing its sort of correctness, you know, all the stuff I refuse to be done is 95% of what I know to do.

Matt Bell (29:12):
Right. So like at some point you've done it all. Like I've done all the things I know to do. So that might be why it's done one of the very, very last things I do when I think I'm done. I read the book aloud myself, end to end, no matter how long it is. I mean, I think APPLESEED's 500 pages long in hardcover. Like it took me like days of just like walking around my house, reading the book off my e-reader to myself out loud, part of that's to find typos and different things. And part of it's just to like, experience the book anew. Cause you get tired of looking at word or Scrivemer, whatever you're doing. And I often it's the end of that. And I'm like, all right, that's that? That's the thing. I got to have this one last, like where it's just me experience,

Matt Bell (29:50):
and then it's sort of ready to go on. I usually feel pretty good about it. I don't get through that and be like, wow, that's I hope I can sneak that past somebody. You know, like it does feel, I feel pretty proud of it, but I think there's a real change that happens in the last steps. As you're tightening all the screws down. It's Sort like when you're remodeling a house or a room or something halfway through it, you're like this will never be done. And there's some part where you're like, I'll just hide the parts I didn't do and I'll put the bed up or something, you know, if you stay and you finish this sort of rightness of the house is real. And I think there is a place where you have to trust your instincts on that, but it's not the place where you just don't wanna do it anymore. That's a different feeling.

Laura Maylene Walter (30:23):
Well, since we did attend the same MFA program, Bowling Green State University, I was wondering if you could talk a bit about your time in the MFA and how that influenced your work now as a novelist.

Matt Bell (30:35):
The MFA was, was great for me. I was 28 when I started. And I finished undergrad kind of late, so I didn't finish undergrad until I was 26. So I went reasonably close after undergrad, but a little older I'd been writing for a long time. Like really seriously through my twenties, I'd been serial kind of college dropout and had always worked. So I was, you know, I finished undergrad. I was managing restaurants and working like 60 hours a week. And, and so the MFA was, was in some ways a playground, right? It was like everybody talked about books, everybody was writing. I had all this time, I wrote my first two short story collections and part of IN THE HOUSE in grad school, like I just wrote a ton. It was just like, it felt really open. I mean, we used to know some the same people.

Matt Bell (31:14):
I think, you know, Wendell Mayo and Lawrence Coates. And, you know, I think took me really seriously and took the work I was trying to do really seriously. And I think in some ways, that was the thing the program gave me was to let me, you know, we were talking about like calling yourself a writer and that kind of thing. I got to live as a practicing writer there. And I never really stopped for me. I've been doing that since. And I think that that's really a gift of it. I also had an incredibly talented cohort. I remember on the first day of grad school reading the story that was due for workshop was another first year student. And I was like, is this what people are gonna do here? It's gonna be that good. I'm gonna have to try, you know, <laugh>, it just felt like the bar was so high. And so that was great. Everybody was very ambitious and working hard. And it also felt in my era, at least a very unpretentious place, people were just like working and trying hard and there was very little posturing or sort of pretending to be something we weren't. And I think that was a lucky thing that has carried forward. I was thinking it was a very sort of like working class approach to writing that I think is my approach anyway. And it sort of stuck with me.

Laura Maylene Walter (32:14):
For my final question. I would actually like to go back to one of the very first pages in the book, which is the dedication page. I recognize some of the names on the page. And if I'm not mistaken, some of the writers you dedicate this book to were in your MFA program and of course writers like Anne Valente, who's fantastic. But I'm wondering if you could tell us a bit about the dedication, first of all, and also more largely about community and friendship for a writer as they are working on a novel. You know, what advice would you have for someone who feels a bit lonely in the trenches working on this book?

Matt Bell (32:48):
Yeah. The book is dedicated to Anne Valente, Callista Buchen, Dustin M Hoffman, Gregory Howard and Joseph Scapellato. The first two people went to Bowling Green with me. The other two are, you know, long writer, friends. And they're probably the five people that I've talked the most about craft and teaching writing with over the years, and very little in REFUSE TO BE DONE was something I came up with like wholly on my own, right? It's so much of our craft is built on other people's and built on our conversations with each other and reading interviews and craft books by other people. I think these five are people whose conversations about writing that I've had over the last 10, now 14 years, has shaped my own way of thinking about these things. I'm really lucky to gotten to write and think alongside these people. And I kind of think communities, the, you know, the craft stuff is how to do it.

Matt Bell (33:30):
The community is the thing that helps you survive while you do it. And I think if you don't have a community you want around you, you have to make one. And I think you have to feed the communities that you're in so that they sort of survive until you're the person whose book is coming out. You're the person who needs it. I guess I've really kind of been lucky for a long time to have people to go to readings with, or places or bookstores to go to readings or libraries that are doing lots of great things. And think I've always kind of wanted to be like in the mix in that way. And I find that very sustaining. I also find the sort of service parts of writing, very sustaining. You know, you doing this podcast is part of that, right? The things you do for other writers are also part of the learning and part of the thing that leaves you sort of inspired and encouraged to go on way too hard of work to do entirely in isolation. In some ways, the not having to show people the work right away is because I'm embedded in communities of writers who are working. I know the kind of work I'm doing matters, even if I haven't shown anybody what I'm doing. And I think that's the thing, a place where you can be taken seriously as a writer will get you a long way.

Laura Maylene Walter (34:25):
Well, I think that is a fantastic note to end on. Thank you so much for being here today.

Matt Bell (34:30):
Thank you so much for having me.

Laura Maylene Walter (34:33):
Thanks so much to our guest, Matt Bell. Follow him on twitter @mdbell79 or visit Buy REFUSE TO BE DONE or any of Matt's novels wherever books are sold. Page Count is presented by the Ohio Center of the Book at Cleveland Public Library. Learn more online at Follow us on Twitter @cplocfb, or find us on Facebook. If you'd like to get in touch, email and put "podcast" in the subject line. Finally, follow me on Twitter and Instagram @LauraMaylene. Thanks for listening, and we'll be back in two weeks for another chapter of Page Count.

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