From Draft to Revision: What It Takes to Write a Novel

I’m about to start revising a manuscript for a novel that I finished long ago enough that I can’t remember exactly when I did finish it. When I started the draft, as usual, I didn’t have much of an idea where I was going, but more important than that, I didn’t know what the story would be. E.M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, talks about story as the narrative of events in a time sequence, but within that narrative is also what Forster calls “the life by values.” He offers up this sentence as an example of both: “I only saw her for five minutes, but it was worth it.” Forster then goes on to say, “And what the story does is to narrate the life in time. And what the entire novel does—if it is a good novel—is to include the life by values as well.” So I only saw her for five minutes, an event connected to a time sequence. But it was worth it, the value the narrator attaches to the event.

When I started writing my novel, I had a vague sense of the narration through a time sequence because the novel, as mine often are, is based upon a true story. What I didn’t know was the value that the main characters would attach to that story, and, by extension, the value I would attach to it and hope to direct my readers to share. I did what I always do when writing a novel; I kept pushing ahead from the initial premise. In doing so, I wrote a lot of pages before the story of the life by values began to announce itself to me. At that point—the point where I knew my novel more intimately than I had when I started—I could have gone back and started over, but I prefer to keep going, to let the energy of all I thought I knew and all that I discovered rub together to create whatever is to follow.

My revision work, then, will mostly be a matter of restructuring the novel so the storyline that announced itself as the most important one will get the featured status that it deserves from the first step onto the page. I imagine, in the process, that I’ll rethink the character relationships that have now come center stage, finding within them subtleties, ironies, and significant consequences that will be free to rise to the top once the storyline is properly featured. The knowledge I now have of the novel dictates this structural change, and that change will affect all the other aspects of the book—from characterization, to nuances of setting, to language and tone.

This is the process that’s always worked with me. It requires the following:

1. A blind faith to keep going.
2. A trust that my characters and their situation will show me the most important aspect of the story.
3. A reliance on outside readers whom I trust.
4. A willingness to adjust, change, recreate, reject any part of the manuscript that isn’t serving the larger whole
5. A joy for the newness of the work, taking pleasure in the sharper story coming now into focus.

“I don’t write easily or rapidly,” Susan Sontag said. “My first draft usually has only a few elements worth keeping. I have to find what those are and build from them and throw out what doesn’t work, or what simply is not alive.” And so it is. The first draft is often a draft of discovery. It’s the way I earn my work, the work of revision which is always an art of making the reader see what I at first didn’t, but now do.


  1. Roy Bentley on December 24, 2016 at 2:56 pm

    Sage advice, Lee. Thanks for it!

    • Lee Martin on December 24, 2016 at 6:17 pm

      Thanks, Roy!

  2. Jeanne Voelker on December 26, 2016 at 3:04 am

    So true and so well expressed. Thank you, Lee!

    • Lee Martin on December 27, 2016 at 11:57 am

      Thanks, Jeanne. I hope you had a good holiday and are doing well.

Leave a Comment