There are many ways to divide up the elements of a novel, but here's one: You've got the story, and then you've got the way the story is told.
The story consists of the characters, the plot, and all the explanations of why these characters are living out the events of this plot and why it matters. It's the answer to "What's the book about?"
The way the story is told includes point of view, the style of the sentences, the amount of description and type of imagery used, and how much dialogue there is. You can change all these things and still tell the same story.
I'm currently trying to figure out my novel's story. Maybe you'd expect that I'd know the story after the first draft, or even before. I was hoping the story would be clear by the end of the second. Both these drafts have a story, but it's still not right.
The story isn't right primarily because it falls short in the explanation department. For example, the plot hinges on long-held anger that lacks a believable origin. The concealment and exposure of secrets is sketchily justified. A character makes major life decisions based on an improbable collection of motivations. As a result, I have a reasonably interesting novel that stops making sense as soon as you give it any real thought. That's not good enough.
I gather that there are many writers out there who get the story right in the first draft. They spend a lot of time on planning and outlining before they begin writing, and they make careful adjustments to the plan during the draft. For these writers, revision is all about improving the way the story is told, because they already have a properly assembled story after the first draft. Lucky them!
I suspect that other writers, ones like me who don't get the story right the first time around, are also using the revision stage only to focus on the way the story is told. These writers are taking poorly motivated plots, inconsistent characters, and unwieldy sequences of events and dragging them intact from one draft to another while polishing every sentence to perfection. That doesn't work. A broken story told beautifully is still a broken story.
I understand why writers avoid making story changes in revision. Changing a story creates a lot of work, and it was already enough work writing the damn thing once. Since the pieces of the story depend on each other, adjusting one part could lead to more and more changes. The work needed might be so major that you'd be better off starting over from scratch, and who wants to do that? It's much simpler not to think too hard about whether the story has problems, and it means revision will be completed so much sooner.
But I don't see the point in revising unless the story gets better. So I'm going to keep working on this until I get the story right.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ Novelist Holly Black's pep talk for NaNoWriMo participants is full of great advice for anyone writing a first draft: "I know it seems like writing that pours out of your brain in a passionate flood should be better than writing that comes slowly and miserably, but the only person who will ever know the difference is you."
→ Editor A. Victoria Mixon offers 6 Ways to Shoot Yourself in the Foot as a writer.