Proverbs for Revising a Novel

Sitting peacefully, doing nothing
spring comes
and the grass grows all by itself.

 —Lao Tzu

I’m nearing the end of the first draft of a new novel. Maybe a scene or two more, and I’ll have it. Already, I know what my first revision strategy will be. Put that sucker away. Put it out of my mind. Write that short story I’ve been meaning to write. Live in a world other than the one of the novel. Forget, forget, forget, so I can finally read the novel with fresh eyes, so I can see clearly and analytically, so it’ll seem as if someone else wrote this book, so I’ll know what needs to be done.


The quieter you become,
the more you are able to hear

—Lao Tzu

I usually know it’s time to return to the draft when I find myself thinking about it without planning to. Maybe I’ll be running, and I’ll hear one of my characters say something. Maybe it’ll be something they wanted to say in the draft, but I didn’t give them a chance. Or maybe I’ll be drifting off to sleep, and I’ll suddenly see the shape of the book in a way I’ve not been able to previously see it. When the book starts talking to me without my invitation, I know it’s close to time for me to read through it, taking notes as I go.


If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything;
it is open to everything.  In the beginner’s mind there are
many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.

 —Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi

 Waiting allows me to empty my mind. When I read through my draft, I start with the last chapter, the last scene, just to remind myself of where the narrative finally arrives. Then I go back to the beginning, and, as I read, I try to stay open to possibilities that are clearer to me now that I know what my novel is. Bernard Malamud said, “First drafts are for learning what your novel or story is about. Revision is working with that knowledge to enlarge and enhance an idea, to re-form it.” Reading through the draft reminds me of what brought me to the material in the first place. It makes the center of the book clear to me, and I’m not just talking about plot here. I’m also talking about how the characters rub together in interesting ways. Most important, I’m talking about the thing in the material that’s virtually unknowable, that mystery of the human heart that required my efforts with storytelling to try to know it better.


No snowflake ever falls in the wrong place.

—Ts’ai Ken T’an

Once I know the novel’s heart and the place toward which the narrative is headed, I can think about each chapter, each scene, and the work they’re doing to contribute to the novel’s final moves. I can make sure that things are happening when they’re supposed to be happening. I can consider the causal chain of events, brushing away what’s too dry and without heft, or polishing a particular facet or maybe even creating a new one, until the significance to the whole is clear.


Water which is too pure has no fish.

—Ts’ai Ken T’an

I also read with an eye for conflict. I want to make sure that I’ve given the tensions between characters thorough dramatization and expression. I keep my eye out for the scenes of conflict that cause the characters’ positions to shift. Again, I want to know how these scenes are preparing the way for the novel’s end.


Before enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.
After enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.

—Zen Proverb

Novels are made a word at a time, both in the first draft and in all the drafts that follow. Once I’ve taken care of issues of character and structure, I want to make sure that the language is in the service of what the novel has come to say. I want to make sure that each sentence works the way it should until I’m certain I’ve created a voice out of the world of the novel that’s true to its experience. When the Paris Review asked Bernard Malamud how many drafts of a novel he usually did, he had this to say:  “Many more than I call three. Usually the last of the first puts it in place. The second focuses, develops, subtilizes. By the third most of the dross is gone. I work with language. I love the flowers of afterthought.” Like Malamud, I love arriving at the place where I know what I need to know. Then I can pay attention to the music the language makes on the page, but to get there I first have to admit I know nothing. I have to ask the draft to teach me.




















  1. Denise on November 4, 2013 at 11:42 am

    As always, Lee, your comments come at the perfect time. I revising “She’s Always There” for the umpteenth time – well finishing the draft and revising along the way. Who knows where this journey will take me, but it’s not where I started, that’s for sure.

    • Lee Martin on November 4, 2013 at 5:38 pm

      Good luck with the revision, Denise. It can be exciting to not be where you started–the excitement of discovery.

  2. Sophfronia Scott on November 4, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    I agree with Denise. I’m embarking on my novel revision next month after I put this VCFA semester and my CNF creative thesis to bed. I’ll keep your thoughts with me as touchstones because I too have no idea where this revision will take me.

    • Lee Martin on November 4, 2013 at 5:38 pm

      Good luck with the journey, Sophronia!

  3. Shiv Dutta on November 5, 2013 at 10:06 am

    Lee: Thank you very much for a very enlightening guide. I am sure I’ll use this guidance as a beacon when I am writing/revising my nonfiction pieces.

    • Lee Martin on November 5, 2013 at 10:11 am

      Thanks for your comment, Shiv. I wish you all the best with your work.

  4. Richard Gilbert on November 5, 2013 at 8:00 pm

    How cool. Thanks, Lee. This goes in my revision file!

    • Lee Martin on November 6, 2013 at 7:12 pm

      Good deal, Richard. Take care–

  5. Robert on November 6, 2013 at 6:16 pm

    Thanks for your encouragement Lee…we have chatted at Sun workshops at Rowe over the years…currently enthralled by The Bright Forever…surrounded by personal library and wonderful ideas…writing is breath work taken to another level…Blessings

    • Lee Martin on November 6, 2013 at 7:12 pm

      Hello, Robert! Those Sun workshops at Rowe have been wonderful. I consider writing and teaching, and the opportunity to meet good folks like you, a true blessing. Thanks for the good words about TBF. Keep doing the good work, my friend.

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