For a while now, I’ve been tuned into Matt Bell’s occasional tweets about his work on revising a novel – little updates that were meaningful to me as I considered similar work of my own. When he recently noted that he had completed a round of revisions, I thought it might be a good time to ask him some questions about the process and about revision in general.
Bell is the author of the collection How They Were Found, a forthcoming novella, Cataclysm Baby, and the chapbooks Wolf Parts, The Collectors and How the Broken Lead the Blind. He’s an editor at Dzanc Books, and he edits the literary magazine The Collagist. He teaches writing at theUniversity of Michigan.
He answered these questions by e-mail.
You tweeted recently that you just finished some novel revisions that have occupied almost two years. Could you describe the nature of the revision and however much about the project you’re comfortable with? Have you been reworking plot and character elements, or focused more on language and refining expression? Or some combination?
The first draft of the novel took about ten months: I don’t outline, or plan ahead, and in fact sort of actively work to keep myself from looking further ahead than the scene I’m writing—and ideally no further than the sentence or the paragraph. So the first draft—which actually comprised any number of revisions over each passage, as I write forward, then back up, then revise forward to the edge again—was the best I could do by that method, but I knew it needed a lot of work.
I put it aside for a month or so, and then when I came back I sat down and read through the whole thing again, this time making a plan to revise by. What I ended up with was a ten-thousand-word “narrative outline,” just sort of a long-form summary of everything that actually happens in the novel. Of course, this wasn’t necessarily what happened in the first draft, but rather what I wanted the second draft to contain.
Once I had this, I typed the entire novel again, adding and revising and remaking it from what it was into what I wanted to be. I have two monitors, so I put the old draft on one, and an empty Word document on the other, and I just started over, using what I could out of the old draft, deleting what I couldn’t, and adding what I needed. So as the right monitor’s document filled up, the left monitor emptied—and over the next five months, I rewrote the book, and actually ended up expanding it quite a bit, so that it actually doubled in size.
This was the first draft I felt good about, that I probably could have asked someone else read. But I didn’t. Instead I took another month off, and then went back to work. At this point, it was much more the sentence-level revisions, along with a few remaining larger concerns—but nothing like the wholesale restructuring of the second draft.
By this third phase, I had gone from working on the book three or four hours a day to working on it six or eight, and this draft took me three or four months to finish. Of course, it wasn’t a pure working from end to end process: I can’t tell you how many times I revised each part of the book. Dozens, maybe. I did probably one hundred drafts of certain, troublesome passages, most of which eventually got cut anyway, because of course they were always going to be flawed—it just took me two years to learn to let them go.
What kind of a reviser are you, generally? Are you a taker-outer, or a putter-inner?
My process tends to end with quite a bit of cutting, but obviously I do both, depending on the situation. Generally, my first drafts tend to be a little sketchy, missing an element or two the story needs to run right, but after that’s fixed by adding a couple scenes or passages, then later drafts tends to shrink as they go.
I try to get it as right as I can the first time out, but—especially because I’m not planning beforehand, or even starting from an idea other than the tiniest bit of inspiration, a sentence or a sound or an image or whatever—I don’t usually actually get it right. In revision, I tend to do dozens of passes through a story before I’m done, continuing to keep making it better from end to end. So I guess I’m always trying to do the best job I can, but still knowing I’m probably going to have to do it again.
How does the work’s size – whether it’s a story or a novella or a novel – influence revision? Is it just the same process at different scales, or is there something fundamentally distinct about revising a story versus a novel?
This was one of the areas of greatest stress with the novel: I’m the kind of person that might do fifty full end-to-end revisions of a short story. So how to take that same process—which has generally been successful—and apply it to something as large as the novel? What I found was that—at least once the heavy lifting of the second draft was over—was that I could mostly revise as I always had, working first in thirty or forty or fifty page chunks, and then through the book as a whole, just going over and over a passage, word by word, sentence by sentence, as many times as it took to get it right. The only real difference was that to keep as much of the whole in my head as I could required me to work many more hours a day than I had before—eventually double or triple what I’d worked on my longest days as a short story writer, as I neared the end of the last draft.
I wonder how your work as an editor and your work as a writer influence each other. Do you consider yourself, first or foremost, one or the other?
I’m definitely a writer first, but I’d still say that more and more I think of what I do as living a literary life: I spend most of my time writing or reading or editing or teaching writing, and there’s a lot of crossover between these things. It’s at least conceivable that there could come a day when I no longer write, but still do everything else. It wouldn’t be the worst thing. But let’s hope that’s a long way off still.
As far as how they influence each other: Editing is, for me at least, a task that uses most of the same muscles as writing my own work, with the additional need to be mindful of not trampling the writer being edited—my job is to help them achieve their goals more fully, not to get in their way or take their work away. But it’s a great benefit to get to work closely with someone else’s prose: It’s helped me see mine more clearly, and certainly works I’ve edited have helped show me solutions in my own work.
Dzanc has published a lot of good work in a relatively short time, and gotten a lot of well-deserved attention as a kind of new path for publishing. What have you learned about that state of publishing and literature through your work at Dzanc and editing The Collagist that you might not have known beforehand?
The big thing that Dzanc and The Collagist have introduced me to is less a “what” and more a “who”: I’d already met a lot of great writers before starting The Collagist and then joining Dzanc, but obviously both of these jobs has increased that number exponentially. There are so many great writers working today, and my work has put me into contact with them in ways I really appreciate, whether it’s reading their submissions, accepting their work, or editing their books with them. It’s a constant reminder of how high the bar is for new literature, and also how many people are working their hardest to reach it. It both pushes and encourages me as a reader and a writer, and I couldn’t me more thankful for that kind of constant reminder.
What works are you really excited about right now?
It’s always hard to narrow it down, but I feel like I’ve been reading a lot of great books this year, of all different sizes and shapes. Here’s a brief list of new books I’ve been finding myself talking about: John D’Agata’s About a Mountain. Dawn Tripp’s Game of Secrets. Patrick Dewitt’s The Brothers Sisters. Robert Kloss’s How the Days of Love & Diphtheria. Hooked by John Franc. Edouard Levé’s Suicide.
But really, there’s so much good work out there—I’m reading as fast as I can, whenever I can, and I know I’m barely scratching the surface of what’s being published. There’s a lot of doom and gloom in the air in the general press about literature, and maybe there are good business reasons for that take on the industry. But creatively? I think maybe things have never been better. There are so many strong and vital aesthetics and movements in play right now, and surely more on the way. I can’t wait to read what happens next.