Wrestling the bear: getting to the end of your novel

“Writing a book is like wrestling a bear. Some days you're on top. Some days the bear's on top. And some days the bear is on top, dancing around the room, ordering lattes.”—Neil Gaiman
“Writing a book is like wrestling a bear. Some days you’re on top. Some days the bear’s on top. And some days the bear is on top, dancing around the room, ordering lattes.”—Neil Gaiman
Writers approach writing in different ways. When I’m on writing panels at conventions, I try to slip in the disclaimer that no one can tell you how to write. All I (or anyone else) can do is tell you how I write. What works for me might not work for you. I can also give encouragement, share some tricks and techniques that other writers have shared, I can share certain abstracted observations about technique or perception, or I can be a sounding board when you’re trying to sort a scene or story out. But everything I say (even though I may sometimes say it very emphatically) is ultimately a suggestion. If it works for you or helps, great. If not, I’m sorry.

The way your brain works will not be precisely the same as mine. What motivates you will be different than what motivates me. The problems and plotholes and stalling points in your story will be different than in mine.

In short, each of us is wrestling a different bear. But that doesn’t mean we can’t help each other out…

Many years ago I imposed a rule on myself about revising: I can’t start revising a scene in an unfinished story unless I have written at least one scene after it. It was a variant of advice that I had read in multiple articles in The Writer magazine and the like: never revise until you have finished the first draft. Because it is really easy, if you start significantly re-writing a scene before it is finished, to get into an infinite loop. You keep re-writing and re-writing the same few paragraphs (heck, I’ve gotten hung up on a single sentence!). You can waste not merely hours, but weeks doing that.

Many of those articles insisted on never revising until you reach the end. And I tried. But sometimes when I was working on, let’s say, a scene in chapter five, I would realize that something I did back in chapter two creates a big contradiction in my plot. And I need to, at the very least, jot down some notes, or maybe scribble a very revisions of dialog, or I might not remember it later.

Now this was back in I was writing on a typewriter1. Personal computers did not exist, let alone fancy software that lets you track revisions and make electronic annotations and so forth.

The upshot was, that I discovered that I wouldn’t get stuck in that infinite loop revising a scene and never moving on with the story, if I already had more of the story afterward written. I knew what I wanted to happen next because I had written it, and I didn’t want to throw all that stuff afterward out and completely start over, so I had a motivation to keep my revisions minimalist. Also, my excitement for the story was engaged in that part in chapter five where I stopped, and no longer back in chapter two.

By revise I don’t mean correcting a typo in a line I wrote a minute or two ago if I happen to notice it. And sometimes when I’m in the middle of a sentence I change my mind, and delete a few words and re-cast the sentence. Doing that once in a while isn’t revising. Or at least it doesn’t send me down that rabbit hole. It’s when I look at several lines of dialog or a paragraph of description and decide that the tone or meter of the scene is all wrong that I get in trouble.

My goal is to get to the end of the story—putting one word after the other, then one scene after the other until I get there. Getting every sentence absolutely perfect is not the goal, particularly in the first draft.

That said, sometimes a side trip is just the thing to recharge your batteries. I often find myself writing extra scenes that I’m fairly certain don’t belong in the story. Sometimes I write a scene that took place before the beginning of the story, to work out what happened at a particular event and who knows what about the event. I don’t want to do a flashback (to say I have an aversion to flashbacks would not be wrong), but I’m going to need other characters to talk about this thing that happened. There will be consequences of the thing, whatever it was, that might appear in scenes that I do need to show the reader.

I also sometimes write scenes that are just off stage. They don’t move the plot forward, but I need to know exactly how the characters interacted. Let’s say one of my supporting characters gets abducted off a city street in an elaborate scene involving an illusion causing a collision, and some other magical distractions including a dragon setting an entire nearby residential neighborhood on fire2. Many of the other supporting characters who were not at the event will learn about it. The reader does not want to read a dozen nearly identical scenes in which various eye witnesses tell other characters what happened. And I don’t really want to write all of them, but I can get some ideas of the ways some of the other characters will refer to the events later, and how it will affect their reactions to later events if I write some quick bits of dialog.

And sometimes I’m in the middle of a scene in the middle of a book, and another scene, set some time after the end of the book will pop in my head. Maybe it’s a scene that will wind up in a sequel; maybe not. But it will be very vivid in my head, and if I don’t go write the scene while it is burning bright in my imagination, I won’t be able to remember many details later. So I open up another file or window and type the scene, save it somewhere for later, and then jump back to what I was working on.

Getting to the end of a first draft, particularly something as long as a novel, is like wrestling a bear, as Neil Gaiman explains in the quote above. But it is also like a cross-country road trip. You can’t see the entire route at once. And sometimes you can’t see any further than the part of the road illuminated by the headlights. You may take a wrong turn and have work a bit to get back to the main route. But you can get to the end, if you just keep going.


1. The 1953 Remington Letter-Riter, one of the typewriters pictured on my About page, to be precise.

2. If this example seems oddly specific, well, it’s because that’s actually a pivotal scene in a fantasy novel I’m working on.

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